The Great Alone: it’s what the Irish have called Connemara for centuries. And it is a particularly apt description of the windswept western bulge of Ireland, which boasts a raw, elemental beauty that is becoming increasingly difficult to find in Europe.
Often described as one of the most poetic places on earth, it is no coincidence that Connemara is located on the outermost tip of the continent, hemmed in by the Atlantic on three sides and Lough Corrib, a lake, on the fourth. Oscar Wilde wrote extensively about Connemara’s ‘savage beauty’, declaring it a ‘wild, mountainous country’ and ‘in every way magnificent’.
This ancient, sparsely populated land has been astonishing visitors for centuries, with the first documented tourist coming in 1695 when John Daunton, a London bookseller, arrived in Connemara to meet ‘the last of the wild Irish savages’. He was talking about the infamous O’Flaherty clan that fought off the British army with bows and arrows and whose women allegedly washed their hair in a mixture of urine and ashes.
Following in Daunton’s footsteps – and armed with a bottle of expensive shampoo – I boarded a flight on a grey day, hoping to find the starkest contrast to urban life.
Within a few hours’ travel from Dublin Airport, The Great Alone makes its presence felt. The sedate green fields of County Kildare give way to a rugged, rocky wilderness, and once I pass the city of Galway, the landscape utterly transforms. A fairy tale place emerges, one of jutting crags, jet-black lakes and sunlit hills, as Connemara’s mountains loom over the land, and wild flowers and gorse (thorny shrubs of yellow blooms) hover around the windswept expanses of bog.
I was staying at Ballynahinch Castle, crouched on the edge of a peat-dark, salmon-rich river and surrounded by glistening woodlands with a view of the Twelve Bens mountain range in the distance. The old castle was built in the 14th century by the ruling O’Flaherty clan and Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Connaught, and it has been fought over for centuries by a cast of characters that includes a parliamentarian nicknamed Hair-Trigger Dick and an Indian maharaja. Seamus Heaney even wrote a poem about it.
‘The mountains, lakes, rivers and bogs together with the beaches and the wild mountain ponies create the landscape of poets and painters,’ says Patrick O’Flaherty, a Connemara local who now manages the hotel. ‘The rhythm of the river flowing through the 280 hectares and the deep sense of history give the visitor the sense that they are experiencing an Ireland that is true, unpretentious and authentic.’
I spend my first day in Connemara with Jonathan Broderick, a charming local fisherman-turned-guide with whom I rowed across lakes, scrambled over gorse, dodged invisible bogs and lost my fishing virginity. On our expedition, I understood what Oscar Wilde was on about all those years ago. When the mid-afternoon sun broke through the thick Irish cloud, the land around me was instantly painted in vivid colours.
Broderick and I took off our shoes and dipped our toes in the river, and as his lilting voice continued the tale of Grace O’Malley’s wild ways, salty air whipping my hair around my face, I was struck by the loveliness of it all.
It is impossible to describe Connemara without mentioning the sea. Windswept sandy beaches stretch as far as the eye can see, peppered with crystal clear tidal pools, pale pink shells and the occasional jumper-clad family running with kites aloft. To understand the coastline, I walked down to Roundstone Harbour to meet skipper John O’Sullivan for a boat trip to the nearby island of Inishlacken – an emerald green speck of coves and gorse in the churning Atlantic Ocean. There’s no longer a community here, and the remains of centuries-old limestone cottages create a desolate feel amid the wild landscape, one that inspires the artists who come here to paint throughout the summer.
My inspiration was more of the physical kind. A brief, flirtatious visit from the sun brought out those vivid colours once more, turning this cold beach into a Seychelles-like paradise. It was enough to make me attempt a swim – a decision I regretted the moment my blue limbs met the freezing sea, but one that felt wonderful 20 minutes later when I was ensconced in O’Dowd’s seafront pub, hot toddy in one hand and steaming plate of chips in the other.
Despite an increase in tourism, all the pubs, restaurants and cafes I visited in Connemara felt resolutely, authentically old-fashioned. All the food is seasonal and freshly caught in either the trout-filled rivers or teeming seas (and perhaps, even, by you). Fat scallops, chunky fish soup, local crab with homemade mayonnaise – food here is plentiful, hearty and rich, and always accompanied by a bottle of wine or a pint of Guinness.
But as much as all this, it is the people who make Connemara such an enchanting place to visit. From fishermen and sailors to chefs and writers, everyone I encountered had that famous Irish warmth and was determined to talk about the land they loved so much.
‘Connemara wears her history without excuse and without rancour,’ says O’Flaherty. ‘Some of the worst effects of the great famine were felt here and yet the people of Connemara are always ready to celebrate and share what they enjoy today. There is an openness and engagement that sometimes is not forthcoming from an ancient landscape and people.’
Connemara is not an easy place to leave. As I get in my car and drive east to Dublin, mysticism gradually fades to modernity, and the flinty peaks, purple flowers and treacherous bogs recede in my rear-view mirror. All of a sudden, colours seem duller and the world flatter, but knowing about the unchanging beauty and enduring antiquity of Connemara soothes me. Like the fairy tales it reminded me so much of, The Great Alone makes life feel that bit more magical.
Ballynahinch Castle Hotel
Step inside this castle hotel, set above a river and amid ancient forests, to be delighted by its four-poster beds, curved staircases and wood-panelled dining rooms. Its restaurants, The Owenmore and Fisherman’s Pub & Ranji Room, are two of Ireland’s best.
Built as a sporting retreat in the mid 1830s, Delphi Lodge is perched atop a remote valley near Killary Harbour. It’s filled with antiques, old pictures and fireplaces, and guests meet over drinks and canapés before everyone sits down together around an oval table for something hot and delicious.
This pale pink hotel by Ballinakill Bay looks like a perfectly wrapped present sitting above the churning sea. There are antique-filled rooms, a large conservatory bar, stand-alone baths and even pigs that roam the nearby orchards. The food is excellent – think langoustines, lamb cutlets and freshly caught salmon.
On the very pretty Bunowen Pier, the family-run Connemara Smokehouse (pictured bottom middle) produces outstanding foods such as honey-roast salmon, gravadlax and tuna. The fish is smoked over beechwood in a kiln dating from 1946, before being filleted, boned, salted and sliced by hand.
Overlooking the harbour at Roundstone village, O’Dowd’s is the sort of warm, wood-panelled Irish pub you dream of on cold nights. Serving a range of craft ales, chunky fish soup, crab claws in garlic butter and towering platters of mixed fresh seafood, it’s always packed with a raucous local crowd.
This cheerful restaurant (pictured top right) is housed in a sky blue, turn-of-the-century house in the village of Clifden. And its fish pie is probably worth getting on a plane for: it’s a rich mix of salmon, mackerel, prawns and crab, topped with creamy mashed potato and grated cheese.
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