The Wild Atlantic Way on Ireland’s western sea-board is the longest defined and most dramatic ocean drive in the world. From Donegal’s Malin Head at Ireland’s most northerly point, to Mizen Head in County Cork, the 1,500 mile tourist trail is a must see for ocean lovers with a sense of adventure. The secret to an amazing Wild Atlantic Way experience is to get off the beaten track, and go ‘Far From the Madding Crowds’ to places like Port and Glenlough.
Port and Glenlough
If you love the raw forces of the ocean, dramatic coastal scenery, and remote barren landscapes, then Port and Glenlough on the Wild Atlantic Way is definitely for you. This beautiful outpost is so remote, that more often than not, you will have only the sheep, sea birds and seals to keep you company. Forgive their suspicions; they don’t often see people out around these parts. Only the most inquisitive of adventurers have headed Port-bound.
The whole area is not for the faint hearted. Out here, there is no passing traffic, intermittent phone signal, and often, not another human being within a 5 mile radius. Two memorials commemorate the 19 souls who lost their lives when the merchant ship Sydney was shipwrecked here in a huge storm on October 16th 1870. This can be an eerie place; beautiful but beastly. Agoraphobiacs beware, for there is little here but dangerous cliffs, a single holiday cottage, small jetty, a few broken down wall-steads and nature. Lots of unbridled nature. All things considered, it is the quintessential secret gem of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Approaching from the lively and traditional town of Ardara, glacial Glengeash Pass signals departure into the wilderness. From here on, the road to Port could be considered one of the loneliest byways in Ireland. The Road to Glenlough is even more ghostly, for it does not even exist, except as the title of a traditional Irish fiddle tune. This is the place where reality meets fantasy.
On the final approach, the single-laned road carves downwards through a lonely hidden valley and eventually terminates at the spectacular inlet of Port. The cove at the end of the inlet has a stone beach, where thousands of large dorlins clatter together under the strong wash of each Atlantic wave. The outer jaws of the inlet consist of unusually jagged cliffs and stacks – one of which looks like a huge pillar. Local legend has it that this is the devil’s tail; protruding from the watery grave to where he was banished by Saint Colmcille.
A mountain stream falls over the the nearby cliff face; pure spring water cascading into the ocean. The fresh air is fused with the marine aroma of salt and seaweed. You can feel the sharp freshness of the air in your chest. The roar of the ocean crashing against the cliffs, is pierced only by the call of the odd seagull, puffin or gannet. And those clattering dorlins. You have arrived face to face with the immense power of the Atlantic Ocean on Ireland’s most isolated coastal frontier.
After you have marveled at the remote and rugged beauty of Port, the final leg of your journey to Glenlough will seem even more elusive. And to many it is. You will need to climb the very steep hillside to the northeastern side of the cove. There is also a pathway on the southwestern side, which meanders along the cliffs tops, past the Napoleonic tower, and into the village of Glencolmcille. But Glenlough; you really need to see Glenlough.
Only the fit and mobile will make it to the top of the hill which signals the start of your 3km hike to Glenlough. From up here you really get a sense of the isolation, and of how much of a battering the coastline takes from the north Atlantic storms. On a decent day you will be able to see up to 35 miles of ocean stretched out in front of you to the horizon. Next stop America. It is fascinating to watch the varying weather patterns across such an expanse of open water. The clouds, sunbeams and rain showers give the panorama such a vibrant light and color spectrum.
Extreme care is needed while walking along the clifftop. There is no clearly defined path, the cliffs of Port Hill drop 800 feet almost vertically into the ocean below and the bog ground cover sits on a gravel foundation, which can often become undermined due to the elements. Underfoot conditions, and the gradient of some of the slopes make for slow progress. You will also find it impossible to keep a constant pace, as the scenery (and your pumping heart) regularly demands your attention. But it is worth it. The scenery is amazing!
Tormore Island is particularly impressive. At 490 feet, Tormore is the highest sea stack in Ireland, and despite some tales of yore and possibly lore, it was scaled for the first time on August 10th 2008 by Iain Miller and his team. Miller, a former ships engineer, who had often admired Donegal from the seaward side, has since explored this coastline more than most. Although a highly skilled and courageous climber, he describes Tormore stack as being ‘very dangerous’. I wouldn’t disagree. Even from the top of Port Hill, simply looking over the cliff towards the stack is intimidating. From up here on a stormy day, it is impossible to hear the swells battering the base of the cliff. But you can see it, and feel it. Waves driven by the wind break upwards on collision with the rocks, and in storms I have witnessed the salty spray rise high over the cliff face and far inland, onto the barren hillside.
As you reach the top of the hill, you catch your first glimpse of the extended Donegal coastline to the north. Rossbeg, Aranmore Island and Loughros Peninsula come into view. Yet more stunning coastline. But there is an even greater spectacle laying in store, unseen as yet, for it is hundreds of feet below the cliffs in your foreground.
Glenlough Bay is probably Ireland’s most secret location, and one of the most beautiful. Unlike Port, which at least has a road, Glenough remains untouched by the modern world. There is nothing by which to time-stamp the bay or the valley above it. This is timeless, uninterrupted natural beauty. The otherworldly sea stacks catch your attention immediately. One such stack is almost too surreal, and you could easily imagine that some giant has left it there, carefully balanced, right on the shoreline. One of the stacks is aptly named ‘Ends of the Earth’. The raised beach system is also of great geological interest. While descending the cliffs to the shoreline here is very difficult, it is still possible. Iain Miller from Unique Ascent has written a guide to getting down onto the beach. Down here, you are far from everywhere. It really is such a magical treasure.
