Wild Winds, Rough Going, No Blarney: Ireland's Connemara

Wild Winds, Rough Going, No Blarney: Ireland's Connemara: Exploring the Islands

Aug 30, 2001
Outside Magazine

Connemarans have always lived intimately with the ocean—the Irish phrase Con na Mara means "tribe of the sea"—and nowhere is this bond more evident than on the region's tiny barrier islands. The most accessible, thanks to a hard-packed beach that links it to the shore at low tide—is Omey Island, a quarter-mile off Claddaghduff. Omey's claim to fame is that in the seventh century it was home to St. Feihin, one of those culture-conserving clerics celebrated in Thomas Cahill's 1995 best-seller, How the Irish Saved Civilization. But it's the island's strand, which reappears every four hours, that exerts the magical pull; during a two-week stay, my family returned half a dozen times to watch the sea ebb and flow, or to walk to the island. You can also drive—but mind the tide. Get stuck midway and you might experience the recurring Miracle of Omey: As the tide is about to engulf your car, a tractor appears. You smile and reach for your wallet; the driver smiles and uncoils his winch line.
A more tranquil island experience awaits visitors to Inishbofin. Attracting far fewer tourists than the heavily visited Aran Islands to the south, windswept Inishbofin (population 200) lies nine miles out from Cleggan, a tiny port six miles north of Clifden. After a 30-minute ferry ride ($16 round-trip), Inishbofin greets you sternly. Looming over its harbor is a star-shaped fort built in the 1650s by Cromwell's troops, who used the island as an open-air prison for Catholic priests. You can walk a healthy stretch of Inishbofin's 16-mile circumference in a day. But if you've got the time, stay overnight and let the slow rhythms of sun, tides, and ferry schedule make you feel like an islander. There are a few good pubs and B&Bs, as well as the friendly and popular Inishbofin Island Hostel, which offers dorm bunks, private rooms, and camping.

Inishbofin Cycle Hire rents bikes ($10 per day), but most explore on foot, following the shoreside path east from the pier. About a mile in, a stone ring between two ridges marks the remnants of a Stone Age roundhouse. Three-quarters of a mile farther is a ruined, famine-era village. And on the west coast, you'll find sea-carved caves and blowholes, a colony of gray seals that are especially numerous during September's mating season, and perhaps a corncrake, a near-extinct indigenous bird with an unmistakable "crek-crek" call. To walk the edge of the Back of Beyond is to meditate on loneliness and connection, as I did this Easter, which the unrelenting Atlantic celebrated with a squall that caught me out on Inishbofin's flank. No matter which way I turned, I had wind and rain in my face. As time passed, though, the pummeling felt almost familiar, an echo of ancestral experience. By the time I shambled into the crowd at Murray's Pub to drain my boots and a few pints beside the hearth, I understood, better than I had before, how isolated one can feel in Connemara, and yet also how at home.

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