Walking holidays, yes. Guided walks, sure. Even holding a map upside-down and frowning at the sky, check. All of these are familiar territory for me. But walking festivals (a long weekend walking and talking with locals and fellow walkers, followed by evenings in the pub with these new friends)? That was a new for my boots. Even the thought of them had me checking my laces were tied.
A festival for every level of fitness
It's hard to imagine a concept more suited to Ireland, with countryside wild enough to reward the walker yet easy enough to permit candid conversation. Chatting to strangers is a national pastime and the pubs are the envy of the world. Despite it being a natural progression, the concept has been in Ireland for less than 20 years.
But, oh, how it has mushroomed and there are now around 30 to 40 walking festivals across the whole island, varying in size but each catering to all levels of fitness.
Birth of the idea
The oldest, the Ballyhoura International Festival, based in Kilfinane in County Limerick, is the biggest. The idea, according to Jim Flynn from the Ballyhoura Bears Walking Club, came from a walk in 1994, which followed the Retreat of Gaelic Lord O’Sullivan Beare in 1602 as he passed through Ballyhoura.
“Local walkers invited other walking groups, and the idea of the festival was born. Now it stretches over the May bank holiday and attracts visitors from across the world. We had about six or seven hundred walkers from 26 countries this year,” shrugs Jim Flynn, with a touch of pride.
A Christopher Somerville, author and walking correspondent for UK newspaper, The Times, is a big, big fan of the festival, calling it: "one of the showpieces of Irish walking", and acclaiming the Ballyhoura Bears for their "well-earned reputation for combining hiking and craic [fun] to delectable effect."
They must be doing something right: "I'd say half of the visitors have done the festival before," smiles Jim.
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A special festival
Covering very different terrain for my walking boots, the Mourne International Walking Festival in June rustles up long walks, a high mountain route and low-level blanket bog. The sort of countryside "that's lovely on foot because you can see it. And you just can't appreciate it in a car," says Bernie Bogue of the Cooneen Ramblers in east Fermanagh.
Ian Reid from Cardiff has been stomping this festival for five years and says: "it's partly the splendour of the Mournes and the time of year that mark it out as something special, but it's also the other walkers. I'd give it 10 out of 10 for camaraderie and fun."
West Cork beauty
The West Cork version around Baltimore trumpets itself as the Walking Talking Festival, and it has its fans, too... from the other side of the world: Richard Tulloch, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, reports that his guide regaled them with "tales often funny, more often tragic, that are etched into this landscape," and when they stopped at a farm for home-made ice cream, the elderly farmer "unexpectedly burst into full-throated song," and sang the walkers a story of the famine. "Pure, spontaneous, unpretentious magic!"
Sounds about right. Now, where are my boots?