Getting the idea
What is the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW)? It’s a line in on a map which meanders along Ireland’s west coast, from Cork in the south to Donegal in the north. It’s 2,500 kilometres of mostly country roads connecting bays and headlands, beaches and moorland, villages and small towns, from Old Kinsale Head in south west Cork to Malin Head in north Donegal.
The Wild Atlantic Way
It’s also a smart marketing concept, complete with registered trademark, intended to promote tourism in the west of Ireland.
For me, it was an excuse to experience the beauty of the west coast during a five week journey in September and October 2016.
Hiking the entire length of the WAW is not really a practical proposition, the route has not been designed for the hiker. On long sections of regional roads with 100 kmph speed limits and on small country roads there is little if any space for walking. There are a few long distance trails that follow the course of the WAW, and these are all in the south. These trails follow the coast around the Iveragh (Kerry Way), the Beara (Beara Way), the Sheep’s Head (Sheep’s Head Way) and the Dingle (Dingle Way) Peninsulas. But they amount to only a small fraction of the total length of the WAW. Cycling the route would be quite possible and very enjoyable I should think, but I’m not a long distance cyclist. Public transport especially the national network of Bus Eireann, connects the larger centres of population with coastal locations on the WAW. But some routes are seasonal, and others are infrequent, so planning a journey by bus would be an interesting challenge, linking it in with local private bus services even more so. But not something I could contemplate in the time available to me. The WAW was conceived as a long distance touring route, if you want the flexibility to explore it in detail, a motor bike or a car is essential. A good companion for the journey is The Wild Atlantic Way – Route Atlas, a spiral bound book of fold out maps of the entire route at a scale of 2 miles to 1 inch.
Got to have a plan!
My plan was quite simple, in a little less than five weeks, I would follow the WAW from Kinsale to Malin, on foot where I could, by bus if it was possible and failing that I’d hire a car. I had visited the west coast previously in 2009 and 2010, and experienced sections of the WAW before it was officially designated in 2014. So I would bypass the coasts of Clare, and Connemara, and Sligo, and south Donegal. But that still left plenty of hiking and driving through the beautiful coastal scenery of Cork and Kerry and south west Clare and Mayo and North Donegal.
In the time I had available the core of my plan was to walk around two of the southern peninsulas, the Kerry Way and the Beara Way in Kerry and west Cork. I’d hire a car to get me from Kinsale up to Glengarriff on the Beara Way and another car from Killarney on the Kerry Way for the remainder of the journey up to Malin Head in Donegal. That would mean missing out the Dingle Peninsula, but I would be back on the west coast in the spring of 2017 to walk the Dingle Way with friends I had met hiking the Camino in Spain. So my journey along the WAW would be in three stages, 6 days driving around the coast from Kinsale to Glengarrif, 16 days hiking on the Iveragh and Beara Peninsulas, and 11 days driving from Killarney around the coast to Lahinch in County Clare, then up to Westport in Mayo, out to Belmullet and around the north Mayo coast to Sligo, and finally up to Letterkenny and the coast from Fanad Head to Malin Head on Innishowen.
A little Seat to see it!
All journeys have to start somewhere and mine began with a very early RyanAir flight from East Midlands airport near Nottingham in the UK, to Dublin and then onwards by an Aer Lingus regional flight to Kerry airport, between Killarney and Tralee. I dozed on the flight across to Kerry and was woken by the pilot announcing that we were approaching the airport and would ‘hit the ground in about 10 minutes’! Not the best choice of words I thought, but not a presage of disaster either. Kerry airport is a modest affair, but it suited my plans, being close to the WAW and with a choice of car rental operators. Shortly after landing I set off in a little white Seat Ibiza to my base for the first stage of my journey, a very comfortable thatched cottage near Castlemaine, booked through AirBnB.
Over the next few days of grey, drizzly weather, with low cloud shrouding the coast, I followed the WAW for over 200kms from Kinsale round the coast to Glengarriff on the southern edge of the Beara Peninsula. I stopped at the Signal Tower on the Old Head of Kinsale where there is a small memorial to those who lost their lives in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. I was expecting to visit the lighthouse, but the way was barred by the metal gates of Old Head Golf Links, set in the remains of an old gatehouse was a sign ‘Members and Guests’. Apparently, access to the lighthouse, which is now an automatic light, was the subject of local agitation. Now there are annual open days .
Given the weather it wasn’t the best of days to appreciate the dramatic coastal setting of lighthouses. But I would have liked to see more than just the hazy image of a black and white striped pillar on the far horizon.
Not far from the Old Head I stopped by my very first beach on the WAW, at Garrylucas, where I sat and ate some lunch, and I walked down to take my first sip of the sea. A big, long, wide beach, seagulls and oyster catchers patrolling at the water’s edge. A few people strolling with their dogs or their lovers, and surfers at the far end. The sea changed colour with the clouds, one minute a translucent grey the next something altogether more dull. The first of many beaches on my journey north, most of them deserted, and the first of many small, salty, libations.
Further round the coast I followed the edge of the large harbour at the head of Courtmacsherry Bay. Even in the dull light of a grey afternoon, across the water I could see the brightly coloured houses on the harbour-side at Courtmacsherry. At the very head of the harbour lies Timoleague, and the ruined Abbey, which I visited on my very first trip to the west of Ireland back in 1996. The Abbey didn’t look very much changed although the evidence of scaffolding suggested it wasn’t being allowed to fall down.
From Timoleague the WAW goes west to Clonakilty. As I approached the town I was intercepted by signs pointing the way to the Michael Collins Centre. In the gathering mist of late afternoon, I followed the signs along ever narrowing country lanes to a small collection of white washed farm buildings.
