Connemara Excursion, from Galway City
Connemara’s ruggedness may come as a surprise - it’s yet another impressive landscape showing the diversity of Ireland. And the beaches are beguiling too.
A Day in Connemara
While travelling through Connemara in Ireland I caught myself musing over how many times in the last few decades I wrote something about being able to enjoy great contrasts in landscape in a comparatively short journey time in Scotland.
Well, the observation seems to apply to Ireland too. The lush greenery around Galway Bay and the arresting limestone landscapes of the Burren gave way to something else on our day in Connemara.
Mind you, that landscape of poor peaty grazings and rock was very familiar - it was the Northern Highlands of Scotland but with the mountains - the ‘Twelve Bens’ - a little lower (not that you’d notice).
North by Northwest from Galway City, Connemara Bound
You know how Scotland has lots of places visited by movie buffs eager to take a selfie...I’m thinking here of, say, St Andrews beach for Chariots of Fire - which I always mistype as Chariots of Fife, incidentally.
Then there’s plenty more, the Glenfinnan Viaduct for Harry Potter and the Jamjar of Worms, Glen Etive for Skyfall (do not confuse with Skye Full, which it usually is): in short there are a ton of places in Scotland to visit if you are a dedicated ‘set-jetter’ - probably a totally made up word that you only see in VisitScotland press releases.
Anyway, you can do the same in Ireland. For instance, somewhat ironically, a lot of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart was filmed in Ireland, partly because it looks like Scotland (see, I told you) but also because the tax regime was more favourable. Anyway, there is Skellig Michael for Star Wars (uhmm, one of them), Cliffs of Moher for Harry Potter and the Half Price Mince, and so on and on.
And we were reminded of this as our driver suddenly gesticulated and said that over there was The Quiet Man Bridge. So it’s not just the brand of a range of cloth caps - it’s a movie starring John Wayne, made in 1953? Oh, right.
And just like Scotland's I know Where I’m Going (1945), it’s become a cult classic and people meet and form societies to talk about it..
(Favourite Scottish movie fact: when Powell and Pressburger made I know Where I am Going, it was so dry on the Isle of Mull that they had to get the Oban fire brigade to come over with their hoses to make rain.)
(Second favourite Scottish movie fact: before the production team began work on the movie version of Brigadoon (1954) they were taken all round Scotland to find locations. But they couldn’t find anywhere that looked Scottish enough, so it was made mostly made in the MGM studios in California. Question: why didn’t they just recce Ireland?)
These are the thoughts that cross your mind as you hurtle along the N59, the main road to Clifden and the west. However, there is a rhythm and a natural stopping point in these excursions...
Back in Scotland, for example, Fort William or Oban-bound visitors tend to stop at the Green Welly Shop in Tyndrum. The equivalent of a day out in Connemara is breaking the journey at Joyce’s Craft Shop. It’s by the village of Recess, on the main road to Clifden.
It’s long established, filled with totally classy local wares, including massive polished lumps of Connemara marble. Outside, the carpark features the whimsical statue of the Connemara Giant, as well as an intermittent piece of street theatre by a bunch of dare-devil sheep.
However, we did not linger too long and after the obligatory pictures we were off to Dog’s Bay, via Roundstone, a wee resort and fishing village by the shore (obviously!) that can be considered the gateway to a series of delectable beaches.
Actually, it’s much more than that, and one of the many places that we drove away from making a mental note to return and explore one day. It had the air of a place where the local catch probably found its way into the local pub.
In Scottish terms, Dog’s Bay and its companion Gurteen is like Traigh Luskentyre, or Vatersay (both in the Outer Hebrides) or even St Ninian’s Isle in Shetland - or one of a dozen or more dazzling stretches of sand familiar from Scottish travels.
It’s just another reminder that Ireland can match Scotland for beaches. Dog’s Bay is just one of several - and it’s a beauty.
The empty shells cast up on the tideline seemed somehow more colourful and varied than at home, but maybe that was just looking for exotica on foreign shores.
We found lots of tiny cowrie shells, which are apparently lucky (at least in Scottish folklore). No financial results so far though, so I still have to keep writing this website.
