Galway

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Wild Atlantic Way

“What do you think of it yourself?”, says I.

Sitting enjoying a pint of the black stuff in McDonnell’s pub in Béal an Mhuirthead (Belmullet, Co. Mayo), we were chatting about the sheer scale of the Wild Atlantic Way.

“Tis a fierce drive alright”, says Pat, bending down to recover his beer mat.

For sure, it’s a long way from Malin Head to Kinsale. Much more so when you hug the coast as you drive. But that’s a good thing.

Fáilte Ireland’s new Wild Atlantic Way is Ireland’s first long-distance tourist driving route. At 2,500 km, the Way brings the visitor far out west, to strange places like Clare’s Loop Head or Mayo’s Mullet Peninsula, two great West of Ireland fingers jutting out into our beloved ocean.

Now, I’ve been urging you to ‘come wesht’ for years. Maybe this innovation will be the spur that drives you (no pun intended) to do so. Check out An Fál Mór and Ceann Iorrais in far-flung Mayo, or the magnificent Inch Strand in western Kerry. Visit Clifden, the Sky Road and the Alcock and Brown landing site at Derrigimlagh, way out in Connemara.

Wild Atlantic Way, Erris Head

Ceann Iorrais (Erris Head), Mayo

But, once there, get out of your car. Walk to the tidal island of Omey (Galway), the towerhouse at Easkey or up to Queen Maedbh’s Cairn above Strandhill (both Sligo). Stroll around the beautiful Rosserk and Moyne Abbeys, just outside Ballina (Mayo) or feel the wind and spray below Sliabh Liag (Donegal). Heck, there’s even a little bit o’ Lovely Leitrim thrown in for good measure. But don’t blink – you’ll miss it.

The Wild Atlantic Way transports you to the far extremities of Europe, to a land fashioned by ocean, wind and rain. Ours is a place of bog and metamorphic rock, standing testament to a world that has been transformed over hundreds of millions of years. At Ceann an Eaniagh (Mayo), you’ll tread on Ireland’s oldest rocks.

At the Céide Fields (Mayo), you’ll find the world’s oldest field system and, as if that wasn’t enough, you’ll marvel at the staggering cliffs straight across the little road. Further west, at Achill, you can hike to the top of the tallest sea cliffs in Europe (outside of the Faroe Islands). Stare in awe at the ocean’s tumultuous surface, 688m below you.

In Clare, walk around Black Head’s Burren landscape and up to the mass rock. In Sligo, fly a kite above the beach at Rosses Point. In Cork, skip lightly out to the beautiful southwestern islands of Dursey, Clear and Sherkin.

Where to overnight ? Forget about the crowded destinations of Westport, Dingle, Bundoran and Doolin. No, choose the lesser lights and get out and meet the people of the smaller towns and villages, like Falcarragh, Easkey, Belmullet, Cleggan, Fanore, Ballyferriter and Union Hall. Choose Inis Meáin over Inis Mór on the Aran Islands.

We might even see you in McDonnell’s for a ‘scoop’.

Wild Atlantic Way Route Maps

View the Wild Atlantic Way Maps.

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Connacht

Ireland’s western province, Connacht, holds an especially intriguing place in the national self-perception. Far from the seat of power and the more densely populated Leinster, Connacht is a little-understood part of our country.

Connacht

Coat of Arms of Connacht

As far back as the first millenium, Connacht was already seen as different, wild and distant. An early poet described the characteristics of the (then) five Cúigí, or provinces, of Ireland. While Ulster was about war, Leinster about wealth and Munster about music and art, Connacht was said to be about learning. Cúige na Mí, of course, was about kingship. This idea of Connacht being about learning may perhaps come from the notion that druidic influence may have lasted longer out west than elsewhere in a land being increasingly dominated by Christian teaching. ‘Learning’ evokes notions of druids’ knowledge, teaching, stories and chronicles – essentially the domain of people more in tune with their natural surroundings, their own culture and the teachings of elders passed down over the millenia.

During the Middle Ages, then, came the famous declaration, attributed to Cromwell, of “To Hell or to Connacht”. In the 1650s, as English efforts to suppress the resisting Irish continued, Cromwell’s army was trying to shift the native Irish away from the fertile lands of the east and south of the country. The choice facing the displaced Gaelic Irish was, essentially, between ‘hell’ and the far-away, infertile, damp and rocky boglands to the west.

By the late 19th Century, Connacht was firmly depicted as the real, the essential, the historical Ireland. Rural, poor and agricultural, the province was very much the opposite to the rich, urban, developed, sophisticated east (which, of course, was in turn backward compared to the affluent and sophisticated London and England of that era).

