BEYOND THE CRAIC
Irish tourism used to be all about Guinness and good times, but that's beginning to change. Bruce Kirkby scales the rocky moors of Ireland's 'coolest place on the planet' and finds the beauty in a once-hidden Celtic nook
A crooked sign on the highway, lost amid brambles, is all that marks the dirt track leading toward the ghost village of An Port. Iain Miller – originally a mariner from the Orkney Islands, now a pioneering climbing guide on Ireland's remote northwestern coast – swings his cargo van onto the laneway. Crammed beside him on the front seat, my wife Christine and I brace ourselves as we bounce across stark moorlands of heather and bracken, dotted with occasional yew and prickly yellow gorse.
"Until the last coupla years, Irish tourism was all about Guinness and craic," Miller says, referring to the Irish term for fun, or good times, and a vital part of the local vernacular. "But that's beginning to change."
Powerful and tattooed, Miller spent decades crisscrossing the globe as an engineer on container ships before settling down in this desolate region, drawn by the untapped potential for climbing. Similarly, it was whispers of world-class surfing, scrambling, hiking, mountain-biking and kayaking that drew Christine and me. Not ones for crowded cities, we have come to explore the budding opportunities for adventure amid the sheep-speckled headlands and sandy beaches of Ireland's last great wilderness.
"The more beautiful the land, the poorer the people," Miller says as we pass abandoned cottages, their slate roofs splotched with lichen, crouched in nooks away from the eternal winds. In Ireland's far flung County Donegal, we have entered Straboy Townland; an area stretching beyond the horizons with just five inhabitants and no church. Like so much of rural Ireland, the youth here were drawn away to the busy streets of Dublin during the "Celtic Tiger" – a booming period of Irish renaissance that began in the mid-1990s. The 2008 collapse was catastrophic, and the country is still recovering.
A few tenacious residents remain. One "cantankerous old man," rumoured to be 102, lives alone in a stone shanty. The 82-year-old woman across the moors was Miller's first Facebook follower. Then there are the sheep farmers – "Kieran and Kieran's brodder" – who have developed the habit of plopping a milk bucket down in the middle of the track when they spot a car approaching.
"Of course, they'll pretend they didn't see ya coming," Miller laughs. "But they won't move that bucket till they've learned yer business; where ya live, where ya work, who yer modder is and most importantly, why yer here." In this barren land, gossip is as precious as gold.
We avoid the "bucket-trap" and soon arrive atop precipitous cliffs. Beyond, the cobalt waters of the North Atlantic are speckled with listing rock pillars. Battered by swell, and fringed with sea foam, they reach upward like fingers, many more than 100 metres tall. It is an exquisite view – prehistoric in its beauty – and deserted.
Far below, in a small cove, lies the lonesome harbour of An Port (The Port). Poet Dylan Thomas once spent a winter here, purportedly to dry out. Now the handful of homes lies in ruins, abandoned during the Great Famine more than 170 years ago. On a bluff stand memorial stones, tributes to those lost at sea. A rusty truck is blocking the cement boat launch. Miller scans the horizon, then points. Old Fred – the only fisherman still plying these waters – is at sea, rowing a wooden clinker-built boat and dropping lobster creel.
Our objective for the day is the Sturrall Headland, a dark, forbidding stack to the south, attached to mainland by a narrow ridge. Setting off by foot, we hug the coastal cliffs, passing above secluded coves and vast beaches of powdery sand. Basking sharks and orcas frequent these waters but, apart from seabirds, the only wildlife we spot are bleating lambs that race after their mothers.
Several hours later, we begin ascending rapidly steepening slopes. After roping up, we climb a vertical section, then traverse a dizzying knife edge – arguably the most stunning footsteps of my lifetime – to arrive on a small, grassy summit. Six hundred feet below, ocean swell breaks against the cliffs. Seabirds – fulmars, gannets, razor bills and puffins – soar over the blue waters. The piercing cry of the peregrine falcon drifts on the wind.
