Back in 2001, to protect our agriculture industry during the foot-and-mouth crisis, we were banned from visiting the hills, and Irish countryside generally. With the present coronavirus crisis, the situation has totally reversed. Doctors are now advising us to maintain our physical and mental health by seeking solitude in the countryside. The problem is that everybody seems to be taking their advice, with the result that the most popular walks are becoming so busy it is difficult to maintain social distance.
Fear not, however, there is ample space for everyone to find solitude in the Irish outdoors; it is just a question of knowing where to find it.
You can experience the great joy of exploring the Irish countryside from these 10 great walking locations, where there are still ample opportunities to find seclusion on the path less travelled.
Sculpture Park Loop, Lough Boora, Co Offaly
Located 20km west of Tullamore, Lough Boora Discovery Park is a lovingly reclaimed bog and nature reserve. From the visitor centre, follow the yellow arrows past a small lake and continue into the innovative Sculpture Park. Here, artists were inspired by natural and industrial heritage to create a series of impressive sculptures. Eileen McDonagh's Boora Pyramid will prove a highlight. Push on past a series of other fine exhibits, including the Secret Garden and the Raised Circle. Then follow signs over a bridge and back to the visitor centre after an easy one-hour ramble, stopping en route to investigate an old peat train, marooned high on an embankment. And remember there are three much longer walking trails at Lough Boora, so there are plenty of opportunities to find solitude. Further informationloughboora.com
Blessington Greenway, Co Wicklow
Our love for greenways began with the Great Western Greenway, but now they are popping up everywhere like buds in May. Latest to tiptoe onto the scene is Blessington Greenway, where the first 6.5 km linking the town with Russborough House has just been opened. There are ambitious plans for a 43km route entirely circling Blessington Lake, but the first section is already punching above its modest scale by offering serene lakeside walks and paths through glorious woodlands. Presently, the best suggestion is to walk or cycle from Blessington to Russborough House and then retrace your route. Further information blessington.ie/greenway
Mullaghmore Mountain, Co Clare
A magnificent swirl of naked limestone, Mullaghmore is a jewel even within the Burren's rich treasury. From Corofin, take the Kilfenora road. Go right at Kilnaboy and right again at a parking area. Start your walk by following the arrows from the roadside at Lough Gealáin where fossilised skeletons embedded within the limestone will fascinate younger folk and prove that the Burren originated on the ocean floor.
If you have kids with you, point to an isolated house; they will instantly recognise this as Father Ted’s bleakly unadorned dwelling from the eponymous soap opera. An enjoyable scramble leads to the summit, where a great panorama unfolds. Mullghmore could truthfully be described as Ireland’s biggest little mountain; despite its modest stature, it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the views from loftier eminences such as Carrauntoohil and Errigal. Return to the startpoint by your ascent route after a time of about 3 hours.
Gougane Barra, Co Cork
From west Cork's Gougane Barra Hotel, pass the entrance to St Finbarr's Oratory and continue by the serene lake shore to the barrier where cars pay a fee. Those on foot are exempt, however, so you continue as the tarmac doglegs into the deep-sided Coomroe Valley – a place where nature remains fully in charge. Continue by the gurgling waters of the youthful River Lee and soon, you will observe a steep gully in the great cliffs above some open ground on your left. It was down this gully in 1921 that 100 volunteers of Tom Barry's Flying Column made a daring escape under cover of darkness from encircling British troops. Afterwards, the trail loops past a carpark and several picnic tables to rejoin your outward route. Now retrace your steps to complete a memorable 6 km outing.
Battle of the Boyne site, Co Meath
By a country mile the most significant battle on Irish soil was fought on the River Boyne. For a deep dive into this great conflict, head for Oldbridge House by leaving the M1 at Junction 10 and following signs for the Battle of the Boyne site. Then tag the waymarked 5km walk around the main battlefield sites. First stop is Oldbridge Village where the fiercest fighting took place. The village is no more, but it was at this location William's army forded the river and gained a decisive foothold on the south bank.
Onwards then towards the high point of Groggins Field, where the Jacobite’s made camp with panoramic views. Here, it is easy to appreciate how William outfoxed James: he sent a diversionary force west to cross the Boyne at Rosnaree, thus drawing the Jacobites away from the main attack at Oldbridge.
