A winter hangover and miserable weather threatened to delay the onset of summer as another Irish Bank Holiday presented itself at the start of June, with Connemara in County Galway and County Mayo being the next of the west coast Irish counties to explore. A last minute hitch reared its head as Budget Travel car hire insisted on a paper licence to accompany the plastic card version.
With the DVLA offices in Wales unreachable and on a go-slow strike, I was in somewhat of a pickle, until Avis at Shannon came to the rescue. On a previous occasion I had hired a car with them, they had taken my word that I had no points on my licence and had accepted the plastic card alone. With their assistance I managed to have the booking via 3rd party Auto Europe transferred to them and the day (or weekend) was saved. I was all the more delighted to have been allocated a Nissan Juke, which turned out to be a fun vehicle to commandeer.
With the car booked for 14h00 Friday, I set off two hours later along the M18 towards Galway, though the enforced rush-hour Friday bottleneck through the city proved a painfully frustrating experience. Beyond the blue waters of Lough Corrib, the magnificence of the southern reaches of the Maumturks mountains appeared, bathed in the light of the early evening sunset.
After Loch Doire at turn-off to Inagh Valley (R344), the back of the Twelve Bens comes into view. With time to spare, I reached Ben Breen House B&B on the outskirts of Clifden, with splendid views from the west towards the Twelve Bens range, as well as Diamond Hill. They say that dedicated fell runners attempt to hike all twelve peaks in a single day. With daylight to spare, I took a drive along narrow roads towards Cleggan Bay and around the little peninsula to Omey Strand, having been assured that with the tide still out till ten o’clock, I would be able to drive or walk across the beach sands to the tidal island bearing the same name.
I encountered an elderly Austrian couple intending to spend the night in their camper van in the car park located on the mainland. He sat in a chair as his wife dutifully trimmed his hair. I strolled across the sands to the waters edge. Tyre tracks marked the route taken earlier by vehicles, bounded by posts planted at intervals in the sand. The light slipped away gradually, emphasized by ever-present hues of blue in the process. Back in Clifden, a small town with its centre marked by a circular one-way, I set off to explore its reputation as a hotbed of traditional Irish music. The first of the pubs to kick into life was J Conneely’s Bar though I later discovered at least half a dozen others hosting live acts. Socks in the Frying Pan, a trio from County Clare, delivered a delightful set of bright, catchy melodies.
The area in County Galway known as Connemara is not clearly defined. Some consider it to be the territory west of Lough Corrib. Others used the name to define the Gaeltacht of western County Galway (it is Ireland’s largest Irish-speaking area). With this in mind, I wondered if anyone famous hailed from this region. Many people often think of Peter O’ Toole as the quintessential Englishman but in fact he was Irish and proud of it. O’Toole was born in Connemara in 1932 though even this is in doubt, it is claimed. O’Toole did move to England as a child but took fierce pride in his Irishness.
The harshness of recent Irish history around the time of the potato famine of 1846/47 is borne out in the story of Dan O’Hara, who lived near Clifden, Connemara, in the shadow of the Twelve Bens, with his wife and seven children. He did not own the house he lived in nor the 8 acres of land he worked, almost entirely given over to the potato crop. His simple but happy lifestyle came abruptly to an end when he was evicted for non payment of his rent. He had decided to increase the size of the windows in his house and this resulted in increased rent payments by the landlord. He was evicted from his home and forced to emigrate. He arrived in New York a broken man. His wife and three of his children died on the harsh sea journey. Left penniless and destitute he had to put the remaining children into care. He ended his days selling matches on the street far from his beloved Connemara.
Sure it’ poor I am today,
For God gave and took away,
And left without a home poor Dan O’Hara
With these matches in my hand,
In the frost and snow I stand
So it’s here I am today your brokenhearted
Having enjoyed my stay at Ben Breen House B&B, where I had been made to feel most welcome by my hosts, Noreen & Raymond Conneely, I set off with a plan in mind, largely based upon their advice. I had been shown the start of the walk to Benbaun, the highest of the Twelve Bens, on a map and been assured that it was by no means a difficult climb however with skies partially clouded over, I decided on a less ambitious but equally enjoyable goal. I drove to Letterfrack, seat of the Visitor’s Centre to Connemara National Park. It is also the location of the start of several colour-coded walking routes leading from the centre, the most extreme of which extends to the summit of Diamond Hill. It was a windy, largely gloomy day marked by patches of sunlight across the landscape. In typical fashion, I stopped at the summit at a height of 442 metres for a customary tea-break, where I met a young Australian couple. This vantage point provided a splendid view east across a valley towards the Twelve Bens, now covered in menacing dark cloud.
