Aran Islands
(All photos: Tourism Ireland)

Ireland’s Wild West

On the west coast of Ireland, first and foremost, is the ocean. Storms rolling off the Atlantic gild the slate rooftops of Galway City with moss verdigris, tuck the bogs deeper into their grassy beds, and provide excuses to tarry by the pub’s glowing hearth until the weather subsides. And it does—more often than you’d think. 

As the skies clear, you’ll find yourself in a deeply authentic swath of the country with dramatic and unexpected sights that deserve a clear-eyed, clear-skied examination. You won’t soon forget white-sand Dog’s Bay, which brings a taste of the Caribbean to Connemara (although the water temperature never lies); the soaring Cliffs of Moher in County Clare; and the busy streets and lanes of Galway City, the pulse of the region, with its independent streak, gastronomy, and ties to traditional Gaelic culture.

Northwest of the city is rural Connemara—a rugged, rocky wilderness edged by the Atlantic on three sides and Lough Corrib to the east, and one of Ireland’s Gaelic-language heartlands. The most common ways of seeing Connemara are either in passing through a car window or by strapping on your hiking boots and tramping the heather-covered hinterland (protected as Connemara National Park). 

The region is one of the highlights of Ireland’s 1,600-mile Wild Atlantic Way coastal driving route that starts at the Inishowen Peninsula and concludes in the picturesque town of Kinsale. The Way hugs the coastal peninsulas that characterize Connemara’s seaward extent, offering views of the moody inland crags while a salty ocean bluster buffets the circling seabirds’ mews. 

If you’re traveling north to south, you’ll pass Ireland’s only fjord—Killary Harbour—before entering Connemara. It’s a rolling, gentle kind of fjord that won’t cause Norwegian tourism executives any sleepless nights, but its influence extends much further than its crooked inland ingress might suggest, with sought-after Killary salmon and mussels appearing on every local seafood menu worth its seaweed salt. 

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It’s a movement that’s attracting attention far beyond the country’s borders.

An alternative to the bracing switchbacks of the Way is an inland detour through the Inagh Valley—a picturesque highway skimming past lakes and mountains and fringed by coppery bracken and silver birch. Be careful to not be so mesmerized by the landscape that you forget the nonchalant sheep and goats that often stray—or even sit—across the narrow, unfenced roadway. (The occasional skid mark is a helpful, if alarming, reminder.)

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The Inagh Valley also contains Kylemore Abbey, with its immense pale-grey, neo-Gothic dimensions looking ghostly against the mountainside. This lakeside pile—the go-to place when an unforeseen squall puts the kibosh on the seaweed foraging—is now run by pottery-throwing Benedictine nuns but used to be the holiday home of textile merchant Mitchell Henry, one of 19th century Britain’s richest men.

The Abbey has just completed an expensive, cutting-edge refurbishment intended to make its history more accessible through multimedia displays and even a talking chair. (That history is colorful: the Abbey’s second owner, the flamboyant Duke of Manchester, bet the place in a game of cards—and lost.) You can’t actually stay at Kylemore Abbey (although the nuns are planning to create a spiritual retreat there in the near future), so most visitors find a berth in the main town of Clifden. Clustered around a small harbor, with a striking mountain backdrop, this is a resort town with added Irish panache.

If you can remove yourself from the welcoming Lowry’s pub (twice voted Best Traditional Bar in Ireland), you’ll find Clifden’s the place to gear up for salmon fishing in the broad rivers or expeditions into the national park to spot some of the famous Connemara ponies (apparently the result of Arab horses surviving a Spanish shipwreck and breeding with the local ponies).

Alternatively, just south of Clifden and well worth a visit is a memorial to the landing site of the first nonstop transatlantic flight; it honors John Alcock and Arthur Brown who, in 1919, journeyed in a modified World War I bomber from Newfoundland to Connemara. Also south of town lies the Connemara Championship Golf Links, offering stunning views and devilish onshore winds—a place for the golfer with insulated plus fours. 

Even windier than the back nine at Connemara are the Aran Islands, just off the south coast of Connemara, which you can reach via a regularly operated 40-minute ferry or seaplane service. There are three islands to visit, with Inish Mór (or Inishmore) the largest and most populated. (Inishmore translates as “big island.”) 

The archipelago is best known for its distinctive cable-knit sweaters (which Grace Kelly and Steve McQueen wore), though they are now almost entirely produced on the mainland. Originally, according to Aran-born guide Cyril O’Flaherty (of Aran Walking Tours), it was hand-knitted socks that were emblematic of the islanders’ hard existence: their distinctive patterns identified the washed-up bodies of drowned loved ones.

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The history of these islands, whose sheer sea cliffs are natural breakwater for Galway Bay, extends as far back as the Bronze Age, as evidenced by the circular hill forts that dot the landscape. Inishmore’s Dun Aengus, the most visited structure, is dramatically sited on a cliff edge, but O’Flaherty dismisses it as something of a tourist trap. Instead, he leads visitors on the backroads to other off-the-beaten-track forts offering views over the higgledy-piggledy gridwork of drystone walls riddling the island’s flat, mostly treeless surface.

Scattered over the islands are the remains of churches that, for the most part, have weathered less well than the forts. One of the earliest seminaries in Western Europe was established here, and many Irish saints—such as the fifth century warrior-king, St. Enda—have links to the archipelago. For O’Flaherty, an artist as well as a guide, life on the Aran Islands remains a spiritual experience. He describes how those who relocate to these outposts of civilization can find it hard, the limitations imposed capable of “breaking you down.” 

