EXPLORING CO. GALWAY: CONNEMARA
When travelling along the West coast of Ireland, it is impossible to miss Connemara, a region in County Galway. It evokes some of the most iconic Irish landscapes you see in travel guides, those famous rugged vistas and rustic tranquillity. The scenery combines narrow roads punctuating windswept valleys, countless sheep, beautiful inland loughs - what's not to like? So, as I headed from Limerick up to Galway City, I decided to go on a day trip to the renowned countryside.
There are a few companies operating tours from Galway to Connemara, as well as to the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, and the Aran Islands. After browsing the world wide web, I booked a trip with Galway Tour Company for no particular reason other than that I liked their description of the route better than others.
> The tour runs daily. It leaves Galway at 10:00 and returns at 17:30-18:00. Ticket prices: adult €30, student/senior €25, child €20. There's a €5 discount when booking two day-trips with then.
The first leg of the tour takes you on the road N59, which stretches out along Lough Corrib. As you drive from Galway farther inland, you will notice that the landscape changes from the forty shades of green that the country is so strongly associated with to a tapestry of golden hued heather, purple mountains, and brown turf bogs. 'Savage beauty', as Oscar Wilde described it.
> KYLEMORE ABBEY
Within about 1,5 hours the bus brings to you to Kylemore Abbey, a place with a very romantic yet tragic history. Located on the shores of Pollacapall Lough at the foot of the Twelve Pins Mountains, this neo-Gothic castle was built for a wealthy cotton merchant named Mitchell Henry as a present for his beloved wife Margaret. The couple spent their honeymoon in Connemara and fell in love with the place. Following Margaret's suggestion, Mitchell decided to build a home for their family here. The castle took seven years to build, so the Henry's and their 9 children would spend time between London and Kylemore. When the works were completed in 1871, the big family settled down in Connemara. Unfortunately, they were not meant to enjoy it for too long.
In November 1874, the Henry's went on holiday to Egypt, where Margaret contracted dysentery and passed away at the age of 45. Her death left Mitchell completely devastated and overwhelmed by grief. He had her body embalmed and brought back to Kylemore. On the grounds of the castle, he built a church designed as a cathedral in miniature (picture in the middle). It was originally intended that Margaret would be buried in the crypt below the church, but as Mitchell could not bear the thought of burying her below ground, so he built a mausoleum to lay her to rest a short distance from the church (click pictures to enlarge).
In 1903, Mitchell Henry sold Kylemore to William Angus Drogo Montague, also known as 9th Duke of Manchester. The Duke and his wife were not all that interested in taking care of the estate and did not maintain it well. In the 1920s, the castle was purchased a group of Benedictine nuns from Belgium who had fled the war. They converted it into the working Kylemore Abbey. Until 2010, the estate housed a boarding school for girls run by the nuns.
We had a bit two hours to explore the premises, which is more than enough to see everything, including the Victorian Walled Gardens (picture on the right). Back in the day, there were 21 heated glass houses and a 60-foot banana house that provided residents of the estate with fruit and vegetables of all kinds.
Keep in mind that if you book this or another similar tour, admission to the Abbey is not included in the tour's price (see below). If you choose not to enter the grounds, your only entertainment is a souvenir shop and its café. Had I been travelling by car, I would have probably chosen to take a look at the castle from the entrance area.
> Admission: Year Round
> Tickets: adult €13, senior €10, student €9 if you buy it at the entrance (cheaper online). If you are on a tour with Galway Tour Company, you can get a ticket from your driver for €8,
> THE DRIVE
After Kylemore Abbey, the tour takes you to Leenane (also spelt Leenaun), a village overlooking the dramatic Killary Harbour and the fjord of the same name (pictured on the left). This scenic location served as the backdrop for The Field, a film starring Richard Harris about a tenant farmer's plans to pass on a rented piece of land to his son. Nowadays, Killary is a popular destination for water sports and hiking, but this part of Connemara would have been a drastically different place in the 1840s. The path along the southern shore of the fjord is an old famine relief road. It was built during the 1850s by many thousands of starving farmers who worked on the construction to earn a penny a day,
Next on the route is Loch Na Fooey (or Lough Nafooey), a stunning lake in a steep-sided valley. It is located along the border of County Mayo and County Galway. This area is Gaeltacht, which is an Irish word denoting a region where Irish is the primary language of everyday communication. You will see a respective sign as you drive from Leenane toward the lake.
> CONG VILLAGE
Shortly after Loch Na Fooey, you will reach Cong. The Irish name for Cong, Cúnga Fheichin, means Saint Feichin’s narrows and refers to its geography: situated on an isthmus between Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, it is an 'island' village with ruins of an ancient abbey. The former Augustinian Abbey of Cong was built in the 12th century on of the site of a monastery, then burned in the early 13th, and rebuilt between the 13th-16th centuries.
You might recognise this place from the classic The Quiet Man, which was shot here in 1951.
From the abbey ruins, take a footbridge that spans over the river. You will see the monk’s fishing house pictured above, which most likely dates to the 15th or 16th century. The small house was built on a platform of stones over an arch thus letting the water flow underneath the floor. whereas a trapdoor allowed a net to be cast into the river. The monks would wait for their catch while sitting by a small fireplace. Local tradition says there used to be a line connecting the fishing house with the monastery kitchen to let the cool know of fresh catch,
> ROSS ERRILY FRIARY
The final stop on the tour is Ross Errilly Friary, one of the best preserved and prolific Francisian monasteries in all of Ireland. The original site dates back to 1351 (although historians call this date into question), but most of the remaining structure was built in the 15th century. Impressively, all walls and doors that make up this extensive range of constructions, as well as some interior features are still intact (take a look at these aerial photos).
The monks were forced to leave Ross Errilly on numerous occasions during the 17th and 18th centuries, and there is evidence that they were still there in 1753. They finally abandoned the abbey shortly after, so it was in ruins by the dawn of the next century. The friary progressively decayed, and visitors are said to have been greeted by many unburied human bodies strewn throughout the monastery.
Like many other abandoned Christian sites across the country, the friary has continued to be used as a burial site long after it had been put out of commission. Certain families are still allowed to bury their family members here, so you will notice new tombs right next to much older ones. Some of the medieval walls also feature intricate tombstones.
By the time we headed back to Galway, the skies had completely cleared up allowing us to catch one last glance on the beautiful country side. You can read about what to do and see in Galway on one day in this blog post.
> How to get to there: Shannon Airport, the third largest airport in Ireland, is situated 87 km from Galway. It operates routes both within Europe (primarily to the UK) and to the United States. Alternatively, you can fly into Dublin or Cork and travel to Galway by train or by bus.
Have you been to Connemara or Galway? Share in the comments below!
Happy travels x