Walks: Slieve Blooms Mountains, Co Laois
Start: From Mountrath follow the signs for the Slieve Bloom Mountains and Kinnity. Park at the sign for Gorteenameale Eco Walk.
Estimated time: 3.5 hours.
Suitability: A mostly level circuit offering mostly walker friendly terrain but including some tedious moorland, so wear boots. Route also traverses open mountaintop where disorientation is a possibility, so prepare for this eventuality.
Map: Discovery Sheet 54.
It's the absence of majestic summits, the often unsympathetic terrain and the difficulty of uncovering circular walks that has, I guess, left these mountains sadly neglected by guidebook authors. Indeed, if you seek spectacular "wow moments" in the uplands the Slieve Blooms Mountains are probably not for you. One book dedicated to getting beneath the obvious in the Blooms has, however, unearthed a patina of wonder in mountains where people have lived and farmed near the summits for many generations. Describing each walk as "string of pearls", Tom Joyce, in his exquisitely illustrated book Bladhma, uncovered a legacy of historic artefacts, mythological resonances and natural wonders awaiting culturally curious ramblers.
Seeking my own “string of pearls”, I set out west from Gorteenameale along a woodland path offering memorable views south as summer burst open across the Irish countryside. As the trail petered out, I swung north through a forest break to gain open mountainside. Here, convenient way-markers hand-railed me across murky, wind-tortured moorlands that evoked images of Wuthering Heights and had me half expecting a brooding cloaked Heathcliff to appear dramatically from the mist. Nothing materialised, however, and I reached the lonesome but undistinguished top of Dossaun Mountain (514m) in the half-light of a summer haze. Beyond, a low bank ran east through expansive heathlands to safely deposit me on the R440, where I went left.
This 18th century turnpike road linking Mountrath with Kilcormac led to the severely rutted track serving the giant communication masts on Wolftrap Mountain. An unforgettable name evoked visions of a not so distant era, when wolves roamed the Irish landscape, but the reality was extravagantly undramatic. The trig pillar stands trackside and so Wolftrap can be, for summer day trippers, a drive-in mountaintop. Undaunted however, I continued with the reward of expansive views north over Central Plain of Ireland from the now mist free plateau of Cones. Here a faint trail took me east to a forest track leading to the carpark above the head of Glendineoregan.
Next it was south through the deep defile of The Cut, which 200 years ago was carved laboriously through the unforgiving rock by human hand. About 2.5 Km on, a sign pointed right and downhill for Baunreagh. Now, heavily forested with Pine and Spruce, this valley once supported a thriving community. It was the onset of19th century potato blight - which Joyce describes vividly as an entire 162 acre crop creating a horrible stench as it rooted in the ground – that irrevocably changed this landscape. Post-famine population decline meant that much arduously reclaimed land in the high Blooms quickly re-wilded to its original state.
Reaching the valley lowlands, I crossed a bridge spanning the Delour River and then went left to reach the outbuildings which are all that remains of Baunreagh House - demolished 50 years ago, it is reputed to be Ireland's first dwelling built with concrete Now, it was just a question of following the waymarkers for the Slieve Bloom Way right and right again on a diagonally rising track. A right and left option then brought me to the R440 at a stile. Here, helpful arrows pointed right to my parking place at Gorteenameale.