Discovering Ireland’s wild Atlantic Way

Whiskey, castles, and islands highlight this rugged route full of heart and history

Connemara

Photo: Maureen Littlejohn
Kylemore Abbey, once the home of doctor/politician Mitchell Henry, is now a Benedictine abbey and popular tourist stop.

Maureen Littlejohn
Toronto, Canada

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 1,243 miles in length. On a recent trip, I found out what makes the suitably titled “Wild Atlantic Way” so wildly special.

When in Ireland, it’s important to partake in “a wee nip o’ the creature,” meaning locally made whiskey. Heading west after landing in Dublin, my adventure began at Kilbeggan Distillery in County Westmeath. The oldest licensed whisky 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 the barley and an old waterwheel attested to how the plant was powered up until 1887. Whiskey develops its rich color while aging in wooden casks, but they don’t get the same amount out as goes 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 farther west past rolling green hills and colorful 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 & History 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, 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 center’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, when the majority of the population was starving.

Connemara

Photo: Maureen Littlejohn
At the Connemara Heritage & History Centre you can learn how to cut and prepare peat for use in fires.

Our hotel that night was Abbeyglen Castle in Clifden where the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic from Newfoundland by John Alcock and Arthur Brown landed. The castle was built in 1832 by John Darcy. After he died, it became an orphanage for girls and in 1969 our host Brian Hughes’s parents 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 trans-Atlantic 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 there are hopes that the site can be developed as a tourist destination in the future.

Hughes played the guitar and sang that night. He also told us not to mind the brownish water in the taps. “It’s that color from the bog. It’s very good for the skin,” he said. I tried a bath that night, and he was right. Full of trace minerals, the water 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, but the little vessel felt stable, and we arrived safely. Inishbofin has a population of 165, but it’s a popular summer destination with some 40,000 visitors a year.

Doonmore Hotel is a short walk from the pier and once there, owner Andrew Murray had us watch a video outlining the island’s harsh history. 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.

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 greenhouses where 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 eventually sold the estate to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, who lost it to gambling debts. In 1920, the castle became an abbey for Benedictine nuns who had fled their monastery at Ypres, Flanders, during WWI. Now the site is home to nine remaining nuns whose homemade soaps, creams, and chocolates are sold in the gift shop.

Galway

Photo: Maureen Littlejohn
A wall of bronze Claddagh designs in Galway.

Our last stop was lively Galway, a university town full of historic sites, as well as shops and pubs. 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. Pirates kidnapped him on the way to the West Indies, and his master taught him how to make jewelry. 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.

Full of heart and history, the Wild Atlantic Way is a stronghold of Irish stories… best enjoyed with a nip of the creature. Slainte!

Maureen Littlejohn is a Canadian travel writer and Executive Editor of Culture Magazin. Originally written for Culture Magazin. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

This article originally appeared in the March 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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