"It's a great way to see Ireland."
"No it isn't, all you see are the pebbles on the road."
When my wife Cait O'Riordan announced her intention to walk 402 miles I was naturally curious as to who would instigate such an undertaking. That man was Ronnie Kearns who last year walked from Malin Head to Mizen Head. Ronnie had made the trip alone and the money he raised went to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland. This year they advertised for candidates to repeat the feat.
By the time I joined the walk in Tulsk, Co Roscommon, some 200 miles had been covered by the 19 new recruits. Having trained together since March and forsaking their summer holidays, the unlikely collection of civil servants, a bus driver, a garda, librarian, three nurses, a postman and a captain in the army, among others, were transformed into 'The Duke', 'Doris Day', 'Captain Nemo' and 'The Yeti', retracing the footsteps of their 'Fearless Leader'.
These nicknames were gentle but essential fun, with a contagious ability to lighten the brain and foot-numbing miles of potholes, tarmac, gravel and uncharitable drivers. We gave the nickname "The Princess" to a young lady with enough luggage for a fortnight on the French Riviera and an uncanny sense of any pea-like object beneath her sleeping bag.
As the new arrival in the baggy trousers I was christened Ali Baba. All was detailed to the support team with Dessie the driver and psychiatrist, and nurse and cartoonist Marie. As Ali, I toiled over a hot morning fry-up as the walkers attended to the inevitable vicious blisters and strain.
Since the climate offered a choice between a stroll through the Irish Sea and a walk in the Gobi Desert of Tipperary, their plight was aggravated by the Department of Confusing Signs' bewildering somersaults of arithmetic which always seemed to leave a town further away than it had been five miles previously. Nevertheless, walking stages of between 22 and 31 miles the money already donated through sponsorship was augmented by fund-raising efforts of the local MS Society members.
I arrived with a sense of trepidation fuelled by a glib and cheap press story. Cait O'Riordain had been generously sponsored by U2. But to read the Evening Herald one would imagine U2 were about to be beamed down upon the parched plains of Offaly, the overlooked point being that all the walkers' sponsorship money was of the same value. Elsewhere; a 31 miles slog was reduced to 20 by someone in a comfortable newspaper office, more anxious to attach an attention-grabbing celebrity name, no matter how tenuous the connection. These potentially cruel and demoralising forgotten as the walkers pressed on to their objective.
Sadly, a few sell-promoting dignatories along the route expected the slower walkers to kill themselves for the privilege of sharing "photo-opportunities". And hard-working local MS Society members were sometimes bewildered by confusing directives from the Dublin office. Despite this, the walkers managed a weary lap of honour behind the welcoming pipe and drum band in the streets of Nenagh.
Having added Roving Radio Reporter for the Dave Fanning Show to that of cook, I infiltrated the dusty portals of RTE Radio 1 only to be met with flip suggestions of cheating, and idiotic questions about the death of Elvis Presley. Listening in Kiely's Bar in Drimoleague the assembled walkers cast off the attempted slights and went on to enjoy a warm and, lucratively charitable welcome in the remaining miles of West Cork leading to Mizen Head.
• Any last minute sponsors can donate directly to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland, 2 Sandymount Green. Dublin 2.