(This is the third part of Doreen Kerby’s series on her visit to Ireland.)
At 2,500 kilometres, the Wild Atlantic Way is the longest coastal touring route in the world. It takes at least two weeks to see all of it.
The route starts on the south coast at Kinsale and follows the coast up to Galway, continuing north and ending at Derry. Our tour was six days; it whet my appetite to see the entire route.
We had a memorable experience at the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel in Clifden. The table was decked out with Canadian and Irish flags and dishes of shrimp, mussels, and salads to tide us over until the main course arrived. After a marvellous meal, in true Irish fashion, Brian Hughes, the owner, charmed us with Irish songs and stories.
When the evening drew to a close, we retired to comfortable rooms.
Our next stop was Dan O’Hara’s Homestead Farm. The centre is based on the restored pre-famine cottage of Dan O’Hara, who made the mistake of putting in larger windows, triggering the Daylight Tax, which allowed the landlord doubled his rent.
Unable to pay, the walls were pushed in and the thatched roof was set on fire. It was against the law for any neighbour to offer assistance, so the family immigrated to America.
The ships were called “Coffin Ships” because half the passengers died of disease or starvation. Travellers were expected to take their own food because the ship provided scant rations and water for a trip that could take up to three months.
O’Hara’s wife and three of his seven children were buried at sea. When they finally reached New York, the remaining children were put in an orphanage and Dan tried to make a living selling matches on the street.
The story of Dan O’Hara is retold in a ballad that is popular to this day.
The cottage has been rebuilt. A book on the mantle tells the story of 22 American presidents that claim Irish descent. Among them are Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Richard Nixon. The owner sang the Dan O’Hara song and told us stories about the Great Famine of 1845-1852.
Working our way northward, we took a ferry from Cleggan to the Island of Innishbofin —“the island of the white cow.” We just got settled in the Doonmore Hotel when it started to rain. It poured so hard and the winds were so strong it wasn’t safe to go outside. But we were happy. The meals were fantastic and the hotel was comfortable but the Great Wild Atlantic was certainly wild that night.
About 180 people live on the island, but that number has been as high as 3,000. The present church is the fourth house of worship since the arrival of St. Colman in the 13th century.
The next day was lovely, but there was water everywhere and the roads were muddy. An old ruined castle overlooks the harbor. It was taken by Cromwell’s forces in 1649 and used as a prison for Catholic priests. Cromwell did everything he could
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to make life unbearable for Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians.
Our next stop was the beautiful Kylemore Abbey, sheltered in the slopes of the Twelve Bens in Connemara. This beautiful lakeside castle was built as a present for Mitchell Henry’s wife, Margaret, in the mid-1800s.
Henry was an English financier, politician and Member of Parliament in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
They drained huge areas of land and planted thousands of trees for their new orchards and walled gardens. After the sudden death of his wife at the age of 50, he sold the castle to the Benedictine nuns who had lost everything in Ypres in the First World War.
The nuns still own it, but had to close an excellent boarding school in 2010 because there was only one Benedictine nun who was young enough to teach.
The elegant church was built in memory of Margaret. The interior is lined with beautiful Connemara marble. There are two quarries near Clifden and the marble comes in five colours. It is very rare and used for exquisite jewelry.
We would have loved to have stayed longer to finish the Wild Atlantic Way. What we saw was a journey of a lifetime — inspiring, invigorating and memorable.
(Doreen Kerby is a Saskatoon freelance writer.)