Guidebook publisher Hilary Bradt looks back on the biggest adventure of her life — an epic trip in Ireland before the internet was invented, when telephones were scarce and planning ahead was near impossible...
They were the best of times and they were the worst of times to undertake a long-distance journey on horseback in Ireland.
Today, in almost every way, I look back on that leisurely ride in the summer of 1984 as the best of times: this was Ireland before the Celtic Tiger boom, when everyone had time to talk, and hospitality was readily given; when cars were still a rarity on the country roads, and when — amazingly — the sun shone almost every day. Farmers even complained about the drought (“The driest summer that came since the history of time!”), but I just thanked my good fortune to have so few days of the expected rain.
So what were the negatives? The maps. And the lack of telephones. Except for the main tourist areas, the only maps available in those days were miserable half-inch to the mile jobs, which didn’t show green roads or boreens, let alone bridle paths, if such things existed.
After short treks in Ethiopia and the Peruvian Andes, however, I wanted to do a long-distance horseback ride, and this thousand-mile solo journey was it. Travelling with no fixed plans, I devised each day’s riding in Ireland according to the most alluring scenery, and there were frequent disappointments. Often I would try out a promising-looking track, for example, only to find that it ended at a farm, or the way was blocked by a wall or wire fence.
Initially, I turned back in these situations. But as I became more experienced and learned my Connemara ponies’ capabilities, I realised I could get past most obstacles. Mollie, the first pony, could jump, even with 40lb of saddlebags and a large woman on her back, and that made stone walls a negotiable barrier. I had to lift off the top stones, jump the lowered wall, and reassemble it exactly as I had found it.
Peggy, my smaller second pony, could also jump and would negotiate any obstacle to get back onto her favourite surface: tarmac. She was used to pulling a gig, and considered cross-country work an unfair test for a harness pony.
Why two ponies? Owing to the inadequate maps, I lost my way one day trying to follow an old green road across the Dingle Peninsula in Co Kerry, was forced to spend the night in the mountains, and found Mollie dead at the bottom of some cliffs the next day. Those are the bald facts. This is about the best of times, not the worst of times, though — so that’s enough.
Looking back at those halcyon days, perhaps the fact that there were so few telephones in Ireland was an advantage, although incredibly frustrating at the time. The internet, of course, had yet to be invented — so it was almost impossible to plan ahead. These days, each day’s ride and each night’s accommodation would be pre-planned and pre-arranged, but 37 years ago, I spent the evenings in my tent, or the occasional youth hostel or B&B, calculating the day’s mileage with a length of thread measured out in miles, and planning the following day’s route.
The marked-up map shows it curving and wiggling from my starting point in Cleggan, Co Galway, to Killary Harbour, then inland to Lough Mask House to visit horse expert John Daly for reassurance and advice, before turning south, keeping as close to the coast as possible, through Co Clare and across the Shannon, courtesy of a generous publican with a “large orange crate on wheels”, to Co Kerry and those fatal cliffs near Castlegregory.
The only criteria for each day was to keep the sea on my right and find a minor road or track, which crossed enticing brown contour lines or followed green river valleys. I was guided by map colours as much as by my compass, with diversions to the places of interest that my little guidebook deemed worthy of a visit.
Thus, I selected the Burren as one of the must-sees and it was, indeed, the highlight of the Mollie section, providing a combination of easy riding, fascinating botany and intriguing geology. There is now a popular national trail, The Burren Way, but in 1984, it was just a speculative route on the map. At the top of the first pass, the view was so perfect and the sun so warm, I decided to give Mollie a decent lunch break and use the information booklet I had picked up to learn more about the area.
I read that the Burren is a meeting place of flowers from northern and southern Europe, dating from the Ice Age when seeds from the north were trapped in the ice, which later scoured the limestone hills: “There is nowhere in Europe where Mediterranean and Arctic-alpine plants grow together in a similar way.” Early purple orchids were plentiful, and between the boulders, clumps of primroses, celandine, and delicate mountain avens brought splashes of yellow and cream, along with magenta from bloody cranesbill and the pure blue of gentians.
