Step away from the chocolates: Christmas walks for all the family

John G O'Dwyer joined Pat with a list of walks to keep the family active over the festive period

December 26. Tochar Pilgrim walk, Co Mayo

At Tóchar Phádraig, pilgrims must register at Ballintubber Abbey before embarking on the 35 Km (22 mile) path to Croagh Patrick.The longest of the surviving pilgrimage roads is the Tóchar Phádraig, which leads to Croagh Patrick, the site of St Patrick’s first legendary battle with the devil’s mother and a flock of demon birds. On the last Sunday in July, around 30,000 pilgrims gather from all over Ireland to climb the Reek, as the holy mountain is known locally. In ancient times, the Reek was approached from the east, and the route begins at the Augustinian Abbey of Ballintubber.

In all probability, the pilgrimage goes back to pagan times, and it has been suggested that the route originally led from Cruachan, the seat of the prehistoric kings of Connaght. One possible indication of the pre-Christian origins of the road is a large boulder at Boheh. Known as St Patrick’s Chair, it is decorated with small circular hollows known as cup marks and probably dates from the Bronze Age.

Founded in 1216 and refurbished in the 1960s, Ballintubber Abbey is one of the finest examples of the Romanesque style of architecture known as ‘the School of the West’. The route continues for many miles, passing through Aghagower where there is a round tower, a holy well, St Patrick’s Bed and his ‘Bath’. Soil from the base of the sacred tree by the bath is said to have curative powers.

The road from Ballintubber was cleared by local initiative — in the process, a number of stone flags came to light, which must have belonged to the Tóchar Phádraig. At Lankill, a raised stone altar with a small cross-inscribed stone on top of it and an adjacent pillar stone probably date from the Early Christian Era. A nearby holy well is attributed to St Brendan. Below you can see a picture of pilgrims walking the Tóchar from Ballintubber Abbey.

Sunday 27th Dec. Devil’s Bit Christmas Walk, Templemore, Co. Tipperary

What is it with the Irish highlands and the Devil? Among an abundance of demonic upland appellations is the Devil’s Coachroad in the Mourne Mountains, the Devil’s Glen in Wicklow, the Devil’s Ladder on Carauntoohil and the Devil’s Punchbowl on Mangerton Mountain. And then there is the proudly individualistic hill standing sentinel above Templemore, Co Tipperary.

A charming legend holds that a fleeing demon, being pursued over Devil’s Bit Mountain by (you’re right) St Patrick, created the unmistakeable notch in this otherwise flat topped eminence by taking an angry bite from its summit and later dropping it to form the Rock of Cashel. Unfortunately, for mythology buffs, the Devil's Bit is entirely sandstone while the Rock of Cashel is a limestone outcrop. Nevertheless, a new loop walk on Devil’s Bit Mountain offers a moderate and charming outing with inspiring views and abundant other genuine historic resonances.

From your startpoint, ascend a stony lane by a field and then through woodland until you encounter the prominent edifice known as Rock Tower. This is not an ancient round tower as you might suspect, however, but an 18th century, eye grabbing “folly” built by the wealthy Carden family of Templemore. Nevertheless, it was the site for a monster meeting in 1832, when, according to local tradition, Daniel O’Connell addressed an assembly of 50,000 although some historians doubt that “the Liberator” himself was actually present.

Now, continue by following purple arrows left along a forestry road, while enjoying captivating views south to the Galtee Mountains. Ignore a couple of leftward junctions and continue to a three-way intersection where the arrows go right. The path now propels you uphill through forestry and then across more open mountainside before a short rocky section leads to the summit of Little Rock. This outcrop is crowned by a huge white cross built to celebrate the Marian Year of 1954. Here you are rewarded with views to Lough Derg and the Slieve Blooms, while to the south you gaze across the lush pasturelands of Tipperary bounded in the far distance by the great upland rampart consisting of Slievemamon, the Comeragh and Knockmealdown Mountains.

Retreat by your route of ascent is the easiest option now, but a more interesting descent is by a track opposite the side from which you ascended. A short, but steep, scramble down past a statue of the Blessed Virgin leads to the gap forming the actual Devil’ s Bit.

Descend by following the track to rejoin the purple arrows just above an altar, which on a late July Sunday each year – known locally as Rock Sunday – is the scene of an open air Mass in honour of St James. This is just one example of pattern day pilgrimages, which take place annually on many Irish mountains and are mostly examples of early pagan worship later Christianised. Descend the short distance to Rock Tower and retrace your steps downhill to your startpoint.

Dec 29 to January 1. Westport, Christmas / New Year Walking Festival

Join Gerry Greensmyth of Croagh Patrick Walking Tours on this, the 8th Annual Christmas / New Year Walking Festival. Blow away the excesses of Christmas by climbing Mweelrea Mountain overlooking the Wild Atlantic Way - at 814m it's Connaught's highest mountain! The second day of the event will see participants travel to Leenane in Connemara for the ascent of Leenane Mountain. This walking festival is an exciting and healthy end to 2015 and to see in the New Year in the stunning Mayo town of Westport!


Easy circuits suitable for families

  1. The Leafy Loop, Co Laois
  2. Grange Loop, Co Tipperary
  3. The Muckross Loop, Killarney
  4. Lough Derg Pilgrim Loop, Co Donegal
  5. Portumna forest Park, Co Galway


Easier hills for older families that don’t present navigational problems

  1. Cave Hill, for those visiting Belfast
  2. Torc Mountain, Killarney
  3. Mullaghmore, Co Clare
  4. Slievenamon, Co Tipperary
  5. Diamond Hill, Co Galway
  6. Knocknarea Queen Maeve Trail, Co Sligo