wild atlantic way – the killary

Day three of our Wild Atlantic Way road trip brings us north to Leenane, on a sunny morning promising to turn into a late summer scorcher.
We check in at Killary Fjord Boat Tours for a ninety minute cruise. The twin-hulled Connemara Lady carries 150 passengers and promises a stable ride: no seasickness or your money back. We are welcomed on board by a local crew member whose smile and easy manner seem to indicate how happy he is in his work.
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We’re still not convinced by the sunshine: this is Ireland after all, and a cruise to the mouth of a west-facing fjord still promises to be pretty chilly. I’d convinced myself to wear shorts that morning and now I feel a little exposed. We steel ourselves and choose an outside spot nonetheless.
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The Connemara Lady departs on time. The scenery is outstanding, made all the more beautiful by the sunshine which continues unabated.
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The recorded commentary points our gaze to the aquaculture in the fjord – mussel and salmon farming for the most part – and also to the signs of pre-famine life along the banks of the river.
IMG_0187We see clear signs of “lazy beds” on the nearby slopes, the grassed-over ridges and furrows of failed potato crops that were never harvested. Nearby, ruined villages stand as monuments to families who died, emigrants who never returned, communities that were decimated by the potato blight.
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Even with echoes of this sorrowful time all around us, the green and blue backcloth all around us is just spectacular and made even more so by the strengthening sunshine. Passengers quietly remove sweaters and rain jackets or move into the shade. We turn our faces to the sun and know that somebody above is looking out for us. Today is the perfect day to take this journey.
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At the mouth of the fjord, at Fox Island, the Connemara Lady turns around and heads eastwards towards Leenane. I can see a group of people walking an old ruined road on the south edge of the fjord, something I file away for another trip, another late summer morning. The greens and blues of the landscape become even deeper as we watch the world go by from our vantage point.
IMG_0195Who could have imagined such stunning weather after the terrible summer Ireland has just experienced? I close my eyes and tilt my face to the sun, breathing in the clean Atlantic air. This is why Connemara is my favourite place on earth.
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wild atlantic way – day two

My second day on the Wild Atlantic Way starts early with an early morning walk. I ramble through the deserted streets of Clifden, past the Alcock and Brown Hotel, and take a left at the fork in the road. Past the old handball alley and the new children’s playground, fishing boats are moored alongside newly painted white bollards, and the Quay House B&B is a riotous colour of summer flowers and hanging baskets.

IMG_0074The laneway winds its way along the narrow inlet of Clifden Bay, lined with red fuchsia, orange montbretia, white meadowsweet and early flowering blackberry blooms.
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The narrow bay is millpond-still. I feel as if I have the whole of Connnemara to myself.
IMG_0076 IMG_0088Later, after breakfast, we head north on the Wild Atlantic Way towards Leenane. The view alternates from rural hedgerows and pretty roadside gardens, to huge vistas taking in the beauty of the Twelve Pins and countless bog lakes and ocean inlets.

