Hidden gems and historic tales of wild Atlantic ways

Thu, Jun 14, 2012, 01:00

ON THE WILD ATLANTIC WAY: PETER MURTAGHstays off the beaten track but still bumps into Dutch friends

THE ROAD west from Clonakilty, an early stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way being developed by Fáilte Ireland, starts well. The verges on either side of the road out of the town are grassy and laden with ferns; the banks full of foxgloves, alexander and cow parsley – all in bloom.

Farmers are gathering in an early cut of silage and hay; the air is filled with the aroma of fresh-cut grass. The sun is shining, the wind is light . . . this is heaven in west Cork.

But it is only when you take the odd left turn, a random impulse to which the holidaymaker should succumb, that you experience the full magic and beauty of the place.

But before all that it’s breakfast in An Súgán, a bar, restaurant and guesthouse run by Brenda and Kevin O’Crowley and their daughter, Sinéad ( ansugan.com).

If the welcome and service here at the start of the Wild Atlantic Way are replicated throughout, tourism in Ireland has little to be worried about.

The guesthouse is named Strand House, a former dairy that was the birthplace of Mary Jane Irwin, “poetess, Fenian and wife of O’Donovan Rossa” as the plaque on the front wall proclaims it (Clonakilty is seriously into its history and very proud of its association with Michael Collins).

The building adjoining the former dairy was for the cows and now it has been tastefully converted by the O’Crowleys into apartments.

Next to that, on the corner, is the bar, An Súgán, itself. “It’s €30 bed and breakfast,” said Asia when I arrived on Tuesday night.

“Is that A-S-H-A,” I asked, taking notes. “No,” she said. “It’s Asia like the country but it sounds like Asha.”

Asia is from Poland, near Krakow, and she and her colleague Kasia (pronounced the same way just preceded by a K), who comes from northern Poland, are front-of-house in the restaurant for the night.

They have worked for the O’Crowleys for years and, with cheerful efficiency and speed, they serve more than 20 diners in about an hour and a half.

The O’Crowleys love their business and are excited at the prospect of the Wild Atlantic Way and what it might bring to the town.

“I did the Ocean Road in Australia when I was there for the Rugby World Cup in 2003,” said Sinéad. “It really got you to see the smaller towns and meet real Australians. Here, so many people come to Cork or Shannon and head straight to Killarney, or wherever, missing the small towns.”

After breakfast (bacon, eggs and black pudding – what else in Clonakilty?) I leave Brenda (who never quite lost that Elephant Castle, London, accent but, after over 30 years in Clon, wouldn’t dream of going back) and head west.

If the N71 is to be the spine of the Wild Atlantic Way in these parts, then spurs and loops aplenty will be necessary to lure visitors to the hidden gems and delay that headlong rush to Killarney.

The first glimpse of the sea comes just before Rosscarbery – a little pocket of blue peeks through the trees and the lush vegetation – and then, as the road takes a broad sweep to the right and then left, the sort of curves beloved of bikers, the little town itself appears.

It’s at the head of an estuary. The road crosses a causeway behind which is a lagoon where youngsters at an adventure school are enjoying water sports.

Then a little further on, a random left at Leap, down towards Union Hall and then a right and a left and, oh – look over there – water, and is that a lay-by through those gates? Eh, no. The huge house that looms suddenly is the Sisters of the Sacred Heart retreat house at Myross . . . not precisely what I had in mind at that point but no matter. The mostly elderly women walking the grounds seem happy and relaxed. I beat my own retreat.

A warren of narrow lanes, the landscape punctuated by fingers of water reaching into the lush countryside, brings me to Baltimore – surely a must for a spur off the main Way, a chance to celebrate the south coast’s pirate heritage?

Bernie McCarthy is sitting behind the reception desk inside Dún na Séad, a rectangular castle overlooking the harbour and sporting a Jolly Roger skull and crossbones flag from its battlements.

It was built in 1215 and witnessed the 1631 sack of Baltimore when Barbary Coast pirates carried off 107 villagers into slavery in Algiers. But from the mid-17th century, the castle was a ruin . . . until Bernie and her husband Patrick, a retired solicitor, bought it in 1997.

With tremendous good taste, hard work and a serious amount of money, they restored it to its current central position in the life of the town. The O’Driscoll clan gathering takes place there from June 21st-24th; and from June 29th-July 1st, there’s the Baltimore Pirate Weekend (details for both on baltimore.ie).

Around the wonderfully named Roaring Water Bay to Ballydehob and the spectacular drive to Mizen Head and its new bridge – a total must on the Wild Atlantic Way.

And then, one of those bizarre coincidences that seem to attend me whenever I travel. In front of me there’s a line of bikers. A long line of bikers. The plates are Dutch, the machines mostly BMWs.

I’m supposed to meet my Dutch friends on Sunday morning but, by fluke, here they are, going to exactly the same place as me, at exactly the same time. But that’s a story for the blog . . . and I’m still miles from Allihies!

Tomorrow:Allihies (eh, maybe) to Killorglin