The ruins of abondoned villages throughout the island of Ireland attest to a history of disasters, both man-made and natural, which have blighted this land throughout the centuries and have lead to numerous dispersals of the population. The Irish diaspora feature throughout the globe, particularly in Britain and the USA.
Connemara has its fair share of such settlements and exploring the coastal region you realise what an incredible wrench it must have been to be forced to flee such a beautiful land. Though it is easy to be over-romantic about the past. When the choice before you is starvation or survival then leaving your homeland and braving the unpredictable Atlantic Ocean may be a simple one, whatever the beauty around you.
The Wild Atlantic Way continues its journey all along the Connemara coastline before turning inland at Killary Harbour. Killary is, or may be, Ireland’s only fjord, though there are some authorities who consider it a fjard, which is shallower than a classic fjord. Its steep sides were carved out by a glacier making its way to the sea in the distant past, leaving a 16 klm (10 mile) long flooded valley. In places the valley is extremely narrow, in others it widens out but it is an extremely pretty, and unique place in Ireland.
Moving on from Killary we very nearly missed seeing one of the most amazing beaches in Connemara. All we had for navigation was a small scale map which the car rental people had given us, which just didn’t show the minor roads, and an old Lonely Planet borrowed from the library. This told us we should visit Glassilaun Beach but we sailed past the poorly signposted turning. We debated whether or not it was worthwhile turning back but thought, well, why not?
The small car park at the beach had only a couple of cars in it and a short stroll through sand dunes brought us to a simply stunning beach set in a glorious horse shoe bay. The sun was shining and sparkling on the water and gentle waves were lapping.
There were only a few other folks about, some of whom were busy constructing a maze out of rocks in the sand. It all looked rather complicated but what better place to build a maze.
Further south, at Bunowen Bay on Slyne Head, the water is crystal clear and I was very taken with the glorious light patterns in the water, almost like a laser light show.
Although the foreshore is very shallow the bay soon drops off steeply. There is a small harbour here and the famous Connemara Smokehouse. This smokes all manner of fish and we took a look inside but you needed to prebook a tour so all we got to see was the shop. The salmon fishery is sustainably managed but I confess that €17 for 200 grams of smoked salmon did seem a little excessive. We have a fantastic smokery near where we live (the Severn and Wye Smokery) and the prices aren’t anywhere near that.
Travelling on further south along this stunning coastline will bring you to Roundstone, a pretty place which styles itself as ‘Connemara’s most picturesque village’. It nestles at the foot of Erisbeg Mountain and has a lovely harbour. There are plenty of places to eat and drink and the village has become a haven for artists and musicians.
Malachy Kearns has a workshop in an old Frasician priory and is famous the world over as a Bodrhan (Irish drum – pronounced ‘bow-rawn’) maker. In fact, he made all the stage drums used in Riverdance as well as for many leading musicians.
A few kilometres away from Roundstone are two fascinating beaches, Gurteen and Dog’s Bay. These lie back to back with one another forming a ‘tombolo’, a spit of land between the two bays reaching out into the Atlantic. Dog’s Bay has a spectacular horseshoe shape which is more than a mile long. The sand on these beaches is made entirely of the ground up shells of sea creatures which gives it a very white appearance. It was a place just made for paddling!
Off the Connemara coast lie a number of islands. By far the largest are the three Aran islands, Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer. Most of the 1200 or so inhabitants of these islands live on Inishmore, the largest of the three. The islands have a very traditional culture belonging to the Gaeltacht, meaning that Irish Gaelic is the primary language and the customs are similarly traditionally Irish. Music plays an important part in daily life. We would have loved to have visited the islands but realised that they would require more than just a flying visit so we have left Aran as a place to come back to in the future.
Unlike the Aran islands, you can walk across the sand to Omey island, but only at low tide. Situated only 600 mtrs off Claddaghduff it is conected by Connemara’s only sub-sea road so you can also drive provided you follow the route signs. Not doing so could leave you stuck in soft sand with the tide coming in and needing to call out the emergency services.
In the mid 19th century 400 people lived on the island, mostly making their living by fishing the rich waters or by raising cattle. In 2017 Omey’s last permanent resident, Pascal Whelan, was buried on the island. Whelan was a stunt actor and, fittingly, his funeral cortege had to race the tide to hold the service and commital on the island before needing to return to the safety of the mainland.
A different kind of racing takes place in July and August when horse races are held on the kilometre long strand in front of the island, the horses thundering through the sea. It must be a wonderful sight.
We had arrived on the mainland side when the tide was well in so could neither walk nor drive to the island. Instead we took a ferry to visit Inis Bo Finne (Inishbofin), or Island of the White Cow.
The ferry takes about 40 minutes on a good day to make the 11 klm (7 mile) crossing from Cleggan and lands you at the island’s only settlement. Although small it’s a very lively place with several hotels and guest houses, holiday homes, a small shop and a lovely community centre. The island has its own Ceilidh band and many visiting musicians turn up to give concerts.
Mind you, the harbour area was also notable for a remarkable collection of rusting vehicles which are clearly going nowhere fast on this 5 x 3km island. The reason is that it is far too costly to ship out the vehicles when they clap out so those which are beyond repair are simply abandoned.
There are several well marked loop walks which you can take out of the village and the island is a special conservation area. Many species of bird nest here including the Corncrake, which we sadly didn’t see as it was the wrong time of year. But we did have a fabulous walk through the middle of the island and around the southern coast.
Like many places in Ireland, Inishbofin is linked to myth and legend. One story goes that the island was actually a magical floating land until some fishermen landed on it in a fog. By bringing fire onto the island, they dispelled the magic, fixing the land in place. They then saw an old woman driving a white cow, which turned into a rock when the woman struck it with a stick. So, within the space of a few days, we had travelled from the fairy land of Tir na Nog to the land of the White Cow. We didn’t see an old crone with a stick amongst the island’s 180 residents but you never know – she could have been hiding behind the cow shed.