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GOING SOLO - a trip by car along the West Coast
by Beth Bridges

If I imagined I knew Ireland’s west coast well, it might be forgiven because I had traveled there twice a year since 1982. But this past September, as I drove slowly around every head, down tiny boreens, hemstitching the byways of Connemara and the Donegal coast, I found I knew nothing. I’d never taken this September trip before..

In April and May, yes, with new life springing everywhere. Through June and July’s blue skies, and in August’s sultry warmth and crowds of last-minute tourists. But September was a time of near-miraculous beauty. Storms dashed great waves against the cliffs. Rain veiled still-green mountains with grey curtains. Sheep sheltered from rolling mists, pressing close to turf stacks and stone bridges. The air was sweet with the scent of turf smoke and gulls as large as geese hung suspended on the wind, their cries mingling with the sighing of the sedge.

The aloneness of these expanses of grey, green and brown against slate skies and crashing waves was a kind of perfection I’d never seen in spring or summertime.

Apart from the exquisite loneliness of the autumn landscape, there was an exhilarating freedom in being alone. Traveling with friends effectively blocks many a conversation with a passer-by, a farmer in a field or a schoolboy on a bike. Alone, one seems more approachable, less preoccupied with companions.

Connemara and Mayo
And so I drove through Connemara’s mists, to the strains of Ireland’s new Lyric FM classical music station on the car radio, up Galway Bay to Roundstone and Clifden, to stay at a B&B high up on Sky Road overlooking miles of the Atlantic.

Morning brought watery sunshine, and by the time I wound along Killary Harbour, a narrow cliff road to Leenane, everything was sparkling. I hadn’t realised how many and varied the flowers of Autumn were. Everywhere the fields were carpeted with daisies, groundsel, gorse and wild roses. Near the shore, bindweed blossoms tumbled over stone fences and heather turned meadows a rich purple. Roses still climbed the trellises of roadside cottages.

Heading towards Westport’s Clew Bay along the stretch of road Wallace Nutting called “the most scenic drive in Ireland,” I found Ashleigh Falls and the mountain streams that feed it swollen and dramatic from September rains. At Westport (in Co. Mayo) the early afternoon sun beckoned, and pausing only for a cup of tea, I drove towards Mulrany to begin the Atlantic Drive that led to Achill Island and around its rugged coast.

After a walk along the nearly deserted, wide and curving strand at Keel, I found what must surely be the best B&B on Achill. Just past Keel, overlooking Dooagh Bay, was the luxuriously comfortable Realt na Mara - a new B&B having all rooms with en suite bathrooms, TVs, tea and coffee facilities, telephone and every convenience of a good hotel. Besides the beautifully furnished guests’ lounge, there was a large snooker and games room, a professional quality gym, jacuzzi and sauna, and a large, modern laundry room for guests’ use.

After an excellent breakfast and one more drive around Achill’s exquisite coast road, I headed up toward the wild and spectacularly beautiful county of Donegal. Just past Sligo’s stately Ben Bulben, my heartbeat always quickens as I near the mountainous Glencolumbcille peninsula, home of Slieve League, Europe’s highest sea cliff, with its 1,972 foot eminence nearly always hidden in mists, even on sunny days.

Donegal
Beyond the fishing port of Killybegs, a coast road veers off the main road to Kilcar. This is one of the most magnificent drives in all of Ireland, around Drumanon Head, Shawley Point and Muckross Head. An entire day could be spent just savouring the mystical drama of these heights. Then, near Kilcar, I stopped for the night at Dun Ulun House B&B - an all-time favorite hostelry high on a cliff road with views of sea and islands below. The friendliness of Denis and Marie Lyons make Dun Ulun a perfect stopover, and during this September visit Denis showed me a remarkable video he and his family have made of the historic and pre-historic sites of the area. With traditional music played and sung by the Lyons’ daughter and niece, the video was a rare treasure about the old days and old ways of this corner of Donegal’s Gaeltacht seldom seen by Tourists.

