John Manley: Please save us from the Sanitised Atlantic Way

John Manley

John Manley, Politics Correspondent

A relative late comer to journalism, John has been with The Irish News for close to 25 years and has been the paper’s Political Correspondent since 2012.

It's not always a céad míle fáilte on the Wild Atlantic Way
It's not always a céad míle fáilte on the Wild Atlantic Way

One of my most memorable trips to the West was naturally one of the first. It was May 1974 and my dad took his three sons, of which at nine I was the youngest, fishing and camping on Lough Corrib. Jim regarded the area around Headford in north Galway as part second home, part playground, so we piled into the Ford Anglia and borrowed a boat on arrival. We left mum and dog at home to face power cuts and whatever other misery the Ulster Workers' Council Strike could inflict on a largely peaceful, suburban Downpatrick.

With its sunny days, calm waters and a sole brown trout, the trip was the beginning of a love affair with the West that endures to this day. I have returned on dozens of occasions since, each time variously seeking out new places to walk, fish, swim, cycle, eat, drink and sleep, as well as reacquainting myself with the familiar.

Sometimes the nights were spent under canvas; once in a lighthouse; many's a time in a hotel, B&B or rented cottage; even once or twice in the driver’s seat of a Ford Escort; and most recently in a campervan. When I visit somewhere new I buy a map beforehand and familiarise myself with the area's place names and geography – the towns, villages, beaches, hills, clifftops, loughs, islands, and this being Ireland, the bog land. The pubs, restaurants and campsites are these days found online.

Like ever increasing numbers, I've been drawn by the landscape, the Atlantic coastline and mountains in particular. A family bond and the county's often bleak beauty means Mayo will forever be my favourite but set me down pretty much anywhere between Inishowen in Co Donegal and Rosscarbery in West Cork and I'll be happy.

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These days, most of the distinctive bilingual fingerpost signs of raised black lettering on a glossy white background have disappeared. Instead, along the narrow roads lined with meadowsweet, willowherb and purple loosestrife, where sheep roamed freely and elderly-looking middle-aged men in flat caps and blazers once raised a welcoming finger without fear of being cleaned, you'll frequently encounter signs with a zig-zag symbol (vvvvv), followed by a less cryptic N or S.

This of course denotes the Wild Atlantic Way, a tourism trail-cum-driving route stretching more than 1,600 miles from Muff in Co Donegal to Kinsale in Cork. As a marketing tool it's proved a huge success, so much so that the social media generation have internalised it, referring to the Wild Atlantic Way as an actual place – Slí an Atlantaigh Fhiái, as Gaeilge. It’s even been proposed that it be extended to routes along the Atlantic coastline on the other side of the border, if for no other reason than to wind up Gregory and Ian Óg.

For some #WAW is now a rite of passage, with landmarks on the road trip ticked off and posted on Instagram or Twitter – Malin Head, Keem Bay, Killary Harbour, the Cliffs of 'Mohair'. Then it's back in the car, follow the signs and repeat until complete, not forgetting those recurring en route encounters with mirror images of yourself.

I get the attraction, to a degree, and understand the economic benefits, but can’t help feel this is a 21st century Irish myth, only much less romantic than the Children of Lir. In reality, there’s very little ‘wild’ about the Wild Atlantic Way, apart perhaps from the proliferation of one-off non-vernacular housing. It’s essentially a tarmac conveyor belt, designed for private motor vehicles, with sporadic provision for cyclists and very occasional public transport.

Try and explore any further than the car park or lay-by where you take that obligatory photo and you’ll often find the way is forbidden, a common occurrence in the Republic, where landowners often display an exclusionary tendency associated more with their English predecessors. There’s also an increasing number of signs prohibiting wild camping.

Then there’s those velvety soft mountainsides in the background of each selfie that are sustaining a mere fraction of their biodiverse potential, having been grazed to within an inch of their lives by sheep of questionable worth.

As someone whose ancestors were effectively forced to leave Co Mayo 150 years ago, it’s great to see the West has again risen but much of this renaissance is based on selling a generic concept where sedentary tourists are spoon-fed a superficial, disneyfied version of a rich and diverse culture that dates back to before the Celts. Perhaps it should be rebranded the Sanitised Atlantic Way?