A trip through Connemara and beyond

I adore road tripping.  There’s just something about being free to move about the world at will that makes it all the more intriguing.  Plus we decided on a new dynamic of our relationship: Claude drives in Europe, I drive in the USA.  (And thank goodness for that because I’m still not used to this wrong-side-of-the-road business.)

After doing some shopping in the limited car rental market in Galway, we rented a small car (VW Polo) from Enterprise because a) they had automatics, b) they would pick us up and bring us home, and c) no fee for renting the car from the city center.  Unfortunately they failed on the automatic transmission part of the deal because they didn’t actually have one available to us on that day.  Claude was not too happy to have to learn to drive a stick left-handed on top of the already perilous conditions of having to remember to drive on the left side of the road and trying not to cause an accident on the narrow roads.  But the nice young man who picked us up assured him it wasn’t all that hard, and he was very helpful in directing us how to get to the rental office when returning the car.  I negotiated the price down, we bought the insurance, and finally we were let loose onto the streets of Galway.

The sun was shining and the streets were dry as we set out northward toward Connemara.  Connemara is a loosely defined area in the west of Ireland, encompassed by County Galway and part of County Mayo, and includes the National Park.  Much of it was once land owned by Mitchell Henry, the original owner and builder of Kylemore Castle.  It’s an incredibly interesting area of the Gaeltacht region of Ireland, filled with loughs (lakes) and bogs and small mountains, including the Twelve Pins.  A side effect of our driving understanding is that the person who doesn’t drive has to be the navigator.  The problem is that I have a not very well honed sense of direction; fortunately Claude’s is much more highly tuned.  I say I think we need to take such-and-such road and his sense of direction and orienteering skills help him decide whether or not I am right.  So I decided that we would skirt the east side of the park going up to the abbey and return home by skirting the west side.  We stopped for petrol in a place called Recess, where the main business seems to be Joyce’s Craft Shop, and the main attraction is a large stone statue of the Connemara giant (Conn of the Sea).  The plaque on the statue states that it was erected on that spot by the Craft Shop “for no apparent reason.”  It’s really cool though.

(At this point I am going to direct you, dear reader, to the Flickr set I created of a selection of our photos so that I didn’t have to use all our bandwidth on the blog to show you the sights.  I suggest you open another window or tab and direct your browser to our Connemara trip set of photos.)

The park is lovely but I imagine it’s even prettier in the summer when everything is all green and blooming.  It’s a leisurely drive up to the abbey dotted with lakes and lots and lots of sheep.  The sheep don’t seem to have much fear of the vehicles flying up the roads so we were as careful as we could be when we saw them on the road.  It is an almost surreal experience, seeing something in person that we had only seen before in movies or read about in books, especially the sheep on the road.  It only took us about an hour to get up to the abbey, and that was with us meandering and taking our time.

The approach to the castle is so idyllic as to be almost impossible to believe.  The view you encounter is this iconic image you can see just about any time you Google Kylemore Abbey but when you see it for yourself it’s pretty overwhelming.  The grounds include a Victorian walled garden that we decided to visit first.  There’s a 1 km path between the castle and the garden that takes you past interesting sculptures and a lake, with huge gnarled trees and a grotto fashioned to mirror the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes that the Benedictine nuns had constructed and use for contemplation.  One of the sculptures is a little curved wooden wall with a small door in it – I like to think that it leads off to a fairyland that only small children can enter.  I could see how, when the land was privately owned, this walk was a wonderfully peaceful approach to the tranquil beauty of the garden, an experience that must have been simply heavenly.

The castle and gardens were built between 1867 and 1861 by Mitchell Henry.  At one time the gardens contained 21 glasshouses which were used to grow exotic fruits and plants.  During the time of subsequent ownership of the castle, the gardens were left untended.  When the nuns took over the property they began to restore the gardens to their former glory.  Archaeologists came in and uncovered the foundations to the glasshouses.  Through donations of time and money the gardens are slowly being restored, as are the glasshouses, the gardener’s cottage and the undergardeners’ bothy.  Only plants that grew there in Victorian times are cultivated in the garden today.  The kitchen garden and herb garden are separated from the rest of the garden by hedgerows, as it would have been in Victorian times when the activities of the servants were screened from view of the residents of the castle and their guests.  Now there is a tea house and restaurant in which they serve the foods grown in the garden.  Just outside the walls of the garden is Diamond Hill.

