Wild Winds, Rough Going, No Blarney

On Ireland's western fringe, the mystic highlands of Connemara hide an unexpected kingdom of adventure.

   

My sodden boots are sliding on the heather-and-mud slope. My hiking companions, their voices muffled, are only yards distant. That much I know. But wrapped in a milky fog, I have next to no idea where I'm going or, for a disorienting moment, whether I'm staring up or down. Suddenly the mist shreds, unveiling a view of the tranquil landscape 2,000 feet below: a glacier-carved valley, grass-green and potholed with scores of lakes that gleam like beads of spilled quicksilver. I stop to gape, picking out whitewashed cottages and woolly knots of grazing sheep until, just as quickly as they dissolved, the clouds recoagulate.
In case I'd forgotten where I was clambering, the evanescent panorama succinctly reminds me that I'm footloose in the Back of Beyond—a local nickname for Connemara, the wild region that comprises the northwest chunk of County Galway and the heart of the ancient province of Connaught. The last piece of Ireland to enter the modern age, Connemara did so reluctantly and incompletely. The Irish language is still alive here; many residents watch Teltilifis na Gaeilge, a two-year-old Gaelic TV station. And a reverence for the siog (SHEE-owg), or spirit world, remains a part of everyday life. William Butler Yeats, who summered here and is buried in nearby Sligo, had the West's proud, melancholic isolation in mind when he wrote about Connemara in "The Phases of the Moon": "Too lonely for the traffic of the world: / Body and soul cast out and cast away; / Beyond the visible world."

Indeed, until a century or so ago many Irish regarded this hinterland as the ends of the earth, legendarily populated by bog-trotting simpletons and quick-witted rascals who eked by on subsistence farming and fishing, along with a brisk trade in smuggled goods, bootleg whiskey, and wreck salvage. The impression had its roots in the hard times following Oliver Cromwell's rapacious invasion of 1652. To the Catholic gentry, Cromwell offered two options: "To Hell or Connaught!" Nearly 200 years later, Connemara was savaged by potato famines, during which thousands starved or emigrated.
But in more recent times, it has become clear that exile from the mainstream has, in some ways, served Connemara well. This remains one of Ireland's most sparsely populated and starkly beautiful regions, with its black-brown stretches of peat bog and humpbacked mountains; rock-walled pastures and trout-filled loughs; and barrier islands inhabited by seagulls, gray seals, and a handful of humans. During several visits, I've ventured farther and farther out from the neat, bayside capital of Clifden to experience the spell cast by the countryside's elemental textures of cloud, bog, stone, sand, soil, and water. And in the past decade I've watched a steadily growing influx of travelers—Irish, French, German, and American—do likewise, exploring the Back of Beyond's more remote reaches via foot, bicycle, horseback, and sea kayak.
While no virgin wilderness—this is the British Isles after all—Connemara is much less trafficked than the southwestern counties of Cork and Kerry. The Gulf Stream keeps the climate mild, but the elements can still present challenges: It rains more than 250 days a year, and the wind blows almost constantly off the Atlantic. Try to schedule your visit between May and September, and always pack good raingear, boots, and a reliable compass. But come: Intense, unfeigning Connemara is the closest you'll get to what Ireland once was.

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