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Saints, seaweed safaris and sand art in Ireland's southeast corner

Squaring up to the Celtic Sea in the country’s south east, Ireland’s Copper Coast offers a romp through geological and human history. Turning back to nature, local foragers, chefs and artists are putting this lesser-visited area in the spotlight.

Tankardstown Copper Mine, on the road between Bunmahon and Kilmurrin Beach.

Photograph by Daniel Alford
photographs by Daniel Alford
Published 9 Mar 2022, 11:09 GMT

The October sun, pale as moonlight, is struggling to break through a wall of cloud that’s heralding a storm. Waves whip bad-temperedly off the Celtic Sea, crashing against dark fangs of rock and bringing a strong hit of brine to wild Garrarus Beach on Ireland’s Copper Coast. Exposed by the ebbing tide, the foreshore is webbed with seaweeds, which, to the untrained eye, all appear identical. 

“Look,” my foraging guide, Marie Power, whispers, “it’s like a miniature world; a sea garden.” A narrow beam of torchlight illuminates the frills and fronds of emerald sea lettuce, gold-green wrack, purple-red dillisk [dulse] and thick, amber ribbons of kelp. Crouching by the rock pools, Marie is a water-shoed queen peering gracefully into a chest of brilliant jewels. 

“We used to drive the length of the Copper Coast — before people started calling it that — every weekend when I was a child,” Marie says. “My mum would say: ‘This is the most beautiful place on earth, we don’t need fancy foreign holidays.’ I didn’t believe her, but she was right.”

Everyone raves about western Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, yet this coast is just as raw and fiercely lovely — and there’s barely a soul in sight. The result of volcanic activity that started on the ocean floor 460 million years ago, this spectacularly buckled and contorted coastline looks like a window onto the dawn of creation. Every rock, sea stack and pleat in the strata exposes another layer of geological history.
 
Marie has been a seaweed evangelist in these parts for the past two decades, reviving the age-old Irish tradition of gathering, cooking and eating the slimy stuff, which she swears is the secret to living to 100. “I’d eat seaweed as a child: dried dillisk, boiled sleabchan [laver] and carrageen pudding. But then it fell out of fashion as tastes became more sophisticated. People associated it with poverty. Fed it to their horses. Now I eat it all the time. It’s packed with vitamins and minerals, iron and iodine,” she enthuses, as we watch the waves, picnicking on rolls with dulse and sweet kelp crisps. The lunch of centenarians. 

The picturesque harbour of Dungarvan, a coastal town to the west of the Copper Coast.

Photograph by Daniel Alford

Running 16 miles east to west between Kilfarrasy and Stradbally, the Copper Coast UNESCO Global Geopark, in County Waterford, sounds small on paper, but feels far bigger in reality. Outside of summer weekends, the narrow roads dashing down to the sea are almost empty. Coves make deep thumbprints along the coast, forcing me to stop every mile or two to look out at surf-hammered Bunmahon; at Stage Cove, where copper was once loaded onto mighty ships; and at Dunabrattin Head, where a path whips along cliffs to a remote Iron Age promontory fort. On the tide-smoothed sands of Stradbally, birdsong floats from ancient sessile oak woods and a rust-coloured stream sneaks down to the fizzing Atlantic. Mine are the only footsteps I hear. 

“This coast has fascinating geology and industrial heritage,” says geologist Robbie Galvin when we meet at the Geopark’s visitor centre, set in a former church. “At Ballydowane Bay, you can see the remnants of an 18th-century silver mine in a sea stack. At Knockmahon, you’ll find the Pipes of Baidhb.” The latter are polygonal columns of rhyolite — the coast’s very own Giant’s Causeway, minus the crowds. “Prehistory is everywhere: in passage tombs, dolmens and one of the world’s highest concentrations of promontory forts.” 

We stop at the Geological Garden, in Bunmahon, where a pair of ogham stones stand, their runic inscriptions redolent of the early Christian language used by Celtic saints. “That’s the cursing stone,” says Robbie, nodding towards a modest-looking lump of basalt. “Legend has it your curses come true if you walk around it anticlockwise.” Nearby, the ruined engine house and chimney of Tankardstown, a 19th-century copper-mining town, appear spectrally lit in the gathering mist.

Today, those carving out a living on this coast work in tandem with nature and the tides. One such man is environmental artist Sean Corcoran, who creates huge, intricate, sand art drawings on the beach using nothing but a garden rake. His work has taken him worldwide, but his happy place is Kilmurrin Cove, with its vast scoop of golden sand.

