Sheila the sheepdog came grinning up to us as we put on our boots outside the Sliabh Beagh Hotel. ‘She’s not long back from maternity leave,’ Paddy Sherry told us, ‘but she’ll be coming with us.’ Was she his? ‘Ah, no,’ said Paddy, ‘but she won’t let anyone leave her out of a walk.’
A true word. Sheila proved an excellent leader, guiding us unerringly across the squashy southern skirts of Sliabh Beagh, the low mountain of damp blanket bogs and hollows that rises where three counties meet – Fermanagh, Tyrone, and Monaghan where the Tra Walk is set. Sheila had little to say for herself. The same couldn’t be said of Paddy Sherry, a man who rejoices in introducing walkers to the hidden crannies of his native country, and isn’t afraid to share its myths, geology, history and wildlife delights with all comers. Paddy and others in the local community work like Trojans to bring life and a bit of prosperity to their often disregarded area – everything from building their own Sliabh Beagh Hotel and Tourism Centre (the hub of the community hereabouts) to laying out a whole system of country walks.
We set out up a lane between the small fields of late-cut hay so typical of Monaghan’s back-country farms. The verges were a spatter of wild flowers – gold St John’s wort, pink and white dog roses, tall purple thistles, pink bursts of ragged robin and tall common spotted orchids of every hue between white and mauve. A donkey in an adjacent field let off a tremendous klaxon of a bray that made us all jump and giggle.
The lane snaked to and fro, gradually gaining height through thickets of young alder and silver birch, to bring us out at last into the open blanket bog that spreads itself far and wide on the slopes of Sliabh Beagh. ‘As a young lad I used to dread father saying he was going to the bog,’ Paddy said, ‘because I knew that’d be it for the summer – I’d be baked, frozen, soaked to the skin or ate alive by midges! It’s only recently that I’ve seen the bog for what it is – magic and beautiful, a place for wildlife to be undisturbed, a place for solitude. I call it my psychiatrist’s chair, you know…’
The psychiatrist’s chair today was adorned with golden stars of bog asphodel, butterfly orchids and milkmaid, the pale springtime bloom that some call cuckoo flower or lady’s smock. ‘We all owe the bog our water,’ said Paddy, ‘this is where it all comes from,’ and we believed him as we squelched and skidded across the brilliant red and green sphagnum, as soaked as any sponge, and hurdled ditches glinting black and oily with deep bog water. ‘I bring kids up here and get them to jump in there,’ Paddy told us. ‘They come out black all over, wellies full, and laughing fit to burst. That’s the way to get them to appreciate all this – hands on.’
A juicy, sloppy track beside gunmetal-grey Lough Antrawer and we were dropping down the long road home, with distant Slieve Gullion and the rolling high ground of Cavan spread before us to sweeten the way back to Knockatallon.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 18, 27; also ‘Sliabh Beagh’ map (from Sliabh Beagh Development Association, 028-6775-1918, sliabhbeagh.org); map/route card from Sliabh Beagh Hotel (see below).
TRAVEL: From Monaghan Town, N54 towards Clones. Right on outskirts of town on R186 (‘Balinode, Scotstown, Sliabh Beagh’). Through Balinode to Scotstown; over crossroads in Scotstown; in 500m, right on minor road for 3 miles/5 km to T-junction at Strathnahincha Bridge, Drumcoo. Left to Sliabh Beagh Hotel.
WALK DIRECTIONS: From Sliabh Beagh Hotel, right down road. In ½ mile/0.8 km, at left bend before bridge, turn right (Tra Walk’/TW). In ¾ mile/1.5 km, at turning circle (TW post 36), right past iron post up grass path. In 250 m keep ahead (not left fork). Path ascends; in 400 m fork left (TW post 38 on left) for nearly 1 mile (1.5 km), passing radio mast at summit of Stramacilroy townland. At crossroads of paths with green/black metal barriers, right (TW post). In ¾ mile (1.5 km), right at TW post 40. In ½ mile (0.7 km), just past quarry, Sliabh Beagh Way goes left across footbridge; but you keep following stony track of TW. At Lough Antrawer stay left of fence along left side of lake, then follow succession of TW posts across wet bogland (beware deep ditches!) and 2 metal bridges, up to stony road (TW post 51). Right for 2 miles to road near Strathnahincha Bridge; right to Sliabh Beagh Hotel.
LENGTH: 7½ miles/12 km; allow 3-4 hours
CONDITIONS: Mostly lanes and good forests/bog roads; very wet and sloppy around Lough Antrawer. Watch out for deep ditches near the lough!
• Sensational flowers of the bog
• Wonderful views south over Slieve Gullion and Monaghan/Cavan countryside
REFRESHMENTS/ACCOMMODATION/INFORMATION: Sliabh Beagh Hotel and Tourism Centre, Knockatallon, Co. Monaghan (047-89014; knockatallon.com/Accommodation) – friendly, well-informed community hotel, the hub of walking and social activity locally. €70 dble B&B
BEST PICNIC SPOT: Picnic tables at Knockanearla quarry
GUIDED WALKS: Paddy Sherry, Boots ‘n’ Bogs (087-252-5457; firstname.lastname@example.org).
WALKING in IRELAND: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking and www.coillte.ie
BOOK: Christopher’s book Walking in Ireland (Ebury Press) contains 50 of his favourite Irish Independent walks.
INFORMATION: Monaghan Tourist Office (047-81122;