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.

Lonely Planet (UK) - - Travel Quiz - Etain O’Car­roll

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.

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