Limerick is just a bit too civilised. After a good sleep in a smart hotel in the Georgian Quarter, I walk the narrow lanes and pop into the Hunt Museum, an art, archaeology and antiques collection displayed in an elegant Palladian building that was once the Customs House.
Last year, it was designated Ireland’s first National City of Culture (an annual title, aiming to recreate the success of the European Capital of Culture initiative). The city looks clean and shiny, with buildings that were a picturesque mix of quaint inns, independent shops and handsome townhouses. If crime and poverty had dragged Ireland’s third city down in the past, now it looks resplendent in the late summer sunshine. Even the rain is genteel — the sort of light drizzle that produces rainbows.
But I’m after something much less tame: a drive along the Wild Atlantic Way — the new name for the 1,500 miles of old coast road that runs from the Old Head of Kinsale, in County Cork, to Malin Head, in County Donegal. The Irish government has spent around €10m (£7.6m) on signage to get people to explore every corner. The reason the distance is about five times what a crow would fly is because there are lots and lots of corners on the jagged, ragged Irish seaboard. But would ‘Wild’ mean wet and windy — or something deeper and rawer?
Lahinch has big waves — and surfers to ride them — but otherwise is sedate. After a regulation pint of Guinness and a sandwich at cosy Kennys Bar, I stroll along the boardwalk under balmy skies. There are ice cream parlours, fish and chip shops, a restaurant with a sun-splashed terrace that’s evidently popular with wine-sipping couples, and a broad, crescent-shaped sandy beach, perfect for long, easy hikes.
When the tide comes in, I have a swim and wonder at the overuse of neoprene among Irish holidaymakers. The sea is tepid and the roll of the waves invigorating, but hardly powerful. With cliffs to the north and low, grassy bluffs to the south, it’s quite a view.
That evening, I head back to Kennys to catch a good covers band from Galway. The place is packed with family groups, local residents, caddies and golfers. Surf dudes, sucking on their orange energy beverages, sit beside proper beardy Irishmen with proper drinks. Before leaving Lahinch, I drop into Quills Gourmet Delicatessen for some supplies. Owner, Fiona Quill, tells me the WAW is a fine idea. “Irish tourists have started driving the route, and it’s a good thing as lots of the bus tours just pass through and don’t stop to do anything,” she says. But the season is short. “The lights go out as soon as the kids go back to school. The place dies. It’s a pity, as the weather is still nice in September.”
It is indeed a pity, because I suspect many of the landscapes are actually more dramatic in moody weather. The Cliffs of Moher, which I approach from the back entrance to avoid the coach-crowds, looked spectacular even on a calm, bright day. Myths froth up at the base of these 390ft walls of sandstone and shale, including one about an eel that ate a corpse and another about a mermaid who was tricked into wedding a local man. I could imagine the winters here before tourism made such topography marketable: the dark nights, the storms, and the long sessions of drinking and storytelling.
The coast road takes me into the Burren, a massif of exposed limestone that dominates the southern edge of Galway Bay. Glaciation has peeled the slab-like surface bare and only a few splashes of greenery find purchase in the deep fissures. But the appearance of the karst is deceptive, and this harsh environment provides a habitat for shrubs, rare butterflies and moths.
Those who live on the Burren are regarded as possessing secret knowledge. Indeed, there’s something otherworldly about the great lump of rock, and a sense that it wasn’t made for human dwellings. The slopes glow eerily in the morning light, and I have to will myself to stop gawping as I manoeuvre down sharp switchbacks that lead me back to the friendlier coast.
The new blue WAW signs, featuring a squiggly little wave symbol, are everywhere. They serve to reassure me that I’m as close to the sea as the road network allows, and also that I’m heading north. There are, however, occasional signs that lead off the main route and down to beaches or to landmarks. One such pointer sends me to a seawrack-scented bay, where I enjoy a picnic lunch from Quills.
The looping road around Galway Bay means I have to veer inland and use some busier roads around Galway city, before returning to sea views again by Barna. At Spiddal, I park up and stroll to a small promenade to take in the calm waters and, on the horizon, the squat silhouettes of the Aran Islands.
As I drive along the R341 to Clifden, the mighty Twelve Bens stands like a giant’s wall on the northern horizon. The remnants of a mountain range of Himalayan magnitude that formed millions of years ago, their sister peaks are found in Greenland, Scotland, Scandinavia and the eastern US. What we see now might only be around 2,000-2,300ft high, but from a distance you can easily imagine the rugged summits are far taller.
Beneath them, a huge valley spreads out, deep green but for the silver pools where rain has been gathering for centuries to form shallow lakes. It demands I stop in a lay-by and gaze. A rain shower is passing behind the cream-coloured mountains, which look striking against a bruise-coloured sky, held up by towers of cumulus cloud.
Out to sea is some bigger weather; the frayed edges of low clouds touching the sea. This is something like the wild I’d been looking for. Few places possess the west of Ireland’s capacity to switch from picturesque to fearsome in a matter of minutes; even some way inland, you’re reminded that the Atlantic is just there, washing up after its long, unbroken journey from the Americas.
Abbeyglen Castle Hotel lives up to its name — my terrace has turrets — but is as cosy inside as a country lodge. With the weather turning nastier that evening, it’s the ideal place to kick back and enjoy fine dining — the acclaimed restaurant specialises in freshly caught fish and lobster and molluscs — and some good wines.
In the morning, under clearer, colder skies, I manage to squeeze in a three-mile walk along the wonderfully named Sky Road, at Clifden. Driving along the coast is wonderful but I always feel guilty and unsettled if I don’t get to stand on the land I’m exploring. With fine views over the bay and a trail past a lime kiln, a series of standing stones, and a short, sweet incline to Monument Hill, the outing shakes off my car-cramp and affords me a few minutes of utter peace.
Afterwards, I drive along the south bank of the Killary Fjord — a long, summoning finger on the map. In summer 1948, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein decamped to a small cottage at the harbour here. Locals say he walked around looking at the ground, thinking, wondering, communing with himself. His house was the sort of place people go to these days on rural retreats, but Wittgenstein believed seclusion was all in the mind.
For the final furlongs of my long weekend on Ireland’s ‘finis terrae’, I tun in to RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, a source of round-the-clock folk music.
Despite its name, the Wild Atlantic Way is an easy pleasure, providing the perfect pilgrim’s pathway for car tourers, as well as motorbikers and cyclists. The Clare-Galway-Connemara stretch I did was ideal for a three-day road trip, and I think it’d take a month of long weekends to cover the entire length of the WAW. I’ll be sure to go back to drive the northern corner next time — and I may well do it in midwinter to see just how wild things can get.
There are flights into Shannon from London City (British Airways), Gatwick (Ryanair), Heathrow (Aer Lingus) and Stansted (Ryanair) airports and also from Manchester (Ryanair).
Average flight time: 1h25m.
Hire cars are available at all airports and ferry ports. You can take your own vehicle on ferries from Wales and Liverpool. shannonairport.ie
When to go
Year-round. Winters can be wild but storms often make photographs more dramatic. May to September is mildest and driest but beach towns and most hotels will be a lot busier.
Back Roads Ireland (DK Publishing). RRP: £14.99.
How to do it
Fly from the UK to Shannon. Hire a car (from €60/£45 Fri-Sun with Hertz), staying B&B at Vaughan Lodge (doubles from €200/£150), Cashel House Hotel (doubles from €130/£98) and Abbeyglen Castle Hotel (B&B, dinner plus Champagne reception from €99/£75 per person). Alternatively, self-drive WAW tours with accommodation are featured on tourireland.com
Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)