Long-distance trails in the Republic of Ireland
There are 43 long-distance trails in Ireland designated as National Waymarked Trails by the National Trails Office of the Irish Sports Council. These trails are inspected annually by the National Trails Office and are maintained by local management committees, Local Authorities, Local Development Companies and other State Agencies. All routes follow woodland paths, grassy boreens, fields, riverbanks and quiet country roads in the lowlands and forestry tracks and mountain paths in the uplands. Each trail is waymarked with square black posts containing an image, in yellow, of a walking man and a directional arrow, a symbol reserved for use only by National Waymarked Trails.
The oldest trail is the Wicklow Way, the first section of which opened in 1980. It was followed by the South Leinster and East Munster Ways in 1984; the Kerry Way and the Táin Way in 1985; and the Dingle and Slieve Bloom Ways in 1987. National Waymarked Trails continue to be developed and there are now over 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) of routes in Ireland. The highest concentration of routes is in the Munster region. The most frequented trails are the Wicklow, Sheep's Head, Kerry, Dingle, Beara, Burren and Western Ways.
In addition to the National Waymarked Trails, the Heritage Council has developed a series of walking routes based on medieval pilgrimage paths. Two greenway rail trails have also been developed. Many of the National Waymarked Trails form part of larger long-distance and transnational trails such as European walking route E8, the Beara Breifne Way and the International Appalachian Trail.
The impetus for the development of the National Waymarked Trails came about in response to the establishment of the Ulster Way in Northern Ireland. This prompted the appointment in 1978, by John Bruton, T.D., of the Cospóir Long Distance Walking Routes Committee (now the National Trails Advisory Committee of the Irish Sport Council) to establish a national network of long-distance paths in Ireland. The committee consisted of representatives of various sectional interests, including An Taisce whose nominee, J. B. Malone, was appointed Field Officer of the committee. Malone had done much to popularise walking through a regular column in the Evening Herald newspaper, contributions to television programmes as well as two books on the subject. The first trail to be developed – the Wicklow Way – was based on a series of articles he had written for the Evening Herald in 1966.
Each of the trails to have been developed makes use existing paths, tracks, forest roads, boreens and by-roads but, in the absence of any compulsory powers to include any of these, provision of and access to any such routes is achieved by agreement with local authorities and landowners. Agreement with private landowners has not always been forthcoming. Most of the routes, therefore, are highly dependent on access provided by the state: Coillte, the state-owned forestry company, is the largest single manager of any of the trails with more than 30 National Waymarked Trails making use of its property. Coillte provides and maintains 52% of all off-road walking trails and 24% of the total amount of developed walking trails in Ireland. Access issues mean that many trails have substantial sections on public roads. Writing in The Irish Times, John G. O'Dwyer summed up the situation as follows: "Trails often tiptoed timidly through the countryside, offering extended stretches of boringly unsafe road topped with boot burning bitumen. These were frequently interspersed with gloomy trails through invading armies of monoculture, including stands of Sitka spruce that were generally as memorable as a motorway median". Trail erosion has also been an issue with some of the more popular routes.
The National Trails Strategy, published by the Irish Sports Council in 2006 to set out a vision for the development of recreational trails in Ireland, acknowledged many of these shortcomings and found that "the quality and standard of recreational trail development, for the most part, falls well below international standards. The strategy identified access as "the single most important and defining issues [sic] that will impact on the success or otherwise of this strategy and the creation of a sustainable recreational trail development in Ireland". Following on from the publication of the National Trails Strategy, a 2010 review of the National Waymarked Trails by the Irish Sports Council restated many of these issues and made recommendations to address them. One of these recommendations was a proposed new standard of trail, called a National Long Distance Trail, intended to meet international standards for outstanding trails. This standard would require sections on unsuitable roads to comprise less than 10% of the total trail and for appropriate support services – accommodation, meals, transport, luggage transfer etc. to be available. Five trails – the Beara, Dingle, Kerry, Sheep's Head and Wicklow Ways – have been recommended to be prioritised for upgrade to National Long Distance Trails.
