I never imagined today would be easy. James assured me I was only an hour or so from Portumna when I set out from Lorrha; but over the last few days, as I have been alluding to, my shins had somehow morphed into bars of iron, gradually being heated from within by each step I took. Within half a mile from Lorrha, i would have estimated the iron bars to have reached a nice cherry red color; the muscle spasms had become nearly constant. I walked as if I were a dressage horse, toe-heel, toe-heel, to quiet the worst of it, but still, the last 4-5 miles of the day were going to be long ones – and slow ones.
But like I said, I kind of expected something like this today.
O’Sullivan’s story is told in bits and pieces, here and there. The rough outline is easy enough – last clan leader who has not yet bent knee goes on the run, books it two thirds of the way up the country to escape his enemies, encounters extreme hardship and loss of life. But if you’re going to get more granular about what that hardship looks like… well. You have to break it down into incidents. And of the incidents, perhaps the most frequently related is the crossing of the Shannon.
The Shannon is not like the rivers I have crossed so far on the journey. She is not a wading river, or a swimming river, or a fording on horseback river. The Shannon, to be profanely blunt, is a big motherfucker of a river. When I think about rivers on this scale, I think of the Columbia at home, the demarking line between Washington and Oregon, which takes a noticable amount of time to cross in a vehicle driving over a very long bridge. The Shannon isn’t as big as the Columbia, but its closer than anything I have come across so far.
When Donal Cam reached the Shannon, there was no nice bridge waiting. He and his followers camped on the shore for two nights, making the hard decision to slaughter a dozen of their few remaining horses in order to use their skins in building a boat. Even as they completed their work and began the crossing – 28 people at a time, for the boat was not a large one – they were harried by the Queen’s Sherriff in Tipperary, who O’Sullivan’s host somehow managed to fight off and kill. Even after the crossing was complete, they met further opposition, forcing them to move along without respite. Oh, and let’s keep in mind – this was in the dead of winter. Not the cheeriest time to be on the water.
So you see, if we’re following along with the story, one infers this little phase of the journey might not be a total cakewalk. On top of the whole shins experience, it seemed weirdly appropriate that this would also be the point at which my phone (and its charger) died. As I made my way along the roads, following the turns and landmarks that James had described for me, I felt the absence of my technological safety net. I mean, really, I would never be at risk of getting truly lost – at no point today would I be so far away from another human being that I couldn’t get to someone and ask for help. But not having my usual navigation systems seemed to leave a quiet space around me as I walked, a space in which I imagined O’Sullivan’s exhausted host, uncertain of how they would make the crossing ahead, praying for relief if they could just make it over the river, from Munster into Connaught.
“You all right?” he asked, eying the stranger who had just let herself through his gate.
“I think so,” I said, a bit nervously. “Just trying to walk to Portumna.”
He nodded, face relaxing. “Just keep going how you’re going. You’ll be coming along the bog road. You’ve got a beautiful walk – keep your eyes open for the next twenty or forty minutes, some beautiful nature up ahead. Just close any gates you open, all right? And watch out when you reach the main road. It’s not for too long but it’s dangerous there.” As I made to finish re-twisting the wires on the gate he waved me on with a smile. “Don’t worry, I’ll get this. Enjoy your walk.”
Thanking him, I continued on my way. My photos took on something of a theme for this next bit.
Eventually the fields game way to forest, and the lambs gave way to trees.
But we did. And then it was time for a moderately terrifying walk along the narrow verges of N65.
Now, James had routed me smartly. He’d dropped me onto the highway because there is no way into Portumna that does not involve highway because that is just a Thing, apparently, with trails and Irish cities of any size (refer back to Tipperary). But he had set me up with a long straight stretch where cars could see me from very far away – no blind turns that made my walking along a much smaller highway earlier today so terrifying. Though I would not say I ENJOYED this by any means, because I absolutely did not and was hobbling along as fast as my enraged legs would permit, it was… semi-tolerable and less horrible than I might have feared. Vehicles did, in fact, see me, and by and large they gave me a good berth – or if they couldn’t, due to oncoming traffic, they slowed way down. There were even a few spots where houses alongside the road had lay-bys that I could walk along.
Anyway. I limped my way along N65, a slow moving one woman traffic impediment, until I crossed a final intersection and landed on sidewalk.
But here I was. On the home stretch. I hadn’t gotten lost, I hadn’t been smushed to death by a lorry, my shins had not actually detached themselves in sheer rage and flown out of my legs to go frolick with the lambs or the trees, and now I had a straight shot to the Shannon.
I laughed as I approached it, feeling a lightness wash over me. Whatever else I do or don’t do, I have walked from Castletownbere to the Shannon.
Surrounded by water and sky, I felt the reality of my progress seeming to land on me, all at once.
It felt as if the very sun itself approved.
And of course I had another mile to go to get into town proper…
But I limped along cheerfully. I enjoyed my time in County Tipperary – more than I might have imagined – but it felt good to cross over the line.
And perhaps even more meaningful to me than the county line crossing, I had officially reached the next section of the Beara Breifne Way! Though I won’t start it for a couple of days yet. Still – g’bye Ormond Way!
Finally I reached Portumna City Center
And its huge church
And its other church
I staggered into my B&B gratefully, where my bag awaited me (thank you James!) And I crashed gratefully into the sleep of someone who not only reached an exciting milestone, but who is not going to walk again tomorrow. And it was good.