Ocean views and authors lost: a literary tour of Ireland’s wild west coast

‘Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression,” was, according to the poet WB Yeats, how he persuaded the playwright John Millington Synge to discover his muse – the desolate beauty of the Aran archipelago. Whatever was the true genesis for Synge’s Atlantic coast hiatus, his times on Inishmaan culminated in the critically acclaimed Playboy of the Western World (1907).

Synge wasn’t the only literary figure drawn to the stark and moodily captivating landscape of the west of Ireland; a place that had become almost a geographical metaphor for romantic Irish ideals and ancient mythology. Charlotte Brontë honeymooned along the western seaboard as far as Loop Head in County Clare, describing it as “such a wild, iron-bound coast – with such an ocean-view as I had not yet seen – and such battling of waves with rocks as I had ever imagined”.

In south County Galway, Coole Park, now a nature reserve, was once the estate of the writer and co-founder of the Abbey theatre, Lady Augusta Gregory. From the late 19th century it was the nerve centre for the Irish Literary Revival, a place where the Autograph Tree still grows in its walled garden. It’s an ancient copper beech with a list of engraved signatures that reads like a Who’s Who of Irish literati. George Bernard Shaw, Synge, Æ (GW Russell) and Sean O’Casey all chiselled their names into its trunk. WB Yeats produced his finest work close to Coole Park and a year after he left; the novelist Edna O’Brien was born 22 miles away in east County Clare.

Yet chip a little below the surface of this western world and you discover a wealth of largely forgotten novelists and talented writers that never found the same recognition on a global scale as the giants of the Literary Revival or the new wave of Irish scribes. Their voices echo the bare beauty of the setting in their stories and verse, because it often forms a pivotal role in the bricolage of Irish writing. County Cork’s sublime southerly shoreline is the place to discover one of the catalysts for the Revival. It’s also a good place to start a literary tour of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, the driving route that stretches 1,600 miles (2,500km) from County Cork to County Donegal, to mark the 10th anniversary of its launch by Ireland’s tourist board, Failte Ireland. It’s a lot of ground to cover, so best to break it down into chapters.

The south-west

Mizen Head, West Cork
Mizen Head, West Cork. Photograph: Johannes Rigg/Alamy

The writer and journalist Standish O’Grady spent his childhood exploring the white-whipped ocean coves and rocky splendour of Mizen Head, in south County Cork. It’s where he ran free with his local school friends in the aftermath of the famine. As a child he also lived in a rectory on the Beara peninsula that backed on to a mossy cemetery, near the fishing village of Castletownbere. There’s a mass burial site for victims of the Great Hunger there and the crumbling ruin of the besieged Dunboy Castle stands close to the village, so it was inevitable that a bright mind would take an otherworldly view of his surroundings and its Elizabethan legacy.

Glengarriff, a sheltered coastal town that lies midway between these two windswept peninsulas, forms the opening scene for O’Grady’s historical novel Ulrick the Ready (1896). “The little flooded fiords shone between richer boscage; white torrents as musical danced down ravines more deeply wooded.” It’s almost a metaphor for O’Grady’s family ancestry that straddled both Gaelic and planter – prompting Lady Gregory to label him a “Fenian Unionist”. O’Grady’s publication of extracts from the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Ireland’s equivalent of the Iliad) and connection to both19th-century communities earned him the title of Father of Ireland’s Literary Revival, courtesy of WB Yeats.

Interior of John B Keane’s Pub, Listowel, County Kerry.
Interior of John B Keane’s Pub, Listowel, County Kerry. Photograph: Brickley Pix/Alamy

Farther west, the forlorn landscape of County Kerry’s Blasket Islands harboured writing talent, or seanchaithe (storytellers) for centuries. Writers such as Muiris Ó Súilleabháin (Maurice O’Sullivan), Tomás Ó Criomhthain (Tomás O’Crohan) and Peig Sayers recalled bleak days in this extreme westerly Irish-speaking outpost. Its harsh beauty is scorched by heartache and hardship; a place where funerals and emigration go hand in hand, or as Sayers put it: “it’s a sad occasion when a person leaves for America; it’s like death, for only one out of a thousand ever again return to Ireland”. It’s a recurring theme in west coast fiction and prose that’s reflected on the bare setting. Drop by the the Blasket Centre along the glorious Slea Head Drive on the Dingle peninsula to discover their stories before making a decision to head north by river or road.

