Copper Coast UNESCO Global Geopark as seen from a high angle

Uncovering the hidden legends along Ireland’s southern coast

The uncrowded inlets and towns tell stories of Ireland’s ancient past, volcanic activity, Vikings, and even magic.

Ireland’s Copper Coast is named for the mining that took place here in the 19th century. Remnants of that time, such as this ruined mine, can be seen at the Copper Coast UNESCO Global Geopark, above.
Photograph by Andrea Pistolesi, Getty Images

Waves whip off the Celtic Sea, crashing against rock and bringing a strong hit of brine to the wild Garrarus Beach on Ireland’s Copper Coast. Exposed by the tide, the shore 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 flashlight beam illuminates the frills and fronds of emerald sea lettuce, gold-green wrack, purple-red dillisk (also known as dulse) and thick, amber ribbons of kelp. She 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 be 100.

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.

(Ancient secrets lie beneath this Irish bog.)

“This coast has fascinating geology and industrial heritage,” says geologist Robbie Galvin when we meet at the Copper Coast UNESCO Global Geopark’s visitor center, 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 counterclockwise.”

In the southern crook of Dungarvan Bay, a few trawlers clank in the harbor, where I find Sólás Na Mara (meaning “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 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 fertilizer,” explains owner Éimhín Ní Chonchúir. “It can work wonders on many conditions, from arthritis to eczema. People arrive unsure and leave surprised and energized.”

At Ferrypoint, where the River Blackwater empties into the Celtic Sea, the day dawns as bright as a new penny.

(How masked singers are carrying on an Irish tradition.)

“Here, taste this,” says Andrew Malcolm, another local forager. 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.”

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. I’ve linked up with Malcolm, 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 meters 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 chili.” 

Back at the car, Malcolm flings open the trunk and the smell of apricots wafts up as he reveals a basket brimming with 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. In addition to its food credentials, the village is the endpoint of a new hiking route. 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, which supplies allegedly miracle-working holy water.

The trail ends at Ardmore Cathedral, where St. Declan’s monastery once stood. Fallen into ruin, the cathedral harbors 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. 

To the lighthouse

A short drive the following morning takes me to Dungarvan, a coastal town and harbor to the west of the Copper Coast, where sea mirrors sky and the smell of wood smoke fills the air. A fortress guards the harbor and shop facades look freeze-framed in the 1950s. But its appeal comes mostly from its friendly people.

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.

On clear days, the Comeragh Mountains are visible north of Dungarvan. 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.

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 theater 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. 

(Look inside the Irish ‘hell caves’ where Halloween was born.)

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 crystal 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. It’s 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 at the seaside town of Dungarvan.

Guarding the southern entrance to Waterford, the Hook Lighthouse has witnessed ferocious storms and waves of invaders and fortune-seekers over centuries, 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.

Hook Lighthouse was founded at Hook Head 800 years ago, making it one of the oldest still-operational lighthouses in the world. 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 shore, its black shale thumped by the Atlantic and veined with fossils 300 million years in the making.

Kerry Walker is a travel writer based in Wales. You can find her on Twitter.

This article is adapted from a story published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (U.K.).

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