It’s Sunday afternoon. Unrelenting rain. I put aside my fourth finished book in two days as the clouds stubbornly cling to the Shannon. Not adjusted to spending most of my time indoors, I’m restless; desiring sun, just one full day of sun. The evergreen countryside and mild climate of Ireland comes with the price of constant moisture. Lazily, the clouds separate. Without a second thought I bolt out the door, not certain where I’m headed, but anxious to have an adventure and let my thoughts wander as freely as my feet. My apartment is just next to the river, and as I cross it I notice the pedestrian bridge just downstream is still closed. Underwater during last semester’s floods, the city still hasn’t come up with the funds to repair it. Luckily, the flooding only came into the elevator shafts of my village and not into the ground level.
Striking north, I walk briskly along a portion of Lough Derg Way–a network of paths that stretch from Limerick around Lough Derg to the northeast. About three miles behind me, the path has humble origins in the heart of the city, lined with loose bricks and flanked by overlapping layers of colorful graffiti. Far from the political and manicured murals of Belfast, the spray paint ranges from obscene words and gang symbols to representations of plants and comic book characters–a terrifying, yet beautiful menagerie. It typifies the struggle of troubled youth who paradoxically look for creative freedom through a destructive outlet, until the poor reputation of “Stab City” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If only Limerick was the sole city with this problem, but having a convenient nickname makes it an easy scapegoat.
I mentally trace Lough Derg Way as it comes out of the city, having run on it many times in training for the Athens marathon. It runs parallel to a malodorous canal (supposedly running through a bird refuge), turns into asphalt and shortly doubles as a road. Gradually the sounds of cars die out, the swans float out of the canal into the Shannon River under a white metal bridge. Now graveled, it winds upriver to the university campus, the start of my afternoon journey. Shaking my thoughts clear from the violence of the city, I actively try to take in the fresh air, sights, smells, and sounds of the countryside. The gravel path yields to more back roads with farmland dotted here and there by a country house. A farmer and his wife take advantage of the clear weather and clear weeds along a wall. I can see an afternoon tea laid out through the window of the traditionally thatched, whitewashed home.
After cutting across a sheep pasture, I climb up the side of hill to find a canal on the opposite side; a diversion from the river not shown on Google maps. It’s nice to know the internet still doesn’t have all the answers. The grass is grazed short by sheep crowding the steep banks. There are stepladders to hop over each fence as I walk east on the top of the embankment. The town of Clonlara had looked deceptively close, but the sun is already at its zenith. I inspect a large map of the trail system by Shannon Development, which is now as faded as the Celtic Tiger that erected it years ago. Girls passing by ask if I need directions. Even after living in Ireland several months it is obvious I stick out. There are more signs of the recent floods and inability to finance repairs. Swans meander around a broken sluice gate and half-submerged boats.
A young couple sitting by the canal become lost to sight as the path dips under a bridge and along a sunken stream bed, hiding the small strip of beauty from the countryside. All the trees are bare from winter, save for winding ivy and deep-green holly. Weeds enveloped with stout green thorns boast small, soft yellow flowers. Odd, how such a hideous plant can produce such a beautiful flower. The river comes back into view, lined with Sunday fisherman engaged in a contest. A pastel blue and red houseboat floats lazily upriver next to the town of O’Briensbridge. Children are playing in the park next to cultivated river walk. What a fragile thing a peacefully afternoon can be. Soon the clouds will come back. I’ll go home to read about a bomb in Newry (after passing through myself only a few days earlier), debates of the EU on whether to provide loans to Greece, or the latest church scandal stemming from the Murphy Report.
On and on I walk, thoughts racing as the wind picks up speed. It is coming from the southeast, an unusual direction, and brings drier, sweeter air from the middle of the island. I arrive at the outlet of Lough Derg. A wall of concrete and steel diverts some of the water into the calm, controlled canal while the rest spills into the Shannon. Though the expanse of water calls me to explore, the lengthening shadows remind me I must turn back at some point. Strangely, I had also forgotten all about dinner. Craving something warm because of the wind, I stop at a small cafe in O’Briensbridge and order soup and brown bread. This is one of the few times I have ever eaten out alone, and you naturally observe the other customers as a result. An older couple to the right finishes their desert slowly, chatting through the open kitchen door to the owner. A family with a special needs child are enjoying the afternoon at the other table, laughing and animatedly telling stories. The seamless way they interact inspires me to strive for the same with my clients at my music therapy placement.
It is apparent I will not get home before dark, so I take time retracing my steps. Even so, the return journey seems much shorter. Fishermen are returning to their cars, laden with carts, 20-ft fiberglass poles, and relating stories to each other. Conveniently, the stories could be elaborated as all the fish had been released back into the river. The sun sets over the canal, silhouetting sheep against the red water. Compromising my childish impulse, I run breathlessly down the embankment instead of rolling down it. Old couples stray from their houses for a stroll in the half-light now that the wind has ceased. The only sound comes from the occasional cars wait patiently to pass by on the single lane road. I trip more than once trying to catch glimpses of the elusive stars and walk at the same time.
Before long I see the LED lights from the living bridge between the county Clare and county Limerick sides of campus undulating gently up and down with the crossing pedestrians. Also in view are the ruins of a castle tower house not 150 yards from my apartment. It is hard to comprehend how many hundreds of years the structure has stood, still young compared to the earliest settlements in county Limerick 5000-5500 years ago.
The three flights of stairs up to my room conclude a 16 mile walk, just as mist settles around the lampposts outside my window. The moisture has returned. This is Ireland. Today I felt immersed in the culture, concluding it by writing letters home in a newly learned Celtic script. Writing about the spontaneous adventure made me realize just how positively my thoughts changed in the course of one afternoon. Amazing what a little sunshine can do. Any more and I might be tempted to stay longer.