Coasting around Ireland


Peter Lynch has just finished a walk around Ireland – and it only took him 13 years. He tells CLAIRE O'CONNELLwhy he undertook the long journey

WHEN PETER Lynch took a notion in 1996 to walk around Ireland, some of the mod cons we take for granted today were still a long way off. Mobile phones were relatively scarce, Lynch’s camera captured images on 35mm film and Google was but a twinkle in the internet’s eye.

Last month he eventually closed the loop by returning to his starting spot at the Joyce Tower in Sandycove, meandering along Dublin’s coastline as it was bashed by thunderous waves, 13 years, almost to the day, after Lynch had first set out.

What possessed him to undertake such a trek? “It was something that had been in the back of my mind – I always had an idea it might be fun to walk around Ireland,” recalls Lynch. “Joyce’s Tower seemed a good place because it had been the beginning of an odyssey, so that’s where I started.

“I went one day on a walk to Killiney from the Forty Foot, then I thought, well I’ll get the train to Killiney the next day and walk to Bray. And it just went from there.”

From such an impromptu start, Lynch set about planning his round-trip, but there was also the day-job to consider. As he took the first steps of the endeavour he was deputy director of Met Éireann in Glasnevin, and by the time he finished he had become the Met Éireann professor of meteorology at University College Dublin.

Both jobs were demanding of Lynch’s time, so the walking had to be slotted into spurts during weekends and holidays, resulting in a “truly blistering pace” of about half a kilometre a day over the 87-stage round-trip, but the journey itself was a motivation.

“It was a pilgrimage, in a way, to look at my own country. Also it’s an adventure and educational, there were a lot of things I learned,” says Lynch.

“It was also a kind of Zen Buddhist experience, and this was successful because in a sense nothing happened – I wasn’t mugged or robbed, I didn’t get sick or have big mishaps.

“It’s great to be able to say nothing happened. It’s such a friendly country: peaceful and friendly. It’s something we take for granted but it’s marvellous to be able to walk around the country, and nothing goes wrong.”

Walking solo or with family or friends, Lynch set few ground rules for the trip, but insisted that he never skip a mile.

“I thought, if I leave a gap of a mile that’s cheating, because then you can leave five miles or 50 miles so there’s no point. So I did make sure it was continuous in space if not in time; all the bits join up,” he says.

“Of course the logistics get very tricky when you get far away. You can get a train to Cork and walk wiggly-waggly to Tralee and get a train home but it’s not always as easy as that, so there was all sorts of subterfuge.”

Planning the route was half the fun, according to Lynch, who became absorbed by the minutiae of maps. “My wife thought I had gone crazy staring at these maps all day but they are fascinating,” he says. “It’s like a three-dimensional book. You are trying to imagine the landscape and I was always looking for little dotted lines of old railways or canal parts – anything that would allow me to progress without being on the road.”

Being shoehorned from walkways onto roadways was a lowlight, he notes. “On many days the least enjoyable stretch would be the last mile or two coming into the town; you’d be tired and the concrete gets very hard and there are big tankers and lorries whistling by. You are not in the mood for that but at least you know you are nearly there.”

Lynch’s weather forecasting acumen generally stood him well in the planning, but he recalls a notable exception. “If the weather was going to be really bad I wouldn’t go, but I was caught out in Wicklow in the August bank holiday in 1997. I’m afraid it wasn’t Met Éireann’s finest day because it forecast beautiful weather for the weekend and it turned out that Sunday was torrential. I was woken by the sound of the rain in the morning and we couldn’t walk at all,” he says.

“That afternoon it eased off a little bit and I went off to a place called Ballinglen but the clouds were down on the ground in a grey curtain, it was really dreadful. I walked for four hours in a great circle, came right back, by mistake, to exactly where I had started. I had read this was possible, and I did it unintentionally because I couldn’t see the mountains and I didn’t have the wit to have a compass. From then on I always took one.”

When the visibility was better, Lynch kept a keen eye and ear out for wildlife, spotting a Bittern by the Barrow, Co Kerry, and egrets in Youghal, Co Cork, back when they were a relative rarity in Ireland.

Magpie-like collections of stories and observations dot his diary of the trip, from which he plans a book. Lynch never found a shortage of material along the walk, from dolmens, rock art and Ogham stones (with Celtic script on them) to scientific curiosities, film clubs and even odd place names: “In Ladysbridge , in Irish Droichead na Scuab or the bridge of the brushes, we were told in the local hostelry that the village was named for a heroic event when the Black and Tans were beaten off the bridge with brushes,” he writes. “And why Ladysbridge? ‘Sure, ’twas de wimmin was holdin’ de brushes’.”

And what of the Celtic Tiger, which roared and waned through his journey? Some areas, such as the Liffey mouth, are a testament to it, says Lynch, but many whose paths he crossed were unaffected. “A lot of people were untouched by this Tiger – I never believed in it very much and it seemed to pass a lot of people by. The road system is better than it was but that didn’t help me.”

His photo collection from the trip captures a wealth of unusual artifacts, including a tunnel under gentrified grounds (so the landlord would not have to be troubled by the sight of common folk crossing his view to access a well), as well as bridges and railways in various states of disrepair.

The old railways in particular could be put to better use as walkways, argues Lynch. “There were about 3,500 miles of railway in use when the State was founded and about 1,500 miles now, so there are about 2,000 miles of railway out there waiting to be redeveloped as walkways. They are ideal because railways move through the flat and often through spectacular country.”

I think it would be marvellous to have a walkway around Ireland. A route around the coastline would be too long, but a coastal counties walkway would be wonderful.