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    Meet Ireland’s Local Characters

    Author: Dawn Rainbolt, PR Manager
    More by Dawn

    Irish Characters

    Ireland is full of passionate and unique characters. Taking pride in our country, landscapes, heritage, myths and history, we invite you to explore Ireland through the eyes of a few of its fascinating characters as they proudly share their passions and interests with visitors. We pride ourselves on delivering such local encounters for your clients when travelling with Wilderness Ireland.

    Michael Gibbons – Archeologist

    Archeology hike Connemara

    Michael Gibbons outdoors doing what he loves – sharing his passion for archeology and Ireland’s west coast with visitors.

    Who is Michael Gibbons?

    One such person is renowned archeologist Michael Gibbons. Born in a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) community, his mother was a local historian who handed down oral stories and his father worked abroad. Between the two of them, he learned not to take the landscape for granted, and he spent his childhood exploring the landscapes of his hometown – all of which led to him becoming an archeologist. He’s worked on digs and in antiquities museums all over the world – London, Greece, Jerusalem, Turkey – but it’s always Ireland that pulls him back.

    What does being an Irish archeologist mean?

    Michael Gibbons spots the sites that no one else notices. “My goal is to show people a long lens view of the Irish landscapes,” Gibbons explains. “On a single hike, I take visitors through prehistoric landscapes, ancient monuments, Neolithic tombs, iron age burials and forts, and an abandoned village – bringing the landscapes alive and active. It is an immersive and fun learning experience – and that’s just one hike!” he says, sharing his gift for reading the long history of a landscape with visitors.

    Once Michael Gibbons gets started talking about his passion for archeology, there’s no stopping him – and there’s no telling what you may learn. No matter how many times you might have seen a  landscape, Michael Gibbons will change the way that you see it.

    No dry archaeology – he describes the ancient civilisations and why they might have decided to carry dozens of boulders to the top of a hill and arrange them in a particular way. And it’s not just the ancient people that bring an academic sparkle to his eye – Gibbons also studies holy landscapes such as pilgrimages, holy wells, and sacred mountains – and notably the all-important pilgrimage trails that lead to them.

    Carrowkeel neolithic tombs

    The amazing tombs at Carrowkeel in Co Sligo, one of Gibbons’ favourite places. He can see the remains of ancient villages where no one else can.

    Where do Irish folklore and archeology overlap?

    Another interest is studying Irish mythology to interpret landscapes. One great example are the beds of Diarmuit and Grainne – Diarmuit was a warrior in the Fianna, Grainne was his wife. They eloped, which turned out to be a bad idea as they were chased all over Ireland – wherever they slept was called a bed. There are hundreds of places called beds all over Ireland. In fact, often these are neolithic tombs. So through Irish folklore, which goes back about 1500 years, we can study even older Irish history.

    Anglicisation of Irish names saved the names into landscapes here, he claims. Superstition, too, preserved the landscapes, the Irish heritage. “I was up on Inishmann [on the Aran Islands] yesterday,” Gibbons recounts. “And one of the clients was asking about fairies, if I have ever seen one? Of course I hadn’t, but I could show her the fairy forts and the ancient settlements that constituted their houses. Throughout history, and even today, you know that farmers won’t go near or touch them, since people are still wary. Fields will be ploughed around these fairy forts, roads built not just along natural obstructions, but also to avoid destroying the fairy forts.”

    Meet archeologists galore and discover Ireland’s fascinating ancient past and the impact they still have on our landscapes today. Perhaps you might like to join our Ancient Ireland private trip.

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    Iain Miller – Rock climber

    sea stack climbing Donegal

    Who is Iain Miller?

    Iain Miller has spent the last 30 years exploring the wild coasts and cliffs of Donegal. A long-time adventurer and trailblazer, Miller has pioneered the activity of guided sea-stack climbing and more often than not, has become the first to ascend many of Donegal’s wild sea-stacks.

    He has made the first free solo of sea stack Cnoc na Mara as well as the first ascent of Tormore Island, Ireland’s highest sea stack. A complex journey involving hillwalking, mountaineering, rock climbing, open sea kayaking, ocean swimming, recreational scuba diving and in general having fun, Miller takes his passion for adventure and exploration to the extreme.

    So far, he is the only sea stack climbing guide in Ireland and he is eager to share his passion and expertise in summiting some of Ireland’s most overlooked wild spaces.

    What landscapes inspire Iain Miller?

