IS there one single place that sums up Ireland?
Some people have their own, some may have one from a guidebook and others might think of a long gone location from their youth.
Most of us could easily list off a dozen contenders: the Ha’penny Bridge, the Giant’s Causeway, the mountains of Mourne, Shandon Church, the GPO, Croagh Patrick. You know the rest.
For me it’s tiny lay-by off a section of the crumbly R559 road, just past Ballyickeen, in Co Kerry. And as lay-bys go this one surely has one of the best rest-stop views in the world.
That’s because it sits atop Slea Head, the furthest point west in Ireland and the most western point of the European mainland.
The headland looks out over the Atlantic, west towards the windswept and now uninhabited Blasket Islands and south to Valentia and the Skellig Islands.
As my grandmother would say: “the next parish is America”.
I first visited this place as a toddler. Our family returned almost every summer of my childhood, travelling west from Tralee and picnicking past Dingle before reaching Slea Head.
One of my strongest memories of those years is my mother handing out ham and tomato sandwiches from the car boot, wrapped in tin foil, at the same spot we’d pull in at each year.
Over time my visits to Slea Head dropped off. I think I’ve been there once in the past 20 years, if that.
Until I returned last weekend.
I’d forgotten how the view looked, and felt.
I’ve been lucky enough to breath the air at the highest summit in Europe but I still think the draught off the Atlantic at Slea Head tops it.
As I stood there again last Saturday, on a rare fine day, it occurred me that this place is Ireland. Or as close as I’ll ever get to it in a single spot.
The sun, the mist, the rocks, the green, the sky, the sea, the place names (Ceann Sleibhe, Corca Dhuibhne, Dun Chaoin), the people who battled out a living here, buffeted on the edge of Europe, for centuries.
Some might call this concept ‘Mother Ireland‘. And this would be apt in my case.
Because Slea Head has always been a female place to me – my memories of visiting there are entwined with those of my mother and grandmother.
It was fitting then that when I travelled there last Saturday it was to show my wife Slea Head for the first time.
She’s not Irish by birth but she’s seen plenty of the country.
I doubt though, as she stood over the Atlantic, faced with the sweep from the Skelligs over the Blaskets to Dun Chaoin, if she’d ever seen anything as Irish as Slea Head.