Published: February 2008
Ireland Uncorked
It’s Ireland’s Gilded Age! So go on: Surf a mythic 40-foot break, kayak the crystalline coastline, and hike the unmarked wilds. But please, for your own good, don’t step in the fairy blood.
Text by Gregory Mone

The ancient rulers of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann, had a rough few millennia after losing control of the island. Some were banished, others turned into fairies, and a good many transformed themselves into horses and hid in a cave in the small town of Kilcorney, in the southwest. They remained there until one morning some centuries ago, when the sun shone into the cave so fiercely that the horses became crazed. They bolted out, galloped north up the coast, and leaped off the 700-foot-tall Cliffs of Moher into the bright green Atlantic Ocean below.

This was the last anyone heard of them until 2004, when whispers started to spread of a rare but world-class wave, called Aill Na Serracht (Cliff of the Foals), that breaks right where the horses plunged into the sea. The wave, in the right conditions, generates 40-foot walls of water that tumble over into barrels big enough to bury a Cadillac Escalade. Gavin Gallagher, a 27-year-old surfer who is making a documentary about the break, likes to think those mystic colts are providing the force. With that wild leap, the Tuatha Dé Danann granted Irish surfers a one-of-a-kind wave.

Just a few miles from Aill Na Serracht, at a popular surf break called Lahinch, I consider this legend as a wet wind blows foam and spray off the waves. What strikes me is not the tale’s provenance, but its perseverance. For years, stories of giants, ghosts, and leprechauns have been good business for the Irish. They’ve pulled in swarms of card-carrying Irish-American tourists like me. But the country no longer subsists on clover-eyed visitors trading cash for "Kiss-Me-I’m-Irish" T-shirts. In recent years the potent Irish economy has earned a fearsome nickname: the Celtic Tiger. Microsoft and Apple base European offices here. And the Irish, recently ranked the second most productive workforce on the planet, have been snapping up apartments in Manhattan and seaside properties on the Mediterranean. I figured they’d be too busy filling the countryside with fine restaurants and designer hotels to bother with mythmaking. I assumed the Tiger had left the legends behind.

Though I lived here in the late ’90s and still visit often, I’ve never seen Ireland’s wild side, the lands and lakes that birthed the grandest tales. I did go hiking when I lived in Dublin. Once. To a pub in the Wicklow Mountains. Ireland, in my defense, is an absolutely amazing place not to be active. Most tourists leave after just a few pub-packed days with little more than a sore stomach, a mild headache, and fiddles ringing in their ears. But that’s changing. Surfing, once a fringe pursuit, has exploded—a group here at Lahinch beach broke the world record for the number of riders on a single wave in 2006. Hiking, climbing, and paddling are also growing more popular, incrementally. Amateur mountaineer Domnick Callaghan says he might see two other people on a good rock these days instead of none.

I’ve come here with a thick wetsuit and sturdy boots to see how mythic, essential Ireland has weathered its newly wealthy and worldly people. Traveling with photographer Alex di Suvero, I plan to kayak the lake-filled southwest, scout out Aill Na Serracht, and hike a famously rugged, unmarked trail in Connemara. Investigating the supernatural dimension of these locales, however, could be dangerous (in Ireland, sprites have even been known to steal babies and souls). For guidance, Alex and I detour east to County Clare and the home of Eddie Lenihan, one of the country’s last seanchais, the trustees of Irish lore.

Lenihan, a 53-year-old native of Crusheen, lives at the back of a small development, his home surrounded by overgrown bushes and trees. Inside and out the dwelling resembles a hermit’s lair, which is fitting since the storyteller spends most of his time in another world. I’ve never met a seanchaí before, but I believe Lenihan is what one is supposed to look like. He is small and thin with big eyes that bulge behind thick glasses, a scraggly beard, and hair that belongs on a skeleton’s skull. Di Suvero and I visit for a good while in his lived-in sitting room, eating cookies and drinking tea. He pulls out Polaroids of the cave in Kilcorney from which the magic horses emerged. Before long we turn the subject to fairies, also known as the "good people" or the "other crowd." Lenihan says he’s never met any, but he sure seems to believe in them. He tells us a number of otherworldly dos and don’ts, and then carefully chooses his final words of advice: "You don’t feck with fairies."

