In lovely Connemara, on the west coast of Ireland, you’ll find the longest defined coastal route in the world clocking in at a whopping 2,000 kilometres in length. On a recent trip to the Emerald Isle, I found out what makes the suitably titled “Wild Atlantic Way” so special.
When in Ireland, it’s important to partake in “a wee nip o’ the creature,” the creature being locally made whiskey. After landing in Dublin, I headed west, and my adventure began at Kilbeggan Distillery in County Westmeath. The oldest licensed whiskey distillery in Ireland, it opened in 1757 then had to close its doors 200 years later.
“Economic hard times in Ireland reduced demand, plus lack of modernization and the American market being shut down during prohibition caused sales to fall and the distillery to close. But in 1988, new owners reopened it,” Jessica Erikson, our distillery guide, explained. As we passed through the premises, we saw the original millstones used to crush barley and an old waterwheel attested to how the plant was powered until 1887. Overlooking the modern distilling equipment, we were treated to a taste of the golden liquid. Whiskey develops its rich colour while aging in wooden casks, but producers don’t get the same amount of the drink out of the cask as they put in. “A small amount is lost through evaporation. We call it the ‘Angel’s Share,’” said Jessica. Taking a sip from the thimble-sized glass, I found it to be light, sharp and slightly sweet. The angels knew what they were doing.
As we drove further west past rolling green hills and colourful blooms, Siobhan McDonald, our tour leader, regaled us with stories. At one time, Ireland was covered in forests of oak and pine, but centuries of deforestation have laid the land quite bare. Instead of wood or coal, many rural families turned to peat for cooking and heating fuel. At the Connemara Heritage Centre, we got a close-up demonstration of how peat is dug out of the bog, then dried, stacked and made ready for the fire. We also saw the restored pre-famine cottage of Dan O’Hara who was forced to emigrate in the 1840s when he was evicted from his home.
“There was a law that said 5’6 was the maximum height a door could be. In 1845, Dan O’Hara increased the size of his door and windows, and his landlord increased his rent. When Dan failed to pay, he was evicted and the cottage was set on fire,” the centre’s founder, Martin Walsh, told us. More than 65,000 families were evicted, most arriving in the United States and Canada on what were known as coffin ships because so many died during the journey. This was also around the time of the potato blight and the majority of the Irish population was starving. Many Canadians with Irish heritage, including my husband’s family, trace their roots to ancestors fleeing the potato famine.
Our hotel that night was Abbeyglen Castle in Clifden, where the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic landed after its pilots, John Alcock and Arthur Brown, took off from Newfoundland. The castle was built in 1832 by John Darcy. After he died, it became an orphanage for girls, and in 1969 the parents of our host, Brian Hughes, bought it and turned it into a 56-room hotel. During a small reception, he informed us that the region was home to the world’s first commercial transatlantic wireless Marconi station. Guglielmo Marconi had caused a commotion when he transmitted wireless messages to Newfoundland from England in 1901. He received a grant of $80,000 from the Canadian government to build a station at Glace Bay in Nova Scotia, and when his original station proved unreliable in sending messages to Canada, he moved west to Clifden. The station was closed in the 1920s, but hopefully the site can be developed as a tourist destination in future.
Brian played the guitar and sang some traditional songs in the dining room that night. He also told us not to mind the brownish water in the taps. “It’s that colour from the bog. It’s very good for the skin,” he said. I tried a bath that night and he was right. The water was full of trace minerals and it left my skin silky and smooth.
From the nearby town of Cleggan, we boarded a ferry bound for the island of Inishbofin.
The wind was fierce, up to 65 kilometres an hour, but the little vessel felt stable, and we arrived safely. Inishbofin has a population of 165 but it’s a popular summer destination that sees up to 40,000 visitors a year.
Doonmore Hotel was a short walk from the pier and, once there, owner Andrew Murray had us watch a video outlining the island’s history. It was harsh. Electricity only came in the 1970s, and fishing tragedies marred the timeline. One phrase from the film became etched on my brain, “The Atlantic forever held this area in a drowning cup.” These days, with modern amenities, the atmosphere has become cheerful, and tourists flock to enjoy the quiet countryside. We ate at the hotel’s rustic restaurant, where the food was top-notch. The scallops were fresh, sweet and tender, and the sticky toffee pudding was to die for. Afterwards we retired to the bar, where local musicians played toe-tapping traditional tunes.
The next day, back on the mainland, we headed for Kylemore Abbey. The grand castle on a glittering lake was once the home of doctor/politician Mitchell Henry, whose family made its fortune in cotton production. Originally 15,000 acres, the former hunting estate was bought as a gift for Henry’s wife Margaret after they visited on their honeymoon. Their dream home was completed in 1868. Over the years, much of the land was sold off but 1,000 acres remain, including the Victorian Walled Garden where you can see the remnants of 21 glasshouses in which exotic fruits and flowers once grew. Margaret, who died at age 45 of dysentery while on vacation in Egypt, is interred in a mausoleum on the grounds. Henry had a neo-Gothic memorial chapel built on the property in her name. He eventually sold the estate to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, who lost it due to gambling debts. In 1920, the castle became an abbey for Benedictine nuns who had fled their monastery at Ypres, Flanders during World War I. They ran an international boarding school there until 2010. Now the site is home to nine remaining nuns whose homemade soaps, creams and chocolates are available in the gift shop.
Our last stop was lively Galway, a university town full of historic sites as well as modern shops, pubs and great restaurants. Wandering by one shop, I spied a wall of bronze Claddagh designs. Claddagh is an area on the western side of the city where, legend has it, a jeweller named Richard Joyce set up shop. He had been kidnapped by pirates on the way to the West Indies, and his master taught him how to make jewellery. The design is of a heart, held by two hands. If you wear a Claddagh ring facing you, it means your heart is taken. If worn facing outward, your heart is still available. Long before I was married, my now husband gave me one, which I did not hesitate to wear facing inwards.
Full of heart and history, the Wild Atlantic Way is a stronghold of Irish stories, best enjoyed with a nip of the creature. Slainte!
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