The Cultural region of Connemara in the province of Connacht in Western Ireland, is a must visit location for the cultural traveller and outdoorsman.
In Gaelic, Connemara means ‘Inlets of the sea.’ The prolific Irish Poet Oscar Wilde, described Connemara as a ‘savage beauty.’ There is something indeed wild and unkept about Connemara, that sparks the imagination of all who visit the region. The rolling, yet sharp peaked mountains, along with the jutting cliffs along the Atlantic coast, makes for a captivating North Atlantic dreamscape.
There is also saying that are more sheep in Connemara than there are people which is a hint at the regions traditional ways. Connemara National Park covers over 2000 hectres (5000 acres). And like the Aran Islands, Connemara has remained a stronghold for Gaelic speakers and is commonly referred to as the largest Gaeltacht region in Ireland. Head to a local pub in Connemara and there is a swell chance you’ll hear it being spoken.
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Connemara National park is made up of more than fifty magnificient peaks in four divided mountain chains, consisting of, the Twelve Bens, Maum Turks, Partry and Sheffrey ranges.
Located in the northwest corner of County Galway and Stretching into Mayo, the region begins just west of Lough Corrib. On the north side of Connemara is Killary Harbour which is also Irelands largest Fjord.
Getting here is relatively straight forward, just take N59 from Galway city by car, bike or bus. Cycling is obviously the preferred and most adventurous option and it is also possible to take a coastal route, known as the Connemara loop which offers views of the Atlantic and traverses through quant coastal towns like Spidal.
The Twelve Bens Traverse
Trekking in the Twelve Bens mountain range is without a doubt, the primary appeal for the outdoorsman visiting Connemara. In Irish, these mountains are called ‘Beanna Beola’ which means simply, The Peaks of Beaola.
The highest of these twelve peaks is Benbaun, reaching 729 metres (2,392ft). To be sure, the Bens and the other ranges in Connemara are a bit different than the likes of the Wicklow mountains, as they are way less boggy, yet rockier and sharper at the peaks.
|Derryclare Mount- 650m||Benbrack- 582m|
|Bencorr- 711m||Bengoora- 400m|
|Ben Lettery- 516m||Knockpasheemore- 412m|
|Benbaun- 729m||Bencoor Beg- 577m|
Access to these routes can be made off of N59 and from the small villages of Letterfrack and Recess. Though the most ideal option, may be to stay at the Ben Lettery Youth Hostel which is located smack dab in the middle of Connemara and on the doorstep of these Mountains. Staying here is not only beautiful, the hostel is a great resource for more information on adventuring into the Bens.
Trekking through the Bens, can be done a couple ways, either by trekking the entire circuit across the top of all twelve of the peaks which is called the Twelve Ben Challenge traverse or through a more basic but still challenging route, The Glencoagahan horseshoe.
The Twelve Ben Challenge is a top grade route and requires the upmost mountain physical fitness and stamina. This should not be attempted by the novice or amateur and can take up to 14 hours to complete .
The route includes a few tough sections of scrambling and serious descents upon loose scree. Completing it in a day is generally only possible in the summer months (due to day light) and in the winter, will require a night of wild camping in the Connemara wilderness.
The other more basic route called, The Glencoagahan horseshoe scales 6 of the 12 Bens. The route features stunning valleys, mountain lakes and incredible views of nearly all of Connemara (on clear days.)
Techinically the route is not difficult but requires stout physical fitness as it takes about 7-11 hours to complete. Crampons or microspikes may be required in the winter with snow and ice accumulating towards the top of the peaks.
A map and compass are also essential, as the visibility can get quite sketchy in the mountains of Connemara due to ample rain, mist and fog. On average, Connemara gets around 225 days of precipitation a year.
Strong winds off the Atlantic can also produce quite horrid conditions in winter months.
Rising about the small village of Letterfrack, trekking to the top of Diamond hill is considered to be on the finest hikes on the island. From its top, one has access to stunning ocean, island and mountain views in all directions. On the slopes of the mountain, are the remanents of a long abandoned 19th century farm and megalithic tomb built by the first farmers of the area 5000 years ago.
Summiting Mweelrea mountain is a challenging and excellent expedition to undertake in Connemara. Importantly, it should only be attempted by experienced hikers and mountaineers.
Mweelrea is the highest mountain in not only County Mayo but the whole province of Connaucht standing at 814 meters (2,671ft).
Distance is about 10km and takes about five to eight hours to complete roundtrip. There are several different routes to take up this mountain but the the most straightforward begins at its western slope
Climbing this peak is a strenuous six to eight hour journey in the heart of the wild Maumturks range. The distance is about 15km with about 960m of climbing.
Ireland’s holiest mountain, Crough Patrick has a special place in the spiritual heart of the Irish people. Climbing it is a right of passage for many spiritual pilgrims and mountaineers.
