Jul 14th, 2024

On The Edge

The west of Ireland

for National Geographic Traveller

A musician pulled up a chair just before midnight. She uncased her fiddle, toe-tapped the pub flagstones to find the tempo, then fell in with the late-night swell of flutes, accordions and banjos. The number of drinkers with instruments now rivalled those without them. The music had a soaring melody but no lyrics, so as the notes eddied and swung around the wood-beamed walls, the listener’s mind was free to wander. I thought of the Atlantic Ocean outside, and the fact that, on the outskirts of Galway City, what passes for self-made entertainment on drizzly Monday nights takes some beating.

Until arriving on Ireland’s west coast, I’d always vaguely assumed that reel-and-jig pub corner sessions were all but dead, or rolled out only for tourists. There was a simple reason for my trip here and, aptly enough, it had much to do with sifting reality from cliché. I  wanted to see another side of Ireland. Aside from a couple of fly-by weekend trips to the south, my previous Irish experiences had all been confined to Dublin – a famously enjoyable city but very much its own place, and one which seems to colour the whole region around it. Even a friend’s fiercely merry wedding in the Wicklow Mountains had felt more like decamping to the fringes of the city than leaving it altogether.

I knew how accepting and garrulous the people could be, how cold the wind could blow, and how the lad-mag version of finding the craic – drinking your own bodyweight in stout and slagging off Bono – was missing the point in a major way. But I didn’t feel I’d ever experienced ‘proper’ Ireland. Then someone had started telling me about the west coast, about its landscapes and its time-warmed towns, and I resolved to go. I planned a week that would take me out into the countryside of Counties Galway and Clare, with the uncomplicated intention of seeing what there was to find.

My trip began in Galway City. “Before America was discovered, they used to think this was the edge of the world,” said local historian Conor Riordan, as we looked out to sea from the harbour. I’d arrived in the country a couple of hours earlier. It was February, and brisk. “From the 1300s onwards, the port we’re in now saw a huge amount of trade. This quay here would have been full of ships from Portugal, Spain and London, loaded up with different goods – wine, salt, fish, iron, spices. The city was a seriously lively place back then. It still is, as a matter of fact.”

He was right. Galway City has drawn international visitors for centuries – from Anglo-Norman nobles to John F Kennedy, who quipped he could make out Boston on the horizon – but its soul is still sparklingly homegrown. Of its 75,000-strong population, some 30% are students, and there’s a vigour to its brightly painted streets that belies its remote location. What remains of its medieval city wall might now be something of a sideshow (there’s even a long stretch of it inside a shopping centre, buttressed by a burger joint), but there’s still a thick sense of history, a fact that often sees the city referred to as Ireland’s ‘most Irish’.

It was an enjoyable starting base, and Conor, full of legends, counter-legends and hard facts, made for entertaining company. We wandered the salmon-rife River Corrib, spoke about whiskey and Cromwellian troops, and walked out to the university, where the ivy-draped quad buzzed with undergraduates.  “I’d say you’ll find a lot to like in Connemara,” Conor said in parting, after we’d talked about my week ahead. “You only need to get a few kilometres out of the city before the English signs start disappearing. Then you’re in a different world.”

These are not easy days for the Emerald Isle. The long-vaunted Celtic Tiger economy has been reduced to tabby-cat status, the Catholic Church remains tarred by scandal, and if the financial outlook was looking grey a couple of years ago, then a series of widely publicised governmental gaffes have ensured it’s looking far bleaker now. Earlier this year it was estimated that one thousand people were being forced to emigrate overseas every month. “We’ve had times of trouble right through our history,” one B&B owner told me, “but when you help bring it on yourselves, that’s when it hurts the most.” The crisis has shaken the country badly. It also means that visitors have never been more valued, particularly in its further-flung corners.

The locals say Ireland’s west would be grand if it had a roof. When, two hours out of Galway City, I parked up and started climbing to the summit of Benbaun, this seemed like neat self-effacement. The hillside might have been boggy and blustery, but by the time I’d spent an hour yomping up its ridges, finding myself alone save for a gusty conference of sheep, grand was an understatement. The mini-mountain is one of the Twelve Bens, the sentinel peaks that loom over the Connemara landscape, and below me was a spread of Atlantic-bashed loveliness: untamed lowlands, sun-struck lakes and gnarled islands. The wind and the damp? Half the fun.

The boundaries of Connemara are slightly hazy, but in basic terms the name refers to the broad peninsula of countryside in the west of County Galway. It’s an area of savage, tousled beauty, and home to one of the largest remaining Gaeltachts, or Irish-speaking regions, in the country. In a vehicle, its valleys and tumbling lanes offer huge potential for slow exploration. There were times when my hire-car seemed to represent the only sign of human life astir: a tiny red hatchback lost in vast horizons of granite slopes and frothing streams. It was a place where feeling small felt good.

