Farm Ireland

Friday 23 March 2018

Back to basics in my Connemara hideaway

Brigit's Garden in Connemara
Brigit's Garden in Connemara
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

One of the nice things of being one's own boss is that we are in control of when we take time off.

The drawback is that most self-employed people are so engrossed in their work, they find it hard to take a break. There is always something to be done and unless you have someone really dependable to leave in charge, being absent for two weeks can be more trouble than it is worth.

Many farmers get bored after about seven days anyway and are delighted when it is time to return home. The best solution I find is to enjoy a few mini-breaks, of maybe three or four days duration here in Ireland, ideally near the sea.

This has many advantages, the best one being you avoid airports. I read a wonderful piece on flying recently which stated "Being processed through any large airport has all the warmth and efficiency of a modern industrial abattoir. Shuffling along in an endless snake-shaped queue is like sides of beef moving slowly down the production chain".

I couldn't agree more and with that in mind I loaded up the car and headed west to lovely Connemara. It was raining when I left home and joining the motorway at Kilcock, I was in Galway in less than two hours.

Having negotiated the roundabouts on the Clifden road, I stopped for a break at Brigit's Garden in Roscahill (inset). This is a delightful spot and not only is the food good but the gardens themselves are enough to make you linger for a few hours. I had been there many times before so I pressed on as far as Maam Cross and turned right.

From here on my destination has to remain a secret as it is too nice a spot to share. Suffice to say it was a small and very old stone cottage, close to a beach with white sands and a few islands dotted around a gently curving bay.

As I arrived the clouds parted and sunlight and shadows skidded across the mountains that towered in the background in that constantly changing mix of light and cloud that is unique to the West of Ireland.

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While walking along the road to the beach, I passed small groups of black faced ewes with their lambs. Nearby, a few suckler cows and calves lay contentedly on a small grassy promontory that looked out across the bay.

At that point I realised there was nowhere else on the planet I would rather be. No hotels, pubs, cafes, ice cream stalls or shops. Just mountains, sea and sand with the only sound the gentle swish of the waves as they rolled to the shore.

Back in the cottage there was of course no TV and I almost wished I had to pump water by hand rather than have it from a tap. An old and battered radio sat on a windowsill but happily it didn't work. It might have but I couldn't figure out how to properly adjust the safety pin that acted as the aerial. But then who needs music when you have superb scenery, a good book and the sound of wind and waves.

The next morning a mist had descended obscuring the mountain tops and a gentle but persistent western rain was falling steadily. I lit the stove and settled down to read What the Curlew Said, John Moriarty's sequel to Nostos which he wrote while living in Connemara.

The logs I had brought from home were not needed as a supply of good dry turf had been left for me, stacked neatly in a small stone shed close by. Nothing can compare with the smell of turf smoke and it has an extraordinary power to create nostalgic longings among emigrants recalling their childhood.

Outside the tiny kitchen window there was a small stonewalled paddock containing a Rowan tree laden with scarlet berries and beneath it a wilderness of Fuchsia and Crocosmia blazing with autumn colour, along with Purple Loosestrife, Meadowsweet and Bramble.

The soil is relatively poor and one can only marvel at the courage and tenacity of the people who lived here in the past and their struggles to feed themselves and their families. But it was a happy place and you could sense peace in the stones and in the earth. If it were ever sold the wild flowers would probably be bulldozed and the house rebuilt as a modern bungalow, complete with satellite dish and surrounded by tarmacadam. What an awful thought.

Hardy breeds that thrive in poor terrain

Connemara is world renowned for its scenery but farming in such terrain must be daunting.

Unlike a few years ago when over grazing stripped the mountains of vegetation, the land is now managed in sympathy with the indigenous plants and wildlife.

Looking up the mountainsides one can see the white dots of sheep, grazing here and there among the heather, scrub and rocks.

In 2009, Connemara Hill Lamb received the prestigious Euro-toques Food Award in recognition of excellent quality standards, traditional production methods and outstanding contributions to Irish food.

This name is now reserved exclusively for hill lamb born and reared within the designated area and is protected by law against imitation. It was interesting to see an increase in the numbers of Galloway cattle, which are a relatively new arrival. They are an ancient breed which originated in Scotland and are increasingly popular here, for with their thick, double layered coat they are well suited to tough mountainous conditions.

Like the blackface sheep, their meat attracts a premium and is in demand by top restaurants. Maturing slowly, Galloways can thrive on poor pastures and could be an ideal breed for the Wild Atlantic Way.

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