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Natural Medicine: Hugo McCafferty’s Wild Atlantic Revelation

After nearly a decade soaking in the Mediterranean climes of Italy, writer and Dublin native Hugo McCafferty upped stakes for a return to Ireland. Here, he shares how the Ireland he was seeking was finally found on the Wild Atlantic Way, and the therapeutic and bonding effects it has had on his work, personal life, and family. 

When you take a trip along the Wild Atlantic Way, Hugo McCafferty is the kind of guy you want with you. Relaxed, nature-loving, and insatiably drawn to the untamed vistas of Ireland’s west coast, he’s an adventure aficionado in every sense of the word. 

Hugo is the native editor for independent.ie, and an avid writer, hill and mountain runner, and family man. He is passionate about the Wild Atlantic Way, a place that, just two years ago, he couldn’t wait to bring his little ones to experience for the first time. 

 


Hugo McCafferty

Back then, Hugo and his wife Sandra were living the expat life, coming up on a decade spent raising a family in Italy, a place Hugo describes as beautiful, when the tantalising job offer that would ultimately bring him home from abroad arose. With little idea what to expect after ten years away from Ireland and with three growing children in tow, the McCafferty clan packed up and headed home to Dublin, where Hugo had grown up.

“I was quite happy in Dublin,” Hugo recalls of his time before moving to Italy. “And in some way I was kind of half expecting to come back to the old life that I had but that wasn’t the case.” Instead, McCafferty returned to a capital city that had grown exponentially, making life there much busier on the whole. 

“There was a lot that I missed about Ireland but when I came back to Dublin I didn’t really find it,” he says. “It wasn’t until I went out to the west, where the pace of life slows down, and you have all the stimulus of the landscape - the colours, all that kind of thing - and you get talking to the people and they’re so friendly and you go, Ah yeah, this is it. This is what it’s all about.” 

Hugo says it’s all about connection to the landscape. “I don’t know how you can describe it. It’s almost a spiritual connection. It’s a sense of place, I suppose. It feels like home.”

 

Inishbofin, Galway
Inishbofin, Galway. Image by Hugo McCafferty

 

Although firmly settled back into Dublin life, since being back McCafferty takes every opportunity to make the trip to the Wild Atlantic Way, whether for a week-long family break or a short getaway on his own. “That’s what I’ve gotten into the habit of doing...whether it’s Connemara, Galway, wherever,” he says.

He mentions that this often elicits puzzled looks from east coast friends and family. “For the Irish people,” he observes, “if it’s not literally around the corner, it’s miles away! But to get to the Wild Atlantic Way, I’d think nothing of driving two and a half hours or so.”

“Our family didn’t get down there much when I was a kid,” he explains further, “but when we did it was special. Back then, it really was a world away. Before the motorway was built, it was a day’s journey to get down to Galway. Now, it’s practically on your doorstep.”

In search of the Wild Atlantic Way effect


“It might take a while to detach from your stress, but you do.” 

Hugo is talking about mindfulness, a practice that in recent years has become something of a trend, especially among the millennial generation. 

Although occasionally touted as a mere buzzword for soy latte types, it turns out that practicing mindfulness - focusing one’s awareness on the present moment and acknowledging any feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations that arise - can have significant therapeutic benefits. Among the positive effects reported, reduced anxiety, improved cognition, and decreases in depression and even blood pressure have consistently topped lists, and science so far seems to back these claims.  

What’s more, it turns out that spending time in nature has much the same effect. Recent scientific studies conducted in England, The Netherlands and Japan on the effect of nature on city dwellers have all returned similar results to those of mindfulness studies - essentially, being around wild, green things is insanely good for your mind, body and soul. It’s something Hugo McCafferty already knows. 

“It’s a combination of all these different things,” Hugo says, describing the natural elements he finds most affecting on the Wild Atlantic Way. “It’s the sounds of the waves, it’s the wind, it’s the sense of space - you can look around you and not see one building - and it’s nice to find the peace and quiet. You slow down immediately. You aren’t rushing anywhere. You’re at the mercy of the elements.” 

Achill Island, Mayo
Achill Island, Mayo. Image by Hugo McCafferty

 

“Today we’re obsessed with control and communications,” he goes on. “It’s lovely to have that taken out of your hands. Out west, you might get up to torrential rain so you’re not leaving the house. Or the sun suddenly comes out, so you’re compelled to grab that moment - it could be five minutes or it could be five hours - but whatever you’re doing you’ll drop it and take the sun.” 

