St Declan's Cathedral
Ireland - only for the Brave
18th April 2018
Continuing the Grey Haired Nomads’ 2,200 mile journey by motorhome, clockwise around Ireland
Waterford to Westport and beyond
From our overnight stop to the west of Waterford, we drove the 40 km of N25 in dense fog to Dungarvan, County Waterford, and followed the minor road out to Gaelic speaking, Helvick Head. (You’ll have noticed, we like these ends of the road!) There’s a picturesque harbour with a few leaning boats stranded at low tide where the road runs out, and black guillemots and sandwich terns on the water. But the thing of real note is the road signs - they’re all in Gaelic only. Quite dangerous for visitors. There are many Gaelic-speaking communities across the south here.
By mid-morning thin sunshine had filtered through the mist and we took the plunge and pulled on our hiking boots for a swift 6km walk around the headland at Ardmore, a little way southwest. Though not quite as dangerous as the roadsigns, this short hike proved particularly tough: heads down and eyes watering, hoods up and trousers flapping wildly in the gale-force wind streaming wildly
across the cliff tops. The walk took us out past the fascinating ruins of St Declan’s Cathedral with great views over Ardmore Bay further on - and our backs to the wind.
There was a cruise liner, 'The Brilliance of the Seas', in breezy Cobh harbour when we arrived in the afternoon, its passengers offloaded for the day to see the local sights, by coach. Opposite the dock is the Cobh Heritage Centre featuring famous Transatlantic cruise liners. The exhibits include graphic details of the Titanic, recording the liner’s visit to Cobh on the 11th April 1912, its last port of call where it picked up 123 passengers before it finally left on that ill-fated voyage for New York. A handful of fortunate ones disembarked here at Cobh. The Centre, in the old railway station is certainly well worth a visit - but forget it if you’re on a cruise! You’ll also learn more of the transportation of convicts to the other side of the world and the millions of Irish who left for the Americas in times of severe hardship. Cobh, (pronounced ‘Cove’, it’s original name) is the port for Cork, some fifteen miles inland, and
The last port of call for Titanic
was also once named Queenstown by the British, following a visit from Queen Victoria in 1849. The imposing spire of St Colman’s Cathedral sits defiantly on the skyline above colourful terraces of fine Victorian and Georgian buildings lining the harbour. There was no St George’s flag of England or Union Jack amongst the long line of twenty-or-more wind ravaged flags, which included Wales, Europe and Scotland. Perhaps we’re included in the Europe bit for the time-being - but Brexit will soon change that too.
First stop next day was Clonakilty, to visit The Michael Collins Centre a mile-or-two out of town. The direct road was closed for roadworks so we followed diversion signs for a few miles on minor roads fit only for bikes, beside the tidal estuary, up over the gorse-hedged hills, along muddy farm tracks and up into the foggy clouds once more. The gate at the Centre was firmly shut when we arrived, ‘Opening 11th June’ the note on the gate advised. We need to get a new guidebook - it said nothing about that. Did they just pick that date out of a hat? Sounds a bit Irish to me. We were quite
looking forward to a history lesson. Collins was an Irish revolutionary, soldier and politician, who was a leading figure in the early 20th-century Irish struggle for independence. Clonakilty itself is a smart and rather delightful little town with a long line of lovely shops bedecked with bunting. It’s worth a visit, if only to take a peek at the quirky shop signs, but get yourself a good guidebook before you leave home. The Tourist Information office was closed (open Mondays and Wednesdays only when there’s no R in the month or something, it said on the sign). Janice couldn’t find the town geocache as workmen had removed the trees and seats and sealed the area off - and the local market was on Friday, not Thursday as quoted in one of our books. We’ve had better days. On a more positive note, the coffee shop was open and the sun was shining - that’s a first.
The sun was still shining when we reached Drombeg where there’s a stone circle dating back to 900BC. We like these places: there’s a touch of mystery about stone circles and a chance to dream a little. We rather
liked Ballydehob where we stopped for lunch too. A local gent stopped by for a chat as they do. He asked about our travels and whether we had been to China as he was going there on holiday next month. Twenty minutes later we knew his life history. He takes size eight-and-a-half shoes.
