Dublin - As we basked like wet seals in the sunshine, drinking in the mesmerising views, atop the dramatic 230m-high Slieveleague Cliffs (reputedly the highest in Europe), we couldn’t help but think some crazed giant’s cleaver had slashed down and severed this part of Ireland from the rest of the world.
And, indeed in prehistoric times it was so: the Dartry Mountain range with its equivalent of Table Mountain, the flat topped Benbulben, reputed in Irish folklore to be a direct “portal to the fairies” – which separates Sligo (William Butler Yeats country) from Donegal – was once an extension of North America’s Appalachian Mountains.
It’s an old, old place, this. A place of fairies. A place of myths and legend. It has not been civilised by the onward march of technology and still remains untamed.
Along a 2 500km stretch of rocky inlets, jaw-dropping cliffs, islands and mile-long Jurassic blue flag beaches, the newly opened Wild Atlantic Way aims to show tourists the side of Ireland other than that of the sweet, green rolling fields.
This is the harder Ireland of yore, where survival was not always a given.
This majestic stretch of Atlantic coast on her western shores stretching from the Old Head of Kinsale in the South to Derry in the North, flaunts geological features to inspire Hollywood movies and a turbulent history to eclipse our own.
Sean Mullen, who in the summer runs sensational “Walking & Talking” tours in Donegal, is an authority on the local terrain and pointed out mythological caves and hard limestone filled with 3-million-year-old fossils of ancient sea creatures.
And not far from ancient burial sites (older than the Egyptian pyramids), buried in softer turf in Drumcliffe Graveyard at the foot of the venerable Benbulben, lies the Irish Poet Laureate and nature lover, William Butler Yeats.
An extraordinary wealth of Irish literary talent has emerged from fields as primitive as the Ceide, a Neolithic agricultural museum and a testimony to the enduring Irish dependence on the land.
As we landed at Donegal airport amidst green fields enveloped by mist and sheep, it was not hard to imagine why Ireland’s greatest export in the nineteenth century was her people, especially starving ones in the wake of the potato blight.
But just a short drive away to Theo’s Tavern, in a village shorter than a shoe lace, the aromas of hot soda scones and burning peat fires accompanied by the lilting sound of Enya spoke of a different, more prosperous Ireland.
For it is this modest little pub in the middle of nowhere, where she grew up and honed her musical talent, which has become a shrine to Irish music, in as much as Trinity College in Dublin is a shrine to Irish literature.
Every notable Irish band – U2, One Direction, The Corrs (their pictures line the wooden walls) has downed a Guinness at this very bar, in homage to the Irish nightingale.
Moreover, one discovers no Irish bar exists without music and lyrics divulging a story of a once ravished, yet magical land. Family-run businesses are the norm in the “Gaeltacht” North, where only Gaelic is spoken and the Arnolds Hotel in Dunfanaghy overlooking the spectacular Horn Head and Killahoey Beach( a surfer’s and horse rider’s paradise) is your typical fourth generation hotel built in the early 1920s.
You are surrounded by 200 different species of grass, wild yellow gorse, rhododendrons, the odd cyclist, a mad fiddler and sheep as far as the eye can see, not to mention a castle around every corner.
The North West exudes, as Oscar Wilde succinctly puts it, a “savage beauty” infused with old fashioned charm and abundant character, so lacking in the frenetic modern world.
Our horse ride along the Killahoey beach, even with the wind whipping at our backs, in tandem with the sails of windsurfers out in Sheephaven Bay, was at an appropriately laid-back pace, slow enough to observe pretty species of edible snails and Plover eggs nestled in the shrubbery of sand dunes at low tide.
The emphasis is very much on community and the collective benefits derived there from, be it sport, glass blowing, weaving or food co-ops, etc. The Greenway Gourmet network, supported by well known local hotels – Rathmullen House (Donegal) Mulranny Park Hotel (Sligo) and Abbeyglen Castle (Galway) take enormous pride in churning out innovative home-grown produce: delectable seaweed wraps, mushroom patés, smoked salmon and blue cheeses are high on the menu and the Northern Irish have become adept at marketing these unique products.
One can “Follow The Hops”, boasting beers with evocative names, ranging from Devil’s Backbone to Rustbucket and Scraggy Bay, along the entire spectrum of the Wild Atlantic Way.
While their superb links golf courses remain a major tourist attraction (we spent a night at the spectacular Rosapenna Golf Resort, on the Rosguill Peninsula), electric cycling has taken the “Wild Atlantic Way” by storm. Electric Escapes Ireland has environmentally friendly Kalkoff bikes, which help spread the load of two-wheel exploring.
Donegal is a photographer’s – if not a bird watcher’s – paradise, provided you do not suffer from vertigo, whilst standing abreast of Fanad lighthouse, on a misty mainland precipice, watching seagulls swirling around the sheer rock face of Seastack Malinbeg, or forbidding cliffs of Tory Island, with her Spanish Armada wreck.
Even if the often inclement weather envelopes you, in every other inhabited wayfarers’ haven, be it a small cottage or large inn, there is no shortage of steaming hot water at the end of a hard day’s ride. That said, the close proximity of the Gulf Stream keeps the North West shoreline – an official sanctuary for migrating whales and dolphins – temperate and minus any significant winter snowfalls.
While the Atlantic and the North Sea tides, the bearer of ship wrecks, disease, smugglers and Viking invaders, may have battered this verdant shoreline, the ocean has also provided prolific bounty. From every lofty perch along the Wild Atlantic Way you will see (and hopefully sample from) row upon row of oyster and scallop farms lining the shallows, together with legions of colourful fishing boats setting forth from picturesque harbours, like Killybegs, Ireland’s largest fishing port; fishing being another intrinsic thread in local life.
In County Mayo, the River Moy, which runs through the town of Ballina, is the richest salmon fishing location in the country and resourceful monks from the plethora of Catholic abbeys, specifically the imposing Kylemore Abbey in Galway, were some of the first to create strategic fishing outposts on well-stocked rivers and lochs, still used today.
As Yeats would say, there are no strangers in these parts – only friends you have not met yet. Thus calling all fishermen, surfers, cyclists, bird watchers and ramblers: “You must arise and go now … to the waters and the wild with a faery hand in hand…”
On the Wild Atlantic Way, well-signposted though it is, you will be constantly lured off the beaten track – by faeries, or leprechauns, or the sheer spectacle of it all. And you are never more than a stone’s throw from a comfortable bed, a beautiful sunset, a poignant tune and a fáilte welcome…
l Deborah Curtis-Setchell was hosted by Tourism Ireland and Virgin Atlantic Airlines.