Road tripping Ireland: spectacular scenery & great yarns

Sheep on the Wild Atlantic Way. Picture: Bernie Tier

Driving around Ireland and Northern Ireland provides a journey through colourful history and community spirit, along with some unexpected celebrity spotting.

It is a history lesson that will never be forgotten. It tells of famine, rebellion, poverty and — most important — exodus. 

Throw in stunning scenery and the fruits of one man’s determination to save his town through tourism and the story grows ever larger and includes attracting some 500,000 more visitors a year to one small Irish village.

“I was determined to create something so my sons would not have to leave Ireland like so many sons before them,” says Pat Sweeney, who took on nine years of red tape and fighting to convince his neighbours and bureaucrats to get on board for his grand plan for seaside Doolin.

This village with a rich history on Ireland’s west coast is famous for two things: great traditional Irish music and the fabulous Cliffs of Moher.

But they weren’t enough. In 2008, Doolin reeled with the rest of Ireland as the global financial crisis turned a booming tech economy into one of the EU’s four economic “pigs”. 

The country was broke, its banks were in deep and jobs all but disappeared.

“I called a town meeting and everyone there looked at me as if I was mad,” says Mr Sweeney, a local farmer from a stock of revolutionary pioneers. 

His scheme was to unite the many farmers who owned parts of the cliffs to the high-tide line to create a sometimes hair-raising 8km trail to the highest point rather than restrict visitors to taking in the vista from a fenced-in corral at the visitors’ centre. 

Finally 29 landowners agreed to let tourists cross their pastures. The only barrier left was to untie reams of red tape that insurance companies and local and national governments had him trussed up in. 

Eventually all came on board, and now tourists can take Mr Sweeney’s ridiculously cheap guided trek along the cliffs, hike it themselves or wander away from the visitors centre for a taste of vertigo with nothing between them and the sheer cliffs but fresh Atlantic air. 

Mr Sweeney’s tour begins — where else — outside a pub on the edge of town to meander down the ancient cliffs road, a rutted wagon track over a stone bridge centuries old. 

The trail follows 500-year-old rock walls overgrown with grasses, dandelions, buttercups, primroses and sprays of violets along a coast of crystal-clear water, vibrant birdlife including puffins, a blowhole and pristine rock pools. 

All the way Mr Sweeney fascinates his audience with tales of the local rebellion his great-grandfather helped stage against British overlords, the Great Famine and much more, interwoven with his own stories of sometimes death-defying youthful derring-do exploring and diving into rock chasms to swim in favourite inlets. 

He brings to life the Atlantic’s power, its massive breakers that can heave around boulders weighing tonnes, the restoration of two of three historic local towers and the remnants of a “famine village”, where he is trying to have one of the stone houses restored.

“The people there had to work for the British landlord who was gifted the land,” Mr Sweeney says. “When the famine hit they could no longer pay the rent so it was either get out or starve. Many didn’t starve though. They died from diseases first. 

“The people left this area for Canada, America and, of course, Australia, and I’m doing my best to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” 

His success is beyond doubt. Tourism is booming and everyone in Doolin — especially landlords, restaurateurs and licensees — sing Patrick Sweeney’s praises between nightly sets from the fabulous local bands who pump up at least one packed pub every night. 

It also appears to be the right idea at the right time. While Doolin is doing it better than most, other Irish towns are enjoying a tourism boom, notably from Germans and Americans tracing Irish roots, though one cathedral guide (so it can’t be a lie) said the nation with the strongest Irish heritage was Australia (to the chagrin of his American audience). 

And fair bloody enough. In two weeks exploring the Wild Atlantic Way touring trail along Ireland’s west coast, many truly Australian names such as Murphy, O’Brien, Kelly and Sullivan were prominent in historic graveyards beside small stone churches long fallen to ruin, where the headstones of heroes showed the weathering of many more centuries than Australia has been Australia.

Our Wild Atlantic drive started from Kenmare on the 137km Ring of Beara, where narrow winding roads lead through rugged, dramatic farms. The area even attracted the new boys from TV’s Top Gear.

On arrival, the main street was choked with a throng watching Matt LeBlanc try to park a massive new Roller convertible outside one of Kenmare’s ubiquitous public houses in a space some said was deliberately left only big enough for a Corolla to upstage the show’s newbie.

However, we were more interested in Kenmare’s stone circle, the beautiful scenery of Gleninchaquin Park and the excellent local musicians for whom age knows no barriers and the generations collide. 

