independent

Friday 25 April 2014

Ireland on a Shoestring: €99 night away in Clifden

Ballyconneely peninsula

1Two wheels on the Sky Road

"Sorry I'm late, but I'm also the local undertaker," says John Mannion. He's not joking. Inside Mannion's cycle shop, bikes are stocked beneath funeral wreathes.

I pick up my wheels and helmet, nab some maps and directions, and pedal off towards the coast.

The Sky Road is such an evocative name, and the scenery doesn't disappoint. Cycling past the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel, I come to the ruins of Clifden Castle, standing over a low tide, with dark globs of seaweed clinging to the exposed rocks.

Views stretch as far as Inishbofin and Slyne Head. Connemara ponies chomp on mulchy grass. Upturned currachs lie in a harbour.

Sixteen kilometres is a short loop -- taking about one-and-a-half hours to cycle.

There are some hilly bursts, and, at one point, an Irish wolfhound bounds out of a house to run along beside me -- thankfully, he turns back before making me a client of Mannion's other business.

But it's all doable with average fitness.

Details: €10 for a half-day. Tel: 095 21160; clifdenbikes.com.

2 The Connemara Garden Trail

Think of Connemara, and wild, weather-thrashed landscapes come to mind. Follow the Connemara Garden Trail, however, and you'll find lots of cultivation and control, too.

Rain, sunshine and warmth borne by the Gulf Stream are ideal conditions for spaces as varied as the walled gardens at Kylemore Abbey and the woodland oasis of Ballynahinch Castle, or the rambling azaleas and apple blossoms at Roundstone's Angler's Return.

For a blast of both wildness and order, visit Brigit's Garden (pictured) near Oughterard.

A brand new visitor centre and café here are set on 11 acres, at the heart of which are four gardens themed to represent the Celtic festivals of Imbolc, Samhain, Bealtaine and Lughnasa.

Designed by Mary Reynolds, it's an interactive, inventive and hands-on blend of nature, heritage and mythology.

"It's not a keep-off-the-grass garden," as founder Jenny Beale says, encouraging me to sit in a throne made from 5,000-year-old bog oak, tie a note to a magical hawthorn tree and explore the living-willow play area.

They've even built a megalithic-style stone chamber.

My favourite garden is Samhain, featuring Linda Brunker's sculpture of a lady formed by bronze leaves. Visit this month, and you'll find the place flush with wood anemones and violets too.

Details: €7.50/€4.50. Tel: 091 550905; brigitsgarden.ie.

3 Clifden's 200 years

Next month, Clifden celebrates its 200th birthday with a festival (May 24-June 4) boasting street markets, parties, storytelling, walks, talks, dramas and even a Galway hooker regatta.

Visit this weekend, and you'll get a taste of what's to come in a stomping traditional music festival.

The celebrations are all thanks to John D'Arcy of Clifden Castle, who founded the town in 1812.

Much has happened since, as you can see in the Station House Museum -- two centuries later, the castle lies in ruins, the Galway to Clifden railway has been abandoned, but the town is buzzing.

I take away memories of arty nooks such as the Lavelle Gallery, Guy's cosy pub and the creamy seafood chowder in Mitchell's.

There's also a surprising number of butchers. Spotting a sign that reads 'Seamus Kelly: Butcher Extraordinaire' near Market Square, I pop in to investigate. "Connemara lamb is the best in the world," Seamus tells me.

"It's like the difference between wild and farmed salmon. The lamb is born naturally, eats naturally... There is a different taste."

Little wonder 75pc of his meat goes back up to Dublin in visitors' cars. But that's Clifden for you.

No amount of recession, or unsightly development overlooking the Owenglin River, can spoil the town's essential charm.

There are many more centuries of staycations to come.

Details: See clifden2012.org.



4 Daring feats in Derrygimla

On June 15, 1919, a mysterious contraption came chugging through the skies over Clifden.

"I thought it was something coming down on the house and we'd be killed," John Conneely, who was a 10-year-old boy at the time, told me when I first visited Clifden several years ago.

"But our mother came back from the cows and said it was the noise of an airplane."

At the helm of that airplane, of course, were Alcock and Brown, who went on to crash-land in Derrygimla bog, completing the world's first transatlantic flight.

To find the bog today, follow the signs for Ballyconneely across Ballinaboy Bridge, and park at the gate about 500 yards up the road on the left hand side.