Between Clonakilty and Skibbereen the WAW drops down to the coast to take in Discovery Points at Galley Head and Toe Head Bay as well as Baltimore Harbour. But there was little to be gained from staring out to sea in a grey mizzle, so I didn’t. At Skibbereen the Famine Museum appeared to have changed very little since my last visit 20 odd years ago.
From Skibbereen the WAW heads further west passing the delightfully named Roaringwater Bay, through Ballydehob and Schull. I drove on with the windscreen wipers in constant use, down the narrowing peninsula to Mizen Head. On the way there were Discovery Points at Toormore Bay and Barley Cove but neither was very inviting. For the last few kilometres a narrow winding road wove through bare bog and rock with bedraggled sheep for company.
On this section of the WAW, from Kinsale round to Bantry, Mizen Head is the second Signature Discovery Point, the first being Old Kinsale Head. Mizen Head is Ireland’s most southerly point, the site of one of Marconi’s early telegraphic stations, and a vantage point to see “Ireland’s Teardrop”, the Fastnet Rock. But not on the day I was there, which according to the woman in the Visitor Centre was an improvement on the previous day!
Undaunted by the weather, there were plenty of waterproof clad visitors many of whom, like me, determined to make their way down the 99 steps to the high arched footbridge linking the Signal Station to the mainland. Dramatic sea cliffs, but sadly no sight of the Fastnet lying somewhere out on the grey horizon.
There was little change in the weather as I retraced my route back up the peninsula to Toormore, and along the north coast to Durrus and the Sheep’s Head Peninsula. At Durrus I hesitated, was the drive out to the lighthouse at Sheep’s Head worth it? But the plan was to follow the WAW so on I went. Visibility was a little better as I drove through little hamlets, past farms and isolated houses, hedgerows on either side of the car and plenty of trees. But as I neared the rocky end of the peninsular and the road started to climb, all of that was exchanged for more rock and bog and sheep. The road narrowed and twisted its way out to the lighthouse. I considered turning back, visibility was still poor, the road was narrow and winding, but I pressed on. Still grey and wet as I stopped for a welcome coffee and cake in the little café by the car park, but when I emerged the mist had blown away there was a watery sun and white clouds patching a blue sky. Determined to take advantage of what would likely be only a brief break in the weather, I set off on the 4km footpath to the lighthouse and back. Apart from the opportunity to stretch my legs after a long drive, my reward was stunning views of the Sheep’s Head lighthouse perched low down on the headland. A Discovery Point, that was worth waiting for.
When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all around the peninsula,
The sky is tall as over a runway,
The land without marks, so you will not arrive
But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill,
The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable
And you’re in the dark again. Now recall
The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log.
That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog.
And then drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this; things founded clean on their own shapes
Water and ground in their extremity.
Returning along the northern shore of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula to Bantry and then north to Glengarriff, I completed the first stage of the WAW. With a day left on the car rental I decided to visit Killarney and go to a concert at the National Event Centre. But first I took a drive out from Castlemaine to Inch Strand on the southern side of the Dingle Peninsula. The strand, another Discovery Point, extends south into Dingle Bay towards the Iveragh Peninsula, creating Castlemaine Harbour. A wide flat expanse of sand backed by dunes, extending away southwards towards the horseshoe of mountains southwest of Glenbeigh. None of them were more than vague shapes on the horizon as I stood on the beach with the afternoon sunshine breaking through and sparkling off the sea. A fierce wind blowing and big waves crashing onto the sand. A surfing beach but no one in the water today. Others strolling alone or in couples, and a few cars driving off to Inch Point at the far end of the beach. The wide flat sandy beach and the cars made me think about Pendine Sands in South Wales, and Malcolm Campbell, and land speed records.
Cultural, sporting and other events are happening all the time of course, and when you are travelling around its just fortunate if you are in the right place at the right time. Having a car increases the range of possibilities and I took advantage to drive into Killarney on the last evening to see The High Kings at INEC. I didn’t know what to expect, but with a Clancy and a Furey in the line-up I was hoping for a concert of traditional music. I wasn’t disappointed, fine musicians, fine voices, and fine music, but maybe rather more sing-along tunes than I had hoped for.
After doing me good service I returned the little Seat to Kerry Airport, caught the Shuttle Bus into Killarney and spent the weekend there, the first night at the Railway Hostel across from the bus station and the second at the Collins B&B a little further up the lane. Killarney is a tourist town and even in mid-September there were plenty of visitors and plenty of tourist buses stopping off on their way around the Ring of Kerry and visiting Muckross House. Saturday night was very lively and reminiscent of Temple Bar in Dublin. On Sunday morning, catering for the tourists extended as far as the timing of services at St Mary’s, Church of Ireland. An early and rather short Communion service timed to finish so you could catch the first Shuttle Bus out to Muckross House, which was what I did. The alternative, if you didn’t want to walk, was a jaunting car, at a price!
B & B-ing my way around the Iveragh and Beara!
Stage 2 of my WAW journey was on foot, 16 days hiking the Kerry Way and the Beara Way. Driving around the Cork coast was fine, but now it was time to get out in the open, to stretch my legs and enjoy the fresh air of mountain, moorland and coast. Some problems with my shoulders ruled out carrying even a lightweight rucksac for over two weeks of hiking. The solution was Tailor Made Tours. Deirdre O’Sullivan arranged the booking of B&B’s around both the Kerry Way and the Beara Way, and the transfer of my baggage each day. I only have good things to say about the accommodation and the arrangements and would heartily recommend Tailor Made to anyone contemplating a hiking tour in the west of Ireland.
