When I was 20 and straight out of a teacher training school, I worked for a year at a school in Connemara. My friends were heading for the bright lights of Dublin, but after a childhood caravan vacation along the west coast of Ireland, I was drawn to the ‘wild highlands’ of west Galway, well -loved by Oscar Wilde and countless other artists and wild spirits.
Instead of the inner excitement of city life, I spent the year kneeling in the bogs, climbing the Twelve Bens, roaming the islands to Inishbofin and Inishark, and pedaling along deserted roads to ‘to the breathtaking beaches of Glassilaun and Rossadillisk. A sign on the road to Rossadillisk beach reads “Welcome to paradise”. I learned to ride Connemara ponies in Errislannan and on weekends I hitchhiked for random events in Letterfrack, involving local poets, cartographers and sculptors who brought life to this quiet corner of Ireland. Without prior planning, I would find myself on top of Diamond Hill or spotting porpoises on Renvyle Beach with a bunch of new friends.
Pit stops were made at iconic Connemara pubs including O’Dowd’s in Roundstone for its famous fish chowder, Powers Thatch in Oughterard and Keane’s Bar at Maam Bridge which has arguably one of the most romantic spots. of all the pubs in Ireland. Somehow I also managed to find the time to teach a class of 12 year olds. Aviators Alcock and Brown were also fans of this part of the world, choosing a bog near Clifden as the landing site for the very first non-stop transatlantic flight, in 1919. My class assembled a giant papier-mâché model of their Vickers Vimy biplane, which we transported up the main street to an exhibit on Alcock and Brown at the library.
Stendhal’s syndrome was a condition in the 19th century, where travelers on the Grand Tour either passed out or became dizzy when confronted with the beauty of Florence. Those of us who love Connemara can understand. It may look like the most spectacular wilderness in the world: endless expanses of bogs, mountains, lakes and seas completely dominate, and you quickly realize that nature, and not man, reigns supreme in these. regions. The colors of the landscape, especially in the fall, are spellbinding, with the mountains and bogs seemingly ablaze with multiple shades of ocher, rust and red. I lived on Sky Road in Clifden, and during the long winter nights I started painting the hills orange and the endless lakes. In no time I too became an artist and sold my first painting in a gallery in Galway.
Summer vacation has arrived, and after a year of being the youngest adult in the village, I foolishly decided that there was more to experience than the great outdoors, and I packed my bags and I Hitchhiked from Clifden to Galway for the last time.
I moved to Sligo and then traveled the world for a few years, before finally settling in Dublin. Luckily my Australian wife is also in love with Connemara and whenever we can, we park our car and head west. Something magical happens every time on the Oughterard to Clifden road, which passes beautiful places like Derryclare Lough: city life is forgotten and the mountains are spellbinding. Every fall, we save for a night or two at Ballynahinch Castle, the former home of Ranji, an Indian Maharaja turned world-class cricketer who retired here to fish. We’ve often wondered if we can uncover the truth behind the rumor that an elephant graveyard was in the park, but the mystery remains delightfully unsolved.
One summer we rented a house near Cleggan with three other families. Perched on our knees, our young children drove the group’s cars across the huge beach that stretches to neighboring Omey Island at low tide. The final chapters of Maggie O’Farrell’s shimmering 2013 novel, Instructions for a Heatwave, are located on this small island in the Aughrus peninsula.
With heat waves rare in Ireland, it is also one of the wettest parts of the country, and many days were spent building sandcastles in the rain at Dog’s Bay (where the final scene of the Mike Newell’s 1992 magical realism film Into the West was filmed) and diverting the streams from the beach to Lettergesh (the location of the famous horse race in The Quiet Man). The rainy climbs of Benlettery and Errisbeg near Roundstone did not deter my son from climbing mountains. We’ve taken a lot of wrong turns trying to find the elusive Dunlaughin Beach near Ballyconneely, which has yet to be featured in a major movie. This is one of Connemara’s only surfing beaches, and its secret location ensures that few onlookers will witness my dismal attempts to master the almost impossible art of surfing.
It’s hard to pick a favorite beach in Connemara, but after many years of crossing the coast we settled on the breathtaking Glassilaun, almost at the mouth of Killary Harbor, Ireland’s only fjord. We spent Easter here once, at Dolphin Watch, a detached house with a terrace overlooking Mweelrea, the highest mountain in Connacht. We drove past the house the year before and were stopped dead by the view. (It was quite a while ago that we scribbled the phone number from a handmade road sign on the door.) Inishturk Island looms on the horizon and further north, the Peaks of Achill and Clare Islands are drawn in the sky. Avoiding the abundant lion’s mane jellyfish that have descended on this bay, my son and I enjoy swimming to the small island that is just off the shore. If the sun is shining (a rarity), the white sand and green water almost take on the allure of the Caribbean. Throughout the lockdown, I constantly dreamed of this beach and imagined breaking the 5km restrictions to overcome the pandemic on this shore.
However, on all of our travels west, we missed out on the best place to stay in Connemara. Attracted time and time again by the sea, we forgot to explore the shores of Lough Corrib, one of the largest trout fishing lakes in the world. As we passed the piers along Glan Road just north of Oughterard, we discovered the gates of the magnificent Currarevagh House and promised to be there someday. Henry and Lucy Hodgson welcomed us to their home like long lost members of their family. Seconds after our arrival, we feasted on homemade cakes with Henry’s mother June, who told us about the hotel’s 130 year history and recounted when a dedicated wagon left London to destination of Currarevagh, such was its fame in the world of fishing. While the travelers were asleep, their car was rolled onto the boat at Holyhead and breakfast was served as they woke up at full speed west towards Connemara.
The world moves away here, and all that seems to matter is the giant view of the lake and the peace of this very quiet house. We recently spent three happy days swimming in the lake, eating kedgeree for breakfast and staying up late drinking wine. Henry has now installed a glass-enclosed sauna in the boathouse with a view of the lake. Armed with towels, water bottles and a box of matches, we lit the stove, poured water over the embers, and gazed out into a world where watery clouds merged with the lake.
Wilde described Connemara as a rugged beauty: the soil is mostly rock, famine has decimated the area, people have migrated en masse since, and the land has never been enough to provide adequate employment. However, I sometimes regret having left Connemara.