Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way
Going back in time on Ireland’s west coast
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,
AT KILMALKEDAR CHURCH, YOU CAN TOUCH A TALL GRAVESTONE WITH OGHAM WRITING, A STONE SUNDIAL, AND AN ANCIENT ALPHABET STONE WITH SIXTHCENTURY LATIN WRITING.
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).