Clifden and the Sky Road
Neat little Clifden is sometimes called the capital of Connemara and is the main town. Founded by the local landowner, John D’Arcy, it developed in importance in the early part of the 19th century. Then the original D’Arcy died and the place (complete with nearby Gothic castle) came into the hands of his son.
His name was Hyacinth (yes, really) and he had no abilities or tact in handling the tenants on his estate. Mass protests took place over his management style, Hyacinth flounced and became a vicar/minister/rector - or otherwise opted out of the business - and the the estates were later sold.
Worse was to follow with the Famine of 1845. Many locals emigrated. However, Clifden survived and got a jobs boost in 1905 when the inventor Marconi started to build Europe’s first public service long distance wireless station. (You’re right, I’m paraphrasing here.)
About four miles / six km from the town, in the bare peatlands by Derrigimlagh Bog, the station was in contact with Nova Scotia on the other side of the Atlantic.
Then in 1919, the locals heard a strange sound in the sky. Over the bog and also very close to the wireless station, a converted World War I bomber appeared. It ended up nose-down after a crash landing. Out climbed the famous navigators Alcock and Brown to confirm that the Atlantic had been conquered for the first time by air.
Lucky Clifden to get two historic events happening practically in the same bog. Visitors can learn all about it in an unusual outdoor display, the Derrigimlagh Discovery Point, and there is a signposted walk to the site of the radio station and the white cairn out in the moor to mark Alcock and Brown’s landing site.
Visitors can also get a good idea of the layout by following signs uphill on a minor road (right opposite ‘Marconi Street’ to the Alcock and Brown Memorial. There’s a broad view out to the east, over the vast reaches of Derrigimlagh - one of the most important blanket bog sites in Europe. You should be able to pick out the crash site as it’s visible as a wee pepper-pot white cairn out on the moorland. There’s also a gigantic hand in the sky pointing to it, apparently.
Right, it’s time for refreshment in Clifden and we are led unerringly past several perfectly reasonable looking establishments to Guy’s Bar. (And, look, I just have to insert the apostrophe there, even if the business card for the place doesn’t.)
What matters if it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the seafood on the menu is irresistible and the staff delighted to serve it. A Guinness, too? Well, of course, we’re just tourists…
The Sky Road Loop, then down to Kylemore
That’s what visitors do, in these parts. They drive (or cycle or maybe walk) the Sky Road. Yes, it’s very bonny. Great views over an interplay of land and ocean. (Wondering if that’s leaning towards the pretentious?)
Yup, it’s grand. And there are other coastal loops to do as well, some other day…Didn’t especially remind me hugely of any part of Scotland. Maybe a bit like the north coast, but without the marauding packs of camper-vans.
Then it’s downhill and round, with a fine row of big hills ahead, turning for home. But, wait, there’s one more stop. Kylemore Abbey is in the big league for visitors hereabouts.
Before it fell into the hands of nuns in 1920, the tale of how wealth and talent built this Gothic pile has romance and tragedy in equal measure.
Today the Kylemore Estate is a well-developed visitor attraction with a range of things to do. Walks, visiting the interior of the Abbey and the Neo-Gothic church, walled garden and much more - plus the extensive shop and pleasant cafe.
So this is what visitors do in these parts, eh? Yup, they come from all over to tick this one off. Think, say, Blair Castle back in Scotland, or maybe one of the big hooses in the Borders.
Well, that’s quite enough for one day. Time to get back to Galway. Tell you what, instead of eating out tonight, let’s call in at Joyce’s at Knocknacarra on the way back. (oh, the flexibility of self-catering…) A proper home-grown supermarket chain, very classy, very supportive of community causes and supporting Irish suppliers.
That’s the spirit. Which reminds me, we’ll get a bottle of ‘Paddy’s Whiskey’ - just as good as the blends at home...
Know what? I’ve been uncomfortable writing this as a whizz-through first impressionist. But, on the other hand, the first impressions are all positive. And I can’t help feeling there’s a lesson for Scotland in it all. Probably, it’s ‘Lighten up a little, will ya? Bonnie Prince Charlie is never gonna come back…’
So you might as well look forward.