WILD FOR YOU
Drive along the rugged west coast of Ireland from Galway to the republic’s border with Northern Ireland
3 more along the west coast. To fly past all of them would surely defeat the purposes of visiting. And that’s not to mention the dots on the map tantalisingly close to the route proper that beg to be visited – a preChristian stone fort, a 12th century church or even a magic road. No, really.
We began in Galway, spending February nights dashing through swirls of rain and wind, finding sanctuary beside a pub’s peat fire with a pint in hand, the hum of conversation enveloping us. Sanctuary too was found in the city’s House Hotel, close to the city’s old centre and consistently an excellent place to call home in Galway.
It is impossible not to make detours on the Wild Atlantic Way, not just to leave the road but even the mainland. From Galway it is an easy bus and ferry journey to the Aran Islands, a group of three just off the coast.
Inis Meain, the least populated, called to us and we answered. An island of stone, Padraic Faherty who owns and runs the An Dun B&B with wife Teresa, explains that centuries ago islanders filled the stone with sand and kelp and planted potatoes. Eventual soil formed by a process bordering, in our minds at least, on magic. We remarked that the fields were relatively small. Padraic drily told us “they’re big enough when you’re digging potatoes”. Walking around the island in a silence broken only by the whistle of the wind, we visit Dun Chonchuir, a pre-Christian fort with stacked stone walls more than 8m high, its size and achievement a humbling experience.
Around the island’s northeast side, cliffs of limestone have been battered for centuries by the immeasurable power of
1 the Atlantic swells and we stand transfixed watching wave after wave crash and spray up the sheer walls.
At Cong we tackle the Pigeon Hole Walk, which turns out to be longer and wetter than anticipated but the hole is a treasure – gingerly making our way down dripping concrete steps, clutching the cold steel handrail, we descend to the rushing, freezing river at the bottom of the cavelike hole and make the usual jokes about never being found if you fell in.
Driving north again, we cross peat bogs on roads that dip and dive while ahead mountains, streaked with snow on their peaks, loom large. Abandoned houses and peat piled high and covered in blue tarps dot the landscape. Tractors are a regular roadblock and single-lane stone bridges slow us to a crawl.
Using our map or serendipity, we veer off the Way to explore, finding ancient tombs of stone … press your ear against granite megaliths and listen for echoes from the distant past.
In Sligo, acting on the assurances of the manager at our Strandhill hotel and armed with his map, we search for a magic road, first detouring past the Glencar Waterfall, which roars a torrent of silver and white just metres from the road.
Map in lap, we follow the road under the shadow of the table-topped Benbulben mountain to an innocuous stretch of bitumen. Scepticism gives way to openmouthed amazement then giddy laughter as our hatchback defies the laws of gravity, rolling backwards up the slope.
Slieve League in County Donegal is a drawcard on the Way. Soaring 601m above the ocean, time your visit for dusk on a clear evening for the changing hues of the setting sun illuminating the vertigoinducing cliffs in pink and gold.
During another detour the spirit of this trip, and perhaps the Wild Atlantic Way, is summed up. Searching for the Kilclooney Dolmen in County Donegal, we park behind the church as per our guidebook’s instruction and set out across a soggy field, ignoring the darkening clouds.
The sun blazes between those clouds as we reach this beautiful portal tomb but it’s not for long. We shelter under the dolmen and realise this isn’t rain. It’s sticky and, well, weird. It’s hail, but it’s soft like a slushie and pea-sized. As the pellets become firmer it drives us laughing and squelching along the muddy farm track back to the car in wet socks and hands red with cold. We sit in the car, heater blasting, wet jackets draped over the back seat, muddy boots shoved in plastic bags and watch the ground become blanketed in the white of the “frozen rain”.
You can’t book experiences like that, they just happen. Along the Wild Atlantic Way, if you keep your eyes open and your foot off the accelerator, they’ll find you.
Travelling though the rocky landscape of the Burren, County Clare Glencar waterfall The Pigeon Hole Walk at Cong