Closing my eyes, I have a picture of Ireland tilting off to the left on some imaginary axis halfway down the country. It would appear that the east of the country all migrated west to summer in 2020, our Annus Covidis. Using summer as a verb risks the ire of those like Bernard Black from Black Books as he shouts “Don’t dare use the word party as a verb in my shop” at Manny, his hapless employee.
Staycationing, going on hollybags, or going on holliers all invoke equally cranky responses. On the subject of crankiness, I’ve observed acute examples in unexpected places. On the Wild Atlantic Way no less - or the Wild Mad Frantic Way as I have come to know it.
As an island nation, many of us have a close affinity with water. I certainly do. My novels all have waterside settings – Twisted River; The Blue Pool; and now my latest thriller, Guilty, set on a lakeside in Co Clare. I have recently returned from a week by the sea in a tiny cottage on a remote part of the Mizen peninsula in west Cork.
The first full day of holidays involved an obligatory trip to a nearby beach. Okay, so it was the August Bank holiday weekend, traditionally the busiest weekend of the year. A certain amount of mayhem was to be expected. I thought it strange to see one or two cars parked at the top of the boreen on the tree-lined approach to the beach, noses pointing towards the main road. It’d be a long enough walk in with beach tents, picnic boxes, camper chairs, towels, togs, and books in tow. Not to mind if you had children with you. We did. But of the grown-up, less moany, less requiring piggy-backs variety.
As we drove further down the boreen our mistake became obvious. There was barely enough room for a pack-mule never mind a car. Campervans and cars were wedged in, abandoned on either side in what should have been the passing places. On that occasion, we were late to the beach and didn’t meet on-coming traffic. We inched down the road finding those before us had simply removed the No Parking cones and set them up on a wall. We discovered the small car park fronting the beach was a pile-up of mirror dinghies, campervans and cars. Frazzled and hot, I couldn’t say the journey wasn’t worth it. That’s the rub, no matter the hassle, many of our Wild Atlantic beaches are worth it.
Bank Holiday Monday dawned with a proposal to explore the sleepy Sheep’s Head peninsula. Guidebooks spoke of a pleasant watering hole in Ahakista with the promise of more fare at the tea-rooms right on the end of the peninsula. A traffic-free sightseeing experience sounded the ticket. Taking the Sheep’s Head turn at Durrus, we shared twisty roads with parties of scattered cyclists.
Refreshments were had at Arundels, outside looking over the blue expanse of Dunmanus Bay. We ruefully watched the cyclists pass, acknowledging our paths would have to cross once more back out on the road. Fortified, we took off again, marvelling at the colours of the bay and mountains, of montbretia and honeysuckle – the symbol of west Cork.
Once past the town of Kilcrohane the road got twistier and narrower, the scenery more dramatic. All sea and sky. But blessed little traffic. A few kilometres shy of the Sheep’s Head tearooms we observed a scattering of cars snuck into lay-bys and viewing points, without a driver to be seen. Likely gone on scrambles into the hills, or so we reckoned.
Alarmingly, the clutches of abandoned cars soon became one long, meandering ribbon as far as the eye could see. And this time there was a stream of oncoming traffic. The relaxing, scenic trip became a game of dare. Who was going to blink first? Should we brazen on in the hope the car coming towards us would reverse into whatever inch of ditch it might be possible to squeeze back into? There was nowhere to turn.
Outside the sun was blazing down, and those who’d already parked in the laybys creating the problem in the first place, looked on, bemused at the high-stakes dodgem game playing out in front of them. In the passenger seat, I closed my eyes, dug my nails quietly into the armrest, and listened to expletives from my normally sanguine driver.
Our journey proceeded in this torturous fashion for what seemed like an age before we caught sight of the car park at the edge of the world. A car park in all but name, as there was absolutely nowhere to park. The whole Staycation Nation had descended on this one spot – on this long, crooked finger poking out into the Atlantic. There was nothing for it but to try to make our way back out again, if such a thing was even possible.
Making a 10-point turn, we managed to point in the opposite direction whereupon an oncoming driver refused to let us pass. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her shaking her fist in her Ford Fiesta, forcing us to reverse back up an incline of 60 degrees or more, the car engine screaming with a gagging smell of fuel. In the end, I guess she did us a favour as a parking bay freed up on our second reverse up the hill. We slotted in, resolving to stay until nightfall to avoid any further chaos.
Our travails were soothed by tea and gooey chocolate cake taken on a picnic bench that looked south to the Mizen and north to the Beara peninsula. Putting the journey behind us, we set off down the path towards the lighthouse. Ahead, couples and family groups socially distanced their treks. A curious caravan of people caught our attention. As we watched, an elderly lady was picking her way along with two men at an elbow each, supporting her on either side. Behind followed a boy carrying what looked like a kitchen chair on his shoulder.
We encountered the party at closer quarters on their return where they stopped to exchange a few words. The elderly lady was visiting a Marian shrine erected by her family. Her husband had recently passed and he had lived much of his life in one of the few houses nearby and had a great love of the place. That particular day was his widow’s first time to visit the shrine. As she passed she smiled cheerily and saluted us. She seemed happy to be surrounded by her family, surrounded by the sun and the blue Atlantic waves.
Although my week away is over, day-tripping to Clare or Kerry is always possible. How about a swim near Ballyvaughan, I suggested in the recent sultry weather? Once more, a picnic and the togs were lobbed into the boot. We headed for a quiet spot by a pier with a tiny stretch of sand. Nearing our destination, we spotted the now familiar early warning signs of crowds. Cars were parked close to the main road quite a way from the track to the pier. Approaching, we heard the sound of yelping dogs and children. The place was thronged. Plan B was rapidly put into action. We took off once more to where I was assured was definitely a quiet spot. Making our way along the Burren Coast Road we noted every single passing place was filled with the cars of fishermen casting off on the rocks below.
Our final destination, although tucked away, was not as quiet as promised. Indeed, a walker who stopped to chat, lamented the loss of solitude on her previously favourite walk. Moreover, she was mightily put out that all her secret swimming areas had been discovered by touring holidaymakers and had been put on display for all to see on Instagram.
For this summer at least, it appears the Wild Atlantic Way has become the Wild Mad Frantic Way. Instead of Yeats’ “mackerel-crowded seas” in his poem Sailing to Byzantium where “fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long whatever is begotten, born, and dies”, this summer we have people-crowded roads, campervans, cyclists, and fist-waving drivers.
Siobhan MacDonald is the author of the thriller Guilty, published by Constable and available now.