When you are hiking I think there are three things that matter most: the company, the weather and the scenery. No problem with the company, it was just me! Although the weather was mixed, it wasn’t four seasons in a day, and there was only one day when it was wet from start to finish. But even in poor weather the scenery of the Iveragh and Beara is stunning.
The other consideration for me is a map. Deirdre at Tailor Made had provided all the Ordnance Survey Ireland 1:50,000 maps of the Iveragh and Beara, I also had Donal Nolan’s walking guide, The Kerry Way. To be honest, the signposting of both hiking trails was very good, so there was no excuse to get lost, and with the exception of one or two frustrating moments I didn’t.
The Iveragh Peninsulais the largest of Kerry’s Atlantic peninsulas, extending 60 kilometres into the ocean from the mainland. The main mountain group on the peninsula is the Macgillicuddy Reeks, which contain the two highest summits in Ireland, Carrauntoohil at 1038m and Caher at 1001m.
It had rained heavily overnight, and was still grey and wet as I left Killarney on my way to the Black Valley. Round the edge of Lough Leanne, past Muckross House then up the side of Torc Waterfall which was in full spate from the run-off of the mountain and moorland above. The Way followed the Old Kenmare Road passing through woodland before emerging onto moorland. A finely antlered stag leapt from the heather onto the road. We both stood our ground staring intently before he turned casually and trotted off, disappearing over a rise in the road. The road became a path, boarded in places across the bog, eventually descending to Galway’s Bridge on the N71.
Board walk on the Kerry Way, Co Kerry
From the bridge, I went down to the flat land along the shore of the Upper Lake. The previous night’s rain had swollen streams and filled hollows in the path. My bed for the night was ahead in the Black Valley, so no turning back and no way around. I met a large group of youngsters who splashed through the flooded path quite impervious to the soaking. I had no intention of getting my brand new boots that wet so early in the hike. So, I tied them around my neck, zipped off the legs of my trousers and waded through the flooded sections in stocking feet. Generally the water was above the knees, and sometimes up to more delicate parts of my anatomy!
The hike through the Black Valley was magnificent and I was blessed with fine weather. Along the floor of Cummeenduff Glen to the head of the valley, then up and over the saddle and down into the Bridia Valley. Almost immediately another climb up the western side of the valley on the Lack Road, an ancient mountain pass at 280m. It takes its name from the Irish ‘leac’ – the flagstones laid down to assist the climb. From the top of the pass there were wonderful views down across Derrynafeane Glen to Lough Acoose to the north and the bulk of the McGillycuddy Reeks to the east.
Looking back down the Black Valley, Co Kerry
The way down and out around the north end of the Lough was tiring at the end of a long day. The pint provided by Micheal at the Rowan Inn at Shanacashel was most welcome!
The Way crossed the Carragh River on the Blackstones Bridge and climbed gently to Windy Gap (325m) between Seefin and Beenreagh. A fine view east towards Carrauntoohil, and another down to the coast at Glenbeigh, with the Dingle Peninsula and Inch Strand in the distance. Round the flank of Seefin past St Finian’s Holy Well and down to the coast and the Ring of Kerry and the WAW at Glenbeigh. A coffee and a delicious piece of cake at Rumours Bistro on the main road, and later the early bird menu which was superb!
Looking across to Carrauntoohill, Co Kerry
From Glenbeigh the Kerry Way keeps close to the coast for a while before heading inland at Drung Hill. So for a few kilometres the Way and the WAW march more or less side by side. As you are leaving the village, the Way splits and passes either side of a small hill which has no name on the map. I went to the right down to Rossbeigh Beach, why wouldn’t you? The Beach reaches out into Dingle Bay towards Inch Strand, and they are like two arms cradling Castlemaine Harbour. The early morning sky was mottled shades of pewter which drained all colour from the landscape. A solitary horseman exercised in the shallows, and away to the west there was the prospect of blue sky later in the day.
The Way climbs the flank of Drung Hill on an old Butter Road, what Nolan describes as ‘a knife’s edge trail cut into the steep northern slope …… high above the cars and the tourists’. It was certainly dramatic, a narrow path across a golden brown, bracken covered, hillside falling steeply away to the road, and sweeping views out across Dingle Bay. As I climbed higher the sky and sea were gradually turning blue.
Around the northern spur of Drung, I paused for a last glance back before descending gradually on to forest tracks and country roads to cross the Ferta River at Gortmore. There was a fine view of the Gleensk Viaduct enroute, a relic of the Great Southern and Western Railway line which ran from Valentia Island to Farranfore between Tralee and Killarney. Allegedly it was one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world, and the western most in Europe. It closed in 1960.
Gleensk Viaduct, Iveragh Peninsula, Co Kerry
From Gortmore the Kerry Way heads inland and cuts across the Iveragh to Waterville. My objective was to follow the WAW around the coast through Cahersiveen and across Valentia Island to Portmagee before rejoining the Way at Waterville. Although I hadn’t planned to, the opportunity arose to take a boat trip out to the Skellig Islands. Catherine at the Failte Farmhouse made the arrangements for me and I had a day to get myself to the harbour at Portmagee.
I walked into Cahersiveen passing a striking monument to St Brendan on the approach to the town and then on to Reenard Point and the ferry across the channel to Knightstown on Valentia Island. Rather than take the coast road to the bridge across to Portmagee I chose the quieter road that ran along the spine of the island because it gave me the chance to see Valentia Island Lighthouse.
At the southern end of the island is Bray Head, the terminus of the Irish Coast to Coast Path and another Signature Discovery Point on the WAW. It’s a vantage point, on a good day, to view the Skellig Islands, and they were just visible on the day I climbed the track to the old Signal Station.