This same valley also served as the return circular path route back to the Visitor’s Centre. It was on this path that I encountered two girls pointing to and discussing terrain and bays that lay to the west on the Atlantic coastline. I thought I might stop and ask the precise location of Cleggan Bay, where I had driven that evening before. It was then that I instantly recognized the distinctive accent as that of a fellow country folk. Cathy Wolfe, a vivacious, enchanting yet friendly blonde with bright, sparkling eyes, CEO of a company known as Connemara Wild Escapes based in Letterfrack, was playing host to her friend, now based in Dublin, whose name escapes me. It turned out that both girls hailed from Johannesburg. Cathy proved to be quite a tease, exchanging pleasantries whilst playing on the friendly rivalry between folk from the City of Gold and Capetonians, of the source of many a jibe. Johannesburg might be the commercial capital of the South Africa but Cape Town wins by a mile in the beauty stakes.
Bypassing Kylemore Abbey, which I returned to later, I branched off the N59 to explore the Inagh Valley, just as the skies cleared and day grew brighter. The first turn-off to the right leads along a narrow road which eventually crosses Kylemore River, reaching a number of farms. Speaking to a local farmer whose accent I could scarcely make any sense of, I learned that this was indeed a popular starting point for an ascent of Benbaun, at 729 metres. On the opposite side of the Inagh Valley and Lough, I traced a dirt road to the point where we set off on a climb of Letterbreckaun, a mountain in the Maumturks range, in 2012. It is such magnificent countryside, which one could conceivably spend an age exploring.
After a brief stop to view Kylemore Abbey from the exterior only, I continued onto Leenaun (Lenane), which lies on the shore of Killary Harbour (Ireland’s only fjord), on the northern edge of Connemara. Leenaun lies on the route of the Western Way, a 179 kilometre long-distance trail typically completed in seven days that begins in Oughterard, County Galway and ends in Ballycastle, County Mayo. To the north across the fjord from the village lies Ben Gorm. Instead of taking the more direct N59 to Westport, I turned off and travelled the narrower R335, which runs along the northern shoreline of Killary Harbour for a bit, before turning north.
Passing through an exquisite valley that begins near the town of Delphi located on the Owengarr River that connects Fin Lough to Doo Lough. The valley is surrounded by the Mweelrea Mountains and the neighbouring peaks of Ben Creggan and Ben Gorm and to the north, the Sheeffry Hills. Something about Mweelrea intrigued me. I stood on the shores of Doo Lough with a book in my hand of some of Ireland’s favourite trails, examining the topography, with a view to climbing it. The book suggested an easier and a harder route but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure it out. At a height of 814 metres, it is the highest mountain in County Mayo and therefore not to be taken lightly.
The landscape flattens out as one heads towards Louisburgh on the southwest corner of Clew Bay and Westport, meaning “stone fort of the beeves”, on the south-east side. In the village of Murrisk I checked into the delightful Croagh Patrick Lodge B&B, one of the nicest B&Bs I have ever stayed in, run by Linda Newman. I had booked a double room at a reduced rate and had chosen it due to its location with regard to the mountain from which the lodge derives its name, which I had planned to climb. Its conical shape looms dauntingly behind the lodge. It was still light. I drove into Westport harbour and the town centre. Westport is significantly larger than Clifden, yet both marked by brightly coloured restaurants and pubs, which is typical of most towns in Ireland.
Feeling somewhat peckish, I scoured the high streets for a suitable eatery. Most establishments that took my fancy were tiny and fully booked and after being turned away at the third failed attempt, I ended up at the restaurant at the Clew Bay Hotel as I was about to capitulate and head for the nearest fast food outlet. I discovered that Westport comes alive late at night and this being a Bank Holiday weekend, all the more so. Hen parties abounded as groups of girls in ridiculously short skirts wandered from pub to pub (not that I’m complaining). Equally, the guys hung around in groups outside bars searching for ‘talent’. It got wilder as the night went on and the music got louder. This was more mainstream stuff, none of this traditional folk music nonsense, it seemed. I found myself to the rear of a bar listening to a classic half decent rock band, thinking about the next day’s hike up Croagh Patrick.
Ben Breen House B&B – website
Socks in the Frying Pan – website
Connemara National Park – website
Connemara Wild Escapes – website
Owenglin Circuit Twelve Bens (23 km) – YouTube
Exquisite panoramic photo of Delphi Valley
Croagh Patrick Lodge B&B – website
Croagh Patrick Mountain – website
Croagh Patrick, sacred island – webpage
Almost Climbing Croagh Patrick – webpage
Gielty’s Pub & Coffee Shop – website
Achill Island Guided Walk – YouTube
This is Achil – a blog [makes good reading]
Climbing Mweelrea – YouTube
Walking Mweelrea – blog (this would be my preferred route)