The wild Atlantic13 min read . Updated: 21 Nov 2015, 11:47 AM IST
Driving down the Irish coast along the Atlantic, clichs give way to a country ready to be smelt, touched and felt
Shockingly soon, I was sitting in an Irish cliché. We were barely an hour into our two-week-long road trip and we found ourselves chatting with four old men in a 150-year-old pub in an Irish town. The stocky door had exiled the sunlight. The wooden bar top glowed with the smooth burnish of decades of elbow and glass rubs. To my left was a mural of four old men with white hair in fisherman caps, drinking Guinness and smoking cigarettes. The four men in front of me could have just stepped out of that wall. They looked like men of the sea and smoke, men of trying times and callused hands. I pulled myself up on a bar stool and ordered a Bushmills whisky to woots of appreciation and admiration. It was barely noon.
We had been told of Irish friendliness, their fondness for alcohol and, of course, the Irish pub, affectionately referred to as the island’s most successful export. We also knew of Ireland as a nation of immigrants. And there we were, in the town of Moville, talking to four retirees about how everyone had left town. “There are about 30 or 40 young people left here. The rest of us are just waiting around to be knocked off," said one of them.
“And how big is this town?" I asked.
“Maybe 1,500. Well, I know those who come here to drink…which is everyone," chuckled the bartender.
The first few days in a place should be used to shake off every cliché, every expectation. Tourism is reductive. Through photographs, aphorisms or cheap souvenirs, we seek to condense a place into fathomable objects and images to take home in our bags and memories. But luckily, once satisfied, the clichés diminish and we are then perhaps primed to imagine and form our interpretation.
Thankfully for me, Ireland neatly packaged itself into one great stereotype on the very first day of our Wild Atlantic Way (Waw) road trip. So I could truly be on my way. The canny tourism tool, Waw, would take us 2,600km down the western coast of Ireland, from its northernmost point, at Malin Head, to its southernmost, at Mizen Head. In my head though, I rifled through the predictable images of Ireland—precarious cliffs that look like they have been sliced off by a butter knife, a dark ocean with a bobbing boat, and a certain foreboding landscape.
On a map, Ireland looks like it is in motion. It is a mass of land that heaves upwards to the east, perhaps waiting to be kissed. Its western edge is feathered and flowing—like the wind is in its hair. Its head tilts up, its chest thrusts out with its arms trailing backwards in balletic grace.
And this night, at 9pm, we were sitting on its head, at Banba’s Crown, an old watchtower in Malin Head…in a car. Malin Head has a satisfyingly northern feel to it. Surrounded by the pounding Atlantic, it feels like the extremity of a land mass, like terrifying nothingness.
We had given ourselves 2 hours to spot the Northern Lights or, at least, a shadow of them in the sky, one of my lifelong desires. Outside, a large TV crew roamed about with head torches like ghostly beams on unfamiliar terrain. I have never liked the sea. Even on calm sandy beaches, where the waves caress toes, I find it unpleasant, a foe masquerading as a friend. It is worse in the dark. I cannot see it but I can hear it and feel it in the air.
After spending a couple of uncomfortable, unsuccessful hours in freezing temperature, we decided to call it a day—we drove back towards the fairy lights of town.
The next day, between darkness and daylight, Malin Head had gained miles of sunny pastures, beaches and rocky cliffs. Where within the limits of a swinging torchlight the night before there had been vertiginous drops and treacherous trails, today there were gentle walking paths and sheep grazing. In the distance, a gang of seagulls doggedly pursued a fishing boat.
Banba’s Crown, built by the British in 1805, is the most northerly building on the mainland. The names of nearby geographical features, Hell’s Hole and Devil’s Bridge, are possibly reminders of the sea’s capabilities. Standing under one of the ancient stone structures, I faced the heaving Atlantic, whose scale seemed magnified by the small white boat on it. Behind me, the whole country prepared for a bright September day.
I have always been irresistibly charmed by borders—man-made or natural. Perhaps because I always expect sizzling alchemy where cultures or elements meet. But what is it about the end of land—the desire to stand at the northernmost point (or the southernmost)? Why does the edge have such a pull?
Surely not the spirit of exploration, for a million would have been there before me. Perhaps it’s just that standing next to Banba’s Crown, I knew that everything else on this land mass was just that wee bit diminished, that it was all “just a bit south". No shadow would ever be cast on Banba’s Crown.
From here on we would drive south along the coast, surveying land to our left and the Atlantic to our right as the sun rolled across the sky. For the second time, we left Malin Head. This time in the dazzling light of day.
