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Untamed Ireland


From Travel + Leisure May 2014(Photography by Christopher Churchill)

From Travel + Leisure May 2014(Photography by Christopher Churchill)

By Andrew McCarthy

The sky is without stars or moon. There are no lights, no sign of life in any direction, only the night—and the road. The car’s headlights shine into blackness, revealing the thin, crooked, ungraded ribbon of tarmac disappearing into mist. When I step out the wind is ripping. The rain has stopped. I think perhaps I can hear something through the wind, someone calling. I listen harder, and then I hear it again. Voices? This is the Bog Road outside Clifden, in Connemara, County Galway, in the far west of Ireland. I’ve been told it’s haunted.

Dublin is just over three hours away—a straight shot across the width of the country. It’s a different Ireland out here, and always has been. On an island famous for its natural beauty, this far reach of land has a raw, unmanicured grandeur that even the Irish concede demands a hardy soul. Covered in large part by mountains, nearly treeless tundra, bog, and rock, this is “the Old Sod”—not wholly transformed by EU cash or Celtic Tigers. It is the stronghold of the Irish language. A region without formal boundaries, Connemara is as much a state of mind as anything else.

Galway city (population 75,000) is the unofficial “capital of the west,” and the gateway to Connemara. It’s home to the famous Galway oyster and the National University of Ireland, which dictates the town’s tempo. But to me, Galway has always been a city of music. On the buzzing pedestrian mall of Shop Street, outside a store selling fine Irish linen, I pass three young guys with fiddles and a banjo slashing their way through a traditional Irish reel.

And then there are the pubs—music seeping out of nearly every one of them after dark. A trio leans hard into a jig at Tig Cóilí, on Mainguard Street. Across the River Corrib, on Lower Dominick Street, it’s open-mike night at the Róisín Dubh. A heavily tattooed young girl strums an acoustic guitar for an adoring crowd of university students. Then, out along the Sea Road, I follow the sound of searing fiddles into the session at Crane Bar.

Inside, under black-and-white photos depicting Galway’s not-too-distant peasant past, and in front of a mixed crowd of pensioners and twentysomethings, a handful of musicians are letting it rip. It’s a fluid, informal group; fiddles and flutes, bodhran, concertina accordion and whistle, trading riffs, then surging as one to a crescendo. When they finish, the musicians, so alive to the subtlest shift in tempo while playing, sag on their stools like marionettes whose strings have been cut. Then, in the corner, a woman begins to sing an unaccompanied lament of longing and the sea, and the music starts up again.

Later, Mick Crehan, who bought Crane’s 14 years ago, sips a Guinness and settles into one of Ireland’s favorite topics of conversation in recent years: The Bust. The Irish rags-to-riches-to-rags-again story has been well documented, but the famous high tide of prosperity created by the Celtic Tiger did not raise all boats equally, and the subsequent crash hit this part of the country particularly hard. (Throughout Ireland home prices are down 45 percent from their high in 2007, and unemployment is 12.3 percent.) Though not everything created by the current hardship is necessarily a negative. There’s little disagreement that Ireland’s famous hospitality suffered during those heady days of easy money.

“We lost the run of ourselves, there’s no doubt about that,” Mick says. “But we’ve come back to our community roots. That’s not a bad thing.”

This notion of return is echoed by Jess Murphy, who recently opened Kai Café & Restaurant just down the street from Crane’s. “People are eating differently now. Before it was foie gras and filet mignon, now it’s nose-to-tail again. Corned beef and cabbage; oxtail soup. This is who we were. This is how we ate. Forget the sourdough from France—it’s back to the brown bread.”

Yes, Kai is a return to Irish staples, but with a decidedly modern take. All the food is locally sourced, and the menu changes daily, depending on what the farmers and fishermen bring in (like the Connemara crab in the salad I order). “The recession has brought out the best in a lot of people. We’re not looking to Dublin and Europe anymore. Artisans are springing up, making their own beer; I’m getting raw milk and cheese from just out the road.” Even the décor at Kai, a combination of reclaimed woods and salvaged, rough-hewn metals, with a large skylight to allow in the constantly shifting Galway sky, has a sophisticated yet improvisational feel.

There’s a pleasing pattern to life in a city as accommodating as Galway. Hours can pass amid the rambling shelves of Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, and the pretty girls parade around Eyre Square rain or shine. Eventually I rally and head out along the coastal road.

Within 10 miles I’ve gone back in time and am deep in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) village of Spiddal, on Galway Bay. When I walk into Tigh Hughes Pub, three men are hunched over the bar, furiously whispering in Irish, their heads inches apart in the otherwise empty room. They stop speaking and turn in unison to stare at me—I feel as welcome as a priest in a whorehouse. The wood-planked floor squeaks as I approach the bar and order a cup of tea.

“You’re American,” the red-faced, white-haired bartender informs me.

Once this fact is confirmed, my intrusion is forgiven and we talk hurling—a traditional Gaelic sport. We are all in agreement that it’s much more dangerous and (given the company I’m in) better than American football. In time the men go back to their urgent whispers in Irish, until the bartender apologizes: “We don’t mean to be rude, we’re just discussing some village business.”

