Monday, August 23, 2010

On foot

A few days ago a local friend asked me to lead her and a small group of her friends into the Coumanare lakes. This is the wildest, most remote part of the Dingle Peninsula. In all the times I have been there I have never seen another human being or sign of human civilization. Not a fence or a stray sheep. Three cold lakes are connected by a rushing stream tumbling giddily over the rocks. Waterfalls cascade down the surrounding cliffs. Coumanare means "the valley of the slaughter," although whatever event the name commemorates is lost in the mists of time.

The walk I planned would be taxing, taking us miles from easy assistance, and I was a bit apprehensive, not knowing the fitness of four of our party. I shouldn't have been. It turned out that everyone was younger and fitter than me, and all were practiced members of walking clubs -- professionals who in their free time love nothing more than to don their boots, throw on a knapsack, and head for the hills.

I think of the friends Robert Lloyd Praeger lists in his classic book of Irish rambling, The Way That I Went, published in 1937. These included a trunk-maker, a linen manufacturer, a solicitor, a grocer, a commercial traveler, a physician, a shipyard worker, a minister, and a photographer, all with a passionate interest in the outdoors. They were Protestants from Belfast, in the great British ramblers tradition, walking "with reverent feet through hills and valleys, stopping often, watching closely, listening carefully." Catholic Ireland was not so much interested in rambling in those days; scraping a living from the land was about all of the outdoors that anyone wanted.

The recent boom in Irish prosperity has meant a burgeoning new interest in walking for pleasure. Short and long distance footpaths are opening up across the country. It's too late for Ireland to gain the ubiquitous public rights-of-way that make Britain such a delightful venue for the rambler, but the new walking clubs are lobbying hard for right-to-roam legislation in the upland hill country.

Another change: Praeger's companions were all male; we were four women and two men. And why walk? Let Praeger speak for us: "Quite wandering on foot along brown streams and among the windy hills can bring a solace and a joy that is akin only to the peace of God that passeth understanding."