It was Christmas and I was in need of a big break from the busy life in Oxford. I had never felt a greater urge to run, far far away from… well, myself. So, I chose to go backpacking, something that I had never done before and the destination was to be the island of Ireland.
I figured that it was a manageable but far enough distance away from Oxford, to give me just the break I needed. I managed to secure a travel buddy, Greg, a former Oxford mathematician to accompany me. I figured that the combination of our friendship and since he had just returned from hiking 96 miles in the Scottish highlands, meant that I was guaranteed great company, and lots of guidance on backpacking – making him the perfect travel companion.
Greg and I embarked on our journey the day after a wonderful Christmas shared with friends in London. We arrived in Holyhead by train, with the weather somewhat overcast and cloudy, but nothing too unusual for this region of the world. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, we decided not to fly and instead travelled to Dublin by ferry. Having only ever taken little ferries in Sydney in Australia, and Greg having come from Wisconsin, USA, we were both so amazed at the sheer size of the ferry, named after the famous novel Ulysses.
After arriving in Dublin, we spoke with some locals about the intricate history of the troubles, and the significant role that Dublin played. That evening, we slept well after a long day of travel before taking a train to Wicklow Station and hiking through Glendalough (which means “valley of two lakes”). It was a true welcome to Irish nature – with moss covered trees, and mountains in the distance. The thing I noticed the most, were the colours in Ireland; fiery reds cloaked the fields, shades of green dotted to mountains and fresh blues of the water stood in stark contrast.
After our time in Dublin, we rushed off the next day by bus, to Belfast, in Northern Ireland. We wanted to arrive in good time, to settle into our accommodation and scout out a good pub for New Years. Arriving late afternoon, we dropped off our things at the hostel and set off roaming the streets around the big fish, a 10-metre-long statue constructed in 1999 and installed on Donegall Quay in Belfast, near the Lagan Lookout and Custom House by John Kindness. We then made our way to the site of the former Harland and Wolff shipyard where the RMS Titanic was built.
The next day, we took a bus to the famous Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO listed world heritage site, filled with 40,000 square meters of interlocking basalt columns.
By the evening, we had made it back to Belfast to welcome in the New Year at our chosen pub, a very old and an Irish pub called Kelly’s Cellars, built in 1720. We passed the evening with a fresh pint of pure Irish glory – a cold Guinness. I met an old Irish man who said to me, as he attempted to surreptitiously steal a free pint of Guinness, that in Ireland people say: “When the pint goes in, the wit goes out”. The new year had come; I was feeling hopeful and excited for what was ahead.
The final leg of our journey saw us set up in Letterkenny, home to Apple hostel, one of the best hostels that I stayed in during that trip. One day we hitch hiked and ended up in Dunfanaghy, a small quaint town where we found refuge in a pub just as the rain began.
Finally, we spent a day in Glenveagh National Park. It was quiet, as most people were at home recovering from the New Year. As we walked, we shared our experience in a comfortable silence, taking in the beauty of the nature and appreciating the moment. Greg is an avid student of Zen practice, so on the way back, we discussed Zen Buddhism whilst enjoying the views of Ireland. I will always remember that day fondly.
When we go through life changing experiences, we often feel this great urge to embark on grand trips to ‘find yourself’, only to find that you “think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” as James Joyce himself put it.
I found, among the foothills of Ireland, a moment to reflect on myself.
You can find more of Irene’s photography and writing on her blog