Walk of the Week: Lough Easkey, Co Sligo
The first time I went walking in the Ox Mountains, I was (almost) blasted off them by one of the coldest springtime winds I've ever encountered.
And when I'd last tried to walk a circuit of Lough Easkey, in the heart of the range, it had rained and blown so hard that I'd had to cry off, the only such occasion -- so far, touch wood -- in more than 100 walks for the 'Irish Independent'.
So as I left a sunny north Sligo coast and headed inland, there was a bit of a sense of déjÃ vu when I came over the crest of the mountain road and found rain clouds drawn down like a close-fitting cap of grey wool over the hills around a wind-ruffled Lough Easkey.
There is something about the Ox Mountains, the oldest rocks in Co Sligo, both elemental and harsh, that seems to suit -- if it doesn't actually attract -- weather to match.
But then the rain fades off, the winds fall easy, the clouds and the sullen light lift, so does your heart as you walk among the heathery Ox ridges and slopes, one of the wildest and least visited mountain ranges in Ireland.
I struggled into rain trousers, gaiters and anorak, and set off along the stony path for an anti-clockwise circuit of the lake. Rain-pearled ewes watched from among the rocks with the kind of mistrustful disdain in which mountain sheep are such specialists.
A pair of sandpipers bobbed and flirted among the lake shore pebbles, their breast feathers flashing brilliant white.
The strong south wind drove successions of wavelets on to the shore with a slap and rustle, filling the air with a fine mist of spray even as the rain began to die away.
Everything was wet and wild, and everything was invigorating and beautiful in a bleak, stripped-to-the-bone kind of way.
Plank footbridges carried the path across loud rivulets charged to the brim with rainwater. Meadow pipits went up with a flutter, each upward swoop accompanied by a needly little call. Look! How clever we are! Flying!
The hill slopes were spattered yellow and white with miniature four-petalled windmills of tormentil and a froth of heath bedstraw. Rain drops slid in slow progression down the smooth stems of sedge clumps.
I dodged across the sodden ground between dark pools and green sphagnum patches. A bootful of bog water was an inevitability, and I soon got one. But on such a day and in such a place, you laugh in the face of wet feet. That's all just part of the fun.
The wind blew and blustered at me, and I pushed back against it with the enjoyment of pent-up energy given a vigorous release.
The lichen-whitened stones of ruined houses formed rectangles in the grass and heather. The lake shore swung west to form a wide bay, above which an abandoned farmhouse looked out on a view that any true romantic would gladly pay a million poems for -- wild flowers, water, mountain, cloud.
I doubt many poems were written at the fireside in the houses by Lough Easkey, though. Forcing a decent living from ground as uncompromising as the Ox Mountains would be enough to send most folk early to their beds in a decidedly unromantic state of exhaustion.
Bilberry and bogbean sprays shook the last of the raindrops into the wind. Slabs of the Ox rock lay exposed among the grasses, the grey granite interlarded with thick white seams of quartzite, all contorted by ancient volcanic pressures into bends and loops like a cross-cut of some heroically coarse salami too long neglected in a giant's lunch-bag.
Hmmm. Yes. Rather a long time since breakfast, now you mention it.
I squelched down the slope, sending tiny frogs leaping for safety, and hurried along the rocky cart track that led by the shoreline from the old farm to the motor road.
A big sulphur-yellow moth, its furry body and eye-marked wings drenched with rain, clung to a grass clump, waiting for the wind to dry it for flight -- infinitely patient, self-sufficient and indifferent to my passing.
Way to go
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 24; downloadable map/ instructions (highly recommended) at discover ireland.ie/walking.
TRAVEL: N17 to Tobercurry; R294 towards Ballina; in 5Â½ miles (9km), right ('Cloonacool, Mass Rock'). In 1Â½ miles (2km), left (brown 'Lough Easkey' sign) to trailhead and car park by Lough Easkey.
WALK DIRECTIONS: Follow purple arrows/PAs along rough track by lake shore. Left across bridge; follow stiles/PAs along west shore. In 1 mile (1.5km), skirt above ruined farmhouse in bay; descend to follow farm track along shore.
Nearing cottage in shelter trees, turn right (stile, PA, yellow arrow) across open ground to road. Left along lake shore road to trailhead.
LENGTH: Four miles (6km) -- allow two hours.
CONDITIONS: Can be very boggy -- boots/gaiters advisable.
DON'T MISS: Ruins of old houses; views of Ox Mountains; contorted granite and quartz outcrops.
ACCOMMODATION: Murphy's Hotel, Teeling Street, Tobercurry. Tel: 071 918 5598; murphyshotel.ie. Very friendly family-run place.
INFORMATION: Sligo TIC, Temple Street, Sligo. Tel: 071 916 1201; discoverireland.ie/Places-To-Go/Sligo