Wild and weathered. Here stereotypes hold true.
Ireland has seen its fair share of gore and war, which makes for an overabundance of Gothic forts and Romanesque cathedrals. The country's propensity for invasion began in the prehistoric era, which does not make for shabby sightseeing.
However, I am constantly reminded of Ireland's isolation. Despite visiting during the snowiest winter the country has seen in a decade and although I fell short on suitable footwear, the wild rambling countryside kept me outdoors, damp, and gleeful. I've run the same single stretch along the coastline more times than I cared to count, and haven't seen the same view twice. I have more shots of the Bray-Greystones trail than all of my other photos together. Tourism websites will tell you tall tales of the Irish pubs, whisky factories and mysterious fairy forts, all of which are heavily trodden by travellers with kids. Take it from me - if you want to see the best that Ireland has to offer, take a hike. Start from wherever you are and head for the hills. While I would love to return to visit the Ring of Kerry in summer, the footpaths worn into the hills by the soles of the local shoes that use around any town are remarkable just as they stand.
Why the preservation?
Looking back, I'm not too sure what I expected when I landed. I had heard that Ireland is 'great craic', and I guess that Dublin is exactly that. The humming pubs and live music scene makes for impressive nightlife, and seeing every museum, gallery, park and monument would take many more weeks than I had available. Dublin also boasts a booming property market, particularly along the pristine cobbled streets that remain stuck in the Georgian era. Economic turmoil, the Great Famine and a five-century-long struggle against British rule kept Irish architecture suspended in time as the rest of the world underwent industrial revolution and urban uglification.
Why is Ireland so empty?
To be honest, I don't quite know the precise balance of politico-economic circumstances that have led to the fine balance of the Island's seclusion. Something about being a member of the EU, separate from the UK and decidedly non-Schengen has allowed for tighter border restriction than the rest of Europe, and a preservation of Irish culture even in the hubbub of the capital. Unlike so many of world's 'international' cities, where everyone is from somewhere else, Dublin is certainly not spared her share of migrant influx. However, hit a corner on the north side and you're back in the thick music of the soft-spoken Celtic accent.
Despite the staggering population growth that now places Ireland at the top of the EU, Ireland is (still) expansive and empty. I did the maths: to get to this kind of emptiness, my hometown's 4,8 million residents would need to be distributed across an area 51 times greater in size.
The space is good for farming
Wicklow is not a stretch of monoculture. The average field can be crossed on foot in several minutes, and is usually inhabited by a garish flock of spray-painted sheep. If Farmer Murphy paints his sheep with the Irish flag, his neighbour (most likely a Fitzgerald, or O'Brien) will use an alternative code. Some sheep are fortunate enough to escape with the dignity of a mere two stripes, but the majority are more fluorescent than white.
Where does wool go?
Ireland has a legacy of unique fabric design and dignified woollen fashions. There are a surprising number of hand weavers and bespoke fabric suppliers - I visited many, including the bespoke Blarney Woollen Mills and Avoca outlets. Everything inside begs to be touched and appreciated for its existence, and dropped upon reading the price tag.
And the stuff in between?
In between the farms, and encroaching on their trim neatness from every side, is wild, close-quartered, in-your-face nothing.
The nothing is filled with forests, and the forests burst with life.
Everything grows. The trees aren't just trees. Rocks aren't just rocks. They're coated with enough lichen and dew to host an entire community of mosses and liverworts. It's impractical to try quantify the life within a cubic centimetre. There are no snakes, and though I have yet to encounter a nasty hairy or creepy leggy, I bet they're there. Soft leaves, damp, the sweet smell of sandy rot, birdcall, yellow flowers, and nothing but green and mud.
As a woman alone, to have it all to oneself, at any time of day, and not feel the need to check over a shoulder or remove an earphone is pretty much incomparable to any kind of freedom I've felt before. Wicklow has been used to backdrop several critical Game of Thrones panoramas, but the wildness of the dense foliage reminds me more of Narnia. There's a hazy sort of magic that I can only equate with the coming of Aslan or some such similar miracle. Ireland off-season exposes its supernatural underbelly.
My running shoes are muddied to the ankle, and my cheeks are raw with the icy hilltop wind. Though my camera roll is made up almost exclusively of amateur greenery and ocean shots, and every pair of trousers I own are stained with clodden dirt, I will be out there again tomorrow in my finest.