TAKE IT FROM THE TOP Paul Clements at Banba's Crown, Malin Head, in Donegal – the starting point of his epic journey along the Wild Atlantic Way and the most northerly point of the Irish mainland. Pic: Evan McElligott.
BRANDING the spectacular cliffside and shoreline roadways that edge along the west coast from Donegal to Mayo and Clare to Cork ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’ would have been an alien idea 25 years ago. That is when writer Paul Clements relied on the mercy of strangers as he hitchhiked along byways and boreens back in 1991 for his travel book, ‘The Height of Nonsense – The Ultimate Irish Road Trip’.
The Belfast native, who spends much of his spare time in the wild west, has now written a sequel, ‘Wandering Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: From Banba’s Crown to World’s End’. This time he travels by car and bicycle, on horseback and by foot, observing how rural Ireland has changed over a quarter of a century.
The chatter and gossip of street-corners may have shifted to café culture and social media, but everyone he meets on his odyssey still has a colourful story to tell.
Accompanied by the spirit of the Celtic sea god, Mannanán Mac Lir, whose statue dominates Bishop’s Viewpoint on Lough Foyle, County Derry, Clements set off on his journey, which is taken – amid breaks to return to his Belfast life – over four seasons.
From descriptive and pastoral to anecdotal and informative, Clements easily transports his readers to the world he discovers along the Wild Atlantic Way. Take chapter five, entitled ‘The Klondike after the gold ran out’ – we are catapulted into a café in the north Mayo capital.
“When the name for his café in Ballina was first suggested, Anthony Heffernan was not sure it would be accepted by locals. But since 2012, the ‘Heifer and Hen’ name has stuck and you need to arrive early for a lunchtime table.
“It was the chef’s idea,” Anthony recalls. “I thought people would react wrongly to it, but it took off. Originally we opened in 2007, and five years later with a designer’s help, we rebranded ourselves and haven’t looked back.”
Clements discovers that customers are very discerning about their coffee in cupcake-ified Ballina, where the Italians who fly in from Knock Airport love the anarchic river Moy.
ON the other hand, the small town of Killala ‘is café-less and hotel-less’.
“Its streets with blind bends overflow with cars parked, or more accurately, abandoned at dangerous angles. Half a dozen buildings lie derelict or bear ‘To Let’ signs. Despite its run-down appearance, it has made strenuous efforts to bring in visitors by capitalising on its history through festivals,” he notes.
A seaport, first mentioned in the ‘Tripartite Life of Patrick’, circa 900AD, it has been made famous by the fact that it was ‘the first place taken by General Humbert and his French troops after their landing at Kilcummin in 1798’.
Further west along the Wild Atlantic Way, near Downpatrick Head (one of the route’s signature Discovery Points), Clements stops for a while at the scenic village of Ballycastle: “It is like stepping into a sepia photograph resembling an empty film set before the crew arrives to reconstruct an impoverished village scene from the late 19th century’.
Directed to the home of retired butcher George O’Grady, the ‘go-to man for information’ on the village, Clements sits at a table under the watchful eye of the Sacred Heart of Jesus drinks tea, and George begins his story in 1910, when his grandfather ‘started the butchering business’.
Included in his tale is a recollection that when Ballina native, Mary Robinson visited during her presidency she said Ballycastle ‘was on the periphery of the periphery’.
There is no sense of isolation when Paul Clements moves down the coast – via Achill, Mulranny and the Greenway – to the bustling tourism haven of Westport: “Of all the towns along the coast that I have passed through, Westport has been rehabilitated beyond all recognition since 1991. In those days its haphazard appearance consisted of a hotchpotch of plastic signage, chaotic parking and what architects classify as ‘visual disorder’. Its streets were choked with caravanettes, motor homes and camper vans , and its bars smoke-filled and steamy.”
Citing the fact that Westport won The Irish Times Best Place to Live in Ireland in 2012, he observes: “Most of the businesses have retained their hand-painted signs on timber fascia boards and restored their shopfronts, resulting in a town free of bland corporate identity.”
But his seamless word-tapestry, which melds the past with the present, quickly catapults him to the sea-highways of 16th-century pirate queen Granuaile, the ‘original wild Atlantic woman’. Clements wanders down the leafy drive of historic Westport House to meet the contemporary incumbent, Lady Sheelyn Browne.
Media reports since the author’s interview with Sheelyn confirm a certain prescience to her remarks in the book: “We are the first generation of women now to own [Westport House] and who knows how long it will be, because there are five of us. I don’t know what the future of the house is – it could be anything, but it has been a challenge.”
‘Wandering Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way’ is shot through with Paul Clements’ quirky and rigorous observation, his natural empathy and his sense of humour. From chapters entitled, ‘A Donegal Dalliance’ to ‘The Sea God is Found’, and ‘Enjoying Guinness Sensibly’ to ‘The Power of Black Saucepan’, it paints a vibrant and honest word-picture of the rolling, rocky, craggy and compelling Wild Atlantic Way.
Paul Clements is a former BBC journalist and a contributing writer to Fodor’s Guide Ireland. His other publications include ‘The Height of Nonsense: The Ultimate Irish Road Trip’ (2005) and ‘Burren Country: Through an Irish Limestone Landscape (2011). ‘Wandering Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: From Banba’s Crown to World’s End’ (€11.99), is published by Collins Press.