Lonely Planet Writer

An art project has captured the faces of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

Weaving over 2500 kilometres of beautiful Irish coastline, since its launch in 2014, the Wild Atlantic Way has proven to be an incredibly popular tourist route. And while it boasts world famous points of interest like the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare and Skellig Michael in County Kerry – which recently captivated the world when it featured in Star Wars: The Last Jedi as Ahch-To, the ancient home of the Jedi – one photographer is travelling it on a unique mission unrelated to sightseeing; to document the people that live there.

Portraits of people from Leap in West Cork being displayed in the town.
Portraits of people from Leap in West Cork being displayed in the town. Image by Shay Hunston

Created by freelance photographer Shay Hunston, the People of The Wild Atlantic Way project sees him meeting with individuals in a number of different villages and towns, learning their stories, and creating black and white portraits of them. “The project is a celebration of the wonderful people of the west coast of Ireland, an open-minded, independent, welcoming, tolerant people with great community spirit – a people free and wild at heart, living on the edge of the world. The opportunity to travel the route from County Cork to County Donegal and to put together a collection of photographs of these incredible people inspired the project,” Shay told Lonely Planet Travel News.

Caroline O'Donnell from Ballydehob Cork
Caroline O’Donnell – Ballydehob, West Cork. “My grandmother once told me that as long as I have music and laughter in my life I would never grow old. I think about her every day and try not to grow old. She also said never marry a man you haven’t seen drunk… I’m still thinking about that advice.’
Image by Shay Hunston

Starting in Kinsale, Shay has already completed the West Cork section of the project, and is currently working on County Kerry. As well as the picturesque, coastal route acting as the backdrop for the venture, the towns along the Wild Atlantic Way have also proven to be perfect for exhibiting the portraits, with many of the shopkeepers and publicans displaying the pieces in shop windows, while community events have also been organised to showcase the likenesses of the townspeople.

Dickie O’Sullivan ‘Poke’ – Bantry, West Cork. “I grew up in a house without any electricity and no running water, we had a well two hundred yards from the house and also collected water off the roof in a barrel from the gutters, all clothes were washed by hand. My favourite memories from childhood were listening to the oul fellas, they were brilliant, they had great advice and lovely stories, maybe they weren’t all true but they were good anyway. They would always say that getting into a fight was not a good idea, except if it was absolutely necessary, they said the worst belt of a fist you ever gave anyone was to totally ignore them and they’ll soon forget their argument, and they were right. Image by Shay Hunston

“The exhibitions had a remarkable effect by bringing people together and giving them pride in their village and town. The people who took part in the exhibitions became a topic of conversation and strangers would introduce themselves to them to talk about their photograph and caption, and I have had correspondence from all over the world about the project from people who have seen the photographs on social media. I’m also continuously meeting tourists and asking them about their experiences along the route,” Shay said.

People of the Wild Atlantic Way portrait project
Rachel Dare – Bantry, West Cork. “My favourite poem is – ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver. I feel like its something that speaks very directly to me, it goes beyond just reading a page. I have connected to it so many times in my life when I needed to look back and say to myself – learn from your mistakes and that you don’t need to be perfect, its about the journey along the way rather than some kind of aspiration to have something nailed.” Image by Shay Hunston

Shay has already successfully exhibited the work to audiences further afield, and recently showcased some of the images in Panama City, Florida, where projections of the portraits were shown on the sides of buildings as part of a festival. Upon completion, Shay plans on publishing the photographs in a book, with all of the proceeds from the sales to be donated to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

More of Shay’s work is available at his official website.