Early morning on the harbour-side at Portmagee and a busy scene as skippers gathered together their passengers for the trip out to the Skelligs. Catherine had arranged my trip with Mickey Joe. I had no problem finding him and was soon kitted out with a life-jacket and seated on the hatchcover of his open decked motorboat, along with a dozen other passengers. It seemed that we sat there for an age with the engine idling, but eventually we left in a flotilla of similar open-decked motor boats. The sky was grey, but thankfully there was no rain. Mickey Joe was not optimistic that we would be able to land on Skellig Micheal, there was too much swell out at the islands, the relatively calm waters of the Portmagee Channel were misleading. Out past the headland Mickey Joe opened the throttle and for the next hour or so the engine roared as we danced our way through the swell holding on to our seats as best we could, rising every so often for a snatched photo as we approached the islands. Once in the lee of Skellig Micheal the sea was calmer and unexpectedly boats were motoring in to a small landing stage to deposit their passengers on the island. We took our turn, came alongside, waited for the swell to lift the boat, grabbed the rope and heaved ourselves from the moving deck onto the solid concrete steps. The last words from Mickey Joe were ‘Be back by 12:45!’
We gathered for a short talk on personal safety and environmental protection from one of the Rangers, and then we were free to climb the Monk’s staircase up to the monastery. The climb was challenging if you had no head for heights and there were some exposed sections. At the top we had our first glimpse of the iconic beehive cells and another excellent talk about the history and ecology of the island. All too soon it was time for the last photos and the climb back down to the landing stage. On the deck of the boat was a bucket of fish, Mickey Joe had been catching mackerel!
After a ‘day-off’ it was time to get back on the Kerry Way from Waterville, The return leg along the southern coast of the Iveragh Peninsula, and a much closer correspondence between the Way and the WAW all the way to Kenmare. Waterville is a seaside town and in mid-September it had that out of season feel. The Charlie Chaplin Film Festival was long finished and holiday makers long departed.
I left the Clifford’s B&B with Abie Clifford’s forecast of a wet morning improving in the afternoon, and that was how it turned out. Rain and low cloud dominated the early part of the Way from Waterville around the coast to Caherdaniel, spoiling the views out into Ballinskelligs Bay. Beyond the Coomakista Pass (a Discovery Point), the view shifted to Abbey Island and the series of little bays and inlets on the way to Derrynane Harbour. Whether you stay up near the road or drop down to the shore, the Way skirts the boundaries of Derrynane Historic Park and Derrynane House, the ancestral home of Daniel O’Connell, the Great Liberator.
As I approached Caherdaniel in the early afternoon the sun was shining and I was in plenty of time to find a comfortable seat in the Blind Piper to watch the All Ireland Senior Football Final between Dublin and Mayo. If I have a county affiliation it’s with Tipperary, the birthplace of one of my great-great-grandfathers. But Tipp is a hurling county and they rarely feature in the final stages of the All Ireland Football. Dublin were favourites to win, but since I was in the West and Mayo was on the WAW, I was routing for them. The young lad sitting next to me was a Dub fan so we had some good banter as the game swung back and forth, and Mayo scored the last gasp equalising points! A replay on 1st October when I would be on the WAW up there in Belmullet in County Mayo!
It was another grey day hiking on the Way, which skirted the hills above the WAW and took me to Sneem. Enroute there were views down across farmland to a coast of more little bays and inlets, and then out across the Kenmare River towards the Beara Peninsula.
Sneem is a stop on the Ring of Kerry, a little village of colourful shop fronts and tourist buses. It was very lively as I walked in late in the afternoon, but by early evening the buses and the tourists had gone.
The final day on the Kerry Way should have been along the shore of the Kenmare River, but forestry operations had forced a diversion along gravel forest roads where the tree felling could be viewed from a safe distance. I had never seen felling operations so closely before and was transfixed by the sight of the powerful hydraulically operated machine which effortlessly felled the trees, striped the branches and chopped the trunk into manageable sections for transportation. All done by one man and his machine!
One unexpected bonus of being diverted was a little holy well adjacent to the forest road. A trickle of water emerging from a small grotto in the bank, little offerings, tied ribbons and small crosses made of twigs. Despite the forestry operations there was a sense of quiet and tranquillity. I stopped to say a prayer and moved on.
The section of the Way past Templenoe was along the verge of the N70, a coming together of the Way and the WAW, but not a pleasant experience. The traffic made little concession to the presence of a lone hiker and it was a relief to leave the road and make my way up to the summit of Gortamullin, the last taste of mountainside before the descent into Kenmare.
The Beara Peninsula is shorter and narrower than the Iveragh, the northern part is in Kerry and the southern and western parts in county Cork. The Slieve Miskish and Caha ranges run down the centre of the peninsula surrounded by Kenmare River to the north and Bantry Bay to the south.
As the Kerry Way enters Kenmare along the northern shore of the Kenmare River, so the Beara Way leaves along the southern shore. However Deidre at Tailor-Made had arranged my accommodation in a clockwise circuit of the peninsula, so I started the Beara Way from Glengarriff. I’m sure it is a pretty little village, but it struggled to impress on a morning of persistent rain. Fortunately it was a day of two seasons and by late afternoon the sun was shining and there were beautiful views out across the still waters of Glengarriff Harbour, and Bantry Bay beyond.
Strolling around the harbour I met a Yorkshireman and his little daughter. The family were moving to an old farmhouse near the village, attracted by the modest price of houses and the prospect of bringing up their children in the beautiful scenery of the west coast. That evening I had some food at the historic Eccles Hotel and sat by the fire in the comfortable lounge reading and enjoying a beer. Several tour buses in the car park, and the accents of fellow guests were mainly English, but they could just as easily have been from Tennessee or Tokyo or Tasmania.