    The wilds of Donegal are composed of desolate but beautiful landscapes – sweeping valleys and hidden glens, rugged mountains, idyllic castles and jagged coastlines. Bogs and villages are left to their own devices, and the Gaeltacht communities still have a strong hold.

    Donegal is a county of rough headlands, sheer cliffs and towering sea stacks jutting dramatically from the swirling Atlantic. It is this outdoor playground that is Donegal adventurer Iain Miller’s stomping ground.

    Sea stack climbing Donegal

    Some sea stacks require a combination of both rock climbing and kayaking.

    What is a “sea-stack climbing” experience?

    “Imagine descending 850 feet of sea cliffs to arrive at the outstandingly beautiful storm beaches in the most remote and atmospheric locations in Ireland,” Miller explains, a twinkle in his eye as he paints the scene.

    “We then launch from the shore to cross open ocean to land at the base of towering monsters of immaculate rock. We climb these columns of rock to arrive atop pristine pinpoint summits far from anywhere in the real world.”

    “Surrounded by ocean waves and vast horizons dotted with swooping fulmars, diving dolphins and the odd basking shark or whale while standing on a pinpoint summit 350 feet above the ocean, half a mile from the nearest point of land and nearly 15 miles from the nearest main road is a truly spiritual experience.”

    Barry Mottershead - Kayak Guide

    Barry Mottershead

    From kayaking to camping, meet Barry.

    Who is Barry Mottershead?

    Not all of Ireland’s most interesting characters were born here – some have “blown in” from other corners of the world.

    One of County Sligo’s biggest adventure champions is kayaking guide Barry Mottershead. Born and raised in the vineyards outside Cape Town, South Africa, Barry’s life has revolved around the outdoors and water since childhood, and he has been a surfer and ocean enthusiast since he was 6 years old.

    “I love the lifestyle that surfing affords me,” Barry recounts. “It is a humbling pastime that brings you closer to nature and teaches you to look at the subtle changes in weather, water texture, and wind. I use a lot of these skills in my kayak tours nowadays, and I love trying to decode the tricky Irish weather patterns from day to day.”

    What landscapes inspire Barry?

    Sligo is a small county along the northwest of the Wild Atlantic Way. Though a coastal region, Sligo is off the traditional tourist route. A mysterious and undiscovered place full of ancient archeology, stunning hills and mountains, and the ruins of timeworn castles and abbeys, Sligo is the perfect place for adventure. The region’s extensive waterways, from lakes to rivers, estuaries to the sea, offer a plethora of opportunities for paddling enthusiasts are seemingly endless. Barry may have “blown in” to the region, he has fallen in love with the tranquil waters, lush forests, and mythic landscapes that Sligo has to offer.

    Kayaking Sligo

    Kayaking in Lough Gill, one of Yeats’ muses for his romantic poems.

    Why kayaking?

    To Barry Mottershead, the best way to explore is via the region’s waterways – rivers, lakes, the ocean shores. “I set up the business several years ago when I realised a lot of Sligo’s hidden gems are inaccessible to most travellers and holiday makers. The sea kayak is the perfect vehicle to access these beautiful places with ease, comfort and style.”

    “I paddle out there nearly every day and know the area intimately, being able to pick the right route on any given day is a dark art around here and I truly believe my success is down to my knowledge of the weather, wind and landscape that I love so much.”

    Perhaps because he isn’t originally from here, Barry has an unquenchable drive to explore his adoptive region – ideally from the water, of which Sligo has no limits! From glamping on a secluded island to kayaking under the stars to exploring inlets, crannogs and coves up close, Barry enjoys showing off the little-known wonders of Sligo’s waterways to all who visit.

    “The coastal estuaries and inland lakes are home to so many forests and secluded islands and I now get to call these places my office! The look of enjoyment and accomplishment people feel at learning a new skill in such a beautiful environment is something that will never grow old for me,” he claims. “Lots of people go on to buy their own kayaks and canoes after they have done a tour with us, it’s a life changing thing for a lot of people. For me, it’s a dream come true.”

    What to visit the region of Sligo yourself? Why not join our self guided cycling journey through the Wilds of Sligo? Talk to us about adding a kayaking adventure to your trip.

    Watch our Insider's Ireland Video Series

    Episode 1
    Taste of the Southwest

    Episode 2
    The Aran Islands

    Episode 3
    The Wilderness Guide

    John Fitzgerald - Seaweed Forager & Fisherman

    John Fitzgerald on the water

    The man himself – John Fitzgerald on the water.

    Who is John Fitzgerald?

    Meet John Fitzgerald, seaweed expert, nature lover, and local historian. Lucky enough to live on the Wild Atlantic Way, John developed a deep love fishing and boating early in life, spending summers as a kid going fishing with his family.

