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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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Connemara: Splendid Isolation

untamed Connemara

Connemara Splendour - photo courtesy Trevor Wood

by Suzanne Barrett

Perhaps isolation is a bit over the top, especially since Connemara is a mecca for visitors wanting to experience some of the quiet, natural beauty of this rugged, marshy, rock-strewn land west of Galway City. But spectacular it certainly is, from the bays and inlets of this much-indented coastline to the peaks of the Twelve Bens and the serene beauty of Clifden, the Connemara capital which is located in a non-Gaeltacht area. For tranquil splendor, Connemara rates at the top of any travel itinerary.

Many Connemarans now make their homes in Boston, Birmingham, and London. Surprisingly, many others stayed to eke out a living in the rocky, unfertile soil or in the sea. Towns and villages dot the coast, while the expanse between Spiddal and Oughterard remains unpopulated.

SpiddalDriving west along the coastal road from Galway, one enters the tidy village of Spiddal (An Spidéal) in the heart of the Gaeltacht. The name Spiddal derives from Ospidéal (Hospital). The Knights Hospitalers are believed to have established a hospital there during the fourteenth century. This is a holiday resort with a fine sandy beach and a good spot for rental cottages. There are facilities here for learning the Irish language, also St. Enda's, a fine, modern church built in the romanesque style. At this point on, all road signs are in Irish only.

Continuing along the coastal road, one comes to Inverin (Indreabhán) at the entrance to Casla Bay. Notice how much rockier the region becomes. A few miles further on is Rossaveal (Ros an Mhil), where there is an ongoing trade and boat service to the Aran Islands. For many years there was no fuel on the Aran Islands and hookers (the traditional sailing boats of Connermara) carried turf to the islands. At Costelloe (Casla) the road forks. To the left the road follows the coast round to Kilkieran and the Lettermore and Gorumna Islands, while the right fork continues to Maam Cross in Mayo, where the Quiet Man cottage is located. Maam Cross is little more than a crossroads on the main Galway to Clifden road, but is the site of an October horse fair which is still in existence. From here a road runs southward through lake-strewn moorland to Screeb Lodge and Gortmore. At Gortmore the road on the left leads to Rosmuc, where Padraig Pearse, leader of the 1916 Rising studied the Irish language and wrote most of his works, including the O'Donovan Rossa graveside oration which he delivered at Glasnevin in 1915. Beyond Gortmore, the route follows the shore of Kilkieran Bay to Carna. Off the coast near Carna is the small St. Mac Dara's Island, on which is a beautiful stone-roofed oratory.

ClifdenThe coastal area west of Spiddal is known for its Connemara ponies, as is the district lying between Oughterard and Clifden. The Connemara Pony Show, held in August at Clifden, is a popular annual event.

Some of the finest Connemara scenery may be seen on the eight mile drive from Maam Cross to Recess (Sraith Salach)(N59). Here the road skirts the shore of Loughs Shindilla and Oorid, with the Maamturk peaks on the right and the Twelve Bens looming ahead. These are a group of mountains occupying a circular area some six miles in diameter. They are a dominant feature of the Connemara landscape. Benbaum, at 2,395 feet is the highest peak. Various colored mosses and lichens cover the precipices and provide excellent sightseeing for the botanist.

Recess, a long sprawling village, is situated in a superb setting of mountain scenery and lake. Angling is popular here, and there are some green marble quarries in the vicinity. The main road from Recess to Clifden (13 miles) travels along the shore of Ballynahinch Lake. On one of the wooded islands in the lake is the ruined stronghold of the O'Flahertys. On the southern shore is Ballynahinch Castle, which was long the residence of the Martin family and now a four-star hotel. Its most famous member was 'Humanity Dick' Martin, chief founder of the R.S.P.C.A.

Clifden, a small market town and fishing center, is fifty miles from Galway and is regarded as the unofficial capital of Connemara. The dual spires of the Catholic and Protestant churches are an architectural feature of the town. It's one of the best places to buy traditional tweed and an ideal holiday resort for those wishing to explore the glorious scenery. Numerous walking trails are located in this region. The town is attractively laid out against a backdrop of hills.

Kylemore AbbeyContinuing in a clockwise circle from Recess to Clifden, the traveler skirts the Connemara National Park and comes to the oft-photographed Kylemore Abbey. It was built in the late nineteenth century of limestone and granite, erected by a Liverpool merchant as a gift to his son and is now run by the Benedictine nuns as a boarding school for girls. The N59 runs from Kylemore to Leenane.

Near Renvyle lies Cathair an Dúin, Connemara's best preserved promontory fort. It is built on a drumlin into which the sea has cut 100-foot cliffs. The shadow of old potato ridges attest to intensive cultivation in the nineteenth century.

Road sign near SpiddalA turn south from Clifden brings one to Ballyconeely, then Roundstone. This is a quiet coastal resort and a photographer's delight. Botanists are fascinated by the heather dotted bogs and numerous tiny lakes. Roundstone is a corruption of Cloch na Rón, the Stone of the Seals. It is home to fine dining, good traditional music and Roundstone Bodhrans.

From Leenane, the gateway to Joyce Country, the R345 runs directly to Maam where it turns east to the town of Cong from where was discovered the Cross of Cong. Located in the main street of Cong village is the market cross, the first historical piece you encounter as you enter the village and is a reminder of the long history and the association Cong village has with religion. It is reputed that it was erected to mark the completion of the Royal Abbey of Cong in the 12th century. The more famous Processional Cross of Cong (crafted in Roscommon in 1123 and intended for the abbey) is acknowledged to be one of the finest works of art of that age in Europe. Now on view at the National Museum in Dublin, this priceless piece of 12th century craftsmanship is an oak cross covered with silver and bronze and decorated with various priceless stones. In the centre of the cross was a large crystal which is reputed to contain a portion of the true cross.

There is much here for the visitor to see. Connemara lacks the hustle and bustle of the cities. It is instead, a soothing balm to the soul--a place of peace and reflection. Come to Connemara, but take your time. Savor each bit and you'll seek this splendid isolation again and again.

Until next time.

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the coast road

On the way to Inverin - Photo by author

Kylemore Abbey kind courtesy Will Cooper; other photos by author

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