Driving along the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal gave us our first real taste of the Irish coast, rugged and weather-beaten. Stopping at the Wee House of Malin, which also hosts a 16th century church and holy well, we were welcomed by that most un-Irish of things, a sunny day. Encouraged by the warmth, we scrambled up a grassy knoll on a pebbly beach, the heather and grass so soft that a head laid on it would bounce back lightly.
Notwithstanding my feelings about the ocean, I prefer it in the northern latitudes, where it is more honest about its character. It makes no excuses for its power. This peninsula, the largest in Ireland, has its own 100-mile circuit drive, known as the Inishowen 100 tourist route—a neat way of circling the area.
The Waw has several heart-stopping moments, sometimes literally. The road curves, rises and falls. A fast glide over the top of a hump would suddenly open up a wide view of land and sea. It was like the roller-coaster that takes you to the top and drops you into a weightless moment. I gasped and scrambled wildly for my camera the first few times; thereafter, I was prepared, ready to wait for that fraction of a second when the scenery would flip.
One such moment led us to the grand Five Fingers Strand, a dramatic beach that is protected by high cliffs and sand dunes. Spotting it from a distance, we drove down for a walk. Sweeping sunny beaches were not what I had expected in Ireland. My imagination had conjured up cold, grey sand, definitely not this glorious golden softness that made us want to throw off our shoes and dash into the (freezing) Atlantic.
Through the town of Letterkenny, we drove to what would become our road marker on the Waw—the very first lighthouse. The Fanad Head Lighthouse stands guard between Lough Swilly (one of Ireland’s very few glacial fjords) and sandy Mulroy Bay. It hangs precariously on a bed of rocks. The ocean rails angrily against it, as it has for centuries. And like several lighthouses, this one was also born out of a disastrous shipwreck, in 1812.
The lighthouse, which is functional, was shut to visitors that day. But there is some good news for visitors. It has started offering three self-catering houses—renovated lighthouse keepers’ cottages. I cannot imagine more thrilling accommodation—to sleep as the ground throbs to the beat of the ocean, to gaze at a storm, to know that the light from your house still keeps many a wandering ship from death and ruin.
Disappointed at not being able to get a closer view, we walked down a shepherd’s path for a panoramic view. From a distance, the lighthouse looked desolate. An old, slippery stone path led down from it to the water. Standing there, I could only think of haunting Victorian novels, of a woman in a black gown teetering at a cliff edge, staring into the milky froth, brooding over the merits of life over death. Too dark? It was. And we were off to a pub.
We passed Ardara, home to good wool and tweed shops, and the sizeable Glenveagh National Park, which was a private deer reserve till 1975. By the time we drove into Sligo county, it was dusk.
Connemara does not have demarcated boundaries, which is fitting because the land feels mythical. Like fables, its spread cannot be contained, and is defined more by landscape than by a county border. The wilds of Connemara are ringed by the Atlantic shore, the slopes of the Maumturk mountains and the Twelve Bens range, rivers and lakes. Land truly made for those who love to walk.
We were loath to leave the previous night’s bed and breakfast, The Anglers Return, a gem surrounded by gardens and forests. The house, full of light and cheer, was once owned by Ranjitsinhji, the jam saheb of Nawanagar. We extended our morning stay till it was impolite. Lynn Hill, the kindly owner, begged us to skip the touristy Kylemore Abbey and walled gardens, and instead walk around Connemara, sit on a rock, gaze at sheep. But it was our day for mass tourism—Kylemore and the Cliffs of Moher.
Poets, writers, artists and folklorists have all slobbered over the beauty of Connemara. The road bends alongside lakeshores and bogland, arches over hills, chases sunlight on cloudy days, tolerates napping sheep. If one has just a few days in Ireland, a Connemara visit would encapsulate its scenery.
The bustling parking lot of the Kylemore Abbey came as a shock. Home now to a community of Benedictine nuns, the abbey is also a monument to love. This is where Mitchell Henry, a late 19th century industrialist and politician, and his wife fell in love with the area.
A couple of hours later, we drove to the Cliffs of Moher, stopping at a parking lot the size of a football field. With the two most popular spots out of our way, we headed to our night-stop, Limerick, driving off on a road set afire by a fierce setting sun. The land was golden syrup.
We didn’t even bother with breakfast in Limerick, a bleak and unlovely town. In drizzling rain, we headed to Dingle, which was everything that Limerick wasn’t. Times five. It was almost a caricature of a tourist’s delight, an Irish souvenir that was one step away from ironic. Adorable ice-cream stores, cute scarf shops, aisles of sweaters and shamrock postcards, pubs, pubs, pubs.
