A long but not over- chal­leng­ing out­ing of­fer­ing a gen­uine sense of es­cape

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE -

The Slieve Blooms, Co Laois

In past times, it seems, peo­ple rarely ven­tured into the Slieve Bloom Moun­tains. No heroic myths or tales of epic bat­tles em­anate from here. No great burial cairns adorn the high­est sum­mits. No Kevin or Fin­barr chanced this way to found a monas­tic set­tle­ment. In­suf­fi­cient sil­ver or gold ex­isted to ig­nite a min­ing boom. We can sur­mise, there­fore, that for most of hu­man his­tory the area re­mained a pris­tine wilder­ness; a lone­some realm of wolves and elks. And this re­mains one of the main at­trac­tions of ex­plor­ing the Blooms to­day: the sense of travers­ing an un­spoiled out­back.

Seek­ing my own out­back ex­pe­ri­ence, I set out from Mon­ick­new by fol­low­ing ar­rows for the Slieve Bloom Way. A green lane con­veyed me up­wards through mixed wood­lands above the Glen River to a for­est clear­ing where I crossed its ex­u­ber­ant head­wa­ters. Of­ten over- forested, the Blooms have some­times had me look­ing de­spair­ingly heav­en­wards from claus­tro­pho­bic, dense conifers and mim­ing Os­car Wilde “that lit­tle tent of blue which pris­on­ers call the sky”. Not here though, for cross­ing the south­ern shoul­der of Baun­reagh­cong Moun­tain I feel a real sense of spa­cious­ness with big skies above and green hills around.

Horse- rac­ing afi­ciona­dos might de­scribe the go­ing as “yield­ing” on the dog­leg track con­vey­ing me up Clar­nahinch Moun­tain, but at least it leads to the un­mis­tak­able pro­tu­ber­ance of the Stony Man. Prob­a­bly the best known land­mark in the Blooms, this per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal cairn was built as a marker when quar­ry­ing was an im­por­tant in- dus­try in the area. The Ridge of Ca­pard now beck­ons north- east­wards along its heather cloaked crest. Com­ing to a board­walk, it’s down­hill through a gate and soon af­ter I come upon the lachry­mose re­mains of an aban­doned cottage that once was the Clear fam­ily home­stead. The harsh­ness of past life here is re­called by lo­cal man, Tom Joyce, in his book Bladhma when he re­counts that in the big freeze of 1947, snow reached the eves of this cottage and neigh­bours had to res­cue the fam­ily by dig­ging them out.

A gravel track now leads to the bank of the in­fant River Bar­row which, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal mythol­ogy, rises in “the Well of Slieve Bloom” on Barna Moun­tain. If any­one dares to touch or even gaze upon these nascent wa­ters, the well will im­me­di­ately over­flow to in­un­date the lands be­low. Those liv­ing be­neath will, doubt­less, be re­lieved to learn that no­body in modern times has man­aged to pin­point this fa­bled foun­tain.

Fol­low­ing the Bar­row down­stream brings me past the re­mains of a mill to a foot­bridge lead­ing across the river to Tin­nahinch. Ini­tially, I fol­low the river­bank be­fore as­cend­ing through mixed wood­land to ar­rive at a for­est road­way. The way is west here with oc­ca­sional tan­ta­lis­ing vis­tas open­ing over the patch­work quilt of Ire­land’s cen­tral low­lands un­til I reach a board­walk giv­ing ac­cess to an area main­tained as a blan­ket bog re­serve. Be­yond is a pub­lic road, where – clever clogs that I am – I have pre- po­si­tioned my auto. Driv­ing away I con­clude the eastern Blooms are for those who en­joy a long but not over- chal­leng­ing back­coun­try out­ing of­fer­ing a gen­uine sense of es­cape.

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