An Irishwoman’s Diary on the Wild Atlantic Way

A coast of delights

 Little Skellig. Photograph: David Sleator

Little Skellig. Photograph: David Sleator

Thu, Jun 19, 2014, 01:00

I nearly drove over the edge of a cliff the other day while trying to work out the meaning of a shiny new road sign that showed a symbol of waves, with the letter (N) underneath it.

It was the third one I’d noticed during a drive that brought me through the seaside village of Mulranny, in Co Mayo, to remote Ceathrú Thaidhg, in windswept Erris. Turns out the series of signs are the symbols for Bord Fáilte’s latest tourism drive, The Wild Atlantic Way, which was recently launched. Whoever managed to erect them during a recent spate of stormy weather must have been buoyed-up with a strong sense of irony or have completed a wind-surfing course.

It’s lucky any of the proposed new tourism route is still on terra firma after super-storm Christine and Brigid’s elemental impact along the western seaboard. Indeed, the collapse of Dingle’s Dunbeg promontory fort into the sea in late January must have hurtled Fáilte Ireland’s cartographers right back to the drawing board.

This significant archaeological site has teetered atop Slea Head since around 500BC but, to be fair to Christine, January’s high winds and huge swells were not the first to unhinge sections of the Iron Age complex from its perch.

Fáilte Ireland, however, had planned for it to be one of the 159 Discovery Points along the Wild Atlantic Way, which will run from Derry to Kinsale in west Cork.

The Discovery Points are important places of heritage or scenic spots where tourists will be encouraged to stop, breathe in the fresh air, admire the spectacular scenery, learn a little about the history of the area or its heritage site and, most importantly, spend some spondulix in the local cafes and craft shops, pubs and hotels.

As a long-time resident of the wild west, the concept seems like a no-brainer. Here in Co Mayo alone, the drive from Achill Head to Uggool beach, which overlooks Killary fjord, is an odyssey through a vast sea-sky-shore chameleon flitting from one artistic scene to another.

You don’t need to be a tour guide to know that our oceanic coastline provides the visitor with a gallery of cliffs, pristine beaches and panoramic land and seascapes.

Now all Fáilte Ireland has done is branded it as an all-in-one experience which will be linked by story boards at each Discovery Point and the road signs that have an N, if you are driving north and an S if going south. The tourism body describes the way as “the most captivating, coastal driving route in the world filled with “moments of magic” and “secret worlds”.

Its promotional bumpf brings us on a cultural, historical and geological odyssey from Hell’s Hole at Malin Head where the mythical Queen Banba once lived to Achill Island’s Deserted Village, one of the last places in Ireland to use the seasonal grazing practises of booleying.

Further south there is the aforementioned Killary fjord, and its second World War submarine secrets, the Burren, which one local guide calls “Europe’s biggest rock garden” and, for seafarers, the Blasket Islands, made famous by that harbinger of doom Peig Sayers, or the early Christian outpost of Skellig Michael, a Unesco world heritage site, not suitable for vertigo sufferers.

Naturally tourists do not need to be told about the recent devastation caused by the series of winter storms. Readers of Die Welt and the Chicago Tribune don’t need to know that the emerald green isle of Oireland, begorrah, is being chewed up by the ocean. For all those Dutch or Danish visitors who empathise with the unbridled spirit of the aboriginal Irish, still extant in remote outposts and foggy boggy hamlets in the wild west, sure one sea stack, or megalithic tomb is the same as the next in the greater scheme of their Irish jaunt.

But the reality is that local authorities and Fáilte Ireland will be stuck between a rock and a hard place if European funding isn’t released quickly so that restorative works and new coastal defences can be completed before the summer tourism season. Otherwise, one too many of those secrets of the Wild Atlantic Way will be consigned to a watery grave where they are nothing more than fishy tales.

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