Way out to the west is Mizen Head, as far as one can go without falling into the Atlantic and arriving in New York after a long swim. Driving these narrow winding roads is tough and slow for everyone but our minimalist motorhome helps to reduce the stress for us. Sandy, as our most recent Chausson motorhome is called, is our fourth motorhome. It is just 6 metres long, utilising a drop-down bed over the dinette to save on length. Size matters for us. Sandy can be parked fairly easily in most car parks and gives us the benefit of as much off-road and minor road access as the average motorcar, without sacrificing any of the luxury. Mizen Head lived up to its end of road promise. White horses were riding the thundering waves, crashing on the rocky shore in great clouds of spectacular
spray, a humpback whale passed by and a peregrine joined a newly arrived wheatear on the cliffs above the lighthouse. The lighthouse itself is accessed via a long downhill path and across a bridge, providing great views of the aquamarine Atlantic, sparkling in the afternoon sun. Like Lands End in Cornwall, there’s a small admission fee in the ubiquitous gift shop - it’s worth every euro - if the sun is shining.
From our overnight stop at beautiful Bantry Bay, in County Cork, we travelled north, up and over the dramatic Caha Pass. This high road offers vast views of barren mountains still bronze from winter snow and slate-roofed farmsteads bright in the valley below. The mountain road passes through a number of tunnels before descending into the wild and rugged countryside of County Kerry, ‘The Kingdom’, as it’s known in Ireland, just before Kenmare, at the start point of the Ring of Kerry. We have been here before, in pre-digital and pre-motorhome days, but we seem to remember little of it. I put that down to age on my part, but Janice has no such excuse.
There are numerous peninsulas along
'Sandy' on the road
the west coast of this fascinating island, so many we could be here forever if we chose to navigate them all. Dramatic mountains form the spine of each peninsula of chequered green fields dotted with sheep and bordered by rough dry- stone walls, scattered golden gorse, steep-sided cliffs, vast golden beaches, rocky shores, tiny offshore islands and tempting sandy coves. An hour passed in the blink of an eye with a walk across Derrynane’s many idyllic golden beaches, windswept dunes and rocky outcrops.
Tourist buses stop at the lookout car park at the top of the Coomnahorna Pass to let the punters see the view. Normally we don’t do ‘crowds’ but the sight of an ice-cream van stopped us in our tracks. It was still chilly in the wind, but the sun was peeping through the clouds, trying to trick us into thinking the winter was finally over and the time had come to make hay. A group of Aussies from Sydney joined us in the queue and we were soon engrossed in Aussie chatter and their grand tour of Europe - flying, as only Aussies can, by the seat of their pants and loving every minute.
Apart from its rather famous golf course where Tiger Woods and Payne Stewart are recorded as having played, Waterville’s long beach and fresh seaside air apparently attracted Charlie Chaplin and his family to spend many holidays there. It is indeed rather pleasant - and we left a note with Tourist Information that we had also been there. They might want to include us in their next tourist brochure too. I must remember to tell Lonely Planet and Dorling Kindersley
When it comes to beaches, they’re two a Euro here in Kerry. Inny Strand, on the headland just along the road, has an mile-long sandy beach where we stretched our legs for a while in the company of three people and two dogs. The tide was out by the time we reached Ballinskelligs for another shoes-off walk out to a ruined castle and there’s yet another wonderful beach at St Finian's Bay with stunning views out across the glittering sea to the Skelligs. By late afternoon we were at our overnight stop on Valentia Island.
In 1866, after several failed attempts, a communications cable was finally laid and operating from Valentia all
1,686 miles across the Atlantic, to lovely Hearts Content in Newfoundland. This mammoth feat enabled instant communications between the UK and the USA for the first time. If I remember correctly, Marconi stuck his oar in quite soon after somewhere further up the road. You might recall we were in Hearts Content in Newfoundland back in 2006 on our epic journey around North America. We have now visited both ends! To celebrate, Janice cooked roast chicken for dinner.
Tour coaches were out in force on the spectacular Dingle Peninsula and Dingle itself was heaving on Saturday morning: lines of cars parked on every spare piece of ground and the streets busy with shoppers enjoying the sunshine. I guess we should have expected that.
Like all of these peninsulas there are few roads on the Dingle. Driving, on the other hand is a little more simple; they drive on the left as in the UK. How very sensible. Beware though - some roads are extremely narrow, occasionally, nay, often, single track, and winding. Road surfaces are pretty poor in places, so be prepared to be shaken about. We’ll come back through Dingle tomorrow when we leave the
peninsula on our way north. Perhaps it would be quieter then.
