It is a day of endings. The day we leave the Kerry Way. The final day of our walk across Ireland. The day our path drops into the sea.
From Cahersiveen, the Kerry Way heads south, continuing its circular path back to Killarney. If it is anything like our last three days on the trail, it would be a glorious walk. But our route takes us in a different direction. We are heading west, following no particular trail in search of a finite end to our travels, the end of all land.
It’s a warm, sun-filled departure from Cahersiveen. A quiet Sunday morning. Narrow roads take us on a leisurely promenade past scattered farmhouses to the tiny seaside port of Reenard. From here, it’s a brief ferry ride to Knightstown on Valentia Island. Signs of a distinctive island culture are everywhere. There are the lighthouses, the docks, the anchors and and assorted other fishing paraphernalia. But there’s also the architecture with its stark, white-washed walls and brightly coloured doors. It reminds me of Newfoundland’s small villages. The Atlantic Ocean might separate the two islands. But, in my mind, I see a close cultural link between this place and Canada’s rocky outpost.
From Knightsbridge, our walk parallels the coastline, along winding roads busy with summer cyclists and locals out for a Sunday walk. This part of the day’s path is easy enough but we are soon led by our adventurous guide, Paddy Dillon, northward down a gravel road until it peters out at St. Brendan’s Well, a minor, near-invisible site of pagan ritual.
As you will recall, Paddy Dillon is the author of The Irish Coast to Coast Walk, the inspiration for our 24-day journey across the Republic. Today, inspiration is the operative word as Paddy guides us west from St. Brendan’s Well with a map and route description that is, at best, conceptual. Fortunately, the landscape clearly defines our way. To our left, sheep graze lazily in their stone-strewn meadows. To the right – just a few metres to the right – those meadows suddenly end with vertical cliffs, their sheer rock walls dropping down and far, far below, straight into the wild, pounding Atlantic. We follow the cliffs west, climbing over stone fences and barbed wire. We circle around deep gorges, accompanied by the boom of crashing waves echoing through the chasms
We are on our own now. Paddy is of no help as we blindly follow the cliffs. The end of our walk, a promontory at the western tip of the island, comes into view. But, between us and our destination is a mine field of deep ditches, barbed wire and electric fences. We know we must be off Paddy’s planned route as we gingerly make our way over, under and across. Eventually we make it to the base of the hill.
There is no trail up its steep slope. Only a vague slash in the bush above, likely made by sheep. But it looks to be a brief 30-metre or so climb. And it is the only way out of this mess. Backtracking east would be a tedious option. To the west lay a sheer wall of stone dropping straight into the Atlantic.
The hill is as treacherous a climb as this risk-adverse walker would care to imagine. I look down, watching Gail’s progress carefully as we ascend, suggesting footholds that worked for me. I look up. It’s not far at all and the slope is easing up. But I don’t know what lies at the top.
Hopefully it will be the trail we are supposed to be on. Or is it an impassable gulf? The ascent has been difficult but a retreat back down this slope would be dangerous.
Embarrassed relief lies at the peak. Thankfully our trail onwards is clearly carved in the turf. But the well-trod trail we should have taken, ascending gently up the back of the hill, is painfully obvious from this vantage point. After 24 days of walking and just a few minutes away from the end of our Irish journey, this is our first and last navigational misstep.
It is beautiful up here. The ocean is spread out before us, its distant horizon lost in haze as it curls around the planet. The path leads us further west on an easy descent to a point of land jutting into the Atlantic and the small stone tower that is our destination: the old Marconi Signal Tower on Bray Head.
Bray Head is a busy place on this fine Sunday afternoon. Visitors climb around the rocky slopes. Near the tower, a circle of yoga enthusiasts perform their stretching rituals.
Gail and I reflect on our journey with a mixed sense of accomplishment and remorse. We have trekked 666 kilometres. But our minds and bodies are still walking. The urge to keep going is strong. Such is the nature of long distance walking. After day upon day of nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other, watching the scenery slowly changing, it is easy to lose sense of time, of beginning or ending.
Our walking trek from Dublin on the east coast to Bray Head on the west coast has ended. All that remains is an easy road walk down the north shore of Valentia Island and across a bridge back to the mainland. On the other side lies the charming fishing village of Portmagee and our bed and breakfast for the night.
Along the way, we pause at a small wayside park overlooking the Atlantic. It’s a simple square of crushed stone set in a field of grass. At its centre stands a pair of black granite slabs, their polished black faces incised with a lengthy inscription. Gold-painted letters glow in the late afternoon sun. The text commemorates the first trans-Atlantic communication cable, laid in 1865 and stretching between this very point and Newfoundland. The first permanent communication link between Europe and North America.
We have trekked across Ireland, constantly intersecting with the nation’s past. Here, at this humble roadside marker, our walk with history continues beyond the trail and back to Canada… back to our home.