Take on Nature: A walk out of modern Ireland and into our ancient past

The Slievenaslat Walk Trail in Castlewellan Forest Park

WHILE Ireland suffered centuries of deforestation, we are fortunate that in more recent years there has been considerable effort to re-establish our woodlands.

From small-scale projects of just a few dozen trees to bigger community projects, as well as local, regional and national government, tree-planting is now widespread.

However, this is not a recent phenomenon driven by a growing realisation that the loss of woodlands on a global scale is contributing to our climate crisis. Those who planted some of our most spectacular woodlands may not have been aware of the holistic relationship between how we treat our environment and the future of the planet, but they have left us a superb legacy.

Many of these woodlands were planted on the estates of wealthy landowners and perhaps they had more care for collecting exotic species than fellow human beings. Never the less, as most were planted hundreds of years ago, they have now reached full maturity, with many now open to the wider public to explore.

Castlewellan Forst Park in Co Down has kilometres of trails around a lake and steeper paths that run up into hilly land. It is also home to the the National Arboretum located in the walled Annesley Garden, which dates from 1740. As well as native species there are trees and shrubs from around the world.

I actually went last week to see if I could hear a cuckoo, which a friend told me had been calling there, but unfortunately I chose one of those days when the rain seemed to tumble out of the sky rather than fall and the cuckoos along with all the other birds clearly decided to lie low.

Despite this, there is something ethereal about walking under a canopy of dense woodland as the sound of the rain crackles through the leaves and branches and the surface of the lake dances under the downpour.

Another favourite forest walk is at Slieve Gullion in neighbouring Co Armagh, which has the advantage of also opening out on a mountain. The coniferous woodland rings the lower slopes and for a full day's treking you can start at the The Slieve Gullion Courtyard and if you are lucky spot red squirrels on your way up.

There are adventure playgrounds for kids and themed walks. Those who do not fancy a full day's trekking can drive up through the forest to a car park, which in itself offers stunning views, before hiking up a short, sharp climb to the summit with one of the most stunning views in Ireland.

The region has a rich tradition of folklore and is associated with legends of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Cuchulainn. On top of Slieve Gullion is the the Calliagh Berra's House, the highest surviving passage tomb in Ireland.

Glendalough, south of Dublin, combines woodland walks, monastic history and is a gateway into the Wicklow Mountains. The monastic settlements were founded by St Kevin in the sixth century and it was an important ecclesiastical site for the next 600 years.

It is also home to an iconic cloigtheach (bell tower), which was also used to shelter monks and the monastery's valuables from attack by Vikings.

But nothing can beat the oak woodlands in Killarney National Park which are remnants of the huge forests which once covered all of Ireland. To walk through these, particularly those on the Old Kenmare Road and along the lower slopes of Torc Mountain, with the sound of a river cascading over mountain rock, is to walk out of modern Ireland and into our ancient past.

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