Having no need to hurry from A to B each day, forays down single-lane side-roads proved as rewarding a way of discovery as any. They led to hamlets, mossy copses and quiet lakes. At the end of one narrow lane I found myself at a small jetty looking out onto Ireland’s only fjord, Killary Harbour. Against this backdrop were three fishermen (“Hello, are you well?” one asked, as though we’d last met the day before), a landing dock of mussel shells and a low pebble-dashed cottage. A small plaque on the cottage stated that Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had spent six months living and working there in 1948. It seemed an astute choice.

I was performing a loose anti-clockwise loop of the peninsula, staying in the settlements of Leenane and Roundstone, both of which barely registered on the map. By any standards, Connemara was momentous. As I drove, the colours of the hills would alter with each hour – submersed in a smoky yellow light one moment, glowing sage-green the next. From time to time rainbows arced over forbidding panoramas and, away to the south, the Aran Islands stretched out for America.

Many of Connemara’s villages, when I happened upon them, were straight out of the stereotype dossier: thatched roofs over rough walls, white horses by the roadside and piebald dogs padding past ‘Is fearrde tú Guinness’ signs. But it would be crass to see the region simply as postcard material. The peninsula has often known desperate hardship. Many of its roads were constructed in the 1840s as a relief effort during the ruinous potato famine, over which time Connemara’s population fell by around two thirds. Like much in Ireland, its bright-eyed charms are tinged with melancholy.

The west coast population’s gift for conversation is a wonderful thing. You might start off talking about the weather and within five minutes you’ve covered tax rises, rugby and the origins of white pudding. I could have spent some considerable time chewing the fat with Malachy Kearns, Ireland’s only remaining full-time maker of traditional bodhrán drums, but fear I may never have made it down to County Clare.

“I love living here,” he told me. We were in his Roundstone workshop, surrounded by goatskin and glue. “I love the ocean, the colours, the smells. Every time you look out you see God’s creation looking back at you. Connemara attracts what I call the gentlemen of Ireland – the real hard workers, you know, the ones who built up the country in the 1950s. This part of the world, it’s old-stock Ireland.” Malachy still sells more than 1,000 bodhráns a year, almost exclusively to Irish musicians. Proof, were it needed, that in ‘old-stock’ Ireland, long-standing customs still hold strong.

It struck me as I left him how unusual it was for somewhere in the British Isles to feel truly foreign. And in pubs and shops, overheard snatches of impenetrable conversation would remind me that spoken Irish was still commonplace here – not something I’d ever encountered in Dublin. It’s been estimated that some 1.6 million people in the country can converse in Irish, but of the approximately 60,000 who are fully native speakers, as many as one third live in County Galway.

One of the beauties of Ireland is its size, and when I departed Roundstone to head down past Galway City for the final few days of my trip, it took no more than ninety minutes before I felt like I’d arrived. County Clare might have a poetic name, but the place is far more feral than it sounds. Among the ragged contours and windblown cliffs of the region known as the Burren, huge, silvery limestone slabs lie across open fields, the result of an ancient geological upheaval.

If its appearance is jagged, its soul is anything but. The county is full of the kind of small village pubs that can’t be seen into from the outside. “So the gardaí can’t tell when there’s a lock-in,” a barmaid explained with a wink. Some were disconcerting to enter – all eyes slide your way as the door opens – but inside among the turf fires, the flat caps and the cross-generational banter, the atmosphere was addictive.

It’s hardly original to claim that the pub is where the heart of Ireland is most readily found, but these places roundly dispelled any notion that the witty, come-what-may ‘Irishness’ of legend was just another guidebook platitude. In a bar in Milltown Malbay, a table of three musicians played long and hard into the night for a crowd of five (“Here’s a tune from your side of the water,” the squeezebox player nodded to me at one point, before launching into a waltz). In a dimly lit snug in Kilkee, meanwhile, where the peat smoke clung to my jacket for days, I was ushered into an impassioned debate on football that may well still be going on as I write.

But it’s the coastline that draws most travellers to County Clare. The Cliffs of Moher are 203 metres high, and on the morning I visited, puffins and gulls appeared as specks against the sea. The cliffs are a huge draw – even at 9.30am there were 15 cars waiting for the visitors’ centre to open – although it would be a mistake to restrict your coastal wanderings to this showpiece. Further south around Kilkee, an area the locals wryly call ‘The Cliffs of Nowhere’ due to the comparative absence of tourism, the vertical shoreline is in many ways just as dramatic.

It was in this region that I found myself driving on my last day in the country. My trip had had its fair share of sunshine, but the morning had dawned wet and brooding, with a brutal wind. Waves were slamming the rock face. Rounding one headland, I spotted two men hunched at the cliff-edge, dangling down fishing rods from a full 100 metres up. I stopped the car and watched them for a while, rain whipping in off the ocean. They weren’t catching anything. It seemed madness, and I found myself still thinking about them hours later. This, maybe, was my parting lesson: that regardless of what comes its way, nothing’s going to stop Ireland doing what it likes to do.