Limerick, Dublin, Bologna: Tony’s Story

Hill Walking, The Burren

Tony (second from left) in his element.

I was born in Limerick city a few decades ago. I am quite proud of my birth place. My full name is Anthony Gerard Martin John Kirby. My father was extravagant when it came to naming me. His own name was Alf and I remember him being described as a “charismatic insurance salesman” in a book on the life of actor Richard Harris. My father passed away in 1977. My mother did likewise two and a half years ago at the age of 99 .
I studied French and English literature in University College Dublin in the late 1970s. I graduated without distinction but the education did give me an enduring love for words and languages. Whilst in college I happened to sit a civil service exam. I remember meeting the comic genius, the late Dermot Morgan, in the exam hall that day. He was a good friend of my cousin. I got the call to work for the state after I left college. I became a public servant. Morgan didn’t. Sometime later he became Father Ted in the eponymous and wildly successful TV comedy series.
Thankfully my public service did not stretch to licking envelopes or asking people their mothers’ maiden name . However, the job did not enthrall me either.  I finally invoked an escape clause and made good for Italy. A five year long sabbatical. I taught English as a foreign language in the medieval city of Bologna. I also spent one sublime summer in the city of Matera – a world UNESCO heritage site. Five years is the career break limit so I opted for the Irish public service again when the sabbatical expired. I returned to Dublin in 1997. I still miss Italia.
DUBLIN AGAIN
On my return to Ireland, Italian friends would visit on occasion. My visitors were keen to learn of Irish history and heritage and I was glad to guide them around town and share information with them. Therefrom came the idea of guided walking tours of Dublin city on foot in Italiano. My life as a walking tourism operator had begun. Extremely modest beginnings – I took occasional half days from the government job in high season to run the tiny enterprise. However, my love for the life as a cicerone was born. Around 2000 I met a woman called Eimer. We started a story. After a while she proposed a new life in the west of Ireland. I was to take my second and last career break from the public service.

Burren Wall, Autumn Colours
THE BURREN
We came to County Clare for the music but we stayed for lots of other reasons as well. I made a slow, uncertain start to life in the west without my permanent, pensionable job. However, I finally drummed up the confidence to launch a small rural business, Heart of Burren Walks. I became a full-time walking tourism operator. Eimer and I spent a month on the Fanore coast when we arrived in Clare. That was followed by a couple of years in the Burren interior, in the hills near the village of Carran. Home for the last nine years has been Kilnaboy. It is situated in the south-east of the Burren. I have the good fortune that the Burren National Park is located in Kilnaboy. It is one of only six National Parks in the Republic of Ireland and is magnificent walking country.
My working year extends largely from April to September. Thankfully May to August are four very busy months. April and September are so called “shoulder months”. A longer working year would be more attractive financially but might drain my energy levels. So I am quite happy with the shorter year as I can give it my very best shot.
The job is quite a privilege. My workplace is the outdoors in the Burren – a region of austere and natural beauty which is exceedingly rich in heritage.  Moreover, I meet people from all over the planet – a truly cosmopolitan job even though there is no foreign travel involved. Finally, the most exciting aspect of the work is the journey for knowledge i.e. learning new things. There is every discipline on the Burren hills from Archaeology to Zoology. It is a library without end, amen. It  is pure exciting any time I learn new things about the landscape. The jigsaw will never be complete but the thrill is joining pieces together from time to time. To paraphrase the outstanding contemporary Irish poet Thomas Kinsella – I read the landscape with what grace I can/Not young, and not renewable, but man.
HERE AND NOW
My main interest in the region is the holy wells, sacred sites and pilgrim paths.  The Burren is a very rich penitential landscape and a lot of the archaeology of pilgrimage remains intact. I have written one book “The Burren and the Aran Islands A Walking Guide” (Collins Press ; 2009). A revised edition reached the shops this August.
Eimer and I have two sons now. They are Seanán Thokozani (7 years) and Oisín Alfonso (3 years). Eimer lived in Malawi for three years. Thokozani means “we thank you” in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s two official languages. Oisín’s second name is Alfonso as form of homage to his grand dad, the charismatic insurance salesman he never met.

