Fishermen's blues and high notes in the Killybegs rain


ON THE WILD ATLANTIC WAY:NOWHERE MORE than Donegal catches the full force of what the wild Atlantic can throw at Ireland’s west coast.

The winds and the rain and the pounding ocean hurled from the southwest give Donegal a good lash on their way to Scotland and Norway. Not for nothing is a part of this coast named Bloody Foreland.

Yesterday began wet and gloomy in Rosses Point, whose striking statue of a woman, arms outstretched to the sea in anguish, pleading for the return of loved ones, reminds of the price paid by those who harvest the ocean.

Who better to tell of this than the fishermen of Killybegs, the country’s premier fishing port on the north shore of Donegal Bay, a town through which Fáilte Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way will pass when it is launched next year?

“It can be very scary at times,” says Brendan Doherty, a former trawlerman who now buys catch from the boats and sells it on to fish processors. His family own the Western Chieftain, a 45m ocean-going trawler built in 2005. Doherty used to be engineer on board a sister vessel, the Western Viking.

“You can have a wave two or three storeys high coming at the wheelhouse. The worst I experienced was on the Western Viking when she went well over on her side and you could hear the engine shaking; there was a real shudder through the boat. But you have faith in the fellows who built it.”

That’s a view shared by Garry McGing, captain of the Olgarry, a 40m vessel named after himself and his sister, Olga, that has a crew of nine. It was built in the Netherlands in 2003 and is now worth about €15 million.

“I’m fishing for 22 years now; never did nothing else,” he tells me on board the Olgarry. We’ve good boats now – you’d never be scared.”

There are about 18 vessels in the fleet out of Killybegs, ranging in size from 40m-60m. The Olgarry’s hold can carry 400 tonnes for when it goes hunting for horse mackerel and mackerel in the Atlantic between Scotland and western Norway.

The Olgarry trawls with its sister ship, the Pacelli, one side of the net attached to one vessel, the other to the other vessel, as they ply the sea for shoals of fish. They often land their catch at Ålesund, 62.5 degrees north on the west coast of Norway.

What’s striking about Killybegs today, however, is that the harbour is full. None of the boats is out fishing; all are tied up, many having routine maintenance carried out, but none of them is fishing – today, tomorrow or the next day, and it’s not down to the weather.

“We’ve run out of quota,” explains Brendan Doherty. “In January, we’re allowed to catch 80 per cent of our quota and 20 per cent at the back end of the year.”

The result is that trawlermen fish for perhaps four or five months of the year. Even still, they can earn €60,000 to €70,000 in those months. Years past, many worked in construction over the summer but that’s gone now.

The Wild Atlantic Way exits Killybegs and proceeds west along the R263 to Carrick and the stunning cliffs formed when Slieve League plunges 600m (1,972ft) into the sea, creating the highest sea cliffs in Europe.

Ken and Marie Polk from Bury in Lancashire are well wrapped up from the weather as they descend the side of the mountain to the viewing platform. The cliffs seem to stretch all the way along the coast to Malin Beg. They are vast and powerful looking; immovable for sure but somehow exuding a sense of power.

The sea is calm, the rain has abated for now. “We don’t bother about the weather,” Marie says stoically. “You don’t need the sunshine all the time.”

They started coming to Ireland about 10 years ago, lured by the music of the Saw Doctors, and have been coming just about every year since.

At Glencolumbkille, the Wild Atlantic Way becomes the R230 and turns inland, traversing a large bog before scaling Common Mountain and rushing down to Ardara through the beautiful U-shaped valley that is Glengesh.

There’s not much sign of the sea again until Maas (by which time the road is the N56), when suddenly, the great sand dunes of Portnoo become visible. After Dunglow, the sandy beaches and inlets that litter Donegal’s coast all the way to Dunfanaghy are all there to be explored, with loop roads planned for the Rosses and Gweedore.

The Wild Atlantic Way comes to an end – or begins if you’re doing it north to south – with a circumnavigation of the Inishowen peninsula, including Malin Head, the most northerly point on the island.

Tomorrow:Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route