"By my reckoning, less than 40 people have ever stood here," Miller tells us. "Just walking off the paved road is still considered an extreme sport by many locals."
But that is slowly changing. National Geographic Traveller picked Ireland's County Donegal as "coolest place on the planet" for 2017. In slow-paced seaside towns, businesses are springing up: ice-cream shops, bed and breakfasts and plenty of adventure guide services. For the first time in recent memory, instead of leaving, people are being drawn to the land.
After three days of hiking, climbing and surfing, we arrive in the beachfront town of Strandhill, famous for its seaweed baths. For 300 years (and perhaps millenniums more) seaweed baths have offered traditional healing to tired Irish farm workers; women receiving a glass of sherry with their soak, men a pint of stout. More than 300 stone baths once stood along this coast, but the last was destroyed in 1961 by Hurricane Debbie.
The practice has recently made a resurgence, thanks in large part to the efforts of triathlete Neil Walton, who employs the restorative effects in his own training. Trim and energetic, Walton meets us at the front doors of his Voya Seaweeds Baths day spa, explaining that every morning, immense buckets of kelp are harvested from local beaches, and then steeped in tubs of hot brine, where they release a treasure trove of benefits; gels that moisturize ski and hair; macro-nutrients, minerals and antioxidants, which are absorbed through the skin, easing aches and pains.
"Seaweed bathing was always a thing for the common folk," Walton says. "So we've priced our baths accordingly."
A private one-hour bath, popular with tourists and locals alike, costs $40. Led to a darkened private room with two clawfoot tubs, Christine and I lower ourselves amid strands of floating seaweed. The water feels unlike anything I've experienced; silky and gelatinous. A blissful hour passes in a blink.
The next morning, we meet slim, dark-haired William Britton at Mullaghmore harbour. In a land where "local" is differentiated from "local-local," young Britton is "local-local-local." His great-aunt was the legendary "Mrs. B," owner of the Sandhouse Hotel which overlooks nearby Rossnowlagh Beach. In the 1960s, Mrs. B returned from the United States with a fibreglass surfboard, planning to mount the strange contraption on the lobby wall. Instead, her sons commandeered it and spent hours in the frigid winter ocean wearing nothing but woolly jumpers and dungarees. Their exploits formed the cornerstone of early surfing in County Donegal, which has since grown to enormous popularity.
Britton, founder of among the first adventure outfitters on Ireland's northwest coast, is an accomplished bike racer and free diver. We spend two hours with him in a local swimming pool, learning techniques which allow divers (and surfers) to hold their breath longer, and more confidently. For Christine – ill at ease in big waves – the lessons are revolutionary. Then we surf and surf and surf, as golden clouds drift over the towering cliffs of Slieve League.
The next day, Britton takes us stand-up paddle-boarding down the gentle Bonet River, lined with sycamore and beech, toward Lough Gill, where we treat ourselves to tea and scones in a country manor.
On the final morning, we ride mountain bikes across rocky moors and through mossy forests.
The pastoral Irish midlands spread beyond, dotted with thatched homes, stone churches and lichen-splotched Celtic crosses. The air holds the tang of burning peat. Later, over a bowl of seafood chowder served with salty soda bread (Irish flour that doesn't take well to yeast), Britton glances up and asks, "Good craic, no?"
I nod eagerly. Not only is the chowder vitalizing, but every minute of these wholly unexpected Irish adventures have been mad good craic.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Ireland. Content was not subject to approval.
IF YOU GO
- William Britton’s Northwest Adventure Tours offers an array of adventures, including stand-up paddling, biking, stargazing, digital detox and skin diving. northwestadventuretours.ie
- For climbing sea stacks, contact Iain Miller at Unique Ascent. uniqueascent.ie
- To save disappointment, book ahead for traditional seaweed bath at Voya Seaweed Baths. voyaseaweedbaths.com