While I was looking for flowers, I wandered over the extraordinary limestone pavement running in fluted dimpled rows with deep gaps (grykes) separating them. From my lunch spot, I could see a track running between stone walls over the opposite hillside. A grove of stunted hazel trees partially blocked the entrance to the track, but Mollie and I pushed our way through and panted up the steep hill. An easily jumpable stone wall guarded the top of the pass, and after that, it was simply glorious — a wide grassy track where I could canter whenever I or Mollie felt like it.
Even at a gallop, she seemed able to ignore the bouncing saddlebags. Sometimes it was too beautiful to gallop: the sky was full of larks, flowers lined the track, and the grey domes of the Burren contrasted with the jagged blue hills of Kerry to the south, my next destination.
Kerry was an end and a new beginning. After the death of Mollie, I hired Peggy, a diminutive but tough little Connemara pony, who carried me the next 500 miles. We continued down the coast, exploring the Dingle Peninsula and the lovely Killarney region — which was blessed with decent maps. We stopped off at Derrynane House to fill the gaps in my knowledge about Irish history (we English are mostly woefully ignorant on the topic) and Daniel O’Connell. Then, it was over the hills to Cork and the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, before turning inland towards Co Waterford and my friend and fellow travel writer Dervla Murphy’s place in Lismore.
It was now August and the heather was in full bloom. I thought I would miss the changing views of the coast when I turned inland, but the mountains of Co Waterford and Tipperary provided me with some enduring memories, perhaps the best of which was a passage through the Comeragh Mountains known as The Gap. After my tribulations in the hills of Kerry, I had become wary of seductive routes through mountains, but I had been assured by a local stable owner that this should be passable on horseback. It turned out to be one of the loveliest bits of the whole trek. Peggy and I followed an indistinct trail through deep heather in full bloom, following a line of white stakes, with the chequerboard fields of Tipperary below and a dramatic gashed and gullied mountain range in subtle greens, greys and heather-mauve to the side. When we got to the top of the pass, there was no sign of the ‘hand of man’ in any direction, just mountains.
It was getting late and I wanted one more night in the wild before heading for civilisation and my dreaded goodbye to Peggy (I had hired her for an indefinite period of time, and arranged to leave her with a farmer friend of the owner near Limerick). I carried all the requirements for a night of wild camping in my American saddlebags: a small tent, a light sleeping bag, a Gaz stove, and enough dried food for one or two meals — and my little radio, so I could listen to The Archers and keep up with the news in Britain.
I found a flattish area with reasonable grass and a little stream (both essential for Peggy) and got the tent set up and Peggy tethered just before it began to pour. She stoically turned her back to the wind and waited it out, while I cooked my soup in the tent and planned the last section of my ride: a diversion to Lough Gur in Co Limerick and my final lesson in Irish history. I have since followed this up with a visit to the National Museum in Dublin and am profoundly impressed by the workmanship of those early Celtic metalsmiths, who created such unnecessarily beautiful objects some 3,000 years ago.
Revisiting that ride for my new book, A Connemara Journey, brings a surge of emotion, and the feeling of having gone full circle. Nearly four decades ago, slow travel was the only option in Ireland if on horseback. For more than 10 weeks, I gazed at the gradually changing views of cliffs and sea, heathery hills, or the tiny fields of small farms. I paused to identify seabirds from clifftops splashed pink from clumps of thrift, spent evenings listening to farmers talk about the challenges they faced in a stagnant economy, or sat outside my tent looking for shooting stars to the comforting sound of Mollie or Peggy cropping the grass.
These days, with improved roads and fancy visitors’ centres in the developed tourist sites, it would be very different. Still rewarding, of course, because this is Ireland, one of the most beautiful and hospitable countries in Europe, but slow travel has become Slow Travel — a conscious decision rather than the only choice. I was so lucky.
‘We’re not trying to save the world with Slow Cabins. It’s not something you’d prescribe in the future for being extremely stressed or burnt out. We’re trying to change people’s mindset to take a moment out and sort of get to know each other.”