As its not to hard to guess, the mountain is named in honor of the nation’s patron saint, St Patrick. It was on this mountain in 441Ad that St Patrick spent 40 days during Lent fasting. Even prior to the arrival of St Patrick however, the mountain served as a gathering point for Pagans to celebrate the arrival of harvest season.
Located in County Mayo near the town of Westport, the mountain is approximately 92km from Galway and 230 km from Dublin City. The route begins at the Visitor Centre in the village of Murrisk, 8km outside Westport. One can get to Westport either by bus or train from both Galway and Dublin. From Westport, the options are to either cycle the 8km to the Visitor Centre or take a Bus Eireann.
Every year on the last Sunday of July, thousands of Pilgrims attempt to trek the 7km pilgrim trail to the summit of the 2,500ft mountain. Many of these pilgrims make the climb barefoot. This reveals the very spiritual nature of this certain expedition. Scaling Cro Patrick is not only about the challenge or the breathtaking views of the west Ireland country side and Atlantic ocean, but its about connecting with something larger than yourself. Even if one is not Catholic, attempting this climb is a worthwhile challenge.
Connemara is of course right on the edge of the Wild Atlantic way, thus one has the opportunity to get very creative with your cycling adventures. In the month of May, there is the Tour De Connamara Cycling race which is perhaps, one of the finest races in Europe. Western Ireland Cycling in Galway is a good place to get a locals take on the various routes in this region and pick up extra gear.
Cong And Clonbur
Visiting the small villages of Cong and Clonbur, nestled deep in Connemara country and situated between the majestic lakes of Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, Cong and Clonbur, are a must visit for the adventure traveler.
This is another chance to get off the beaten path and experience traditional and rugged Ireland. Mountain View hostel in Clonbur is a grand place to stay, as it sits on a family run farm and is literally on the side of a mountain that offers spectacular hiking. Cycling through the Connemara hills and around the lakes is of great appeal here.
Getting here is not as simple as other destinations however. You will either for sure, have to rent a car, or take a bus from Galway station that leaves at odd times and of which, you will eventually have to get off and hire a taxi to reach Clonbur. The route begins on N84 which bridges off to R334 and then R346 into Cong.
In Clonbur, Burkes Restaurant and Pub is the place to be. It offers what might possibly be, the best Irish Breakfast in the entire country. In the evenings, there is traditional music and an opportunity to mix it up with some of the locals. Cycling from Galway city is of course and option as well but is quite the haul and the rider should be prepared to either stay at a B&B on the way or do some wild camping. Importantly, the B&B’s north of Galway are largely seasonal as well.
Westport is defiantly one of the most attractive cities in Connacht. Full of charming pubs and restaurants, from the town centre one has easy access to the Blue Flag beaches on Achill Island, Crough Patrick and the Great Western Greenway, which is a path along the Mayo coast that is fantastic for walking and cycling. There is a wide variety of accomidation options in this town of about 6000 people, with B&B’s, hotels and hostels.
Located about 50 miles west of Galway city and nestled between the 12 Bens of Connamara and the Atlantic Coast, Clifden is a town with a rich Irish heritage. Like Westport, Clifden is a great place to be based for mountain, cycling and water activities. The scenery from the town center is incredible and is defiantly not the easiest place to become bored.
Also, if you are a keen fisherman, the Owenglen River is nearby, along with numerous lakes in the area where salmon and sea trout can be caught. All licenses and permits that you need can be bought locally. A number of sea angling charter boats work from Clifden harbor providing some of the best and most reliable sea angling in perhaps all of Europe.
Killary Harbour is Ireland’s only true fjord and extends 16km (10 miles) in from the Atlantic to its head at Aasleagh Falls. It forms the border between Galway and Mayo and boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the west of Ireland.
Killary Harbour is also extremely deep, over 45m at its centre. This offers a very safe, sheltered anchorage, because of the depth and the mountains to the south and north. It is a hotspot for shellfish farming, and strings of ropes used to grow mussels are visible for much of its breadth. Mussels and clams grown in Killary Harbour are sold at the Westport Country Market every Thursday morning.
To the north of Killary Fjord, lies Mweelrea Mountain and to the south are the Twelve Bens and the Maumturk Mountains. Incredible views greet the traveller from all directions.
Killary Harbour and the surrounding area offer ample opportunities for the outdoor enthusiast, including hillwalking and scuba diving. There are regular boat trips around the fjord, one option being Killary Cruises.
The sheltered Killary fjord is a real treat for birdwatching, with nationally important populations of many species, including ringed plover, mute swan, whooper swan, mallard duck, tufted duck, and barnacle goose. Otters, a protected species in Ireland, are known to breed at Killary Harbour.