From Glengarriff the Beara Way heads away from the coast on quiet country roads into the Coomerkane Valley. At the end of the valley it climbs steadily up to the col just below the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain. At 570m this was the highest point I had reached since I started hiking from Killarney. The wind was fierce but the views magnificent: to the north the ridge of the Caha Mountains and the Kerry–Cork border; to the east the green fields, farmhouses and cottages of Coomerkane Valley; and to the south Bantry Bay and the distant harbour at Glengarriff.
After the exhilarating climb to the col, the descent to Adrigole on the coast was less enjoyable. A succession of rocky bog, fences and stiles, and eventually a gravel track through woodland onto a country road and down to the highway.
The Way to Castletownbere from Adrigole stays inland of the coast road broadly following contours around Hungry Hill and a series of valleys beneath Maulin and Knocknagree. This was probably the least satisfying day of my journey on the WAW. The rain of a few days previously had soaked the bog and the trudge in and out of these valleys was unappealing. Nevertheless I made a start, but inexplicably lost the path and the yellow topped iron posts as they climbed up around the flank of Hungry Hill which lies on the border of Cork and Kerry. Retracing my steps was an option, but I took a chance and descended the field down to the small lane I could plainly see below me, and on the map. I made it to the lane, but it was slow going and I could easily have turned an ankle or worse in the tall, tussocky grass and reeds. It was a relief to walk down the lane to the highway, and I promised myself I wouldn’t try that trick again! Once on the main road I set off in the direction of Castletownbere. The option of taking the ferry out to one end of Bear Island and back into the town from the other was appealing. The verge on the highway was narrow and there were large articulated lorries thundering along in both directions. Con, from the B&B in Adrigole, told me that continental trawlers unloaded at the harbour in Berehaven and the catch was then driven across the country to the ferry at Rosslare. Getting off the highway seemed like a good idea, but my timing was all wrong and I would have had to wait a couple of hours for the next ferry. So I continued along the highway into Castletownbere taking care to step aside whenever I was approached by one of those thundering juggernauts.
Castletownbere is the largest white fish port in Ireland. The new deep water berth on Dinish Island is used by fishing boats from all over Europe, while the port in the town has a local fleet which keeps the local fish factories supplied with many different types of fish. Wandering around the harbour I was fascinated by all the gear on the stern deck of the boats and couldn’t imagine what it must be like to work in such a place in relatively calm water, let alone rough seas out in the Atlantic.
The town was quite lively on a Friday afternoon and every so often I heard a Spanish voice! There is a great little craft shop on the Square, I liked the designs by Duck Huddle and bought a few cards, for some reason they reminded me of Aubrey Beardsley, a late 19th Century illustrator whose drawings in black ink were influenced by Japanese woodcuts. In the evening I enjoyed a couple of pints at Toumeys, but sadly there was no music on a Friday night. Outside in the Square a van was selling crepes, not the burgers or fish and chips you might have expected. They were very good.
It was a grey day with low cloud for the hike from Castletownbere to Allihies, and Bere Island was hardly visible across the harbour. The Way followed country roads and then forest trails up onto the flanks of Knockgour to 300m which was well above the cloud base. No point walking in the mist for the sake of it, so I followed the WAW to Cloghane Bridge and then a minor road across the peninsula to Allihies. No thundering lorries on the road west of Castletownbere. There was a Discovery Point on the way, but not much of a view. Given the weather I decided against the cable car ride out to Dursey Island.
I passed the entrance to a Buddhist Meditation Centre, had I researched a little better, it might have been possible to stay there for a day or two, but my bed for the night was in Allihies so I walked on. Crossing over from one side of the peninsula to the other I was reminded of the landscape of west Cornwall, I had spent a week there near St Agnes back in May. As I approached Allihies the similarities were enhanced by the sight of abandoned engine houses, relicts of a mining industry. A visit to the excellent little museum in Allihies revealed the connection:
“Cornwall has an ancient history of copper mining. It was to Cornwall therefore that Richard Puxley [owner of the Allihies copper mines] looked for his first mine managers or ‘captains’. Captain Edward Nettle arrived from St Agnes in 1812 to be followed by Captains Richard Martin and John Richards Redd in 1816……………Many other Cornish names can be added to the roll-call……………………….They lived in a small cluster of houses known as ‘The Cornish Village’.”
The first mine opened in 1812 at Dooneen, and mining continued through good and bad years until the Berehaven Mining Company was wound up in 1881.
That evening I took a taxi back to Castletownbere for a concert by Ger Wolfe at the Sarah Walker Gallery on the pier. A poet, composer, folk singer and multi-instrumentalist from Cork, Ger played a couple of sets of lovely, lyrical folk songs, to a small but appreciative audience.
When I opened the curtains the following morning, the sun was shining and some boys were playing in the street. Not the football I would have expected to see back in the UK, but the sliothar and the hurley, the ball and the wooden hurling stick.
I climbed up from Allihies in the morning sunshine to the restored remains of the Man Engine which dominates the skyline to the north of the village. Looking out to sea I stood and watched as a rainbow and a grey rain shower advanced towards the shore eventually engulfing me and the rocky hillside and the gravel track that led over the hill and down to Eyeries. I walked on emerging into sunshine with fine views down to the shore and out across Coulagh Bay and the Kenmare River to the Iveragh.
Eyeries is a pretty little village of brightly coloured houses which, according to an information panel by the Eyeries Sensory Park, had reinvented itself:
‘Visitors today may be surprised to learn that our picturesque home was once rather drab and unattractive but, thanks to the hard work of the community and the assistance of the County Council, it has been transformed into the cheerful settlement you see before you’.
