Monday, May 29, 2017

Writing in Paradise: Living on Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

As of next month this Chicago-born Yank has lived in Ireland for 35 years. For much of that time I called County Meath – an hour’s drive north of Dublin – my home. Then I got sense. Seven years ago I moved to the small village of Eyeries, a stunning coastal location way down in southwest County Cork. 

Here I live in wild tranquillity which many call Heaven.  Irish marketing folks now call the coastal route upon which Eyeries is nestled the Wild Atlantic Way. Whatever it’s called, I hope you’ll take a moment to discover this little corner of the world for yourself.

2500 Kilometres of Beauty
Running from Malin Head way up in County Donegal all the way down to Kinsale in County Cork, the Wild Atlantic Way is a breathtaking Irish version of America’s Route 66. I’m not sure who came up with the idea to market this coastal journey but whoever did managed to get it spot on.

It’s a wild run where ever you choose to join it be that in Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick, or even here in Eyeries.  Taking a car journey along the western coast of Ireland is one of the most exhilarating uses of vacation time you’ll ever experience. You’ll encounter small villages and larger cities; rugged mountains and immense cliffs; micro-climates containing forests and boggy glades. 

Around every corner along sometimes twisting narrow roads you’ll bump into new surprises: a sparrow hawk diving for its prey; seals basking on harbour rocks; a new pub with new food and new friends and traditional music.

It’s a huge drive, is this Wild Way – the longest of its type in Europe. I’ve not done all of it so instead I’ll limit the rest of my thoughts to one of Ireland’s glorious secrets: The Beara Peninsula.

Stunning Scenery and Almighty Craic
Not many have heard of Beara. Certainly not me, not before I came for a visit over 10 years ago. Indeed, many of my Irish friends curiously scratch their heads when I mention the location of my new home. “The Beara Peninsula?” they’ll ask perplexed. “Where in God’s good name is that?”

I’ll tell them it’s a secret because those living way down here want to keep it that way.

Unlike the Ring of Kerry or Dingle where roads are choked during busy summer months by global tourists anxious to experience ‘real Ireland’ (whatever that is), Beara continues to sparkle like an isolated jewel. The Slieve Miskish and Caha Mountains form a rugged spine which runs right down the Peninsula, all the way from Glengarriff (a lovely coastal town for years called home by actress Maureen O’Hara) to Allihies, the location of ancient copper mines. (When the mine was worked out almost a hundred years ago, the out-of-work locals packed their bags and immigrated en masse to Butte, Montana. There they pulled enough copper out of the ground to keep America going for a good few years).

The Peninsula being a Peninsula, it is framed by water: on one side Bantry Bay gives shelter to dolphins and seals. Because it is one of the deepest bays around, back in World War I the British hid their entire Atlantic fleet in this isolated location from German U-boats prowling along the coast. If you’re travelling down that side of the Peninsula, start in Bantry – truly a gateway to Heaven. Treat yourself to this wonderful market town, then climb in the car and start your adventure. Drive through Glengarriff, stopping to take the local boat out to lovely Garinish Island and its unique tropical plants growing in stunning gardens.  Once through the town, turn left down coastal R572 and open your senses to real pleasures: trawlers steaming up the Bay to market with a belly full of fish, the smell of salt spray tossed up by raging waves, and the call of gulls as they sail overhead.

Stop in Castletownbere, one of Ireland’s largest deepwater white fish ports, for a spot of tea and some fresh fish n chips. Then take a right on the R571 and discover one of the prettiest Irish villages in the country: Eyeries.

I’m biased, of course, but Eyeries truly is one of the loveliest villages in all the country. Multi-coloured terraced houses grow along its single main street overlooking Coulagh Bay, the body of water which frames Beara’s north side. Here, you’ll be treated as if you’ve relatives here, made as welcome as if the place was your home.

Take a walk along the Beara Way, a loop of quiet solitude which allows you to march along the rugged coastline. Watch out for seals and delight at Cormorants plunging for a morning meal. If you’re lucky you’ll see families of otters paddling in quiet pools, or dolphins hunting schools of mackerel trapped by the incoming tide.

If you’ve a mind, drive down the road a mile or so to Ballycrovane Harbour. There, you can visit the tallest Ogham Stone in Western Europe (it’s thousands of years old and scored with deep lines which are some of humanity’s first hard scratching toward a written language). Then travel further on to Kilcatherine and stop at the Hag of Beara. It may appear to be only a large boulder, but squint your eyes and you’ll see the figure of Brigid, ancient goddess of fertility, frozen there for all time. There’s a wonderful Irish legend to go with the visit, one of fun and misadventure, but I’ll leave the tale for another time.

If you bring along a fishing rod, drive all the way to the end of Kilcatherine point and try your luck for pollack, sea bass, and mackerel in the wild coastal waters. If you’re staying at a local B&B, the proprietor just might make a meal of your catch for you.

Back in the village visit one of our two pubs for a welcome pint and a chat with the locals. Perhaps have a memorable meal at the Bistro then take a walk to the local Strand and contemplate the beauty of such remoteness. Or if you want even more solitude climb back in the car and head across the Peninsula to Dzogchen Beara. Here at this Buddhist retreat, take real time-out with an hour’s meditation in silent rooms overlooking the Atlantic.

Eyeries may seem quiet to you – and it is. Only 60 or so people call the village home. But come here during the third week of July and watch the population swell as over 3,000 visitors join us for the Eyeries Family Summer Festival.  The craíc is mighty as musicians, traders, and vast armies of culinary experts fill the single street.

A Writer’s Paradise
Though I’ve lived in Eyeries for almost seven years now, I still have to pinch myself thinking that perhaps my journey here is still all a dream. Within the peace called Eyeries my senses are filled with a joy of living I’ve found nowhere else. Here, in this tranquil village by the sea, I let my imagination soar with the beauty of the summer months and the chaos that are winter gales along the coast. 

Here I can close my eyes and imagine myself a gull drifting upon the sudden updrafts or a dolphin slicing through rough water or a basking shark hunting plankton on the rising tide. Then I am a pirate smuggler, looking for a hidden cove in which to hide golden booty or an ancient Viking making landfall for the first time on this rugged edge of the world.  Here, I can become anyone or anything at all, and I can do so because Eyeries contains what we can rarely find in this bustling world: the peace of mind which comes from a bit of tranquil magic.

Here, like nowhere else, I can work. I can play. I can appreciate a joy of living simply by watching the sun setting across the sparkling Bay. You can too.

And truly, I hope you do.

For more information on the Wild Atlantic Way visit their website.   And to learn more about Eyeries, go to  Slan abhaile.

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  1. Thank you, as always, for your lovely words. Can't wait to visit the Beara Peninsula and Eyeries in particular!

  2. Hope you come soon John. It's lovely out. Beats winter gales any day 🤣

  3. Hope you come soon John. It's lovely out. Beats winter gales any day 🤣