Beyond the Blarney

Tramping the Ways Marked Well
  |  Gorp.com
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The Cliffs of Moher: a 700-foot swan dive into the Atlantic (Irish Tourist Board)
More Resources
The National Waymarked Ways Committee website, www.walkireland.ie, has brief descriptions of each Way, local contact information, and suggested guidebooks (such as Michael Fewer's The Waymarked Trails of Ireland , 1996).
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Sculptors say their works of art already exist inside the block of granite—it's simply their job to strip away the excess stone and release the inner sculpture.

The same artistic theory has essentially driven the creation of Ireland's network of hiking trails, known collectively as the Waymarked Ways. For centuries, the Irish landscape has been traversed by ancient bog paths, sheep and goat trails, "coffin trails" (etched by funeral processions), and tracks tramped by farmers and fishermen. In 1982, a national committee was established to clean up these trails, to map and mark them, and to build bridges and gates across streams and through farmers' fences. The result—so far—is the transformation of 1,910 miles of haphazard trails into a nationwide network of 32 "Ways."

Guiding the way is a small man with a walking stick—similar to the Appalachian Trail's "AT" symbol—etched into wood or concrete posts across the country.

The selections are spectacular and wildly diverse. The 28-mile Burren Way, for example, cuts across the moonscape-like Burren, a limestone mound in western Ireland, where bog holes that look like spongy patches of moss can suck you in like quicksand. This jagged route skirts along the majestic Cliffs of Moher. The 82-mile Wicklow Way, on the other hand, winds lazily south of Dublin through the lush-green glens of the Wicklow Mountain foothills, past castle ruins, and across working farms. Other Ways saunter along rocky shores, through pub-filled fishing villages, past prehistoric stone tombs, and up and down impossibly green hillsides flecked with sheep.

The Sheep's Head Way follows the perimeter of Sheep's Head peninsula on the southwest coast, traversing carpets of heather and gorse, passing among herds of wild goat stuck crazily to rocky hillsides, and routing through fishing villages, where melodic Gaelic brogues echo in stores and pubs. There are even two urban passages through Dublin—the Grand Canal Way and the Royal Canal Way—which meander alongside centuries-old waterways channeling through the heart of the capital. They then unfold west into the countryside—a relaxing alternative (or antidote) to pub crawling, Dublin's other active pastime.

Because the Waymarked Ways cut largely through private property (the Ways' creators obtained permission from property owners, who allow hikers to traverse their land), there are no huts or cabins. Still, farmers readily grant permission for camping and most of the Ways pass through or near towns with hotels, hostels, or B&Bs. No reservations or permits are necessary to hike. Although Ireland has worked hard to mark all the Ways, it's easy to get lost in some of the rural sections, so it's best to pick up a guidebook, which will lyrically describe how to "cross the field diagonally, clear a stile set in a stone wall and drop down through boughs of fuchsia, entwined as if in prayer."

The Ways' guiding force, Josh Lynam, a 77-year-old mountaineer and the patriarch of Irish hiking, said that before Ireland's high-tech boom, when the workforce was heavily agricultural, few people had time for recreational hiking, otherwise called "hill walking." But as Ireland's urban population grows, so does the need for rural, hill-walking escapes.

The 32 Waymarked Ways range in length from seven to 174 miles, but most are divided into small legs for day hikes. It is still safe and easy to hitchhike to and from trailheads. The best time is from late spring through early fall. But, bring rain gear and waterproof boots at any time of the year—a walk in Ireland can be sunny, rainy, warm, and frigid, all in the span of an hour.


Neal writes for Outside magazine, Men's Health , and the Washington Post Magazine . He is currently finishing a biography of the first American in space, Alan Shepard, and is starting a second book on moonshine, bootlegging, and the early days of NASCAR. Neal lives in Asheville, NC, with his wife and two sons.

Published: 6 Dec 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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