Easy does it in Ireland

Package tours are great. That is, if you don’t mind feeling like an animal – herded like cattle, with all the free-will of a sheep; or hanging out the bus window like a dog as the world whooshes by in a blur.

Really, the only way to experience a country properly is on foot or bicycle. Ireland is no different – you need to squelch through the boggy fields, feel the rain on your skin, smell the freshly cut grass and cowpats, dodge the cars in Belfast, feel the sea breeze, and pedal your way alongside the greenest fields imaginable to truly appreciate Ireland in all its guises.

The boys are back in town

Any day exploring Belfast on foot should begin with a traditional Irish breakfast at the John Hewitt Bar, but don’t push aside the black pudding (animal blood sausage) in favour of the bacon rashers, pork sausages, soda bread and eggs.

Walk off the meal at the Belfast Botanical Gardens with its Palm Garden conservatory – all curved iron and glass from the mid-1800s – and the 120-year-old hothouse that brought the tropics to Belfast (cue bananas, cycads, ferns, orchids and an indoor waterfall).

Have a Guinness or three at the legendary Crown Liquor Saloon where little has changed since 1840 – the brocaded walls; wood carvings; gold, red and yellow ceiling; mosaic floor tiles; and etched glass throughout.

Replenished, consider taking a long walk out of the city centre to the dry-dock where Titanic was built. Not exactly in ship-shape condition, it’s nevertheless titanic in size – and the effect is sure to be enhanced with the planned recreation of the giant vessel in lights.

Where is our truth? Where is our justice?

But if it’s real substance you want, head down the roads that lead you back into the city’s turbulent political history. Shankill Road, running through a predominantly Protestant area, is lined by buildings covered in murals depicting British loyalty, organisations such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and highlighting republican violence.

“Where are our inquiries? Where is our truth? Where is our justice?” asks a famous, finely detailed painting in black, white and red that vilifies IRA bomb blasts in the area.

A few kilometres away – along the Falls Road in a largely Catholic, nationalist area – the paintings may look similar but portray the polar opposite: an independent Ireland, the Gaelic language and support for the IRA. Iconic is the giant, brightly coloured portrait of hunger-striker Bobby Sands featured on the gable wall of Sinn Fein’s political headquarters.

It’s powerful stuff – simply dismissing these as paintings on buildings and walls is like calling Robben Island a big rock in Table Bay.

The killings may have stopped, but the scars remain – like the now neglected British Army base in Falls Road’s Divis Tower and the six-metre high peace wall that separated the factions and is covered in messages like “life’s too short for this shit”.

Walls and military installations are also part of Derry’s fractured history. Established on the banks of the River Foyle in the early 1600s, the original city was surrounded by about two kilometres of wall that enabled the inhabitants to withstand a 105-day siege in 1689. But the political and religious differences remained, finally erupting nearly 300 years later: a series of increasingly fiery spats between British troops and Catholic protesters sparking the Irish Troubles and culminating in Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972.

These three centuries of history form the basis of a walking tour along the city walls that still stand today. But having formed the backdrop to much intolerance (like the graveyard across the Foyle where Catholics and Protestants were once divided even in death), they’re now more symbolic of the city’s resilience and new sense of hope.

Climb every mountain

On the outskirts of Belfast, Cave Hill Country Park around Belfast Castle has a 7.2km trail that takes in the impressive Devil’s Punchbowl and offers views across the Northern Ireland capital, the 100m giant shipyard cranes like Samson and Goliath on the skyline, and the sea beyond – if the sky’s not overcast.

You never quite get the feeling that you’ve escaped the city gridlock, though. Which is part of the appeal of walking up Errigal, near Glenveigh National Park. The 750m peak rises dramatically from the shores of Dunlewey Lough and looks like it’s covered in snow – especially in summer – but that’s simply because the mountain’s quartzite scree gleams white in the sunlight.

The easiest way to reach the top is along the five-kilometre “tourist route”, which should take about two hours. Starting off at the dramatic roofless Dunlewey church, the initial stretch of the 520m involves a lot of squelching through mushy ground – little wonder the local hiking group is called the ‘bog trotters’.

But when you hit the lower screes, this strolling turns to steep climbing up a faint winding track. Catch a breath at the circular shelter before heading up an increasingly narrow ridge to Errigal’s tiny summit – offering views of all of Ulster’s nine counties and, on the southern horizon, the Sligo Mountains, including Knocknarea.

Not quite as isolated – or dramatic – as Errigal, Knocknarea is some 10km outside Sligo Town. The leisurely 40-minute walk up involves much puddle jumping, but the 10m high cairn of Queen Maeve of Connacht at the summit makes the wet feet bearable.

Too much PT? Sligo also offers the very laid-back (and very flat) three-kilometre Hazelwood Sculpture Trail situated on the shores of Lough Gill. Pack a picnic and walk along the forest trails between the trees, take in the lakeside views and puzzle over the wooden outdoor sculptures.

I want to ride my bicycle

The only problem with walking is it takes you months to get anywhere. If you want to see more of the country, biking is better and tackling the Tain Trail is best. Loosely following the route taken by the armies of Ireland in the ancient saga Tain Bo Cuailgne (the cattle raid of Cooley) it stretches over five days and, at 504km, is almost as long as the Irish legend it’s based upon.

The quick version: after the aforementioned Queen Maeve and her hubby Aillili decide to compare their possessions, it becomes clear that he has a great white bull, Finnbenach, which she has no equal for. But as there’s only one other animal in all of Ireland to equal Finny, the Great Bull of Cooley, Maeve decides she wants him, and sends her armies after the animal.

In following the general route taken by her armies, you’ll see the major attractions of Ireland’s East Coast and Midlands areas – including Knowth, medieval castles, ancient monasteries, cosy pubs, scenery from mountains to seaside, and more greenery than you’d find in Fruit & Veg City.

Judging by a stretch of the route through the stunning town of Carlingford, it’s worth the pedalling – the hilly byroads between cattle farms the most relaxed you can get sitting up; the stretches along main motorist routes benefiting from broad road shoulders and, unlike in South Africa, considerate drivers…

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