Over three quarters of a million overseas visitors are engaging in walking and hillwalking during their sojourn in Ireland. It is by far the most popular outdoor activity among overseas tourists to Ireland. While Mainland Europe accounts over half of those numbers, Britain and North America are discovering the many hillwalking and walking festivals all across Ireland.
Hillwalking is for sturdy, experienced walkers and given the sudden mists that cover Irish peaks it is always wise to take a guide if you are not local to an area. Luckily, there are many festivals catering for just this sort of walker. The northern part of the country has especially embraced this concept. In January hardy souls can join the Sperrintrekkers in the hills that border counties Tyrone and Derry. The Mourne Mountains in County Down hosted an international hillwalking festival in June 2014. Fermanagh hosts a walking festival in the autumn.
In the Republic of Ireland each Easter the North Leitrim Glens hosts a walking festival in the hills that straddle North Leitrim, South Fermanagh and North Sligo. The Slieve Bloom and Slieve League and Slieve an Iarainn all draw walkers, as do the points further south like Ballyhoura.
There are also Challenge Walks, although these are mainly attractive to Irish residents. This might be a sponsored walk of a few kilometres, raising funds for local and national charities. Or you could really go all out and participate in the Connaught Five Peaks Challenge that raises money for the Special Olympics. This involves participants scaling Ben Bulben in Sligo, Truskmore that straddles counties Leitrim and Sligo, Croagh Patrick and Nephin in Mayo and Diamond Hill in Galway in two days.
But if you are more of a stroller than a strider, take heart! There are guided heritage walks that are more about looking and learning than power walking. The village of Tydavnet in Monaghan has hosted a ‘Boots and Bogs’ walking event that offers participants to learn about the rich variety of plant life that is supported in an Irish bog. The Cavan Walking Festival each May includes walks for all levels of experience and ability.
There are now spiritual themed Pilgrimage Walks in Ireland, too. There is a St. Patrick’s Way that wends around Northern Ireland. There is also a St. Brigid’s Way that begins in Faughart in County Louth and ends in Kildare via the Hill of Tara.
Virtually every county in Ireland has a way marked ‘Way’ along the scenic backwaters of their rural hinterland. Cities like Dublin offer hours of urban pavement pounding as you sightsee; but you can also take brisk walks by the beach in Sandycove and fill your lungs with salt air.
When you are planning your itinerary for your Irish tour, do check out the locality you will visit for festivals. Walking festivals abound, but often local festivals will include a guided walk that will enrich your understanding of that particular place.
There is no better way to get to know a place than on foot. So pack a stout pair of walking shoes. You will probably find your own blackthorn walking stick here in Ireland. For a shillelagh has become synonymous with Irish walking stick.