Connemara suits all the family, says Christopher Somerville – Times/Travel/Ireland – Sunday Times UK
As we drove west from Galway City into a smeary red sunset, my daughters caught sight of the Twelve Bens standing like dark guards in peaked helmets along the lake-streaked boglands. There was a communal intake of breath, the kind of admiring gasp I remember giving when I first set eyes on Connemara’s sentinel mountains a dozen years before.
“Oh my God,” sighed 18-year-old Elizabeth. “Look at those beautiful reflections in the lakes!” Her boyfriend Pip, 21, and 14-year-old sister Mary murmured appreciatively, too, gazing out on one of Ireland’s most stunning landscapes.
In the front of the hire car my wife Jane and I exchanged silent glances of relief. Yes, it was probably going to be all right, after all, taking three city-raised young people on a family holiday to a remote rural location in the west of Ireland.
The potential problems of taking teenagers and young adults away on a family holiday are all too clear. What if they react with contempt to the place you’ve so carefully chosen? How are they going to get any night-time action? And, most difficult of all — how on earth is the dreaded boredom to be staved off? One thing I knew for certain: I must rein back my own enthusiasm for the west of Ireland. No one else in our party had yet been to Connemara, and the surest way to put them right off the place would be to over-enthuse. They must discover its magic for themselves.
Way down a twisting side lane south of Clifden we came to Ballyconneely Holiday Cottages in the townland of Bunowen More. It was too dark to see anything much that first night. But next morning the full majesty of the view from our conservatory windows was revealed — reed-fringed Doon Lough right on our doorstep, the tall hump of Doon Hill beside it, the ruins of the Gothic mansion of Bunowen Castle silhouetted dramatically beyond, and in the distance the gold and blue peaks of the Twelve Bens outlined against a clear Sunday sky. “Fabulous view,” said Pip, sketching away on the conservatory table.
No one wanted to accompany me on the five-mile round trip walk to church in Ballyconneely. Strange, that. It was one of those fresh, breezy west of Ireland mornings. Connemara ponies put their noses over the stone walls, and a sweet tang of turf smoke drifted on the wind. The bogland rose and fell in gentle swells, scabbed with granite outcrops and spattered with the bright yellows and purples of bell heather, thyme and gorse.
In rural Ireland houses belong to townlands rather than to nucleated villages, and are widely scattered over the landscape. Ballyconneely village itself turned out to be little more than a crossroads with a pub and store (“Yes! It’s Keogh’s Bar!” proclaimed the sign painted on the end gable), the focus of all local shopping and social life, which we came to know well during our week’s holiday.
The ragged-edged peninsula where Bunowen More sits is scalloped with wonderful beaches of white sand. We soon chose and adopted “our beach” just below Connemara Golf Club. Early each morning, while the young people were still snoring, Jane and I would swim there with only a herd of seaweed-munching cattle for company.
What you do in western Connemara depends very much on the weather — and there’s plenty of that, out here where the Atlantic winds first meet the land. Weather fronts are forever marching through, one behind the other, shrouding the mountains then unveiling them, sending cloud shadows and rainstorms chasing across the countryside. That first hot afternoon we all swam in unbelievably clean, clear sea under a cloudless sky.
Within a few hours, though, the weather had turned, so that the following morning blew chill and grey. Elizabeth declared a reading day for herself and took to her bed incommunicado. The rest of us sauntered down the lane in spits of rain to Bunowen Pier and Ballyconneely Smokehouse, where we bought marinated gravadlax and picked up lemon-yellow shells on the shore. The sea was beginning to gleam again as we ate the gravadlax for lunch, and by mid-afternoon Bunowen More was back to hot sun, with the Twelve Bens cut hard and gold against blue sky.
The west of Ireland and traditional music go together like bacon and cabbage, and I’d brought along my melodeon and a clutch of harmonicas. I knew Pip was a bit of a wizard on the guitar, and had high hopes of finding a session in a pub where we could join in. That didn’t happen, as it turned out: amplified ballads for holidaymakers are more the style in western Galway, it seems. But we had a few sessions of our own in the cottage anyway, hammering away at everything from jigs and reels to blues and jingly-jangly stuff.
The home-made music was just one aspect of our DIY fun. It started out as a case of faute de mieux — the nearest town, Clifden, was eight miles off, and its pubs and small disco had limited appeal for our young city slickers. But they proved resourceful at amusing themselves. The cottage had a big TV, but it was rarely switched on. Instead there were bouts of joke-telling and singing, games of “sh’ead” (a card game that dare not speak its name), texting friends, drawing and painting the scenery, and epic, clattering tournaments of mah jong.
Not that we just hung around the house and the beach. On one day we hooked up with an old friend of mine,the Clifden field archaeologist Michael Gibbons, and went walking in the Twelve Bens — an exhilarating, tiring day of steep slopes and immense views over mountains, sea and islands.
Another local chum, the bodhrán maker Malachy Kearns, of Roundstone, gave us a great welcome, popping open a bottle of bubbly and showing us over the workshop where his drums are fashioned from beechwood and goatskin. And when Mary decided in her turn to spend a day glooming behind a book, Jane and I took Pip and Elizabeth off to stroll in the restored walled garden at Kylemore Abbey.
We introduced the youngsters to proper Guinness and we went to an Irish Night in Roundstone Community Hall, where a band of dancers and musicians whose ages spanned 70 years played heavenly tunes and danced like dervishes with the devil at their heels. Nothing we did was particularly fine-feathered or sophisticated, but the subtle spell of Connemara was well and truly woven over each of us by the week’s end.
On our last night we had a mah jong and music marathon in the Bunowen cottage. Pip had a go on the melodeon, Elizabeth finished her picture of the Twelve Bens, and Mary laughed so immoderately she did the nose trick with her mug of tea. Connemara magic, pure and simple.
NEED TO KNOW
Getting there: Ryanair (0871 2460000, www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Knock from £54.98 return. Aer Arann (0800 5872324, www.aerarann.ie) flies to Galway from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Manchester and Luton from £52 return.
Murrays Europcar (0870 6075000, www.europcar.com) offers hire cars at Dublin, Galway, Knock and Shannon airports.
Accommodation: Ballyconneely Holiday Homes (00 353 1 668 3534, www.thh.ie) cost £200-£510 a week.
Erriseask House Hotel, Ballyconneely, Connemara (00 353 95 23553, www.erriseask.com), is a neat, friendly, family-run hotel. Double rooms from £32pp, B&B; with dinner, from £48pp.
To do: Connemara National Park Centre, Letterfrack (95 41054), Kylemore Abbey Garden (95 41146, www.kylemoreabbey.com), adults £7, concessions £4.
Roundstone Musical Instruments, Roundstone, Connemara (95 35808, www.bodhran.com).
Connemara Walking Centre, Island House, Market Street, Clifden (95 21492, www.walkingireland.com).
Connemara Smokehouse, Bunowen Pier, Aillebrack, Ballyconneely(+ 353 (0) 95 23739, www.smokehouse.ie).
Further information: Clifden Tourist Information Centre (95 21163, www.irelandwest.ie). Tourism Ireland (0800 0397000, www.tourismireland.com).