Another marvelous drive is the scenic route south of Westport, “through the twisting, turning, winding roads of Galway and Mayo” (as sung by our favorite Irish band, the Saw Doctors). Even on a cloudy day, driving past the “stone walls and the grasses green” on Ireland’s west side — with the wild Atlantic surf never too far away — can make anyone feel like singing.
We drove through the heartachingly beautiful Doo Lough valley, made all the more moving because of a tragic event that took place here during the potato famine of the mid-1800s. One winter, some 600 starving people set out on this road through the mountains to get help at the Delphi Lodge just south of the lake but were turned away. Four hundred of them froze to death on the road on their way back north. A stone marker commemorates “the hungry poor who walked here in 1849 and walk the third world today.”
We went for a short walk down to the lake edge and hoped the mist would stay in the hilltops. Despite the wistfulness of the place, the cool, crisp air and sight of the green fields sloping gently down to the water was a true elixir.
Next we stopped off at Aasleagh Falls just north of the County Galway border and went for a short walk along the River Erriff. The river empties into Killary Harbour, a long glacial fjord dotted with the mussel rafts and salmon cages of aquaculture operations in the area. Continuing on past Connemara National Park, we took the Sky Road scenic detour on a small peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, then looped through Cliffden and the tidy coastal town of Roundstone. Construction delays and hundreds of riders in the Tour de Connemara bicycle race on the main road made for slow going the rest of the day. Arriving in downtown Galway late in the afternoon, we were eager for a quiet evening in our room instead of going out in the rain to the pubs.
The next day we drove around Galway Bay to Dunguaire Castle, a 16th century tower house near Kinvarra that Dublin doctor and writer Oliver St. John Gogarty — a friend of James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and other Irish literary notables — bought and began restoring in 1924.
Dunguaire is popular for evening banquets featuring music and storytelling by costumed entertainers, but we toured the castle by day. We had great fun imagining what it would be like to live in a castle, drinking mead and feasting on legs of lamb and piles of potatoes (at least, after 1586 when scholars believed the potato first showed up in Ireland).
We continued on into County Clare and the heart of the Burren, a large expanse of gently terraced limestone hills that taper down to the sea. The landscape looks like cracked pavement. The cracks filter water down below ground, where the subsurface is latticed with the longest cave system in Ireland.
Aerial views of the Burren are compelling. Many of the foothills have been converted to farmland, with rocky ground protruding up in the highest elevations. Despite all the exposed rock, a surprising variety of flowering plants call this place home.
There aren’t many formal walking trails in the Burren and it’s easy to get lost here. Rather than heading uphill for views of the surrounding farms and coast, we chose a section of the Burren Way walking track that connected to the Newtown Nature Trail at the Burren College of Art. The friendly school mascot came clucking up to us in greeting.
Newtown Castle sits on the college campus and is a rare example of a cylindrical tower house, with grasses creeping up a square pyramid forming the base and walls some 12 feet thick. The castle has been restored but left largely unadorned, with plain rooms radiating off a central stairwell. We had the castle to ourselves as we climbed to the top.
After our Burren walk we drove on to the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s most popular tourism attractions for good reason. Stretching some seven miles or so, the sandstone, siltstone and shale cliffs tower from 390 feet above the Atlantic Ocean at the southern point to just over 700 feet near the mid-point. We took the clifftop walk south from the visitor center about three miles to the Moher Tower, stopping often to check out birds and take in the scenery.
It was a dramatic hike with views of razorbills, gulls and other seabirds bobbing far down below on the waves and perched high on cliff ledges. We even managed to spot a few Atlantic puffins, distinguishable mostly by their red feet (they were too far away for us to see much detail on their sad-clown white faces and colorful bills, even with binoculars).
We then doubled back to the lookout by O’Brien’s Tower just north of the visitor center. The walk was among Hector’s favorites in all of Ireland, and even though we spent nearly four hours at the site, it didn’t seem like enough. But with the afternoon waning, it was time to head back to Galway for the night.
Driving inland along the R480, our last stop that day was at the Poulnabrone Dolmen. This Neolithic portal tomb sports two tall portal stones topped with a large capstone. Set on a grass-covered rock cairn, the structure marks the entrance to a stone-lined burial chamber. Interpretive materials in English and Irish explained the history of the site. Archaeological excavations in the 1980s revealed that some 33 people were buried in the chamber around 3000 BC with items such as pendants, beads, crystals, weapons and pottery fragments.
Poulnabrone is one of only two portal tombs in the Burren, although some 90 other megalithic structures — wedge tombs, court tombs, stone forts and cairns — also survive in the region. The homes of the early farmers who lived here have long since faded into the now rocky landscape, yet the effort they put into building stone tombs to bury their dead and perform rituals and ceremonies hints at the powerful symbolic and sacred role of ancestors in their culture. And even though the area was much more heavily forested in the Neolithic Age, the verdant landscape and bracing seascape must surely have invigorated the early inhabitants of the Emerald Isle just as much as residents and visitors today.