The destination for history

People who made history on the Wild Atlantic Way


Much has been made of the scenic splendour of the Wild Atlantic Way. There is no doubting the beauty of waves rolling onto sandy beaches and the ocean crashing at the base of towering cliffs. But there is more to this coastline than just the beautiful scenery. 

Along the 2,600 km of Ireland’s west coast, the history of Ireland has been played out. From Kinsale in Co. Cork to the Inishowen Peninsula in Co. Donegal, many interesting people who played their part in Ireland’s history were born, or left their mark along the Wild Atlantic Way.

The first person worthy of mention is a queen from legendary times‚ who is said to be buried under the massive cairn visible on the top of Knocknarea, over looking Sligo Bay. Queen Maeve was the Queen of Connacht who went to war with her former husband (she had five in total) over a bull. The saga of the Táin Bó Cuailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) is the main story of the Ulster Cycle of Irish legend. Maeve stole the brown bull of Cooley and brought the wrath of the Ulster army on Connacht. Her army was defeated and the brown bull wandered back to Ulster. When she died it is said that Maeve was buried, in her armour, on top of Knocknarea and facing towards Ulster.

As Ireland was once known as the ‘Land of Saints and Scholars’, inevitably saints feature in the history of the Wild Atlantic Way. Although not a native of the Atlantic coast, or even Ireland, Saint Patrick fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights on the summit of Croagh Patrick, and if the legend is to be believed, he banished the snakes from Ireland into Clew Bay.

St Colmcille was a native of the west coast, and was born in Co. Donegal c 521. Saints are not often associated with wars, but Colmcille’s refusal to return to St Finnian a book he had borrowed and the copy he had made, led to a war which resulted in the death of thousands at the foot of Ben Bulben. Feeling suitably remorseful for the trouble he had caused, Colmcille left Ireland and went to Scotland where he intended converting as many souls to Christianity as had died in the Battle of the Books. He founded a monastery on the island of Iona and in Scotland is better known as St Columba.

Some of Ireland’s best known patriots were born along the Wild Atlantic Way. In 1775, Daniel O’Connell was born in a now-ruined cottage, just outside the town of Caherciveen in Co. Kerry. That the main streets of Dublin, Limerick, Sligo and Ennis are called after him, is testament to O’Connell’s significance in Ireland’s past. In 1829, due mainly to his efforts, the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed through the Houses of Parliament in London, releasing Catholics from the tyrannical Penal Laws, which had been in force for over a century. Thereafter he was known as ‘The Liberator’.

Another great Irish patriot, born within sight of the Wild Atlantic Way was Michael Collins. He was born near Clonakilty in West Cork, in 1890. He grew up hearing about the exploits of his fellow Cork man, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. A member of the Fenians, an illegal organisation agitating for Irish independence, O’Donovan Rossa was also local to the Atlantic coast, as he was born in Skibbereen, in 1831. In 1921 Collins was one of the signatories of the Anglo Irish Treaty. After signing the document, he commented to Lord Birkenhead, a co-signatory, that he had just signed his own death warrant. That treaty led to the partitioning of Ireland, the outbreak of the Irish Civil War and, as he had predicted, his own death. Michael Collins was killed by activists opposed to the Anglo Irish Treaty, on 22nd August, 1922.

The Fenians played a part in the story of another son of the Wild Atlantic Way. John Holland, who was born in Liscannor, near the Cliffs of Moher, in 1841, emigrated to America where his brother put him in touch with the Fenian movement who were interested in investing in an invention Holland was working on: a submarine. They saw the submarine as weapon which could be used to target the British Navy and further their fight for independence. They funded the first working submarine. However, Holland and his investors fell out with each other, and Holland sold his idea to the US Navy.

Not all Irish men were opposed to the British Navy. Tom Crean born on the Dingle Peninsula in 1877, joined the British Navy at the age of 15, and travelled to the Antarctic on expeditions with both Scott and Shackleton. While he did not join Scott on his trek to the South Pole in 1912, Crean was in the rescue party that found the bodies of Scott and his team who perished in a snow storm on their way back to base camp.

While Crean travelled to the ends of the earth and back, others never left Ireland, indeed, rarely went beyond their own district. Every Irish person who sat the Leaving Certificate exam between the 1960s and the early 1990s, read the life story of Peig Sayers. Born in Dunquin on the Dingle Peninsula in 1873, she married an island man and went to live on the Blasket Islands. Written in Irish, the account of her life, first published in 1936, is a social history of life on the islands.

These are but a few of the historical characters which make the Wild Atlantic Way so much more that just a scenic, pretty coastline.

By Helen Lee

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