It’s this live-for-the-moment outlook - and ensuing sense of peace - that the Wild Atlantic Way inspires that recently got Hugo interested in trying a new piece of brainwave-measuring technology called the Muse headband. Designed to be used when a person meditates or practices mindfulness, the Muse uses seven finely calibrated sensors to track the signals of your brain during different types of activity - much like a heart rate monitor.  

Muse measures your brain waves across three bands of activity - an upper, or active, band, a middle, or neutral one, and a lower band representing a relaxed state of mind. The information it returns, in the forms of detailed graphs, can reveal a lot about what’s going on behind the scenes and how different environments can affect people in different ways.  

Intrigued by the concept, Hugo decided to try one during a recent family trip along the route.  

“I just put it on as an experiment,” he recounts. “I wanted to see what the effect of the Wild Atlantic Way would be on my brain. I was quite busy with work before I left for the trip and took a few readings throughout the day. Then I wore it while I was driving down with the kids in the car,” he laughs, before explaining further.  

“In certain periods before the trip, my brain activity would register up in the active band and stay there for a stretch before falling back down into the calm band, which I took to signify a sense of balance.”  

But the Muse had a few surprises in store. 

“I had expected that once I got out to the West the readings would pretty much stay in the calm zone the entire time. It turns out I was much more stimulated and active-minded. The peaks were much higher and the troughs much lower, with much more frequency. Every time a big hit of stimulation would occur, it would drop almost immediately back into the calm band. So there was a lot more of what they call ‘recoveries’.  

Hugo thinks that’s the secret to the sense of well-being visitors to the Wild Atlantic Way experience. “That’s the interesting thing,” he says. “That because your brain was allowed to be active on that level, it was better able to let go and drop into deeper states of calm.”
 

Senses working overtime

 

For Hugo, truly experiencing the mindfulness-like effects of spending time on the Wild Atlantic Way is all about being alert to its unique sensory characteristics. “The sky is important,” he notes, “and the clouds. They’re constantly changing as you’re watching them. The colours of the sea, the light, the smells. They all inspire a sense of awe.”

 

Dogsbay, Galway
Dog's Bay, Roundstone, Galway. Image by Hugo McCafferty

 

“The sound of the sea, particularly where big waves boom as they crash into rocks and cliffs. You can hear that even from afar. The sound of the wind is really important. You come across these beaches that are so expansive, and there’s nobody on them and the way the sound carries on a beach like that is incredible...you could hear a child’s voice carried on the wind from two kilometres away. That’s really evocative.”  

Hugo’s also no stranger to a tickle of the tastebuds: “I’ll always eat fish - any kind. Crab claws, lobster, anything that swims. Because (out) there it’s so fresh. What I love is that the food is all locally sourced. Your fish is fresh out of the ocean. Your meat is from the local farmer. It’s simple, good food".  

“I was up in Sligo there on a foodie tour,” he tells, “and ate my way all over Sligo. It was brilliant. It was so amazing to get to meet all these local producers of everything you could think of, from home-baked breads to dry-cured venison. There were some great restaurants up there, too; after eating in one of them I came back about three kilos heavier. And of course there’s nothing like a Guinness in a pub on the Wild Atlantic Way.” 

 

Sligo
Sligo's Surf Coast: Image by Hugo McCafferty

 “The people, too, are so great to talk to,” he says, pointing to what he thinks, is the essential ingredient in the secret formula that makes the Wild Atlantic Way the special place that it is. “They’re gifted conversationalists. They have this lyrical accent, they love to talk, they love to put words together and they’re a joy to be around. (It’s) very stimulating. It’s like a music. It’s enchanting.”  

“There are other places in the world with similar landscapes, or similar types of people,” he explains. “But nowhere has both.”  

McCafferty reckons the Wild Atlantic Way’s nearness and power to ground oneself are just too good to let go of any time soon. “You know what,” he offers, “even if I don’t get down as often as I’d like, just knowing that it’s there is comforting. If I found out that I could never go back, I’d be bereft. I’d grieve for it, I reckon.”

Find out more about Hugo McCarthy or the Muse headband. To learn more about the Wild Atlantic Way effect, read our feature on how you can embrace the Wild Atlantic Way of life, and of course, start planning your trip.



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