Anne Hailes: Wild Atlantic Way a welcome boost for a welcoming town, Ardara

Teresa Gildea (right) with Emily Sweeney and Mairead Breslin from Shelia’s restaurant outside the Heritage Centre in Ardara

ARDARA is a magnet for people from all over the north and if there’s one place you’ll meet the world and his wife it’s the Heritage Centre in The Diamond – the guest book is full of international names and places and Belfast and Derry feature strongly.

I called in last week and got chatting to Teresa Gildea who meets and greets visitors, guiding them through the huge variety of walks, talks, festivals and outdoor events that seem to be going on all the time in this small town.

Summers have always been busy – well, ever since I can remember, and that’s going back over 40 years – but since the Wild Atlantic Way has come about, tourists have been flocking to travel this route stretching for 1,553 miles along the west coast, from the very top of the island to the bottom, from Malin Head in Co Donegal to Kinsale Harbour in west Cork.

For me this coastline, especially around Rosbeg and Portnoo, a few miles from Ardara, is unparalleled when it comes to continuous beauty and without doubt overseas tourists are taking the bait. All along the Wild Atlantic Way there are places of interest to visit and since it was launched in 2014 it has developed into a spectacular drive; you can do the whole tour or day trips, it’s all laid out on a detailed map that gives suggestions of what’s to see, where to see it and how to relax and enjoy the cliffs, the villages and cities, restaurants and picturesque little country roads.

Failte Ireland, the national tourism development authority, is to be congratulated.

Throughout the years Teresa has noticed an increased number of tourists in this usually quiet little town and even as we talked, four bikers arrived wanting information. They were from Salerno in Italy, dressed head to toe in black leather, futuristic helmets – and I guess none a day under 60! Two men and two women loving their adventure.

Please could they see the tweed being made?

“Just go over the bridge and you’ll come to Eddie's shop where he’ll be working the tweed. If he’s not there he’ll be having his lunch in his house next door, just knock and he’ll take care of you.”

Lots of laughter, halting English and miming and they left happy and taking with them a good story about Ireland.

“We have people from all countries although not so many from America. Used to be lots of bus tours. Maybe they’ll be back.”

Certainly I remember those days. Walking along the street, fresh fish being sold off a flat-backed cart, the clack clack of the looms coming from all directions, Margaret from Nancy’s Bar getting the cream to make a mid-morning Gaelic coffee and Americans spilling out of tour buses and into the shops.

One summer day I was chatting to the owner of McNelis' store when a very blousey woman from New York breezed in telling Mr McNelis at the top of her Bronx-y voice that she was a McNelis by birth so indeed, she screeched, she was obviously more Irish than he was. And Mr Kennedy who sold me sweets on the way home to Belfast, me in tears and him telling me: “You have to go away to come back.” How true.

Once the courthouse, the Heritage Centre reopened 25 years ago housing the story of Donegal tweed, from sheep to sweater to suit, a skilful weaver working on the traditional weaving frame. It’s a fascinating story and although the looms aren’t in the Centre any more, the history is still there in words and pictures and it’s worth finding Eddie Doherty or visiting Triona Designs to see weavers at work.

People People are kind and friendly in Ardara but saddened by the imminent closure of the Ulster Bank in the town. Big talking point. However, spirits are high. In the pouring rain I meet a smiling woman striding through the downpour with a wave and a "Great weather for ducks". I laugh and think less of the drenching.

Teresa talked about a camping family who ended up stranded when their car broke down. One of the locals heard about their predicament and offered them a field to pitch tents and his home for showers and food.

The Heritage Centre is very much the hub of the community. Local people appreciate the space for events, theatre, meetings, entertainment. And if you turn left just inside the front door before you visit the little museum, you’ll come on Sheila’s, a charming restaurant with homemade everything.

We waited for a short time because the chips were being freshly made to go with delicious lasagne. The sweets are irresistible and use local ingredients – apple tarts, blackberry pie and lemon meringue as tall as the Albert Clock.

Another thing I learned from Teresa was that Ardara is listed as the Home of the Festivals and certainly there’s no shortage of ideas, like the Cup of Tae traditional musical festival during the last weekend in April, named after John ‘The Tae’ Gallagher, himself a weaver and a renowned fiddler who bought his first fiddle in Belfast and whose family for generations made 'teas' on Fair Days.

John died in 2012 but his music lives on in both his recordings and the people he taught.

A couple of weeks ago 200 cyclists visited the town; walkers, fishermen and historians are only a few of the specialists who find fun and excitement in and around Ardara. The next big event is the Blue Grass Festival, July 14-16, music in every pub and bar, on the streets, homes and hotels and it’s worth noting that on November 10 a Matchmaking Weekend will be held – contact Thomas about this 00353 (0) 8724 63505. Now, there’s a thought.

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