From Eyeries the Way plays hide and seek with the WAW through Ardgroom and Lauragh until it pulls away inland to Lough Inchquin and climbs steadily to the saddle beneath Derrysallagh. It was a beautiful day as I made the climb and the view out over the Kenmare River towards the town was spectacular. The descent was long and tiring, down through stoney bog, over stiles and through sheep folds, onto country roads and eventually the WAW back to Kenmare.
Taking a little red number home!
I had to get back to Killarney to pick up another hire car and continue my journey north on the WAW. So it was an early morning bus from Kenmare. Waiting at the bus stop in the drizzling rain I turned to read a poster in the window of the Tom Crean Fish & Wine Bar on Market Street. Descendants of the Antarctic explorer were out on South Georgia in the south Atlantic tackling the Shackleton Traverse, 100 years after Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley had made the same journey in their efforts to rescue the survivors of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition. I remembered that I had listened to an interview with Crean’s granddaughter on RTE Radio 1 a couple of weeks back. I had first learned about Crean’s epic journey a couple of years previously at the museum on the harbour at Dun Laighaire which was hosting the Endurance Exhibition.
Sitting on the bus to Killarney I couldn’t help thinking how quickly I had changed from hiker to traveler. I collected the hire car in Killarney, a little red Toyota Yaris, with a Donegal number plate. That seemed very appropriate since I was head north on the WAW to Malin Head in Donegal.
I picked up the WAW again at Tralee and followed it around the coast to Tarbet. It was great to be cruising along country roads again listeneing to the radio. On the way I stopped at Banna Strand and Beale Strand, both Discovery Points and both broad expanses of empty sand under blue, white and grey skies. Historically, Banna Strand is associated with Roger Casement who was captured by the British on 21 April 1916, having landed from a German U-Boat. “Banna Strand” (also known as “The Lonely Banna Strand“) is an Irish rebel song about the failed transport of arms into Ireland for use in the Easter Rising of 1916.
Further along the south bank of the Shannon River is the port of Foynes and a little bit of aeronautical history. The Flying Boat Museum celebrates the brief period when Foynes was the terminus of transatlantic passenger flight. As I arrived a tour bus of American tourists was leaving which meant I had the museum to myself, and very interesting it was.
I have always found flying boats romantic, but I knew nothing about the services operated from Foynes by Imperial Airways (later BOAC), Pan Am and Air France in a few short years at the very end of the 1930’s. On the way back to Tarbet I stopped at a little pier and looked back up river to Foynes and tried to imagine a flying boat thundering towards me with its four big engines roaring before lifting slowly from the water of the Shannon and climbing away on its journey across the Atlantic to Newfoundland.
The following day, another car ferry, this time across the Shannon to Killmer. I had seen a sign for a Farmers Market in Killrush, they were only just setting up in the square as I arrived, I was too early so I continued along the Shannon shore to the lighthouse at Loop Head, another Signature Discovery Point on the WAW. A flat expanse of fields and pastures, few trees, little villages Doonaha, Carigaholt, Cross and Lilbaha, some inland, others on the coast where the surf was thundering in. The sun was shining brightly and the wind blowing fiercely as I got out of the car at Loop Head. I took the tour and climbed the spiral stairs to the platform around the light where the lenses were rotating.
From Loop Head I followed the coast road up to Kilkee, past the Discovery Point where Atlantic breakers were spectacularly crashing against the cliffs in the afternoon sunshine. At Kilkee I walked out along the path around the headland, more big waves and not too close to the edge! A blue and white bench facing the sea and little memorial to a member of the Doolin Coast Guard Unit who had died in an incident off the Kilkee coast a couple of weeks earlier.
Further north I stopped for a stroll at Doughmore Bay, another wild Clare beach, another Discovery Point and a huge hotel and a golf course. Up the road a little way was a sign for the entrance to Trump’s International Hotel and Golf Centre. The road swung inland and there was a shower of rain as I returned to the coast at Quilty and passed Spanish Point on my way into Lahinch.
I had walked the Burren Way from Lahinch round the coast to Galway in 2009, and then the route of the WAW from Leenane through the Doolough Valley to Louisburg and Westport, climbing Mweelrea and Croak Patrick on the way. In 2010 I had driven around the Connemara coast from Galway to Letterfrack and climbed Benbaun. So from Lahinch I turned away from the coast and headed north to connect with the WAW again at Westport in County Mayo.
While the objective of my trip to the West Coast was to travel those sections of the WAW that I’d not experienced before, my main aim was to visit North Mayo and in particular the Mullet Peninsula. I crossed into County Mayo at Ballindine on the N17 and very soon the red and green flags and bunting and placards were everywhere to be seen. I even passed a car painted in red and green stripes. The County was getting ready for the football replay on Saturday. At Westport it was another case of ‘if only I’d done the research’, but this time I managed to salvage something. I arrived during the week of the Westport Arts Festival but because I was only staying one night I had to take advantage of what was on offer. I chose a concert by the Unthanks at Holy Trinity Church. The interior of the church was stunningly light and the music of the usual high standard.
From Westport I followed the WAW out to Newport and along the coast to the salt marsh and beach at Mulranny. Back in 2009 I’d taken the bus from Westport through Mulranny and out to Dooagh on Achill Island. While I was there I’d walked out to Keem Bay (a Signature Discovery Point) and climbed Slievemore before returning to Westport. I didn’t need to repeat that journey so I turned north from Mulranny. In the bright morning sunshine the views from the WAW across to Achill were stunning.
