Every year at about this time, a longing comes on me to travel west in search of solitude.
Wild camping. Going for early morning swims. Picking mussels off the rocks to cook with garlic, and wild thyme for my supper.
Sitting and being mesmerized by the sea. Watching gannets and terns dive and If I’m lucky seeing a pod of dolphins swim by my camp, which is set so close to the water that I can almost touch the waves with my toes as I sleep.
Drinking from the tidal spring well. Walking barefoot. Exploring small boreens on my yellow bicycle.
These are the things I dream about during the winter.
I usually stop enroute to visit those of my family who live in the west.
I am sitting drinking coffee with my sister in a cafe in a small town in the west of ireland.
Its a tiny establishment. Three bar chairs along a counter. A window seat with a small table in front of it. Two more mismatched tables and three seating areas outside. My sister loves this place despite the fact you don’t always get what you order.
Ask for an americano and you will most likely get a cappuccino.
Order a latte and you may get an americano.
The elderly man who runs the cafe is not interested in complaints and no one bothers objecting to what is placed in front of them.
The coffee is the best you’ll get around here and he knows it. He also sells olive oil from a friends olive farm in Italy. Local honey. Duck eggs, though today that area of the shelf is empty and a sign stating ‘ducks are not laying at the moment’ stands in place of the eggs, and bags of coffee.
The menu is simple. Bagel with cheese and ham. Tuna sandwiches. Homemade apple pie. Chocolate cake.
The place is busy and we are lucky to get a spot at the window seat.
My sister orders an americano for me and a latte for herself.
A cappuccino arrives, followed a few minutes later by a second one. Much cursing and banging can be heard between the making of them from behind the counter at the ancient coffee machine.
‘I’m getting a new machine tomorrow’ the proprietor tells us proudly.’ I’ll be able to make two coffees at the same time’
‘Good’ retorts my sister ‘Now maybe we’ll get what we order’. I look worriedly at his retreating back (I’ve never been thrown out of anywhere in my life) ‘Ah he’s deaf don’t worry’ she laughs ‘Do you know his goal is to get his clients chatting to each other. If you want a quiet cup of coffee forget it! though some days he’s not very successful’.
This seemed to be one of those days.
My sister and I are easy in each others company and laugh a lot. The other customers are a quiet bunch, mostly seriously reading their newspapers and rattling their spoons noisily. (all coffee’s are served in china teacups). After a few futile attempts to draw them together, the owner gives up and busies himself behind the counter.
Our conversation, meanwhile, turns from mundane chat to discussing our mad family.
‘My Tom thinks he got the sanest of us’ She grins at me over the rim of her coffee cup.
I am about to reply that, seeing as I have a job as a nurse in a busy surgical ward where insanity among staff would not be tolerated, maybe I am the sanest of us, when her mobile phone rings.
She listens attentively for a moment before shouting loudly into the receiver
‘Don’t worry, I have the semen in the jeep! I can meet you on the Leenane road’
You could hear a pin drop in the place!
I look around nervously hoping no one has overheard her. Everyone appears busy taking great interest in their teacups.
‘Or’ …She looks at me enquiringly with one eyebrow raised.
I shake my head vehemently. Nope! I do not want to spend the day helping inseminate mares through fair means or foul.
‘Ok! the Leenane road it is so, see you in about thirty minutes’
She throws her phone into her bag.
I want to tell the other customers in the cafe (is it my imagination or are they leaning closer in our direction) that my sister has a licence in artificial insemination but before I can open my mouth she is up off her seat.
‘Come on’ she shouts ‘I can leave you back at the house first’
I better mention here that not only are we mad but we are also a family of shouters.
A thing which we cannot be held responsible for!
We developed this as a necessity when we were young and spending our summers in the west.
As we traipsed across and spread ourselves widely over vast areas of mountain, lake and seashore, we needed to be able to communicate and so slowly we developed powerful vocal skills to enable us to do so successfully.
And the fact that our mother was taken away to be treated for TB for a whole year when we were young meant we learned to take responsibility for each others safety from an early age.
