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Marvel at the beautiful west coast and Wild Atlantic Way

Jo Kerrigan enjoys a walk through Ireland’s history and the spectacular scenery of its western seaboard

The west coast of Ireland is famed worldwide – and it’s not hard to see why. Even those who have driven the Big Sur in California, or navigated the twisting roads of the Italian seaports, will admit that there is nothing quite like this superb region.

The tossing Atlantic, deepest blue at one moment, emerald or turquoise the next, is ever-present as a backdrop. Sheer cliffs and rugged promontories, deserted sandy beaches and mysterious deep inlets and tempting offshore islands, are all there to be discovered. And at every corner there is something fascinating to discover about a townland, a village, a historical event.

Now there is even more: a clearly marked route to follow as you explore on your staycation this year. The travel guides may talk of the Camino in Spain, but right here at home we now have a long-distance way of our own, far more extensive (and indeed far more dramatic) than that ancient pilgrim route.

Just to give you some idea, while the Camino is some 800km in length from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, our Wild Atlantic Way is over 2,600km. It is in fact one of the longest defined coastal routes in the world.


Stretching from Kinsale in Co Cork to Derry in the far north, it encompasses all that is most breathtaking about our wave-washed coastline, where the sea has carved and indented over thousands of years. Here the old traditions are still practised, and our native tongue still spoken. In many ways, travelling the Wild Atlantic Way is a meeting with the past as well as the present – something we should all experience from time to time.

The best thing might be to find an area you really don’t know very well or at all

Of course you could spend the entire year exploring our western coastline, whether on foot, cycling, or driving. It’s open to all forms of travel, and you know best what is your favourite way of spending a holiday. The thing is, first, to realise what a national treasure we have in our west coast and the Wild Atlantic Way, and, second, to get out there and explore it!

But where to start? At the top or the bottom – the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal or the coast of West Cork? Halfway through, in Galway of the Tribes, or Lahinch in Clare? The highest cliffs in Europe or our country’s only cable car? Granuaile’s castles or Daniel O’Connell’s home? Islands or museums? They’re all there.

The best thing might be to find an area you really don’t know very well or at all, whether north, west, or south, and make that your destination region for the first all-important trip of the year.

Wherever you choose, you can be sure of finding great hotels, wonderful restaurants, welcoming guest houses, friendly bars and cafes, and, maybe best of all, new friends to make and keep. The pictures you take, the experiences you gain, the scenery that lifts your soul to new heights, will all remain with you for ever more.

To make the choice easier, let’s divide this magnificent coastline into four sections: Cork and Kerry; Clare and Connemara; Sligo and Mayo; and Donegal and Derry. Those northern counties are covered elsewhere in this Staycations series of articles. Let’s start here with the most southern.

Cork and Kerry

The harbour town of Kinsale, known as the gourmet capital of Ireland, was a garrison town for many centuries, its flanking forts reflecting the strategic importance of Cork Harbour to England. To the west, the Old Head of Kinsale, a beacon for mariners for untold ages, thrusts out to sea.

From here, it’s an irresistible run along that deeply indented coastline past the Seven Heads (make sure to count them), lighthouses and happy little market towns. Visit the Famine Museum in Skibbereen for a sobering reminder of the past, and take time to admire the splendid 12-arched railway bridge over Ballydehob.

Glengarriff, with its rich micro-climate, is a haven for rare and delicate plants, nowhere more so than on Garnish Island

Baltimore is where the ferries for Sherkin and Cape Clear depart, if you fancy a spot of island-hopping. Bantry town is a great base from which to explore Sheep’s Head and Dunmanus Bay, before heading out to Mizen Head. The wide golden beach of Barley Cove is rightly famous, and everybody ends up in Crookhaven at the end of the day to enjoy local seafood as the sun sets. That in itself is quite an experience.

Glengarriff, with its rich micro-climate, is a haven for rare and delicate plants, nowhere more so than on Garnish Island where you can visit the Italian gardens lovingly laid out more than a century ago and carefully tended today. Glengarriff is also the gateway to the wonderful Beara Peninsula with, at its tip, Dursey Island and the only cable car in Ireland – an experience you must have at least once. And don’t forget to pay your respects to the Cailleach Beara on the northern side of the peninsula, a historic stone which represents our ancient goddess of fertility.

