Monday 27 March 2017

Walk of the week: Trá Mhóir and Bunowen, Co Galway

Christopher Somerville

Wild flowers thickly strewn across low green cliffs, larks in full song suspended on invisible wires over my head, and a blue summer sky above the Errismore peninsula of westernmost Connemara.

If I'd gone any further west, I'd have been on my way to America. But who'd want any such thing on an afternoon like this?

Down below the golf links, where the sward met the sand, a herd of brown and cream cattle moved with fantastic deliberation, contentedly munching a salad of grass, orchids and seaweed. No need to add salt to the butter hereabouts. Their hooves left deer-like slots in the pure white shell-sand.

The rocks lay blackened with algae, patched orange with lichens. When the Connemara sun shines like this, it passes everything through a colour filter of psychedelic intensity. Great tuffets of pink sea thrift sifted the afternoon breeze, the big powder-blue blooms of sea-holly rose from prickly collars of leaves, and the white sand under the waves gave the shallows a hue of jade green that the most brazen swimming pool manufacturer would blush to use.

I walked the strand of Trá Mhóir and the headlands beyond, looking out to a jigsaw of dark rocks and islets. Herring gulls skimmed the sea with creaky cries. A woman was hanging out her washing behind her white cottage, which looked out from its knoll over a pitch-encrusted pier and three red-and-blue trawlers.

There was a masterpiece right there, just waiting for an Impressionist to slouch by.

Crunching over carpets of sun-dried kelp as black and crisp as fried onions, I came to Bunowen Pier. A seductive smell of smoked fish and tarry rope hung round the Connemara Smokehouse. I'd put a bun in my pocket before setting out, in the hope of finding their door open.

Resistance was useless. Smoked tuna and brown bread, eaten on the pier with legs a-dangling and a sight of the basalt plug of Doon Hill across the crescent of Bunowen Bay. You couldn't beat that.

Up and on along the road, with the castellations and blank windows of Bunowen Castle rising under Doon Hill like something belonging to the Hammer House of Horror. The castle began life as an O'Flaherty stronghold, the most westerly one they possessed. In the 1550s it was the trading and freebooting base of the young Granuaile and her first husband, Dónal an-Chogaidh O'Flaherty. In the 19th century John Augustus O'Neill bankrupted himself turning the old house into a Gothic fantasy, and it's been a ruin now for the past hundred years.

Opposite the castle lay Lough Caffrey, riffled by catspaws of wind. The claw-shaped lough has a great story attached, told by Tim Robinson in his admirable Connemara gazetteer.

After a massacre of the Conneelys of Ballyconneely by the O'Flahertys, the son of the sole survivor returned to wreak revenge at a time when An Bioránach, the O'Flaherty chief, was living on a tiny islet in Lough Caffrey.

Young Conneely (having first prudently practised his long-jumping) sprang from the shore on to the island in one tremendous leap, killed An Bioránach and reinforced his triumph by marrying O'Flaherty's daughter. Ruthlessness, athleticism, murder and romance: the absolute cornerstones of Irish myth.

I passed the skeleton of the old factory where alginic acid was once processed from seaweed for the manufacture of (among other items) toothpaste and ice cream. Side roads snake among widely scattered houses in the low, rocky landscape of Errismore.

I followed them between boglands bright with yellow flags.

In the tiny, irregularly shaped pastures the ruins of houses crumbled and the stone walls let the sky through in shards of blue and white. A pure white mare came to show her nose over the wall, and her suede-brown foal put his silky muzzle up to be stroked.

Round the next bend I came on a Connemara roadblock. Half a dozen burly cows and their calves were munching their way up the boreen, an inch at a time. I was happy enough to sit on the wall and wait in the evening sun and wind for them to pass.





Way to go

Map: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 44; Folding Landscape map ‘Connemara’.

Travel: Bus (buseireann.ie): 419 (Clifden-Galway) to Ballyconneely (3½ miles). Road: N59 to Clifden, R341 to Ballyconneely, right at Keogh’s pub to Bunowen; right (‘Connemara Golf Club’) to club house. Walkers welcome to park.

Walk directions: Walk down golf club drive. At gate, bear right to shore. Left along strands and round headlands for 2 miles to Connemara Smokehouse at Bunowen Quay. Left up road (short cut: in ¾ mile, left along golf course road) for one-and-a-third miles to pass old seaweed factory on left; in 200m, left (‘Dunloughan Road’ on slate in wall). In ¾ mile, left along boreen (‘Emlagharan’) for 1¾ miles to reach golf course road. Right to club house.

Length: 7 miles (short cut 4 miles): allow 3 (2) hours.

Grade: Easy.

Conditions: Strands, coastal rocks, grass, country roads. Buggy-friendly, except along shore.

Don't miss: Seaweedmunching cows; Connemara Smokehouse; Bunowen Castle.

Refreshments: Connemara Golf Club, Bunowen: 095 23502/23602; connemara golflinks.com. Connemara Smokehouse: smokehouse.ie.

Guidebook: Connemara: Map and Gazetteer by Tim Robinson (Folding Landscapes, Roundstone; foldinglandscapes. com) is packed with fascinating information.

Walk information: Visit discoverireland.ie/walking. Clifden Tourist Office: 095 21163; connemara.ie.

Irish Independent

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