Surfers and bathers were out at the awesome sandy beach at Inch. For the life of me I can’t think why it’s called Inch when it’s all of three miles long, and half of that wide at low tide. I’ll show you a picture or two to make the point if you like. The car park had a low height-barrier in place which is never a good thing when you’re in a motorhome. But hundreds of cars, vans and motor homes were parked on the hard-packed sand along the whole length of the beach, so we joined them there. Kids in swimming costumes were making sand-castles, mums were sun bathing and dads were whacking balls with their hurling sticks. All this on a sunny but chill-windy day more suited to kite-flying with your overcoat, hat and scarf on. I guess they can be excused for their celebration now the sun is finally out: locals tell us they’re all fed up with the rain - it hasn’t stopped since October. One sad soul told us it had been winter since last September.
for the Irish to forget their much-troubled past. There are examples everywhere, a lot associated with their struggle for independence from the British over the centuries, and the famine brought about by the failure of the potato harvest leading to starvation and emigration on a grand scale. Those that were left faced hard times too. The last inhabitants left the remote Blasket Islands offshore here in 1953 and there’s a rather elaborate and extremely expensive visitor centre which focuses on the tough old way of life for island dwellers. They were probably amongst the last Irish inhabitants to live the life of self-sufficiency.
Our day finished at Paidi O’Se’s ‘typically Irish’ pub in Ventry, bursting to the seams at five-thirty in the evening: perhaps it was something to do with Spurs playing Man U in the semi-final of the FA Cup: time to try a swift Guinness and a Steak and beer stew, while we’re watching, and the cheering and booing continues from divided supporters around the bar. Good Irish fodder and a good result for Manchester United. Paidi was a Kerry Gaelic footballer and manager of some note and it’s clear from all the pictures on
the walls that we was something of a celebrity. There was more rain overnight, thundering on the roof of our motorhome, but it brightened a little by morning.
An early start allowed us a brief return visit to Dingle, rather more quiet at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning than the previous day. A stiff breeze was blowing cloud shadows across the harbour full of bobbing boats and the colourful seafront houses beyond and fit-looking joggers and poo-bag carrying dog walkers were enjoying their weekend exercise along the front. Dingle is a rather attractive town, packed with many fascinating shops on narrow lanes.
A plan to take the high-road out of Dingle over the Connor Pass to enjoy the panoramic views was thwarted by a sign on the outskirts of town which suggested a vehicle limit of 1.8 metres width and 2 tonnes weight. Poor young Sandy fails on both counts at 2.35m wide and just short of 3.5 tonnes, so we settled for the faster, though less scenic route, towards pretty Tralee. Sweet Rose was not in.
As avid golfers it was impossible for us to pass by the Championship
links golf course of Ballybunnion with its enormous modern clubhouse and challenging undulating links. We had our travelling clubs with us, but this one is a bit rich for us at €220 per person per round: €22 would be more up our street, but it’s nice to have a walk around to see where the top challenges are played. With a gale-force wind blowing, we could think of better things to do with €440! We settled on a couple of ball markers at €3 each - cheapskates! A little later we would also pass Lahinch, another of those famous links courses all golf-nuts will have heard of, with grass like your front-room carpet - oh, and the Trump International golf complex which is not at all noteworthy.
So it was a quick and easy €21 ferry across the Shannon into County Clare and on through the handsome town of Kilrush to Kilkee for a magnificent cliff walk with fabulous views - and The Diamond Rocks Cafe - packed to the gunwales with day trippers, sheltering from the stiff wintery wind, enjoying the food and the brief spell of sunshine - just in case its the last they
might get to see this year.
Our campsite further north at Doolin Pier, perched way out on the Atlantic coast, was chosen to give us easy access to The Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s top tourist attractions. Much to our disappointment, rain arrived during the night as forecast. Now, there’s a surprise. By the time we arrived at the cliffs a mighty gale was raging and sleety rain swept from low cloud meant we could hardly see the cliffs. A momentary break in the rain allowed us a brief window for a photo or two between drying lenses, but the first of many hundreds of tourists had arrived by coach by then, only to get back on half an hour later having seen little other than the crowded Visitor Centre, (€4.50 for Seniors) and managing to get soaking wet, wind lashed and freezing cold on the short walk to the cliff-edge. I can hear the tour, guide now, ‘You’ve paid, so you’d better get on with it.’ We have been to Moher before, so nothing was really lost for us - and we had the luxury of a warm and comfortable motorhome in which to dry
off. The precipitous cliffs here are home to thousands of nesting seabirds every spring; puffins amongst them, but it was still early in the breeding season and only fulmars were there, staking claim to their private precarious ledge, home for the coming months. Hopefully, we would get to see puffins further north in better weather during the coming weeks.
