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Published: July 30th 2010
We had read reviews describing Connemara National Park as being rugged - but we weren’t sure whether it was going to be distinctively
rugged. Was it one of those places it’s worth going out of your way to see, or is it one of those places to see when you’re passing through? A google images search didn’t really answer our questions and the grainy backgrounds of the John Wayne movie ‘A Quiet Man’ gave us some hope, but it was filmed in the 1950‘s, so... will the area have changed much?
We went ahead and booked a weekend there anyway and so when our flight lands at Knock Ireland West on an overcast Friday afternoon we’re filled with a lot of expectation, and a little apprehension.
From arrivals we pick up the hire car and a one and a half hour drive takes us in a westerly and slightly southerly direction towards County Galway and Connemara National Park.
Travelling along the quiet narrow highway N59 we pass a sign letting us know that we’ve now officially entered the National Park and soon enough we find ourselves driving through an emerald green glen flanked on both sides by brooding
mountains with their craggy peaks covered by shifting low cloud. There’s not car, building, or any form of urbanisation in sight. This is definitely what we came to see and any apprehension which we had held has now well and truly evaporated - Connemara looks awesome!
The scenery remains stunning as we travel past Ireland’s only Fjord, more mountains, and into the heart of the National Park to the little village of Letterfrack where we’ve booked accommodation for the next two nights.
The village only has about four roads so without any trouble we find our hostel, check in, and head off to the local pub for dinner.
After dinner we pull up a stool at the bar and start chatting with the Kiwi bartender (on the condition he’s not allowed to talk about the rugby) when we’re joined by a friendly local who looks like he’s in his late 50s. The old bloke introduces himself and decides he should buy us both a drink to say, on his behalf, ‘welcome to Ireland’.
At first we try to politely decline but it’s difficult to change his mind and he eventually insists that the bartender gets us
another round of what we’re drinking. The Kiwi tries to get a stir by telling our new mate that we’re drinking Protestant whiskey, but it doesn’t get even as much as a raised eyebrow, and soon enough there’s a new round of (Catholic) Irish whiskey in front of us.
Our new mate is definitely friendly, but he’s got such a thick Irish accent that we often only manage to pick up the end of each sentence. Our sometimes blank looks doesn’t seem to bother him any though and over the next couple of hours he tells us all sorts of stories - about life in Connemara; about his elation with the recent apology from (British PM) David Cameron (regarding the events of Bloody Sunday) - and in between the serious side of things he regularly launches into song. A clear favourite is Wild Colonial Boy, which he sings start to finish.
After spending a couple hours longer than we planned at the pub we bid farewell to our new mate and head back to the hostel and crash out. In case we’d forgotten the Irish (at least in our opinion) are some of the friendliest people on earth.
The colour of Ireland.
Saturday morning we’re up early as usual and as we’re heading out we bump into the hostel owner. We were planning to go for a walk, but we take the chance and ask Mike for some tips on how to spend our day. He recommends that we should spend our morning climbing nearby Diamond Hill (which is supposed to be relatively easy because it’s all on dedicated pathways with boardwalks across the peat bogs) before taking in the scenery of Connemara on a drive in the afternoon. Sounds like a plan to us.
Encouraged by the fact that we won’t need to wade across semi-solid decomposing organic matter, we stroll down the road from the hostel, past the Connemara National Park visitor’s centre, and onto the gravel path leading up Diamond Hill.
The walk starts out far easier than we imagined and because we are up early we’re the only people about (well at least at the moment) and we have to chase the odd sheep off the track. The lower part of the hill is fairly uneventful but as we get higher the trees and shrubs clear and we’re presented with fantastic views over the surrounding
Views from the top of Diamond Hill
Looking back down the way we'd come...
With a bit of irony, as soon as we get to the first vertical part of the trail it starts drizzling, but luckily our waterproof jackets (which we bought for our last Scotland trip) provide the shelter we need and we plod on slowly. The drizzle soon clears and we clamber up the last bit of vertical goat track which gets us onto the top of Diamond Hill. Woo-hoo we made it!
The views are amazing.
Below us is Letterfrack with a patchwork of fields and villages behind it leading all the way to the Atlantic coast. To our right, at the bottom of a high rocky ridge is the lakeside Kylemore Abbey and its famed walled garden and behind us, to the east, are the peaks of the ‘Twelve Bens’, the mountains which make up the heart of Connemara. Awesome!
We savour the view for a while longer before heading off the back of Diamond Hill following the track on the ‘down’ route.
We make good progress getting off the steep part and luckily we’re on the relatively flat section of our descent when the skies get dark and a squally storm starts
The views back inland on the way down...
lashing the mountain side with driving rain. We pull our hoods up but there’s nothing much that can stop the water. The ferocity of the rain makes us laugh at our predicament (what else can you do?) and after about 10 minutes the rain gives way to drizzle which clears a few minutes after that. Looking like we just had a shower fully clothed we keep trudging on and we ponder the value in buying some waterproof trousers in case we decide to do this again...
Soaked, our 7.5 km walk ends back at the hostel where we get changed into dry clothes before we jump in the Ford Focus hire car to spend our afternoon exploring the area.
