© Kenneth O Halloran

Ireland’s wild west

  • TEXT STEFAN WAGNER
  • PHOTOS KENNETH O HALLORAN

Traveling along the edge of Europe, we visit curious birds, explore untamed nature and look deep into the Irish soul.

1

Cliff spotting

 The drop is alarming – 200 meters. High up on the cliffs, the fearful fall flat on their bellies to avoid giddiness. Down below, the Atlantic lashes at the coast as it has done for millions of years. Spray shoots ­dozens of meters skyward before crashing back down into the depths. Every year, more than 1.4 million people come here, to the edge of Europe. The short stretch of coast to O’Brien’s Tower is crowded with daring selfie-snappers, ornithologists with 3000-euro cameras and people who look like they’re gasping for breath but are actually just awestruck at this spectacular sight. Walk a mere ten minutes north or south and you’re ­rewarded with complete solitude. The tiny village of Doolin, a two-hour hike to the north, is considered the capital of Irish folk music, and the walk is well worth it. By the time you’re in bed, after three ­Guinnesses in McGann’s, O’Connor’s or McDermott’s Pub, the roaring wind, the crashing waves, the Irish fiddles and pipes all come to­gether in music you’ll never forget.

 

The entrance to the Otherworld is near the Cliffs of Moher

Tourists flock to the Cliffs of Moher

Tourists flock to the Cliffs of Moher

© Kenneth O Halloran
donkeys also change hands at Spancil Hill Horse Fair

Donkeys also change hands at Spancil Hill Horse Fair

© Kenneth O Halloran

2

The sound of 1000 HP

 Old Ireland is alive and kicking at Spancil Hill Horse Fair, which draws people and horses in their thousands. Old men in flat caps leaning on knotty walking sticks debate the condition of a pony’s teeth. The air is thick with the smells of chips (fries), droppings and beer. A hawker is selling horse blankets from the back of his van for 75, okay… 50 euros. Horses whinny, generators hum. Hundreds of animals change hands, but events also include baking competitions, a Miss Horse Fair contest, tug of war and a firework display. Most men are drunk by three in the afternoon. Despite the lively display, the tradition of horse fairs is under threat. In the 1950s, there were still around 300 such fairs, now there are only 50 left. The main ones are Puck Fair in Killorglin (County Kerry) in August, Ballinasloe (County Galway) Horse Fair in October and Spancil Hill (County Clare) in June.

3

Mingling for singles

“Tea or coffee?” the waitress asks Willie Daly when we meet up at 9 a.m. Daly, 74 years old with a thick white beard and sporting a tatty flannel shirt, gives her an incredulous look: “Whiskey, of course!” On the table in front of him is the legendary Lucky Love Book, a battered binder crammed with loose pages that’s all of 161 years old. Daly is a third-generation matchmaker, the last of his kind in Ireland. He arranged his first marriage at the tender age of 15 and has since notched up around 3000 more. “There used to be a great demand for matchmakers,” explains Daly, “because only the first-born were prime candidates for marriage, as they inherited the farm. The other seven or eight sons struggled to find brides.” So, originally a horse farmer, he began seeking out single women from the region and then from further afield, and eligible ladies would get in touch by letter, telegram and phone.

Since the 1980s, Daly has been organizing a matchmaking festival in Lisdoonvarna. For four weeks, 60 000 love-starved souls flock to the village (pop. roughly 800), where they attend concerts, parties, balls and pub evenings. “There are still so many lonely country farmers and lonely ladies in the towns,” says Daly, “I bring them together.” Wouldn’t it be easier to do it online?  Willie Daly frowns. “”Do you want to look a lady in the eyes, feel her touch, be enchanted by her dancing? Or do you just want to press a couple of keys?”

