It started out so well, and it only got better when it went wrong. The short walk with my parents in Irish woods last month now ranks in my mind alongside long expeditions through dense rainforests.
We were in Ireland’s County Limerick, in whose green hills and fields my Dad roamed as a child. He used to ramble up the flank of the Seefin mountain and look down into the Golden Vale, a wide stretch of fertile farmland that reaches across three Irish counties. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, this part of it was his playground. He forged the greatest gift he could ever give me in this crucible.
My parents had gone to Ireland to extend Dad’s 70th birthday celebrations so I joined them for a weekend trip that was long overdue. It was only my third visit to my Dad’s homeland in my 37 years, and my first since 1995. I expected a quiet time but I got a small adventure, a new view of my parents and a fresh insight into my origins.
On the Saturday morning we struck out with an easy mission in mind. We would start mid-mountain and stroll along a gentle path through the forest to descend into Ardpatrick, a village with a pub for lunch and a pint of Guinness. But soon it seemed we might never reach our watering hole in time. Our simple walk had turned into a journey into the unknown, in a place where no clock could command us.
Soon after I took the photograph above, the path thinned then vanished beneath our feet. We had taken a wrong turn but we didn’t turn back. We followed instead our instincts and plunged downhill into an eerie landscape of moss-covered trees, long-redundant walls and boggy soil that threatened to steal our shoes. Fresh deer tracks spelled out messages in the mud. They told us few people trod there these days.
Each step carried us further from the path we had planned to tread. As we moved more off-course we found our way blocked again and again by mud or dense vegetation. We talked about the Guinness that waited for us in the pub as we zig-zagged our way downhill. In my mind I could already taste the black magic, but as the minutes ticked by the cold pint seemed ever more remote. We sucked instead on butterscotch sweets and mints. It was all we had brought.
After about an hour we descended a slope that was too steep to climb back up. It was the point of no return. Tangles of trees crowded in and challenged us to find a way through their density. We stooped to pass beneath low branches. We took care not to tread in mud or nettles — or on loose rocks that threatened to sprain our ankles. Nature forced us to live in the moment and the moment was good.
I don’t know if my parents felt it too but my senses seemed sharper as each stride took me somewhere I had never been — a powerful contrast to the semi-automatic minutes I increasingly spend in my commute, career and even conversations. Every vista was a virgin, a scene unseen before by human eyes. It existed only for us, at that moment, and then changed as fresh leaves fell and insects occupied our footprints as we passed.
I love to be surrounded by trees, wrapped in nature, anonymous in the wild. When I was a child my family would often go for a walk in the woods, but in my homeland on the island of Jersey there is no wood big enough to get lost in. This was different. The forest stoked a flame inside me, and perhaps in my parents too.
I don’t see them much these days and to be alone with them in this special place and circumstance was magical. No chore could call us apart. We were primates again, a small group of kin moving through new territory and overcoming each challenge together.
We found old abandoned buildings. One was slowly being torn apart by a tree that grew out of its side. We heard finches calling in the trees, and we saw rabbits that streaked across the ground and easily outpaced my parent’s ageing dog. Perhaps the deer watched us from the shadows and wondered what we were.
My Dad was channelling his inner explorer. He had found — as he always does — a perfect walking stick and he was always at the front, testing the ground: our scout. As he led my Mum and me through the forest and told us about the places he had played as a boy, there was youth in his stride.
Inside, my Mum was groaning, I’m sure. A day of leaping across small streams had not been on the agenda and her shoes would agree. But she put on a brave face and commented on the wildflowers and only mentioned a search-and-rescue helicopter twice.
“I’m a townie,” she said later, when my Dad mocked her gently and said it was unlikely she would be invited on an expedition to explore the Orinoco River. But I’m proud of the way she did things I never thought I would see her do — like hanging from mossy branches to lower herself down steep muddy banks.
We could never see far ahead but my Dad carried in his head a mental compass he had crafted as a child. He led and we followed. After two and a half hours of stumbling lost through the tree, we emerged through a field and onto a road. We had only travelled half of the way to our intended destination. From there we trod the quiet country road to Ardpatrick and soon reached the Greenwood Inn where a pint of cold pint of Guinness was our reward.
That night we ate and then drank with relatives I had never met before or had last seen 17 years earlier. They included two of my Dad’s cousins who had just passed the same 70-year milestone as him. It was beautiful to see these three men laugh and joke like the boys who had played together all over their part of the Golden Vale decades ago.
When I looked down at that landscape from the mountain I told my parents I had forgotten its beauty since my last visit. My mum pointed out that perhaps I did not appreciate it as much before. She was both wrong and right, but ultimately right, in that way she tends to be.
When I first saw that mountain and heard its birdsong I had just graduated with a biology degree and was in love with its wildlife — I saw a badger for the first time there and the experience is etched in my mind. I appreciated its beauty back then, but Mum was right. It mattered to me more this time.
It’s because what struck me hard now — and for the first time — was the fact that my Dad had left this Eden. In 1964, on his 22nd birthday, he left his country, not to study at university or to chase a beautiful woman — though in time he found and married her. He wasn’t following a dream so much as an imperative.
Ireland was poor then. My Dad’s home had no electricity and plenty of mouths to feed. So he left out of necessity, to seek work in the world. He had made hard decisions and sacrifices as he created a new life in another culture, on the tiny island of Jersey, which has no mountains, lakes or forests — few echoes of his home. It was a new life that had as one of its products me, and I write this in gratitude to him.
Because as I grew up, safe and well fed my Dad worked seven days a week. He drove buses, and then cement mixers, and then buses again, often late into the night. But he still found time to take me and my sister on walks in the island’s little woods, and in doing so he gave us both the eternal gift of his love for nature.
As I drank my share of Guinness on the night of our journey through the forest, I drank too from the deep well of Irish pride that has always been open to me. As a half-English / half-Irish / all-Jersey mongrel with no nation to call my own, I will always carry some drops of it in my blood. One of those drops of pride is that my Dad’s name – Shanahan — has its roots in an Irish word that is usually translated as ‘old’ but in the interpretations I favour, means ‘wise’.
I got a new glimpse of my Dad’s wisdom on that weekend. He drew on it and shared it, as effortless as a breath, as we wound our way down the mountain through the trees. I realise now that it is wisdom that has long guided him: Keep on… don’t turn back… you can never get lost… if you know where you are going… and you know where you have come from.
Happy birthday Dad. Keep on keeping on.