Grey clouds float across a gloomy sky, preventing the sun’s rays to peak through. Below on the ground, a herd of sheep tries desperately to find shelter from the approaching rain in a barren, treeless landscape of rocky hills, bogs and still lakes. No sounds other than that of the first raindrops and the wind pierce through the deafening silence that characterizes this seemingly uninviting region in western Ireland. This is a landscape as desolate and remote as you will find anywhere in Europe. It’s called Connemara.
Deriving its name from the ancient Irish tribe of Conmacne Mara, a branch of the larger Conmacne group of people, who inhabited parts of what is now Connacht, Connemara comprises a region on the west coast of Ireland, just north of the City of Galway . Although its boundaries are not clearly defined, it is generally considered to consist of the lands of the Maam Valley, Killary Harbour, the Twelve Bens mountains and the Lough Corrib area.
Connemara is a coastal region, its coastline made up of countless peninsulas, inlets and islands, while the inland regions feature moors and grasslands, bare mountains, small rivers, numerous shimmering lakes and peat bogs that used to (and still do) provide fuel for the few people that call this unforgiving region home.
As remote and empty as Connemara might seem, there are, in fact, a number of villages and towns. Clifden is the region’s major urban center, home to about 2,600 people and the unofficial capital of Connemara. This vibrant town makes for an excellent base to explore Connemara. Just like essentially any other town in Ireland, it is dotted with pubs and restaurants, offering wonderful opportunities to unwind after a well-filled day of outdoor activities (see below).
Other, much smaller, villages in Connemara include those with typically Irish names such as Ballynakill, Leenaun, Roundstone, Letterfrack and Carna—all are fine places to stop for a lunch break when traveling around.
That being said; the villages and towns in Connemara are all purely functional places, offering visitors a comfortable place to stay in a remote region. The real attractions are the landscapes and many natural features that typify this downright spectacular corner in the Emerald Isle.
Connemara National Park
Let’s start with what arguably is the best place to enjoy Connemara’s landscapes—Connemara National Park. This superb national park lies just outside of the town of Letterfrack and is dominated by cone-shaped 500-meter-high (1,640-foot-high) Diamond Hill. The hike to the top of this prominent hill is one of the very best in all of Ireland. Diamond Hill’s summit offers commanding views of Galway Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, the Twelve Bens mountains and the major attraction that is Kylemore Abbey. Visiting Connemara National Park is possible all-year round and is completely free.
Having mentioned Kylemore Abbey, let’s continue with this fantastic tourist attraction. Originally constructed in 1867 as a gift to his wife by a wealthy Irishman, Kylemore Abbey is now a Benedictine monastery, the home of Belgian Benedictine nuns who fled Belgium during the First World War. Set scenically at the foot of 530-meter-high (1,736-foot-high) Druruach Mountain and on the shore of calm Lough Pollacappul, this magnificent building is now partially open to the public. It’s one of the most popular attractions in western Ireland and is considered to be the most romantic building in the entire country. Major sites to be visited on the abbey grounds are the Abbey itself, the Victorian Walled Gardens, the Gothic Church, and the Lake and Woodland Walks.
A third strongly recommended destination in Connemara is Killary Harbour and Leenane. This is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, set perfectly in between the Sheefry, Twelve Bens and Maumturk mountain ranges and at the very end of Killary Harbour, which is often called the only fjord in Ireland. Leenane is a truly superb place for hiking—both mountaintop hikes and coastal walks start around this small village. In May, Leenane hosts a popular hiking festival; in September, it is home to the Autumnal Festival, which features beautiful local crafts and exquisite food.
These three destinations are enough to keep any visitor occupied for a few days and are the suggested places to start any visit. There are, however, many more that deserve some time, including Inishbofin Island, the Inagh Valley, and the Bog Road and the Sky Road. The recommended time to spend in this extraordinary region is four to five days.
Written by and photos by Bram Reusen for EuropeUpClose.com