Barfly: A walk to the pub
Gary Quinn visited the four provinces to find great pubs in walking areas that will encourage even the laziest walker out of their armchairs
Smuggler's Creek Inn, Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal
Smuggler's Creek Inn, Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal
Smugglers Creek, Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal
It’s hard to be anywhere in Donegal and not be in walking country. The hills, valleys and coastline of this dramatic northern county are stuffed full of incredible challenges for walkers and the views across the land or out to sea are incredible. Storm Clodagh is battering the coast the weekend I arrive, keeping me off the big routes. Instead I head for the long Atlantic stretch of Rossnowlagh beach.
What an experience – the sky is blue but the wind is extreme and I’m staying well away from the waterline. I’ve seen streams being blown back uphill such is the force of the wind off the sea.
The light striking this long beautiful stretch of coastline is incredible and the sea is churned up with huge breaking waves, casting a thousand white horses to gallop towards the land. High above it all on the clifftop the sun is striking Smugglers Creek, a tavern that has watched over these waters for decades.
Emily Browne been winning awards and praise for the growth of the business in recent years. Her first big addition was a new glass conservatory facing out onto the ocean. Sitting within it, you can only be impressed by the craft that built it to withstand such heavy weather. It’s raining hard now but we’re snug inside with a stove fire throwing warmth out into this beautiful bar and restaurant.
It’s six years since Emily took over, 14 since she moved to Ireland from her native Hong Kong. It’s a real triumph to keep a traditional bar going and she’s proud that her staff have stayed with her since the beginning and helped forge their success.
The dark heavy wood, the skeleton of the small whale on the ceiling, and the old shipping paraphernalia all blend perfectly with her fresh vision for the Smugglers Creek, making this a bar that every walker will want to return to.
How to find the walk: Rossnowlagh beach is immediately below the pub and impossible to miss. For an alternative try the Creevy experience, a purpose-built coastal footpath 10 miles in length running from Rossnowlagh through Creevy to the mouth of the Erne Estuary in Ballyshannon.
There’s a wonderful sense of community in Upperchurch. It’s a wholly welcoming village with three pubs and three national loop walks that balance each other beautifully.
On a recent visit I found myself seeking directions at the bar of Paddy Kinnane’s, a pub that has become a landmark in the area since it was opened in 1927 by Paddy and his wife Caitlin. A contemporary of Sean Mac Bride and a future TD, Padraig Ó Cuinneain played a huge role in the community but sadly died young at the age of 55, leaving his wife to keep the business alive. His daughter Niamh is the landlady now. She grew up watching céilí bands rehearse, taking pride in her mother’s role in the bar, the village and beyond.
She learned, in a very traditional way, how important it is to make people feel welcome, she says, and to do your best for the community. She has worked to keep her parents’ vision alive and the pub is at the heart of that.
The fire always blazes for walkers coming in from the cold and staff are ready to advise on routes and assistance. It’s a traditional rural bar – a hub of the community and a meeting place.
Niamh’s favourite walk is the Eamon a Chnoic loop that starts and ends in the village. For 8km you explore some of the most beautiful farmland in Ireland – old laneways, quiet roads, fields and forest edge.
The views are tremendous, taking in the Comeraghs, Knockmealdowns and the Galtees. It’s not an overly difficult walk – the entire loop can be completed in three hours. At the end, make your way back to Kinnane’s where the music will be getting started, the food ready to serve and the fire lit. You’ll feel completely at home.
How to find the walk: Starting point is the community centre in Upperchurch village and is well signposted.
McDonnells, Belmullet, Co Mayo
It takes only three songs from the solo musician in McDonnells in Belmullet before the dancing starts. First one couple, then another, and suddenly not stepping up and jiving with the locals makes the tourists stand out from the crowd.
And what a crowd. Laughing and talking, people keep flowing through the door. How they all fit is the magic of this place that’s known locally as the “lobster pot” – once you’re in there’s no getting out. It’s a wonderfully historic and welcoming pub that is the perfect place to finish a wild, rugged Mayo walk.
We’ve just followed the Cross Loop Walk on the Mullet Peninsula. It’s a stunning route starting on the beach at the dramatic Cross Abbey and its graveyard that stands so powerfully in the face of the Atlantic.
Out to sea is Inishglora, an island famed as the final destination of the Children of Lir at the end of their 900-year banishment. The landscape here is charged with meaning and your imagination pulls stories from the wind as each turn offers views more dramatic than the last.
We’ve been told that after our walk there’ll be a great fire burning in O’Donnells back in Belmullet and they weren’t wrong. But the real fire was in the conversations with the staff and locals. Conversation comes easy to people here and customers took turns to talk me through the history of McDonnells, a family pub since 1942 when Michael and Elizabeth McDonnell bought the premises.
Run now by Michael’s grandson Pádraig Conroy and his wife Marian, there is a deep sense of place within its walls. This is a pub that matters to Belmullet and a true flavour of Mayo. The people here are passionate about the wild landscape they inhabit and the tradition they have inherited. It’s a wonderful place to get back to the land.
How to find the walk: From Belmullet take the R313 to Binghamstown. Turn right before the church and follow the road to Cross Abbey.
The Blue Light has it all: a fantastic rural location in true walking territory in the Dublin mountains, an unbroken view high over the Irish Sea, a short drive from the city, a great back story and a host of local characters that bring this historic pub to life.
They say the blue light of its name was a signal given to smugglers far out to sea that it was safe to bring their bounty to shore. The light itself still hangs in the pub.
But then most things have stayed the same here in this great pub, beloved of Wicklow and Dublin residents alike.
Tourists stumble upon it when out walking, and walking groups like to make it the start and finish of a walk in the area (not least because there’s plenty of parking).
The closest route is the circuit of Three Rock Mountain. This is a great entry-level walk rising gently along forest tracks.
Just past the Blue Light there’s a narrow road on the left after the car park, taking you past a quarry and up onto a higher track and along the forest edge. The views from the route to Three Rock are superb, taking in Dublin Bay and the city and all the way to Howth.
Anyone who has enjoyed the view from the pub really needs to go that bit further and push themselves to enjoy this walk.
On return the Blue Light will be hard to pass, especially on a Sunday. It’s a great music house with acoustic sessions on Sundays and groups taking over in the evening.
The atmosphere is always relaxed, locals own the space and the house rules are always in your favour.
Come in with tired feet, take a seat at the bar and relax.
You’ll find it hard to leave.
How to find the walk: The walk begins just past the Blue Light. Full route details at goo.gl/6DA5TS