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'Wild west'

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Wild West Irish Tours guide Michael J. Waugh, left, leads a group over a land bridge at the Blow Holes of Raughley in County Sligo, with the North Atlantic in the background. Courtesy photo

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A home in the county’s Gleniff Horsehoe Valley that was abandoned during the period of the Great Famine in 1847 is shown. Courtesy photo

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Irish novelist, playright and poet Dermot Healy, a local resident, directs a girl in a traditional Irish dance. Courtesy photo

For local tour operator, the journey is the destination

By James Heffernan -- jheffernan@nvdaily.com

For most travelers, a tour of Ireland might include a stop at The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, an afternoon of shopping for crystal at Waterford, a kiss of the Blarney Stone, maybe a bicycle ride through the countryside or a sunset at The Cliffs of Moher.

This isn't that tour.

The real Ireland, the one that Linden resident Michael J. Waugh knows intimately and wants guests on his new Wild West Irish Tours to experience, can be found in Sligo, in the northwest, also known as "Yeats Country" for its rugged landscapes and mystical places that inspired the Irish poet. Here, visitors can immerse themselves in the spirit of the ancient Celts and Druids, as well as Sligo's modern inhabitants, mostly writers, artists and farmers.

"The touring companies often skip the northwest territory because it's hard to navigate," says Waugh, who lived in Sligo from 2000 to 2005. "We go places where the tour buses don't go. There are some places we go where they won't even see other tourists."

Places like The Fairie Glen, Gleniff Horsehoe Valley, Hazelwood Forest, The Caves of Keash and Ballyconnell Beach.

"When I was living there, I took such joy when people would come from America, when they would show up and want to know and experience things," Waugh says.

Now Waugh wants to extend the same courtesy to paying customers hungry for a sense of adventure and wanting to connect with Ireland on a personal level, much as he and his fiancee, Trish O'Donnell Jenkins, have.

Waugh is a native of New York City, where his dad was a policeman. "I grew up as a stereotype, the working-class Irish kid with red hair whose father was a city cop."

On his first trip to Ireland, the place where his grandparents were forced to leave, "I felt like I belonged," he says. "I just sort of melted in. ... And Trish, her ancestors are from Ireland, too. She's caught the same bug that I have."

In fact, Waugh proposed to Jenkins at the legendary Fairy Tree of Benbulben in Sligo. The couple, whose Gaelic names are Dish and Dungannon, plan to wed in May in Browntown.

Wild West Irish Tours is rooted in Waugh's time as a student on the GI Bill at Lord Fairfax Community College, where he helped establish the Anglo-Celtic Club and led small groups of students, faculty and members of the community on tours of western Ireland. LFCC has since established a travel award program to give students who may otherwise not have the means or the opportunity a chance to experience the beauty and culture of Ireland.

"Everybody who has gone [from LFCC] has in some way connected" with the country, he says. "You see young people turn into men and women. It's rewarding for them and it's rewarding for me."

The couple's new venture will keep the small-group format -- only about six people per tour -- which Waugh believes is necessary for guests to experience all that the Emerald Isle has to offer. While there are scheduled stops, the tour is subject to whims, such as an invitation to an Irish dance or a meal at the home of a local farmer.

"You have to expect the unexpected," Waugh says. "It all depends on the group and the chemistry."

After 22 years in the Coast Guard, followed by his studies at LFCC, Waugh says he feels he has finally found his purpose in life.

"The tours involve two things that are important to me: to make a living, of course, but also to be a conduit to other people's journey and self-discovery.

"I want it to be an unforgettable experience for them," he says. "If they have one chance to go to Ireland, I want them to come back knowing that they felt something, that they come away with a new perspective."

Wild West Irish Tours has trips scheduled every month from May through October, although the first tour, May 21-31, is already sold out.

For more information, visit www.wildwestirishtours.com.

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