Book review: Wandering Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

AT THE western fringes of Co Galway at the hamlet of Claddaghduff an old road leads down to a beach. 

Paul Clements

Collins Press, €10.39

At low tide, if the sand is hard, drivers can follow a row of poles for about 500m to the far side and on to Omey Island. 

But watch the tide, many a car has been caught and submerged.

The year-round population of the island is one. At the far side of the island the one person lives in a mobile home with his dog. 

He recently endured eight hurricanes. In his new book Paul Clements visits and hears the tale of former stuntman Pascal Whelan.

Whelan recounts the early days of the island in the 1940s with two-roomed thatched cottages and a vibrant community where people had their own cattle, geese, ducks, and fishing. 

He later emigrated and ended up working as a stuntman on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Charlie’s Angels, and taught Peter O’Toole how to swordfight in Macbeth. 

His comment on life back on the otherwise deserted island is magnificent: “I live in the peace and magic of a world I didn’t think existed any more.”

The story is just one encounter in Clements’s meandering journey up and down and in and out of our fragmented west coast. 

Just how fragmented a coast is illustrated by his search for practically every cove, inlet, back road, village and hamlet along the way. 

The adventure neatly bookends his wanderings along the coast which he wrote about in 1991. 

This new journey is an altogether different experience. The people are largely the same but the landscape has changed. 

A lot of these changes are imperceptible when they happen but they are stark when observed from a remove of 25 years.

And the changes themselves? For one, the vast increase in housing — Kerry alone saw 17,600 new houses in the boom years alone. 

Mobile phone masts didn’t exist in the first hitchhiking roadtrip he made in 1991 but now there is scarcely a hill without one. Dingle marina quadrupled in size. 

Continental lattes and frothy capuccinos are served side by side with creamy porter in many pubs having been a rare sight 25 years before. 

Cars have changed from Opel Kadetts and Toyota Coronas to Landcruisers and glass-tinted Range Rovers.

In Skibbereen, Co Cork, he finds a universal, life-affirming Latin motto at the town hall — quod petit hic est — whatever you seek is here. 

Down the road in Castletownshend he finds one of the few surviving P&T phoneboxes left in the country — a cause célèbre by the villagers to preserve their street architecture. Happily, they won.

Quirkiness bounds. This is Ireland after all. In Co Donegal he meets a Californian, Michael Klimley, who says the waters around the Inisowen Peninsula are ideal for a shark sanctuary such is the prevalence of basking sharks - and maybe even the great white itself. 

A lifesize mural of Brendan Gleeson adorns a pub’s gable in Easkey, Co Sligo, to commemorate the 2012 movie Calvary.

Clements’s companion on the trip is the Celtic sea god Manannán mac Lir whose statue is robbed in Co Donegal at the start of his journey. 

Along the way he ‘experiences’ the power of the god when a storm whips up, and encounters people (Mannion) and places (Mannin Bay) derived from the name. 

It is a lighthearted theme but does illustrate the deep connections in Irish nomenclature to mythology.

In Clements’s circa 6,000km journey virtually everyone was glowing about the Wild Atlantic Way and its tourism benefits. He dives into pubs to hear seisúni in full swing. 

He meets artists, geologists, chancers, fishermen, soi-disant philosophers and takes in the entire gamut of coastal characters.

Utterly entertaining from beginning to end.


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