Marie Power, also known as the Sea Gardener, finds some pepper dulse while foraging on Garrarus Beach.

Photograph by Daniel Alford

“This is my sketch pad,” says Sean, as we begin raking, intuitively echoing the contours of the coast; the sinuous shapes of fossils and seaweeds. “It started when I moved here 10 years ago. I was sitting on top of these cliffs, wondering what I could do, when I saw a horse being led in circles on the beach, leaving a trail of footprints and hoofprints. I rushed home, got my garden rake and started doodling on the beach. I love the transience of it: But the drawing doesn’t go away instantly, it leaves an imprint — like invisible ink.”

Out at sea, a few brave wild swimmers are diving into gaspingly cold waters. But on this damp autumn day, I prefer my seawater warm, and poured into a tub. 

In the southern crook of Dungarvan Bay, Helvick Head looms silent and mystical in the pearl-grey gloom. A few trawlers clank in the harbour, where I find Sólás Na Mara (‘solace of the sea’), a former fish auction house reborn as an intimate, family-run spa upholding the centuries-old Irish tradition of seaweed baths. Serrated wrack and other wrack seaweeds are harvested locally, then tossed into great cast-iron tubs filled with warm seawater pumped directly in at high tide.

“Seaweed has come a long way since it was used as animal fodder and potato fertiliser,” explains owner Éimhín Ní Chonchúir, as we look out across a foggy sky dissolving into a quicksilver sea. “It can work wonders on many conditions, from arthritis to eczema. People arrive unsure and leave surprised and energised.”

In my private, candlelit chamber, following a deep-cleansing steam in a hand-built, cedar-wood cabin, I sink into the seaweed bath. I tentatively drape tendrils across me at first, then I go full-on mermaid, wrapping myself entirely in the silky, sensuous ribbons, embracing the womb-like warmth and the tang of sea and watching the vapour rise in wisps like dancing spirits from the deep.

Sean at work on the sands of Kilmurrin.

Photograph by Daniel Alford

Sea and saints

At Ferrypoint, where the River Blackwater empties into the Celtic Sea, the day dawns as bright as a new penny. Rain has rinsed the land clean, bringing piercing blue October skies and sunshine so dazzling it makes me squint. Seabirds trilling overhead, a lane curls gently away to whitewashed cottages and low-browed hills: a tableau ripped from the popular imagining of the Emerald Isle.   

“Here, taste this,” says local forager Andrew Malcolm, ushering me over to the boot of his car. I dip my finger into a wooden box. “Dried hogweed seeds,” he grins. “It can be used as a cardamom substitute. And this feisty one here: water pepper.” A man walking a dog wanders past, eyeing us with curiosity. “God, he must think I’m a drug dealer or something,” chuckles Andrew. 

Buoyed by my trip along the Copper Coast, I’m keen to see more of what this overlooked stretch of southern Ireland has to offer and have linked up with Andrew, who’s combed these shores — and scoured its waters for marine-life sightings — for the past 30 years. 

“This is my supermarket. Everything I need is right here, just metres apart,” he says, handing me sandwort, a tiny perennial that tastes of broad bean and cucumber. “Try some sea radish pods,” he urges. “They’re nice and peppery.” “Like wasabi,” I venture. “We’ll do wasabi in a minute,” he adds, rushing over to a rock. “There’s your wasabi! Scurvy-grass. It’s packed with vitamin C and comes in all different heats, like chilli.” 

Andrew’s accent betrays him as Northern Irish. What brought him here all those years ago, I ask. “Whales,” he shrugs, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. “I joined the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group. The cliffs at Helvick Head are brilliant for whale-watching up close. We even get fin whales, the second-largest creatures on earth. 

A sheep spotted near the Magic Road, near the Mahon Falls in the Comeragh Mountains.

Photograph by Daniel Alford

You can see their six-metre blow 20 miles off. The old whalers wouldn’t touch them because they’re too fast: the greyhounds of the sea.”

Back at the car, Andrew flings open the boot and the smell of apricots wafts up as he reveals a basket brim-full of chanterelles he’s delivering to the Cliff House Hotel’s Michelin-starred The House Restaurant in Ardmore, five miles east. 