The salt marsh at Mulranny, Co Mayo
Just north of Mulranny I stopped at a small car park and followed a nature trail across a stretch of the coastal bog and along the shoreline. Blue sky above, mirror like water in front of me and mountains in every direction. So quiet and peaceful, just a gentle breeze and the lapping of water on the seashore. Across the water on Achill little white cottages nestled at the base of the hills.
A little further on the WAW skirts the western edge of the Ballycroy National Park and I pulled into the Visitor Centre to find out more about the Park. There were interesting displays about the ecology of the blanket bog and the history of settlement in this part of Mayo, and an inspiring video about the Bangor Trail. Not a hiking experience I had anticipated for this visit to Ireland but definitely something for the future.
A panel in the Visitor Centre reminded me that timing would be everything for a hike through the blanket bog. It was a poem in Irish and English by Sean Lysaght invoking protection from the rapacious midge!
A Midge Charm
Get up and scatter the armies of the itchy witch
Ruin their gathering veil
Forbid this travesty of your image
Shake your heathery mane
Splash your frown of ripples
Lead us out of all hollows
Preserve us with your smoke
Put on your white coat
And lock them all away!
Before I left the Centre I enjoyed lunch in the bright airy tearoom with local artwork displayed on the walls. I wasn’t yet in the Mayo Gaeltacht, but I tried a few words of Irish and got a positive reponse from a very friendly Ranger. Go raibh maith agat!
From Ballycroy I followed the WAW inland to Bangor Erris and then out to the Discovery Point at Doohoma Head and a fine view across the bay to Achill. Then around the coast to the Mullet Peninsula at Belmullet, which was festooned in the red and green of Mayo. It was the day of the replay of the All Ireland Football Final and the good folk of Mayo were anticipating that a 65 year jinx would finally be broken and their footballers would bring home the Sam Maguire Cup. I watched the game in the raucous and understandably partisan atmosphere of the bar at the Western Strand. It was close but Dublin prevailed in the end and so the long wait would continue for at least another year.
The following morning the sun was shining brightly, as I drove the length of the peninsula, past the beach at Elly Bay and down to the harbour at Blacksod. The sun was glinting off the water of Blacksod Bay, and there were spectacular views across to Slievemore and Croaghaun on Achill Island. It was early on Sunday so there was no activity at the harbour and I wandered around in comfortable solitude. A plaque on the wall of the squat lighthouse commemorated the weather forecast transmitted to the Allies prior to the D-Day landings in June 1944. Across the road from the lighthouse a memorial of a different kind, a series of brick plinths topped by engraved steel plaques, representing the ribs of a steam ship, an installation commemorating the families and individuals who left Mayo for Canada and the USA in the 1880’s under an Assisted Emigration Scheme. The scheme was a fund set up by James Hack Tuke, a Quaker from York. I was aware of the emigration that took place in the 1840’s during the Irish Famine but knew nothing about this later stage of the Irish diaspora. I was able to learn more when I called into the Visitor Centre at Agleam back up the peninsula a little way. I spent a couple of very interesting hours looking at the displays and chatting to the people responsible for the commemorative project. Once again I was grateful for the chance to speak a cupla focal.
Slievemore & Croaghaun from Blacksod, Mullet peninsula, Co Mayo
I spent the next few days exploring the Peninsula in good and bad weather. As well as beautiful unspoilt beaches at Elly Bay and Mullaghroe and Cross Point, there were majestic headlands at Erris Head and Doonamo and Annagh Head, the lighthouse at Ballyglass, and I came across a few of the sculptures that form part of the Tir Saile: North Mayo Sculpture Trail. As I drove north from Kerry, there had been news reports about Portuguese Man’o War being washed up in large numbers on Irish beaches. I had expected to find them on the west coast of the Mullet Peninsula but there was no trace on any of the beaches I visited. At Cross Point I parked at the old graveyard by the beach, lots of Celtic cross gravestones at tilted angles. I walked the length of the beach, the tide was out and the damp sand gleamed under a pale grey sky with just the faintest glimmer of blue away to the south west. At Fallmore I parked by the Church and another graveyard, and got talking with a friendly old fella. The conversation turned to emigration and the Irish Diaspora. He told me a few stories about people connections. I’d say there are definitely less than six degrees of separation for the Irish. .
Belmullet was a good base from which to explore the peninsula, my choice of B&B was excellent, and the ladies at the local Tourist Office were very friendly and helpful. I enjoyed a few pints of Guinness and Smithwick’s in the local bars and some good food in The Strand Hotel, Talbots and Broadhaven Bay Hotel.
It was another beautiful day as I left Belmullet and made my way along the north Mayo coast towards Sligo. I was sad to leave this beautiful part of North Mayo and will return soon. The WAW runs inland from Belmullet but I took the scenic route up to Benwee Head, another majestic headland and another sculpture. The view down out across the little peninsula to Rinroe Point and the wide expanse of Broadhaven was beautiful.
The WAW re-joins the coast just before it reaches the Ceide Fields, another Discovery Point. I stopped, had some lunch in the architecturally impressive Visitor Centre, and took the walking tour. It was a bright blustery day as we walked around the boardwalk and stopped every so often to listen to the guide explain the archaeology of the site. To my shame I had known nothing about this world renowned Neolithic field system discovered beneath the bog on the north Mayo coast. Although only small sections are visible, the extent of the site is staggering. Despite the cold wind that buffeted us the enthusiasm of the knowledgeable guide was infectious.
From the Ceide Fields I drove on to Ballycastle and out to Downpatrick Head (a Signature Discovery Point) which was basking in bright sunshine. There was another sculpture created around a blowhole and fine views of the sea stack, Dun Briste.
