Saturday 29 July 2017

Secret Ireland: Quiet man country

Sheep farmer Joe Joyce
Sheep farmer Joe Joyce
Derroura mountain bike trail
Loch Corrib
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile retraces John Wayne’s path through Connemara.

The cinematic countryside

It's easy to see how 'The Quiet Man' won an Oscar for its cinematography. Driving from Maam Cross towards Leenane, the hulking brown mountains, twisting streams and careering white clouds of Connemara form a brilliantly cinematic landscape. Black-faced sheep are speckled all over the mountains, and wind sweeps through the wispy grass like an invisible comb.

The quintessential 'Quiet Man' location is the bridge at the southern end of Lough Boffin, a small, two-arched hump that bears the glow of a recent restoration. Look over the wall and you'll see a photo of Wayne next to the bluish-black water.

Nearby Lough Nafooey and Maam Valley are more spectacular sights, but visitors are besotted with this modest bridge.

Details: discoverireland.ie/ connemara.

The 21st-century shepherd

Movie buffs will tell you that Maureen O'Hara is first seen in 'The Quiet Man' herding sheep. But do they know that Connemara's sheep have been starring in modern-day films, too?

Pulling up at Joe Joyce's home by Lough Nafooey, the sheep farmer shows me photos of himself with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson. "I was asked to have 20 sheep for a film," he tells me. His herd ended up blocking Aniston and Wilson's rental car for a scene in 'Marley & Me'.

Joyce is a third- generation sheep farmer, and visitors to his farm can learn how pure-bred border collies are trained as sheepdogs before watching the dogs themselves at work.

It's an amazing sight. As Joe whistles and shouts, his dog Roy nips and tucks, steering a small bunch of sheep through gaps and gates on the mountainside like a flock of birds.

Freeing up roads for movie stars is the easy bit. Joyce keeps some 200 sheep on the slug-like Ceann Garbh Mountain, on to which he sometimes sends his dogs in high-visibility vests. "It's like a remote control," he says. "I can work up to a mile away."

Details: €7/€5; from June 1. Tel: 094 954 8853; joycecountrysheepdogs.ie.

The smoked salmon salad

Moycullen's White Gables restaurant occupies a 1920s cottage, but the funky café next door, 'Enjoy ... from White Gables', is of another era.

Step into the lime-green and raspberry-pink rooms and you'll find polo-necked staff milling around a display case crammed with brightly coloured macaroons, cookies, muffins and fairy cakes.

I order the Connemara Smokehouse salmon with homemade brown soda bread (€8.95). Smoked locally in Ballyconneely, the salmon is rip-roaringly succulent, with a dry and pointed whiff of smoke standing in welcome contrast to the squishy fish you'll find on supermarket shelves. The salad, a mixed bed of leaves doused in honey and mustard dressing, bears it up nicely.

I'm not a fan of the square room and trip-hop music -- I think they dampen the atmosphere -- but a deli kitted out with quirky produce such as Solaris teas and Ginger Girl jams is definitely worth a nose, and the framed tea towels with their retro-ironic slogans ("I only have a kitchen because it came with the house") can't help but bring Mary Kate Danaher to mind.

Details: Tel: 091 868200; enjoy.white gables.com.

The overnight stay

In the film, John Wayne arrives into Castletown by rail. You can evoke that with a stay at the Railway Lodge outside Oughterard. Carmel Geoghegan's B&B nudges on to the abandoned Galway-to-Clifden line, and a cup of tea or breakfast in her conservatory, overlooking the gorse, stone walls and brown heather of the Cloosh Hills is a pretty idyllic interlude.

Carmel formerly ran Country Interiors in Galway, so there's a sureness of touch to the décor in the B&B and one-bed cottage alongside.

I like the old steamer trunks, the antique bureau in the hall and the blueberry scones she serves up on Nicholas Mosse and Stephen Pearce pottery.

Look out for the old photos of Carmel's granddad, Mark, too. He left Connemara at the age of 16 to travel on the Titanic, but missed the boat "because he was a bit of a boyo".

I'd recommend the twin room, with its sage-green walls, dormer windows and shutters, though all four come with large en suite bathrooms and views over the Connemara countryside.

Details: B&B from €50pps. Tel: 091 552945; railwaylodge.net.