FOOTNOTES
1)       Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in the north of Italy. Matera is in the Basilicata region in the south of the country
2)      Italy has 50 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – more than any other country in the world. There are two sites in the Republic of Ireland – Sceilig Mhichíl (Skellig Michael), County Kerry and Brú Na Bóinne (archaeological ensemble on the river Boyne), County Meath
3)     Cicerone – a person who conducts and informs sightseers ; a tour guide. Origin – after Cicero alluding to his eloquence and erudition.
4)     The Republic of Ireland’s five other National Parks are Connemara, Wicklow, Glenveagh (Donegal), Killarney and Ballycroy (Mayo).
5)     Thomas Kinsella, poet, was born in 1928. “The integrity of his remarkable career is confirmed in the two sides of his work, the translations from the Irish language and the significant and singular achievement of his own poetry.” Maurice Harmon, Professor Emeritus, Anglo-Irish Literature, U.C.D. The Collected Poems 1956-1994 by Thomas Kinsella is published in the series Oxford Poets.
6)    Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa”. Malawian English is the country’s second official language

A Winter Solstice Day in the Burren

Clearing Fog, Mullagh More

Winter Solstice Day 2012

Over the years it had become a tradition for me to spend the winter solstice day in the Burren. The atmosphere on those dark midwinter days is quite special in the Burren. It is almost as if the landscape itself is taking a rest before the days grow longer again and the busy spring time arrives.
Unfortunately I had missed those yearly trips for the past two years so I was determined to make it this year. In addition Tony has lined up a few new stories for this blog, all that is missing are some images.

Eagle's Rock

The cliffs of  Eagle’s Rock

I started the day at Eagle’s Rock. The cliffs were shrouded in mist and fog, it was near calm and the sun tried to make an appearance through the clouds hanging over Turloughmore Mountain to the south-east. The scene was painted in the warm tones of a Burren winter: The yellow of the grasses, the rich brown of the bracken, the brownish grey of the hazel and in between the skeletal figures of lone ash trees and dark grey, almost black, stretches of limestone pavement.

Feral Goats (Capra Hircus)

Feral Goats

Rusty Back Fern (Ceterach officinarum)

Keeping it up during the winter: Rusty Back Fern

As so often I lost track of time between walking, watching and making a few images. I spent quite a while with a group of feral goats, me watching them, them watching me. These goats are descendants of farm animals possibly dating back to neolithic times. Today they are the gardeners of the Burren, keeping shrubs and other vegetation down and so making it possible for the Burren wildflowers to thrive.
The peace unfortunately was broken by people walking their dog. The dog wasn’t on a leash so it wasn’t all that surprising what happened next: Dog chasing the goats. I spare you any of my thoughts on that. All I will say is that I don’t blame the dog.
So I walked on in the footsteps of the goats across the limestone pavement and through the hazel scrub. In the end I got totally sidetracked and by the time I was back at the car it was way past midday.

Eagle's Rock

Eagle’s Rock, hazel scrub and ash tree

Burren National Park

Flooded hazel forest

A perfect midwinter day but unfortunately the images for Tony’s stories have to wait another while (sorry Tony…).

Tony and myself wish you all a very happy Christmas and a good start into the new year. See you on the other side.

Images & text: Carsten Krieger

KNOCKAUNROE TURLOUGH WALKING TRAIL

Burren Forest

The hazel woodland in summer

Orange Route start/finish: Gortlecka Cross Roads, Burren National Park, Kilnaboy.
Description: Way marked trail with orange arrows suitable for most levels of fitness. Highlights include a turlough, mature ash/hazel woodland, flower-rich grasslands and some fine views of the National Park’s iconic hill, Mullaghmore.
Distance 1.3 km (0.8 mile).
Map: The Burren – a two inch map of the uplands of north-west Clare. Folding Landscapes. Scale 1:31680 or Discovery Series Map No 51. Ordnance Survey of Ireland, 1:50 000

