Connemara: past perfect

Feature On a trip home to Ireland, Stephen Starr visits an area known for its beautiful landscapes, where wild and unspoilt lakes and mountains still evoke the sparse rural existence of past inhabitants.

Handout image showing Killary Harbour ( An Caol‡ire Rua in Irish), located in Leenane , Connemara, Co. Galway, is Ireland's only fjord. Courtesy of Holger Leue / Tourism Ireland.
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When the great Irish playwright John Millington Synge visited Connemara at the turn of the last century, he wrote: "It is part of the misfortune of Ireland that nearly all the characteristics which give colour and attractiveness to Irish life are bound up with a condition that is close to penury." As I skim pebbles from the shore of one of Connemara's many black lakes more than a hundred years on, I can see what he was talking about.

The rain-battered cottage at the mouth of Killary Harbour, a natural fjord in north-west Connemara in which Ludwig Wittgenstein revised and prepared some of the most important philosophical works of the twentieth century, remains to this day. While boutique hotels have opened in nearby Mayo, strict planning laws initiated by local authorities in Galway mean that b&bs and the odd dingy hostel are the staple source of accommodation here, as they have been for generations.

Connemara is a two-hour drive from my home town of Nenagh in county Tipperary. My previous experience of the region had been confined to the backseat of a car driving to a wedding in Mayo when I was six, and gate-crashing a family holiday in Maam Cross several years ago. Both times, I was able to gather no more than a glimpse of Connemara, and so was determined to experience it - alone - this year when back in Ireland to renew my Syrian visa.

On a cloudy morning in May, this beautiful district on the edge of western Europe is dotted with deep bog lakes interspaced by columns of sheer mountain rock. The silence of the open countryside is only broken by a salty sea gale or by the odd car splashing through puddles behind me on the way to Clifden, 20 kilometres or so further west of my lakeside stopping point. Connemara abounds with reminders of the past. On my drive across the region, men well-wrapped up against the wind are still harvesting turf - the compost-type material used as fuel during the autumn, winter and spring - with their bare hands. Even in summer, the bog ground is much too soft to allow machinery to help out. White-washed cottages, some hundreds of years old, stand virtually unchanged, small specks on the brown and rolling landscape.

While everyone can speak English in this region, as I walk into a local grocery store I'm instantly made to feel foreign again: people are speaking in Irish. Students, who flock to the Gaeltacht, as regions of Connemara are often referred to, for three weeks every summer to study Irish in preparation for school exams, are practising Irish with the shopkeeper. The Irish language has survived here for centuries largely due to the fact that Oliver Cromwell viewed the west of Ireland as little more than a wasteland. Even though my Irish is poor and I don't understand what was being said, I reassure myself as I leave the store that at least I still know about Cromwell.

My next port of call is a place that has lived on in my memory for 20 years. On the way to that wedding in county Mayo, north of Connemara, I remember winding along a road on the edge of one of Connemara's many lakes and, as a child, being very bored. Today, however, and in the blink of an eye, a scene from a fairytale story appears before my eyes: Kylemore Abbey. Completed in 1871 by Mitchell and Margaret Henry, Kylemore is an hour's drive from Galway city in north-west Connemara. Mountains flank Kylemore to the north and south, and the abbey looks as though it is hovering on the gorgeous glass-still lake.

The grounds of Kylemore Abbey are spread out behind the lovely waters and it sits in the foothills of what seems like a wall of sheer rock mountain to the north. Visitors can stroll around much of the estate lakes and rivers, although hiking has been stopped following an accident several years ago. Of the house itself, only the ground level is open to the public because an order of Benedictine nuns, who made it their home in 1920, occupy the upper floors.

Inside there are several pieces of original furniture dating back to the 1860s, but the Abbey lacks something of the character its history would suggest. A far better reason for visiting Kylemore is to view its magnificent restored Victorian walled gardens that are said to have rivalled Kew Gardens in their heyday. The gardens today have been reconstructed using photographs from the past. "All the plants and flowers we have here are the same as those growing in the 19th century," Dolores Hogan, a gardener at Kylemore tells me, adding that it is becoming harder and ever more expensive to find historic species today.

The gardens are a 30-minute walk from the Abbey, but most visitors use the complimentary shuttle bus to reach this glorious scene of colour and scent. The Duke of Manchester, who bought the house in 1903, built the gardens for his wife, ordering in plants from around the world, says Isabelle, my French guide. The main road west to Clifden, the unofficial capital of Connemara, once passed through the gardens. Today, thanks to the 19th-century underground heating system that involves some 1,500 metres of reconstructed stone piping, the two rebuilt glasshouses - there were originially 21 - host a vinery, banana plants and orange trees. Workers are busily pruning grapevines and plum trees along the garden's wall among clouds of flying insects.

From Kylemore, I drive in a loop through Connemara, heading further west to Killary Harbour, 16km- long, 45m-deep in the centre and the only fjord in Ireland. Though patience is usually called for, dolphins are often spotted in the summer months and boat companies will run you out to catch a better glimpse. Connemara is famous for its walking tours and routes, and or Connemara Way, is the region's most popular. A monster 220km trek that begins in Galway city and ends west in the islands district, hikers can take advantage of the opportunity to stay overnight in Irish-speaking households.

I skip the walk, instead driving on to Ballynahinch Castle and Fishery, half a dozen kilometres from Connemara's wild southern coast. The 450-acre estate also has a fascinating history. Now a four-star hotel owned by an American, in 1924 the property was bought by a fabulously wealthy maharaja, Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, known simply as "Ranji the Indian prince", stunned as he was by the peace and rugged nature of the area. Each June he would travel to the hideaway castle in a motorcade, driving west from Galway with his entourage. He was also a passionate fly-fisherman and then, as today, Ballynahinch Estate's reputation for fine salmon and trout fishing was known across the British Isles.

Ballynahinch Fishery is the first fishing point on the mouth of Ballynahinch River, meaning it has first call on the thousands of trout and salmon that travel inland to spawn each spring and summer. Atlantic salmon and sea trout are best caught on the river, which snakes down to the Atlantic and into the open sea, from June onwards (the official fishing season lasts until the end of September). Each angler changes "beat" - one of eight stretches of winding river about 700m long - at 2pm every day, moving downstream towards the sea in order to test their mettle against the wildest of wild fish Ireland has to offer.

According to Simon Ashe, the fishery manager and a Dubliner lured west by Connemara's beauty, there are few places to rival Ballynahinch: "The trout caught here are usually around a pound in weight, while salmon can reach up to five pounds. It's the king of fish but much more difficult to catch on a fly." Going back a century, fish caught in the sea around the village of Roundstone and Ballynahinch Castle were then hauled on to train carriages at the station located on the estate then transported to Galway and on to London, ready for the market the next morning.

From Ballynahinch I head home, content to have finally experienced a part of my country that for years seemed almost too near to merit visiting. I can imagine returning in another 20 years, tossing pebbles into the lake, looking up in awe at those same mountains, and hoping once more that Connemara doesn't change.