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Past Letterfrack Quay we turn inland again, around Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park and on past the serene lakeside site of Kylemore Abbey. Kylemore Lough itself is deserted and still, framed by Mweelin Mountain.
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As we approach Leenane, the view to the west opens dramatically to show the ten mile long Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only fjord. Connacht’s highest peak, Mweelrea, dominates the northern shore.
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The fjord itself is cross-hatched with miles of mussel rafts.
We stop for a pot of tea and some apple tart in Leenane before heading back south, towards Clifden.
We take a detour at Moyard and loop round to the tiny port of Cleggan where the Inishbofin ferry leaves. A random road sign simply saying “Strand” takes us down a winding boreen to a beautiful, deserted beach. I take out Mum’s folding chair and she sits in the quiet while I venture down to the water’s edge.
IMG_9970 Everything is pure white and lapis lazuli blue. The view out to the Atlantic is broken by a few tiny islands, and if I’m not mistaken I can see the stark cliffs of Achill’s west coast far in the distance. “What’s the name of this beach?”, asks Mum. I haven’t a clue, and later on the Ordnance Survey map I still can’t make out exactly where we’ve landed.
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Omey Island is a small tidal island not too far from Claddaghduff. The tide is out as we approach, and we can see horse riders being led back across the sandy causeway that links the island to the mainland at low tide. We’ve been here before and missed the chance to drive across; this time we are more fortunate.
IMG_9991I drive our modestly-sized Renault onto the strand, more confident having just witnessed somebody in a tiny Nissan Micra do the same. Blue traffic arrows guide walkers, riders and motorists across the few hundred yards of flat sand to the entrance to the island. A single boreen leads to the western edge of the island.
We pass a handful of other motorists and walkers as we wind our way through empty fields, dry stone walls and the odd B&B signpost. The road stops abruptly at Gooreenatinny. The tiny bay points due west towards the wide expanse of the Atlantic: next stop Boston.
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Less than twenty minutes later we decide it’s prudent to turn back, having not checked the tide times before daring our little excursion. Sure enough, the water is inching in towards us as we cross the strand again; do I imagine it’s moving pretty quickly by now? Indeed not: we reach the little car park in the mainland side by exactly four o’clock, and by three minutes past a fast-moving finger of tidal water has already reached the traffic arrows. We watch as the tide spills in alarmingly quickly, and wonder how the motorists we saw crossing as we returned are going to escape.
Ballyconneelly Strand is one of a handful of unusual beaches on the west of Ireland where the “sand” is actually crushed coral and seashells. We often stopped here during childhood trips to the west.
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I help my mum down to the water’s edge where even on a cloudy summer’s day the sand is brilliant white against the turquoise of the calm Atlantic inlet. The crushed coral hurts our sandalled feet but we don’t care. This is one of our favourite little strands on the west coast.
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The back to back beaches of Dog Bay and Gurteen Strand don’t tempt us today, as we are on the hunt for a pot of tea. Down into Roundstone, we park the car by the little quay and find a little cafe that serves yet another delicious pot of good Irish tea (is it the Connemara bog-filtered water that makes the tea so wonderful?) and a lump of apple tart. This strange, still weather makes everything on the landscape seem even closer and the muted greys and blues even more striking.
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We take the scenic route back to Clifden. Continuing north-east out of around stone we pick up the bog road that cuts westwards through the Roundstone bog conservation area. This must be one of the most spectacular drives in Ireland, and even though we’ve done it dozens of times we still stop the car every few hundred yards to take in the magnificent scenery. We see two cyclists doing the same, and I genuinely wonder what it must be like to try and take in this breathtaking beauty for the first time, perhaps knowing you may never see it again.
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Far in the distance we can see the antenna of  Marconi’s first transatlantic telegraph station. Apart from the car and the bitumen of the road we travel, this historical structure is literally the only man made thing we can see, although we know the bog’s history includes not only the beginnings of the telecommunications age but also the age of transatlantic flight: it was into this very bog almost one hundred years ago that Alcock and Brown crash-landed their Vickers plane after successfully crossing the Atlantic from Newfoundland.
Back at base in Clifden, we feast again on the finest of fresh Irish produce before turning in. We’re not finished yet with the Wild Atlantic Way.IMG_0068

wild atlantic way – day one

Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way was introduced to the world a couple of years ago, transforming the wild west coast of Ireland, from Kinsale in the south to Donegal in the north, into one of the world’s epic road trips.
In my family, the Galway section of the WAW is just known as “going on your holidays”.
And so it is that Mum and I find ourselves joining the hordes of German, British, Italian and French tourists on the back roads of Connemara in the middle of August.
Salthill was where our childhood holidays were always based, so we start here with a hearty lunch of seafood chowder and toasted cheese sandwiches. I walk off lunch along the promenade, watching children and adults alike swimming in the chilly Atlantic waters.
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Driving out of Salthill we point out the various caravan sites we stayed in over the years, from McDermott’s Field to the fancier Ryan’s Caravan Park, from the posh pilot’s mobile home on the seafront to the isolated but amazingly situated caravan on Gentian Hill. So many memories, going back so many decades.
Turning left at Barna, we pick up the first blue and white WAW sign. It is strange to see a route our whole family knows in our sleep now slickly re-packaged into a twenty-first century icon

