When Americans travel to Europe, many flock to the antiquities, looking to trace the roots of Western Civilization. They tour the crumbling Coliseum baking under the Roman sun or the Acropolis of Athens standing timeless in the glare of Aegean heat.
But for this son of the Pacific Northwest, give me the lichen-encrusted ruins, ring forts, and standing stones weathering solemnly under the grey skies of the rain-lashed edge of Ireland.
The Wild Atlantic Way is a 1,500-mile route that snakes up Ireland’s west coast, threading together epic scenery, colorful towns and ports, beaches, farms, and lonely moors. It rises over barren mountain passes and hugs crumbling cliffs, knotted by looping turns with barely enough space for two vehicles to squeeze by. Flocks of wandering sheep slow traffic, and road signs offer directions in the traditional Irish Gaeilge language.
Millennia of various civilizations have left traces along the Way, including megalithic tombs, medieval castles, churches, and Bronze Age stone circles, plus Celtic, Viking, and Prehistoric artifacts preserved in rural museums. It is a bewildering array of rubble from across the eons. And better yet, most of them are scattered across farm fields and bluffs overlooking the ocean: beautifully situated, subtly signed, and free to visit —if you can find them.
For example, Kilmalkedar Church on the Dingle Peninsula was built in the 12th century in the Romanesque architectural style. Quite old indeed, until you learn that it was constructed atop a monastery founded in the 7th century by St. Maolcethair. Look around, Celtic crosses are jumbled together with a medieval stone sundial, an “alphabet stone” with Latin inscription, and a five-foot stone pillar notched in the mysterious Ogham script dated to 600 A.D.
Or the nearby Gallus Oratory, a structure shaped like an overturned boat that has stood overlooking the harbor at Ard na Caithne for 1200 years! It is constructed of nothing but precisely cut dry-stacked sandstone blocks and is amazingly waterproof.
The highlight of my trip exploring the southern end of the route was visiting the island, Skellig Michael. It was the last sailing of the season and the small boat rocked and rolled through 18 miles of Atlantic swells to a tiny landing dynamited out of the face of a sheer cliff. I leaped ashore and ascended 600 slippery stone steps upwards into the clouds.
At the top of this ragged-tooth of stone sits the well-preserved ruins of a terraced monastery founded around the sixth century. Remarkably, Irish monks scratched out a living here, living in stone beehive huts, fertilizing their garden with seaweed, mumbling their prayers. It is a forlorn place far removed from the distractions of the world. Exposure to the elements is constant, including rain squalls, hurricane-force winds, and waves breaking 45 meters on the unforgiving shore. Lord Dunraven wrote in 1871 that “the scene is one so solemn and so sad that none should enter here but the pilgrim and the penitent.”
That’s me—more pilgrim than penitent—wandering the mythic landscapes of western Ireland under leaden skies, buffeted by winds and salt spray, following my imagination through the stony ruins of Long Ago in a setting not that different from my home in the Pacific Northwest.
Christian Martin is a freelance writer in Bellingham. He specializes in outdoor writing with a focus on natural history, environmental issues and adventure travel. His most recent journey was to Iceland in June, where he hiked to the Geldingadalir volcano, soaked in countless hot pots and hung out with thousands of puffins.