Aer Lingus Flight 375 bounces around like a fiddler’s wrist at a craic. We lurch towards The Atlantic Ocean. Wizened gorse bushes shed clouds of tiny yellow petals. Waves of boiling spume pound the banks of the Shannon River.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen this is Captain Liam O’Brien. We will be landing at Shannon Airport in ten minutes. I’m afraid they’ve got a bit of a ‘soft’ day down there.”

To an Irishman a ‘soft’ day can mean fog so dense you’ll lose sight of your toes in a long stride or driving rain that can blow you clean back onto the barstool! Beware this land of understatement. A “walk” can mean a hike for the hardy.

John Aherne, partner in South West Walks, is holding up my name. “We’re having a bit of a soft day – should be over in a while. You won’t have any trouble.” This, in a country famed for its pubs and promises!

I’m here to walk The Dingle Peninsular, a hilly promontory that oddly points the way to Newfoundland from the Southwest corner of County Kerry.

Joining the European Union has been good for Ireland. Colourful bungalows have replaced stone farmhouses. BMW’s and Mercedes clutter the narrow, freshly blacktopped roads. During a two-hour drive to Tralee, I dig for the truth to a rumour.

“John, is it true that when Ireland joined the EU, farmers pooled their cows and moved them from farm to farm to get a bit of extra grant money?” We are passing through Limerick, once infamous for ribald rhyme, now home to Dell Computers.

“Certainly not. We would never do a thing like that. A dreadful thought indeed,  shame on you for even having it” - “No no, it was the sheep! Caused a bit of a stink it did. When they found a couple of cases of Foot and Mouth they wanted to kill the lot. Problem was they could only find 24000 when they’d paid for 36000. All hell broke loose. Place was awash with inspectors. What in hell happened to the other 12000?  They’ve a new tagging system now”.  

Next morning, I meet the rest of the group over a full Irish breakfast in Tralee. It wasn’t the eggs, tomatoes or baked beans that bothered the two newly arrived Boston girls. The sausages, bacon, mushrooms, hash browns and soda bread were fine with the pretty young jock from Montana. It was little squares of Black and White Pudding that did the job. “Ooh yuck – Black pudding is made from what?” The Australian couple offered to share their precious tube of “Vegemite” while I, and the Dutch girl with little command of English, happily emptied our plates. Delicious.

The benefits of an organised walking tour are legion. You get to make new friends. You also get to gripe if the weather isn’t perfect. You get inside knowledge on the best pubs. The finest brew. The folklore. Best of all, someone carries your bags

.Keith, our ever-attentive guide, views my walking shoes with disdain. Freshly daubed with the latest in waterproofing techniques, these babies have survived everything from monsoons in Malaysia to Alligators in Amazonas. What’s an Irish walking tour in the grand scheme of things?

We are bussed to a starting point along the Slieve Mish Mountains. Shards of morning sun have pierced the clouds to highlight whitecaps in Dingle Bay. Tiny stonewalled fields are a depth of green normally reserved for the lid of a chocolate box. Sheep are as white as snowdrops. Why are the colours so vivid here?

I cunningly leap from rock to rock. The lack of trees on the hillside allows rainwater to permeate every inch of ground which, when stepped on, reacts like a giant soggy sponge! My pride falters after lunch when the sun retreats and a ‘soft’ day returns. I run out of rocks and reluctantly accept wet feet.

Thank god for Mike O’Neill’s Railway Tavern. A pint of Murphy’s best - pulled by the boss himself sporting a beard and a brogue as dense as a peat bog. “Oh wow this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me” enthuses one of our gang. “Its just so, so – well – Irish.” “Then you must have had a dull life lady is all I can say!”

The weather takes a back seat when we hike through a pristine valley shared only with hundreds of sheep, horses, and soaring larks. We pass the stone ruins of an old smallholding. It was once occupied by two sisters who attended Sunday Mass in different communities so they could share the gossip later. They were victims of the potato blight and famine of the 1840’s.

We moved our base to Dingle. 52 pubs are interspersed along the brightly coloured streets, to serve a population of 1500 thirsty folks. Street signs are in Gaelic. Dingle is in a Gaeltacht area – an area designated for the preservation of the Irish language. So you want to become a doctor. Better pass in Irish or you won’t graduate from High School.

Summer weather arrives. We get the ferry to The Blasket Islands, surely the western most part of Ireland, where Charles Haughey, infamous Irish politician (in a country where everyone loves a rogue!) still maintains a mansion on his own Inishkillane Island. Residents of Greater Blasket were not so lucky. The last few were ordered off in 1953 by the Irish government. Rabbits now romp around the ruins of a lost lifestyle.

The good news is that the Irish spirit is alive and well. Pubs are filled with laughter, music, and characters who’ll tell you anything you want to hear – and lots that you don’t! Today’s Irish are world travellers with euros in their jeans and a taste for the good things in life. What could be better than working up a sweat on Mount Brandon then killing it with a pint of Guinness, a fresh lobster and a song?

On the last night Keith is ready with a limerick (mine naturally focussed on shoes) and a certificate for each of our happy group of seven. A nice touch. A moment of sadness as reality sinks in. Cards and hugs are exchanged. Tomorrow we will be winging our way to Boston, Montana, Amsterdam, Adelaide and Vancouver.




ZOOM AIR: www.flyzoom.com  Now flies direct from Vancouver to Belfast on Mondays and returns on Saturdays.

The following budget airlines fly from London UK to Ireland – Book ahead and the deals can be extraordinary:
RYAN AIR: www.ryanair.com 
EASY JET: www.easyjet.com
AER LINGUS: www.aerlingus.com

AUTHOR'S NOTE: South West Walks, in business for 14 years, provided a seamless holiday in comfortable – yet characterful accommodation. Walkers create picnic lunches from well-chosen supplies.  Three course dinners in excellent restaurants are included. Vacationers are met at the airport.

Check the website for their full range of guided and non-guided walks. A suggested equipment list will be provided.


Copyright © 2006 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.