Circumnavigating an entire country in 10 days might sound daunting, but with two great ocean roads Ireland’s 3000 kilometres of coastline is a worthy challenge.
Tackled at the height of spring, the long hours of sunlight make for fruitful days of driving bookended by spectacular dawns and sunsets. The Coastal Causeway begins out of Belfast, with roads that hug the cliff face as you chart the parabola of coastline that makes up the country’s north-east tip.
It culminates in the Giant’s Causeway, a unique landmark beloved by geologists and Led Zeppelin fans alike. Folklore ties this step-like rock formation to the legendary giant Fionn mac Cumhaill, who supposedly built a great passage to Britain to punch-on with a Scottish rival. It’s a little more fanciful than “molten Basalt cooling and cracking millions
of years ago”, but it’s hard not to feel positively Lilliputian hopping about these huge, tessellating columns of volcanic rock. In a time before science and Wikipedia, I’d probably chalk this one up to giants, too.
Continuing north, Derry offers a subtle lesson in the region’s political fault lines, now thankfully more of a cultural frisson than decades past. Though its official name of Londonderry dates back to the 15th century, the tendency to shake off the cumbersome prefix (and the yoelk of English rule it conveys) is all but pervasive. While a 2007 High Court ruling stymied the council’s attempt to officially abbreviate the name, signage south of the border defiantly dubs it ‘Derry’, and even heading into the town we spot a few Londonderry road signs “corrected” via black spray paint.
From there, it’s a few hours’ drive to Malin Head, the northernmost point of the Isle. Usually home to a dramatically craggy cliff-side walk, we find it temporarily blocked off for the construction of a movie set that a bemused security guard insists is not the Millennium Falcon. Though rarely a symptom of a thriving economy, tax concessions for filmmakers have helped attract a bevy of hot properties to the country from Game of Thrones to Star Wars, in turn giving many spectacular, ancient natural wonders the extra wow factor of once sharing a frame with Sean Bean.
Past the border near Derry the Coastal Causeway rebadges into the more fancifully titled Wild Atlantic Way, signposted by the route’s distinctive symbol – a striking horizontal white zig-zag against a blue backdrop. The road sails through the lake-spotted plains and gentle hills of the country’s north-west as towns grow smaller and the spaces between them larger. It makes for tranquil driving, perhaps the kind of landscape that might inspire bestselling new-age dinner-party music. It’s Enya country, literally, with the singer’s childhood home in County Donegal just one of the small anonymous villages dotting the countryside.
A less-is-more counterpoint to Australia’s eight Twelve Apostles, Downpatrick’s Head and its key feature Dún Briste are striking in their solitude. A towering sliver of rock showing off millennia of layered sediment, like many things in the region Dún Briste has a legendary connection to St. Patrick. It’s here that old Pat stranded a pagan leader who either declined or couldn’t quite grasp the tender embrace of the Holy Trinity, which though harsh is more than could be said for Pat’s snake policy.
The Wild Atlantic Way’s signage at times favours a “choose your own adventure” philosophy, which may lead to a few tense moments as highways narrow and shorten into winding, U-turn-proof roads that feed into tiny coastal towns. Grateful as you might be for the pleasant diversion The Way has picked out for you, it could end up tacking an extra 40 minutes to the day’s drive as you wind down the west coast.
Beloved by tourists for centuries, the Cliffs of Moher are a humbling stretch of sheer vertical rock. Anxiously peering over the edge as we walk down the path from the Visitors’ Centre, we encounter cows grazing mere metres from the edge. They’re either oblivious or uninterested in the spectacular rock formations, let alone the deep existential insignificance you can only really feel in the face of such natural grandeur.
To trust the guiding hands of expensive Visitors’ Centres or HBO location scouts is one way to navigate Ireland’s most arresting features, but they’re even better enjoyed in the context of thousands of kilometres of foaming ocean, geological marvels and whimsically odd mythology. After all, you don’t want to be livestock shuffling about on the cliff top without appreciating the drop. And, if the hours on the road do wear you down, the Coastal Causeway and Wild Atlantic Way offer some of the most spectacular side-of-the-road power-nap spots in creation.