Ireland is what my mother told me nice girls should never be … a tease.
I learned this lesson the hard way, by driving the appropriately named Wild Atlantic Way – 2,400 kilometres of coastal roads, stretching from Donegal in the north to Cork in the south, that lead to fishing villages only gently touched by time, remote islands and village pubs that make you want to settle in to write your novel.
When the Wild Atlantic Way is officially launched in March, 2014, it will be the world’s longest defined coastal drive. Maps and guides will highlight the route, listing the important sites, activities, dining and accommodation choices and the history of each area. Aimed at the independent traveller, the route will provide everything necessary for a self-guided driving trip, including local secrets and hidden treasures. It will take visitors along the steep cliffs, past crashing surf and into idyllic fishing harbours.
In five days, I sampled close to half of the coastal tour, loosely following the coastline from Shannon on the west to near Shanagarry on the south coast. I bypassed some of the more frequented parts, such as the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry, exploring instead the quieter coastal villages, with short inland digressions for points of interest. It was an exhilarating and surprising journey, an easy drive along curving roads, elevated by unexpected culinary pleasures that I had not expected.
But it was also a rainy one, done during an unusually chilly May. The locals here describe the weather as “soft:” few heavy downpours, but plenty of dewy fogs, wind and cloudy skies.
It is deceptively unpredictable. Brilliant sunshine can replace dark rain clouds in minutes, only to disappear almost as quickly.
That’s where the tease comes in. Ireland pulls you to her comfortable bosom one moment, and then, just as you are puckering up, she freezes you out.
Take Valentia Island for example, one of my first stops. This remote island off the southwest coast of Kerry is home to a slate quarry whose stone helped to build prominent buildings such as the British House of Commons. Its main village, Knightstown, is a tidy clutch of whitewashed cottages, with a few businesses and fishing boats clustered around the port.
One minute I’m tucked into a snug in the Royal Valentia Hotel spooning seafood chowder and listening to Muiris O’Donahue, a local historian, tell me the story of the transatlantic telegraph cable, from its early missteps to the first transmission – sent from right here in Knightstown. The air is thick and warm, and Muiris, like many of the Irish, can spin a great story.
“The cable changed the world, Barbara, truly,” he tells me, “and it was here in this hotel that most of the principle actors in the story planned the whole enterprise.”
This moment is, as the Irish might say, “lovely.”
But next, Muiris drives me along the coast to the site where an intrepid anthropologist stumbled upon what may be the oldest imprints ever discovered: tetrapod tracks that date from 350 million to 370 million years ago. As I climb down to the slick rocks where the prints are preserved, the wind is so fierce I fear I will lose my hair. Waves are crashing over the rocks. My lips are salty and blue. Not lovely.
Then he takes me to the top of Geokaun, the highest point on the island and indeed, Muiris tells me, in all of County Kerry, at the edge of the Fogher Cliffs. I’m shivering wet and dreaming of a warm bath, when the clouds seem to evaporate, and there lie the Skellig Rocks, the Blasket Islands and the languorous curves of the Dingle Peninsula. Behind me, the McGuillycuddy’s Reeks glisten in the wet light. I’m breathless, and this time not from the cold.
Ireland is toying with my emotions. But there’s no point resisting. I’m caught.