Life

Tony Bailie's Take on Nature: A year of hiking in all five directions

The Lafcadio Hearn gardens in Tramore Co Waterford

ACCORDING to some scholars the ancient Irish believed that there were actually five directions – north, south east and west and 'the centre'.

Each direction had a particular attribute. In Old Irish the south was 'séis', which suggests design and is associated with music. The west was associated with knowledge, 'fis' in Old Irish.

Interestingly the Old Irish word used to describe the east is 'bláth' which means flower or blossom and is associated with prosperity which, given that the island's economic power house and wealthiest region is in and around Dublin, seems appropriate.

Even more interestingly, the main attribute for the north was 'cath', which means 'battle' or 'fight'.

The 'sacred' fifth direction was the centre and in Old Irish the word for 'middle' was Mide, which has given us the modern word for Meath, home to the River Boyne, Newgrange, Tara and Lough Crew, some of Ireland's best-known ancient sites.

Thinking back over the year just passed, I managed to climb or hike and, in one case, zone-out in each of the five directions in Ireland.

Lough Crew, in the 'middle', has long been a favourite trek and it is becoming increasingly popular, particularly during the summer months when it is open to the public and entrance is free.

It is worth visiting on the spring and autumn equinoxes when the rising sun, clouds permitting, sends a shaft of light into the back of this five-thousand-year-old burial mound, bathing the central chamber with its enigmatic rock drawings in an otherworldly glow.

At other times the short hike up to its summit rewards with views across much of the midlands of Ireland, to the Mournes in the north, the Wicklow Mountains to the south and the Irish sea to the east.

Out in the west, well the south-west to be exact, my highlight of the year was a very wet trek along the Old Kenmare Road in the mountains outside Killarney.

While many will climb the path that runs alongside Torc Waterfall, few venture onwards through the dense oak forest that runs between Torc and Mangerton mountains before opening out and into stunning mountain wilderness.

My surprise highlight in the north was a walk up Divis Mountain, which I have often looked up at but until last year never actually climbed. Within easy reach of Belfast city centre, you are soon in squelching bogland with truly panoramic views over the city below and the surrounding counties of Down and Antrim.

For the east it was a trek just last week alongside the twin lakes of Glendalough and into the Wicklow Mountains. Coming just two days after Christmas this was probably the most crowded route I undertook, with hundreds of hikers walking off the excess of festive dining and over-indulgence.

But there was enough space for everyone and the further you walk into the mountains the fewer people there are.

I went to the south to go into the ‘east’ and experience 'bláth', in the flowering sense of the word. Located in Tramore, Co Waterford, the Lafcadio Hearn Gardens tell the life story of an enigmatic 19th century Irish travel writer, novelist, journalist and orientalist.

They take you on a journey through his life in the tradition of the Japanese strolling garden through a landscape of trees and shrubs which defined the places where Hearn lived and wrote about – Greece, Ireland, America, Martinique in the French West Indies and finally Japan.

Reflecting on his own garden in Japan, Hearn wrote that "even plants and trees, rocks and stones, all shall enter into Nirvana", and the gardens that bear his name in Tramore have an oriental stillness that can only be found in the sound of one hand clapping.

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