Phase two of my stay in Ireland took on a new turn when I moved into a flat in Bru Na Sionna, an area of Shannon town referred to as “Little Poland”, albeit in an arguably derogatory tone. This it might well be, yet it seems to have a fair mixture of nationalities, if the truth be told. I have been fortunate to have been invited by a Czech colleague and his wife for dinner in the same block, despite the recent addition to their family being a higher priority in their lives. He showed me stunning photos of their year-long trip to New Zealand, a place he obviously holds very dear. In fact, a friendship he struck with a Maori family resulted in them attending their wedding in their hometown of České Budějovice, otherwise known as Budweis, in the Bohemian region in the south of the Czech Republic.
I love rambling. Determined to find a walking route out of Shannon blocked off and smothered by the sheer scale of its airfield, I borrowed a bicycle in an attempt to find a way along the estuary past the airport and beyond, but to no avail. The golf course is about the furthest one can go before running into the aerodrome’s boundary fencing once more. It’s a real shame that Shannon town planners have not given any consideration to the enormous opportunities for rambling that the estuary presents. If the diabolical Sky Court shopping mall is anything to go by, their total lack of vision does not surprise me in the least.
On a Saturday in Ireland towards the end of April, when I first moved into the apartment, I followed a road past the cemetery and sports fields where I saw a game being played which, at first, I mistook for hockey, until I saw the ball being picked up. I was the ancient Gaelic sport of hurling.
The road winds its way along the estuary which is initially out of view, until it rises above the level of the embankment, before finally terminating at a sewage plant. From here I continued along the embankment across some farmer’s land, until I finally reached the highway opposite Bunratty Castle. I couldn’t help but think what a difference a decent footpath would make to the town of Shannon, opening up the estuary’s beauty to all its townsfolk. Scampering across the railings and narrowly avoiding the oncoming traffic on the E20, I stopped off at the castle’s gift shop and enquired as to buses back to Shannon, from a sweet lady at the till, who seemed more than impressed by my day’s adventure, though my attire and scruffy appearance did solicit strange looks from the multitude of tourists present.
Flatmate Andy, who puts in a hour’s stint daily at the local gym and I hired a taxi Sunday morning to Cratloe Woods, a hillside overlooking Limerick, where we walked a dirt track, from one end of the woods to the other. Though the map indicated a pathway to Woodcock Hill, in reality, it was up someone’s private driveway. It seemed that at least half the hillside belonged to the local gun club, who made it pretty obvious from the signs present, that they didn’t take kindly to trespassers on their property. Unsuspecting victims would either face prosecution or the likelihood of being mistaken as a potential target.
Hiking near urban areas in Ireland is not as easy as it is in England, which boasts a unique system of pathways and byways, a hiker’s paradise. Nonetheless, Ireland has recognised hiking trails and paths to rival the best. The only problem is getting there – public transport is somewhat sparse, so having a car is an absolute necessity.
Disadvantaged by its location near the coast, Shannon sees little of the sun – locals refer to it as “Irish mist” however we did strike it lucky towards the end of May. With a weekend looming on the horizon and a promising weather forecast in the offing, I scoured the internet for a hiking club in the area. Through a colleague at Intel I joined up with a small group out of Ennis, who had a walk planned in Connemara in County Galway for Sunday 27th May, with a view to climbing Letterbreckaun, one of the hills in the Maumturks range, lesser known than their more famous neighbours, the Twelve Bens, on the opposite side of the Inagh Valley. The name Letterbreckaun comes from Leitir Bhriocáin, ‘Brecan’s wet hillside’. It made for an early start and it’s a two-hour drive from Ennis, just north of Shannon, where I met the group.
The day before, after taking successive buses to Limerick and Croom, I managed to pay a visit to an ex-colleague I had last worked with at Plessey in Cape Town more than 10 years ago. Sybren and his wife Ieteke, both of Dutch origin, had settled in this region of Ireland, along with their three kids. We sat on the veranda sharing our thoughts on where our respective career paths had brought us. In the mid afternoon, Sybren took a drive south of Croom, for walk up the legendary Knockfeerina Hill. I joined them for a visit to Limerick’s new greyhound dog racing track in the evening, where the betting was frenetic.
The Maumturks group comprised Damien Kelly, Tomás O’Nidh, Ann Howard, Michael O’Connell, Mary Johnston, Joe O’Shea and Joe Rynne. After parking on a dirt road off the R344 to Kylemore, the roughly 6 hours of walking involved climbing the length of the ridge, starting near the ruins of an old settlement closest to Lough Inagh, after crossing a little stream. Mary described the ascent as a zig-zag, though only if you chose to. The route looked as straight as an arrow to me.
The soft peat undergrowth gave way to sections involving extensive use of the hands in order to clamour and scramble over huge rocks, as one ascended the left-hand side of the ridge. Once over the summit of the Letterbreckaun (667 m), Lough Inagh and the Twelve Bens to the south disappears from view, for the moment at least. We stopped for a tea break, albeit a short one – there is no messing about with this lot.
The direction one leaves the summit of Letterbreckaun marks a virtual hairpin bend in relation to the approach. From here one descends down to a col, providing a clear vista of the valley of Failmore towards the north-east, prior to climbing once more, despite there being no obvious path, to the summit of Knocknahillion. From here one continues past a number of small ponds, before reaching Maumahoge col, where one is able to gaze down upon Lough Mam Ochoige, tucked away in the under the face of Barrslievenaroy (also known as Binn idir an dá Log), at 702 m, the highest peak in the Maumturks range.
The path then continues down into a valley, at first following a stream which one soon leaves, heading towards Lough Inagh, which comes into view once more. Before trundling down the peat landscape back to the dirt road, a nasty barbed-wire fence had to be negotiated. I almost damaged more than just my hiking shorts, until Damien came to the rescue. Back at the car, we changed and then headed off towards Galway, stopping off in the town for a well-earned late lunch en route.
I had enjoyed walking with this thoroughly decent bunch of people. I got chatting to the rather likeable Joe, a county Clare farmer by profession. Damien was very kind to drop me off in Shannon itself. I certainly felt the effects of the walk in the course of the coming week, at times struggling to even climb the office stairs at Intel. I needed this walk though, in preparation for the Munros being tackled during a forthcoming week-long hiking trip to Loch Ossian, Scotland.