I first visited Ireland, land of my forefathers, in 2010, whilst on a 7 day trip with Paddywagon tours. Despite spending the whole holiday feeling miserable due to an ill-timed head cold, I was fascinated by the country; the rolling greens, the sheer beauty of every inch that we explored and the friendliness of the people that inhabited it.
“Where does our family actually come from?” I asked my father upon my return.
“County Donegal,” he replied. I made a mental note of it, vowing to visit Donegal on my next trip to the Emerald Isle.
We don’t know much about that side of the family. Four generations ago, they immigrated to Australia. These days, my Dad’s family are 100% Australian. The only relic of our Irish heritage is our height and completely unpronounceable last name.
Last year, I made a return trip to Ireland with my friend K and her friend S. We rented a car and spent two weeks driving around the country, stopping in as many towns as we could along the way. Most Australians have Irish heritage of some degree and we were no exception. We decided that we would make a point of visiting each town that our families hailed from, to see it for ourselves.
It was in Donegal that the Slieve League Cliffs were recommended to us.
“You have to visit them,” a local at a bar told us. “They’re beautiful. You’d be crazy to drive all the way out here and miss it.”
So that afternoon we ventured out to the cliffs to see them for ourselves.
Climbing out of our car, I inspected our surroundings. It was indeed beautiful, certainly one of the nicest parts of Ireland I had seen so far. We followed a path from the small car park out to the edge, where the land gave way to the ocean. Here the trail continued, winding up the mountain.
I realised with immediate urgency that I absolutely had to follow it. I wanted, no – I needed to climb these cliffs.
“All right, crazy.” K said, when I relayed my desire to her. “You go do that. I will be waiting in the car.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to join me?” I inquired, with a smile. She rolled her eyes. We had been friends for awhile and knew each other well.
I surveyed the mountain in front of me and a thought popped into my head. What the heck am I doing? I had been travelling around for a month by this point and was painfully out of shape. Walking up a flight of stairs gave me a near heart attack these days. Here I was, facing off the Slieve League Cliffs, the highest sea cliffs in Ireland.
Yet, the decision had been made. The only way was up.
I took it step by step, trying not to think about how much further there was to go. I had been surrounded by people for days now, cooped up in a car with K and S. Their company was pleasant, but it was equally as nice to finally be on my own, with just my thoughts and the beauty of the countryside. Every now and then I would stop, to catch my breath and take in the surroundings, smiling at the distant bleats of the sheep that populated the paddocks below.
Despite being larger and frankly more impressive, the Slieve League Cliffs are nowhere near as popular as the Cliffs of Moher. I was quite alone for the entire trek. On top of that, the further I climbed, the less of a path there was to follow. Signs below had clearly indicated that this was a “work in progress/climb at your own risk” type of scenario. A track had been plotted out, signified by the odd post, dug out dirt and piles of small rocks. I had to watch where I stepped, as not to fall in a hole, or worse – off the side of the cliff.
Eventually, there were no more steps left to take. I had reached the top. It was done and I still had at least twenty percent of my breath left.
So this is where my ancestors lived, I thought to myself.
As I looked out across the North Atlantic Ocean, I felt a pang in my chest. This sensation and I were well acquainted. It was that terrible mix of homesickness and love, that sweeps over you when you think about your nearest and dearest. It floods your system and threatens to break you with its intensity. My father’s face swam into my mind and all I wanted was for him to be there, to be able to share this moment with him.
The hardest thing about travelling is the people you leave behind. As William Hazlitt wrote:
I should like to spend the whole of my life in travelling abroad, if I could anywhere borrow another life to spend afterwards at home.
“I wish you were here,” I said, my thoughts still on my Dad. I like to think that in the moment, although he was thousands of kilometres across the planet, he heard me.