THE WINDSWEPT WILD ATLANTIC WAY
Untamed and utterly divine, Ireland’s west coast is a dramatic procession of deserted beaches and towering cliffs where traditional music and ancient castles abound.
Brave the elements for lesser-known ways, wind-lashed headlands and rugged beaches along Ireland’s west coast
A‘savage beauty’ said Oscar Wilde and it’s certainly true. Ireland’s west coast is battered by Atlantic rollers, strewn with jagged cliffs and littered with wide beaches and sandy coves. It’s a place where inky lakes shelter between mountains, sinew y stone walls clamber across hillsides and trees are frequently bent double by the wind. The roads here are narrow and winding, grass often grows along a hump in their middle and a herd of sheep can easily scupper all plans. It’s the part of Ireland I love most. I grew up only an hour from the coast but now that I live abroad I rarely get to spend much time here. Trips home are a whirlwind of family gatherings and, despite my best intentions, a stay on the coast never quite seems to happen. But then the contorted back roads, deserted beaches and turquoise coves of my childhood got rebranded as the Wild Atlantic Way: a 1,600-mile (2,600km) route that traces all the twists, turns and crenulations of Ireland’s rugged west coast. I fell for it, hook, line and sinker. Why take a day trip when I could investigate every little side road and dead-end route that I never had time to take? I could wander aimlessly on a set course and just let the incredible landscape unfold along the way. The route commences on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal, which is a remote and rugged place that’s also Ireland’s most northerly point and an area peppered with traditional thatched cottages, ancient ruins and enormous numbers of birds. Donegal is wild and mountainous and I start out on my journey by meandering down coastal roads past gloriously deserted beaches. I climb the thick walls of the Grianán of Aileách,
a 2,000-year-old circular stone fort perched on a 244 metrehigh barren hillside, sit mesmerised by the views of Mount Errigal and marvel at the Slieve League cliffs, which plunge 600 metres down into the ocean below. Heading south, the familiar, flat-topped monolith of Benbulben soon appears, every bit as beautiful as I remember it. From Streedagh Beach the view is sublime, back to Slieve League and south to mountain tops littered with prehistoric graves. I’m tempted to climb to Queen Maeve’s grave but speed off instead to Enniscrone and unwind with a hot and slippery dip in an Edwardian seaweed bath. I forge on, aware there’s a long way to go and little time to linger. I pass the Céide Fields, the world’s most extensive Stone Age monument, holler in the wind on the beach at Belmullet and feel the sorrow of the past in Achill’s abandoned famine villages. Impetuous weather and tortuous roads remind me that it’s a harsh place to live but it’s all forgotten in a blur of colourful good cheer and rousing traditional music in Georgian Westport. I climb Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holiest mountain, and am treated to a clear view of the islands of Clew Bay. I stop for
a bowl of steaming Killary Harbour mussels at the head of the moody inlet, see salmon being smoked on the pier at Ballyconneely and watch the sun set over turquoise waters from the idyllic white sands of Dog’s Bay. Vibrant, bohemian Galway soon gives way to the limestone fields of the Burren, the precipitous Cliffs of Moher and the reels and jigs that are a feature of Doolin’s pubs. The driving is easy; the challenge is not getting waylaid along the way. I make my way to places I’ve only ever heard of on the shipping forecast, where colourful lighthouses pilot ships to safety. In a downpour I remind myself why I set out to do this at all, to reach places just like this, that I would never have bothered to visit otherwise, where dead-end roads question my commitment but reward me with incredible views. I take a ferry across the Shannon Estuary and enter the ‘kingdom’ of Kerry. I drive Slea Head and round furrowed headlands to see brilliant beaches embraced by rocky cliffs. The Blasket Islands look beguiling but I struggle to see beyond the tales of unrelenting hardship recounted by author and islander Peig Sayers, which are a staple on the Irish school curriculum. I revel in Dingle’s traditional pub-cum-hardware shops before blowing away the cobwebs on the sweeping expanse of Inch Beach. Then it’s on to the Ring of Kerry to wind my way around Ireland’s highest peaks, Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, and past the jagged Skelligs where a 6th-century monastery doubled as Luke Sky walker’s secret hideaway in The Force Awakens. As I head south from Kenmare the traffic eases away as I make my way along the wonderfully remote Beara Peninsula. Vividly painted fishing villages and farming communities dot the mountainsides, sheep wander everywhere, some even transported to their island home by cable car. The scenery calms as I make my way through prosperous West Cork and I can feel my journey is almost at an end. I soak up the sun in remote Barleycove before making the final push through picturesque villages with quaint names and bobbing yachts, trendy shops and organic farmers’ markets to the narrow, winding streets of Kinsale, where gourmet restaurants tempt me to celebrate the end of this epic journey. I don’t really feel like celebrating, though. Instead of scratching an itch, this invigorating journey has succeeded in opening up a legion of longing. I want to go back again, to do all the things I missed this time around: to hop on ferries to outlying islands, kayak around headlands, hike up mountains, scramble over castle ruins, visit oyster beds and spend however long it takes to learn to surf. Yes, the rain poured and the wind whipped at my skin at times, but it’s only when you’ve given up on the downpour ever stopping that you appreciate the magic of the clouds parting and the sun lighting up the hillsides. It’s only then you realise that there’s nowhere quite so beautiful.