Following the ‘Connemara Loop‘ we head west from Letterfrack to the coast before looping north then east passing Killary Fjord, the Maumturk Mountains, many loughs (loughs in Ireland, lochs in Scotland), plenty of sheep, mountain streams, and dozens of peat bogs. There’s certainly no doubt that Connemara is indeed a beautiful area.
It’s early evening by the time we make it back to Letterfrack and we decide that we might pop by Letterfrack’s sports pub for a quick
pint before dinner. As we push open the doors we’re taken aback by how busy Molly’s Bar is, but we soon figure out why. All eyes are glued to the TV where County Galway is taking on County Mayo in the semi final of the Gaelic football. With local heros Galway up at half time we reckon it’s not a bad time to exit and so we finish up our pints of Guinness and cross the road to Bard’s Den.
Given our active start to the day we think we can manage to tackle a famously large main each and so with Killary Fjord lined with mussel farms Ariana’s choice of main is easy and Lachlan opts for beef and Guinness stew. When our dishes arrive the stew is tasty but Ariana’s huge bowl filled with the freshest healthiest looking mussels we’ve ever seen is a clear winner. When we complement the waiter about the shellfish he smiles and offhandedly remarks that they were delivered fresh this morning... no wonder!
Sunday morning we’re up again relatively early, check out of the hostel and head up the road to Kylemore Abbey, just as it opens for the day.
Reading through the tourist brochure on Kylemore we find out it wasn’t always an Abbey. In fact it had only recently become one. Its story was that it was built in the mid 1800s as a castle by a wealthy English Doctor-come-businessman and politician, Henry Mitchell. Just before his death he sold it to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. Their problem was that their lifestyle didn’t match their income and eventually they went broke and the castle was sold. The third owners were Belgium nuns forced from their homeland by the German invasion in WW1. It’s been an Abbey since then.
As it’s still fairly early and the grounds are quiet and we enjoy strolling along the shore of the lake (curiously Kylemore Lake, not lough) on our way to the 19th century church (built as a miniature version of Bristol Cathedral), before moving on to check out the Victorian walled garden. We’ve seen a couple of walled gardens in Britain over the last couple of years but Kylemore’s is easily twice the size of any that we’ve seen before. There is a huge array of plants and interestingly we read that the temperature in this spot is
On the road to Delphi
Fly fishing heaven...
on average five degrees warmer in summer than any other part of the estate.
It’s just before midday when we eventually head off from Kylemore Abbey, following the N59 to Leeane where we turn off towards Delphi, passing out of County Galway into County Mayo as we do so. The drive takes us initially along the opposite shore of Killary Fjord before turning north into the hills.
Following a fast flowing stream through a wide picturesque glen, the road takes us past numerous fly fishermen, across an oh-so-quaint stone bridge, and through the village of Delphi on our way higher into the mountains. A further 5 minutes along and the stream which we’ve been following comes to a head at a magnificent lough (Doo Lough) which is nestled at the feet of two imposing treeless mountains. Awesome!
Driving along the edge of the water we dodge the occasional road-sitting sheep and envy the fly fisherman who are making the most of the sunny weather as they ply their craft from the banks.
From the Doo Lough Valley we head north to the coast before heading through the pretty small towns of Westport and Newport on our
Irish Road Sign
Normally the road signs were in English or were bilingual, but on Achill some signs (like this one) were only in Irish.
way to Achill Island.
Having searched through our guidebook for something to do/see between Connemara and Knock Airport, Achill Island (even though it’s not directly on the way) seemed like the best bet. One of the best things about visiting Achill is that while it is an island it’s connected to the mainland by a bridge so we don’t have to worry about any ferry times (which is lucky because we’ve only got another four hours until our flight leaves from Knock back to East Midlands).
Our first point of call, once we cross onto Achill, is the seaside village of Keel where we stop for a coffee and and a look at their beach. As sets of rolling waves crash onto a golden sand beach we do a double take - is this really Europe? There’s surf. Proper surf. Almost (careful no-one’s overhearing us)... Aussie surf.... cool.
As we finish our coffee we decide that we should really be heading off to the airport but before we do, Lachlan is particularly keen to have a look at one last thing - the deserted village of Slievemore.
Apparently until the mid 19th century the village was
home to a mix of permanent residents and seasonal graziers (who would stay in the village while their cattle roamed the summer grasslands), but a combination of the end of semi nomadic seasonal grazing and the potato famine, ensured that Slievemore’s residents all moved to the coast, and no-one ever went back. Now, all that is left on the side of the mountain is the eerie remains of a village which once was.
It’s a fascinating sight, one that deserves far more time than we can afford to spend, but we are enjoying seeing as much as we can when we’re ambushed by the changeable Irish west coast weather and it starts pouring down with rain. Taking it as a cue, and a reminder that we’ve got a flight to catch, we hit the road and from Achill we make a beeline for Knock Airport.
We’ve really enjoyed our second visit to Ireland - we’ve met some fantastically friendly people, climbed our first mini mountain, seen some interesting sights, and we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again... the Guinness is definitely better in Ireland!
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