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On we drive, past the handball alley that marks the turn to the Silver Strand, and down to our first stop at Furbo Beach. The day is chilly enough for a long-sleeved jumper, but families are playing on the strand and the view across to the Cliffs of Moher is as spectacular as ever.
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Through Spiddal, we carry on with Galway Bay never more than a mile from our left shoulder. In time, the two smaller Aran Islands come into view, Inis Oir and Inis Meáin. We pass the village where I went to Gaeltacht summer school to improve my Irish. In those days most of the houses in and around Indreabhán didn’t have electricity, and the students were issued with candles on arrival. This was in the very early eighties.
Turning left at Baile na hAbhainn, I am horrified to see the little local harbour I loved so much from that time now signposted in blue and white to the tourist masses: is nothing sacred? I literally take a trip down memory lane, down the boreen past my bean an tí’s house and the cowshed where she used to retrieve fresh milk every morning for the breakfasts.
Past pristine white-walled dormer bungalows and the odd beautiful thatched cottage, past dry stone walls and heather and the odd cow, we finally come to a stop at the tiny quay.

IMG_9882Nothing much has changed here over the decades, except now most of the traditional currachs have outboard motors, and some blokes in a camper van have stopped there for a spot of lunch. How rude. I clamber around the rock pools and stare out to sea whilst Mum supervises the quay area. I’m not sure I want to share my little secret place with random tourists.
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Back inland, we stopp at Tigh Kitt’s for a pot of tea and some bourbon creams. I’m not sure what is being celebrated in this tiny local pub on a random Tuesday afternoon, but there are plenty of locals in there having a good time. We are the only non-drinkers, the only non-locals, the only non-Irish speakers. The tea is bloody good.

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Carefully turning right so as to avoid getting lost on Leitirmór (a bit of a family habit), we follow the winding road through spectacular scenery, passing the villages of Casla, Cámus and Scríob before we reach the Hollywood heights of Maam Cross, a favourite stop for American tourists of a certain age wishing to visit a replica of the cottage in the movie “The Quiet Man” (which was actually filmed a fair few miles away in the village of Cong).
We turn left onto one of the least scenic routes in Connemara, that is to say only moderately spectacular. The road sweeps past beautiful lakes with romantic names like Lough Shindilla, Oorid Lough, Lough Nacoogarrow and the Middle-Earth-sounding Garroman. At Ballynahinch Lake we are tempted to turn left and stop for a pint at Ballynahinch Castle, recently renovated I am told and even more delightful than ever, but we soldier on, anxious to find our hotel.
Turning into the picturesque town of Clifden, the Clifden Station Hotel greets us on the left hand side. It’s a pretty large complex, complete with leisure centre, day spa, its own theatre and a bar in the old train station building. It might be modern, but the welcome is warm and friendly as Edel checks us in and takes a dinner reservation.
Later downstairs, we feast on the freshest of local produce served with the heartiest side dish of vegetables I’ve seen in a while. Mum is charmed into ordering dessert and I have another glass of red.
IMG_9904After dinner we are entertained by an auburn-haired harpist who favours the works of O’Carolan but throws in a cheeky rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for good measure.
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We’re only 300km or so from Dublin but as always, Connemara feels like a world away. Tomorrow will bring more memories and more new experiences, as we explore our favourite corner of Ireland.

down memory lane

On the eve of Christmas Eve, I stroll up the street where I grew up to catch the bus into town for the first time in more than a decade.

The 78 bus is gone now, replaced by the number 40 that crawls through working class suburbs west of the city, over O’Connell Bridge itself and finishes its journey in the deep north of Dublin.

Older women with shopping trolleys wait in line by the electronic sign showing waiting times for the different buses. That would have been handy when I was a teenager. “Remember, you can get any number but the 18 bus”, Mum says. “you don’t want to be ending up in Sandymount.”

