The call of Connemara’s wild west has only grown louder during lockdown

It is in a series of river courses and lake shores that you sense the westernising of your world. Driving from the east in the days before the M6, you would cross over the Shannon either on the Athlone bypass or else through the Bord na Mona deserts to the south, a deserted byway that could shave time off a bank holiday journey.

ry-stone walls replace fences as you enter Galway county and the sky gradually opens. Through the city, the Corrib is next, the ruins of the Terryland Castle saluting as you leave the world of enclosure and bid farewell to the final traffic lights you will see for months.

On to Moycullen, the road rising up and allowing our young eyes to trace the Corrib’s northwards sprawl from the backseat window, the eye adjusting to a scale that Dublin city rarely speaks in. Then Oughterard, a gymnasium for the tongue, taking you through tackle shops, anglers’ rests, and the narrow bridge over the peaty Owenriff River that has always been my final gateway to Connemara.

In those days, my mother would be waiting at the school gates on the last day of term with the car stuffed to the brim. Off we’d go on what was then a four- or five-hour journey. All the way, it was single-lane roads taking you through staging post villages that bustle more quietly these days. Tyrellspass with its beautiful Georgian crescent. The waterwheel at Kilbeggan. The Napoleonic fortifications at Shannonbridge. The sense of transportation would thicken as we passed these landmarks, that feeling of relocating to a world where the landscape, the weather and the people worked to a different idiom.

Between Oughterard and Clifden, as the road undulates at will across bogs and birch woods, rush-fringed lakes and conifer plantations, the horizon begins to jut upwards with ratcheting drama. The Twelve Pins feel each time like the first true mountains you’ve seen in your life, ancient and formidable things a world away from the furry pimples of Wicklow.

Out the right-hand window, the island of Derryclare, a pine birthday cake framed by mountains. Out the left, the Ballynahinch lake and the oft-spun myth of Hen’s Island (“one night, the lonely soldier looked at his one hen and decided he was sick of boiled eggs and wanted roast chicken instead!”).

Even with the shorter coast-to-coast travel time these days, you are slowed to Connemara’s pace during this final stretch and I hope that never changes. It is as important a part of the region’s decompressive effect as its late-night sunsets, its patchy phone signals, and its almost total absence of straight lines.

Our home sits one peninsula north of Clifden at Boolard. Here, the bay of Streamstown empties twice daily to reveal a broad estuary teeming with marine life. Piping oystercatchers, herons setting their spearguns and cormorants drying their laundry on the rocks. The hunched island sitting in the middle of the bay can be walked out to at low tide, shoes in hand and feet plopping through the muddy sand. When Atlantic water filters up the narrow channel and fills the bay again, it would become a playground of crab-fishing and maybe even a brisk swim to escape the midges.

Other wildlife surfaces into view. When the rock at the end of the island changes shape, it is because a seal is lounging there. Hovering kestrels, as static as coat hangers, on the hunt for rodents and frogs. An otter scampering along the front wall, shaking water off its coat before slinking down and out of sight. On the rear hillside, nesting curlews, a sight all too rare these days.


Hilary and young Sasha on the beach in Claddaghduff

Back then, I walked with an old pair of my dad’s binoculars, and in the evenings drew pictures of what I’d seen. The natural world is today a major part of my life and a place that I try to exist in even when it does not seem close to hand. My childhood in Connemara is the reason for this.

Driving to the end of our peninsula, the road climbs slightly, offering views right the way out to Cruagh island on the horizon before you skirt north towards Claddaghaduff village and the Omey Island tombolo. At low tide, this huge strand plays venue to every pace in life, from galloping horses at its annual race meet to ambling toddlers exploring the many rock pools at its fringes. Further up the coast, Anchor Beach and Aughrus Beg do a Greek standard in white sand and turquoise waters.

If the sight of Inishbofin’s alligator snout looks compelling, you can loop around the headland back to the village of Cleggan and grab a coffee at the Sea Hare while you wait for the ferry. When you alight on this superb inhabited island of sea cliffs and archaeological sites, it is like the edge of the edge. There is a sumptuous little crescent beach on the Eastern side that has one of the best off-shore views of the mainland when the weather is clear.

