Saturday 18 November 2017

Connemara: Where memories are made

John Greene

John Greene

Old age is the period when your memories grow shorter and your reminiscences grow longer.

I came across that saying some time ago and while I'm not yet a candidate for what a writer I know once called 'my anecdotage', it came to mind again on a recent family excursion to Galway.

All my childhood holidays were spent in Galway -- 16 years on the trot, I think, and mostly in the Spiddal-Furbo area. We went every summer, seven of us, in a caravan in the early years and later to holiday homes. My mother's brother and his family always went the same weeks as we did and would stay in the same neighbourhood, so naturally we spent all our time together.

Even now, more than 20 years since our last adventure west, we still share great memories and stories about those holidays every time we meet up. The rain always plays a central part in our reminiscences, largely because it played a central part in the holidays, but there was sun, too, and fun -- lots of fun. The weather was never allowed to dampen spirits because we all remember that the focal point of our fun was always the beach.

All this whirred through my mind as we cleared the last roundabout on the outskirts of Galway city one Sunday morning last month and pointed the car at the N59, towards Oughterard. Our destination was Clifden, the capital of Connemara, for a two night stay at the delightful Abbeyglen Castle Hotel.

Armed with a bank of happy memories of this area, I was experiencing a nervous tension as we passed through Maam Cross and the landscape became increasingly rugged and barren. I wondered could my wife Catherine and I recreate for our two young children the kind of holidays I had experienced in this glorious part of Ireland. They say every father rambles on about the good old days, but tells his kids they have it much better nowadays. This, I thought, was my chance to turn that on its head.

As we pulled into Clifden, I wasn't quite sure what I was expecting, although I do know that my initial assumption that our hotel would just be our base while I introduced my family to the wonders of Connemara was wholly off the mark.

Our stay there became as much part of our holiday as anything else we did, where even heading down to the excellent restaurant -- with a different menu every night -- became something we all looked forward to.

This is because the Abbeyglen Castle is no ordinary experience. It is its simplistic elegance and style that has stolen the hearts of the rich and famous, and the not so rich and famous, for more than 40 years. It has long been a haven for celebrities -- as evidenced by the hotel's wall of fame featuring an incredible array of people, from Laurence Olivier to Woody Allen, Grace Kelly to Bill Clinton -- attracted surely by its unique charm, because there is no pomposity here.

The Abbeyglen Castle first and foremost loves people, it thrives on personality and it is in no way self-conscious. It's not often that the words 'informal' and 'champagne' sit easily together but each evening around five o'clock, they do exactly that, as guests are offered a glass of bubbly with no strings attached.

On arrival, we were greeted by Wendy. She immediately latched on to the excitement of our three-year-old, who was rapt in the drama of staying in a 'castle', and whisked her off, first to have her picture taken as a princess on her royal seat, and then to meet Gilbert, the resident parrot in the lobby who takes in all he hears during the day and tells it back later. Gilbert is not one to be sharing secrets with.

Later that night at dinner, we had our first encounter with owner Paul Hughes and his son Brian. They both had a word for everyone in the packed restaurant, and it is easy to see how the hotel's charm and personality has evolved under the Hughes' family stewardship, with their enthusiasm for life. Paul once told a journalist "you've got to live it and love it", and that appears to be how he has run the hotel for the last 42 years, living it, and loving it.

And it's infectious too -- once you walk in the door you become part of this world view, so much so that a two-night break became a mini-holiday for us.

Connemara really is a place where you can temporarily leave the world behind. There is something there for everyone; you can follow the well-trodden tourist trail -- and believe me there is no shame in that -- or you can go a little off the beaten track. We did a bit of both. Just about everything went our way that week too. We stayed an extra night in the Abbeyglen and managed to squeeze in a lot in those few days.

We caught a break with the weather, which at times bordered on the glorious, and visited Killary Harbour, Kylemore Abbey, Letterfrack, Cong and took the incredibly scenic Sky Road and coastal drives. These were all places I had visited years ago and going back certainly woke the inner child in me.

We also spent an unforgettable day cycling round Inishbofin -- just a 40-minute boat trip from the mainland.

Abbeyglen Castle is also the starting and finishing point of a five-day island hopping safari and walking tour, which takes in Killary Harbour, and the island of Inishbofin, Inishark, Inishturk and Clare Island.

After we said goodbye to Abbeyglen -- tearfully in the case of our daughter -- it was off to the ferry port at Rossaveal for an overnight stay on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands and another day of cycling. Our main target was to get to the other side of the island to visit Dun Aonghasa Fort, which dates back to at least 1500BC, but we took in a seal colony and a beautiful golden beach along the way.

As we bought our tickets (€3) before the climb up to the world heritage site, we met two young German women who had already been up, and they told us it was the most remarkable sight they had ever seen.

In blazing sunshine, we made the 20-minute trek to the fort, which is perched on a 300ft cliff top, and took in the stunning panorama of the island and the Atlantic. The two women were right.

The last leg of our western holiday was a pit-stop in Spiddal for lunch. We took a stroll down by the church, along the rocks and over the footbridge which spans the Owenbolesky River to the beach.

I know it can't be true, but Spiddal looked exactly as I remember it. In the couple of hours we spent there, we had rain and sunshine. And as we stood on the beach, I said to my own children something that had been said to me a thousand times over when I was young: 'Ah stop, it's not that cold!' I left Spiddal a happy man.


The Abbeyglen Castle Hotel is located on the famous Sky Road in Clifden, just a few minutes walk from the town centre.

Tel: 095-21201 /

1850 35 70 35

Rates from €99 plus 12.5 per cent per person sharing for dinner, bed and breakfast.

Treatment Rooms offering Hot Stone Massage, YonKa facials, manicure, pedicure.

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