Connemara is completely unlike anything we’ve seen so far in our trip. The road from Dublin to Galway, while it was lovely and green, was still just a highway. For our detour to Clonmacnoise we ventured off the beaten path and got our first taste of the more rural R- roads. Our drive through Connemara, however, was truly spectacular and entirely different.
I’d been pretty well convinced that Connemara was something we had to see. However, given that Jason had been doing a lot of driving, we decided to ask one of our B&B hosts what he thought. His response sealed the deal: “It’s unmissable,” he said. “I recommend it to anyone who spends time in Galway.” Our hosts’ advice had been invaluable so far, so this was all the encouragement we needed.
As soon as you get a bit beyond Galway city, the land begins to rise and fall in gently rolling hills, the road meandering between them. Small white farmhouse cottages nestle at the base of mountains whose tops are enveloped in thick mists and whose sides are deeply veined by streams.
There is a soft wildness to the grass – a mixture of green and autumnal tones gently undulating in the breeze. The deep greenness of everything is undeniable; coming from the Pacific Northwest, you might think yourself accustomed to the color based on the sheer number of conifers, but, somehow, this is a green of a different kind. There is such infinite variance to it that words describing the whole of it don’t exist.
We passed the occasional dilapidated stone cottage with wind-stripped boards haphazardly nailed over the windows. Much more plentiful were the brightly colored sheep grazing to either side of the road: vivid green, blue, and red markings were dyed on their backs in different patterns to distinguish them from other farmer’s flocks. To us, it looked like the sheep had been playing paintball.
Our first encounters with livestock in the road were also here. Small black sheepy faces peered at us, blinking incuriously from the middle of our lane. They were very nonchalant about the matter as they marched away in single file, flicking their tails as they went. Clearly, they were not at all worried about the presence of cars here.
The speed limits on these roads were typically 100 km/h, or about 62 mph. Depending on your perspective, this may or may not seem like sheer madness given that they are winding, narrow, and bumpy. At times it feels like all they did was leave the land as-is, slap down some pavement, and call it good. It’s particularly noticeable when your stomach drops out from going over several rises and falls of the road, all of them in a row. (This is a sensation which I happen to really enjoy. Your mileage may vary.)
Jason seemed to be having a lot of fun as he down-shifted to corner the turns. He did a great job striking a balance between flying down the roads like a true Irishman and exercising caution around the more winding turns and blind rises. After all, it’s not every day that you get to race down backcountry roads in someone else’s car (and with few other vehicles around.) As he put it, “I feel like I’m speeding, but I’m not even going the speed limit!” (One of our B&B hosts said it’s crazy to try to go the speed limit on the back roads here anyway: “You’d be likely to go flying off the roads completely!”)
In contrast, US speed limits are often set so low that practically everyone breaks them by a good 5-15 mph, especially on highways. Here, speed limits appear to be more along the lines of, “You probably shouldn’t go this fast, but if you really want to, we won’t stop you.” That being said, while on the straightaways we might have gone the marked 100 km/h, around the bends it was definitely much slower. (For reference, the max speed on the highways here is 120 km/h (~74 mph), compared to the typical US highway speed of 60 mph (70 mph in less populated areas)). Given how well Jason’s taken to driving Irish roads, I’m just hoping at this point that he doesn’t get too many tickets once we’re back home.
As we went on, the land became even wilder. Vast, foggy lakes stretched out beside the road, some with heavily treed little islands marooned in the middle. At some points, rock walls or rickety fences lined the road, while at other times, sheer orange cliff faces rose up to one or both sides.
Our drive through Connemara took us from Galway through Oughterard and then Maam Cross, where we turned off to go through the smallish coastal town of Roundstone. Here we stopped at a café for what has become the lunch option of choice (and is ubiquitous here, whether at a tiny café or a full-on restaurant) – soup and brown bread. It’s an economical, hearty, and filling option, and we’re taking full advantage of every opportunity we get to sample the many varieties of homemade brown soda bread. (So far, the best was at Ard Bia in Galway; thick slices with sunflower and pumpkins seeds all around the crust).
Roundstone was also the first place in Connemara where we noticed a strange thing – small flies buzzing around in the rain. Generally you don’t see flies and rain together (maybe more so in swampy areas?) I mention them for a reason – more on this later.
Continuing on, we wound our way around the coast with a clear view of the sea and clean ocean scent blowing in through the windows. We had a brief stop for pictures at Gurteen Beach, where a cemetery and trailer home community shared a rise overlooking the sea – a great view. In spite of the icy wind and even colder water, a swimsuit-clad local woman was bravely taking dip (down the beach in the opposite direction, the somewhat less hardy – likely tourists – were trying their luck in dry-suits.)
There was still more beautiful coastal scenery to be had as we made our way to the larger town of Clifden, known for its Abbeyglen Castle hotel. Clifden is also both the start and endpoint for a scenic drive along Sky Road. We took Sky Road without stopping in Clifden, climbing ever-upwards along a winding cliff face. Some more tricky parts of the road were without walls or fences along the cliffside – definitely a place to drive carefully, but nothing too bad.
The view out the car windows was amazing and well worth it: sea out all along the west and lush hills below. It was a fairly short drive to the top, and we soon reached the lookout point. Below us stretched a magnificent patchwork quilt of bright green fields, rolling hills, and the occasional farmhouse cottage. We could see all the way out to the sea and beyond to peninsulas and islands in the distance. We were so high up that sheep and cows were only tiny white flecks sprinkled across the land below.
Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones up there. Tiny biting flies–of the kind we’d seen in Roundstone, but in much greater numbers – swarmed around our faces in spite of the rain and cold. We cinched our jacket hoods tightly around our heads, hoping to buy a few more minutes of view and photography opportunities, but it was fruitless. Anyone who got out of their cars at the lookout almost immediately began waving their hands and arms wildly, trying to fend the flies off from their nostrils and eyes. There were a lot of them. One couple who’d been there before us were standing up on the wall of the overlook, strangely unbothered – or maybe just unwilling to let it get to them – drinking coffee and eating a sandwich.
We weren’t quite so resilient. After a few more hasty attempts to get pictures we fled to the car. We’d heard Sky Road was “unforgettable” and even “harrowing” – it certainly was, but not for any of the reasons we imagined! All joking aside, we really want to return someday and to experience its beauty again. Hopefully next time there will be fewer flies.