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Food for the soul in Munster Vales, Ireland’s newest tourism region

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Coumshingaun Loop Walk in the Comeragh Mountains

One could forgive the rest of the country, especially the hospitality trade, for becoming a little bit chippy about the 24 carat gold coast that is the Wild Atlantic Way.

Backed by a multi-year and multi-million euro advertising campaign and savvy use of social media and YouTube as well as, of course, a fantastically compelling bill of fare, the west coast is now a global brand recognised from Taipei to the Tijuana.

Then, when it couldn’t get any better, Luke Skywalker fetches up on Skellig Michael and a new demographic of big spending Star Wars fans descend on the south west.

The Force is definitely with the Wild Atlantic Way and even in the last week, the Failte Ireland four-week spring campaigns for the British and German markets began, heavily featuring the wild west.

After the success of the WAW along came Ireland’s Ancient East as a heavily marketed destination gathering more traction now and the object of a separate international campaign based around the theme of ‘Great Stories Stay With You Forever’. Money follows money, they say.

But with the west and the east coasts now chock-full of light sabre wielding “teens” up to pension age and coach parties of German, French and US retirees blocking the boreens of Connemara, there are still large unexplored chunks of the country left to be explored in relative tranquillity.

That includes the Munster Vales in the heart of old Ireland, the swathe of dramatic, historic and mythical territory incorporating the Comeragh, Knockmealdown, Galtee, Ballyhoura and Nagles mountain ranges.

Despite years on the road as a newsman this is something of an undiscovered country for me – especially when you follow your nose away from the main traffic routes.

And so we found ourselves in the charming town of Doneraile, only eight clicks off the main Cork-Limerick Road which is apparently the place where the first steeplechase was run when the gentry and various other Flurry Knox types first thought of the grand idea of racing horses from the spire in Doneraile to the steeple in Buttevant.

It’s a village worthy of exploration but the jewel in the crown is Doneraile Park, around 400 acres of landscaped parkland which wraps itself around part of the village and hugs the River Awbeg, a generous and meandering tributary of the Blackwater that is brimful of wildlife, especially waterfowl.

Our guides were Michael O’Sullivan and Myra Ryall, two leading lights of an astonishingly hard working local group who are helping to bring the 18th Century landscaped park to a wider audience. There’s a number of deer herds, quiet groves of deciduous trees, water features and utterly charming walks in and around Doneraile Court, the ancestral home of the St Leger family, whose vibrant history is well worth exploring.

As part of a summer’s day trip or a more extensive exploration of the region, Doneraile Park is a sumptuous little prize.

Before the weather closed in we took a short 5km ramble in the lower reaches of the Ballyhoura mountains nearby but the thin mid-winter sun of that day was doused by a pewter cloud coming up from the south which promised and then delivered a sharp shower that had us sheltering under the trees and then making a mad dash to the car.

We were staying that night in Raheen House Hotel over the border from Cork into Tipp and a stone’s throw from the centre of Clonmel.

It’s a small 17th Century manor house-type hotel set in landscaped gardens with 15 individually decorated bedrooms, including ours which boasted a proper period four-poster that could have been liberated from the set of Downton Abbey.

We were still a little damp from our ill-fated jaunt in the foothills but a couple of hot whiskeys in front of a roaring log fire with the Sunday supplements and, for me, the last climactic chapters of the latest Lee Child Jack Reacher adventure, warmed us before the menus arrived for dinner.

Darcy’s restaurant at Raheen House is a lovely intimate and romantic room with high ceilings and stucco plasterwork.

The chefs like to showcase local ingredients and artisan producers from the wider Munster region. The wine list is eclectic and well priced. I think we chose a white Bordeaux but it was so good further detail escapes me.

There was time for a nightcap in our, by now, favourite fireside chairs.

Doneraile Park is magnificent

The following morning we were planned to take on a walk in the Comeragh mountains – this time dressed rather more appropriately for a December hike.

It didn’t look particularly promising as Clonmel, shrouded in cloud and a fairly constant drizzle, was left behind and we climbed steadily to our meeting point.

Our guide was Mario of muddybootsguidedwalking.com. They offer guided tours across the whole Munster Vales but today we were headed to do most of the Coumshingaun Loop Walk.

It is within the ambit of most moderately fit people but like every other walk, not one you should think about doing in flip flops and a summer dress. A bit of luck is a godsend and while we could see heavy showers falling in the valleys and vales around us we stayed dry and there was even a bit of sunshine, as we stopped frequently to take in the stunning views.

Little prepares you for the stunning centrepiece of this walk, the corrie lake trapped within the Comeraghs and formed by the movement of glaciers a few hundred thousand moons ago.

Mario, also a talented and enthusiastic photographer, was a fount of knowledge about the area. It says something of the undiscovered delights of the Munster Vales that we spotted just two other walkers.

The stark, almost forbidding, beauty of Coumshingaun will stay us for a long time.

independent.ie

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