Walking Connemara

Under the slightly chilly grey-blue skies of western Ireland, we took to the hills. 

Ireland as a land mass was only just beginning to realize that it was late June, time to start warming up. The skies were a little slow on the uptake. But, for the most part, we were able to stay dry enough to enjoy several walks in and around the Connemara area. Two of these walks stand out above all the rest.

Connemara Diamond Hill

It’s a fairly easy, three-hour walk up a hill. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s one of those walks that astounds at every turn, and while the lush green scenery of Ireland is still a fresh sight, it’s an event that ends up occupying a disproportionate amount of space on the camera’s memory card. We’d turn a corner, or simply stop and turn around, whip out the camera and take between three and seven pictures to capture the panorama, painstakingly ensuring we weren’t missing something…only to stop ten minutes later to find that, now slightly higher up, the view was even better. Another three to seven pictures. And we never learned.

Here are three to seven of our finest from that day.

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The Diamond in the background, which we summited. Connemara ponies in the foreground, which we left alone

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IMG_7124At the summit

The Erriff River

The Erriff River is on realmsofwhere for three reasons.

First, it was at the juncture of the first road with a name we’d hit after leaving our cottage’s unnamed road. So we’d see it every day, no matter where we were headed, and the river — the unassuming but pleasant enough Aasleagh Falls in particular — became one of the integral and lasting images of our stay.

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Aasleagh Falls

Second, to call the Erriff River scenic is an understatement. It meanders on, and on, and on, through a valley walled by some of Connemara’s best mountains on either side, and cuts its way into a plain of verdant grassland. Only once on our trails along the Erriff did we encounter other people, otherwise we had it to ourselves. Which is not to say the walks were quiet. The sheep along this stretch of Irish country terrain are abnormally vocal. I don’t know why. I hope it isn’t me.

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IMG_9961 Loud

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The third reason is a little more involved, but interesting, I think. Feel free to skip to the end if an 8 ounce dose of history is not your cup of tea right now.

One day the farmer, whose dog Rex waited patiently at the front door with one paw stretched over the threshold  — he’s not allowed inside but he pushes his luck as far as it’ll go, told us enough of the history of the Erriff River fishery to pique my curiosity.

There’s a small cast of characters to follow here, but I’ll keep it brief. And bear with me; there’s a reason for this story. It starts with Aasleagh Falls Lodge, a stately home turned guest house situated alongside the falls, which once belonged to royalty — the Marquis of Sligo to be precise. As proprietor of the lodge, Sligo had responsibility for the fishery and all the beats along the Erriff River. The river was then, and still is now, widely-known among fly anglers to be one the finest salmon rivers in all of Europe. (According to Farmer Pat, who, let’s face it, has seen it all, a few decades ago the river was literally teeming with salmon and sea trout: “Yer’d step downe near a pewl like, and thirty or forty would scatter off; then yer’d walk to the other soide and they’d be off again the other way.”) Sadly, the population has waned significantly in recent times; now you’ll see “ownly one er two if yer loocky”.

Then in 1969, The Aasleagh Falls Lodge (and with it custodianship of the river’s fishery) was bought by Lord Brabourne, a relative of the Sligo bunch. This Lord Brabourne, an acquaintance of Farmer Pat by the way, counted among his aristocratic fishing buddies one Lord Mountbatten, whom you’ll remember from history books as the last Viceroy of India. (Quick note here: Meg, in proofing this, assures me that no one in America learned of Mountbatten in their history books. Not to worry. All you need to know is that he was a very famous royal dude. In fact, to give him some familiarity in terms of current affairs, he was the uncle of the queen’s husband, Prince Philip. In other words, he’s the late great-grand-uncle of the soon-to-be-born spawn of William and Kate — the future king or queen of England.) Got it? Good. That’s all the characters we need for our story. Which is about to take a rather alarming turn.

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Lord Mountbatten, being a lover of all things water, was not only an avid fisherman, but also a keen boatsman, and it was aboard his boat — in County Sligo — that he met his untimely end on a hot summer’s day in 1979. He was with a few family, friends, and crew members on board Shadow V near his holiday home  in the north of Ireland when, suddenly, fifty pounds of explosives tore through the boat, killing him and several of his companions. The blast made world headlines — more so when it was revealed to have been a bomb blast, and responsibility for it was claimed by the Provisional IRA.

As a result Lord Brabourne, acquaintance of our beloved farmer, of similar aristocracy to his assassinated fishing buddy, and also having suffered the loss of family members in the attack, now found it necessary to employ armed guards to accompany him wherever he went. Distraught, and possibly wishing to diminish his ennobled footprint on the Irish landscape, within two years he had relinquished control of Aasleagh Falls Lodge and the fishery to the state, which owns and operates it to this day (rather inefficiently, according to a couple of local anglers I spoke to).

There is a point to all this, if you’ll bear with me for just one more quick anecdote from a later moment in our travels through Ireland. Driving around the Beara Peninsula one evening, we stopped at an historic farmhouse, one that offers some hands-on insight into Irish rural life in the century leading up to, and the years after, the potato famine of the 1840s. All of this was arresting and poignant in its own right, but up a hill behind the house, a five minute walk away, offered as a kind of footnote to the farm visit, was a stone alignment — an arrangement of large rocks angled to cast specific shadows during solstices, and to be lined up with the sunrise over a distant mountain — an ancient calendar. How ancient? It is estimated to have been put in place some four or five thousand years ago.

And all this is to say nothing of the countless ruins that punctuate the landscape, in some cases sad reminders of abandonment and demise — all that remains of modest homes from the famine that took 1.5 million lives not very long ago.

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Which brings me (finally!) to my point. Hiking in Ireland is special. Right before us, lurking in the history of a relatively petite waterfall on a not very grand river, are connections to the farm we stayed on, as well as the British royal family, their interest in Ireland, the Troubles, and the IRA. Behind a farmhouse-turned-tourist-trap on Beara sits a staggeringly old geological calendar and (as is speculated locally) burial ground. Here are just two personally-experienced examples (in a nationwide treasure trove of them) of where the land itself, the very ground beneath your feet as you hike, is twined together with Ireland’s majestic history, prosperous and tragic, recent and ancient, and it’s a privilege to walk here.

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In the cool misty evenings, back at the cottage, we would venture out into the fields and woods, looking for fallen trees and dead wood to be whittled down using the one tool available to us, a rusty old hacksaw. With fingers aching and arms pecked into welts by hordes of unseen midges, we would retreat indoors to relax by the fire each night, as the sun dipped behind the hills and cast the valley into an eerie glow that never fully turned to darkness.

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Those no-see-ums really did a number on me

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But in the end, even the logs thought things were a-ok



Categories: Europe, Ireland

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