While Ireland’s sweeping landscapes and rugged coasts are amazingly breathtaking, but what makes Ireland a truly special place is the culture and the people who call the Emerald Isle home. In this blog, we meet some of Ireland’s most intriguing local characters who often play a central role on our bespoke holidays across Ireland.
This is the second part of the series – if you haven’t had the chance, take a look at Part 1 of our Local Character Series to meet a world-renowned archaeologist and an epic sea stack rock climber!
From South Africa to Ireland: Exploring the best of Ireland’s waterways.
Not all of Ireland’s most interesting characters were born here – some have “blown in” from abroad.
One of County Sligo’s biggest champions is kayaking guide Barry Mottershead, born and raised in the vineyards outside Cape Town, South Africa. Barry’s life has revolved around the outdoors and water since childhood, and he has been a surfer and ocean enthusiast since he was 6 years old.
“I love the lifestyle that surfing affords me,” Barry recounts. “It is a humbling pastime that brings you closer to nature and teaches you to look at the subtle changes in weather, water texture, and wind. I use a lot of these skills in my kayak tours nowadays, and I love trying to decode the tricky Irish weather patterns from day to day.”
Sligo is a small county along the northwest of the Wild Atlantic Way. Though a coastal region, Sligo is off the traditional tourist route. A mysterious and undiscovered place full of ancient archeology, stunning hills and mountains, and the ruins of timeworn castles and abbeys.
To Barry Mottershead, the best way to explore is via the region’s waterways – rivers, lakes, the ocean shores. “I set up the business five years ago when I realised a lot of Sligo’s hidden gems are inaccessible to most travellers and holiday makers. The sea kayak is the perfect vehicle to access these beautiful places with ease, comfort and style.”
“I paddle out there nearly every day and know the area intimately, being able to pick the right route on any given day is a dark art around here and I truly believe my success is down to my knowledge of the weather, wind and landscape that I love so much.”
Perhaps because he isn’t originally from here, Barry has an unquenchable drive to explore his adoptive region – ideally from the water, of which Sligo has no limits! From glamping on a secluded island to kayaking under the stars to exploring inlets, crannogs and coves up close, Barry enjoys showing off the little-known wonders of Sligo’s waterways to all who visit.
“The coastal estuaries and inland lakes are home to so many forests and secluded islands and I now get to call these places my office! The look of enjoyment and accomplishment people feel at learning a new skill in such a beautiful environment is something that will never grow old for me,” he claims. “Lots of people go on to buy their own kayaks and canoes after they have done a tour with us, it’s a life changing thing for a lot of people. For me, it’s a dream come true.”
The Edible Ocean: Fishing and Foraging in the Kingdom of Kerry
Meet John Fitzgerald, seaweed expert, nature lover, and local historian. Lucky enough to live on the Wild Atlantic Way, John developed a deep love fishing and boating early in life, spending summers as a kid going fishing with his family.
“No matter how much you learn, there’s always more to learn,” John says. “My wife and I used to go fishing together – the sea brought us together. After a while we started paying more attention to the ocean and nature and started learning more about it. It was a snowball effect – the more we learned, the more we wanted to know! So I’ve been running seaweed foraging and fishing tours for 10 years now.”
Recently asked to speak at a conference about the Wild Atlantic Way and seaweed, he is renowned across the island as one of Ireland’s leading experts on seaweed and plant life in the ocean.
Not only can he give you the history of seaweed from ancient times to today, explain its natural properties and its health benefits, he can show you how to eat it! But his passion and knowledge extends past just seaweed. If you want to know what is edible that comes out of the Atlantic Ocean, John’s your man. From sea radishes to sea spinach and sea rocket, as well as coastal wild edible plants such as aster, rock samphire and seabeets – John loves to share these tasty green treats with visitors to the Kingdom of Kerry.
While some edible plants can be eaten as one walks along the shore, others need a bit more preparation. Some foraged plants can be combined with fish to create gourmet dishes like ceviche or sashimi, a picnic delicacy enjoyed on a deserted island or quiet beach.
Along the way, John showcases his other passion – that of local mythology and storytelling, bringing the landscapes alive with tales from Irish legend and history. Once John Fitzgerald gets to talking about local legends, the ocean and its plants, there’s no stopping him…
Lost in 300 years of rural agricultural tradition in the remote corners of Connemara.
“My name is Gerard Bourke, and I was born and reared here in the Lost Valley, where I farm livestock as my family have done for over three hundred years,” Gerard says as way of introduction. Tradition is important to Gerard as it is to most rural people in Ireland. Passed down through families and maintained by villages and communities, the people of Ireland’s rural regions such as the backcountry of Connemara have long been bastions of tradition.
Nicknamed the Lost Valley, Gerard’s farm has an amazing variety of natural landscapes and spectacular scenery. According to Gerard, it is the ‘Theatre of the Gods,’ and added to this it is also absolutely steeped in authentic Irish history. The Lost Valley is not only unrivalled in its extraordinary natural beauty but is arguably the finest memorial of the Great Famine that remains today, with its long deserted famine village and multitude of potato ridges that have laid undisturbed and unattended since the famine, in such a picturesque setting overlooking the Wild Atlantic Ocean. From its striking scenic beauty and rich cultural heritage to its insightful and interactive telling of life on the farm, the Lost Valley is an unforgettable immersive experience like no other.
“I absolutely love the splendour of this secluded valley which has been preserved and protected by our family for centuries,” he gushes. “As I said before, I’m very passionate about our history. Here in the valley we are walking quite literally amongst the relics of the past….”
Gerard Bourke is shaped not only by tradition and heritage, but also by the past, and its effect on the landscape and culture. “All the inhabitants including my own family were evicted in 1851 to create an extensive grazing farm,” Gerard explains matter-of-factly. “My great-great-grandfather Michael Bourke returned to work as a herd’s man and my grandfather eventually acquired ownership of the valley, but it has always been run as a grazing farm.”
For over three hundred years, the Bourke family trekked over a mile on foot across the rough mountain terrain of Connemara to reach the secluded farm. It was impossible to bring machinery into the valley, and so the history and the way of life of these Celtic inhabitants was written on the landscape and the Irish agricultural tradition in the Lost Valley remains pristine and untouched.
“It is a very great privilege for me to display and interpret this history for our visitors and observe them enjoy the natural beauty of the place,” Bourke concludes.
Be the first to hear about the latest trends, products and experiences from across the UK & Ireland with our monthly newsletter.