The road to the ferry that crosses the River Shannon between North Kerry and County Clare passes through the twisting streets of Listowel. Early every summer there’s a literary festival in town but if you miss that, drop by John B Keane’s brightly painted red pub where he watched townsfolk pass by from a window, and penned tales of greed and property ownership such as The Field (1965). The play was inspired by a true local story about a fight to the death over a narrow strip of farmland, and was made into a 1991 film starring Richard Harris and Tom Berenger. On the Clare side of the ferry crossing, another land-obsessed writer, Margaret Brew, wrote fiction about Gaelic landlords returning with fortunes from America to reclaim birthrights in The Burtons of Dunroe (1880) and The Chronicles of Castle Cloyne (1886)

County Limerick

Old Mill pub in Croom.
The Old Mill pub in Croom, near Limerick. Photograph: Design Pics Inc/Alamy

If you avoid the ferry, slip on to the road less travelled to the old river mill town of Croom where a group of 18th-century priests and teachers, known collectively as the Maigue Poets, gathered in a tavern nightly to create witty, often whiskey-related, five-line stanzas. It’s this boozy setting, most likely, that made the world’s most famous form of poetry synonymous with Limerick. Twenty minutes north is Limerick City, usually associated with the literary heavyweights Kate O’Brien and Donal Ryanor Frank McCourt’s grey, rainy day blues streetscapes. Yet, in Angela’s Ashes, McCourt’s Pulitzer prize-winning 1996 memoir, a priest tells him as he sets sail heavyhearted to America, watching the last lights twinkle across the ocean from Mizen Head peninsula, that “you live in Los Angeles with sun and palm trees day in day out and you ask God if there’s any chance He could give you one soft rainy Limerick day”. Other writers such as Michael Curtin, with his dark, bittersweet comic take on Limerick life and its broad Georgian Avenues in his novels The Self-Made Men (1980) or The Plastic Tomato Cutter (1991), gained critical approval but scant international recognition.

County Clare

Corcomroe Abbey.
Corcomroe Abbey. Photograph: Collpicto/Alamy

“For millions of years, an ancient conversation has continued between the chorus of the ocean and the silence of the stone” (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara, 1996). Yes, JRR Tolkien may have spent weekends scampering across the smooth stone slabs in the North Clare landscape while he was an extern at the University of Galway, or the poet Seamus Heaney may have captured the wild autumnal spirit of the Flaggy Shore in Postscript (1996) – but the truth is that the Burren belongs to the poet, philosopher and priest John O’Donohue, at least in a literary sense.

As a curate in the heart of the Burren, he initiated a dawn mass at the late 12th-century ruins of St Mary of the Fertile Rock, or Corcomroe Abbey – and spearheaded the battle to halt the construction of a visitor’s centre built into Mullaghmore, a limestone hill in the park. In a tit for tat measure, O’Donohue was subsequently denied planning permission by local authorities to build a home on his ancestral land, but he now rests in eternal peace overlooking the wild Atlantic Ocean in Fanore.

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Nearby, Ennistymon, a small town on the fringes of the Burren, has the ancestral and holiday home of Dylan Thomas’s wife, Caitlin Macnamara – which is now Falls hotel. It overlooks the roaring cascades that flow through the town. A century earlier, in the same village, the bard and graduate of hedge schooling, Brian Merriman composed a notable piece of historical literature. The Midnight Court (Cúirt an Mheán Oíche, c1780) is a racy, 1,000-word parody of Irish mythology – a poem employing the dream vision technique.