Connemara has the largest concentration of Irish speakers in the country, and it’s home to TG4, a television station that broadcasts in Irish (including dubbed versions of SpongeBob SquarePants). “The profile of the language has shifted,” TG4’s commissioning director, Micheál ÓMeallaigh, tells me. “It used to be associated with poverty and backwardness, not pride.” Micheál looks out his office window. Nearby, cows graze an uneven field littered with substantial boulders. “I mean, let’s face it, you’ve got to be tough and hard to make a living farming rocks and fishing. If you can survive in Connemara, you can survive anywhere.”

Fierce local pride is not uncommon in Ireland (or in most countries, for that matter), and here it’s accompanied by an almost whimsical acceptance of the fate that goes along with the demanding life—and a desire to be nowhere else. “It’s the best place in the world if you can find a way to support yourself,” Graham Roberts tells me as we stand at the end of Bunowen Pier outside the tiny village of Ballyconneely, far out along the region’s filigreed southern coast. Graham has taken over his father’s business and produces some of Ireland’s finest organic smoked salmon at Connemara Smokehouse.

Over in Roundstone, an idyllic fishing village just down the road, Malachy Kearns agrees. “It’s a different world out here, to be sure,” he says. The premier bodhran drum maker in Ireland, Malachy came out from Dublin 34 years ago. “I had a wild call to be by the sea and I couldn’t wish it away.” Trad musicians come from all over the country to his seaside workshop.

Malachy is an outsize man in every way, his blue eyes full of mayhem. Over a cup of tea, he puts on a display of the fine art of conversation, the likes of which you can still find in the Irish countryside. Our chat rambles from the tyranny of the banks and the wisdom of the elders, to fading prejudices—”If the bodhran maker can have a wife from Ghana, like I do, you know things are changing”—to the complexities of life in a small Irish village: “I’ve got kids from two different families asking me for a job. If I give it to one and not the other, I’ve got one family that won’t speak to me for thirty years.” And it’s from Malachy that I first hear mention of the haunted Bog Road. “I was giving a lift to two old fellas who insisted that they would get out of the car if I turned down the Bog Road.” Malachy shakes his mighty head and shrugs, “Who am I to say?”

I hear a similar statement from Clodagh Foyle, who works at the Dolphin Beach House, a cliff-side B&B about 15 miles from Kylemore Abbey, a 19th-century estate with classic Victorian gardens. “People say the Bog Road is haunted, if you believe that sort of stuff. And folks do drive off of it a good bit. I wouldn’t be driving it at night, and certainly not alone.”

One place that poses no threat at all is the very welcoming Ballynahinch Castle Hotel, outside the village of Recess. Down a long drive through 450 wooded acres, on the banks of one of Ireland’s finest salmon-fishing rivers, Ballynahinch is a soft landing in rugged country. The present house was built in 1756 and owned, over the years, by “Humanity” Dick Martin, who founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and by cricket legend and Indian prince, Maharajah Ranjisinhji. Portraits of the hotel’s storied past, as well as photos of enormous fish in the hands of smiling men, adorn the walls. Inside the Fisherman’s Pub, the wood is dark, the peat fire warm. The slow-braised belly of Connemara pork sends me to my overstuffed bed fat and happy.

When I tear myself away from the soft life, the land along the road to Renvyle, on the far northern edge of Connemara, rises up and crumbles down to the sea without reason, as if the hand of nature had laid the country out smoothly—rich green fields by deep blue sea—and then at the last second scrunched it all up like a wad of paper. Narrow roads are pushed around like so many pieces of string. A small bay opens on my right—I thought I was miles from the sea. Peaks jut up and tumble down into windswept lakes. Up over a steep rise, the Twelve Bens, which form the spine of Connemara, come into view—or is it the Maumtruk Mountains I’m looking at? All sense of direction is lost. Farther on, the land is scarred where rows of turf have been cut and stacked to dry in the wind—fuel for the coming winter. This is not the twee Ireland of patchwork-quilt plots separated by adorable drystone walls. This is wild and merciless land. Harsh, untamed, and thrilling.

Most roads this far west funnel out toward Clifden, a workhorse town by the sea that’s home to the 14-room Quay House. But before I get there, a small sign by the side of the twisting road, pointing off into an empty-seeming field, catches my attention.

In the middle of Derrygimla bog, a rock-strewn meadow a few hundred yards from the road, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, dubbed the father of radio, sent the first transatlantic radio signal from the station he constructed here, in 1907. At one time the 300-acre site employed 300 people and was serviced by its own narrow-gauge railway. All that remain now are cement foundations of a half-dozen buildings amid the wind and sheep.

There’s an exhilarating recognition of the ambition such an undertaking must have demanded, coupled with a mournful sense of loss at its dissolution. The wind-worn place is a haunting reminder of the ravages of time and the temporary claims we make on it. I linger in the fading light longer than intended and by the time I return to my car the rain has begun and darkness has fallen. I make a wrong turn, as I so often do on the unmarked roads in Connemara, and eventually right myself.

It’s then that I come upon the Bog Road. A large boulder creates a hulking blackness beside it in the dark. The Twelve Bens are far off to my right, though I can’t see them through the night. I sit behind the wheel a long while, staring into the darkness. My radio has no reception. Only then do I get out of my car, feel the wind, and think I hear someone’s call. Then I’m sure I hear it again. Tales of spirits are legend in Ireland, and of course no one believes them anymore…but the night is long and dark, and the hair on the back of my neck is standing on end. I climb back into the car, press the clutch, and take the long way round.

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