Though we could be far apart and busy at our various tasks of collecting shells or searching in rock pools or climbing high sand dunes or scaling cliffs, every now and again we would lift our heads and call out, checking on each others whereabouts.
The next morning I say farewell to my (mad/shouty) sister and head southwards.
The sheeffry hills are to my right, the partry mountains to my left.
I pass a large ugly blue sign with a WWW painted in white proclaiming the ‘wild atlantic way’. Why oh why did they not make them look more appealing? How difficult would it have been to curl each wave?
And there is an ‘S’ in brackets on this one for fear you didn’t know you were heading south.
For some reason it is placed in front of and blocking the view of a small lake whose water lily leaves are upturned prettily by the breeze. A water hen with her chicks is nosing noisily among the reeds (I know this because I stopped to look behind the sign)
‘Tell us about your hidden gems’ John creedon demanded of us recently on an RTE program in which he is travelling northwards in a old fashioned vw camper along this now famous way.
‘Your small laneways leading to hidden places’.
‘I will not’ I emailed him, ‘If I did, they would no longer be hidden, and once unhidden, the county council will see it necessary to place a tarmacadam car park. A height restriction barricade. A cement toilet block and some rubbish bins (to the delight of the crows) and that would certainly take the ‘gem’ out of them’.
‘And anyway go and find them yourself! In your little VW van!’
Of course I didn’t put it as rudely as that.
I wrote instead of my concern that we were jumping without caution into promoting tourism with this idea. (for which I am sure some young chap, who barely leaves his dublin office, except for his holidays which he spends in the maldives renting a house on stilts perched over crystal waters whose very presence is destroying the living reefs there, came up with, and was well rewarded for, the thinking of) that I feared the very thing they wanted to promote i.e the wildness of it would be destroyed and that I agreed with Jeremy Irons, who was interviewed on the program that the west coast should be treated carefully and with delicacy and that we should maybe get out of our cars and walk or cycle it.
Remember the story of the goose that laid the golden egg?
But maybe I am being unfair to Mr Creedon. Afterall I don’t have a TV and only happened upon one episode of series when dog sitting one day at my daughters house. Maybe later he did go off himself in later episodes down small boreens in search of hidden gems.
With no further ado. I head south along the wild Atlantic way and beyond it and set up my camp so close to the sea that my toes can tip the water from my doorway
The next morning I wake to be greeted by some startled sheep which appear to have been dropped from the heavens. They eye me and my camp nervously before making their way past and scuttle on to the beaches behind.
I take my morning swim, make and drink my coffee and pack the panniers of the yellow bicycle with some sustenance for my cycling day ahead.
Other’s seem to have started the day ahead of me.
I set off up the hill away from my tent and from here I can see my road in the distance.
The road across the bog from Ballinaboy bridge to Cashel is a delight. Not an electricity pole or pylon to antagonise the view. The wind is from the north west and behind me.
I sail along only having to pedal more strongly at some slight hills. I won’t bore you trying to describe it.
Here is what I see.
The country house hotel does the most amazing afternoon tea for the errant cyclist and the owner does not seem in the slightest bit perturbed by my wind swept hair or my grass stained knees (I have been taking a lot of photo’s)
I sit and spread thick cream and fresh strawberry on warm scones and try not to make too much slurping noises. The waiter, a friendly chap, who gives me as much attention as the owners of the maserati parked outside, fills me in on holy wells of which I have professed great interest.
He tells me of one up behind the graveyard.
‘Walk around it anticlockwise’ He instructs me. ‘And don’t forget to throw some coins in for luck. I’ll be up to fish them out in the morning’ He adds laughing
‘I’ll throw in a five euro note for good measure’ I say with a straight face.
He gets my joke and his booming laugh knocks the maserati owners out of their sunday stupor.
When I ask him what the well has the cure of, he thinks deeply, scratching his head.
‘It’s for all ailments’ He says at last.
I know this can’t be true but I go up to visit the well anyway.
(To be continued)