Connemara is Ireland’s big sky country, and you’ll want to put it on your Ireland bucket list. An untamed region of pristine lakes and mountains, Connemara is sparsely populated, and the landscape is wide open. Because the area is remote, cultural traditions have survived and Irish is the first language of many who live here. The geography is mythic and includes spectacular glacial lakes, quiet mountains, empty roads, and rippling boglands. This is a place for long walks, for inspiration, for romance, for reflection, tradition, and surprising finds.
This extraordinary building looks as if it were a mansion that fell out of a storybook. Situated on a reedy lake, Kylemore is the definition of serenity. It began life as a couple’s honeymoon dream, then it sheltered nuns during WWI, became a girls’ school, and now it is a sanctuary for Benedictine nuns. There is a walled Victorian Garden and nice guided nature hikes. Kylemore is a must-see in Connemara.
The Ironing Stone
The Ironing Stone is a short walk from the chapel at Kylemore Abbey. It is said that this massive stone was tossed here by the Irish warrior and giant, Cu Chulainn. This is what legend says to do here: Pick up small pebbles at the base of the stone. Stand with your back to the giant rock and close your eyes. Go inside yourself and read your heart’s desire. Toss your pebbles, one at a time, over your left shoulder. The ancient giant’s spirit will grant your wish.
As you drive around the countryside, you will see small shops selling carved Connemara Marble. Stop even if you’re the sort of person who never pulls over for any reason. Connemara marble is found only in this one area, and it is between 600 and 900 million years old. The stone becomes marble when limestone in this region is heated under pressure. (If you go to the National Museum of Ireland, you’ll see Stone Age axes made of Connemara marble.)
Inside most shops, you can have a hot cup of tea while you wander the aisles filled with fascinating carved animals, fairies, flowers, and almost anything else you can imagine. Pick out at least one thing you love and bring it home—it fits easily in your luggage. When you check the price on the bottom of a carving, you will be amazed. Most pieces cost less than a pub dinner for two. Take some ancient beauty home with you.
Just beyond Kylemore Abbey, where you tossed pebbles over your shoulder, you’ll find the only fjord in Ireland. The water is deep, it is dark, and like most fjords there are steep hills that surround it. Its majesty is haunting. While there, consider taking a 90-minute catamaran ride around the harbor. The sailing vessel has a roof, a bar, and a restaurant—those cost extra, but the amazing views are free of charge.
This idyllic town is sheltered beneath mountains overlooking Killary Harbor. It’s a tiny village, traditional, and sweet. One of our favorite places to visit in Leenane is a local factory called The Sheep and Wool Center. It’s right in the middle of town—easy to find. There are various breeds of sheep that roam around—notice the difference in their wool. You’ll be entranced by the demonstrations of carding, spinning, weaving, and the dyeing of wool with local plants. Find their woolens in a shop, gift yourself or someone else, and support Leenane’s economy. Treasure the traditional.
The Heritage Trail
Put on your walking boots and adventure through the mysterious parts of County Mayo. The Heritage Trail leads you past remote boglands and ancient ruins, finishing at the pilgrimage site at Croagh Patrick. The Balla Round Tower, 30 feet high, was built in 637 AD and was perhaps a warning for a Viking invasion. Next is the Blessed Well, a monastery founded in 616 AD and once a refuge for the blind. There is something about these sites that touches the heart.
The Gem that is Roundstone
Ten miles south of Clifden is the village of Roundstone. The homes and businesses are painted bright colors that pop against the hills and bounce off the harbor waters. This may be the most picture-perfect town in Western Ireland. The shop fronts are terraced over the bay, and the bay is filled with small fishing boats and traditional tar-lacquered canoes. The local crafts are first-rate and unique. There are also paintings, musical instruments (some quite unusual), and musical workshops. The scents from cafes and pubs are just this side of heaven.