In the summer of 1991 Paul Clements hitchhiked the coastline of Ireland for his first travel book. Twenty-five years on, he retraced his footsteps for a new book based on a journey along the Wild Atlantic Way – this time by car and bike, on foot and on horseback
A quarter century has passed since I stuck out my thumb and hoped for the best on a month-long hitchhike of the coast in June 1991
It turned out to be the wettest on record. After lonely hours and days spent waiting for lifts in the howling wind and rain, I questioned my sanity. Gradually people started to pick me up, telling me their stories, and their generosity pulled me through. I jotted down details of conversations, the immediate on the spot repositories — known to some travel writers as ‘nibble notes’. Two years later, Irish Shores: A Journey Round the Rim of Ireland was released on an unsuspecting reading public.
For my meandering journey in 2015, from Malin Head to Kinsale, I wanted to see how the west coast has changed. At first appearance the physical face of the countryside with its rich green farmland, shifting light, wide skies and seascapes in harmony is essentially the same. But the landscape, which was clutter- free apart from pylons, is now swathed with wind turbines which have denatured the countryside. Several hundred of these towering superstructures pepper the hills as the wind energy industry strives to meet EU emissions targets.
Many parts of the west coast have also been infested with holiday homes and bungalows, twice as big and twice as numerous, built with little or no planning control. In 1991 the ‘Kerry brand’ consisted of an unspoilt landscape and clean environment but the situation has changed dramatically since then. In the boom years, between 2002 and 2007, a staggering 17,600 homes were built in Kerry alone; 7,600 of these were one-off houses in the countryside. In north Donegal, because of the large increase in the number of white Snow-cemmed holiday homes, the local name for Bloody Foreland has been cynically rechristened ‘Bloody Blandland’.
Not only has the coastline been blighted, it is also suffering serious damage through storms with significant archaeological sites lost to nature in what is acknowledged as a catastrophic situation. Extreme weather is now the new normal. Since 2013, through relentless erosion, havoc has been wreaked on vulnerable sites with some washed away entirely.
On my original journey, phone boxes were shelters from where I reported to family and friends on my hitchhiking progress but in the 2010s they are an endangered species. Some cobwebbed ones have a decade’s worth of dead flies while the doors of others are tied with bailer twine or used for advertising. This trend is reversed in Castletownshend, west Cork, where the community has preserved its surviving concrete phone box. Telecom engineers wanted to replace it with a modern aluminium one, but a local man occupied it for a full day, thus saving an historic part of the built heritage.
In most towns the rhythm of the streetscape is largely unchanged, apart from Polish supermarkets taking their place alongside nail salons, beauty parlours and tapas bars.
In the early 1990s, the Celtic Tiger was some years off and parts of the west, and many hotels – along with their mattresses – were unchanged since the middle decades of the 20th century. The punt was the unit of currency, replaced in 2002 by euro notes and coins.
Few people had personal computers and the soundtrack to office life was the clacking of manual typewriters.
When I returned home from my coastal circumnavigation, I typed my manuscript using floppy disks on an Amstrad PCW 9512 – then the height of computing fashion.
Along the coast today there is a joyful indulgence in food whereas on my original journey it was difficult to find a decent restaurant, apart from Kinsale which already had a long established good food circle.
Gastro-tourism has produced an array of fishy entrées dominating menus in an astonishing culinary revival. Salads used to be called just that; now they are ‘power’ salads accompanied by a ‘bouquet garni’ of bay leaves and superfoods with low calorie count, high in vitamins and antioxidants.
A generation ago, the choice was breadcrumbs-on-sea with haddock dripping in batter, or if the chef was feeling adventurous, scampi was rustled up.
Between 2007 and 2012 nearly 1,000 pubs closed throughout Ireland and one of the most significant social shifts has been from drinking in pubs to at home. Those pubs which survived reinvented themselves serving food along with rolling news and sports coverage on monster widescreen televisions.
And theses days, beer mats caution ‘Smoking can damage your health’ or ‘Drink sensibly and moderately’.
While many people still enjoy a drink, there is no question that coffee is the new wine. Ireland’s coastal cafés, filled with communal gossip and electro chatter, are places for the mass medication of the population. People are not just addicted to caffeine, they worship it; coffee-fuelled shopping is holding entire towns together and the café has become a community hub. An example is Budds café in Ballydehob which opened in spring last year. In 1991 the town boasted 11 grocery stores, now it has just one but the new café is a focal point in its recovery.
One animal too has endured over the years with remarkable longevity. In Dingle harbour, Fungie, who featured as one of the original sketches in my book, now sprouts grey whiskers. But despite his wrinkly throat and worn teeth, the town unashamedly continues to cash in on the seductive antics of a perpetually smiling male bottlenose dolphin. With his own statue, he is now referred to as ‘The Most Loyal Animal on the Planet’.
Since it was established in 2014, every trick in the book has been used to capitalise on the Wild Atlantic Way and it has led to a newfound entrepreneurial energy.
Businesses along the route sell everything from WAW jewellery and candles to coffee, food and craft beer branded with the wave logo, but there is concern that it has become too gimmicky. The owner of a guest house in Connemara, Lynn Hill who runs the Anglers’ Return at Toombeola, believes that some visitors feel it is being over-exploited.
‘We might kill the goose that lays the golden egg,’ she said. ‘They should let the route sell itself but not have every single shop and café named after it.’
There is no doubt that the route has mobilised communities and put a spring in their step. One businessman in Donegal, Paddy Clarke, who runs the Slieve League Centre in Teelin – now a ‘signature discovery point’ – believes it has democratised the west, meaning that the county, which has often felt left out, has an equal share of points.
My trip drew to a close at Kinsale at a row of fishermen’s cottages known as World’s End. Its name comes from the location of World’s End Gate marked on early maps. It was reassuring to find that Kinsale still has as many pubs as in 1991. In the Spaniard, the plámás from the wisecracking philosophers is as reliable as ever. A historic spit and sawdust bar, it dates from 1703 with loose chippings sprinkled on the slate floor to soak up spillages.
One of the regulars told me that when two Americans recently visited the bar, they were informed that the chippings were the remains of a furniture fight from the previous night; they hurriedly finished their drinks and left.
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