Walking the Wicklow Way, against the elements, toward Ireland’s capital.
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Kevin’s Kitchen, set against a mountain vista in Glendalough.
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Sheep pasture near Knockree Hill.
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Front Square, Trinity College Dublin
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Sheep in Glenmalure.
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Glenmalure Pub and B
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Kevin’s Kitchen, set against a mountain vista in Glendalough.
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Glendalough cemetery and tower.
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National Museum of Ireland-Archaeology.
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The Temple Bar in Dublin.
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Dubliner boarding a bus.
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Guinness Storehouse Gravity Bar.
Stomping through the slick crust of a stubborn April snow, my husband, Jack, and I clambered up the flanks of Fairy Castle under a churning Irish, light-noir drama produced by late-day storm clouds. This would be the last steep climb, according to our Wicklow Way walking notes. Glancing up at the rock cairn on the summit marking a Bronze Age passage tomb, we headed north following the trail over a rolling ridge of heather, and there it was, lying at our feet, the city of Dublin at the edge of the Irish Sea, aka “the fleshpot” in the Wicklow Way Map Guide.
Through the haze I could make out Dublin Bay and Howth Head, a peninsula northeast of the city. I could also see the docks, the Liverpool Ferry, a green dome and what looked to be a power station. It wasn’t exactly El Dorado, but it signaled our transition from hiking 20-plus kilometers per day for six days along Southeast Ireland’s soulful Wicklow mountains, finding sanctuary each evening in the pampered comfort of welcoming B&Bs, to full immersion in Dublin’s glut of Irish culture: the Book of Kells, James Joyce, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the gold treasury at the National Museum, the Dead Zoo and a new play at Abbey Theatre.
Only seven kilometers more to go—a steep descent from Fairy Castle to a blacktop road, then under the heavily trafficked M50 and onto an idyllic path running through Marlay Park. Past a hand-carved fairy tree, finally spilling out in front of the Georgian manor, Marlay House—the finish line for the Wicklow Way, one of Ireland’s most scenic long-distance trails.
We snapped photos and hustled out the park gates to catch the #16 bus to O’Connell Street. Hopping aboard, we suddenly realized we had correct change for only one passenger—panic! The dour-faced driver slyly waved us both on, and we hunkered down, grateful and exhausted, for the ride into the city concentrate where we traded forest paths and solitude for concrete sidewalks bustling with chic shoppers and red-haired girls in high-heeled boots and short skirts.
My husband and I suffer from disparate travel philosophy syndrome. I would rather hike and camp, feasting on a region’s natural wonders, whereas he prefers to visit museums and focus on art, architecture and historical gems, reveling in the cultural legacy of a country’s people. In Ireland, we satisfied both desires on our self-guided walking adventure, which combined over 100 kilometers along the Wicklow Way and two full days in Dublin. It included B&Bs and pubs along the route, a service to ferry our luggage from place to place and maps and straightforward walking instructions, all thanks to Christopher and Teresa Stacey of Ireland’s Footfalls Walking Holidays. We landed in Dublin and followed their printed directions, like a treasure hunt.
From an on-time, six-hour cross-Atlantic flight, we walked directly onto a bus just pulling away for the 30-minute ride to Connolly Rail Station. There, like clockwork, the ticket agent immediately put us on a departing southbound train. After a spectacularly scenic trip along the Irish Sea coast, we arrived in Rathdrum, County Wicklow, a half-day before expected. Dropping our bags at the Stirabout Lane B&B, a cozy cottage fronting Rathdrum’s narrow thoroughfare, we hiked down to Avondale House and Forest Park, the home of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), the betrayed tragic hero, whose life typified Ireland for James Joyce. Born in Avondale House, this aristocratic Protestant landowner organized the landless class into seeking land reform, and, as a member of the British Parliament, initiated the first movement toward Home Rule. Alas, his career collapsed when it was revealed he had produced three children in a love affair with his friend’s wife. Though they married after her divorce, he died soon after in disgrace.
Built in 1777, his home is the archetypal Irish Georgian country house, elegant and restrained, but also containing an American room dedicated to his mother and grandfather, Admiral Charles Stewart, commander of USS Constitution during the War of 1812. The loquacious house steward started singing along to the obligatory video’s background music, insisting we join his rousing a cappella rendition of the traditional ballad, “Oh, Have You Been to Avondale.” Spanning 530 acres, the forests of Avondale were first planted by Parnell as heritage tree preserves. When the government purchased the estate in 1904, it was turned into a forestry school with experimental silviculture plots in an attempt to quickly reforest Ireland’s then denuded bogland. Centuries of harvesting timber for shipbuilding, for producing the charcoal needed to smelt iron ore, plus clearing of large pasture and farm tracts for plantations on top of natural climate anomalies resulted in the disappearance of 99 percent of Irish woodlands before 1900. The most hearty and enduring of these early test specimens turned out to be redwoods from California and Sitka spruce from British Columbia. For the next five days, we would hike through the government’s lush non-native fir and spruce plantations, the rotating cash cows that resulted from these early experiments.