The master plan was for us to leave Moher and turn inland to The Burren, a vast karst landscape of limestone pavement covering 250 - 500 square km, part of which is in within the National Park. This great limestone plateau is quite awesome in its scale, a grey fragmented landscape formed from a succession of sedimentary rock, primarily limestone, that in a few weeks time would be alive with gentians, avens and orchids at their peak, a sheer delight for all botanists and geologists alike. There was little fun to be had hiking in the vicious wind and heavy drizzle, but Janice took a brief walk on the park track and we decided to move on, northwards, bypassing Galway (we didn’t stop to see ‘The sun go down o’er Galway Bay’), then out to the west, across
wild moorland and peat bog towards the magnificent barren hills, shimmering lakes and cloud capped rocky mountains of Connemara National Park.
Connemara’s truly glorious landscape came as a most welcome surprise to us: a stunning wilderness way beyond our expectations and by 7pm we were camped by the beach at Tully, beyond Letterfrack, on the north westerly edge of the National Park. We could have stayed in Connemara for a week, but a day or two would have to suffice. It put us a day behind schedule, but what the heck, we’re not likely to come back are we? We have seen some wonderful places in the UK, but I can’t think of anywhere more beautiful. It’s the best of Scotland and The Lake District rolled into one: a truly handsome, passive, pastel landscape. Take a deck-chair next to me and close your eyes. And sleep, perchance to dream, as someone once said.
It’s possible to meander around the coast of Connemara for hours if not days. Around every gorse-clad corner there’s another sandy bay with dark, craggy, windswept rocks and whispering grasses on the dunes. Inland, sheep and lambs in stone-walled fields will
watch you pass as you drive the narrow lanes between rock scattered fields and out across the peat-bog, a canvas of browns to tempt the artists palette. The minor road over the pass beside Loch Eidhneach will give you lockjaw, it’s so stunning!
A few cars were seen threading their way across the hard-sand causeway from Omey Island on the Claddaghduff peninsula when we arrived at low tide. It’s about 300metres or so across; there is no road as such, and locals living there must get accustomed to living their lives by the tide table. Thousands of visitors come here in August to watch the annual horse races held on the sand - a great spectacle that, I’ll bet (or perhaps not, I’m not, and never have been, a gambling man).
It would be a brave man who would bet on the weather here. It changes by the minute. As we arrived at Ballyconneely, just south of upmarket Clifton, the rain petered out, the pewter sky in the west turned to blue, the sun broke loose from its shackles, and it was a different day! It’s the age old story - wait an hour
Alcock and Brown
The first Trans-Atlantic flight. Hold tight, we're coming in!
or walk a mile. That’s the way it goes here in Ireland.
With all this beauty and wild countryside you might rightly think we’re in the back of beyond. Well, it is all rather remote, out on a limb so to speak, and about as far west as it’s possible to go. But hang on a minute: this neck of the woods has some serious history. History was made here in quite recent times that changed my life, and yours, forever.
For it was here on this stunning peninsula that a certain Irishman, of Italian descent, named Marconi, set up a transmitter in 1907 to phone his mate in Newfoundland - "dit,dit, da, da, dit,” was all he could find to say at the time. We’ve come a long way since then - and some. Now you can chat to your auntie in Australia, or your sister in America, in an instant, with or without your thumb jerking up and down on your tiny mobile phone.
A few years later, twelve to be precise, in 1919, a couple of young fliers, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown, crossed the Atlantic in a
flimsy aeroplane and crash-landed just up the road — the first non-stop flight across the pond. Now you can leave Europe by air after breakfast and arrive in time for another breakfast in New York. How very fortunate we are, eh?
Ahead to the north the Galway skies over Louisburgh were blue as blue as we climbed the high pass, scattered with fluffy cumulus cloud sweeping their shadows swiftly over the hills. Behind, glaring at us in the wing mirrors, fierce black clouds rose high over the Mweelrea Mountains. One minute we were walking in bright sunshine, always a mile from the motorhome, and the next the skies opened to lashing rain. Many’s the time we’ve been soaked. The wind is incessant: a hat is a definite requirement, and a length of string to tie it under your chin, is a positive necessity. I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, but every silver lining here has a cloud, that’s for sure.
We have seen little by way of arable land along this coast. That which is not bog or stone is only suitable for grazing; mostly sheep, and occasionally cattle. There are few trees
except along roadsides and around homesteads: hornbeam, birch, ash, sycamore, chestnut just bursting into leaf, a scattering of larch here-and-there and brief strands of pine. The glorious mountain landscape above Doo Lough around the northern side of Killary Harbour, was bathed in bright sunshine and storm-cloud in quick succession, shedding brilliant sunshine on distant hills and silver light on the rippling water, and, in an instant, the hills were lost once again in threatening grey cloud. A moment to capture on film - or memory card. There’s a small memorial there in memory of the many local lives so tragically lost during the potato famine of 1845 - 1852, a beautiful spot.