But there’s also support in this tight-knit community, with everyone on hand to help one another if needed. While the lights mostly stay on now even during the most powerful storms, when there is a power cut, O’Flaherty says, there’s an unwritten rule that everyone on the island makes their way to Joe Macs bar for a candlelit drinking session. (Joe Macs is also just a couple of minutes from the docks, a superb place to wait for the ferry.) 

But if it’s a party you’re after, make a beeline for Galway City. This port city, its rainbow of pub facades cutting through the gloom of overcast days, has a history that echoes Bristol—another westward-facing port. Ruled over by an oligarchy of 14 merchant families in the Middle Ages known as the “Tribes of Galway,” it is where you’ll find the Spanish Arch—a reminder that Galway was once Ireland’s principal trading port with the Spanish and French, exporting mainly wool and fish. Decline followed, and Galway saw a great deal of deprivation, especially following the potato famines of the 19th century, until the Celtic Tiger helped set the city back on its feet.

This year sees Galway’s thriving arts and culture scene in the European spotlight as the E.U.’s Capital of Culture for 2020. Already known as the City of Festivals, Galway is witnessing an even more active program of public performances, art exhibitions, and, yes, festivals than in previous years.

But this isn’t the first time that the E.U. has celebrated this part of Ireland—in 2018, Galway County was designated a European Region of Gastronomy in recognition of its organic-food movement. This passion for high-quality ingredients farmed in a sustainable way—from dulse seaweed to a floury Irish potato—has resulted in a food renaissance in Galway, which saw its first Michelin star awarded in 2013 to Aniar (see “Traveler Report Card,” below).

Aniar is a treat, but the ultimate Galway experience has to be a night in legendary boho pub Tigh Neachtain (pronounced “Naughton”) with a warm bowl of creamy Atlantic chowder in hand, a silky pint of Guinness in the other, and the folk band striking up their pipes as, far out to sea, another storm begins to build.

Editor's note: For this article, the Irish Tourist Board paid for travel, food, lodging, and activities but played no role in Allsop’s coverage decisions.


Traveler Fast Facts 

WHAT IT IS: 

Connemara is a cultural region in West Ireland and one of the country’s Irish-speaking heartlands. Its topography is torn from a romantic poet’s sketchbook, with its brooding 12 Ben mountain range and its forlorn, watery lowlands inhabited by wild Connemara ponies. South of Connemara is the Aran archipelago—a trio of karst limestone islands moored in the mouth of Galway Bay and a repository of 11,000 years of history. Looking out at the islands from the mainland is Galway City—Ireland’s Capital of Culture 2020, known as the “City of Festivals,” and a leading light in the country’s food and restaurant scene. 

CLIMATE:

It rains, on average, for 151 days of the year in Galway County with much of that precipitation falling in the winter. Otherwise there’s a temperate climate with highs of 63°F in July. Between this summer apex and mid-October is the best time to visit both from climate and event perspectives. Be prepared to see some glowing white Galwegian skin on display when the sun emerges. Spring also offers some fair weather, and accommodation prices are competitive during the shoulder seasons, although the wind whips at all times of the year when you’re at the coast. 

GETTING THERE: 

Shannon Airport, one hour’s drive south of Galway City, is Ireland’s third-largest airport and is capable of handling private aircraft of all sizes. Alternatively, Dublin Airport is the major international hub for the country. It’s a straight drive across the country of just over two hours to Galway City. 

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: 

The tourist infrastructure in Connemara tends to go into hibernation from mid-fall into early spring. However, the festivals and events just keep coming during Galway’s Capital of Culture year—be sure to consult its program on giaf.ie to make sure you don’t miss anything you’d want to see. 


Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS:

Connemara has several castles turned hotels, and Ballynahinch Castle Hotel (A) is perhaps the best of them. The rooms in the main house recently enjoyed a luxurious refurbishment, but because it sits in a 700-acre outdoorsman’s Irish fantasyland, you’ll probably spend much of your time here looking out the windows…The Quay House (A) at Clifden is a delightfully idiosyncratic B&B run by Julia and the Napoleon-obsessed Paddy. The oldest building in town, it features harbor-facing rooms that have views of the 12 Bens…The luxuriously appointed Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites (A+), on the smallest and least-developed of the Aran Islands, offers a retreat from modern civilization alongside international-class cooking from chef Ruairi de Blacam. 

CUISINE:

An incredibly popular seafood restaurant in the heart of Clifden (it gets booked up even mid-week) is Mitchell’s Seafood (B+). Despite all of its upscale trappings, it is at heart a down-to-earth seafood specialist serving up hearty mains such as a salty bowl of Killary mussels drowned in a pool of fragrant basil and lemon…Loam (A) is the restaurant that Enda McEvoy—who was head chef of Aniar when it won western Ireland’s first Michelin star—set up on his own. It’s a sophisticated dining room with a choice between a la carte and tasting menus of memorable small plates such as charred cabbage with poached oyster and red currant and kelp sauce…Aniar (A+)—owned by a leading light in the local food scene, chef J.P. MacMahon—is probably the cosiest Michelin-starred experience you’ll come across. Aniar translates as “from the West” and its tasting menu reflects the region’s ingredients and traditions, with dishes like potato foam and smoked eel served with a specially carved spoon…You’ll also find superb, imaginative cuisine on the streets of the compact, busker-busy city center at independent businesses like Marmalade Bakery (B+), bean-to-bar chocolate shop Hazel Mountain Chocolates (B+), and the fabulous new Brutalist cinema, Pálás (A), which serves up a menu at its in-house restaurant inspired by the films playing at the time.

ACTIVITIES:

To name a few: hiking, salmon fishing, pony trekking, wind surfing, deep-sea fishing, seaweed foraging, spiritual retreats, cooking classes, and championship-standard golf links.

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