Later we squeezed past the TG crew’s transit van and a Le Mans-style BMW convertible for zillionaires on one of Beara’s ridiculous, claustrophobic, twisting roads, where LeBlanc was not the driver. 

Driving the more popular Ring of Kerry required fewer nerves of steel, though tourist high season probably features games of chicken in the hire car with tour buses on only slightly wider roads, or rather laneways.

Next stop after Doolin was Clifden and the Connemara National Park, where more stunning views are had from ambling up Diamond Hill, one of the Twelve Bens range, or just driving the picture-perfect countryside and coast.

But for a great yarn, there is Kylemore Castle, later Kylemore Abbey, a faux gothic castle that rich Briton Mitchell Henry spent his massive inheritance on building.

The mansion, its surrounding oak forest and stunning walled garden were a reward for Mitchell’s wife Margaret having nine children. 

Remnants of the garden and its hothouses have been restored thanks to the Benedictine nuns, who now inhabit the abbey, and their army of local volunteers.

But the bliss at the Henry home was short-lived. Margaret caught a fatal disease on a family holiday to Egypt, so Mitchell built her a mini-cathedral to scale as a mausoleum with beautiful white, green and red Irish marble and exquisite carvings so she wouldn’t have to lie in the cold Irish earth.

Such extravagance and his benevolent scheme to prop up peasant agriculture by draining the local bogs eventually sent him broke. 

Enter the equally penniless Duke of Manchester, who had the good fortune to captivate American heiress Helena Zimmerman, whose father bestowed on the newlyweds Kylemore Castle. 

Helene immediately got rid of the grand stained-glass windows, turned the ballroom into a kitchen to keep a fussy chef and shifted Margaret from her church into a much more modest crypt 100m away, where her husband now also resides.

The walled garden went to weeds, the glasshouses fell in and the duke, a notoriously unfaithful bounder and useless gambler, lost the lot playing cards, or so the story goes. 

The couple eventually divorced and the nuns eventually moved in after being bombed out of their home on the Somme in World War I. They ran a girls’ school there until 2010 and now keep the abbey going thanks to the tour bus convoys of eager sightseers, who take in a handful of decked-out rooms, the cathedral, garden, gift shop and cafe.

When we visited the cafe was packed enough for us to abandon all hope of sustenance there, but we found the best-ever seafood bisque at a pub in Letterfrack en route back to Clifden.

On to Donegal and Derry just over the border where the sunshine surprised the locals more than we rugged-up Antipodeans. (“Wow, did you get sunburnt in Ireland?”)

Yet more cliffs, beaches, green fields, cute frolicking spring lambs and scenery that never was boring, with great views around every corner.

And so we crossed into Northern Ireland where “the troubles are well and truly over” and the euro gives way to the pound, churches are just as ubiquitous, the pubs are as numerous and all serve the same grub.

The north does, however, have the Giant’s Causeway, a volcanic lava flow of stark and geometric beauty a day-trip north from Belfast. 

This World Heritage site looks sculptured with precision into exacting steps so rare and beautiful they form a staircase that would not be amiss in a fantasy feature film.

The local tip is to avoid the government parking fee by enjoying tea and scones at the historic Causeway Hotel. Just show the receipt.

An added bonus was the nearby Old Bushmills Distillery, which helped to thaw bones from the chill far-north wind with a complimentary hot spiced whiskey. Belfast’s highlight was the Titanic Museum, a high-tech tribute to local shipbuilding and related industries that’s comprehensive and interesting apart from ignoring the fact the Titanic sank because a shipload of rivets popped out when it brushed that iceberg. Belfast’s Harland & Wolff did, however, make a lot of ships that stayed afloat and is, in fact, still making them. 

The city also introduced us to sleet (not quite snow and not actually hail) as we headed south to Dublin, where hail, rain and sunshine were interspersed at 15-minute intervals. 

But for any non-teetotal tourist, the Guinness Storehouse is the place — not just for the obvious, but for interest, entertainment, food and fun. 

The storehouse also boasts one of the best — and worst — business deals of all time. 

When Arthur Guinness decided to make booze in 1759 he found an abandoned, run-down brewery in a street with 27 similar establishments all trying to supply something less life-threatening than the local water supply. 

The landlord rubbed his hands to find this sucker and stitched him up with a 9000-year lease for an annual rent of 45 Irish pounds. 

Guinness was soon one of the world’s most successful breweries and the company now owns most of that street in central Dublin.

The company has since bought the building, even though the lease still had well over 8000 years to run. 

Yes, you have to love Ireland. 


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