Connemara: A Childhood Holiday
For every star God put in the sky, he laid a million stones in Connemara.
That’s just one of the platitudes and pearls of wisdom floating around this wild, West-of-Ireland landscape (in fact, for every star God put in the sky, there’s probably a million sayings about Connemara). But it perfectly encapsulates the rawness and romance of the place.
I first visited on a family holiday in 1980. I was six years old, and we stayed at Renvyle House, a coastal bolthole that even back then, seemed a destination in itself.
My memories are impressionistic; fleeting film clips rather than detailed scenes. But clocks tend to tick, years tend to pass, and like so many other childhood memories, my recollections of Renvyle have gone soft at the edges, long since acquiring the toasty glow of nostalgia.
I remember walking a stony Atlantic strand, finding a dead dogfish on the beach. It might as well have been a dolphin, such was the fascination we got out of it. The creature was prodded with sticks, put back in the shallows only to wash up again, and finally buried in a little sarcophagus of stones.
I remember boating on the lake by Renvyle House. I remember hiking in the hills – or Himalayas, as they seemed to my six-year-old legs. I remember vivid splashes of yellow gorse, and a picnic packed into a little cardboard box that folded cleverly to create handles. The wind was threatening to cut the woolly hat off my head, but then Dad poured the soup, and it made me feel like the Ready-Brek kid.
30 years later, Connemara gave me another wonderful walk. I had been in a minor car accident, and suffered ongoing back pain as a result. I was easing myself back into serious exercise, and I pitched up at Connemara National Park for the first serious hike I’d taken in years.
Breaking out the hiking boots, I set off along the twisting pathways towards Diamond Hill. The four seasons were served up like tapas, and I got hammered by rain. But I continued to scramble up the steeper sections, and finally struck the summit. On cue, the clouds parted like curtains, and sunlight streamed down on a panorama stretching from Kylemore Abbey to the Twelve Bens.
I stood there with a smile on my face, gulping down great lung-loads of fresh air.
Connemara has always been a draw for city slickers, particularly Dubliners. During the Celtic Tiger years, Roundstone was like a seaside version of Ranelagh, and not in a good way. As with other tranches on Achill Island, in Gweedore and West Clare, too many holiday homes were built, silly prices were paid for seafood, and the coastal road from Galway to Carraroe began to feel like a rat run.
Today, things have gone quieter. But you still find people heading west to revive. On this latest trip, I popped into the Connemara Hamper in Clifden to buy lunch. I emerged with the life story of Leo Halliday, an exploration geologist who spent 40 years travelling the world, before retiring to the place where he fished mackerel as a child. Today, he runs a little deli with his wife, Eileen.
I drove around Ballyconneely Peninsula, watching a dark belly of cloud stoop almost as low as the roof of the car, before giving way to a spell of sensational sunshine. I pulled in at Dog’s Bay, parked at the old cattle gate, and sat on a big boulder overlooking the strand. I had the place to myself.
One of the beauties of Connemara is that it means so many different things to different people. To you, Connemara could mean Maam Cross and The Quiet Man. To me, it could be horses careering across the tidal causeway at Omey Island, or tractor rides to Dan O’Hara’s homestead.
Then there are the beaches. My daughter, Rosa, is now six-years-old herself. And sifting through the coral strand at Carraroe, with its countless bones and shells, I felt like things had come full circle.
I’d always wanted to snorkel off the west coast too, and I got my chance near Glassilaun with Scuba Dive West. Squeezing into a thick wetsuit, complete with hoods and gloves, I duck-dived to examine a scallop on the seafloor. Surfacing again, the water gave way to a landscape strewn with black-faced sheep, gorse as yellow as Van Gogh’s sunflowers, and of course, a carpet of stones.
As a travel writer, I get back to Connemara a couple of times a year. I never get tired of it, either. For every star God put in the sky, there’s a million new nooks or cranny to explore.
This feature originally appeared in The Irish Examiner.
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