After a mile or so of bohareen, a weather-beaten cairn points to the spot where the high-flying pair are said to have come down to earth.

Alcock and Brown aren't the only legends associated with Derrygimla.

At the foot of the cairn, you'll also notice the concrete foundations of Marconi's famous wireless station.

Squelchy underfoot, spotted with black-faced sheep with their backs turned to Mannin Bay, it's amazing to think a bog could once have been at the centre of cutting-edge technology.

Details: Clifden Tourist Information Office. Tel: 095 21163.



5 Overnight at u Dan O'Hara's Homestead & Farm

Pulling off the N69 into Dan O'Hara's, the first things I see are two enormous tractors with bus-like carriages attached.

Not exactly what you'd expect at a B&B. But then this isn't just a B&B. Guests can not only stay the night, but take a spin 600ft up the adjoining mountain, too.

Run by Martin and Nora Walsh, the operation is named for a Connemara man evicted from his cottage in the 1840s.

After losing his wife and three children en route to America, he ended up selling matches in New York, and the subject of a poignant ballad -- "the broken-hearted farmer Dan O'Hara".

Martin and Nora have restored the original cottage, and their tractors haul visitors up the slopes, where they can step through the half-doors to a space full of folk artefacts and a glowing turf fire.

After singing the famous song, Martin pulls a bottle of poteen from behind the chimney.

Back at the Lettershea homestead, guests can feed donkeys and ponies, browse in the gift shop and even try their hand at turf-cutting.

The B&B itself offers free Wi-Fi and a sitting room full of books alongside basic bedrooms bedecked in pine. A unique package.

Details: B&B from €35pp. Tel: 095 21808; connemaraheritage.com.



6 Treats from the Connemara Hamper

Alcock and Brown aren't the only adventurers to have landed in Clifden.

Popping into The Connemara Hamper on Market Street, I meet Leo Halliday manning the counter. Behind the white beard, it emerges, is a former exploration geologist who has worked in 40 countries.

Leo is a Dub, but it was Clifden he visited as a child and returned to as an adult.

"You come here as a kid and you run wild. We used to walk in from Errislannan to get the groceries once a week.

"On a good day we would row the boat down Clifden Bay, catching a few mackerel along the way."

Today, Leo helps his wife Eileen run her deli with Louise Gibbons on Market Street.

Step inside and you'll find shelves laden with fresh tapenades, Italian meats, Connemara smoked salmon, Gubbeen chorizo and salami, freshly baked breads and a host of homemade cakes.

I order a lunch box (€6.25), a plastic tub that Leo fills with homemade brown bread, thick clumps of ham, mixed leaves, thin slices of cheese and a bundle of olives and sun-dried tomatoes.

I take it on the road to Roundwood, pulling in for a bite by the coast. As picnics go, it's pretty perfect.

Details: Tel: 095 21054; connemarahamper.com.

7 A coastal drive on the Ballyconneely Peninsula

It's amazing what a splash of sunshine does to Connemara.

Setting out from Clifden, my first couple of kilometres on the Ballyconneely peninsula (pictured) are grey and dreary.

A fug of cloud hangs in the sky, the stones look bleak and unforgiving, and the wind would shave your jowls.

Then the sun shines, and it's as if a set of curtains has been opened. The Twelve Bens are visible across the bay. The gorse glows yellow. Sandy coves look like something from the Seychelles.

Seizing the moment, I drive down to Dog's Bay. After a walk along the beach, mine are practically the only footprints in the sand.

Then, just as suddenly, the curtains close, the sunshine retreats, and rain starts spitting down. It all feels a bit like a dream.

Details: discoverireland.ie/ Connemara.

THE BUDGET

All prices are calculated per person, and include one night's accommodation, two meals (breakfast and lunch/dinner), and all activities.

We've also added €35 for petrol costs within Connemara. NB: Prices subject to change and availability.

money-saving tips

Admission to Connemara National Park and its visitor centre in Letterfrack (095 41054; connemaranationalpark.ie) is free. City Link (091 564164; citylink.ie) is offering 10pc off bus fares booked online -- return trips from Dublin to Clifden cost €30pp.

THE RECEIPT

Clifden town walk Free

Bike hire €10

Ballyconneely Peninsula Drive Free

Brigid's Garden €7.50

Derrygimla bog walk Free

Connemara Hamper €6.25

Dan O'Hara's B&B €35

Travel (petrol) €35

Total €93.75

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