Monday 19 February 2018

Go West: travelogue of the Wild Atlantic Way

Non-fiction: Wandering Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way, Paul Clements, Collins Press, pbk, 320 pages, €12.99

Affable guide: Paul Clements at the start of his trip at Malin Head, Co Donegal.
Affable guide: Paul Clements at the start of his trip at Malin Head, Co Donegal.
Wandering Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way by Paul Clements
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Five years ago, Paul Clements wrote a travel book titled Burren Country, which I enjoyed very much (possibly because I live just on the edge of that wondrous moon-like landscape - I'm looking at it right now as I type).

The Belfast-based writer delivers a follow-up which touches on the Burren once more, but spreads its field of enquiry a good bit farther, north and south. As the name suggests, Wandering Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way is a travelogue from Donegal to Cork, the full length of our western coast.

The Wild Atlantic Way, when first announced a few years back, received the usual brickbats and reflexive snarkiness from press and public: it's just a stunt/a marketing wheeze…and it'll never catch on.

As to the former complaint, well, yeah: that's what tourism is all about, geniuses, trying to attract visitors and bring in revenue. I'm pretty sure it works like that all over the world.

And as for the latter, au contraire: the Wild Atlantic Way has been a pretty decent success so far, with further growth expected. Clements quotes a New Zealander, who runs a café in a Galway village with his Irish partner whom he met in Zimbabwe (how's that for the global village in action): "We had a party of French yesterday and they were all wearing (Wild Atlantic) Way jackets - it's the new Route 66."

In hindsight, that's no surprise; the only surprise is that it took Bord Fáilte this long to come up with the concept. The Atlantic coast is dotted with fabulous places to visit, top to toe, so it makes sense to join them up, making something thematically coherent out of it.

Which, in a way, is what a good travel book does, too: the writer takes you on this journey with them, wherever it may be, but gives it a shape, a pattern, a feeling of wholeness.

Clements tells us that he previously did this jaunt, down the length of the western coast; that was in 1991, when both man and country were much, much different. Yet some things endure, and will always endure: the thrilling enormity of the ocean, the rugged beauty of the landscape, the cute villages and friendly people, the idiosyncratic and alternately appealing/infuriating Irishness of it all.

The author begins his trip at Malin Head. This is the island's northernmost point - even higher up, ironically, than the Northern Irish statelet next door to it - and more importantly, is namechecked in 'This is a Low' by Blur, the finest song of the Britpop era (Suede excepted). Clements includes this factoid, which alone would earn the book an extra star on Goodreads or Amazon.

Before hitting south, he introduces us to Manannán mac Lir, the Celtic god of the sea, who he hopes will serve as "presiding spirit (and) protector" on the trip. We'll renew acquaintances with this "rogue, charlatan, wizard, necromancer… mighty warlord" in an epistolary coda.

In between, Clements diligently tracks through Leitrim and Sligo, Mayo and Galway, Clare, Limerick, Kerry, before reaching Kinsale and the end of the line. It's an epic enough journey: the Wild Atlantic Way is around 2,500km in length.

This book didn't quite grab me the way Burren Country did, I must confess - maybe it lacked that very "local" focus, I'm not sure - but as an introduction to the west coast, it's well worth the read. And Clements is an affable, thoughtful guide, always alert to the small, telling detail (I was flabbergasted to discover that Donegal contains one-third of Ireland's entire coastline), and relating it in unfussy but nicely turned prose. The photos are a lovely touch, too.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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