Fulfilling a childhood ambition, in 1984 Hilary Bradt set off on a horseriding adventure down the west coast of Ireland. The trip's triumphs are disasters are chronicled in Hilary's books Connemara Mollie and Dingle Peggy.
Both of these narratives take place in the mid 1980s, but have just been written. Why did you wait so long to write them?
There’s a story there. After I got back from the trip I sat down with my diary and maps and wrote the book in pencil in two large notebooks. When I was asked to house sit for friends in London I took the manuscript with me to do some final revision. But as I was unpacking the car, I left the box containing the manuscript and some other stuff on a wall. By the time I realized where it was it had gone. Distraught, I put up notices offering a reward and was sure someone would return it, but no luck. So my friend contacted a dowser, an old gypsy who dangled a crystal over a map, and told her the manuscript was in a school nearby. She talked to the head teacher but no one knew anything about it. But six months later I got a call from the chap I’d been house-sitting for and he said a youth had arrived at his door with the manuscript and asking if the reward was still on offer. So I got it back – but I still don’t know what happened, whether he was a schoolboy, and why he waited so long before returning it. But when I read through it again I realized that it needed a lot more work, so put it in the loft waiting to have time to work on it. And there it stayed.
You rode both of the ponies for hundreds of miles in rural Ireland. How has the countryside changed since your journeys in the mid ‘80s?
The countryside itself has changed very little; it’s the house-building that has been so intrusive. During the boom years it seems that everyone abandoned their traditional white thatched cottage and built a modern bungalow nearby. So the countryside is littered with these architecturally uninspiring yellow rectangular homes.
Could an adventurous person recreate your trip today? Or has dramatic change occurred in rural Ireland since your trip?
A rider these days attempting to retrace my route – or devise their own – would find it both easier and harder. The easier part is that there are now very good maps and they would have no problem finding tracks with no obstructions. The harder part is that there is far more traffic, even on the minor roads, so parts of the ride would be quite dangerous. If I were to advise someone planning a similar trip I would say work with one of the companies that organise walking holidays and use their knowledge to tell you which paths are obstacle-free.
All of the photos in both books show sunny, blues skies – doesn’t it rain all the time in Ireland? What did you do in inclement weather?
I was just incredibly lucky! 1984 was one of the driest summers on record in Ireland. I had wet weather gear designed for cyclists, but when it did rain it turned out to be not that efficient and I got wet. Both ponies hated the rain as well so I was doubly lucky. I remember one time it was pouring and I passed a huge barn with its door open and a man working inside. I just rode into the barn and asked if I could spend the night there.
© Hilary Bradt
How would describe the differences between Mollie, your first horse and Peggy, the second?
They were very different personalities. Mollie was solid, dependable, and rather phlegmatic. Peggy was a great extrovert, always neighing at other horses and, once we’d bonded, at me. And she was exceptionally intelligent and knew exactly how to get her own way.
You weave together both Irish history and mythology in your narrative. How did you come to learn so much about the past?
When you are visiting a new country, interest in their history and culture is part of the journey, and of course the history of Great Britain and Ireland are interwoven. When I visited historic houses I did my best to learn more about Irish history, and I spent a lot of time working in reference libraries after I returned home. Now of course the internet has made it so much easier. The mythology was and is always fascinating, especially if recounted by the Irish that I met.
How experienced were you with horses when you took the trip? Did you have your own horse?
I hadn’t kept a horse for 20 years and hadn’t even ridden regularly for ten years or so. That was the scariest part really – that I was responsible for this animal that was completely dependent on me.
What has the journey taught you?
The kindness of strangers. More than any other trip I’ve made, I was dependent on the local people to provide a field for the pony and my tent each night. I always hated asking, but was very rarely rebuffed and almost everyone went out of their way to be friendly and helpful. The hospitality I received was truly remarkable and that, I think, is one of the most heartwarming aspects of the books. It’s left me with an enduring affection for Ireland and the Irish. Also the ride taught me how much we have to learn from horses, if we only take the time to understand what they are trying to tell us.
How was the experience of writing the books after all these years?
Incredibly emotional. Reliving the triumphs and disasters, particularly one exceptional disaster, was quite draining. I shed many tears in the writing of it.
You travelled alone. Was this by choice or necessity?
Both, really. My marriage had recently broken up and I wanted to prove to myself that I could travel on my own again. And I didn’t know anyone who would want, or be able to, take a couple of months off to ride around Ireland.
Did you travel on a prearranged route with a fixed goal?
No prearranged route. That was something I knew I didn’t want to do. I wanted the complete freedom that comes from not knowing where you’re going to spend the night and to be open to suggestions and serendipity. It was the right decision.