County Galway

Castle Hackett.
Castle Hackett. Photograph: Michael Bz/Alamy

“The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.” At the end of The Dead, the hauntingly perfect short story by James Joyce, Gabriel Conroy’s mind wanders to a snow-capped cemetery beyond Galway’s medieval walls, often cited as Rahoon graveyard close to Salthill. It’s a peaceful setting, particularly compared with the nightly chattering that takes place among the undead in Spiddal-born Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s novel Cré na Cille (The Churchyard Clay). The satire plays out in the evening with a good dollop of typical west of Ireland bitching and feuding from beneath the soil of neighbouring graves in a Connemara burial ground. Ó Cadhain’s writing was obscured from the global stage (and censorship) through an invisible language barrier since it was first published in Irish in 1949. Almost 50 years later, the playwright and moviemaker Martin McDonagh launched his meteoric career in the Druid theatre, Galway City, with another remote Connemara setting and heaps of family squabbles in his 1996 play The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Moving north towards Tuam, Castle Hackett was the estate of the Kirwans, a family line of one of Galway’s 14 ancient ruling dynasties – or tribes. Emily Lawless lived there as a child after her father . She, like the gentrified West Cork writers Edith Somerville and Violet Florence Martin – who under the names EŒ Somerville and Martin Ross wrote Some Experiences of an Irish RM (1899) – fell on the wrong side of the Literary Revival for their pro-unionist airs. However, Lawless’s stories were different. Grania (1892) depicted the end of world landscape of the Aran Islands and County Clare as “that low line of islands which breaks the outermost curve of the bay of Galway, and beyond which is nothing, nothing, that is to say, but the Atlantic”. She also gave a largely unheard soundtrack to the voices of 19th-century rural girls. Later in life, Lawless moved to Surrey, but created a likeness of County Clare’s Burren in her garden.

The north-west

Sally McKenna’s statue “I’ll Send You the Fare”, at Kiltimagh train station, commemorating the artery that drained the west of Ireland’s population
Sally McKenna’s statue “I’ll Send You the Fare”, at Kiltimagh train station, commemorating the artery that drained the west of Ireland’s population Photograph: Design Pics Inc/Alamy

Head north-west to the shores of Lough Carra in County Mayo where the roofless, ivy- and lichen-clad ruin of Moore Hall stands in a thicket. It was owned by generations of the same Catholic family who operated the estate with an unconventional altruistic flair, yet it was still destroyed in the frenzy of country house blitzes in the 1920s. The writer and landlord George Moore describes the setting in The Lake (1905) “like a mirror that somebody had breathed upon, the brown islands showing through the mist faintly, with gray shadows falling into the water”. Moore rests, interred in an urn by a Celtic cross, just a short boat ride away on Castle Island. He’s probably more famous as the portrait subject for artists such as Manet, Degas and Jack Butler Yeats, but his numerous novels, blackballed into publishing obscurity by moralistic critics, dealt with the avant garde issues of the day.

Farther north, the lonely figure of a man grasping a suitcase stands in the centre of Kiltimagh. It’s a statue created by sculptor Sally McKenna titled I’ll Send You the Fare – a promise to those left behind. It almost personifies past times in this remote, handsome, hilly village overlooking the vast lush plains of east Mayo – it was the artery that drained the west of Ireland’s population from its train station (now a museum) in the early 20th century. The blind bard Antoine Ó Raifteirí was also banished from the town for upsetting his employer in the early 18th century and, as a result, he became one of Ireland’s last travelling bards. Ó Raifteirí connected verse after verse to big west of Ireland political, cultural or tragic events, such as Anach Cuain (1828), a poem dedicated to the 20 lost souls on a County Galway Lough Corrib ferry crossing. Slip down past the crumbling ruin of Annaghdown Abbey to a small pier where the boat departed. Nearby, a verse of the poem and the names of the victims are etched into a limestone monument. In Kiltimagh another McKenna statue, this one of Ó Raifteirí, depicts him finally home, resting by a tree.

Other locations beckon: WB Yeats country in County Sligo; or John McGahern’s pastoral setting in County Leitrim where “the hedges are the glory of these small fields”; or The Laurels, a small cottage in Glenties, County Donegal, which fuelled the imagination of the playwright Brian Friel. But first, veer west to the Erris peninsula in County Mayo. Interred at Holycross Abbey ruin, in what must be one of the most scenic cemeteries anywhere, is the poet Riocard Bairéad, who wrote Preab san ól (1788), one of Ireland’s most famous, anti-landlord, drinking songs. Be sure to stop in at McDonnells’ bar in Belmullet, where someone may well be belting it out: “Be you a landlord, duke or king, / Not a penny will go with you to the grave. / For that reason, the wisest plan / Is to drink heartily!”

It’s as good a way as any to finish off a literary tour of the west of Ireland.

The Guardian

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