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

Trekking around Clifden

   

Driving up the Inagh Valley is not the most efficient way to cover the 40 westerly miles from Galway to Clifden, but it's my favorite approach, cutting spectacularly through Connemara's stony heart. To the east lie the Maumturk Mountains, a fine, flat-summited range, but I always find myself looking west, up into the purplish brown, distinct peaks of the Twelve Bens, mirrored by the narrow boomerang-shaped Lough Inagh. Despite topping out at a relatively diminutive 2,400 feet, the Bens—deforested, like most of Ireland, centuries ago—manage to loom impressively. They encircle the busy, Georgian-style town of Clifden with an ancient presence that is part Catskills, part northern Pacific Coast.
The Bens, traditionally the realm of wandering blackfaced sheep, are now regularly traversed by hikers, a feat not always as simple as it might appear. After fortifying yourself with a fried breakfast of staggering proportions at your B&B in Clifden, the most convenient base for a Connemara vacation, head five miles northeast to Letterfrack, a three-pub crossroads at the edge of Connemara National Park. Composed mostly of bogs cleverly camouflaged by grass and wildflowers, the 3,800-acre park (admission, $3) is an excellent introduction to this classic Irish terrain, whose main constituent, peat, is still cut and dried, then burned in local hearths that issue blue, sweet-scented smoke. You can bone up on turf ecology at the visitors center (learning, for instance, that peat is actually densely compacted sphagnum moss on its aeon-consuming way to becoming coal), then embark on a short nature walk, or farther south, up into the Bens themselves. Alternatively, you can set out from Gleann Clochan, 17 miles east of Clifden on Highway N59, where a ten-mile, full-day circuit boasts more than 5,000 feet of ascents and expansive views of the Maumturks; get detailed directions at the Ben Lettery Youth Hostel, behind which the trek begins.

A few trekking tips: Wear socks and pants that you don't mind sullying, perhaps irrevocably. To prevent erosion, stick to trails; to avoid getting lost in the often-dense fog, take a map or a guide. And stay alert for patches of quaking bog, hypersaturated muck that can swallow you to the waist.
Or do as I did this past spring and will certainly do on return trips: Call Michael Gibbons's Walking Ireland (011-353-95-21379), a trekking outfit run by a Clifden native who is a passionate and unrivaled expert on local archaeology. At 40, the boyish and bespectacled Gibbons is not only an excellent shanachie, or storyteller, but also a Connemaran version of Indiana Jones, able to pick a deft line across steep rock faces while pointing out ancient sites that he's found: Bronze Age tombs, Iron Age forts, and standing stones (quartzite pillars that probably marked Neolithic ceremonial sites).
For Gibbons, history is only a squint away; tag along on one of his day-treks ($21) and you'll never look at a peat bog the same way again. "The bogs protect the richest archaeological landscape in Europe," he told me as we surveyed the pointed perimeter stones of a megalithic tomb. Rocky soil and strong ties to the spirit world, he explained, discouraged Irish farmers from emulating their continental counterparts, who tilled every scrap of arable land. For millennia, the bogs rose a foot every 500 years, swallowing all they encountered. Gibbons's finds often result from tips by farmers who have hit something while cutting peat. "They're exposing an earlier landscape preserved absolutely perfectly underneath," he says, his voice echoing the conviction that Connemara's truest treasures lie beneath her surface.

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