Christopher and Teresa appeared at 8 a.m. on Easter Sunday to give us a ride to the iron bridge west of Aughrim, our Wicklow Way trailhead, as Christopher, a legendary Irish walking guide, was off to check out an alternate mountain route in the same area. With no dispatch, we slugged uphill northward along the eastern spine of the Wicklow Mountains for a short first-day 15 kilometers towards Dublin, arriving that evening at the Glenmalure Lodge. Over a couple of pints of Guinness, we plumbed trail beta from a Dutch girl finishing her hike. She warned of icy spots from last week’s freakishly-late spring snowfall, but we had little trouble the next day on the pass toward Glendalough where we shared our bag lunch prepared by the Lodge with a member of the Glen of Imaal Red Cross Mountain Rescue and his ‘rescue’ Cocker puppy in a gulley huddled out of the wind. Cautiously navigating down the slippery ridge, we were relieved to reach a planked trail at the edge of the Spinc, the Irish word for pointed hill, a high crag which plummets down into the steeply carved Glendalough valley, one of Ireland’s finest specimens of a glacial trench embracing two long tranquil lakes. To protect the tundra-like bog from being tramped by the thousands of hikers in this walking-culture nation, the Irish Army brought in studded rail ties in 2002 to create this remarkable boardwalk running all the way along the ridge and down some 600 steep steps to the approach valley below. Foul weather or fare, it seems that a brisk walk is inherent in the daily Irish routine. Ireland boasts an endless network of well-worn walking paths from multiday waymarked trails and national looped walks to coastal hikes and inner-city strolls. Since it was a bank holiday during our visit, families were out walking in droves, many hiking up the 600 steps. Despite the damp cold and the difficulty of the climb, there was no whining, not even from the wee ones.
Early Christian monks, in particular a hermit of noble birth named Kevin, found in the Glendalough valley a contemplative haven. Called the St. Francis of Ireland, St. Kevin (498-618) retreated to a Bronze-Age cave, which is still visible across the Upper Lake. His miracles and teachings soon garnered so many disciples and pilgrims that, by the ninth century, Glendalough had grown into Ireland’s largest monastic community. The fact that most of their imposing stone buildings still stand, in spite of Viking invasions and attacks by Henry VIII’s forces, is a testament to their construction and design and national reverence for the site. Towering over the entire city is the 110-foot high stone round tower. Often used as a lookout, it was actually a campanile used to call the monks to daily prayers. St. Kevin’s Kitchen, which is actually a church, is the monastic city’s signature edifice with its stone pitched roof supporting a small conical belfry tower. Allegedly, locals referred to the tower as a chimney, and since only kitchens had chimneys, it was called a “kitchen.” Staring at this early medieval monastic cluster backlit by the two long lakes leading up the rugged valley to sheer cliffs, I could easily imagine these stunning surroundings as a compelling lure toward conversion of pagans. As evidenced by the crowds that day, this sacred site continues to be one of Ireland’s prime destinations.
With rare sun overhead, we continued our trek up the valley floor under the Spinc to explore the old lead mines that, starting around 1800, had operated for 150 years. Only building foundations, a few pieces of machinery and a mineshaft in the cliff remain as testament to what must have been round-the-clock drudgery. We examined what I think was a crusher and the stone housing for a waterwheel powered by the oft-flooding stream feeding the lakes, certainly a sturm-und-drang operation in stark contrast to the meditative religious realm below.
From Glendalough, we hiked over Scarr Mountain to Roundwood, home base for Footfalls Walking Holidays, past the Guinness estate, Luggala, near Lough Tay, around the stone marker celebrating the founder of the Wicklow Way, and on to the flanks of the absurdly windy Djouce Mountain. Leaning into the face of the gale, stooped over like two old people, we were trying to stay upright, when a local walker wearing just a thin jacket came flying by rocking side to side at a fast clip—what we dubbed the Wicklow dance. Stopping, he yelled over the wind’s roar, “Lovely day. Not a place I’d like to spend much time.” As we descended the mountain in his wake, a local young mountain biker headed up, peddling into the fury of the blow.
