WICKLOW — Not even the most clairvoyant of gypsies could have predicted this maelstrom. Under a torrential summer deluge I had arrived in the wilds of Wicklow at twilight, navigating the county’s glens toward a remote stable yard in the Clara Valley.
I had come on the cusp of a new wave of Irish nostalgia in which Irish traveler caravans had emerged as the nation’s latest trend and ecofriendly staycation. A self-drive horse holiday through the garden of Ireland? It had the hallmarks of unbridled adventure.
I was welcomed at the stables by Neasa Clissmann, who pulled her jeep up next to mine. Both of us hesitated to leave the refuge of our vehicles. “We moved your wagon here so you wouldn’t get stuck out in the field,” she said through rolled-down windows.
Clissmann and her family (originally from Germany) have been hiring out horse-drawn wagons to road-tripping romantics since 1969, and two years ago the ebullient 29-year-old took over the business.
“We get all sorts coming here,” she said. “Families, honeymooners, hipsters; everything from a Swiss gentleman who has been holidaying here for 27 years to a wealthy Frenchwoman who rode the wagon by day and stayed at the Ritz-Carlton by night.” (I hoped the weather wouldn’t necessitate a similar upgrade on my part.)
Holidays last from a long weekend to a number of weeks with the first night spent right on the farm while adjusting to caravan life. Despite cutting a rather forlorn figure in the rain-soaked yard, my new mobile abode was a resplendent replica of the traditional gypsy wagons used by Irish travelers until the 1970s. Behind its shuttered windows, draped with gingham curtains, a glowing gas lamp beckoned.
Leaving my jeep, I quickly clambered aboard to escape the downpour. The caravan’s interior was arrestingly humble, albeit with a level of space efficiency that would inspire an IKEA design team. A tiny kitchen with a sink and a two-burner stove adjoined a dinette that, come nightfall, transformed into a double bed. “We’ve tried to stay true to the original as much as possible,” Clissmann said, pointing out the absence of the old queenie stove and wooden wagon wheels. There was no refrigerator or electricity. Showers and restrooms were located a puddle dash across the yard.
That night, cozily cocooned in woolen blankets, I was coming all the closer to channeling the metalsmiths and fortune-tellers who once had gallivanted across these lands. I nodded off to a soothing rainfall on the wagon’s canvas roof.
By the next morning cotton-clouded blue skies cloaked the land. Peering outside, I saw Clissmann approaching from across the pasture with my much awaited partner. Enter Henry, a charcoal gelding whose robust 15-hand stature grew with every approaching step. All of the Clissmann stock are Irish Cobs, a native breed known for their docile and hard-working traits. Many of the Cobs are still bought from local traveler families. “In one case, my mum used to buy horses from the father, and now I’m buying horses from his son,” Clissmann explained.
With most wagon renters having no equestrian experience, a morning training session on horse handling and carriage driving is necessary. Senior stableman John Colohan Jr. led me through the motions of how to harness, yoke, and drive the horse. Once Henry was fully tacked up, we were off.
We jaunted along under a woodland canopy, Henry’s clip-clop chorusing with the chime of silverware and crockery jostling within the carriage. There may have been some initial rookie apprehensions — negotiating the first crossroads, the first vehicle, the first incline — but driving the cumbersome caravan ultimately proved manageable, and Henry maneuvered any obstacles with seasoned aplomb.
Route options include the coastal paths along Brittas Bay and the forests of Wicklow Mountains National Park. I opted to venture a little deeper into the county’s rolling farmland to the town of Garryduff.
Perched on the jockey box, with a view over stone walls and hedgerows, I enjoyed idyllic pastoral panoramas as we rambled. Once the sun emerged the countryside was resplendent. Wild rhododendrons and elderflowers bloomed in vibrant bolts of burgundy and magnolia; freshly sheered sheep grazed alongside ancient Celtic ruins; and ponies in every shade roamed meadows of buttercups. Ireland had never looked so splendid.
En route, Henry was permitted to saunter up to 12 miles per day, requiring a short break on the hour. The latter was occasionally at his own whim, particularly when passing a grassy expanse too tempting to pass by. A deep-bellied salvo generally got us back on track. Traffic, including the occasional tractor, rarely spelled trouble. It was generally fellow tourists who caused an impasse as they cautiously motored past with gazes of both curiosity and envy.
I had planned our overnight at the scenic foothills of Carrick Mountain, home to retired dairy farmers Brendan and Sheila Byrne. The farm is part of a community of a dozen or so inns, parks, and farms across Wicklow that provide caravans with parking and pasture for about $30 a night. Traditional Irish hospitality awaited with Sheila offering some of her fresh-baked brown bread. “I’ll have it ready when I’m back from Mass tomorrow,” she vowed.
With Henry set out to graze on clover for the evening along with the resident donkey, I set up camp, rustling up some market fare procured on the way. Now truly of the land, I enjoyed a nightcap of herbal tea, brewed from freshly foraged nettles.
The next morning, Brendan Byrne, a sprightly man of 86, supervised Henry’s tacking up for the return leg. It was quite a physical operation mounting the hames and harness, fixing the breeching and the bridle. With a little patience, I was soon on the road again to farewells of “Safe home” and “God bless.”
By the time I’d looped back toward the Clissmann farm, Henry was on auto-pilot, navigating the homeward byroads and hillocks under minimal command. As his two-beat canter lulled me into a sense of wistfulness, I realized that on this journey I had time-traveled to an Ireland of a not-so-distant yesteryear when gypsy wagons trundled the countryside and my father rode the pony and cart to Sunday Mass.
Horsemanship was in all of our bloodlines. I had come back to my roots by simply taking hold of the reins.