The National Waymarked Trails
The Pilgrim Paths
Influenced by the work done by the Council of Europe on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in the 1980s and 1990s, the Pilgrim Paths project was set up by the Heritage Council as its Millennium Project. Its purpose was to develop and support a network of walking routes along Irish medieval pilgrimage paths to raise awareness of natural and built heritage along these routes and to contribute to tourism and community development. Seven pilgrim paths were chosen for the project and, to date, three routes have been completed and are open for walking:
|Cosán na Naomh||Kerry||Linear||Ventry||Mount Brandon||18 km (11 mi)|
|Lough Derg||Donegal||Circular||Station Island Visitor Centre||Saint's Island||12 km (7.5 mi)|
|Saint Kevin's Way||Wicklow||Linear||Hollywood or Valleymount||Glendalough||30 km (19 mi)|
Each of these routes has been developed according to the guidelines for the development of National Waymarked Trails. They are waymarked with black marker posts with a yellow pilgrim symbol: this image is based on a stone from a pilgrimage site in County Cork which depicts a pilgrim with a Celtic tonsure, wearing a tunic and carrying a staff. Beneath the symbol is a directional arrow inset with a cross of arcs, one of the main symbols of pilgrimage in Ireland.
Of the remaining routes chosen, it was decided that two – Turas, in Glencolmcille, County Donegal, and Tóchar Phádraig, between Ballintubber, County Mayo and Croagh Patrick – were unsuitable for development as permanent walking trails, although funding was provided by the Heritage Council for conservation works. The Pilgrim's Road (or Slí Mhór) between Ballycumber, County Offaly and Clonmacnoise has been developed as a cycle way since so much of the route follows roads. Work has begun on the remaining route, Saint Declan's Way between Ardmore and Lismore in County Waterford. Voluntary groups on both sides of the Knockmealdown Mountains began work on the route in 2013, waymarking is expected shortly. The first organised walk of the route takes place on 24 to 28 July 2013.
|Great Southern Trail||Limerick; Kerry||Linear||Rathkeale||Abbeyfeale||35 km (22 mi)|
|Great Western Greenway||Mayo||Linear||Westport||Achill||42 km (26 mi)|
A project has been initiated to create an 80-kilometre (50-mile) Connemara Greenway along the route of the former Galway to Clifden Midland Great Western Railway. The Dublin-Galway Greenway has also been initiated. The 280km route is planned to be completed by 2020. Sections of the route follow the Royal Canal from Dublin, as well as the disused Mullingar-Athlone rail line. Funding has been made available for the development of a greenway on the former Tralee to Fenit railway line in County Kerry and the development of further greenways is under active consideration in other parts of the country. There is also a campaign to create a greenway on the Claremorris, County Mayo to Collooney, County Sligo section of the Western Rail Corridor.
European walking route E8 is an international walking trail that extends from Dursey Island, County Cork to Istanbul in Turkey. In Ireland the E8 follows the Wicklow, South Leinster, East Munster and Blackwater Ways and parts of the Kerry and Beara Ways.
The Beara-Breifne Way is a walking and cycling route under development, intended to run from the Beara Peninsula, County Cork to Breifne, County Leitrim following the line of Donal Cam O'Sullivan Beare's march in the aftermath of the Battle of Kinsale in 1602. The intended route will make use of the Beara Way; Ballyhoura Way; Suck Valley Way; Miner's Way and Historical Trail; Leitrim Way; and Cavan Way.
There is also a proposal to extend the International Appalachian Trail (IAT), an extension of the Appalachian Trail through Canada to Newfoundland, to all terrain that formed part of the Appalachian Mountains of Pangaea, including Ireland. It is proposed that the Irish leg of the IAT will make use of the Slí Colmcille and the Bluestack Way in County Donegal before joining the Ulster Way in Northern Ireland.
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