Ire­land's Wild At­lantic Way

Go­ing back in time on Ire­land’s west coast

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY DIANE YORK

Atrip to the west coast of Ire­land is like step­ping into the sets of Game of Thrones, The Hob­bit or Out­lander. It’s wild and ru­ral, its cas­tles, mon­u­ments, stand­ing stones and forts from the time of Stone­henge are all still ac­ces­si­ble. My great-grand­mother came from Valen­tia, a tiny windswept is­land off the Din­gle Penin­sula, the most west­ern point of land in Europe. It’s called the Wild At­lantic Way be­cause that part of Ire­land was never com­pletely con­quered by Eng­land and na­tive tra­di­tions and the once-out­lawed Gaelic lan­guage pre­vailed. I wanted to take my 15-year-old grand­daugh­ter, Kather­ine (Kat), there to ex­pe­ri­ence the cul­ture our fam­ily came from.

We worked our way west from Shan­non Air­port, be­gin­ning our tour with Bun­ratty Cas­tle, built circa 1425. Kat was de­lighted that no one stopped her from walk­ing the high­est tur­rets of the cas­tle, which gave her a spec­tac­u­lar view of the Shan­non River and miles of County Clare. The ban­quet din­ner that night was great fun— with singers, harpists and ghost sto­ries.

Right up there with top-rated scenic drives in the world are the Ring of Kerry and Slea Head Drive on the Din­gle Penin­sula where we trav­eled next. The air is ex­quis­ite, the land in­tense green, and the skies cloudy, misty, foggy, rain­bowed and sun-show­ered. Stark stone cliffs stand hun­dreds of feet above the crash­ing white surf. We stayed in Din­gle on a sheep farm. The owner’s hus­band gave us a treat by hav­ing his black-and-white Bor­der Col­lie, Joe, round up the sheep in the field and bring them in so Kat c ould hold and pet a new­born lamb. Joe was mag­nif­i­cent as he flew around the field bring­ing the sheep to us.

Slea Head Drive is only 30 miles long but so rich with his­tory, ar­chae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures, beaches and fan­tas­tic views that you can eas­ily

spend sev­eral days here. The land­scape has sev­eral world­fa­mous sites such as the Gal­larus Ora­tory, a stone chapel built be­tween the sixth and ninth cen­turies. Built with­out mor­tar, it’s still wa­ter­tight a thou­sand years later. Dun­beg Stone Fort, a ring fort built in 580 B.C., still stands against the weather and the sea on a spec­tac­u­lar 200-foot cliff. Stone bee­hive huts from the same era dot the hill­sides. At Kilmalkedar Church, you can touch a tall grave­stone with Ogham writ­ing, a stone sun­dial, and an an­cient al­pha­bet stone with sixth-cen­tury Latin writ­ing. In that same area, Kat and I loved the Celtic and Pre­his­toric Mu­seum, a trea­sure trove of an­tiq­ui­ties and fos­sils in­clud­ing Celtic and Vik­ing grave jew­elry. Clough Beach is there too, with its fan­tas­tic geo­met­ric stone for­ma­tions, slashing side­ways along the shore. Fos­sils are vis­i­ble in the rocks.

From Din­gle we fi­nally ac­cessed Valen­tia Is­land. I showed Kat the lit­tle cot­tages, white­washed with lime (as my grand­mother white­washed the stone foun­da­tion of her house in Con­necti­cut). My great-grand­mother had sworn there were palm trees and trop­i­cal plants on Valen­tia and no one be­lieved her. But it’s true—the Gulf Stream hits just right, warm­ing it enough that trop­i­cal plants and palm trees thrive there. We ate in a pub and watched five lo­cal girls with fid­dles per­form what I call Celtic blue­grass.

We saw the lit­tle church where my great-grand­mother would have been mar­ried and where her two Ire­land-born ba­bies would have been bap­tized, the fish­ing boats in the har­bor where two of my great un­cles went out to sea and never came back, their bod­ies washed up and iden­ti­fied by the fam­ily pat­terns on their hand-knit sweaters. We saw the farms, cows, sheep, horses, fields and gar­dens that made up their lives. We saw chil­dren in the fields cut­ting peat for their home fires, and men with Bor­der Col­lies guid­ing sheep and lambs across roads. We saw women work­ing in gar­dens, front yard for flow­ers, back yard for veg­eta­bles, and col­lect­ing the red dulse and car­rageen sea­weed from the shore for soup and soaps. This is where we came from.

Dur­ing the course of two weeks, we stayed at a sheep farm,


horse ranch and cas­tle. We ate in pubs, lis­tened to mu­sic, talked and ate with lo­cals, saw an­tiq­ui­ties, cas­tles and land­scapes out of a sto­ry­book. And they still love us over there: As one shop­keeper said to us when we left, “We will see you now to­mor­row, please God.” And Kat and I had bonded. She said, “I think I’d like to live here!” Award-win­ning writer Diane York has au­thored ar­ti­cles on life­style and health, the arts, and travel for nu­mer­ous re­gional mag­a­zines, med­i­cal jour­nals, and trade pub­li­ca­tions.


The food is great—thanks to a na­tional drive to im­prove Ire­land’s culi­nary rep­u­ta­tion. The mu­sic in the west is ei­ther Johnny Cash coun­try or great Celtic airs. The driv­ing is in­sane. Roads built for don­key carts strug­gle to sus­tain twoway car and bus travel with cliffs over­look­ing the ocean on one side and stone walls on the other. Peo­ple are friendly. Pubs are wel­com­ing and are the so­cial cen­ter of each com­mu­nity. The Ir­ish are fru­gal, and of­ten save on heat!


Many things to love about the Ir­ish in­clude their sense of hu­mor and the po­etry and mu­si­cal­ity of their lan­guage. Gaelic is still widely spo­ken in the west. Pubs are a great place to pick up lo­cal lingo. A “craic” (pro­nounced crack) is a good time with other peo­ple, an “ee­jit” is an id­iot, a “wanker” is a boor. My fa­vorites: “A shower of sav­ages” is an un­ruly mob and “pull your socks up” means get to work.

Kat was de­lighted while walk­ing Bun­ratty Cas­tle tur­rets ( top). The trav­el­ers also paused to play chess at Ball­y­seede Cas­tle, Tralee, be­fore vis­it­ing time­less hill­side vis­tas in such places as Din­gle.

Kat ( above left) and Bor­der Col­lie Joe at a Din­gle farm where the pooch amazed vis­i­tors with his herd­ing skills. The writer also vis­ited cot­tages in Cahir­civeen ( above right) and cen­turies- old Kilmalkedar Church and ceme­ter y.

The writer vis­ited Gal­larus Or­a­tor y in Din­gle (left), a cas­tle ruin in Cahir­civeen, ob­ser ved rid­ers on horse­back at Inch Beach in Din­gle, shared tea with Kat at Bun­ratty Tea House, Shan­non, and toured an­cient Bal­ly­car­ber y Cas­tle in Kerry (be­low).

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