The Irish know how to walk. On the sidewalks, alongside busy roadways, and up and down the narrow bermless roads that are often more like lanes and where you take your life in your hands just by walking there, people are flying along, arms pumping, their long strides making fast progress on their journeys. The walk singly or in pairs, generally, and they walk fast.
The country has an initiative, Get Ireland Walking, and many local municipalities are part of it. There are city walkers, town walkers, hill walkers. I have joined the latter, a group in the Slievebloom Mountains, for several walks over the past few years. These walks (we would call them hikes in the States, a word not used here) are thrilling because they usually don’t follow paths. Instead, we gather in a small village or at the edge of town, move on to a starting point, and then just take off across the landscape following the walk leader who has mapped out a route, sometimes planting small flags to remind him of the way. These walks last for several hours, and everyone has a backpack with snacks, a sandwich, a flask of tea and a water bottle. These are usually muddy or boggy walks, requiring hiking pants and gaiters. Sturdy boots are a necessity, and a stick is helpful. I have a stick from an ash tree that was made for me on one of the walks and is one of my proudest possessions here.
A few nights ago I joined a friend on a more organized walk. This one was part of the Co. Laois Walking Festival, a series of 22 walks over the month of July. Each one lasts about two hours, most begin in the evening and all are rated according to difficulty (A, B or C, with A being ‘strenuous’, B ‘difficult’ and C ‘moderate’ and designed for families; this is the standard rating system used across Ireland). This was a B walk. My friend Una is a terrific walker. Her summer vacations for the past few years have been to Spain and Portugal to walk parts of the Camino. She considers these organized walks as part of her training. We were joined by her friend Lorna, who is even more of a walker than Una. I had forgotten how fast Una walked, and I did my best to keep up, but we were in a pack of 160 walkers and there was plenty of opportunity to drop back and chat while they forged ahead for awhile.
Even Una and Lorna couldn’t keep up with the two walk leaders, who took off like shots when the walk began and were soon completely out of sight (evidently not clear on the concept of leading a walk). Soon another woman came up through the pack at a brisk trot, shouting Stop, Stop to the leaders, who were so far away by now they were out of sight and hearing. This woman was noticeably angry, but we all got sorted, as they say here, by the addition of two boys on bicycles who took off after the leaders then waited for the rest of us at various junctions so we would know which way to go.
The evening (we started at 7:30) was fresh and lovely, and while the walk itself was not over the most beautiful of terrain there were some fine views at the end. Despite the various stops and starts we finished the 10k distance easily within the two hours allotted, and had time to visit the local church, which was specially opened for the walkers. At the church I saw two women I had spoken with on the walk. One of them, Myriam, a Brazilian living in Portlaoise, invited me to join their walking group sometime. Fast Forward has a homemade business card (Remember: Moving is the best Medicine) and meets twice a week at the same spot for a 50-minute walk. Her friend Susan is one of the group. Between vapes she told me that this was the first time she had been out longer than their bi-weekly 5ks.