Common Twayblade (Listera ovata) and Common Spotted Orchid (Dact

Orchids in the ‘flower-rich grassland’

The first two fields you walk through are very rich and diverse in wildflower species and are defined as flower-rich grasslands. Horses and ponies graze in the fields in winter thus preventing the encroachment of the surrounding hazel woodland. The horses and ponies are an uncommon sight in the hills in winter as it is primarily cattle which are transferred to altitude from November to April each year. Hay may be saved on occasion in these meadows but only after the flowers have gone to seed. The fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) and the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) are two of the most spectacular flowers here in summer with their remarkable exercises in insect mimicry.

On leaving the second field you may notice a quarry – a reminder of the abandoned National Park Visitor Centre and car park project of the 1990s. Proceed along a path through woodland and pass through a metal gate into grasslands. 
If you look north-west here you will get a striking view of the iconic Mullaghmore hill. The great expanses of limestone pavement on the hill have been exposed by glaciation and over-exuberant farming in pre-history. It is ironic that the wealth of geology, flora and archaeology in the region are in part due to ancient “agri-vandalism”. The Burren is a highly paradoxical landscape brilliantly summarized in the cartographer/essayist Tim Robinson’s words “it’s (the Burren’s) austere beauty is the result of millennia of abuse”.

You enter mature hazel/ash woodland which is home to such mammals as badgers, red squirrels and pine martens. There are an estimated 70,000 badgers in Ireland. The animal’s feeding behaviour is very similar to that of the badger in Spain and Italy. Mammalians believe the badger was introduced to Ireland by prehistoric farming communities migrating northwards via the Bay of Biscay. 
The pine marten is Ireland’s most elusive land mammal. It is largely nocturnal. The marten population plummeted during the notorious 17th century deforestation program. However, its numbers are on the rise again in the west of Ireland.

Forest Path, Winter

The path through the hazel woodland in winter

You will reach a clearing in the woodland on your left hand side. In summer it may be recognizable as a dry depression with a very interesting mix of aquatic plants including purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), water mint (Mentha aquatica) and mudwort (Limosella aquatica). The depression fills with water in periods of high rainfall, (mainly winter). Groundwater wells up from below and a temporary lake (Knockaunroe turlough) is formed. Scarce plants nationally such as shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) and purgative buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) prosper at the turlough margins. Dragonflies and damselflies are quite common around turloughs. Ireland is home to 13 dragonfly and 11 damselfly species. Dragonflies are much faster in flight than damselflies.

You soon re-enter the woodland. Almost all the woodland along the trail was coppiced in the past. The long straight shoots of hazel are evidence of the ancient tradition.
 Coppicing is a sustainable method of woodland management which in Ireland’s case dates back to the Neolithic farmers (4000-2400 B.C.). The method exploits the ability of many species of trees to grow new shoots from their stump if cut down. Nearly all broadleaf trees will grow back when coppiced. Ash and hazel grow back very vigorously.

Coppicing was a thriving industry in the Burren in the past – producing slim poles for fencing, charcoal, thatching rods, walking sticks, stakes for hedge laying, firewood and much, much more. It fell out of fashion here in the 20th century because of labour costs and cheaper imports.

Forest Floor, The Burren

Forest floor in early spring

The Burren mosaic of limestone pavement and thin soil is evolving in to woodland because of lack of human pressure i.e. the decline of two traditional economic activities – upland farming in winter and coppicing.

The trail opens out onto species rich-grasslands. Devil’s bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) blooms in great profusion in late summer/early autumn. Its tall, purple flower heads make for a wonderful spectacle. Mullaghmore comes in to view again as you land back at the trailhead.

CONCLUSION

The orange trail is short and does not feature the region’s iconic limestone pavement. However, it is very rewarding as high points include a rare eco-system in Knockaunroe turlough and an outstanding example of mature, native woodland. Another bonus is that the trail is one of the least trafficked in the region. Happy feet!

Text: Tony Kirby / Images: Carsten Krieger