Kenmare and Sneem are on the Ring of Kerry, which brings you through some spectacular coastal scenery, and your first heartstopping glimpses of the Skelligs. Skellig Michael was a religious site for centuries, but an ancient druidic site of power long before that.

Little Skellig is a haven for wild birds. You might be able to visit by boat – it depends not only on the weather, but also the crowds, drawn there by Skellig Michael’s (extremely brief) appearance in a Star Wars movie.

Children will delight in the splendid beach at Ballybunion, and remind them to look out for the statue of our great playwright, John B Keane, in Listowel

Valentia Island, further on, can be reached by bridge. This was where the first commercially viable transatlantic cable was laid, reaching far across to Newfoundland. Killorglin is famous for Puck Fair, held on the same three days in August since ancient times.

Visit Derrynane, home of the Liberator Daniel O’Connell, before turning inland to the lakes and mountains of Killarney. Probably the best view of these lakes is from the top of Moll’s Gap, from which spot you can also descend steeply into the Black Valley, where the traces of pre-famine ridge and furrow fields can still be seen on the hillsides.

On to Tralee, which marks the start of one of the truly breathtaking experiences of the Wild Atlantic Way, the Slea Head drive past lively little Dingle, to Dunquin, and your first views of the legendary Blasket Islands. Cross by ferry, wander the grass tracks leading from cottage to cottage, and remember the writings of such greats as Peig Sayers, Tomás O’Crohan, and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin. You can buy copies of their books in the Blasket Centre on the mainland.

Children will delight in the splendid beach at Ballybunion, and remind them to look out for the statue of our great playwright, John B Keane, in Listowel. Nearly out of Kerry now, but if there is time, visit the Foynes Flying Boat museum for a glimpse of the days when the first transatlantic passenger flights rendered the long sea voyages obsolete. A special treat remains – crossing the wide Shannon by ferry from Tarbert into Co Clare. This is definitely another must-do for your holidays this year.

Clare and Connemara

The Burren, that strange stone landscape of Clare, is said to have inspired Tolkien, who spent many holidays there (did Poulnagollum Cave suggest the name for one of his anti-heroes?) Lahinch is famous for its splendid beach and surfing, while Kilkee has been a holiday resort since Victorian times.

This is the region of the West Clare Railway, and you can still see remnants of its famous line along the landscape by the coast. The dramatic cliffs of Loop Head also featured in Star Wars. Doolin is famed for hosting traditional music players, and you can also take boat trips from here to see the spectacular Cliffs of Moher as they should be seen – from the sea.

Killary Harbour is one of Ireland’s very few genuine fjords, a long sea inlet, with Leenane, a Mecca for fishermen, at its base

Connemara really encapsulates all the romantic images of Ireland: whitewashed cottages, blue mountains, stone bridges, and the soft brown of turf bogs. Derrigimlach Bog near Clifden is where Alcock and Brown crash-landed on the first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland. Wander the winding lanes around the coast to Roundstone and come to historic Spiddal and Galway city. Or take a voyage out to the three Aran Islands: Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer. They are enough for a holiday in themselves. Killary Harbour is one of Ireland’s very few genuine fjords, a long sea inlet, with Leenane, a Mecca for fishermen, at its base.

Sligo and Mayo

Sligo is pre-eminently Yeats country, where our greatest poet was inspired by the evocative scenery, and you can enjoy matching location and poem, be it at Glencar or Innisfree in Lough Gill. But it is also home to the amazing Céide Fields, where our far ancestors tilled the soil thousands of years ago. Then into Mayo and the Mullet Peninsula, of which Percy French wrote so movingly:

And I never can forget you, though it’s oh so long ago,

In the bog below Belmullet, in the county of Mayo…

The harsh beauty of this countryside is unforgettable, and must have stayed in the minds of so many who were forced to leave to seek their fortune in far-off lands.

Achill Island is easily reached these days by a bridge from the mainland, and boasts spectacular beaches as well as a deserted village and one of Granuaile’s many castles. Look out too for the lofty hill of Croagh Patrick, with its many winding tracks worn by pilgrims throughout the years.

For more: https://www.thewildatlanticway.com/