Loving the Loop

“Are you really earthy and wholesome then?” a colleague asked me recently. I told her I was about 65% earthy, but reassured her that “I’m not one for eating placentas, though. I have my limits”. I guess the fact that I took two days and three nights to take on the 65kms Loop Head Cycleway in County Clare, is synonymous with my wishy washy green side. Eco warriors would have packed tents into panniers and cycled it in a day. Whereas I booked into three different accommodations, ate a lot more than lentils boiled up on a Calor gas, and finished it all off with a seaweed bath and a major pamper.

Looking North to rock stacks along North side of Loop Head Peninsula
Catherine on the Loop Head Cycle Way looking North towards Cliffs of Moher Photo: Catherine Mack

The Loop Head Cycleway starts and ends in Kilkee, also home to The Kilkee Thalassotherapy Centre, a seaweed bathhouse and treatment centre.  The Centre also has accommodation, so I booked in here for my last night, knowing  that if it poured the whole way round the Head, I would have that image to keep me going. The superbly helpful owner of the Centre, Eileen Mulcahy, not only allowed me to leave my car there, but also kindly arranged for a hired bike to be delivered. So, before I even straddled a saddle, I was already loving the Loop.

Amazing sunset at Loop Head lighthouse, looking back inland up the South side of the peninsula Photo: Catherine Mack
Amazing sunset at Loop Head lighthouse, looking back inland up the South side of the peninsula Photo: Catherine Mack

I set out along the North coast of the peninsula, my target for day one being the lighthouse at the tip, following a clifftop road, as magnificent as Moher at many points, but totally devoid of traffic.  After about 9kms of coastal cycling, I headed inland along gently undulating lanes as far as Cross, where I dropped my backpack at The Old School, an elegant conversion of a traditional schoolhouse which has been recently restored with love and pride by its owners (Tel:  + 353 (0) 65 6703666).

With a lighter load, I caught the sunset at the lighthouse, another 12kms from Cross following another quiet coastal path with some of the most incredible bays tucked away , such as at Bridges of Ross, a series of natural stone bridges sticking out into the sea.  My Loop love had been intensified by the fact that Ian Glendinning, owner of The Old School, had offered to pick me and my bike up at Keatings Pub in Kilbaha, just a couple of kilometres from the lighthouse, after dinner. Which was all too cool for school really.  Similarly, he dropped me back at the tip in the morning, so that I could continue where I left off, my School House packed lunch tucked into my pannier.

Bottlenose dolphins in Shannon Estuary off Loop Head  (Credit Tim Stenton 8 (2)
Bottlenose dolphins in Shannon Estuary off Loop Head (Credit Tim Stenton 8 (2)

It was a quick cycle along the calmer shores of the Shannon Estuary as far as Carrigaholt for more of a love in. I had booked in for an 11am dolphin watching outing and, within minutes on board Dolphinwatch’s boat Draíocht,   our brilliant skipper and guide, Geoff and Susanne Magee, had spotted some bottlenose beauties. For an hour and a half, they jumped and soared into the air, as all our hearts leapt in unison.

Pure Camping, Querrin, Loop Head. Photo: Pure Camping

My second night tapped into my 65% green side, without a doubt. A bell tent, with wood burning stove, awaited me at Pure Camping in Querrin, a further 8K up the coast. As did their home made sauna , a brilliant construction in one corner of the camping field which I crawled into through a small tunnel and,  when I was cooked through, I ran straight to bed and fell asleep to the soporific sounds of canvas blowing in the sea breeze.

My final cycle back to Kilkee was along tiny backroads which followed the wetlands of Poulnasherry Bay. This is a haven for birdlife, but Kilkee also has its own haven for human water lovers like me. The Pollack Holes are natural rock pools which you can swim in at low tide. I had put my togs in my bag just in case, as the Pollack Holes are not to be missed. “Just phone me when you are nearby, and I’ll run the seaweed bath for you”, Eileen had told me when I set off a couple of days earlier. Which I did, from the Diamond Rocks Café just beside the pools where other swimmers welcomed me to ‘the club’ and where I consumed a copious amount of choice carbs. From cake heaven to Bladderwrack bliss, my Loop was well and truly complete.

For more info on the Loop Head Cycleway see www.loophead.ie. An edited version of this article was first published in The Irish Times.

swimming at the Pollack Holes, Kilkee Photo: Catherine Mack
Swimming at the Pollack Holes, Kilkee Photo: Catherine Mack

It’s not every day you meet a Leprechaun Whisperer

Kevin Woods, The Leprechaun Whispereron Slieve Foye Photo: Catherine Mack
Kevin Woods, The Leprechaun Whisperer on Slieve Foye Photo: Catherine Mack

It’s not every day you meet a Leprechaun Whisperer. And I thought it would be hard to suppress cynical smirks when I did, but when Kevin Woods of Carlingford, County Louth shook my hand firmly, looked me in the eye and gave me one of those smiles which emitted instant kindness and warmth, I could only mirror this and show respect and openness back.