Catholic history leads us to believe that St Patrick spent 40 days in solitude, fasting in his tiny shelter at the top of Croagh Patrick just up the road a bit in County Mayo, today an important site of pilgrimage. Many thousands make the strenuous climb to the conical summit at 765m (2,510ft), many in bare feet, on the last Sunday of July each year. St Patrick is said to have brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th Century. Rent a Stick ask just €3
deposit for a four-foot stake to help the aged and needy on their way, and you’re trusted to hand it back should you survive the climb. Those who don’t survive must expect to lose their deposit.
A poignant bronze National Famine Memorial stands across the road from the Croagh Patrick Visitor Centre. This wonderful sculpture depicting skeletons on board a three-masted galleon, is dedicated to those lives so tragically lost in the Irish famine of 1845- 52, and others who left full of hope for North America in the so called, ‘coffin -ships, many of whom died on that dreadful journey.
Sophisticated Westport, on the shores of Clew Bay, was busy with lunchtime traffic when we arrived. This prettiest of all Ireland’s towns sports Georgian architecture in abundance, classy shops, boutiques, galleries, cafes, restaurants and colourful houses, tidy streets and friendly smiles. We were hoping to meet up with a friend of a friend’s mum for lunch here, but he was in Dublin for a cataract operation. Let’s hope it all ends well and he can see this missive as clear as a bell. We settled for a self-guided tour of town. Janice smiled
and nodded her head as we left. ‘Very nice.’
Achill Island, our next port of call, is Ireland’s largest island. Connected to the mainland by a causeway, it is some 24km long and some 87% of it is peat bog it says in the book. They’re still digging it up to pile on the fire. There are many superb golden and white-sandy beaches and purple heather-clad hills here, making this fine walking country. Much of the island is Gaelic speaking. I read somewhere that there are 350,000 Gaelic speakers in Ireland. The rest speak either English or Irish, depending on their leaning.
Janice’s navigation took us on a nail-biting drive on a steep narrow road along the cliff-edge, out to Keem Bay at the western tip of the island; an idyllic textbook crescent sandy beach all to ourselves, leaving only our footprints behind for the record. There is only one building on the hill above the beach, nestling in the shadow of Croaghaun Heights, some of the highest cliffs in Europe: a white-walled cottage, a B&B perhaps. Absolute heaven! But it could well be a different story here come the holiday season.
‘The holiday season’ suggests sunshine, sandy beaches or swimming pools, and ice cream to most of us. If that’s the case they won’t be getting much of that in the Ballycroy National Park. You might want to make a note should you plan to visit Ballycroy - they have two metres of rain per annum.
That’s an awful lot of wet!
Ballycroy was only established as a National Park in 1998. With over 11,000 hectares of Atlantic blanket bog, this wilderness also covers rolling, heather-clad hills and mountain peaks. There’s a very pleasant twenty minute stroll with boardwalks from the informative visitor centre. It’s not like the Irish to boast, I’m sure, but we’re led to believe this to be the largest area of Blanket bog left in Europe.
That’s an awful lot of bog.
A young man chanced to cross our path today: a tall and lanky lad, stubble chinned after a heavy night out. “Welcome to County Mayo,” he said with a smile. “Mayo is essentially one huge bog, you know, with a few houses plonked on top.” I’m sure that’s not totally true, but he’s clearly a local,
Ballycroy National Park - Co Mayo
Europe's largest remaining Blanket Bog
and he should know.
David and Janice
The grey haired nomads
And Todd came too
Scroll down for more photos - and don’t miss the panorama slideshow at the top!
Cobh, Co Cork: Aire on the waterfront - €10 Water, waste and dump
Bantry Bay, Co Cork: Eagle Point Camping. Top-end quality but pricey - book ahead essential in high season.
Valentia Island, Co Kerry: Valentia Camping and Caravan Park. Super facilities -well cared for. EU funded.
Doolin, Co Clare: Naples. Well maintained, flat, convenient for Cliffs of Moher and great services. Recommended.
Letterfrack, Co Galway: Renvyle Beach. Good site, right on the beach.
Clifden, Co Galway: Ecobeach Camping. Basic, very eco and adequate. Wonderful beach. very quiet.
Achill Island, Co Mayo: Lavelles Golden Strand. A little tired, but adequate for an overnight. Lovely beach. There are alternatives.
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