County galway in every sense
Music before anything else
Until recently, many people only saw Galway as “the door to Connemara.” Perhaps it is time to set the record straight. Certainly Connemara, one of the most sublime regions of the West of Ireland, has no need for a door: it is already a window opening out onto spectacular nature. Galway, the country’s fourth city, which was named the European Capital of Culture this year, has strengths of its own. Starting with its music, which could not be more traditional. It is an institution, if not a way of life, be it improvised scenes on the pedestrian streets of the Latin Quarter or dedicated venues, such as The Crane (Sea Road) or Tig Coili (Mainguard Street) pubs. On a wall of the latter, a sign reads: “Please, Respect the Musicians!”. Flute, violin, banjo, concertina (small accordion), guitar… the combinations are endless and the notes freely flowing, much like the local beer, the Galway Hooker. Sometimes a client launches a cappella... And everyone spontaneously burts into song.
In Galway, the senses are also played by other kinds of master conductor: those of the culinary arts. In recent years, the city has become a Mecca for gastronomy. At Kai (Sea Road), the creative menu offers, among other things, a grated celery salad with County Clare crab, sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, or Roscommon lamb chops with beetroot and green tahini. Barely nine months after its opening in 2015, the Loam restaurant (Geata na Cathrach, Fairgreen Road) won a Michelin star. Its chef, Enda McEvoy, displays an undisguised enthusiasm for Western Irish products: “I have forged close relationships with local farmers and producers,” he explains.
I also cook with what the region gives me, such as whey algae or wild garlic, which I pick myself in the mountains in summer and dry for the winter.” Apart from the pheasant with chanterelle or the wild duck with salsify and chicory, its “signature dish” is none other than the squid with shiitake. “In our region, the seafood and crustaceans are delicious,” says Enda McEvoy.
Ireland being an island, the smells and tastes of the sea are never far away. A stone’s throw from Galway, the Connemara region is a great supplier of oysters. Many bays, such as Ballinakill, provide clear water, rich in plankton. Renowned for their subtle taste, the local shellfish — Crassostrea gigas — are exported worldwide. Be it the Connemara Oyster Festival at Ballyconneely, or the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival - there is no shortage of events dedicated to shellfish. On dry land or, more precisely, on the grassy slopes of Killary Harbour, Tom Nee, part of the fourth generation of a family of sheep breeders, tends a herd of 600 animals. His Blackface Connemara are direct descendants of those imported in bulk from Scotland by boat, in the nineteenth century. Even over long distances, Tom Nee calls out his orders through short and strident shouts, so that his dog, a young Border Collie, can herd the animals. “A simple glance from him and the sheep obey immediately”, emphasises his master. “His eyes are as powerful as those of a wolf”.The demonstration is astonishing. And the contrast between the black heads and the white of the fleece is certainly amusing. Even if the use of wool is something very traditional, it is still a material very much in demand today.
A light that changes with each moment
The natural landscape of Connemara is dreamlike, with a beauty that is wild and rugged, yet also holds an irresistible charm. Between Maam Cross and Clifden, on the N59, it is impossible to miss Pines Island. It looks just like a painting. Standing at one end of Lake Derryclare, this wind-swept isle of tall conifers is no exception. In the morning fog, it is like a Chinese watercolour, washed out with ink. Under a ray of sunshine, it becomes a Japanese garden with oversized bonsai trees. This region swept by the sea is a patchwork of peat bogs, colours changing with the light, and small lakes — the Loughs — with deep and black waters. The sky is reflected within, multiplying the feeling of infinite space. Between the town of Clifden and the small fishing port of Roundstone, there is a bumpy road: the Bog Road. It winds between endless moors and bogs, with the bald silhouette of the Twelve Bens mountains in the distance. The waterlogged soil region is as soft as a sponge. On 15th June 1919, the biplane of English pilots John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown crash-landed and broke in two in the Derrigimlagh Bog, after a 3,000 km journey from the island of Newfoundland, in Canada.
And the aptly named Sky Road, a sublime narrow and winding stretch, seems to hang from the clouds. It weaves around the Kingstown Peninsula, between Clifden Bay to the south and Streamstown Bay to the north. The panorama is breathtaking. What’s more, at dawn, when the mists are still in the hollows, just the very tops of a few houses can be seen. We lose sight of the world below... The world of people.
The tweed project, a new generation wool
In 2014, Aoibheann McNamara and Triona Lillis opened a small workshop in Galway called The Tweed Project. Favouring a «Slow Fashion» approach by focusing on quality, craftsmanship and respect for the environment, the two designers use Irish linen and premium tweed from the Donegal region. Through their collections — clothing and plaids — with contemporary lines, they infuse modernity and a certain softer touch into the uncompromising fabric of the past.
5 MUSTS-VISITS WHEN EXPLORING COUNTY GALWAY
Galway, European Capital of Culture...
Until January 2021, from Galway to the wild landscapes of Connemara, a myriad of cultural events (theatre, music, dance, cinema, literature and... gastronomy) to charm the lucky traveller.
... and world capital of gastronomy
At the end of December, the British culinary magazine BBC Good Food designated Galway as “the world’s premier foodie destination for 2020”. Culinary creativity is certainly not an empty boast. Opened in 2016, John Keogh’s gastropub (22-24 Upper Dominick St.) was voted “Irish Pub-of-the-Year” by the McKennas guide last year. On the menu: salmon marinated in whiskey, pork belly stewed with cider... At Ruibin Galway (1 Dock Rd), the oysters are accompanied by a vinaigrette seasoned with yuzu.
The Quay House, Clifden
At the far end of the port, the old harbour master’s office, built in 1818, has been transformed into a cosy haven of peaceful tranquillity, with around fifteen rooms. Served in front of the boats, the breakfast — smoked salmon, farmhouse cheeses and oysters, when in season, — is sumptuous.
While travelling through Connemara, visitors can experience two pearls of Irish heritage, built in the nineteenth century. Situated on a shore of Pollacappull Lake, Kylemore Abbey is a Victorian-style mansion, part of which still houses Benedictine sisters. Converted into a luxury hotel, Ballynahinch Castle is an architectural gem hidden in the heart of 450 hectares of forest and rhododendrons.
On the road again
Connemara is traversed by splendid roads. In addition to Sky Road and Bog Road, do take a ramble along a section of the West Irish Wild Atlantic Way (2,500 km), which runs along the jagged coast, from Galway to Killary Harbour.
Finding your way around
After a day in Galway, head for Clifden (1 hour 30 mins drive). From there you can visit Connemara Park. But you should allow three days to explore its many wonders in full.