Rain or shine, the Connemara National Park and its interpretive centre provided a deeper level of appreciation for the area and its histories, both natural and anthropological. Mostly, however, it is the start of the route up Diamond Hill, one of the most perfect upland walks in the land. Not so short to be without challenge but easily fitted into a day with other commitments, the track gently snakes its way up and up, past a meadow of Connemara ponies and on to blanket bogs of trilling skylarks and croaking ravens. At its rocky crown, you have the Kylemore Lakes and their iconic Abbey to north and the distant lakelands of Roundstone Bog to the south. Westwards, the headlands and bays interlock their jagged fingers through Ballinakill and Derryinver.

Even after spending a third of my childhood here, it can feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of Connemara. As the late, great Tim Robinson could have told you, exploring the hidden folds and secret histories of this country would absorb a lifetime.

When I got older and it became a place for summer jobs and weekend trips, having my own car freed me up to travel down some of the boreens and backroads. Sometimes, they would lead to little more than a pothole-ravaged dead-end out of which some careful reversing would be needed. Now and then, however, they could open on to a deserted shingle beach that I’d never dreamt existed. On foot is the best way to go about things, and when you break the line of a horizon by hiking up and over it, you put yourself in the path of galloping hares, ghostly famine villages and upland lakes rarely troubled by living souls.

Roundstone is often the first and last word for holiday makers in Connemara which is probably why I steer clear of it. A bowl of chowder and a glass of Guinness in O’Dowd’s is worth stopping for though, and there are magnificent beaches just south. But for me the word “Roundstone” means the magnificent vacancy and wildness of the old bog road that skirts miles inland, bypassing the coast and its maddening droves of gaudy bungalows.

After a good walk around the Ballynahinch estate and a fireside lunch in the castle hotel’s Fisherman’s bar, the bog road is the only route worth considering back to Clifden. By the time we’re home, we’ve absorbed two starkly different landscapes – one a riverine garden of pine and rhododendron, the other a marshy, rock-studded moonscape, both quintessentially Connemara.

The town of Clifden itself always proved as diverse. My grandmother turned up here in search of a new life in 1963, back when Connemara was part of an alternative hippy route. Artistic vagabonds, seasonal workers and bewitched tourists who get stuck, Connemara is still mecca to a certain class of voyager who is drawn to the boundary of things.


John Hinde postcards of Connemara

Over the years, I’ve run into characters from every country and walk of life, often in a mighty little bar called Mullarkey’s that itself feels like an outpost at the edge of the world. Stroll in there any night during Clifden Arts Festival each September and you could be met with live jazz, blues-rock, afrobeat, or stand-up. Attend its annual Halloween fancy-dress party and you’re guaranteed a night you’ll never remember.

Across the street, Guys has not only been a place for intimate conversation and superb food, it’s been like a family living room for me at times. In pre-smartphone days, it was the first port of call if I was ever looking for someone, and today it is still where I go expecting to run into a “long-time-no-see”.

You need a very good reason to turn your back on a town like this, but that is what you must do to ascend the Sky Road out of Clifden. This road loops naturally back to Boolard so there is a practical reason for taking it as often as I do. It is what you might call the “scenic route” home, although even that term doesn’t fit into the vast Atlantic map and near 360-degree view that awaits you at the summit. Pick a beach, a cove, a headland, a peninsula, a blanket bog. File it away as you drive back to light the fire and prepare the mussels you picked. It will be there for you tomorrow.

Like all parts of Ireland that rely heavily on the tourist season, the lockdown will have hurt Connemara badly. The region and the many friends of mine who work in this sector have been constantly on my thoughts. What has been of some comfort is to know that a new generation of both locals and blow-ins are bringing invention and imagination to food, tourism and hospitality in the area. These businesses are putting local produce on a pedestal and doing away with trite imported aspirations in favour of the treasures on the doorstep. I can’t wait to get down and taste it all, everything, through mouth and ear and eye. I find myself counting the days until that westward route is reopened and my young son can begin to get to know his own litany of staging posts.

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