Connacht continues to evoke two very different images among the Irish. Is it, on the one hand, backward, conservative and inferior ? Or, on the other hand, is it uncorrupted and deeply rooted ? Is Connacht desolate and isolated, a land covered by endless useless wet and boggy ground ? Or is it, in fact, natural and unconstrained in its beautiful simplicity ?

Connacht Today

Today, Connacht comprises the five counties of Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Mayo and Galway. With a population of just over 540,000, it is the least populated province of Ireland and, apart from Galway city (75,000), has no urban area with more than 25,000 residents. The province is roughly bordered to the west and north by the Atlantic ocean, to the south by the Burren of Co. Clare and to the east by the River Shannon, although half of Leitrim is, in fact, on the east side of the river.

Physical Features of Connacht

Ireland’s largest offshore island is Achill, Co. Mayo. The country’s only true fjord, the Killary, forms part of the border between counties Mayo and Galway. Our second largest lake, Corrib, is mostly in county Galway and other great lakes of Connacht include Loughs Carra, Conn, Cullin and Mask. Mountain ranges include the Nephin Begs of Mayo, the Twelve Bens and Maumturks of Galway and the smaller ranges of Dartry and Ox in Sligo. Northwest Mayo contains the two largest tracts of land in Ireland without through-roads.

Come to Connacht and experience authentic, true, wild and wonderful Ireland !

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Cong Lakes Walking Weekend 2013

Join our group for this fantastic guided walking weekend in May. Taking place over the May bank holiday weekend, from May 3 through 6, Cong Lakes Walking Weekend is one of the top walking weekends the West of Ireland has to offer.

Walking is graded easy on two of the days, with the third graded moderate and includes a hike to the top of the 411 m Benlevy mountain outside Clonbur.

Cong, at the very southern tip of County Mayo, is one of Ireland’s prettiest villages. The village is criss-crossed by numerous channels of the same river, with deep pools dotted all around. Cong even enjoys the added attraction of beautiful native and exotic woodlands all around.

Cong is a wonderful place for walking, with good quality off-road trails that skirt along the edges of the great western lakes of Loughs Corrib and Mask. The trails meander through lovely woodland, a mix of native broadleaves and the typical conifers of the West of Ireland.

Two pubs in Cong are excellent – Danagher’s at the bottom of the village and Lydon’s at the top. Both are home to really good trad music sessions.

Cong Lakes Walking Weekend is a three-night guided walking event, involving three days of walking. Cong and neighbouring Clonbur inhabit the narrow isthmus between the great Loughs Mask and Corrib, on the Galway Mayo border.

We stay in a choice of a Cong B&B or Cong Hostel, both directly across the street from eachother, with full board, including three breakfasts, three dinners and three packed lunches for the walks.

Day One (Fri.) : Arrival, dinner and orientation.

Day Two (Sat.) : Hiking the linear walk between Clonbur and Cong, through the native woodland regeneration site and on the limestone pavement (a ‘mini Burren’) landscape at Lough Mask.

Day Three (Sun.) : Hill climb of Benlevy, wedged between the two lakes and offering fabulous views of Mask, Corrib and the higher Connemara and South Mayo mountains in all directions. Visit the haunting deserted village at its base.

Day Four (Mon.) : Low lying walk through woodland and along the shore of Lough Corrib. Departure.

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Inishbofin

I had wanted to visit Inishbofin during winter and so, last week, took the ferry out from Cleggan. As it was February, there were only 9 of us on board.

Inishbofin - Walking in the west of Ireland

Approaching Inishbofin

As the days are still short, I wasted no time. I threw my bag into The Beach B&B and headed straight for the northern side of the island, in order to complete an anti-clockwise loop that would bring me out towards Middlequarter before swinging towards Westquarter. Accuweather let me down (hardly a surprise in these parts and at this time of year), telling me Saturday would be reasonable and Sunday rainy. In fact, my first day was miserable enough, with very low cloud and drizzle all day, turning to heavier rain before I completed my circuit. Sunday, on the other hand, was beautiful, with clear blue skies above.

The walk brings us north from the village leaving tarmac roadways behind, then west, crossing the stone beach that separates Lough Bofin from the sea immediately beyond. The Celtic Tiger airstrip seems an unnecessary scar on the landscape. Further along, we reach the blow holes, before looking out onto the Stags of Bofin. It is between these and the return towards the village that the coastline is at its most impressive, with 30 m high cliffs, a promontory fort and the views across to Inishark. A lovely stretch.