Kayaking the Demon’s Coast

Clear, blue, and well hidden for a lake its size, Lough Hyne sits near the shore in West Cork, a former fishing hub that now serves as a base for aquatic adventures—kayaking, diving, snorkeling, and surfing. The great earthquake of 1755, which wiped out Lisbon, kicked up waves that deposited fine sand in the shallows, creating surfing beaches that mirror Northern California’s best spots. The lough is bordered on two sides by low, tree-covered hills that rise right up from the water’s edge to form a wave-free sanctuary for intermediate paddlers. There’s a yellowish strip of land in the middle—Castle Island—and below the lake’s surface, a snorkeler’s paradise where a thousand different kinds of marine life thrive.

We meet our guide, Jim Kennedy, a thickly built 52-year-old former flat-water kayaking champion and amateur poet, in Skibbereen, a market town in West Cork where the Irish nationalist Michael Collins had his last meal before he was shot to death in 1922. Until the recent expansion of the Cork airport an hour away, this block-and-a-half-long town had completely evaded globalization’s grasp. It’s hardly overrun now. "When we go out in our kayaks we don’t meet anyone for days," Kennedy said. "Five or six minutes out, you’re in the middle of the wild."

Ireland is unfairly overlooked as a winter destination: The February flights are inexpensive, and it rarely gets too cold (the warm waters of the Gulf Stream keeps the ocean above 40 degrees and the air around 50). But on this late January morning, Alex and I seem to have brought the chill with us. As we climb into our waterproof paddling gear, hats on heads, hands in gloves, it starts to snow. Kennedy is beyond surprised; he’s almost embarrassed, swearing that he can’t remember the last time it snowed in West Cork.

Ahead of us, the water floods through the Narrows, a boulder-edged, 490-foot-long channel that connects to the ocean. The cliffs rise higher to the east, and as we leave the Narrows behind, the water hisses and swirls but remains clear, with the lightest hint of blue. On an ebb tide, the lake rushes out into the sea, creating Class III rapids. At slack tide, the flow stops for a few minutes, then reverses direction, pouring back in.

We take turns backing into a tall sea cave just wider than a paddle’s length at its mouth. There are stories of fishermen who floated into the darkness of such caves and found mermaids and mermen—considerably less attractive versions of the sirens, pig-faced and redheaded. The great warrior Finn MacCumhaill, known as Finn MacCool, a man who could see the future when he sucked his thumb, nearly met his end in a sea cave after he hooked a mermaid while fishing for a bite to eat. And when Mick Shaughnessy, the hero of Flann O’Brien’s classic novel, The Dalkey Archive, ventures into one of these watery nooks, he gets to have a chat with St. Augustine, the patron saint of reformed carousers.

The cave stretches back some 150 feet, and the walls close in tighter as I reverse. When it grows too narrow to paddle, I use my hands to move, pushing the boat in farther. On Kennedy’s advice, I hold steady as a series of small waves flows out from the rear of the cave and focus on balance as I wait for them to pass. Soon I’m back out in the open, the snow has long since stopped, and the sun is warming us up. But I’m disappointed to have met neither mermaid nor saint. That’s when Kennedy speaks up.

"Laraigh Lionsigh the demon lived on Castle Island," he begins. Lionsigh, according to Kennedy, wanted to look human, so he grew his hair long to cover his donkey ears and used jellyfish to hide his red eyes—an early version of colored contacts. Still, he needed a haircut now and then, so he’d occasionally send for a boy to cut his locks, then kill the kid because he’d seen his ears.

Once, his ill-fated barber managed to swim away and whisper something to the reeds before dying. The secret was safe until years later, when Lionsigh was marrying a human bride on Castle Island. One of the musicians at his wedding feast found himself without an instrument. Improvising, he fashioned a flute out of a nearby reed, but when he tried to play for the crowd, all anyone heard was the voice of the dying boy saying, "Laraigh Lionsigh has donkey ears." In a fury the demon burst out of his castle, shot across the water, and exploded straight through the hillside, carving out the channel now known as the Narrows. The ocean raced in, transforming Lough Hyne from fresh to salt water.

Looking back out over the lough, I’m no longer feeling let down. We hadn’t just paddled across a lake. We had explored the landscape of legend. Before we go, I ask what happened to Laraigh Lionsigh. Matter-of-factly, Kennedy says, "He went to Norway."

