Secret Ireland: West Waterford
From crazy castles and great surfing to tempting local bread and beer, Pól Ó Conghaile finds plenty to satisfy mind, spirit... and stomach. Photography by Ronan Lang
The secret surfing spot
"There may be just seven of us locals surfing here." says Ronan O'Connor of Ardmore Adventures. So when we belly-flop into Whiting Bay for a two-hour lesson (€35, or €25 for kids aged from 8+), we practically have the mile-long beach to ourselves.
At first, it's bloody freezing. Ronan is the kind of guy who wears shorts in winter, mind you, and he ties his blond locks up into a ponytail, striding in as if it were Oahu.
The waves are fresh from hurricane season in the Americas, he tells me, and they lose little time in flushing us with cold water.
Once I warm up, the adrenaline kicks in. It has a niggling litter problem, but Whiting Bay is as deserted a beach as you'll find in the south east, and I come away with a solid tip for standing on the board: "Think of tying your shoe laces," Ronan says. "Bend down, and stick your arse in the air."
Details: Ardmore. Tel: 087 374 3889; ardmoreadventures.ie.
The sublime to the ridiculous
Many visitors come to Lismore for its magnificent castle, but did you know there's a stained-glass window by Edward Burne-Jones in St Carthage's Cathedral? Or that, hidden in a forest along the Ballyduff road, lies the most fantastic folly a traveller is likely to encounter?
Ballysaggartmore Towers were built in 1830 by Arthur Kiely-Ussher, a landlord who, as Seán O'Casey might put it, had notions of upperosity. Kiely-Ussher set about building a fabulously extravagant castle here, but spent so much on the gates that the building had to be abandoned.
It's a wonderful tale of hubris, especially from a time of poverty and famine. The towers themselves -- gothic mini-castles with several rooms you can walk through -- are just as silly today.
Details: Lismore; discover lismore.com.
The freshly baked bloomer
The bakers start early at Barron's. Firing up the old Scotch ovens and hand-shaping fresh batch, grinders and blaas while the citizens of Cappoquin are tucked up in their beds, their spoils are on the shelves by 8.30am.
I stop by in the afternoon, picking up a bloomer (€2.15) and a slice of chocolate biscuit cake (€1) for the road. The light-blue shopfront has an old-world feel, with sturdy measuring scales standing alongside stacks of christening cakes. It's been here since 1887, and there's a café too.
If you do buy a loaf at Barron's, a plum spot for a picnic is Glenshelane, 1.5km away in the direction of Clogheen. Beech, oak and sycamore line a river valley here, and you can pass beneath a lovely arched bridge on a rusty walkway, linking up with a forest path.
Details: Cappoquin. Tel: 058 54045; barronsbakery.ie.
The cúpla focail
Sitting pretty on the southern arm of Dungarvan Bay, Ring (An Rinn) is the only Gaeltacht in East Munster.
It's easily explored in a quick detour, and the drive out to Helvick Head brings me past a harbour lined with lobster pots and champion views of Dungarvan and the Comeragh Mountains.
An enjoyable stop-off along the way is Criostal na Rinne. Based in Baile na nGall, the shed doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside you'll find master craftsman Eamonn Terry cutting crystal at his diamond-tipped wheel.
Eamonn left Waterford Crystal in 1987, and visitors can watch him work (Monday-Friday, 10am-4.30pm) before browsing bowls, trophies, clocks and jewellery items, starting at about €25.
Details: 058 46174; criostal.com; anrinn.com.
The incredible corrie lake
Coumshingaun, a sensational blue pool stashed away in the Comeragh Mountains, would blow minds even among the wildest scenery of Norway or New Zealand. Surrounded on three sides by plunging ridges, to my mind it evokes an eerie volcanic crater, and legend says the basin is bottomless.
The lake is best reached from Kilclooney Wood, itself about 8.5km along the R676 from Lemybrien to Carrick-on-Suir. After a short forest trail, hop the fence and scale the grassy, boulder-strewn slopes -- getting level with Coumshingaun takes about 45 minutes; circuiting the ridges above took just under four hours.
There's scrambling involved, and be prepared to use your hands. The view from above is worth several days' hiking, however -- a desolate lake, black-as-sin, with cloudy shadows flitting across the surface and carrying on towards Dungarvan. Awesome.
Details: Kilclooney Wood; coillteoutdoors.ie.