Diamond Hill just beyond the walled garden

Fortune smiled upon me at this point, as there is a shuttle bus provided between the gardens and the castle.  We rode up and had a bit of lunch (courtesy of our Living Social voucher deal which bought us entry to the grounds and soup & sandwich for a terribly reasonable price of just €19), then made our way to the castle itself.  Kylemore was built, as I said, by Mitchell Henry, after visiting this beautiful area while on honeymoon, falling in love with it and purchasing a number of acres, as a gift of love for his wife Margaret.  They raised nine children together in the castle, and entertained as many as 150 guests at a time.  When Margaret died of dysentery in Egypt in 1875 Mitchell spent less and less time at the castle.  Eventually he built a chapel in which to bury Margaret and was buried there himself after his passing.  Possession of the castle changed hands a few times and was finally purchased by a group of Benedictine nuns who used the property as a girls’ school.  When the school closed the property was retained by the church but opened to the public in order to cull donations for maintaining and improving the grounds.  The nuns use the chapel for special occasions and produce soap and chocolates for sale to the public.

It is a beautiful building, well maintained and preserved, with all the wonderful accoutrements of the Victorian age still on display.  Many of the fireplaces are made of Connemara marble, and the dining and sitting rooms are still outfitted as they were when the Henry family resided there.  My mobility was too taxed by this time to walk over to the chapel and get pictures, so maybe that’s a trip for another day.

We headed west toward a little town called Letterfrack, then up toward Leenane to see one of Ireland’s 3 fjords, Killary, and the harbor there.  There’s a company that offers boat cruises up the fjord but we thought that would just take too much time and money we could use for other purposes.  As it turned out, it wasn’t all that exciting anyway – however now we can say we’ve seen at least one of Ireland’s fjords.  Back down to Letterfrack and out west toward Clifden we went, Claude braving the terrifying drive once again.

On the way up to Kylemore we had passed the Quiet Man bridge, something that is a must see when you’re in that area.  Considering that we were heading back home on the same road, we decided to watch for it and stop.  It’s just a small rock bridge, pretty unremarkable in many ways, but it’s also a part of the history of the area, made famous by the most famous film made in Connemara (and the only John Wayne film I’ve ever really liked).  It also serves as the start of the Mile Orga or Golden Mile walk, which is a goal for another day.  Apparently people find it to be good luck to press a coin into the sign and a number of coins from different countries are jammed into it.  We stopped at a nice little pub in Oughterard for some dinner; the food was not all that good but the people were very friendly so the craic was worth it.  Every once in a while I like to order a cocktail, especially when we’re in a new place, so I had yet another interesting variation of a Black Russian.  It was good.

We came back through a town called Bearna (Barna) by the sea and ended our day back in our cosy little home in Salthill.  Poor Claude’s shoulders were up around his ears!  I still marvel at the courage he has to throw himself into these totally unknown situations we often find ourselves in and yet manage to enjoy himself.

On Good Friday we struck out toward the east to go see the round tower that Claude found on Google maps a while back and has been haunting him ever since.  It is located near the Rosshill Golf Course; bring up the map, scan directly south of the little map flag until you get to the bay.  The tower, an old church and a graveyard known as the Penitent’s Station are right there.  It’s located in an area that is surrounded by privately owned land so we had to traipse across the beach to get to the wall to climb over to get to the tower… which proved to be too much for me.  Stumbling across the lumpy ground on the beach was so difficult that I had to turn back about halfway there.  Claude said it was pretty cool and took a few pictures.

Old church near round tower

Old church near round tower

Since we were on the east side of town already we decided to head over to Athenry (pronounced At-en-rye) to see the castle & priory there.  On the way we passed through Oranmore and drove in a few circles until we found a way to get to the castle there…only to find out that it’s only open in June, July & August.  We got a couple shots of the building anyway. Athenry was a walled city founded around 1250 CE and anchored by the castle.  A great deal of the medieval structures still exist in the town itself, including gates and walls, the priory and the church, along with the castle.  Entry is a mere €3 and includes a film that shows information about Athenry as well as about a number of other ancient buildings still surviving in the Gaeltacht and County Galway region.  It provided several ideas for other places that we need to visit!  We had a very nice lunch in a small bistro-type restaurant, lucky to find anything open seeing as it was a holiday.

At this point we realized that we only had time to visit one more place before heading back.  Quick-minded Claude said he thought we should go see the Turoe Stone, which was mentioned in the film at the castle in Athenry.  He recalled having read about the stone previously and that it was situated at a petting zoo.  Sure enough, we found a sign leading to the Turoe Park playland and zoo, and after one or two U-turns we made our way down the correct road and came across this amazing object surrounded by a tatty shed building in the middle of a field.  Apparently the Office of Public Works has control of the object and decided that it needed to be protected from vandals and weathering by putting the shed over it.  Unfortunately they don’t maintain the building so it is covered with splashed mud and cobwebs, pretty much obscuring a good view of the stone through the two small windows in the shed.  It was still pretty cool looking at an object that had been carved by someone who lived almost 1000 years before Christ.

The atlas that we bought for our driving trip around Ireland back in 2009 was already two years old at the time of purchase, so is by now 5 years out of date.  It doesn’t even show the proposed route for the motorway that we ended up having to take back to Galway so we could meet our timetable and get the car returned on time – another adventure in itself.  Our return home at the end of this two-day adventure was welcome!

— Cindy

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