Ireland’s second-largest lake

John Ford wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last, artist to recognise the specialness of Lough Corrib and its hinterland. In 1880, George Moore noted the “noble wilderness” and “fairy-like silences” of the Ashford Castle estate, and even today, the lake seems lost in time. It’s possible to take a scenic drive around Lough Corrib, taking either the N59 or N84 out of Galway, before passing between it and Lough Mask via Cong and Clonbur.

Perhaps the best way to get a feel for Ireland’s second-largest lake, however, is to sail right out into the middle of it.

One option for this is a Corrib Cruise from Oughterard or Lisloughrey. Lough Corrib is said to have 365 islands, and one of the highlights is Inchagoill (‘island of the stranger’), loaded with monastic ruins and to where St Patrick is reputed to have been banished.

If you prefer to cast off by yourself, May is the month for mayfly, perfect to tempt the lake’s brown trout.

Details: From €20/€10pp. Tel: 087 283 0799; corribcruises.com.

The mountain biking trail

John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara grabbed an old tandem to escape the matchmaker in 'The Quiet Man'. Hitting the Coillte-developed Derroura Mountain Bike Trail requires something sturdier, however. "It is not for the faint-hearted", the sign reads.

Hooking up with Conor Dolan of ConnemaraMTB.com, I hare down a thumping mix of gravel paths, stone slabs and single-track boardwalk.

Blitzing through bog-water puddles, the adrenaline as I swoop and bounce around the bends -- even at a beginner's pace -- is exhilarating.

Easing into it seems to be the trick, and I can see why proper suspension is crucial. Of course, you have to pedal up the mountain to reap the dividends of bombing down, but the 16km trail will ease the struggle with views as far as Maam Valley.

On night rides here, Conor has even startled massive stags out of the blackness. Take that, Duke!

Details: Bike hire from €25. Tel: 087 227 3144; derrouramountain bikehire.com.

The real-life Innisfree

"A fine soft day in the spring, it was, when the train pulled into Castletown -- three hours late as usual -- and himself got off."

So begins Hollywood's best-loved Irish excursion, John Ford's 'The Quiet Man'. The movie was shot in 1951 around the Galway/ Mayo border, though judging by the keen cottage industry it continues to fuel today, it might just as well have been last week.

Cong itself looks almost exactly like it did in Technicolor 60 years ago. Alongside well-known locations such as St Mary's church, the river and the dying man's house, you'll even find a recently added replica of Pat Cohan's bar.

"John Wayne punched Will Danaher on a set in Hollywood, and he landed outside on the street here in Cong," as Gerry Collins, a local tour guide, tells me.

Collins runs the Quiet Man Cottage and Museum. Inside, I pore over memorabilia such as the original harness from Sean Thornton's horse, and visitors can try on costumes for a frisky photo op next to the bed -- a waistcoat and cap for the boys, a blue blouse and red skirt for the ladies.

"Sixty years and they're still coming," he says. "'Quiet Man' crazies, we call them. It's a cult. It has a huge following all over the world, and it's the best thing that ever happened to Cong."

Details: €15/€12 for the museum and tour. Tel: 094 954 6089; quietman-cong.com.

The celebrity castle

Poring over old newspaper cuttings in Cong's Quiet Man Museum, I quickly sense the thrill of a cinematic circus in town.

John Ford in his sunglasses, the glamour of Wayne and O'Hara, the hiring of hundreds of extras -- that summer, the whole village was a film set.

The stars stayed at Ashford Castle, of course, now one of Ireland's most exclusive hotels.

But you don't have to mortgage the house to pay a visit.

My tip is to reserve afternoon tea, nibble on dainty pastries in the oak-panelled drawing room, and then take a stroll through the woodland estate and gardens overlooking Lough Corrib (ask at reception for the map).

While you're here, take a peek at the memorabilia room on the first floor. It's lined with photos of famous guests, including Ronald Reagan, a youthful Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan wowing staff with his pre-Bond bouffant and, my favourite, a self-portrait by Big Bird (AKA Carroll Spinney) as 'The Quiet Bird'.

In it, he poses with thumbs tucked into waistcoat in front of the castle.

Details: Afternoon tea costs €23pp plus 15pc service. Tel: 094 954 6003; ashford.ie.

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