The forecast said no rain, but a steady drizzle still fell for much of Sunday morning in Kinnitty last week. The enthusiastic group of seasoned walkers who met at Kinnitty Community Centre weren’t put out by the damp day, kitted with gear like gaiters, waterproofs, raincovers for their rucksacks, metal walking poles and woolly hats.
The Slieve Bloom Walking Club are experiencing a surge in popularity, and have doubled the number of guided walks they provide every weekend. Lynda Kiernan put on her walking boots to find out what the attraction is
Leader for this walk was Gerry Hanlon from Mountmellick. No fancy equipment for him, a stout hazel stick and welly boots were enough for the shopkeeper, who has a reputation for powering on over any mountain, without any need for rest or food.
With gaiters (leg covers) kindly loaned to us by Ann Lanigan, rural recreation officer with Laois Partnership, myself and my friend were ready to join the convoy up to Glendine West. The group of 35 - head counted on the way out, but rather worryingly, not on the way home - set off at 11am for a hike that would take almost four hours to complete.
Our route initially followed the Glendine river, occasionally crossing through it, slowly climbing through ancient dripping forests coated in thick moss. There is a real ‘lord of the rings’ atmosphere in these woods. There are no paths here, just small tags tied in trees to stop everyone getting lost. The going can be rough, definitely unsuitable for small children, but the child is still alive in every one of these walkers, who happily splashed through the river, and slipped and slid their way down muddy inclines.
One of the walkers was Sr Ríona McHugh, who at 69 years old, was still well able for the pace.
“I am very fit. I spent my childhood jumping over gates, it’s a challenge, I would be afraid of knees though,” she said.
Originally from Galway, she says she has been somewhat converted from the sea to the mountains.
“I love thinking back and imagining life in the mountains, and wondering why and how they left,” she said.
The mountains are dotted with abandoned dwellings, tumbled down stone houses now cloaked in soft green moss. One we passed has a headstone made from the fireplace mantle, with the date 1868 carved on it. Someone spotted a native red squirrel in the trees, and Gerry explained that they are more common now since the pine marten has been reintroduced, a predator of the larger, once dominant grey squirrel.
We left the cover of the woods, and began a climb up to the top of Fear Bréag, a 345 metre hill coated in blanket bog, heathers and mosses, one of the areas in the Slieve Blooms protected as a SAC - Special Area of Conservation.
The name means ‘hardy man’ or ‘wolf man’, as 250 years ago these mountains were home to packs of wolves. Now there’s just wild goats and deer.
“There are still some stone boley huts up here, for farmers who would bring their cattle up in the summer, and stay with them to protect them from the wolves,” explained Gerry.
Up to a few years ago, locals still travelled by cart up here to cut their turf. The 4 foot high walls of black cutaway bog are still visible, but spongy sphagnum moss is again coating the ground, soaked in water, the perfect recipe for a new bog in a few millennia.
“This place brings you back in time. It hasn’t changed much since the famine. The old tracks are still there, nature’s taking them back now,” Gerry says.
At the top of the hill, a striped post and a quick rest await. The view is spectacular enough, but on a clear day the lakes of the Shannon can be seen from here.
Many of the walkers have a keen knowledge and love for the flora and fauna of the Slieve Blooms, like retired teacher Gloria Carter from Ballyfin, who points out the aptly named ‘devils matchstick’ lichen, and ‘drowned kitten moss’.
The colours of the terrain constantly change, with stretches of brown heathers turning to rust coloured mooregrasses. We don’t stay long at the exposed top of Fear Bréag, but begin the long trek down towards the shelter of the woods, for a much needed rest and lunch.
Out come the flasks and sandwiches, some even have foldout seatpads. A married couple from Birr tell me they have been enjoying the walks for ten years now, while two friends, Siobhán and Kathleen from Ballacolla started a year ago.
“We are completely addicted. It’s the peace, the connection with nature. Your thoughts can get so far away from normal humdrum life,” says Kathleen, who got the wrong shoes to start with, but now is kitted out for all conditions.
“You’re guaranteed a good walk with Gerry. There’s many a Sunday i went home and said ‘never again’,” she laughs.
We continued on downhill completing the looped walk. The landscape changes from high pine Coillte forests to small cleared fields and copses of birch trees, crossing back over the Glendine river.
The walks are occasionally used as training for bigger adventures, explains Paul Dunne, who is also a walk leader.
“We got three teachers from Dublin last year who were training to go to Peru. Two others were training for the Alps,” he said.
By the time we got back to our cars, clouds of mist had drifted down over the hills. the cold and wet had soaked in, and all dispersed quickly to get back to the comforts of home. Not a day for the faint hearted, but definitely one to repeat.
See www.slievebloom.ie for more.