In contrast to the shapely moody mountains and the fairytale villages poised at crossroads where our little B&B rooms (add-ons to private homes) came complete with multi-sausaged and grilled-tomato Irish breakfasts, I found Dublin to be as cast in film and fiction, seeming almost like a disciplined stone and green caricature of itself. It’s a dense mini-metropolis, with Dubliners embraced by a cloak of down-home quiet, honest kindness; wickedly funny folks who waste no words and are genuinely helpful to a fault. Our first evening, we stumbled on The Celt, a pub on Talbot Street north of the River Liffey. Crammed inside were locals as well as a few tourists. We had settled down to dinner and a pint, when a couple of men seated next to us, 70-somethings dressed in coat and tie, broke into bellowing Gaelic harmony. No one noticed them or the two outlandishly garish crones nearby, well into their cups, who kept hitting on the guitarist as he was packing up to leave. The waiter navigated the crowd like a wirewalker, presenting my chips and fish—sautéed, not battered—with mock aplomb. I gave it three notches above regular bar fare.
Jack had our two Dublin days meticulously programmed with walking guide and map, so when the front gates to Trinity College were closed for the annual Trinity Ball, the end of term black-tie all nighter, I thought our Irish luck had run out. Fortunately, we found an entrance under a building on Nassau Street and made our way to the Trinity College Library.
Founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, Trinity College was modeled after the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, though it has remained a one-college university. Its library, however, is the legal-deposit library for Ireland and houses over 4.5 million printed books and rare and significant manuscripts including the famed eighth-century Book of Kells. The page of Kells on exhibit was exquisite but, like going to the Louvre just to view the Mona Lisa, one finds the essence of an institution is often not the main attraction; for us it was the 65 meter Long Room upstairs, stacked with 200,000 of Ireland’s oldest volumes.
The arched ceiling and alcoves, the busts of Irish legends, the honey-colored, waxed-wood bookshelves alphabetically lettered in gold and the book ladders simply defined the importance of Ireland’s literary heritage.
Feeling the heady glow of that legacy, we kept on down Kildare Street to the National Museum of Ireland to see the massive collection of prehistoric gold artifacts. Not only were the sheer numbers of neckpieces and adornments overwhelming, but the sophisticated skill required to craft such objects was amazing, particularly the miniature gold Broighter boat, complete with rigging and oars. Throughout Ireland, farmers plowing land or harvesting bogs have found—as recently as last year—many treasure hoards from the late 19th century.
Suffering from objets d’art overload, we walked around the block to the national natural history museum, fondly called the Dead Zoo. Opened by Dr. David Livingstone in 1857, the same “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” this Victorian-era, cabinet-style museum, with its million species, is a feast of stuffed specimens of the natural world: polar bears, tigers, a fin whale, giraffes, apes, humans and ancient Irish elk skeletons. It is a catalog of zoology in a quiet, curious setting.
As it was almost next-door, we stopped in at the National Gallery of Ireland and managed to get sucked into the European masterworks and sketchbooks of Jack B. Yeats, William Butler’s brother. My Jack suggested we then go to Christchurch Cathedral for Evensong. He was tiring, so we asked about a bus. A women standing nearby turned and said, “It’s ONLY a 10-minute walk.” Duly embarrassed, we hoofed it, only to find the cathedral closed for shooting a movie about Mary, Queen of Scots. Instead, we walked farther to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, discovering the grave of Jonathan Swift, the intriguing staircase to the organ loft and the choir stalls festooned by the swords and helmets of the chivalric Knights of St. Patrick.
Boarding a Hop-On Hop-Off bus for our lazy last day, we wandered St. Stephen’s Green before stopping at the Guinness Storehouse for the tour. We leisurely digested our gulp of Dublin, enjoying the 360-degree panorama visible from the top floor Gravity Bar from which I could see the Irish Sea and the Wicklow Mountains. Then we headed back to The Celt for a farewell feast of beef and Guinness stew.
This is not the last I’ll see of the Emerald Isle. County Cork is calling, for I need to find the home of my multi-great-grandfather, Darby Regan. Plus, there are 40 more walking trails waiting to be hiked, particularly the Kerry Way, and then I have a distant cousin who recently moved to Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon. I’m checking for flight deals as I write.
For Hiking Vacation and Trail Information:
Wicklow B&Bs, Lodges, Pubs and Restaurant Highlights:
Stirabout Lane B&B, Rathdrum, StiraboutLane.com
Bates’ Restaurant, Rathdrum, BatesRestaurant.com
Glenmalure Lodge, Glenmalure, WicklowWay.com
Wicklow Heather Restaurant, Laragh, WicklowHeather.ie
Lake House B&B, Roundwood, WicklowWay.com
For More Information on Ireland: