Ireland is full of passionate, unique characters. Taking pride in their country, their landscapes, their heritage, their myths and history, explore Ireland through the eyes of a few of its fascinating characters as they proudly share their passions and interests with visitors when travelling with Wilderness Ireland as means of venturing off tourist stomp ground.
This is the first part – keep a watch for our next article in the series!
Hiking prehistoric landscapes to peel back the layers of time.
One such person is renowned archeologist Michael Gibbons. Born in a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) community, his mother was a local historian who handed down oral stories and his father worked abroad. Between the two of them, he learned not to take the landscape for granted, and he spent his childhood exploring the landscapes of his hometown – all of which led to him becoming an archeologist. He’s worked on digs and in antiquities museums all over the world – London, Greece, Jerusalem, Turkey – but it’s always Ireland that pulls him back.
Michael Gibbons spots the sites that no one else notices. “My goal is to show people a long lens view of the Irish landscapes,” Gibbons explains. “On a single hike, I take visitors through prehistoric landscapes, ancient monuments, Neolithic tombs, iron age burials and forts, and an abandoned village – bringing the landscapes alive and active. It is an immersive and fun learning experience – and that’s just one hike!” he says, as he shares with visitors his gift for being able to read the long history of a landscape simply by hiking through it.
Once Michael Gibbons gets started talking about his passion for archeology, there’s no stopping him – and there’s no telling what you may learn. No matter how many times you might have seen a landscape, Michael Gibbons will change the way that you see it. No dry archaeology – he describes the ancient civilisations and why they might have decided to carry dozens of boulders to the top of a hill and arrange them in a particular way. And it’s not just the ancient people that bring an academic sparkle to his eye – Gibbons also studies holy landscapes such as pilgrimages, holy wells, and sacred mountains – and notably the all-important pilgrimage trails that lead to them.
Another interest is studying Irish mythology to interpret landscapes. One great example are the beds of Diarmuit and Grainne – Diarmuit was a warrior in the Fianna, Grainne was his wife. They eloped, which turned out to be a bad idea as they were chased all over Ireland – wherever they slept was called a bed. There are hundreds of places called beds all over Ireland! In fact, often these are neolithic tombs. So through Irish folklore, which goes back about 1500 years, we can study even older Irish history.
Anglicisation of Irish names saved the names into landscapes here, he claims. Superstition, too, preserved the landscapes, the Irish heritage. “I was up on Inishmann yesterday,” Gibbons recounts. “And one of the clients was asking about fairies, if I have ever seen one? Of course I hadn’t, but I could show her the fairy forts and the ancient settlements that constituted their houses. Throughout history, and even today, you know that farmers won’t go near or touch them, since people are still wary. Fields will be ploughed around these fairy forts, roads built not just along natural obstructions, but also to avoid destroying the fairy forts.”
Standing at the top of the world in northwestern Ireland
Sometimes it is the landscapes themselves that create such a magnetic pull, inspiring the local characters’ passions.
The wilds of Donegal are composed of desolate but beautiful landscapes – sweeping valleys and hidden glens, rugged mountains, idyllic castles and jagged coastlines. Bogs and villages are left to their own devices, and the Gaeltacht communities still have a strong hold.
Donegal is a county of rough headlands, sheer cliffs and towering sea stacks jutting dramatically from the swirling Atlantic. It is this arena that is Donegal adventurer Iain Miller’s stomping ground.
Miller has spent the last 30 years exploring the wild coasts and cliffs of Donegal. He has made the first free solo of sea stack Cnoc na Mara as well as the first ascent of Tormore Island, Ireland’s highest sea stack. A complex journey involving hillwalking, mountaineering, rock climbing, open sea kayaking, ocean swimming, recreational scuba diving and in general having fun, Miller takes his passion for adventure and exploration to the extreme. So far, he is the only sea stack climbing guide in Ireland.
“Imagine descending 850 feet of sea cliffs to arrive at the outstandingly beautiful storm beaches in the most remote and atmospheric locations in Ireland,” Miller explains, a twinkle in his eye as he paints the scene. “We then launch from the shore to cross open ocean to land at the base of towering monsters of immaculate rock. We climb these columns of rock to arrive atop pristine pinpoint summits far from anywhere in the real world.”
“Surrounded by ocean waves and vast horizons dotted with swooping fulmars, diving dolphins and the odd basking shark or whale while standing on a pinpoint summit 350 feet above the ocean, half a mile from the nearest point of land and nearly 15 miles from the nearest main road is a truly spiritual experience.”
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