Let me set the scene. The crisp morning breeze blowing through your hair. The smell of earthy farms. The sound of a fiddle playing in a friendly local pub that pours the perfect chilled brew. This is deepest, richest Ireland. What more could you desire for St Patrick’s Day?
A small cottage at Killary Harbour in Connemara, western Ireland, on the south bank of the Killary fjord – the only fjord in Ireland – is the sort of place city dwellers living in Dubai dream about when the hubbub
gets too much. Famous Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein visited the village in the summer of 1948 and, according to the locals, he walked around looking at the ground, thinking, wandering, communing
his mind, all alone.
I, though, was in a small group of hikers, and I was looking up and about at the magnificent views. We were doing an easy hike inland, along the seven-mile footpath on the southern edge of the fjord. Waterfalls splashed and streams flowed down the mountains. A gentle breeze pushed ripples along the surface of the water, barely disturbing the mussel rafts.
After a couple of miles we stopped at a bridge to eat smoked salmon with a squeeze of lime juice and sup cold drinks; it was my kind of walk: ambling, indulgent and through an inspiring landscape. I wasn’t actually in a cute cottage but in a massive folly, Abbeyglen Castle Hotel, in the pretty town of Clifden. My room was the only one with a turret of its own: of a morning I would saunter to survey all I didn’t own and breathe in lungfuls of Atlantic air. The castle and the views – of the Twelve Ben Mountains, Clifden Bay, the deep green of the drenched farmlands and copses of trees – and the changing weather colluded to reinforce the
west of Ireland. Though I’d never been there before and, to be honest, had never given the region much thought, I had some quite specific notion of Connemara as a wild, windy, pure place. Maybe some Yeats poem from school had seeped into my subconscious, or perhaps it was just the craic that my friend Brian, born in Cork, had been dishing out for more than a decade.
Fortuitously there was a Connemara horse sale taking place while I was there. Dozens of these beautiful, mild-mannered beasts had been corralled at auction; between neighs I caught the prices – lower than you’d expect (500 euros for a mare in foal plus a filly), but the Celtic tiger is pretty pussified these days so little wonder no one had any money.
The highlight of the three-day trip was a crossing to the island of Inishbofin. Less well-known than the three Aran Isles further south, this tiny sea-horse-shaped lump is home to 200 souls. A small boat plies the 8km stretch of sea that separates it from the mainland County Galway and as soon as you’re out to sea the world seems brighter and cleaner.
Once we’d landed, our guide, Gerry, told me about the Connemara horses. ‘The story goes that a Spanish ship, the Flanco Blanco, was wrecked off the coast here,’ he explained. ‘Amazingly, the Andalucian Arab horses on board – tall, handsome specimens, all of them – swam to shore and locals saw them coming in on top of the waves. So these horses bred with local indigenous nags and we got the Connemara pony.’ It’s probably a cock-and-bull story. But it’s a good one.
Inishbofin was a wander. We walked under a cloudless sky for about four hours, taking in sea stacks, blowholes, hidden coves where seals lollopped, and magnificent sea arches. The beaches blew me away: white sand, rising to warm green lawns cropped by sheep. It looked inviting, enticing even: more Antigua than Ireland. There were colonies of cliff-nesting seabirds, including fulmars, shags and gulls, plus choughs and peregrine falcons inland. I’d really not expected such a sunny island so far west on the edge of Europe, where the Atlantic can do its worst without fear of obstacle or land mass.
To be honest, I was after some serious weather. There’s nothing like torrential rain for making a room in a castle feel extra cosy, and I gazed out of my turret hoping for a storm. Yet it was not to be. Only gentle white-grey skies came down for the fjord walk. I could imagine Wittgenstein contemplating solitariness, chilled by the dark waters of the steep-sided inlet.
Earlier that day, I had been in the company of a livelier writer. Having picked up an audio book of Finnegans Wake in Galway city on the drive through, I had been indulging in Joyce’s musical prose. All Ireland – nay, the world – is embodied in his mad, clamorous text – do a word search on the online versions of the novel and you’ll always find something relevant. ‘From fjord to fjell, his baywinds’ oboboes shall wail him rockbound,’ Joyce has written. I imagine that by now, with winter settled in, walkers are indeed being sent rockbound by the westerlies. That makes it a perfect time for a trip to our own little Scandinavian fjord,and to the sunshine island just across the water.
Need to know
There are no direct flights from Dubai to Galway, but you can fly from Dubai to London Heathrow on British Airways from Dhs2,500 return (www.ba.com). From there, fly Aer Arann (www.aerarann.com) or Air France (www.airfrance.com) to Galway from Dhs1,112 return.
Where to stay
Budget: Voted one of the best hostels in Ireland, Sleepzone overlooks Killary fjord and has more than 100 rooms and 21 suites, self-catering facilities and offers adventure excursions. Rooms from Dhs121 to Dhs237. www.sleepzone.ie.
Luxury: Abbyglen Castle Hotel is a grand atmospheric building, mounted among the green hills of the west Irish countryside.Winter deals start at Dhs334, including breakfast.
What to see
This area is a rambler’s paradise. Get lost in the winding roads and verdant hills, or take part in a number of outdoor activities, from boat trips and fly fishing to golf, woodland trail walking, garden tours, cycling and more. These can be booked at most of the guest houses in the area.
Where to eat
Make sure you try the local sausages, fish and fresh organic produce from the nearby farms, available at most local eateries. In Clifden, try Cullen’s Bistro & Coffee Shop – the famous blackberry pie is to die for (+353 95 21983). For a hearty meal and great seafood, head to Mitchell’s pub (+353 95 21867). For something more atmospheric, try Archer’s in Oughterard for Italian food, where you’ll eat encased by old stone walls (+353 95 52034).