Sightseeing the Emerald Isle’s rugged coastline
From the Inishowen Peninsula in the north to the port of Kinsale down south, Ireland measures only about 400 kilometres long. But the Wild Atlantic Way, the scenic network of roads connecting those two points, stretches some 2,500 kilometres, hugging the country’s jagged western coastline for its entire length.
Locals recommend spending one month to thoroughly explore the Wild Atlantic Way. But who has that much time? Most tourists have little more than one week available. So, the best way to hit most of the highlights is to start in the middle of the route: Galway.
Into the wild green yonder
Galway is often described as the most Irish city in the whole country. Partly that’s because it sits so near the Gaeltacht, an area in which Ireland’s ancient language still thrives. Partly it’s because of the city’s strong musical heritage. I kicked off my visit by dropping in on several local instrument makers. Paul Doyle makes guitars, banjos, mandolins – almost anything with strings attached. Michael Vignoles, meanwhile, specialises in bodhran, the traditional drum which is held in one hand and struck with both ends of a single short stick.
The city of Galway sits squarely on the Wild Atlantic Way, and my next move was to rent a car and hit the road. I headed westward out of town, past the bathing area at Salthill, where hardy locals were going swimming in the ocean. Within minutes I was deep in the other Galway – County Galway – with the Atlantic to my left and a vast carpet of green to my right.
The Wild Atlantic Way isn’t a purpose-built road; rather, it’s a scenic route cobbled together from dozens of existing local roads, streets, lanes, and tracks, some of them so narrow that you can scrape against the bushes with both sides of your car at the same time. Navigation is easy: just follow the signs bearing the “WAW” logo, in which the cross-bar of the “A” has been removed and the three letters have been run together to make them look like choppy ocean waves.
And that’s exactly what I did for the next several days, stopping to inspect whatever caught my eye. Often I pulled over to say hello to Connemara ponies, the stocky little horses native to this part of the country. Often I parked the car to stroll on one of the many beaches. Often I set up my tripod and waited for the sunlight to land in just the right place on the distant hills. It seemed more like the Placid Atlantic Way – but I knew that the rough storms of winter could make the experience entirely different.
A slow drive to Fastnet
After returning my car, I travelled by bus down to Cork, Ireland’s second-largest city (though it’s less than one-fifth the size of Dublin).
As in Galway, the scenery was stunning. One of the highlights was the quiet town of Baltimore, where a huge, whitewashed stone tower stood watch over the channel between the mainland and Sherkin Island. Known as “The Beacon,” it was built as a warning to ships’ crews more than two centuries ago when lighthouses were still scarce.
But lighthouses increasingly took over the job of warning sailors, and late in the nineteenth century, an outrageously dramatic one was completed on Fastnet Rock, a dozen kilometres off the coast. Eager to see it up close, I boarded a sightseeing boat in Baltimore, but the weather proved to be too rough and the waves too strong for our small craft; we got as far as Cape Clear Island before having to turn back.
The next day I drove to a different lighthouse, the one at Mizen Head. Now mechanised, as nearly all lighthouses are, it contained an interesting exhibit of what life would have been like a century ago for the lighthouse keeper and his family—a difficult way to make a living, certainly, but one that paled by comparison with what Fastnet’s keeper must have had to endure out there on his lonely, wave-pummeled rock, covered in wild Atlantic spray.
All too soon my time was up, but someday I’d love to return to Ireland and cover the entire route. Maybe next time I’ll walk. That should surely take one month.
Text and photos Peter Weld