Traversing its 167km from Ballydesmond, on the Cork/Kerry border, to the point where it enters the Celtic Sea, at Youghal, is a stern test which involves overcoming natural and man-made obstacles of bogland, water, bramble, wood, fences and drains.
Retired teacher Jim O’Malley completed the odyssey in seven days and had a few scars to prove it. Along the way, he met farmers, anglers, workmen, shopkeepers, and B&B owners, all of whom him provided him with insights about the storied river and the people living on its banks.
“The countryside is aggressive. It wants to pick a fight with you. It wants to dish out scars and bruises. It wants to give you roughened palms and gritty eyes,” he says.
Hailing from the Killeagh/Youghal area of east Cork, the long-distance walker and environmentalist completed his journey in the early autumn of 2010, starting from the source of the river, a wild, marshy area called Muinganine, near Ballydesmond.
He describes Muinganine as an “unsettled, lonely place inhabited only by the mountain hare, the hovering kestrel and the scarce hen harrier”.
The experience has resulted in a book, Walking The Munster Blackwater, due to be published later this year. Civil servant and writer Annraoi Ó Liatháin penned a book about the river in 1959, but Jim says he is looking at it from a different perspective and a landscape that has been transformed beyond recognition.
Almost step by step and writing with passion and flair, he takes us along the river bank, relating some fascinating historical facts, snippets about geography and geology and pen pictures of the often rugged and wooded landscape.
The towns of Mallow, Fermoy, Lismore, Cappoquin, and Youghal and attractive villages are all featured, while the author also focuses on the changed faced of rural Ireland: crops, mechanisation, the use of herbicides and new breeds of cattle in the Blackwater Valley.
As is the case with most waterways nowadays, he also encounters pollution not too far from the river’s source, with an ugly, brownish algae betraying over-enrichment, while hoping a strong flow will flush the river and prevent harmful substances from gathering.
Jim O’Malley, who lives in Beaufort, Co Kerry, taught in the Intermediate College, Killorglin. Walking the Munster Blackwater, published by Ashford Press, is clearly a labour of love — an illustrated work that will find a treasured place on the bookshelves of walkers, local historians, and anglers.