Dingle is a blustery, small fishing port, its main street lined with buildings in every colour. So cute it made my teeth ache. Understandably, it was popular with tourists. Large groups of Americans bustled into the seafood-and-steak pubs as the bus drivers had a pint at the bar. By evening, the buses had left and the remaining visitors bundled into the warm pubs on Quay Street, all of which had live Irish music acts.
A proverb often cited in Ireland is, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes." Mostly, we had had warm, sunny days and were repeatedly reminded of our luck.
We started driving on the Ring of Kerry, a 179km-long scenic drive through County Kerry, beginning with Ross Castle and Innisfallen Island (inhabited by deer, this island also has the remnants of an abbey) and driving through the Killarney National Park.
When we got to Inch Beach, the clouds were cracking. Parking on the beach, we saw a large group, backlit by the sunlight, standing next to tripods, walking off and on into the sea. We had walked into the annual sea-angling contest! Inch Beach is a wide, excellent beach laid out on a fat finger of land that creeps into the sea. With vigorous waves, it is one of the top spots for shore-angling. There were 40 pairs of men in galoshes trying to catch the ultimate prize: a bass.
We continued on the Ring of Kerry towards our night halt, Cahirsiveen village. The ring passes through typical Irish wild lands, the Iveragh Peninsula. Less dramatic than Connemara, it winds through coastal villages, gentler pastures and fort ruins.
Unknown to us, however, our GPS was taking us off the Ring of Kerry and putting us on the spectacular 60km-long drive through the centre of the Iveragh Peninsula. Evocative of the Moreh Plains of Ladakh, the land gives itself a good long stretch and ends in a broad view of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, a mountain range that includes Ireland’s highest peaks. There were almost no cars on this route, which passes through a large flat bowl of grassy plains and rises up to cross the mountain range at the Ballaghisheen Pass. It’s perfect for cycling.
The highlights of the Ring of Kerry—and a personal highlight—are the Skellig Islands, small and steep rocky islands. Skellig Michael is especially spectacular, with a sixth century Christian monastery that clings to a cliff. But, alas, the ferries did not run that day. The day itself, however, was dazzlingly sunny. And we were off, sans car, on a hike up the Fogher Cliffs and Geokaun Mountain.
The day got better, with miles of visibility. The view from the Geokaun peak was unparalleled. The blue bay snuck into every available corner. Our stay that day was in Portmagee, an unforgettably delightful fishing village. Lined with little houses with colourful fronts, it is like Lego-land, the outcome of a child’s imagination.
By now, a dark cloud hovered over every day; the end of the Waw weighed on me. We were almost at Cork, which would see us drive back to Dublin. We knew this was the last of the Atlantic light and Irish land. From Baltimore, we were to reach Mizen Head, our southernmost point, the extremity of a peninsula. With an old signal and weather station and a lighthouse, Mizen Head used to be a key site for transatlantic shipping and communications.
Faced with gale force winds at the edge of Ireland (Mizen Head), I could no longer feel my face. Throughout the trip, I had taken pictures of the view from lighthouse windows—the flatness of the horizon and the resolute presence of the sea, the daily view of a lighthouse keeper, who had to take the help of hobbies such as fishing, poetry and handicrafts to stay sane. That day at Mizen Head seemed tailored for us, for, just as we left, the rain began.
Hill hates the Waw. “Ireland", she says, “is about smelling, touching, feeling. It is about tipping out of a car and falling into an open field, stepping into a cold lake, finding a funny man with a cow. That’s Ireland."
We passed the “End of Wild Atlantic Way" sign on our penultimate day. My heart tightened as I bid goodbye to that little blue wave icon that had led us south so faithfully. I thought back to the image that would be my personal metaphor for Ireland. It was from Mizen Head.
Looking down from a high cliff, I had spotted two seals swimming in a calm blue cove, protected from the waves, basking their splotchy bellies in tepid sunlight. Unconcerned, they dived into inky depths, came gliding back—a picture that ached with completeness. I looked away to the distant sea and turned back for a last look. They were gone.
Etihad and Air France have one-stopover flights from India to Dublin.
The Anglers Return for the Connemara area; Carraig Liath House for County Kerry and the Skelligs; Hotel Isaacs for Cork city.
The Boxty: Irish potato pancakes with various toppings; great steaks; beer; smoked salmon dishes; and Guinness stew.