Going beyond the rustic charm of Connemara, Ireland
Think of Ireland and your mind probably conjures up images of Dublin and St Patrick’s Day celebrations with enough Gaelic ballads to make your head throb and your ears bleed.
There is, however, another side to the Emerald Isle. Travel to the West coast and you will find an entirely alien landscape compared to the East’s capital city and its well-heeled city dwellers.
Here you’ll find one of the furthest and most remote parts of Western Europe. It’s normal here for locals to take their breakfast with freezing drizzle, howling gales and windswept views out to the Atlantic Ocean. The tempestuous weather a reminder of the 41 million square miles of treacherous, cold and unwelcoming ocean that lies ahead along the coastline.
There are only a handful of times the international community has turned its gaze to this remote part of Ireland. One of the last times, was due to an accident nearly a hundred years ago, when a plane travelling from Canada crash-landed in the peat and bog of Clifton in Connemara.
Both the people on board - British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown - survived, and the journey entered the history books as the first-ever transatlantic flight making headlines around the world and causing a stir amongst the Connemara community. So much so, in fact, that we are told the story of the crash a total of six times by different people during the two-day trip to the area.
The real pull (surprisingly) is not to walk out against the elements to see the crash site of an aeroplane which was long ago eaten by the bog. It is, rather, when the sky clears and you turn back inland to witness the heart-wrenching beauty of this remote area.
With a population of only 32,000 people, the area offers something the UK’s most-loved wilderness sites can’t provide: unspoilt nature and solitude.
Connemara is far removed from the soulless Disneyland-travel escapade that many UK nature ‘destinations’ provide. Come to Ireland’s West Coast in July, and you will see the landscape much the same as it was for the Gaels who first mapped these fells millennia ago.
Some historic techniques are still in use today too: we walk into a local tavern and find Irish turf blocks on an open fireplace. A traditional way of creating fuel from the bog that surrounds the area.
There are around the same number of castles (and castle ruins) in Ireland as there are residents in Connemara, and lucky for tourists to the area, several historic sites have enjoyed a renaissance as luxury hotels.
One of the best in Connemara is Ballynahinch Castle. Dating back to 1756, the current castle was the former home of Richard Martin (also known as “Humanity Dick”) who established the RSPCA and introduced the Cruelty of Animals Act to UK Parliament.
Fast forward to 2019 and the hotel is regularly voted one of the best hotels in Ireland, complete with 48 luxury rooms and suites, a Michelin-recommended restaurant (called Owenmore, after the local river) and traditional rural activities including fly fishing in Ballynahinch Lake and woodcock and clay shooting in the hotel’s grounds. All still possible we are told, even when the heavens open - which they regularly do in these parts.
However, as the old-age Irish saying goes “the low grey cloud in Ireland just means the country is closer to heaven”, which when looking at the Connemara hills, is hard to disagree with.