Ardmore is my next destination, too. As well as its food credentials, the village is the endpoint of a new hiking route, launched last summer. St Declan’s Way — stretching around 70 miles inland to Cashel, in County Tipperary — follows in the saint’s footsteps, treading the now legend-steeped path he took to meet St Patrick, and subsequently establish a monastery, in the fifth century.  

On a golden autumn day, the coastline near Ardmore seems touched by a godly hand. Picking up the trail on its final leg, I wind my way past gorse and bramble to St Declan’s Stone — miraculously carried across on the waves from Wales, or so the legend goes — and St Declan’s Well, where a couple from Cork are frantically filling bottles of the allegedly miracle-working holy water. To my right are fields where skylarks sing; to my left is the craggy, wave-battered coast, where I sight the rusting remains of the crane barge Samson, which ran aground in 1987. Far below, seals haul themselves onto rocks lapped by a pewter sea. 

The trail ends at Ardmore Cathedral, where St Declan’s monastery once stood. Fallen into ruin, the cathedral harbours the oratory where St Declan supposedly lies buried. Above it stands a distinctive round tower, where monks sought refuge and hid their treasures from raiders in the Middle Ages. 

Raiders also targeted the River Blackwater, snaking north. My guide, Eugene Burke, from Blackwater Eco Tours in Villierstown, rattles off quick-witted tales of Viking and Norman invaders as we boat along a forest-fringed sweep of tidal river as broad as a lake. The waterway has a quiet, secretive beauty, preserved over the ages by the aristocratic families whose grand houses line the banks: Italianate Tourin House, owned by the Jameson family of whiskey distillers; and flamboyant Dromana House, the abode of the Villiers-Stuarts. Around them are limestone cliffs and forests are so impenetrable, ancient and ivy-bedraggled, they seem part Amazon, part fairytale. 

“This is our jungle,” beams Eugene. “We see egrets and reed warblers, otters, white-tailed eagles and ospreys plunging down to catch trout. 

The view west along the Copper Coast from the headland above Bunmahon Stage Cove.

Photograph by Daniel Alford

You’ll never get closer to peregrine falcons than here — it’s breathtaking,” he sighs, as we putter along a stretch of river where schooners once transported coal and timber. Now, time has wiped the slate clean and nature has thoroughly reclaimed it.

As twilight deepens, I head to the Cliff House Hotel for dinner. At the helm of its lauded The House Restaurant is Ian Doyle, previously head chef at two-Michelin-starred Oaxen Krog in Stockholm, where the focus was on foraging, sustainability and minimising waste. Now he’s brought that smart Scandi ethos back home.

“Food should tell a story,” says Ian, who tells me his first forays into cooking involved making jam tarts with his mum’s pastry offcuts. “I work with local farmers and foragers. I use a lot of seaweed, too. It’s been cool in Nordic countries and Japan for years, but is now reappearing in Irish food. It’s part of our history. Who we are.” 

If the tasting menu is anything to go by, Ian has come a long way since jam tarts. Mussel puree with marigolds and sea beet; hen of the woods mushroom with fermented turnip and potato tea; just-caught Ardmore lobster; and blackberries with woodruff and lavender ice cream — each dish is harmoniously and meticulously composed and full of unexpected nuances.

To the lighthouse

A short drive the following morning takes me to Dungarvan, a coastal town and harbour to the west of the Copper Coast, where sea mirrors sky and the smell of wood smoke fills back alleys. A fortress guards the harbour and shop facades look freeze-framed in the 1950s. But its appeal comes mostly from its people — people who still pass the time of day.

Because of this, it takes me an hour to explore just half-a-dozen stalls on market day. I buy Knockalara sheep’s cheese, made with milk from the cheesemaker’s own flock, and soft, floury, white Waterford blaa rolls, a throwback to the bread introduced by 17th-century Huguenots (‘blaa’ being a corruption of the French ‘petit blanc’). Everyone wants to chat, but then hospitality has always been Dungarvan’s forte: legend has it that Oliver Cromwell spared the town in 1649 because a lady offered him a goblet of wine.

This isn’t the only local legend. Paul Flynn, chef-owner at Tannery restaurant, has long been the driving force behind the region’s exciting food scene. The lure of his homeland drew him away from the cut and thrust of London kitchens and back to Dungarvan in 1997. In a daring move, he overhauled a former leather factory, once notorious for its stink, and began cooking dishes that sang of the region, opening a cookery school and spearheading a food festival that attracted top chefs.
 