As Kevin (or McCoillte as he is sometimes called) and I walked up Slieve Foye mountain together, I found myself wanting to believe that this was, as he told me, “the only place in Ireland where Leprechauns live”, not just because the affable Kevin has seen three Leprechauns in his life on this mountain but because this is, for me, one of the most magical spots in my home country of Ireland. Located right on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the Cooley Mountain range on the southern side of Carlingford Lough looking straight out over this dividing piece of water to the Mountains of Mourne in the North, an invisible border going with the flow between them, this small town holds a wealth of natural and cultural heritage in its pocket. Any sense of divide is hidden here and long may it continue – starting with my respect for Kevin’s beliefs in Leprechauns.

Leprechauns don’t appear to everyone, according to Kevin, and indeed he shared many people’s cynicism twenty odd years ago when local publican PJ O’Hare found a small suit and collection of tiny bones up on the mountain, as well as a few gold coins. Doubting their origin, Wood decided to make the most of the ‘find’ and organised a Leprechaun Hunt in his capacity as Regional Tourism Chairman at the time. It worked and the hunters came in hoardes but, as if to warn him that there were too many people on the mountain, the Leprechauns then appeared to Kevin on a walk in the hills one day.

I asked Kevin what they looked like as we continued our hike up along the Slieve Foye Loop. “They look just as you might imagine them – like in the cartoons really. That is how they appear to me, because they are spirits. They are about 18 inches tall, have top hats, green jackets, trousers and shoes which are pointed or round and always with gold buckles. They were cobblers because they spent so much time dancing, and so they wear out their shoes – which is why they became cobblers’.

Photo: Catherine Mack
Photo: Catherine Mack

Kevin certainly had the gift of storytelling as we continued up further into the Cooley Mountain range, a landscape where myths abound. Myths which tell of Greek-like transformations from human to animal form such as Donn Cúailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley,  a human who had been turned into a bull and which then went on to become the focus of battles between Ulster and Connaught led by Queen Medb in these very mountains.

“I can see some sheep or goats grazing up there on the heathland “I said, soon to be corrected by Kevin who told me, quite nonchalantly, “One of those is the Ghost Horse of Mountain Park. There was a fella called Cocker Reilly – he was known as that because he was cock sure of everything. He used to come up by this part of the Mountain Park, passing a fairy mound every night. One night he relieved himself close to the fairy mound. When he woke up in the morning he couldn’t get out of bed, as he had two extra legs. They (the fairies) had turned him into a horse. He took off up into the hills and that’s who you can see there. You’ll often see him up there. ”

Kevin told these stories in such a matter of fact way that I just wanted to believe him. And so by the time we approached the Slate Rock, a massive ramp of granite which emerges from the hillside, and the place where he first saw the Leprechauns, I asked him if he thinks I will see them.  “It’s up to you, if you have the gift”, he said, “I am not sure whether you have the gift or not’. So, keeping my eyes and mind well open, Kevin went on to tell me more about his gift, which allows him not only to communicate with the Leprechaun’s chief elder, Corrig, learn about their history and lifestyles, but also brings him the ability to bring happiness to others and be happy for the rest of his life.

Carlingford and Slieve Foye Photo: Catherine Mack
Carlingford and Slieve Foye Photo: Catherine Mack

One thing that makes me happy, however, is that Kevin spent nineteen years campaigning for this part of the Slieve Foye Mountain to be officially protected by the European Union, under the EU Habitats Directive to protect flora, fauna and wild animals. He won and in 2009, they received protection, with big brown EU signs up on the hill to prove it. I asked him how he managed to persuade the EU to protect something that was not actually in the physical world, and he said that the artefacts of the clothes and bones were proof enough.

As well as that,  the Leprechaun Hunt still happens in April every year which is “not to make money”, Kevin tells me, “but because for every person who stops believing, another Leprechaun spirit dies and so the Hunt increases the likelihood of more people believing.” (For more details see thelastleprechaunsofireland.com). As we headed back down the mountain towards Carlingford  town, with sadly no Leprechaun sightings to record this time, and headed for a drink in O’Hares, I couldn’t help wondering if I would be laughed at in the pub as they saw me walking in with Kevin, knowing that another tourist was ‘being had’. But no, we were met with joviality rather than jeers and welcomed in to this lovely local gathering spot. This gift of spreading happiness must be working, I thought to myself. I may have been tricked, or I might not have the gift, but there are few belief systems which make me smile as much as this one. And if Kevin’s gift is to continue spreading the word and happiness with it, who am I to argue? And anyway,  I don’t want a dead Leprechaun on my conscience. To be sure, to be sure.

Catherine cycling on Carlingford Lough near Greenore Photo Shay Larkin
Catherine cycling on Carlingford Lough near Greenore Photo Shay Larkin

For more information on The Last Leprechauns in Ireland, see thelastleprechaunsofireland.com. And click here for a podcast of Catherine’s walk and talk with the Leprechaun Whisperer. Or to go exploring the hiking trails of the Cooley Mountains see walkni.com and irishtrails.ie. In particular, check out The Tain Walking Festival 1-3 March 2103(carlingford.ie and discoverireland.com)