    “No matter how much you learn, there’s always more to learn,” John says. “My wife and I used to go fishing together – the sea brought us together. After a while we started paying more attention to the ocean and nature and started learning more about it. It was a snowball effect – the more we learned, the more we wanted to know! So I’ve been running seaweed foraging and fishing tours for 10 years now.”

    Asked to speak at a conference about the Wild Atlantic Way and seaweed, he is renowned across the island as one of Ireland’s leading experts on seaweed and plant life in the ocean.

    Seaweed foraging + gourmet fishing

    A yummy dish of fresh fish, whipped up by John and his wife.

    Why seaweed?

    Not only can he give you the history of seaweed from ancient times to today, explain its natural properties and its health benefits, he can also show you how to eat it! But his passion and knowledge extends past just seaweed. If you want to know what is edible that comes out of the Atlantic Ocean, John’s your man. From sea radishes to sea spinach and sea rocket, as well as coastal wild edible plants such as aster, rock samphire and seabeets – John loves to share these tasty green treats with visitors to the Kingdom of Kerry.

    While some edible plants can be eaten as one walks along the shore, others need a bit more preparation. Some foraged plants can be combined with fish to create gourmet dishes like ceviche or sashimi, a picnic delicacy enjoyed on a deserted island or quiet beach.

    Along the way, John showcases his other passion – that of local mythology and storytelling, bringing the landscapes alive with tales from Irish legend and history. Once John Fitzgerald gets to talking about local legends, the ocean and its plants, there’s no stopping him.

    Want to experience the magic of seaweed foraging and gourmet fishing in Kerry’s hidden coastlines and islands? Join our Kerry self drive to meet John Fitzgerald yourself. 

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    Gerard Bourke - Connemara Sheep Farmer

    Connemara mountains sheep farm

    The old road winding through the rugged hills to Connemara’s Lost Valley.

    Who is Gerard Bourke?

    “My name is Gerard Bourke, and I was born and reared here in the Lost Valley, where I farm livestock as my family have done for over three hundred years,” Gerard says by way of introduction. Tradition is important to Gerard as it is to most rural people in Ireland. Passed down through families and maintained by villages and communities, the people of Ireland’s rural regions such as the backcountry of Connemara have long been bastions of tradition.

    Gerard Bourke is shaped not only by tradition and heritage, but also by the past, and its effect on the landscape and culture. “All the inhabitants including my own family were evicted in 1851 to create an extensive grazing farm,” Gerard explains matter-of-factly. “My great-great-grandfather Michael Bourke returned to work as a herd’s man and my grandfather eventually acquired ownership of the valley, but it has always been run as a grazing farm.”

    For over three hundred years, the Bourke family trekked over a mile on foot across the rough mountain terrain of Connemara to reach the secluded farm. It was impossible to bring machinery into the valley, and so the history and the way of life of these Celtic inhabitants was written on the landscape and the Irish agricultural tradition in the Lost Valley remains pristine and untouched.

    “It is a very great privilege for me to display and interpret this history for our visitors and observe them enjoy the natural beauty of the place,” Bourke remarks.

    Sheep farming

    Herding the sheep.

    What is the Lost Valley?

    Nicknamed the Lost Valley, Gerard’s farm has an amazing variety of natural landscapes and spectacular scenery. According to Gerard, it is the ‘Theatre of the Gods,’ and added to this it is also absolutely steeped in authentic Irish history.

    The Lost Valley is not only unrivalled in its extraordinary natural beauty but is arguably the finest memorial of the Great Famine that remains today, with its long deserted famine village and multitude of potato ridges that have laid undisturbed and unattended since the famine, in such a picturesque setting overlooking the Wild Atlantic Ocean. From its striking scenic beauty and rich cultural heritage to its insightful and interactive telling of life on the farm, the Lost Valley is an unforgettable immersive experience like no other.

    “I absolutely love the splendour of this secluded valley which has been preserved and protected by our family for centuries,” he gushes. “As I said before, I’m very passionate about our history. Here in the valley we are walking quite literally amongst the relics of the past.”

    Visit the magic of Connemara, Galway, the Burren and more, and get the chance to meet Gerard at his sheep farm on our Connemara self drive adventure. 

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    Join Us In Ireland

    Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

    American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture and sweeping landscapes of Ireland. Armed with a Masters Degree in Tourism Marketing and a love of writing and photography, she is Wilderness Ireland's Marketing Executive since 2017.

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