This loop walk is 11 km long, virtually flat and took 5 hours to complete at a very leisurely pace.

On Sunday, I took the relatively short stroll eastwards, to reach St. Colman’s ruined 14th Century church and the beautiful beach looking out towards Mweelrea and Mayo. The highlight of the weekend was observing a Peregrine in pursuit of what looked like pigeons. He didn’t succeed.

Walking Inishbofin Connemara

St. Colman’s Church

With a 2011 census population of 160, Inishbofin is comparable with the Mayo island of Clare (168) in terms of residents. It would be well ahead of the island that lies between them, Inisturk, which boasts fewer than 60 islanders.

In summer, Inishbofin is an extremely lively spot, which unquestionably adds to its attraction for day-trippers. I would recommend staying the night.

Visiting Inishbofin

Before your trip, visit the website of Inishbofin Tourism. Find out about ferries to the island.

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Coillte and Native Woods – Is It Possible ?

Coillte is the Irish state-owned commercial forestry management entity, controlling around 7% of the national territory. Almost all of the trees planted on the company’s estate are non-native conifers, including Sitka Spruce, Norway Spruce, Lodgepole Pine and others. Many of its sites in the West would be considered near ‘dead zones’ in terms of their very poor species diversity, both flora and fauna. We all know of sites where the sun does not penetrate to the monoculture plantation floor and where birdlife and mammal life is low in diversity.

In a remarkable move, however, Coillte became involved in an EU-Life Natura 2000 project back in 2006, with the aim of restoring small bits of its estate as priority native woodland habitats. This week, I attended the two-day conference, which closed this four-year, € 2.6 m project.

On the second day, attendees visited Clonbur Wood, on the Galway – Mayo border. Various Coillte personnel introduced us to the interesting aspects of the wood, which is associated with limestone pavement. Large scale removal of non-native trees has taken place and native species planted in their place. There is real hope that this site, of almost 300 ha, can return to being a wonderful, diverse native wood.

Native trees present include Ash, Hazel, Birch, with some Oak, Juniper and Yew. Animals present include fox, badger, pine marten, red squirrel, lesser horseshoe bat and otter.

As one part of my three- and five-day walking tours in Mayo, I bring small groups on to Coillte managed lands. In 2010, I will be adding this wonderful new amenity at Clonbur, where walkers can see first hand this impressive project to re-establish a native limestone pavement woodland in this part of the West of Ireland.

See here for information on Clonbur Wood.

For the EU website on the LIFE Project, see here.

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Some Places to Visit in Ireland’s West

If you’re living in or visiting Ireland’s West, you might like to consider some of these places for a nice walk or some fun out with the family :

1. Moore Hall, near Carnacon, south County Mayo.

Ruined “big house” plus surrounding forests – much of it planted conifers, but also quite a bit of native broadleaves. Nice walks around Lough Carra.

2. Lough Key Forest Park, near Boyle, north Co. Roscommon.

Okay, there’s the paying part, but there is also loads to do without parting with your cash. Kilometres of forest walks, most of it through native and non-native broadleaves, parts also through conifers. Lakeside walks. Feed the swans and ducks. Look at the passing cruisers, etc.

3. The Suck Valley Way, Athleague, south Co. Roscommon.

Head for the lovely Visitor Centre in a former church. Walk along the bank of the River Suck as far as Castlestrange and its La Tene Stone. If you’re up to it, continue to the quaint and pretty riverside village of Castlecoote.

4. Mountbellew Demesne, Mountbellew, north Co. Galway.

Very large and dense conifer plantation has good walks. See its old forge. If you’re lucky, you might spot some deer, or test your skills in finding their footprints.

5. Arigna Mining Experience, near Drumshanbo, mid Co. Leitrim.

Perhaps Ireland’s best paying tourist attraction (in my humble opinion). Visit the old coal mine, guided by the actual miners themselves. If I remember correctly, mining ceased circa 1990 and the guys themselves now bring visitors around. When they’ve retired in the future, I doubt if the experience will ever be the same, so get there soon.

6. Old Head Wood, beyond Westport, west Co. Mayo.

Forget the beach (as pleasant as it is). Walk beyond the beach and discover the amazing, though small, Old Head Wood. Walk through it at a slow pace and take in this tiny piece of old Atlantic Wood. Then exit the far side and walk along the cliff top fields, until you get a clear view of the great Atlantic Ocean and Clare Island in front of you. Spot the Cormorants, Seals, Dolphins, etc. Take note of the poor trees, bent over at 90 degrees eastwards from the fierce and unrelenting Atlantic winds.

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