In Glencolumbcille, I found an attraction undiscovered on previous visits - “Taipeis Gael,” a community of weavers now housed in their own large building in Malinbeg. This group of talented artists display exquisite tapestries and wall hangings, some very expensive, but considering their stunning beauty and originality, underpriced.

By early afternoon I wound along the Donegal coast past Rosbeg, Portnoo and Narin, emptied of their summer crowds but still with sparkling turquoise sea outlined by arcs of white strands and grassy dunes. At Gweebarra Bridge I took the tiny boreen out to Dooey Point to look across Trawenagh Bay, then circled the Rosses for the climb up to Bloody Foreland of the scarlet sunsets. Then onto the (slightly) improved road to Horn Head. Each of these sites could fill a small book, so full are they of majesty and serenity.

Farther on, the Fanad Peninsula drive led to the Fanad Lighthouse, and back by cliffs overlooking beaches so far down that grazing sheep were mere dots against green hills. But the best scenes, if any Donegal scenes could be called “best,” were ahead, as I began the “Inishowen 100” - a circle of that many miles up to Malin Head, Ireland’s northernmost point. Then the winding descent looped down and down to the fishing port of Greencastle. I had kept driving well into the dusk to reach it, and Brooklyn Cottage, a B&B I consider a national treasure. Proprietors Mr and Mrs. Smith share a wealth of information about the history of the area, as their guests sit looking out over Lough Foyle to the faraway lights of Northern Ireland, and seals climb onto the rocks at the water’s edge just near their front lawn.

A retired seaman, Mr. Smith is now curator of the Greencastle Maritime Museum, and enjoys opening up a world of Irish maritime history for guests. People who love sea lore can happily spend a morning exploring the museum, now being greatly enlarged to accommodate reconstructed sailing boats, ships’ replicas, coffee and gift shops, and hundreds of marine memorabilia. The grand opening of the expanded museum is to be in June, 2000. Leaving Greencastle, I drove south along Lough Foyle towards Letterkenny, then Donegal town. Planning at first to drive a direct inland highway to my home in Cork, I remembered the exquisite coastal route I’d followed..Just the thought was enough to make me turn again towards the coast roads, and to my surprise and delight the trip back along many of the same roads I’d traveled only days before were, as if by magic, full of new sights and experiences. I guess that’s the enchantment of Ireland.

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Useful Information:

B&B Accommodations:

“Caladh na Leice,” Pairc Lair, An Spideal, Co. Galway, telephone 353 91 553698. Fresh free-range eggs for breakfast; open turf fire; native Irish speaking family.

Realt na Mara, Dooagh, Achill Island. Co. Mayo. Telephone 353 98 43005. Overlooking Dooagh Bay. Gym and sauna.

Seavilla, Lecanvey, Westport, Co. Mayo, Telephone 353 98 64803. At the bottom of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain on coast road. Home baking, mixed farming.

Brooklyn Cottage, Greencastle, Inishowen, Co. Donegal, Telephone 353 77 81087. Sun room overlooks Greencastle Harbour. Tea/coffee making facilities in rooms.

Dun Ulun House, Kilcar, Co. Donegal. Telephone 353 73 38137. Ten bedrooms. Five minutes from beach. Laundry and drying facilities. Open all year.

Inishowen Maritime Museum, Greencastle, Co. Donegal. Telephone 353 77 81363. Located in old coastguard station. Coffee, Craft and Souvenir shop. Open daily from June until autumn, 10.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. By arangement throughout rest of year.

Taipeis Gael, Gleann Cholm Cille, Co. Dhun na nGall, Telephone 353 73 30325. Tapestry Weaving Courses teaching natural dyeing, spinning and weaving. Tapestry frames and yarns are provided. Courses run Monday to Friday, 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. and cost £100.00 per week.

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