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Walk this way National Famine Way is an iconic journey from Strokestown to Dublin

The National Famine Way uncovers the beauty of off-road canal banks, bridges, boglands and sleepy hamlets

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Isabel by a sign for the National Famine Way.

Isabel by a sign for the National Famine Way.

Isabel by a sign for the National Famine Way.

Under a scorching sun we are drenched in sweat, longing for a cool drink and a bit of a rest. But the heat haze rises above the flat scrubby landscape.

Our location: Arizona? No, the Badlands of Co Longford, somewhere outside Abbeyshrule, records soaring over the Midlands during the summer heatwave.

Later Mullingar’s streets are almost empty, only the bravest sit outside at pavement tables because bars and cafes remain off limits inside due to ongoing Covid restrictions. Shaded by an umbrella advertising a famous beer brand, I sit across from a life sized sculpture of Joe Dolan, Westmeath’s favourite son, cast in bronze on Market Square. The showband pin-up is red hot to my touch and his memorial may melt as fast my 99 ice cream cone.

We walk the National Famine Way, an iconic journey starting in Strokestown Co Roscommon, following the Royal Canal, at its end passing the Famine statues on Dublin’s Eden Quay just before EPIC the Irish Emigration Museum where walkers receive a certificate to mark their achievement.

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A National Famine Way marker in Strokestown, Roscommon

A National Famine Way marker in Strokestown, Roscommon

A National Famine Way marker in Strokestown, Roscommon

A stop off at replica famine ship Jeanie Johnston nearby is a must do. At the height of the Great Irish Famine in May of 1847, twelve-year old Daniel Tighe was forced to walk 165km with 1,490 assisted emigrants from the Strokestown, Park Estate in County Roscommon along the Royal Canal to Custom House Quay in Dublin.

Their journey is marked by thirty pairs of bronze shoe sculptures ‘The Walk of the Shoes’.

It symbolises eviction, migration and the assisted emigration scheme enacted by an infamous landlord, Major Denis Mahon of Strokestown House who became the first prominent landlord in Ireland assassinated during the Great Famine for his inhumanity.

Two thirds of those on the walk were children. Miraculously all finished without any fatalities on their five day gruelling trek to Dublin but half of the Strokestown emigrants aboard the coffin ships would not reach Canada alive after their harrowing 46-day voyage.

The newest ‘camino’ trail - the Walk of the Shoes (National Famine Way) - officially launched last year has only come alive in 2021, linking Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands with the Ancient East.

Now walkers and cyclists are taking to these long distance trails in growing numbers, thanks to the arrival of the Royal Canal Greenway, that uncovers the beauty and history of numerous off road lush canal banks, bridges, restored lock keepers cottages, bog lands and sleepy hamlets.

The charming Co Roscommon village of Tarmonbarry and Cloondara, just over the Longford border, where the Royal Canal terminates at the Shannon are among the discoveries and so is Ballymahon, birthplace of Oliver Goldsmith and lovely cosy family run Cooney’s hotel and restaurant, centre of the small town’s universe.

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Cloondara Harbour in Longford

Cloondara Harbour in Longford

Cloondara Harbour in Longford

‘Dane’s Road ‘of oak planks going back to 148 BC making it the largest existing prehistoric trackway uncovered in Europe lies in the boglands of Corlea where there is a fascinating visitor centre just off our trail is another fantastic find.

My week long walk, averaging 20 km per day (including a memorable 39,000 steps on my 25 km stretch) starts disappointingly. Strokestown has the second widest street (after O’Connell Street) in Ireland and is also home to the National Famine Museum that briefly re-opened, only to close again until 2022 for renovations, right when staycation tourism was flagged.

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Isabel on the trail in Longwood

Isabel on the trail in Longwood

Isabel on the trail in Longwood

Hopeful that sufficient light clothing can see us through the heatwave ahead the walk from Strokestown follows small roads bounded by forestry where trenches alongside it are dug to prevent illegal dumping or camping. After 18 km we reach Tarmonbarry, part of the Mahon estate during the famine years. Only cyclists and the odd car or tractor passes.

Dilapidated cottages covered in ivy, often hidden by brambles and undergrowth are Co Roscommon’s grim past. Modern prosperous well -kept farmhouses are usually found nearby. A necklace of large flashy detached homes in an estate named ‘The Rookery’ is on a par with what you’d find in a well- heeled US suburb.