The farm stay
Plonked between the Comeragh and Knockmealdown Mountains, Glasha Farmhouse resides at the heart of the Nire Valley. And right at the heart of Glasha Farmhouse resides one of the bubbliest bean-an-tís I've met in recent years.
Mrs Olive O'Gorman dishes up welcomes as warm as her home cooking (think buttery scrambled eggs wrapped in smoked salmon for breakfast, or rack of Comeragh lamb for dinner), and, with the Nire running right by the door, her dairy farm is a good fit for both walkers or fishermen. The Bridge Bar is no more than a three-minute walk away too, "though it might take you longer to come back", Olive says.
If you do stay in Glasha, request either the Bannard or Ballymakee rooms. Housed in the upper storey of a converted milk parlour connected to the house, they come with vaulted ceilings and Jacuzzi tubs. Two nights' B&B with one dinner costs €135pp.
Details: Glasha, Ballymacarbry. Tel: 052 613 6108; glashafarm house.com.
The magic road
Turning off the N25 towards Mahon Bridge, I link in with the Comeragh Drive, a circular route winding up through the Comeragh Mountains, skirting a landscape of rusty fern, rocky outcrops, intrepid sheep and the tumbling Mahon Falls before returning to the lowlands.
I can't resist stopping along the 'magic road', where it's said that if you pull up alongside the hawthorn tree (it's located about 150m after the first cattle grid) and leave your car in neutral, it will roll uphill.
The magic is an optical illusion, as becomes apparent when I get there. But despite doing my best to suspend disbelief, when I lift the handbrake, the car drifts stubbornly downhill. Harrumph!
The hawthorn tree itself is known locally as a fairy tree, and is hung with all sorts of colourful junk, from old socks to a catapult, shoelaces and car fresheners.
Details: Comeragh Drive; dungarvantourism.com.
The bottle of beer
Along with its blaas, Waterford has always shown a grá for bottled beer. Ordering a big bottle off the shelf is a classic Déise way of doing it, so I'm intrigued to notice bottles of Copper Coast Red Ale and Helvick Gold Blonde Ale have begun popping up in bars and restaurants around the county.
The craft beers are brewed locally by the Dungarvan Brewing Company, it turns out -- an enterprise that partners Cormac O'Dwyer and Tom Dalton converted from a hobby just this April.
I love the idea of a micro-brewery going up against the big boys, particularly when it taps into an old Waterford tradition such as this one. I grab a bottle of Copper Coast Red Ale; it pours the colour of a fox and tastes fruity, with a follow-up of caramel. It would go hand in glove with a nice roast at a local eatery such as Quealy's Pub or The Tannery, I'd venture.
Details: 058 24000; dungarvan brewingcompany.com.
The ham and cheese sambo
Old-time twirly lollipops, locally crafted chopping boards, huge jars of tea leaves, stacks of Arbutus breads, wine racks, olive oils and homemade ice-cream... if I wasn't hungry before I stepped into Nude Food in Dungarvan, I am now.
Nude is run by Londoner Louise Clark, and the deli area leads customers through to a small café at the back. It's a quirky set-up, with just eight tables arranged around a sitting-room lamp, a wide-open kitchen, and golden and aubergine tones on the walls.
I order a honey-glazed ham sandwich with in-house piccalilli and Carrigaline Farmhouse Cheese (€6), along with a bottle of Crinnaghtaun apple juice from Cappoquin (€1.85). The ham is thin, the cheese is fat and the dressing is perky and tart. A separate menu offers 'real food' for under-eights too.
Details: 86 O'Connell Street. Tel: 058 24594; nudefood.ie.
The hermit's path
'Lonely Planet' ranked Ardmore as one of its Top 25 Irish Experiences for 2010, but this serene little seaside village still feels undiscovered. Step from the street into the monastic settlement and it's as if St Declan, who founded the 5th-century site, only recently left town.
It's a sweet spot for a stroll. In the monastic site, among crooked headstones and yews brushed by prevailing winds, a perfectly intact, round tower rises to the skies alongside a cathedral dating from the 12th century. In the chancel here, you'll find two chunky old ogham stones.
From the village, follow the 5km cliff loop past St Declan's hermitage (the well inside is twinkling with coins), an abandoned watchtower and the wreck of a crane ship.
If you're still raring to go, continue along St Declan's Way, an ancient pilgrim route running all the way to Cashel.
Details: Ardmore; discoverireland.ie/ Ardmore.