Andrew’s foraging supplies Michelin-starred The House Restaurant, in Ardmore, among other restaurants.

Photograph by Daniel Alford

“There was no food culture in Ireland when I was young,” Paul explains. “Food was plain. But I was determined to put a positive spin on it. The humbler the ingredient, the more it appeals; burly root vegetables cooked in brown butter, beef cheeks so soft you can eat them with a spoon. I make silk purses out of sows’ ears.”

Dinner is unforgettable: crab crème brûlée, roast monkfish with cep puree and pickled mushrooms, and slow-braised beef cheek with onion puree are profoundly flavoured and brilliantly executed. This is food to come back time and again for; food that touches upon southern Ireland’s soul. 

On clear days, the Comeragh Mountains are visible north of Dungarvan, but today I’m left pencilling them in as I drive across tawny, featureless moorland. I’m bound for the Magic Road, near the Mahon Falls, where, it’s claimed, drivers find their cars mysteriously rolling uphill when they take their handbrake off. Fairies and magnetic fields are the two explanations that have most captured the popular imagination; the real reason (an optical illusion) is rather more prosaic. In the misty drizzle, the mountains are hidden, the signs scant, the sheep skittish. When I finally find the Magic Road marker, I switch off the engine and wait. Nothing happens. I curse, reverse, pray, try again. The car jerks back a bit, but it’s so rapid I can’t swear I didn’t imagine it.

Leaving the fairies to their tricks, I follow the track that zigzags to the trailhead for the Mahon Falls, a short stomp away over bog and bracken. The plateau is rugged, whittled into form by glacial erosion. When the fog draws back like a theatre curtain, I fleetingly see peaks rising ragged above moraine-streaked slopes and the wildest of waterfalls. Columns and spires of rock punch above boulders that lie scattered across the land like a giant’s marbles. This, perhaps, is the real magic. 

Ireland’s oldest city, founded by Vikings in 914, Waterford stands 11 miles to the east of the Copper Coast. Its dashing Georgian heart — built on the sparkle of its crystalware industry — is located within its revamped Viking Triangle cultural quarter. This is one reason the Irish Times voted the city Best Place to Live in Ireland in 2021; the Waterford Greenway is the other. A 29-mile ramble along a former railway line, this off-road cycling and walking trail swings — via viaduct, castle and tunnel — through the foothills of the Comeragh Mountains, emerging gleefully at the seaside town of Dungarvan.

Guarding the southern entrance to Waterford, the Hook Lighthouse has borne witness to ferocious storms and waves of invaders and fortune-seekers over the past 800 years, among them Oliver Cromwell, who is thought to have coined the phrase ‘by hook or by crook’ to describe how he intended to take Waterford during the 1649 siege. They call these boiling seas the ‘graveyard of a thousand ships’, as it seems you can’t dip your finger into them without pulling up a wreck.

I climb all 115 steps to the top of the lighthouse for a view out to sea, but fog rolls in, draping itself across the coast. After descending, I walk along the foreshore, its black shale thumped by the Atlantic and veined with fossils 300 million years in the making. I watch as vapour rolls around the shadowy outline of the lighthouse, as if in the drowsiness of a dream. It’s like an image of a faded world. The Copper Coast that lies beyond, to the west, remains something of a secret, but for how much longer now the spotlight is swinging this way?

Hook Lighthouse was founded at Hook Head 800 years ago, making it one of the oldest still-operational lighthouses in the world.

Photograph by Alamy

Getting there and around

Stena Line offers 14 weekly ferry crossings between Fishguard and Rosslare, with an average sailing time of 2h15m. Cork is the closest airport to the Copper Coast. Ryanair and Aer Lingus operate flights from a number of UK cities, including London and Edinburgh. 
Average flight time: 1h15m.
Travellers will need their own set of wheels to explore. Car hire is available with Europcar in Waterford and with Budget at the ferry port in Rosslare.  

When to go

Southern Ireland’s weather can be erratic, but conditions tend to be driest and warmest from June to September, with temperatures of up to 20C. Winters can be wet and foggy, averaging between 5C and 8C but often feeling colder. 

Where to stay

Crew’s, Dungarvan, from €90 (£76). 

More info

Visit Waterford
Tourism Ireland

How to do it

Shearings offers a Waterford and Wexford for Solo Travellers tour, with five nights on Ireland’s southeast coast, including coach transport, accommodation and dinner, from £669 per person.

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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