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Mike Yardley: Connemara and Ireland's Wild West

Mike Yardley ,
Publish Date
Wednesday, 23 September 2015, 1:14p.m.

The wild west region of Connemara is pitch-perfect for road-trippers who revel in rugged, pristine wilderness and the whiff of adventure.  Just half an hour northwest of Galway, this wonderfully wild and untouched district is a patchwork of legendary Irish bogs, sprawling valleys, shimmering lakes and moody mountains. A region of ragged beauty and rustic personality.

In contrast to the eerily desolate interior, coastal Connemara is encrusted with chocolate-box villages and charming seaside resorts. Located on the shores of Bertraghboy Bay, the escapist fishing village of Roundstone is a little treasure. The narrow main street slithers past quaint double-storey rowhouses, tempting pubs and restaurants and cheerfully painted B&Bs. An idyllic hamlet that the locals are rightfully proud of.

Avoid the peak of summer when Roundstone is absolutely swamped. In the shoulder months, you’ll have far much more room to roam unmolested, gaze dreamily across the bay to the Twelve Bens mountain range, watch the lobster boats bring in the day’s catch, take a swim and explore the walking tracks.

A short stroll from the centre of the village will bring to a fabulous craft complex, bursting with artisans and creative types. Malachy Kearns’ Musical Instruments store is a cracker. Kearns is an acclaimed maker of the bodhran, the traditional Irish hand-held drum, and you can admire the artistic skill of the bodhran workshop in action.

Roundstone is an excellent base for exploring Connemara, and St. Joseph’s B&B on the main street offers top-value, authentically charming Irish accommodation. O’Dowd’s  is just a couple of doors down, and delivers the quintessential country Irish pub experience. Deliciously fresh local produce, live traditional music and colourful craic.

From Roundstone, the circular coastal road connects you with Galway to the south east and Clifden to the north west. This is bogland, Derrigimlagh bog to be precise,  and the wildly bumpy driving experience on the old road heightens the sense of adventure .You will never see locals drive the bog road after nightfall -  they are adamant the the bog is haunted. Derrigimlagh bog is ripe with TransAtlantic firsts.

Stop at the well-signposted Alcock and Brown Memorial.  The historic site is where the two gentleman successfully completed the first transatlantic flight in 1919. Another historic achievement was made in this bog, in 1907. The radio pioneer, Marconi, established a wireless station here and transmitted the first transatlantic radio messages to Nova Scotia.

Take the main road north to Kylemore Abbey, flush with verdant valleys, vivid green pastoral land, classic stone fences, tranquil lakes and soaring mountain ranges. Our family chanced upon two insatiably friendly donkeys, fenced behind a quintessential dry stone wall – and an equally friendly farmer who we uncharitably nicknamed Father Jack.

Sheltered by the slopes of the Twelve Bens, Kylemore Abbey is one of West Ireland’s most lauded properties. This lakeside castle was built in Gothic Revival fantasy style, as a present from Mitchell Henry to his wife, in the 19th century. The Manchester business tycoon honeymooned in Connemara, and the newly-weds weren’t just head over heels for each other, but besotted with the region. After the sudden deaths of his wife and his daughter, Henry left the castle and it was put on the market. During World War I, Benedictine nuns fled from Ypres in Belguim and sought refuge in Connemara. Henry’s castle became an abbey, and the nuns have been in charge ever since.

Nowadays, Kylemore Abbey is a highly-exclusive girls’ boarding school. Visitors can gain partial access to the interior of the abbey, along with the beautifully-tended gardens and grounds. The adjacent restaurant and craft shop throbs with the tourists, but a stunning souvenir worth perusing is the earthware pottery, made on site at the abbey, by the nuns.

Most of Connemara is a designated national park. prawling across 2000 hectares, there are numerous nature tracks to explore, either on foot or by bike. The national park visitors’ centre is located in Letterfrack, just minutes from Kylemore Abbey. One of the most sought-after natural attractions are a glimpse of the Connemara ponies. These semi-wild ponies roam across the national park and are believed to be from Arab stock that came ashore from Spanish Armada wrecks, during their ill-fated invasion attempt, in 1588.

Connemara National Park covers some 2,957 hectares of scenic mountains, expanses of bogs, heaths, grasslands and woodlands. It’s a wondrous part of Ireland and this website will help you plan your expedition into the wilderness. www.connemaranationalpark.ie

Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturdays. 11.20am

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