I frequently tell my students that for so many reasons, they’re lucky to be learning French. One I dwell on is that it’s more difficult than Spanish because you don’t pronounce so many letters. Imagine the workout your brains are getting, I insist, and of course, they just groan. When I return to school at the end of August, I’ll suggest that if they really want to put their minds through the paces, they study Gaelic, which has even more letters you don’t pronounce. Our introduction to this (for me) indecipherable language is when we meet our hiking guide for week one. “Dool-ta,” he said as we shook hands. “I’m Dool-ta.” I do my best to square this pronunciation with the name written on our trip paperwork: Dubhaltach O’Colmain. He chuckles when I tell him there are at least five letters that disappear when he says his name. Joe has to ask twice for him to repeat it. We stumble a couple more times but finally, by day two – or maybe it’s three – Dool-ta practically trips off our tongues. He translates the Gaelic signposts we pass: the Pit of Sadness, the Glen of the Mad, the Barren Place, the Swamp of Despair. His recitations lead Joe to question with a laugh, “Doesn’t this country have any places with happy names?”
Wanting to hike as much of Ireland’s west coast as possible before Chris and Caroline arrive for week two (when we’ll fill our time with village strolls and pub crawls), we book our first week with our adventure travel company of choice, Boundless Journeys. We did the alpine Tour de Mont Blanc with Boundless on our Gap Year, so we know they’ll help us do Ireland right. Right as rain, in fact (although, I must admit that Ireland’s drizzle and inescapable downpours are atmospheric and can be utterly charming). Often when we hike solo in unfamiliar territory, we waste incredible amounts of time selecting “the best” route, futilely searching for an elusive trailhead, and if we do manage to find it, are stuck covering the same terrain twice on an out and back trek. Hiking with Dubhaltach, on the other hand, is an efficient, beautiful breeze that leaves us exhilarated, worry-free, and with miles of Irish trails behind us. Having explored the Emerald Isle for years, our 33 year-old naturalist knows the most scenic trails like the back of his hand and drops us at the trailhead, drives to the end, and then hikes back to meet us about two-thirds of the way to the car park. Our route is always easily found and there’s no doubling back with Dubhaltach.
We walk up green hills beside ancient stonewalls, at the top of ocean cliffs and then down limestone stairways to the beach. We circle the lakes of Killarney and pass through the Torc Mountain pass. With the sweet, gentle soul of a nature-loving renaissance man, Dubhaltach keeps us entertained with tales of Irish history, lore and mythology, and enlightens us about the flora and fauna of his beloved country. He educates us on all manner of animal and insect habits, including the mating ritual of slugs. I will never, ever look at a slug in the same way again. (Trust me on this. Google it.) He describes potato-faced farmers who wed young, freckled colleens, the lopsided couples remaining happily married for decades. His stories inspire me to watch for faeries in the mist and for trolls under mossy trees and broad, leafy ferns. Fleet of foot hares, a darling baby fox and dozens of sheep, white lambs with feet like little black booties, bearded goats, and cows laden with milk cross our paths and we do our best to avoid stepping on delicate beach cactus and tiny wild orchids.
I have a soft spot for stiles. One figured prominently in a favorite childhood story about an old woman and a pig and so I take great delight in the many we scramble over while clomping across farmland hills. Joe takes multiple pictures of me sitting on top. After one farm animal-filled day, I wake up in the middle of the night to incessant baas ringing in my ears, swearing there are sheep in our room. The next night I dream about bog bodies, the mummified cadavers, which fascinate Dubhaltach. Hundreds have been unearthed in Ireland’s thick peat bogs, and several are almost intact — skin and all — the cold, acidic, oxygen-free conditions perfect for preservation.
On a particularly narrow but busy coastal way, Dubhaltach spies a cluster of tiny black and white fur balls waddling tight along the hedgerow as we drive by. “They’re poor little ducklings,” he groans, “probably separated from their mother hit by a car.” And sure enough, twenty yards beyond is the lifeless mother duck. “Oh, I have a pain in my heart,” laments Dubhaltach, “I have such a pain in my heart.” Visibly upset, he briefly considers going back for them. But the road is too treacherous, he decides and it would lead to a futile effort. “I don’t think they’ll make it no matter what we do,” he sighs, and it’s clear he’s taking the demise of this duckling family quite hard. We remain quiet for many minutes until just before the turn into a parking lot, the start of today’s beach walk. I notice a washed out, no longer legible signpost and wonder what sad place it might have announced.