Walking, ice rinks and beer gardens: how Irish Appalachian communities are staying connected
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Midway through August, before returning to the United States for college, I took a trip to Donegal in my home country of Ireland.
While walking the beautiful trails at Glenveagh National Park, I noticed that other visitors were predominantly local. One thing that was clear to see is that amid the COVID-19 pandemic there is a greater appreciation for the nature and hidden gems right on our doorsteps.
When discussing the Appalachian Mountains, many of us may think of the U.S. But before I even left Ireland, I was in Appalachian territory. The Appalachians and Ireland are connected in many ways, including culturally and geographically.
The Appalachian mountain range is shared between North America and Europe. The range was separated by tectonic shifts millions of years ago. In 2010, County Donegal on Ireland’s northwest coast was officially added to Appalachian Trail maps.
Tourists can now walk the 300-million-year-old International Appalachian Trail spanning over 2,200 miles, the only trail in the world to span an ocean.
Highlights of the trail include the coastal cliffs of Slieve League in Donegal, the Maghera Strand, the Blue Stack Mountains and Lough Eske.
Eimear Flanagan’s company Away a Wee Walk offers tours and holidays along the Causeway Coast and Glens. Walkers can take a guided day tour, independent holiday or bespoke, guided hiking vacation.
Flanagan started the company in 2013 after walking along the 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago in 2012. Inspired by her trip, she started encouraging others to go to Camino, but once she realized her own country’s tourism potential, Away a Wee Walk was born, taking on the same name of a blog she started while walking in Spain. After a successful 2019 season, her company has been hit hard by the pandemic.
“We’re still waiting on regulations being lifted and what we should do,” said Flanagan.
However, long-term Flanagan hopes there will be a change in attitude toward staycations in Ireland.
“It could really benefit the Causeway Coast,” said Flanagan. “I think in 50 years’ time there will be a change in attitude with staycations that we could never have generated had Covid not happened.”
Throughout the lockdown in Northern Ireland, she noticed a lot of inexperienced walkers in the Mourne Mountains.
“There was definitely a lot of inexperienced people in the mountains,” said Flanagan. “My first day up the Mournes in early June and there was a helicopter rescue for a teenager up there.”
Flanagan is concerned about the mental impact of the winter months and encourages people to get outside for a walk-in order to boost their mental health.
“It’s that feeling you get when you’re in the natural landscape,” said Flanagan. “That’s what I sell. I sell that feeling. Covid can do nothing to that but help us appreciate it.”
Linda Mulgrew lives in the foothills of the Sperrins mountain range in Northern Ireland. She describes her community as a large rural community with a low population density. Gaelic sport is a large part of the community but has been shut down because of the pandemic, as it is too difficult to maintain social distancing.
“That was a big thing for people, not to have that as part of their routine,” said Mulgrew.
Mulgrew however, said the community has benefited from being in such a rural area with space to get outside and walk. This has helped local people stay connected because they have space outside to talk to one another while maintaining a safe distance.
Mulgrew said the community has pulled together to support one another, as well as getting involved with several initiatives. One initiative was Sew It Seams, run by a group of women from Kildress Wolfe Tones GAA club in Northern Ireland where they sewed scrubs for the health service.
Faith is also important in the community and Mass was recorded for people to watch from home. This has been particularly helpful for elderly people who are more vulnerable to loneliness throughout the pandemic and find a strong sense of community through faith-based activities.
Mulgrew said one problem that needs to be addressed within her community is poor internet connection and broadband, that makes it difficult for people to work from home.
Colette Rogers who lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has relatives in the Sperrins. She said the biggest difference for everybody is not being able to see other people in normal circumstances, and as with Mulgrew’s community, people are using walking as a chance to both socialize and enjoy nature.
“There is enough mountain still for people to go off the beaten track and still find the peace and the solace that they’re looking for without running into everybody else,” said Rogers.
Another outdoor activity that has popped up in the Sperrins is Screen Skating, an outdoor ice-skating rink outside the village of Draperstown. The rink opened in July and is run by a local family, inspired to create their own rink because they did not have access to one nearby.
Pub life is a key element of Irish culture that has been affected by the pandemic. The Market Inn in Draperstown took advantage of their beer garden to serve customers alcohol outdoors, therefore maintaining social distancing guidelines.
Life has changed dramatically for these rural communities, but they have proven an unrelenting ability to adapt and continue to serve one another. Rogers is optimistic about the future but hopes for an increased focus on community and the environment.
“I do believe that it will come to an end and things will go back to something that’s more natural and normal for us,” said Rogers. “But maybe this is what we needed in order to create that space to be able to change our patterns with a view as to what we should be doing for the environment and for the future.”
Flanagan is conflicted about the climate crisis because her company is reliant on one of the major contributors- airlines. She does, however, believe humans can change their way of life to create a more sustainable and green society.
“We’re living in this collective fear; you can’t get away from it,” said Flanagan.
“We are all in this mentally together. If we can terrorize ourselves with our thoughts, our collective thought processes can create immense positivity, and wouldn’t that be the best thing that can come out of this?”
For any Americans looking to expand their Appalachian experience beyond the 420 county American region, check out the International Appalachian Trail.
For more information visit https://iat-sia.org/