On Erin’s Sands

“They have it good,” my fellow walkers greeted me as I hiked out on the foreland above the silver strand at Trabane in County Donegal. They nodded downward to a school of dolphins that had been playing for an hour in the mirrored bay about half an hour after sunset. “They come here often,” one said “And can you blame them?”

The pristine horseshoe strand way below was empty save for a romantic couple walking hand in hand barefoot in the pinkish surf. White woolly sheep huddled against the hillside were glad of the warmth in the August air. The remote sandy cove at Trabane is near the ancient village of Glencolumbkille (birthplace of St Columbkille himself) in undiscovered Co. Donegal. The steep steps downward spiral to as idyllic a patch of sand as you could find anywhere on Earth.

If the green of Ireland’s flag is her verdant valleys, then the orange is her miles of golden beaches. Lashed over the millennia by wild winter winds and giant ocean seas, the island is blessed with a dearth of diverse seascapes. From the multi-indentations of rock and stone to sheltered secret sandy coves to wide-open beaches there is a variety of marine vistas to satisfy all visual tastes.

The beaches of Ireland are in fact not all golden, but offer a myriad of hues and textures. Irish light is extraordinary and unexpected all year round and a slight cloud break even on the grayest of days can send an incandescent sheen on sand and surf that seems straight from heaven. At either ends of the day the range of reflective golds, oranges, pinks and reds of a summer evening will fill you with wonder at the natural beauty of it all.

Trabane was a chance discovery and your best experiences during your stay on the Emerald Isle will be unplanned. You might follow a local bodhreen (a narrow Irish rural main road with grass growing in the middle) that seems to have no beginning or end and then suddenly round an unbelievably narrow bend the road opens to a small sheltered cove. For a second you think you are the first human visitor to the isolated spot in millennia. Then you eye a battered old currach (traditional fishing boat) lying there that seems half abandoned, but may well have been used to catch a salmon last week.

The Corkonians look like Southern Europeans as they bathe on the strand at Barley Cove near Mizen Head in the heat of the midday sun. Notorious for having some of the finest weather in Ireland, the locals in these parts often think of themselves as Mediterranean. Barley Cove is one of a series of fine bathing beaches in West Cork.

For fans of watersports, Ireland is an undiscovered secret. In the not so distant past, a friendly rural cyclist might look at you sideways as if you were an alien if you passed by him with a surfboard under your arm. Times have changed and the self-same cyclist now may direct you to the nearest isolated beach with the best wind and wave you will find in Europe. World-class conditions abound on one of Ireland’s myriad of beaches whether your favoured sport is surfing, windsurfing or the increasingly popular kitesurfing. Shore fishing is excellent all round Ireland and the fish are wild and plentiful.

Horses have a place of special esteem in Irish lore. They were worshipped as Gods by the ancient Celts. The sea god Manaan Mac Lir rode his mythical chariot of white horses across the top of the sea. The magnificence of the modern thoroughbred with jockey mount meets the sea God’s chariots of surf at Laytown Beach Races in County Dublin held each September. This is the only official beach horseracing meet in Europe. As well as being for hardened punters, horseracing in Ireland is a family event. No place is this more obvious than at Laytown where children build sandcastles and play in tidal pools right by the course as man and horse thunder by. The homage to the sea is that the event waits until the white horses recede with the tide out along the strand before the mortal horses do battle. There are many equestrian holidays available throughout the country both north and south that offer rides among the magnificent beaches of Ireland.

Sandymount Strand is the closest beach to Dublin City centre and perhaps the most famous in Irish fiction. In James Joyce’s monumental novel, Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus walks into eternity on Sandymount Strand. At low tide, the water disappears past the horizon. Ships, ferries and sailing boats seem to glide like mirages across dry land. In the distance, Dun Laoghaire port simply sparkles in the late evening sun. This is the place where the city folk come to stroll and chat on summer evenings and at weekends or even during bracing winter days.

Curracloe Beach in County Wexford is the site of the greatest carnage depicted on film. The historic opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s epic movie Saving Private Ryan, which depict the World War II Normandy Landings and stars Tom Cruise, was filmed on this golden beach. The habitual bathers were moved on and banished from the set during filming (some got jobs as extras) and the place was littered with the debris of war. All of this has been removed and Curracloe has been restored to its former glory as a bathing area. For film buffs, the beautiful Coumeenole, the most western beach on Erin’s isle, in Co. Kerry was symbolically the setting for Ryan’s Daughter starring John Wayne.

On some Irish beaches you need to keep vigilant for passing traffic as you take a spin in your car on the hard sand. The posted speed limits are 15mph so they shouldn’t be going to fast and the danger is minimal. Be wary of an incoming tide though, as you can easily get stranded. It is not just cars you need to watch out for on Irish beaches. You might hear a shout of fore as you amble next to the rolling waves. Beach golf is not a serious sport in Ireland, but links golf certainly is and many of the world’s finest courses hug the Irish coastline. There is no guarantee that the odd errant drive will sail past your ear on a tailwind towards the sea.

The competition to claim “the longest beach in Ireland” plays into that national stereotype of being prone to slight exaggeration. The beautiful Banna Strand of County Antrim is definitely a candidate. It stretches from Magilligan Point all of seven miles to the magestic stretch of sand at Downhill below the mysterious Mussenden Temple. The clifftop temple is a great place to catch the sunset over sand and surf. In Wicklow, there are claims that Murrough Beach that stretches ten miles from Greystones to Wicklow is longest. This is more shale and rock and stone than strand in most places. In Kerry, the Kingdom county, the claim is that the beach at Brandon Bay stretches twelve miles uninterrupted from the Maharee Peninsula to Cloghane Village. There is no competition for the shortest strand in Ireland, as Inch on Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula wins hands down. All is never as it seems in the Kingdom where an inch is famously said to be a mile even though the strand at Inch is actually about four miles long.

The competition for “best beach in Ireland” is also fierce and it is such a subjective and impossible choice. One thing is certain and there is no doubt, the best beach in Ireland is the one you are on.

Some beaches for surfers: Easkey (Co. Sligo); Ballybunion, Brandon Bay and Coumeenole (Co. Kerry); Portrush beaches including Whiterocks Bay and the East Strand (Co. Antrim); Lahinch (Co. Clare); Tullan Strand (just north of Bundoran) and Portnoo (Co. Donegal); Tramore (Co. Waterford). Go to http://www.isasurf.ie for further information.

Some beaches for windsurfers: Roundstone Beach (Co. Galway); Dollymount Strand (Co. Dublin); Portrush and Portstewart (Co. Antrim); Castlegregory Beach in Brandon Bay (Co. Kerry). Go to http://www.windsurfing.ie for further information.

Some beaches for kitesurfers: Benone Strand (Co. Derry); Murlough Beach near Newcastle (Co. Down); Dollymount Strand and Sandymount Strand (Co. Dublin); Keel Beach on Achill Island (Co. Mayo); Tramore (Co. Waterford); Inch Beach (Co. Kerry). Go to http://www.kitesurfing.ie for more information.

Some shore fishing beaches: Dingle Peninsula Beaches, particularly Brandon Bay and Inch Beach (Co. Kerry); Culdaff Beach on the Inishowen Peninsula (Co. Donegal); Portrush beaches (Co. Antrim); Dundrum Bay (Co. Down); Morriscastle Beach and Cahore North Beach (Co. Wexford); Greystones South Beach (Co. Wicklow); Dollymount Strand (Co. Dublin). Go to http://www.sea-angling-ireland.com for more information.


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