We began the adventure tour traveling west from Galway into Connemara. For the entire mornings journey the Atlantic waters of Galway Bay were on our left and beyond the Bay was the Burren of Co. Clare. As we travelled into Ireland’s west there was a noticeable change in the landscape, the fields were smaller and less arable but the scenery grew in its splendour. We had our first stop in the lovely village of Spiddal, for a stroll on the Pier and a look around Spiddal Craft Village.
From Spiddal we continued on deeper into the wild Connemara landscape as far as Rossaveel where we boarded the ferry to Inis Mor – the Largest of The Aran Islands. During the 40-minute crossing the ferry was escorted by the Gulls, Cormorants and other sea birds that are abundant in this area. We disembarked the ferry on Inis Mor, got on our bikes and took the road west on our Cycle Tour towards the fort of Dun Aengus. Very quickly we were alone on quiet country roads where we passed thatched cottages, deserted villages and religious ruins. It was a relaxing cycle with plenty time to take in the views.
Dun Aengus is an Ancient stone-built fort. It was first constructed around 1100BC and added to over a number of periods. The structure present today dates from the early medieval period. Anyone who visits the fort is left in awe, and this tour group were no different. The ancient fortress perched 300 feet above the sea below is magnificent. On this day we had the luck of the Irish on our side – the weather was lovely. The Sun was shining, there were blue skies and a gentle breeze blew in from the Atlantic. The Tour had plenty time to soak in the history, the views and the weather.
After leaving Dun Aengus we went off the beaten track and took a stroll through some fields. The geology of the Aran Islands is karstic limestone similar to that which can be found in the Burren. The landscape here supports a variety of flowers that you will not find elsewhere in Ireland and are more likely to be found in Alpine areas. Today we were very lucky to spot some flowers including early flowering Orchids and Spring Gentians.
For the cycle back to the village of Kilronan we took the lower road via the Seal colony. On this trip we did not see any Seals, still, the views across the sea to the main land and the Connemara mountains filled our senses nicely. In Kilronan we had a relaxing lunch and a rewarding pint before getting the return ferry and jumping into the tour bus for the short drive to Roundstone. Here, we had a well-earned dinner in the lovely Vaughans Restaurant at the Roundstone House Hotel before retiring for the evening after a really rewarding day on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.
The Wild Atlantic Way, as well as being one of the world’s top tourist destinations, also provides a livelihood for people in many other trades and industries outside of tourism. The towns, villages, fields and harbours along Ireland’s Atlantic Coast are working communities, a lineage carried on for many generations from those who first moved here to make a living. Only the hardiest and those who respected the harsh landscape survived economically. To successfully eke out a living here, you need to do so by working in concert with and within the limitation of the Wild Atlantic coastline. It is true that some trades and crafts did not survive as well as others.
Many of the beautiful tourist towns along the Wild Atlantic Way originated as fishing settlements, and those that adapted to the changing times still are thriving fishing harbours. If you are lucky enough to visit any of these places, such as Gweedore, Kinsale, Westport or Dingle, you will have the pleasure of eating in some lovely restaurants. The food you’ll eat will most likely be locally sourced. As you stroll around the harbours, if you keep your eyes peeled, you will see fishing trawlers unloading their cargo or about to head out to sea and Mussel and Lobster farmers hauling their lines and pots.
Markets and Fairs
Scattered along the west coast you will find many market towns. In fact, there was a time when every town had a regular market or fair. The fair was an intrinsic part of Irish society. As well as a place to sell your produce it was a place to socialise. Many towns still have a weekly or monthly market where you can buy and sample the best of local and Irish made products by artisan producers. Other towns have maintained the tradition of the old fairs by creating a festival around it. The town of Killorglin has done this to great effect; here on the 10th, 11th and 12th of August they hold the annual Puck fair. This fair dates back well before any written records began and probably to pre Christian times, it may have evolved from old pagan celebrations. Fantastically, the centre and most import feature of the festival is a Goat! Before the festival begins some the town’s hardiest individuals take to the mountains to find a suitable candidate, the goat is raised to the top of a pedestal and crowned King Puck for three days and on the third day he is released back to the mountains. As you enter the town you will find a sculpted goat guarding the towns’ bridge.
Hand crafts such as spinning, weaving, stonework and knitting were a mainstay of western communities for centuries. Many of these craft skills survive to this day. If you look at one small section of coast, the Aran Islands, you will see many examples of these craft skills alive today. The world famous Aran sweater had its origins on the Aran Islands. The sweaters or Jumpers have their own unique stitching styles, these styles are linked to many myths and tales. An interesting craft of the Aran Islands is Pampooties, specialist moccasin-type shoes. Willow basket or willow creels have been used by the fishing folk of Aran for decades to carry their bounty. Dry stone wall building takes on a life of its own on the Aran Islands. Creating a patchwork of fields, the stone walls have been an inspiration for many artists including Sean Scully. You will notice as you travel the island that on lower ground the walls are compact with the stone placement being close together and on higher ground the stones are placed at seemingly ridiculous angles and there are many large gaping holes in the walls. However there is a very good reason for this, on the higher ground the wind blows much stronger and is liable to take down the wall, however when the wind meets the wall with the holes it just passes on through.
As it is for the entire island of Ireland, farming provides a living for thousands of families along the Wild Atlantic Way. You will encounter many aspects of farming life on your travels. Even though it may appear like a quaint peculiarity for your added enjoyment, the sheep that so often cross the road in front of as you wind your way along the Wild Atlantic Way are people’s livestock, the multi-colours painted on their back is to distinguish ownership. In Connemara, it is not uncommon to see a farmer building a cock of Hay, a practice long outdated elsewhere. The small stone fields do not allow easy access for large modern machinery. In winter on the Burren you will see cattle out on the karst landscape. This may seem to be counter intuitive, to winter cattle on a hillside. The reason is that the limestone rock is excellent at retaining heat, this is also the reason you can spot alpine flowers in the area.
Much of the industry that was present has been outdated by the advance of technology and only exists in cottage or artisan form. One example of an outdated technology that has disappeared completely is the telegraph system. This, once a marvel of communication that reduced the time from 2 weeks to minutes to bring news across the Atlantic Ocean from USA and Europe. The first transatlantic telegraph station on the European side was on Valentia Island, the first transatlantic message was sent in 1858. The cable station is still present. Interestingly, the oldest confirmed amphibious footprints ever found on PLANET EARTH are only a short distance from the telegraph station.
Navigators, Explorers and Inn keepers
Among the workers, there are always the dreamers and the discoverers who want to search for more and seek out new lands. St.Brendan, born in the year 484 AD, was a Monk who wanted to spread the Gospel. It is recounted in medieval text that he sailed to America to spread the good word, he landed at Newfoundland. This makes him the first to cross the Atlantic.
Another Kerry man with attitude came along 1,500 years later. In the early 1900’s, Tom Crean joined the British navy and he was an integral part of three expeditions to be the first to reach the South Pole. During these expeditions there are several awe inspiring stories of survival. One of the most impressive, is the sailing from the Antarctic across the southern Atlantic Ocean in lifeboats for 5 days to Elephant Island, followed by a traverse across the uncharted, glacier covered, South Georgia Island. When Crean returned to Ireland he opened a Pub in his home of Annascaul. The appropriately named South Pole inn is still run by his family.