Connemara on Ireland’s west coast is widely recognised as ‘Quiet Man’ country.  This was the filming location of the famous movie starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara which is etched in so many people’s minds as characterising Ireland – red haired girls; “top-o-the-morning-to-ya”; and gurning countrymen smoking pipes and dressed in tweeds!… not entirely an accurate portrayal of modern Ireland, but the movie does at least do some justice to the magnificent sweeping landscapes of peat bog covered moors, regal hills and imposing mountains, all littered with sparkling lakes and streams.

A day out in Connemara is a real treat for the discerning visitor, especially if you’re prepared to hire a car and just take off in to the wilderness, but there are day trips which leave from the city of Galway on the north east end of Galway bay and you’ll be able to find details in your Galway hotel or from the city’s tourist office.

I generally start a day out in Connemara in what could be construed as a rather depressing way!  Heading out on the coastal road to the west of Galway city, you can turn off to pass through the area around Spiddal.  In the fields are the remains of many walls, roads, and famine cottages which were either built, or abandoned (or both) during the famine years of the mid 19th century.  Owing to the Cromwellian invasion there was huge congestion in this part of the country from the 16th century onwards, and by the time potato blight hit, the population relied on their potato crop to sustain themselves.  While the government in Westminster clearly knew about the problem, their actions to relieve the starvation and disease did little to help the people here and the physical vestiges of their effect on the region remains today in the ruins of various structures across the area leftover from their time.  Nowadays there is a small community here, but many of the properties are holiday rentals, or second homes which are unoccupied for much of the year.  Regardless of the solemn feeling I always get when I come here, it is a truly beautiful spot with views over Galway Bay towards the Burren and views back over the Connemara hills.  You’ll also notice that many of the houses here use peat as a domestic fuel with the peat bricks piled up beside the house often covered with a tarpaulin to keep them dry.

Our next stop is out in Connemara’s wilderness at one of the many lakes and waterfalls the region has.  The area has plenty of peat bog, large amounts of which are still farmed to provide domestic fuel but there are now restrictions on how much peat you can cut from your land – as you’ll see when driving around the area, the peat cutting really carves up the landscape leaving a noticeable effect.  The peat however, still stains the water here and even shallow ponds and streams have a distinctive brown colour.  I’ve often been in a hotel (at various locations) in Ireland and noticed that the bath water has this distinctive colour to it which is rather off-putting at first but its easy to get used to and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it.

Connemara National Park is based on the edge of the village of Letterfrack in the north west of County Galway.  The centre point of the park is Diamond Hill which offers some fantastic walking trails.  It can be a bit of a climb but well worth it for the views alone.  Even on a fairly misty day you can still see out to the edges of the Atlantic ocean.  When I was there last week, the wind and rain was driving against us as we walked but there was still a pretty decent view from at least half way up.  You’d need a couple of hours at least to do the 4 or 5 mile walk up to the top of the hill but a walk half way up (and back) will only take an hour or so.  There is a visitors centre at the park entrance with a museum showcasing the flora and fauna of the region and some interesting displays about the archaeology of the area showing that this area was populated around 7000 years ago.  There are also shorter walks near to the park entrance, through some of the woodland nearer to the town of Letterfrack.

About 15 minutes down the road from Letterfrack is the famous Kylemore Abbey.  Originally a mansion home for a landowner and Member of Parliament for County Galway in the 1800s, called Mitchell Henry, the property came into the hands of Belgian Nuns fleeing the horrors of the First World War in the early 19th century.  The Nuns ran a boarding school here until just a couple of years ago when it finally had to close but they’re still here tending the grounds, the beautiful Victorian walled garden, and keeping the house in good shape.  Parts of the house are open to the public and you can either walk or take a minibus into the grounds to reach the walled garden.  There’s also an impressive neo-gothic church near the lake which was clearly designed with a number of English Cathedrals in mind.  The church interiors incorporate pilasters made with the 4 marbles representing the ancient kingdoms of Ireland – green for Connacht in the west; red for Munster in the south; black for Leinster in the east; and grey for Ulster in the north.  The church was built for private use by the family but became a memorial to Mitchell Henry’s wife who died tragically young.  The couple were buried in a mausoleum near the church which is now used by the nuns and the local community for services as well as secular events.

Kylemore Abbey Church

There is an excellent self-service restaurant at Kylemore, making it a great stopping place for lunch, and there’s a nice craft shop selling some produce made at Kylemore such as jams and chutneys using fruit grown in the walled garden.  You can easily spend a few hours here on a good weather day as there are some walks in the grounds surrounding the walled garden, as well as tours of the garden, an audio visual display about the history of the property, and a footpath (which is rather a climb!) to the calgary in the hills above Kylemore, clearly visible as you approach the property.

Heading back to Galway in the late afternoon would take you through a few typical villages and towns of the region filled with pastel coloured houses along the edges of rivers and streams.  The towns of Oughterard and Moycullen near the edge of Lough Corrib (Ireland’s second largest lake) make nice stopping places for a stroll around the local shops or an afternoon coffee in one of the many tea rooms, cafes or pubs.  In Moycullen you’ll find the factory and workshop of Connemara Marble where you can see how the famous green marble is carved into various items available for purchase.  The Joyce family who own the green marble quarry near to the town of Clifden (not far from Kylemore and Letterfrack) offer short talks in their workshops explaining the fascinating history of the marble and its uses over the years.

Galway in the evenings is a particularly lively city any day of the week, and it’d be unusual to come and visit without there being one festival or another either taking place or about to take place.  When I was there last week, the Volvo Ocean Race had just finished in Galway Bay the previous day and the global sailing fraternity had descended on the city to take advantage of the hospitality offered by many of the pubs where you’ll find live, traditional music pretty much every evening.  There are also some fabulous eateries in the town, and Shop Street and William Street is a particular hive of activity with the Quays and Kings Head pub offering highly commendable fayre.

All in all, Galway and Connemara are a stop worthy of at least a 2 night stay on any Irish trip and the town is easily reachable by train or public bus from Dublin, or by regional flights into Galway Airport or international flights to Shannon which is just over an hour drive to the south.