Hiking Through the Fairy Blood

A "lovely walk" isn’t supposed to leave you halfway down a skinny and steep, wet and rocky slope spotted with moss and loose stones, hoping you’re still actually headed in the right direction. Yet that’s how a white-bearded, 83-year-old hiking authority named Joss Lynam described the Glencoaghan Horseshoe trail to me just a few days before I hiked it. In search of some expert advice on what the Irish call "hill walking," I visited Lynam, who is regarded as one of the fathers of Irish mountaineering, in his Dublin home, where he manages to ascend a set of narrow, rickety stairs to his attic office every day. Age and a bout with cancer keep him off his beloved Wicklow Mountains, but he has found his own way to continue climbing.

Up in his attic, Lynam pulled out a few old, hand-drawn topo maps and laid out some of the peculiarities of Irish trekking. As we spoke, I realized that hill walking isn’t as leisurely as the name implies. To me it sounds like something you do with your hands clasped behind your back and your eyes on the sky. As Lynam explained it, though, it can mean anything from a gentle amble to a down-on-all-fours scramble.

There’s also an element of DIY. Hikes often don’t start on a designated trailhead. There are plenty of marked, well-trodden trails, but to reach some of the best walks—including Lynam’s favorite, the Horseshoe, a seven-hour route up and down several peaks in Connemara, the rough rock country northwest of Galway—you just find a road close to the base of the hill and park off to the side. Before setting out, you knock on the nearest farmer’s door, kindly ask to cross his land, and, if granted permission, start walking.

In Ireland it’s easy to jam a few superlative and varied hikes into a couple days. So, en route to Lynam’s Horseshoe, my wife, Nika, her brother, Rob, and I scale one of Ireland’s holiest mountains, 2,510-foot Croagh Patrick, where my grandfather served as an altar boy at the small chapel on top some 80 years before. Di Suvero and I hiked Ireland’s highest peak, 3,415-foot Carrantuohill, at the base of which the enterprising Cronin family, who owns the surrounding farmland, recently built a tea room with a fireplace, toilets, and showers. We also explored one of the island’s strangest geologic formations, the Burren, a lunar landscape that resembles an enormous hilly parking lot from a distance and a dried-out seabed from up close. According to the locals I met, it was created when a battle between Finn MacCool and his rival over a barrel of freshly caught eels—an apparent delicacy—devolved into boulder tossing. Before long, MacCool had recovered the eels, leveled the area, and given Ireland a new tourist attraction.

The Horseshoe sits in Quiet Man territory, the setting of John Wayne’s brilliant celebration of Irish chauvinism. We break off the highway onto a tight, winding road and park at a turnoff a quarter mile from the nearest farmhouse. There are no tourist trails to avoid. The Horseshoe doesn’t even have an obvious starting point, so we just start walking. On advice from the seanchaí, Lenihan, I remind Nika and Rob not to step in any clumps of greenish, livery stuff. It might look like the remains of a horse’s lunch, but it’s actually fairy blood and shouldn’t be disturbed.

The walk turns into a scramble before we reach the first peak. We’re leaning forward, using our hands to climb the steeper stretches. Ascending the first rocky summit is tiring, the second exhausting, the third a bit dangerous. We’re covered in mist, as though the clouds have just dropped from the sky. I start wishing I had asked Lynam for more explicit instructions—"Do you guys think this is a ‘steep, rocky col’? What geologically constitutes a col, anyway?"—and hoping aloud that none of us accidentally steps in fairy blood. Temperature and visibility plummet, and we slowly move down the backside of the peak, praying that this slick, narrow path is taking us in the right direction.

Then the fog fades and the answer appears: No. Absolutely not. Had we gone a little farther down that path—which led directly to a sheer, thousand-foot drop—we might have unwittingly created our own legend: The Tale of the Dumb Americans Who Disturbed Fairy Blood and Fell to Their Untimely Deaths While on Vacation.

Instead, we reverse, recover, and, thanks to the newly clear sky, peer back over Galway Bay. The entire area looks flooded, as if the sea is reclaiming the land. Standing up here, feeling far removed from modernity but only an hour’s drive from trendy, café-filled Galway City, I’m starting to suspect that elemental Ireland—the lakes, mountains, and bogs—are shrugging off globalization’s advance without much trouble at all.

Surfing the Cliffs of Moher

Gavin Gallagher, the filmmaker documenting Ireland’s much anticipated break, is Irish in voice and look but very Venice Beach in attire. We pick him up along with his friend Fergus, an organic farmer/surfer, in Lahinch—a tiny town on the Atlantic once famous for its golf courses but now nearly as renowned for its waves—then take back roads toward the Cliffs of Moher. The green fields slope gradually upward, stop abruptly at the cliffs, then drop hundreds of feet into the sea. After four or five miles, we park and walk toward the edge, which feels at once like Ireland’s rooftop and the border between it and the rest of the world. Next stop: America.

