WILD WEST OF IRELAND
Never judge a book by its cover, or in this case, be prepared for your preconceptions to be well wide of the mark when contemplating a walk etc.
I recently spent a week walking the mountainous weather-blasted Atlantic seaboard of Connemara. By repute one of the last true wilderness areas of the British Isles, I was looking forward to getting up onto high ridges and walking for miles and taking in the wildlife. Many years ago (more than I care to remember) I had spent two weeks wandering round County Cork, reins in hand, at the front of a Gypsy caravan. The views back then had been wonderful as I made my way to the start of the Ring of Kerry and I had long dreamed of going back and walking the places that a horse and cart just cannot get to. I also fondly remembered the Irish welcome and humour in the many small bars and the nightly, usually impromptu, sessions of Irish folk music. I was conscious that the area I was heading for was by repute the wettest part of one of the wettest countries in Europe, but equipped with all the best of modern wet-weather gear I felt confident of getting by. The pony-swallowing bogs of this area are notorious.
On almost every count my expectations were a mile away from reality.
On a positive note, in hindsight I should have taken shades and sun cream as I came back with sunburn. Whilst England and the rest of Ireland were being drowned the coastal area of Connemara has seen hardly any rain for a month. The bogs weren’t exactly dry but careful foot placement could keep your socks dry. It was like walking across miles-wide trampolines.
We did get a couple of torrential downpours which the local welcomed but they were overnight and by 10.00 each morning the cloud had been burned off. The only day we did have intermittent rain we went down to Galway and then onto the Burren and managed to dodge the showers. To the great surprise of everybody including the locals we did wake one morning with snow on the hills (in May) down to about 1400 feet. It soon melted though.
When I talk of locals I do not want to give the wrong impression. This must be one of the least populated areas of the British Isles and could not sustain more than a few scattered bars which doubled up as the only village stores. Rather than Irish ‘crack’ by far the most common language was French as they seem to have adopted the area as a holiday destination. Apart from the staff in the bars the only time we heard ‘English’ being spoken without a French accent was in the last hour at night when a few solitary locals would be coming in after the tourists had headed for wherever they were staying (outside the area usually as there is very little accommodation). The entire staff of our hostel were French as was the manageress. This also meant there was no music and we had to drive 40k out of the area one night just to take some in.
The scenery was every bit as good as I expected but walking the hills was really difficult. Despite foreign tourism spending being close to €5bn (when total public expenditure on goods and services is only €28bn) and the widespread advertising of its scenic delights, it remains a mystery why they make so little effort to accommodate tourist with access to the hills.
Access points are few and unsigned unless they are on one of the few official 'Ways' and these are as often as not on roads rather than across the hills. There are so few locals and they have no tradition of hill walking and in any event almost all the hills are in private ownership.
We did get on the hills but it involved much climbing of barbed wire, guesswork route choice, heavy tussock grass at best as footing and compass bearing crossings of miles of bog albeit fairly dry.
There is what they call a National Park but it is more like a National Trust property and only about the size of Clumber Park. It does include a very respectable mid-sized peak Diamond Hill. It is not my intention to talk you out of visiting this wonderful area but be forewarned so that it does not come as a disappointing surprise as it did to us. My memories of blocked official ways, inadequate mapping and difficulties with farmers is discouraging and surely not what that nation needs.