It was from a clifftop above this secret paradise, on a brisk November day that I sat on a clump of heather, looked out over the wild atlantic ocean, and had the most profound experience of my life. The ocean raged. But in the maelstrom I found calm; the most beautiful calmness I have ever experienced. The recipe for recreating that peace and contentment is today called The Paris Method™. I am in no doubt that this was the only possible place where I could have been given such inspiration, and the conviction to make use of it.
Why you will wonder, have you not seen images nor heard tales of this beautiful place until now? That little puzzle, is what makes Glenlough Bay all the more wildly beautiful. You have entered the realm of imagination: a place that captivates, revitalizes, inspires and slightly overwhelms.
Unbeknown to me at the time, inspiration had also been sought and granted here in the past. There are some unusual tales of people who have spent time here, seeking out the wild to inspire them and bring peace. While tales of Bonny Prince Charlie hanging out here while waiting for a boat to take him to France, deadly beasts rising from the deep, and sightings of the mythical island of Hy Brasil may be wildly exaggerated or fantastical, Glenlough’s past does reveal some characters.
Local man Dan Ward, AKA The New Zealander, returned from the southern hemisphere to Glenlough with his wife Rose in the early twentieth century. Here, they fulfilled their dream of ‘buying a valley’ and living in peace by the Atlantic ocean. They set up home in a simple stone dwelling with detached cow byre and set about tending their huge hill farm. But in 1926, they were joined by an unlikely visitor. American artist Rockwell Kent (who illustrated the most popular edition of Moby Dick), had arrived at Port in his quest to escape mankind. Finding 3 cottages there, he was crestfallen to discover that even ”at the end of the earth there was man”. He craved yet more isolation, reportedly pleading ”if we could only find a little house beyond mankind!” There was only one place to send a man with those wishes. Having been pointed up onto the hillside by locals, Kent explored the area and eventually found Dan and Rose Ward’s cottage in Glenlough Valley.
After some negotiations, Dan’s cow was evicted from the stone byre, which was then fixed up by the American. It was a far cry from the roaring twenties in New York. Kent though, had found exactly what he was looking for. The wild scenery and the ever changing skies over the Atlantic, provided an abundance of creative inspiration. While here, he painted some of his most famous and critically acclaimed work, most notably Annie McGinley – depicting the woman laying on her stomach as she sunbathed on Port Hill, Dan Ward’s Stack, and Sturrall. Kent’s happy and productive stay in Glenlough meant that when the next creative visitor showed up in south west Donegal, Dan Ward’s cottage came highly recommended.
Dylan Thomas, the brilliant but troubled Welsh poet/playwright, had been frogmarched to Ireland by his agent Geoffrey Grigson under doctors orders in 1935. Although a mere 20 years of age, the fledgling writer was already suffering from the effects of heavy alcohol consumption. Burned out, suffering from skin rashes, asthma and the excesses of his new found fame in the bright lights of London, he had been led to Donegal to recover from ‘the ravishes of drink’.
Grigson, stayed with Thomas for a short settling in period, before returning to London, leaving his client in peace (or so he thought) to produce some master works. Things did not go entirely to plan. Thomas was for a time content while staying alone in Dan Ward’s ad-hoc cottage studio, writing by morning and evening, and exploring the spectacular coastline in the afternoons by way of contemplative relaxation.
But the isolation, increasing boredom, and the temptation of the bottle soon got the better of him. By his own admission, as revealed in letters to trustee friends back home in Wales, his mood had quickly darkened to the extent that he was regularly haunted by twisted nightmares and self pity. He recounts a frightful night when he was haunted by ”Count Antigarlic . . . a strange Hungarian gentleman . . . coming down the hill in a cloak lined with spiders”.
Growing increasingly tormented, Dylan Thomas disappeared from Glenlough in late August 1935, leaving neither explanation nor payment for lodgings. Mr Grigson would later pick up the tab with Dan Ward, and retrace his client’s steps in a bid to determine what had come over the young poet in Donegal.
Rumor abounds regarding the time Dylan Thomas spent at Glenlough. It is thought that his regular nocturnal walks of many miles over the roadless hills to O’Donnells Pub in Meenaneary, were supplemented by a plentiful supply of local poitin. While the poems that he managed to write at Glenlough, including I, in my Intricate Image and the darkly twisted series of sonnets Altarwise by Owl Light had received moderate acclaim, they also served notice of his continued and ever more difficult battle with alcohol and ill health. Glenlough had not been as kind to Thomas as it had to Kent. The isolated cliffs and barren landscapes at Port and Glenlough had once again proven itself to be both beauty and beast.
The Wild Atlantic Way conjures images of land and sea colliding, nature as it’s most powerful, of rugged but beautiful coastlines, and peaceful remoteness. Port and Glenlough ticks all of those boxes, and much more. Better still, it is in Donegal, and as we all know, that makes it a wee bit extra special. Donegal puts the wild into the way, as evidenced by the description on Lonely Planet: ”Donegal is the wild child of Ireland’‘. Chronicles of Narnia novelist, CS Lewis, had his own word for it: ‘Donegality‘. Lewis created this word to describe the sense that there is something different about Donegal, that sets it apart from the rest of Ireland. Port and Glenlough is Donegality in the extreme. It is beautifully wild, and in local tongue: ”wild beautiful”. To discover which is wilder, you or Port and Glenlough, there is only one way to find out. Activate explorer mode.