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Trip to Connemara

- Posted on: 07/04/2019 -

Take me back to Connemara 
And her misty fields of green 
Where our hearts could soar the mountains 
And sail upon her silver sea 

Where the currachs ride the waters 
And face the coming storm 
And we stood and watched at sunrise 
On a Connemara morn

Connemara Morn – words by Tom Kelly, music by Brendan Nolan

Most first-time visitors to Ireland are directed to high-visibility tourist attractions like the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, the town of Killarney, and the Ring of Kerry.  And, by and large, a good choice these are.  The Cliffs are spectacular – 800-foot-high sheer cliffs on the Atlantic Coast, a habitat of untold varieties of seabirds, a sea stack and O’Brien’s Castle in the distance for good measure.  The Ring of Kerry is a compleat exposition of every green on God’s good earth.  Ferns, moss, trees, fields.  A riot of green to fulfill every Celtophile’s wildest dreams.  Killarney is vibrant – and designed to embody every cliché of popularized Irish culture – flat hats, leprechauns, tweed on tweed, shillelaghs in endless array, and even the throwback iteration of the stereotypical Irish politician, the dynastic clan of the Healy-Raes.  Watch some youtube videos of yer man Danny Healy-Rae to get the flavor of a proud country man from Co Kerry...

But, for my money, the authentic Ireland is to be found in the quieter places.  Where the beauty of the landscape lies in its ruggedness - a better expression of the Irish spirit, places where a good life is hard fought and hard won.

Such places can be found just north and west of Galway City.

In Connemara…

So let’s go, once again, out from the jewel of Co Mayo - Westport town, and explore these ancients hills and verdant valleys.

We’ll head south on the N59, the Clifden Road, for a gorgeous twenty mile drive to Killary Harbor and the town of Leenane.  In Leenane, we’ll go left onto the R336 to Maam and then to Maam Cross - a trek of about thirteen miles.  It’ll be a ride through harsh land – “To Hell or Connaught” country – rough hills strewn with granite - terrain hard to till and harvest, not made to easily sustain human life.  Make sure to look over your shoulder and watch the retreat of the magnificent Mweelrea  – a dominating eminence ruling the area much as Croagh Patrick rules Clew Bay.

At Maam Cross we’ll reconnect with the N59 and make a right, heading back toward Clifden.  We’ll be turning right onto the R344 through the Inagh Valley, but first we’ll go a few miles past our turn to view one of the iconic views in Connemara – Derryclare Lough.  There’s a convenient turnoff; you’re certain to fill your camera’s SD chip.

Change out your SD card, get back in the car, head back east.  You’ll want plenty of card space to document your drive through the Inagh Valley, nestled between the Maamturk Mountains and the Twelve Bens of Connemara.  Turn left on the R344 and soak in the Maamturks on your right and the Bens on your left.  Also on your left will be Lough Inagh.  Pray for clear skies and a mirror lake or low-hanging mist and dark atmospherics.  Either way, you’ll experience the mystical magic of these granite mountains, mossy green earthen patches, and expansive lakes.

At the end of the valley, you’ll once again intersect the N59.  Head left and you’ll have two choices – visit Kylemore Abbey first or head directly to the Connemara National Park.  Your choice may be dictated by your stomach.  If it’s time for a crumble and an americano, or you’re ready for a full lunch, by all means stop at the extraordinary café at Kylemore.  If you need to build a bit of an appetite, head for Connemara National Park and the Diamond Hill hiking path.  Although the upper climb may be a bit of a challenge, the trail is only 3.7 kms (2.25 miles) long and the views will be truly spectacular, overlooking the Twelve Bens and well out into the Atlantic toward the island of Inishbofin.  A terrific reward for a reasonably moderate two-hour climb.

At Kylemore, you’ll have free access to the carpark and to the café and shops (among the best smaller shops in Ireland).  You can take lovely pictures of the Abbey from the walkway, but I wouldn’t pay admission to visit the house – if you’ve seen one big house, you’ve seen them all…  But, if you love gardens, the price of visiting the magnificent Victorian Walled Gardens at Kylemore will be well worth it.  Make sure you familiarize yourself with the Abbey’s romantic and dramatic history.  In brief, the grand house was built as a home for a wealthy English physician/industrialist and his wife.  It was started in 1867 and took four years to complete.  In its original state, it had thirty-three bedrooms, a ballroom, a library, a schoolroom, a billiard room, a study, and much more.  It later served as an abbey for Irish Benedictine nuns who had to flee Belgium during WWI.  They established the abbey in 1920 and operated the facility as a girls’ school which served young women from Ireland and from the Irish diaspora worldwide until 2010.  Over the last few years, the University of Notre Dame has established a presence at the Abbey and runs a number of academic programs under its Notre Dame International initiative.  Don’t leave the property until you’re able to spot the alabaster-white statue of Jesus well up the hill behind the house.  And try to (visually) traverse the torturous path all the way up to sweet Jesus as it wends itself up the hillside.

In the car again.  You’ve had a bit of a day already, but you don’t want to head back to Westport without a quick jaunt through the Renvyle Peninsula.  You’ll not find road numbers, but set your satnav/GPS to help you find Tully Cross and Glassillaun Beach and you’ll be on your way.  It’s a special place – high, wild grasses frame pristine waters – you’ll do well to stretch your legs a bit and explore the beauty of the place.  Once back in your car, try to find roads that hug the southernmost shores of Killary Harbor.  You’ll see truly unspoiled Connemara countryside and a breathtaking view of mighty Mweelrea across the fjord (yes, fjord…).

You’ve had quite the day.  Head back to Westport for a pint and some excellent music.  You’ll find both in fine measure at Matt Molloy’s and McGing’s pub in the center of town.

The years pass by so quickly 
But the time so sad and slow 
As I wait here at Tullycross 
In the hopes you’d soon return 

Take me back to Connemara 
To the coastline of the Gael 
Where seabirds glide along the waters 
And the granite towers prevail 

Take me back to Connemara 
And her misty fields of green 
Where our hearts could soar the mountains 
And sail upon her silver sea