Return by the Greenhills Walk and descend to the wide sweep of the Boyne, where it may seem James really should have made a better fist of defending such a wide body of water. He didn't and history was altered. Two days later William took Dublin and the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland was assured. Further information: battleoftheboyne.ie
Nire Valley, Co Waterford
From the Nire Valley Carpark, which is located about 10km east of Ballymacarbery Village, follow the white poles marking an ancient trade route that once bisected the Comeraghs. Gain a low saddle between Knockanaffrin (Mass Mountain) and the immense Comeragh plateau, which is known locally as the Gap. Here, enchanting views will open up over the great flatlands of Waterford and Kilkenny to the distant outline of the Blackstairs Mountains. If you have your fill of the outdoors for today, you can now retrace your steps to the Nire Valley carpark after a two-hour outing.
Otherwise, swing northwest and ascend the Knockanaffrin Ridge which rises in undemanding steps like a benign staircase to reach a level section above an attractive tear-shaped tarn known as Coumduala. From here, swing left and descend southwest by following a helpful fence to your start point at the Nire Valley having spent about 3 hours in the outdoors.
Waterfall Loop, Glenbarrow Co Laois
From the sylvan carpark at Glenbarrow, which lies about 4km southwest of Rosenallis village, follow an enclosed lane, to gain the nascent River Barrow. Swing left along an atmospheric woodland path, and soon, you will pass a hut and then an open area by the river where the underlying sandstone has been exposed in great flat pavements. Upriver now, where next to capture your attention will be the spectacular three-drop Clamphole Waterfall which makes a good place to pause awhile and gaze at the mesmerically rushing water.
Now the path roughens a bit as it leads above a deep gorge, which the river has carved into the mountainside, before continuing to a parting with the arrows for the Old Mill Loop. You follow the blue arrows (left) and steeply uphill. Then go left again on a forest road from where a straight ahead at every junction will convey you back to Glenbarrow Carpark after a 1.5-hour hike.
Boyne Valley Camino, Co Louth
Pilgrimage has been defined as a mindful journey to a place of spiritual significance and Mellifont Abbey, is certainly of profound significance. Founded in 1142, as the first Irish Cistercian Abbey, its coming heralded the demise of the long-established Celtic Church as the Cistercians spread nationwide. Now the ancient pilgrim route linking Mellifont with the medieval port of Drogheda has been revived. Starting from St Peter's Church, Drogheda, the trail follows the River Boyne before making its way through the serene woodlands of the Townley Estate and then meandering quiet lanes to Mellifont. A separate return route gives a total walk of 25km. This now counts towards completing the Spanish Camino when following the traditional Irish pilgrim route from the port of A Coruna to Santiago. Note: to complete this walk you will need the detailed map that is available for download from: caminosociety.com.
Sopwell Wood and Scohaboy Bog, Co Tipperary
Once part of the immense Sadlier Estate, Sopwell Wood and Scohaboy Bog are located close by Cloughjordan village in North Tipperary. On offer is a natural woodland and a 70-hectare expanse of raised bog. Bogs are now increasingly important because they absorb carbon from the atmosphere and Scohaboy has been painstakingly restored to its carbon guzzling glory with the blocking of drains and removal of invasive species. Visitors are encouraged to inspect the conservation work on a new loop walk that was officially opened last year. This waymarked trail traverses natural woodland and rustic lanes along with a new boardwalk leading to a viewing platform above the bog. It consists of an easy one-hour ramble giving an excellent insight into how we are now correcting past environmental mistakes. Further information: www.coillte.ie
Jenkinstown Estate, Co Kilkenny
Signposted off the N77, Kilkenny to Durrow Road, Jenkinstown Estate is where Thomas Moore penned his famously evocative ballad "The Last Rose of Summer". The great house is now just a memory, but within the myth-laden park lands that remain, you can see how the bard found inspiration by exploring these deliciously atmospheric woodlands. The Walled Garden Loop (2 km) and the slightly longer Jenkinstown Loop (3km) offer the perfect outing for families, with young children or buggies, wishing to escape the claustrophobic clutches of domesticity.