Secret Ireland: The Dublin Mountains
Pól Ó Conghaile dons his hiking boots and heads for the hills of our capital city.
The mighty mountain meal
After hiking and biking through the Dublin Mountains, I've drummed up a big appetite, and a braised lamb shank flanked with a posse of spuds and vegetables is just the thing to slake it. It's one of several hot mains on the lunchtime menu at Johnnie Fox's Pub.
The pub, claiming to be Ireland's highest, is no hidden gem -- a gallery of photographs celebrates visitors ranging from Mary Robinson to the cast of 'Jackass', and the interiors must have coaxed a tear from many's the Irish American eye.
Think blazing turf fires, stuffed foxes, vintage phone booths, old signposts and ... erm, an antique 'baby toilet'. But something in the cheery nature of it all discourages cynicism. Maybe it's the waitress, who seems to enjoys her job, or maybe it's the menu crammed with open sambos, creamy chowder and juicy mountain steaks.
My lamb shank is the size of a fist, swimming in gravy, with a dollop of spuds and veg on the side. For €13.95, it fills the gap, and sets me up for the afternoon.
Details: Glencullen, Co Dublin. Tel: 01-295 5647; jfp.ie.
The historical hike
The landscape around Blessington was changed forever in 1939, when the Liffey and King's River valleys were flooded to facilitate the Poulaphouca dam and hydroelectric station.
That's why hooking up with Paul Ashmore of the Avon Rí adventure centre proves as much a history lesson as an adrenaline rush.
On a twilight kayak, we find the top of an old mill poking through the surface of the reservoir -- an old bone from the former landscape.
As the sun drops, and the lights of Dublin glow in the distance, we swap our paddles for head torches and hiking boots.
A night walk reveals forgotten roads, the ominous outline of Burgage Castle and, after a cracking of twigs, the dashing shadow of a Sika deer.
Details: Activities from €25pp. Tel: 045 900670; avonri.com.
The original celebrity getaway
From the 1798 Rebellion to hilltop ghost stories and movies such as 'Braveheart' and 'Michael Collins', the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains have never been short on escapade. No single building embodies the landscape's romance and intrigue, however, quite like Russborough House.
Dating from the 1740s, the former home of Sir Alfred and Lady Beit is a Palladian peach notorious for two brutal art heists carried out by Rose Dugdale and Martin Cahill.
Gazing at a Goya portrait that previously hung in her claret-coloured saloon, Lady Beit once remarked: "That painting means a great deal to me for two reasons. Alfred was standing beneath it when he proposed to me, and we were tied up under it during the Dugdale raid."
More recently, Russborough was the scene of a remarkable discovery when a trove of old film and photographs was unearthed in its basement. An exhibition of these, along with a tour of the house, proves a fascinating insight into the lives of Ireland's original celebrity couple, and a Blessington bolthole that once hosted guests like Mick Jagger and Fred Astaire.
Details: €10pp; group visits by appointment in winter. Tel: 045 865239; russboroughhouse.ie.
The river drive
The R115 from Rathfarnham was built by the British Army in the early 1800s to make the Dublin Mountains (and the rebels hiding there) a little more accessible.
Today, the old military road makes for one of the most desolate, and striking, drives in Ireland.
Just before the Sally Gap, watch out for a little stone bridge with a trickle of water running underneath -- after a journey of some 135km, this little stream will career through the capital as the River Liffey.
Its source is almost hidden by wispy grass and squelching bog.
Details: See discoverireland.ie/ dublinsdoorstep.
The forest fright
It's hard to separate fact from fiction at Dublin's Hell Fire Club. Arriving at this hulking, grey lump of a lodge on Montpelier Hill, I find three men exploring and taking pictures. If the stickers on their jeep are to believed, they are paranormal investigators.
The building itself was originally erected as a shooting lodge in the 1700s by William Connolly, a speaker in the Irish House of Commons. Beyond that, the waters muddy -- but ribald tales of debauchery, satanic rituals, and the odd visit by Uncle Nick himself, are rife.
Perhaps due to these stories, and the fact that Connolly reputedly destroyed an ancient cairn when building his bolthole, the Hell Fire Club feels a strangely forbidding place. It's said that some dogs won't go near it -- though not having a mutt, I can't back that one up.
Stepping into the clammy interior, I find several murky rooms, a stairway, chimneys snaking into the stony roof, and the inevitable broken glass and graffiti. Despite its name, views over the city skyline are only heavenly.
Details: Take the R115 towards Glencullen. See dublinmountains.ie.
The bone-rattling bike trail
"This stretch is brilliant. It's like a rollercoaster," says Niall Davis, eyeing up the final kilometre or so of single track on Ireland's newest mountain bike trail. "Ready?"
The Ticknock loop is short and sweet -- barely 8km in length from start to finish -- but some of the nips and tucks (especially the angled hairpin bends, or 'berms' as bikers call them) rival the best in the country. Most bikers will approach Ticknock as a loop to be repeated over and again.
It's worth it, though. Breaking free of the tree cover, the views over Dublin City and its coastline are sensational. Further along, I can see south past the old Lead Mines chimney in Shankill, the Sugarloaf, and even a zig-zagging stretch of the Wicklow Way.
On a good day, says Niall -- his company, biking.ie, can arrange lessons and deliver hire bikes to Ticknock and the nearby trails at Ballinastoe -- you can even see Wales.
Within an hour we're back at the car park. I'm caked in muck, there's a spray of dirt up the back of my jacket, and my hands are throbbing -- but I'm buzzing.
Details: €30 for bike rental. Tel: 083 414 7627; biking.ie.
The green gateway
The Wicklow Way is such an iconic trail, it's hard to believe it was first inaugurated just 30 years ago -- by JB Malone, the father of Irish hill walking.
If you don't fancy the full 127km there are other options -- not least Marlay Park, where a chunky granite slab marks the trail's official starting point.
When I visit, the gateway to the Dublin Mountains is jammed with joggers, buggy pushers and dog walkers.
The park radiates outwards from a rather dull Georgian house, and there's no shortage of things to do -- from the new off-leash area for dogs to the Saturday Farmer's Market.
After a short stroll around the walled gardens, I pop into the café, where a toastie and Americano are on special at €6 -- just the ticket to take the edge off the winter chill.
Details: 9am-5pm (November-January). Rathfarnham, Co Dublin. See dlrcoco.ie/Parks.
The overnight suggestion
Where do the Dublin Mountains end and the Wicklow Mountains begin? Kippure Estate is as good a bet as any.
"We have a Wicklow postal address but a Dublin phone number," says Magdalena Seifert of a wilderness getaway where anyone can escape to play Robin Hood.
Groups will get the most out of this place. When I visit, red-helmeted Transition Year students are negotiating the aerial trekking course and monster swing.
Orienteering, archery and climbing are all options on a programme that can be tweaked to cater for everything from office outings to hen parties (who may be tempted by a chocolate treasure hunt). There's an on-site bar, too.
Accommodation is fairly basic -- a range of dorm beds and terraced holiday cottages that have seen better days -- but the location is superb.
A young River Liffey gushes past the outer edges of Wicklow National Park -- and, surprisingly, it's all just 20 minutes from Tallaght.
Details: Two-bed houses (sleeping six) from €165 per night. Tel: 01-458 2889; kippure.com.