Aill Na Serracht breaks about 20 times a year; its last session before we arrived had been suitably mythic. That night in November, a few hours after getting out of the water at dusk, 32-year-old John McCarthy phoned me and described the experience with a mix of reverence and glee. The best surfer at the break, McCarthy called the waves cartoonish in size, 25 feet high from trough to crest. "The noise of the barrel behind me was frightening, just a roar," he said. "It was a brilliant day."

In Cork, after our paddling trip, I’d surfed a few small but well-formed waves under a heavy sky in 40-degree waters. Our group of four included an Indonesian transplant named Oz who claims the waves in West Cork are just as good as at home. We were the only ones in the water, but at more popular spots, and in less wintry weather, you have to take your turn in the lineup just like at any good break.

Today the surf off the foot of the bluffs is nonexistent. We follow a hidden goat path down to get a closer look. The water washes over slabs of rock the size of tennis courts. Enormous boulders lurk just beneath the surface. Even the small rocks, which looked like pebbles from up above, are in reality twice as big as basketballs. The Cliffs of Moher loom overhead, and with my neck craned back, I feel like a tourist visiting Manhattan for the first time, transfixed by the skyscrapers.

We wait an hour for the fairy colts to offer up a gift before Gallagher suggests a fitting alternative. "I’m going to take you to the best pub you’ve ever been to in your life," he says.

Frawley’s is a tiny wood-paneled bar in Lahinch that fits just ten customers comfortably. Here you can track the rise of the Celtic Tiger by following the handwritten price list behind the tap: The last five prices for each drink are crossed out with a thick pencil, the latest one scratched in below. The proprietor, Tom Frawley, wears thick glasses and a tweed suit. When asked his age, he replies while pouring our pints, "I was born here 87 years ago, and I’ve been filling drinks for 78."

We finish our first pints quickly. Mr. Frawley gives our glasses a cursory rinse, refills and hands them back, and Gallagher starts to talk of that day in November when McCarthy and others rode Aill Na Serracht. The November session is still a hot topic in Ireland. The country hasn’t quite come to terms with the adventurous spirit of its younger generations, and nearly everyone I met had an opinion on the events of that day. The trouble started when a few of the surfers were briefly stranded on the beach and the Coast Guard sent a helicopter to rescue them. An officer descended on a ladder, offering to pull them out. But the surfers refused, insisting they were fine and had the situation under control. Eventually they duck dived out to safety.

Rumors soon spread that the group had spurned the rescue effort because they were worried the Coast Guard would make them ditch their boards. I heard from all sorts of people how this strange family of water lovers cared more about their precious equipment than their health. To some extent this might be true—boards don’t come cheap. Listening to Gallagher tell the story, though, I start wondering whether some other force was at work. Sure, maybe the fourth Guinness has something to do with it, but I can’t help thinking that the suicidal impulses of those mystic foals had something to do with the spirit of the surfers too. Rescue be damned: These men are Ireland’s new legends, its masters of the sea, and they can take care of themselves.

Driving a Detour Home

Whether the Irish recite or retell their legends straight-faced and believing, accompanied by a wink and a nod, or with tourist dollars in mind, the fact remains that these stories are their own. Ireland has a tragic and triumphant revolutionary history, but its mythic past, and the way those stories are sewn into the land- and seascape, is what makes it an enchanted isle. In a way it was silly of me to think a few extra Euros would compel the Irish to forget their roots. The leading political party, the Fianna Fáil, is named after Finn’s band of warriors.

Still, just a few hours before flying home, the answer to whether the Ireland of legend and the Celtic Tiger really can coexist becomes absolutely clear, unrolling before us in the form of a freshly paved highway. It’s opening day for a new section of the motorway between Galway and Shannon Airport. By going around several small towns instead of through them, the new road cuts 30 minutes off the trip. We’re cruising south in County Clare, halfway through the drive, when I realize that this is the same motorway that Lenihan, our seanchaí, had protested a few years ago. The original plan for the road would have called for the destruction of a large hawthorn bush reputed to be a meeting place for warring sprites. Lenihan, worried about the implications of offending the ancient race, gathered enough support to reroute the motorway and save the famous fairy bush. The Tiger, wisely, heeded one critical rule: You don’t feck with fairies.