Leaving Gort and Tir na nOg behind us we travel to another enchanted land – Connemara. A land of mountains and loughs, of bogs and rivers, of silver strands, rocky shores and islands. It was to become our favourite destination.
We skirted the city of Galway, heading instead into the interior of County Galway, towards Oughterard and Lough Corib. This is the largest lake in the Republic of Ireland, covering about 176 km2. Only Lough Neagh in the North is larger. Corrib is designated as a Ramsar wetland area and is important for wildlife. It also has salmon fisheries on it and other wild fish attract a lot of anglers.
There are reputed to be 365 islands on the lough, one for every day of the year. However, recent marine charting of the area actually found 1,327 islands. For once, the old wives appear to have underestimated the true facts!
We knew that the coast in Connemara held many attractions but we were keen to explore the mountains and loughs inland to begin with, in particular the group of mountains known as the Twelve Pins, or Bens, (from the Irish ‘Binn’ which means peak). All of these are located within the Connemara National Park.
Rather like the islands on Lough Corib, there are, in fact, more than 12 peaks which exceed 300 mtrs in elevation, this height being the generally accepted definition of a mountain. 22 peaks are centred around Benbaun, the highest of all the mountains at 729 mtrs (2392 ft). Another 9 are centred around Ben Garraun and there are a further 7 outlier peaks to the west, making 38 mountains in all. Perhaps the Irish just aren’t very good at maths!
With so many peaks all within a short distance of one another it is no surprise that this area is popular for rock climbing, with routes ranging from difficult to very severe, and for serious hill walking. There are a number of ‘horseshoe’ routes taking from 6 to 12 hours and, for the really committed hiker, the 28 klm Twelve Bens Challenge – climbing 12 peaks in a 24 hour period. If this isn’t enough for you (or if you’re bonkers like my niece, Nic) there’s always fell running to have a go at.
But you don’t have to rope up or blister your toes for 12 hours. You can walk up one of the smaller outlier peaks and still get some great views, which is what we did. Despite its name, Diamond Hill (Binn Ghuaire) is technically a mountain at 442 mtrs (1450 ft) and there is a path which leads from the national park visitor centre right to the top. I wouldn’t call it an easy stroll but there is a well defined path with plenty of steps and a well laid out trail so it isn’t the toughest challenge in the world. Which is why you’ll likely be sharing the path with a lot of other walkers, some in rather stupid footwear as always seems to be the case, but most kitted out reasonably.
Crowded it may be at the top, especially around about mid-day, but the views really are worth the effort. Looking westward you can see the fabulous coastline around Cleggan and Claddhaghduf.
Eastward and you look into the glorious Polladirk valley, nestled at the foot of the 12 Southern Bens. We were blessed with exceptionally fine weather so the views were even more special.
Whilst sitting on the ridge I heard the distinctive ‘cronk cronk’ of the Raven. Looking up I saw a pair and then witnessed something I have never seen before. One raven would fly very fast along the ridge, pull in its wings and feet and then do a half roll, flying on its back for several seconds before rolling back and uttering its cry. The other Raven would do the same and they kept this up for quite some time. I knew that birds of prey sometime fly on their back in courtship ritual but I have never before seen a raven do this. I have recently read that Ravens are very playful, intelligent birds who frequently indulge in aerobatics. I guess I must have been a raven in a previous life because that’s what I loved doing when I had my pilot’s licence. I don’t go ‘cronk cronk’ though.
Descending the mountain we walked through bogland, thankfully boarded in places. Peat bogs are an important resource for both animals and humans. They are also a magnet for midges and mosquitoes which doesn’t make for pleasant walking. We both got bitten badly and rather cursed ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. To which Tennyson should have added proboscis, but I guess it would ruin the scansion.
Not far from Diamond Hill was the Derrygimla bog which featured not once but twice in the history of transatlantic communication. At the very beginning of the 20th Century, Guglielmo Marconi built one of his radio stations here and on 12 December 1901 the first Transatlantic morse code signal (three dots representing the letter S) was picked up in Newfoundland. The station subsequently became the first site for regular transatlantic signals traffic. Just think of what we can all pick up on our mobile devices just over a hundred years later.
18 years after this event a Vickers Vimy bomber flown by Alcock and Brown took off from Newfoundland. They survived a flight despite all manner of mishaps and difficulties and put down on what from the air appeared to be a field not far from Marconi’s station some 16 hours later. Unfortunately the ‘field’ was the Derrygimla bog and on landing the ‘plane nosed over into the peat. An ignominious end but neither pilot was injured and were still able to celebrate the first transatlantic manned flight. So this one small area of Ireland has figured large in the annals of 20th Century history.
Links between Ireland and America go back much further than this, of course. Over the centuries thousands of Irish fled their own country in search of a better life. The first transatlantic sailor is said to be Saint Brendan who may have sailed there in a leather hulled currach in about AD 512-530, though probably from Kerry not Connemara. Nobody knows if the blessed saint really did discover this new land 950 years before Columbus but, like all things in Ireland, it’s a good story.
And so leaving the mountains, the bogs and the loughs we turned our attention to the coast from which many journeys of migration would have begun.