Talk about the luck of the Irish. We are enjoying a sumptuous dinner at a country house in County Clare when our dinner companions emerge onto the terrace in the middle of dessert. What happen? A fire alarm?
No, it’s a sunset forever. We watch in silent amazement as the large orange ball sinks into the sea before turning the horizon fifty shades of pink.
But then, this is standard fare on the Wild Atlantic Way, which runs 1,600 miles in the west of Ireland, zigzagging with the landscape and taking so many detours it’s like a shaggy dog in a pub story.
Pubs, many with live music, are intrinsic to this glorious Donegal to Cork route launched by the Irish tourist board in 2014. But so are empty beaches, rugged mountains, quiet villages and bustling cities. .
It’s like a tasting menu for independent travelers. Roaming, not getting from A to B, is the name of the game. Simply follow your nose and Ireland does the rest.
On a tour of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, Max Davidson stops at Slieve League in Donegal (pictured), which has some of the highest cliffs in Europe.
We focus on the northern section between Clare and Donegal, each county more stunning than the last. We are also interested in exploring the sparsely inhabited islands where The Banshees Of Inisherin was filmed. Is it possible that they are as fabulous as in the movie?
Yes is the answer. We took the ferry from Doolin to Inishmore, the furthest of the Aran Islands, where part of the film was filmed.
Dry stone walls divide the fields invaded by flowers. White horses peek out from behind ruined cabins. Narrow streets lead to rocky beaches. Fishermen unload their catch in the port. Everyone knows everyone and no one is too busy to stop and chat. Cyril O’Flaherty, our guide for the day, was born on the island and, if he has his way, he will die on it. Who would blame him?
Max visits Inishmore, the farthest of the Aran Islands, where part of The Banshees of Inisherin was filmed
Above is Kylemore Abbey, which Max says is one of the “glories” of Connemara.
Here, at the edge of Europe, people have found peace and tranquility since time immemorial, from the monks of the 6th century to modern writers such as John Millington Synge, high priest of Irish folklore.
Cyril shows us the ‘salmon pit’, a sacred site associated with ancient miracles, and then introduces us to his pony Minnie, who had a cameo in the Banshees. She poses for selfies like a Hollywood pro.
The next morning, we resumed our odyssey along the Wild Atlantic Way, heading north to Connemara. The roads are extremely empty and the only danger is being ambushed by stunning views. Vibrant colors abound; The iridescent green of the Emerald Isle combines with the purple of the heather and the red of the fuchsias of the hedges.
One of the glories of Connemara is Kylemore Abbey, a majestic lakeside building that now houses an order of Benedictine nuns.
Max spends a night at Strandhill (pictured), which he claimed was full of surfers.
After a night of shameless overindulgence in Galway, a party city if ever there was one, we headed north again to Sligo. It is more populated than the Aran Islands, but still retains that quintessential Irish blend of scenic beauty and casual charm. In front of the hair salon, a trio of elderly sheep cross the street so slowly that they almost cause a crash. But no one would ever question his right to roam.
Sligo is associated with the poet WB Yeats, but even he would have struggled to find words for our next, most exciting trip yet, around the Coolera Peninsula.
The Atlantic is at its wildest as it hits the rocky coastline and wide bays. Flocks of sandpipers try to fly towards the sea, but the wind repels them. Sheep cling to steep slopes.
It’s no wonder this corner of Ireland is so popular with surfers. Strandhill, where we will spend the night, is full of people relaxing in the Voya seaweed baths or the Mammy Johnston ice cream parlour.
After a full Irish breakfast, which we would be fools to disdain, we headed to mountainous Donegal, the northernmost county of the Republic of Ireland. The most spectacular mound of all, Slieve League has some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe, rising majestically above the Atlantic swells.
According to Max, the pubs, many with live music, are ‘intrinsic’ to the Wild Atlantic Way route
We walked up and up, windswept but too enthralled by the views to notice, then had a hearty seafood chowder for lunch at Rusty Mackerel, another of those extravagant inns that this friendly country abounds with.
Our final port of call is the historic town of Ardara, known for traditional tweed manufacturing and live music. You won’t find better fun in all of Ireland than at Corner House – there’s a smile on everyone’s face as the music plays. Paddy, the fiddler, plays the blinder and his elbow goes up and down like a piston.
As we head back to Dublin to catch the ferry, still humming those old songs, countless images of the Wild Atlantic Way swirl in our heads: sunlit hillsides; waves crashing against rocks; sheep huddled under an old stone bridge; Connemara’s jolliest traffic warden, a one-man Chuckle Brother.
Why head to the Mediterranean when there is so much wealth right around the corner?