GOING SOLO - a trip by car along the West Coast
by Beth Bridges
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
na Mara, Dooagh, Achill Island. Co. Mayo. Telephone
353 98 43005. Overlooking Dooagh Bay. Gym and sauna.
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.
Cottage, Greencastle, Inishowen, Co. Donegal, Telephone
353 77 81087. Sun room overlooks Greencastle Harbour. Tea/coffee
making facilities in rooms.
Ulun House, Kilcar, Co. Donegal. Telephone 353 73 38137.
Ten bedrooms. Five minutes from beach. Laundry and drying
facilities. Open all year.
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
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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