 

Willie Daly with his Love Book. He’s been a matchmaker for 60 years (

Willie Daly with his Love Book. He’s been a matchmaker for 60 years

© Kenneth O Halloran

4

Places of peace and power

There are over 3000 holy wells in Ireland, springs that have been revered as magical places since Celtic times and that are regarded as sources of energy, memorial sites and places of pilgrimage. The waters are reputed to have healing properties. One of the most famous is St. Brigid’s Well near the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. Next to the statue of the saint is the entrance to a tiny grotto. The walls are plastered with obituaries, statues of the Virgin Mary, yellowed newspaper clippings about fatal accidents, photos of Pope John Paul II, rosaries, plastic flowers, soft toys and candles. It smells slightly dank. Behind the grotto, the spring water drips into a basin full of coins and medallions. People once believed that places like these were the entrance to the Otherworld, which was populated by mythical creatures and dead heroes. After Christianization, the holy wells increasingly became places of pilgrimage. Holy trees grow behind St. Brigid’s Well, and the faithful tie colored ribbons and clothes to their branches; as they rot away, the illness of the person who tied them is believed to vanish.

5

Wild about seaweed

When 52-year-old botanist Oonagh O’Dwyer sings the praises of slimy plants growing on the rocks, you could be forgiven for thinking she’s describing truffles or fine red wine. “This is the land of plenty,” she says, pointing to the exposed coastline at low tide close to the surfer hotspot Lahinch. That dirty brown pile of algae and the sea grass clinging to the rocks hardly looks appetizing. Undeterred, O’Dwyer hops from one slippery rock to the next in her summer dress, a knife in one hand, in the other a basket to hold her pickings. “Look, there’s some dulse. Feels like leather, tastes of nuts – delicious!” She’s right, the sea vegetable tastes unusual, but flavorsome. “And over here, bladderwrack, perfect for hay fever and arteriosclerosis, try some!” With her Wild Kitchen walks, Oonagh O’Dwyer has been boosting the popularity of seaweed, which has only been hailed as a superfood in recent years. People living along the Irish coast have been aware of the culinary benefits of these sea plants for millennia.

SNN

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Whiskey casks

Irish whiskey is popular again. The Dingle “water of life” ages in casks for a minimum of three years

© Kenneth O Halloran

6

A taste of Ireland

In around 1870, 70 percent of all ­whiskey sold worldwide came from Ireland; one hundred years later, that figure had dropped to less than one percent. In 1985, there were only three whiskey distilleries in Ireland; now there are 17 and 15 planned.

When the Dingle Distillery opened in the pretty village of Dingle in 2012, it was the first newly built distillery in Ireland in 125 years. Craft distilling has fueled the revival of uisge beatha, the water of life, with innovative ideas. Michael Walsh, 27, is one of the youngest master distillers in the world. “The Irish whiskey business is a bit like a gold rush at the moment,” he says. “We’re struggling to produce enough to keep up with demand. Gin sales have gone through the roof, too: 98 percent more than last year.” Staff, whiskey seminar attendees and visitors fill the distillery hall. Things are going well, but Walsh is cautious: “Our product needs to mature in a barrel for at least three years – and who knows what people will want to drink in three or even 12 years.”

 

 Little Skellig (left) is home to some 50 000 gannets

Little Skellig is home to some 50 000 gannets

© Kenneth O Halloran
A puffin poses on Skellig Michael. The monks who inhabited the island centuries ago used to hunt them for food

A puffin poses on Skellig Michael. The monks who inhabited the island centuries ago used to hunt them for food

© Kenneth O Halloran

7

Monks and Jedi knights

How did a few dozen monks in tiny boats reach the rugged, seemingly impregnable island off the coast of County Kerry? How did they come to hew 600 steps into the rock and build beehive dwellings 200 meters above the sea? How did they survive with only rainwater, a tiny field and any fish or puffins they could catch? How strong must their faith have been to defy Viking attacks, disease, famine and winter storms for 500 long years. The monks abandoned the island in the 13th century.

The ruins of the medieval monastery on Skellig Michael were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Only 180 visitors a day are permitted to visit the rocky outcrop, and only between May and October and on calm days. Since scenes in the seventh Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, were shot on Skellig Michael, fans of the sci-fi saga have joined the history fans and nature buffs here. Some take photos of the guillemots, monks’ graves and sea views, others pay homage to the spot where Luke Skywalker hid from the Dark Forces for 30 years.

 


 GETTING THERE

Lufthansa will be offering weekly flights from Frankfurt (FRA) to Shannon (SNN) in western Ireland, starting in late April. Rent a car and explore the coast from there! To calculate your miles, visit meilenrechner.de