On Ireland’s Wild West coast—north of the Dingle Peninsula, Ring of Kerry, and the Cliffs of Moher—traditional Irish culture and a very special landscape await the adventurous…or at least those with a car and a day to spare.
From Galway, a well-known loop takes you through Ireland’s Connemara region. The boggy hills and lakes dotted with tiny islands—or are they valleys dotted with tiny lakes?—are a striking contrast to the cliffs and crags of the Kerry and Donegal coasts, and have their own brand of very damp magic.
On the border of Counties Galway and Mayo, on an isthmus between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, is the gorgeous village of Cong. Film fans, hillwalkers, and history fans can all find something to do in and around this little settlement on the River Corrib. The 1952 film The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara was filmed in this picturesque village, and a bronze monument to the Duke and Ms. O’Hara stands in the town square, where fans can get an Irish selfie with a Western movie star.
Behind the statue, the hulk of Cong Abbey looms large over the village. Once the center of church power in this part of Ireland, this twelfth-century ruin is now just a beautiful and accessible memory. Visitors can explore the crumbling ruin at their freedom; no velvet ropes and no admission fees required. The abbey was the longtime home of my favorite Irish artifact: the Cross of Cong. This gold cross was originally made to hold a holy relic—now missing—and it is currently on display at the National Archaeology Museum in Dublin.
In the nearby River Corrib—yes, in the river—find the monks’ fishing hut. The river flows beneath the building, and a hole cut into the floor would have allowed monks to dangle nets to catch salmon directly below their kitchen. Now that’s fresh fish! Across the river from the hut, enjoy the beautiful trails along the river connecting the two large lakes. Those with extra time can enjoy the Cong Forest Nature Trail or the Lough Corrib Loop Walk.
Heavy rainfall and poorly drained soil are the key ingredients to the blanket bogs that cover the Connemara landscape like…a blanket. The peaty soil is always spongy and sloshy, even on the driest of summer days—which might still be rainy. Unlike the bare rocks for which other Irish coasts are known, the gentle hills and curved shores are smooth, soft, and covered with the purple and yellow flowers of bog heather and gorse. In places, peat is harvested from these bogs to be dried for fuel to keep the locals warm through the chilly, windy winters.
These picturesque lands are among the largest and healthiest Irish-speaking regions (Gaeltachts) in Ireland. Many of the villagers and farmers here speak Irish as a first language, and cling to traditional methods of farming, cooking, and crafting. As you cross into the Gaeltacht, English will vanish from road signs, so arrive prepared with a good map and some patience.
Driving through the soggy hills and deep lakes of Connemara, take your time and enjoy the many spectacular views waiting around every corner. Stop in the villages, walk along the rivers, jump on the bouncy turf of the bogs—if you can find a dry spot. The most accessible Connemara hillwalking is within the national park near the small town of Letterfrack.
From the hilltops in Connemara National Park, like that of Diamond Hill near the visitor center, look down to the purple humps of the boggy hills. Admire the smooth edges of the coastline; what would be crashing waves roll tamely into the many round coves and inlets. Shield your eyes from the thin rain likely falling and the strong wind likely blowing, and you’ll know why the traditional Irish language and ways have survived here more than almost anywhere else in the country. Modern screens can’t capture the beauty of these hills; the speed with which we are all so obsessed seems to become unimportant here. The land and the water seem to sing, and even though it’s in Irish, we can all understand.