I hop on board and my favourite seat: upstairs at the very front. The main shopping drag is busy this morning. Jackie’s florist has lots of handmade evergreen wreaths for front doors and graveyard headstones. There is no hearse in front of Massey’s this morning, although when leaving the house I heard the slow tolling of the funeral bell up at St. Matthew’s Church, which this very day is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of its doors. Impossible to imagine burying a loved one in the week that’s in it.

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Down through the lower end of Ballyfermot, I have a perfect view across the river to the Phoenix Park and the Pope’s Cross. There is a new cafe at the GAA club down at Sarsfield Ranch, but next door the draughty scout hall I spent half my youth in, first as a sea scout and then as a venture scout, has been torn down. Wonder where they meet now.

As we go under the railway bridge, the border between Ballyfermot and Inchicore, I look with fresh eyes over the big stone wall into the railywaymen’s houses with their symmetrical windows and colourful front doors. They look huge and fancy from the outside, and I can’t imagine how they can be only two-bedroom houses.

Inchicore village is much changed since my youth: they even let women into the front bar of the Black Lion these days. There is a nice looking Italian enoteca next door, and a handful of international groceries selling Turkish, Polish, African and Indian food. Over the Camac River, St. Patrick’s Athletic grounds are now surrounded by newer apartment blocks as well as the old red-bricked terraced houses. St. Michael’s Church is not far from the street where my father grew up, but the bus heads towards Kilmainham and St. James’s Gate rather than down the South Circular Road, so this is as close as I get.

I remember the name of a girl I went to school with, as I pass her mum’s house in Old Kilmainham. The entrance to St. James’s Hospital is more modern now, with the Luas trams driving right into the hospital complex. Past Guinness’s iconic St. James’s Gate and the green dome of St. Patrick’s Tower, the former windmill of the long-closed Roe whisky distillery, past St. Catherine’s church, the site of the execution of Irish patriot Robert Emmet. I know these places not from history at school but from the stories my Dad told me every time we drove or took the bus down this route. His knowledge of the history of Dublin was encyclopaedic.

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Thomas Street and Meath Street, the heart of the Liberties, are as run down today as they were in my youth. Street sellers call out in their unforgettable Liberties accent: “Get the last of the Christmas wrapping paper, there now five sheets for two euro!” I remember when it used to be five sheets for ten pence. As my father would have said, that was neither today nor yesterday.

The heart of the Liberties has not changed for centuries, the imposing church of St. Audoen’s only in the ha’penny place beside the even grander structures of Christchurch Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral around the corner. So strange that, with the history of this city, we ended up with two Protestant cathedrals and no Catholic one to this day.

Dame Street is heaving with traffic and people. Trinity College is surprisingly bare of Christmas lights but the big old Bank of Ireland is looking great with a huge lit-up tree and plenty of Christmas garlands.

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Round by Westmoreland Street the crowds continue. The Spire rises up into the cold grey sky like a giant silver needle, dwarfing everything on O’Connell Street. Hard to imagine Dublin now without this marker of the new millennium.

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I hop off the bus at the GPO. School kids from Belvedere College are holding a sleep out in aid of the homeless. Clery’s is wrapped up with a huge ribbon of white lights. There is a big Chirstmas crib at the bottom of the tree in the middle of the street: no baby Jesus in there yet though. not till Christmas morning. The last few years saw a fancy artificial tree on O’Connell Street but we are back to a more traditional spruce this year.

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Eason’s is jam packed. Dads queue up with Christmas annuals for the kids. The three-for-two book deals are popular. I don’t manage to escape the shop without a book or two, even though it’s the second bookshop I’ve visited in twenty-four hours. Dublin always reignites my passion for reading somehow: must be all that literary history in the water. I entertain myself for a few minutes looking at the Irish tourist tat on sale near the front doors, and choose a few classic “you know you’re Irish when…” greetings cards to support local small business.

Back outside, it’s not that chilly. The crowds are thickening as the lunchtime crowds start to hit the streets. A day of shopping and family awaits, but for now I stand in the heart of Dublin and try to take in the moment: I made it home for Christmas.