Reluctantly I left Mayo and followed the WAW north to Sligo. I stayed just outside of the town at Rosses Point. Unexpectedly there were lots of northern Irish accents at the hotel, a tour party from Belfast had just arrived. I went to an excellent concert at the Hawkswell Theatre, a father and daughter duo from south Sligo, Colm and Siobhan O’Donnell. An early morning walk in the sunshine on the beach at Rosses Point gave me a fine view of distant Benbulben.
From Sligo I turned inland again and headed north into Donegal to pick up the WAW again at Letterkenny. Back in 2009 I had followed the coast road out to Glencolmcille and up as far as Dunfanaghy. My journey north on the WAW was reaching an end as I joined the coast again at Carrickart and headed out to the lighthouse at Fannad Head. From there I drove south along the shore of Lough Swilly past another fine beach at Ballystocker Strand. I had intended to catch the ferry from Rathmullan to Buncranna, but unfortunately I hadn’t done my research, the last ferry of the season had sailed back in August!
With no shortcut on the ferry I had to follow the WAW around the shore of Lough Swilly, back down to Letterkenny and up the other side to Buncranna. It was a busy little town, roadworks and detours, and a wedding spilling out onto the street.
The day was advancing so I turned inland and joined the WAW again at Carndoagh for the final few kilometres north to Malin Head. Quite a contrast to Mizen Head five weeks previously. No rain, but the same grey sky, just a few cars parked, not the tourist bustle, or an iconic image to compare with the arched bridge and the signal station, just a derelict tower, START and FINISH stenciled on the road and 80 EIRE picked out in white bricks on the grass of the cliff edge. I stood for a while staring out to the grey horizon as I had done at Mizen Head, my journey on the WAW completed. So many memorable moments, images and experiences, but on this the last day, a sense of anti-climax.
Driving back to Letterkenny along the shore of Lough Foyle I suddenly became aware that the familiar traffic signs and symbols of the last few weeks had been replaced by another familiarity! Without realising it I had crossed the border into Northern Ireland. Post Brexit I wondered how easy that journey would become in the future.
Overnight in Letterkenny and I went to another excellent concert this time at the An Grianan Theatre, The Wild Atlantic Women. Walking to the theatre in the early evening I stopped to admire a piece of installation art in the centre of the Port Bridge roundabout, ‘Polestar’ created by a Derry Man, Locky Morris.
“Polestar”, Letterkenny, Co Donegal
My final destination was the Ireland West Airport Knock, back in County Mayo. But there was one last lighthouse to visit. Between Donegal Town and Killybegs I turned off the highway and drove down the long, narrow peninsula that projects into Donegal Bay. At the end is the beautifully remote St John’s Point Lighthouse. I was blessed with a sunny day and took my last few photographs on the WAW.
On a grey morning at Knock Airport I said farewell to the little red number and boarded the plane for London.
Reflections on the Wild Atlantic Way
As I wrote at the beginning of this Post, the WAW is largely a driving experience and a very enjoyable one along mainly quiet roads through the beautiful west coast scenery. But I’m pleased I was able to combine this with hiking on the Kerry Way and the Beara Way. Those stretches of footpath across hillside and bog, the quietness of the countryside away from the coast, and the glorious views of bays and harbours. I wish I had spent more time on the wide, empty beaches but there will be other opportunities in the future to visit the west coast. Lighthouse were another connecting theme of the journey and always a pleasure to look at and to contemplate on their history and isolation. I learnt something about flying boats, and copper mining, and Neolithic field systems, and just a little about the Atlantic blanket bog. I managed a cupla focal of Irish and wished I had made more opportunity. I enjoyed every part of the journey, but the best for me was the coast of north Co Mayo and I can’t wait for the chance to return
Failte Ireland are heavily promoting the Wild Atlantic Way and inevitably that will have the desired effect of increasing visitor numbers. How much that will change the experience is hard to say, but my advice would be to go now.
List of B & B’s, Hostels and Hotels
The Railway Hostel (http://www.killarneyhostel.com/)
Collins B&B, Killarney (http://www.collinsbedandbreakfast.com/)
Shamrock Farmhouse, Black Valley (http://shamrock.kerry-ireland.com/)
Rowan Tree Inn, Glencar (http://rowantree.kerry-ireland.com/)
Village House, Glenbeigh (http://www.glenbeighvillagehouse.info/)
Failte Farmhouse, Derrymore, Caherciveen (http://www.failtefarmhousebandb.com/)
The Waterfront, Portmagee (https://www.waterfrontportmagee.com/#home)
Clifford’s, Waterville (http://www.cliffordbandb.com/)
Derrynane Bay House, Caherdaniel (http://www.ringofkerry.net/)
Rockville House, Sneem (http://www.sneem.com/rockville.html)
Druid Cottage, Kenmare (http://druidcottagekenmare.com/)
Island View House, Glengarriff (http://www.islandviewhouse.net/)
Ocean View, Faha East, Adrigole (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Island View House, Castletownbere (http://www.islandviewhouse.com/)
Seaview Guesthouse, Allihies (http://allihiesseaview.com/)
Formanes House, Eyeries (http://www.bedandbreakfastireland.net/cork_castletownbere-formanes.html)
Mountain View, Lauragh (email@example.com)
Watersedge, Kenmare (https://www.watersedgekenmare.com/#home)
Ferry House Hostel, Tarbet
Sancta Maria Hotel, Lahinch (http://www.sancta-maria.ie/}
The Hotel Westport, Westport (http://www.hotelwestport.ie/)
Chex Nous, Belmullet (http://cheznousbelmullet.ie/)
Yeats Country House Hotel, Rosses Point, Sligo (http://www.yeatscountryhotel.com/)
Mount Erigal Hotel, Letterkenny (http://www.mounterrigal.com/en/)