The river Shannon flows through Tarmonbarry and we soldier on, crossing the county boundary into Longford, ending our day at the Royal Canal among the cruise boat tourists who have flocked to Richmond Inn, a landmark spot with outdoor tables and a good bar menu.

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Kayaking near Castlerickard.

Kayaking near Castlerickard.

Kayaking near Castlerickard.

Enda McPartland, son of the Inn’s owner says “Cycling the Royal Canal and greenway has taken off and boat traffic is busy but we miss international tourists, especially Germans and French; it’s unfortunate the National Famine Way was launched on the eve of the Covid pandemic, hopefully it will become an important tourist draw for the home and foreign markets yet."

I genuinely believe it will! One anecdotal thing of note came as we were struggling along the long bog road outside Abbeyshrule when an angel driving a Toyota saloon stops: “Jump in, I’ll take you to Ballynacarrigy - too far to walk in this heat”; she pushes a bottle of cool water through the window of her car that we gratefully gulp. But we decide, maybe foolishly, to pass on the tempting lift and to keep on going. This, after all, is not just a holiday with a difference but a challenge of will too.

A benefit of the National Famine Way is that it can be taken on foot or by bike, mostly along the Royal Canal Greenway and with the OSI Trail map plus a Passport-guide (€10) stamped on all 27 stages along the way through Roscommon, Longford, Westmeath, Meath, Kildare, Fingal Dublin North and Dublin city.

Walkers/cyclists are given a ship ticket and information on one family in whose footsteps we follow making the trail especially meaningful. I am following widow Ann Murray (50) with nine family members including children aged 3 and 8. At one hundred and three miles long it is envisaged that many walkers and cyclists will wish to complete sections of the trail over time.

For many, it becomes a personal journey into our national history also providing a sense of who we are. That seems so relevant now following losses and lockdowns amid the curtailment of normal life over much of the pandemic. The passports are excellent guides, offering concise information on places of interest, dividing the route into stretches of achievable distances. In common with Camino walks, a long-distance walk like this is also about achievement and companionship, stories shared on the road, looking forward to satisfying hunger and thirst afterwards with friends and strangers. We all have that common love of the outdoors and being active.

Cork based Henry Dillane of Customised Walking Trips promised that we would finish our Portuguese Camino blister free and in good spirits a few years ago. He was right.

Having organised and led worldwide walking trips to over 30 countries, and a variety of Camino options the pandemic and closure of foreign travel inspired him to devise seven carefully selected customised routes exploring Ireland on foot in 2021.

“I chose the National Famine route because the terrain is flat; I always put safety first; the repeated lockdowns has left many of us less fit, including experienced walkers”, he points out.

In normal times accommodation can often be found close to the route but that was not the case whilst indoor hospitality remained shuttered and some hotels were closed altogether. Harry’s customised service involved taking clients to the nearest town and bringing them back to the route next morning to resume the walk.

Late deals

Bellinter House recently reopened its doors to guests, including the four-legged kind, and we are here for these kinds of accommodation changes!

With most of us spending more time at home, our pets have grown accustomed to the company, so Bellinter House is now facilitating dog-friendly stays in its luxury hotel in the heart of the lush Boyne Valley in Co Meath.

Dogs are welcome to stay, along with their humans, in the beautiful Stable Rooms, with vaulted beamed ceilings, bright airy spaces and open on to a peaceful courtyard. Dogs can enjoy long walks on the secluded and tranquil estate. Rooms start from €139 per night.

Visit bellinterhouse.com.

The Travel Department is not just about amazing city breaks and family holidays, they also specialise in active trips and there is a cracker coming up in October. Explore The Burren on a four-night walking tour along the Wild Atlantic Way. You'll be based in charming Lisdoonvarna but this trip will offer so much more.

Uncover The Burren's archaeological sites, see its magnificent rugged landscapes and learn more about its history. You'll have three guided walking days, including the Green Roads of The Burren, with packed lunches, and you'll also visit Doolin or take an optional walk along the Cliffs of Moher.

Departs October 7 and costs €599, including transfers to Lisdoonvarna, expert guides, and accommodation on half board basis.

See tdactiveholidays.com

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