It's over 20 years since I stood up to my knees in the sea off Furbo, Co Galway and stared at the tiny silvery fish weaving their way over the sandy bottom. The water was so clear that day it looked like it wasn't even there. The small shoal of fish swam around my legs and the summer sun cast their shadows on the dusky sea floor.
I've always had a love of nature but my interest has not always matched my knowledge. At that time I worked for a pharmaceutical company, my dream of being a zoologist had not progressed beyond secondary school, and the passions of my early 20s did not venture much further than partying and travelling the world. As I watched the fish I had no clue what they were called but I was seized by curiosity: what else was swimming around out there in the crystal depths?
The next day I headed into Galway city and bought a mask, a snorkel and a pair of fins. Back in the water, I was floating over a world that is so alien to most of us as to be effectively a parallel universe. In the shallows, I watched the snails emerge from the sand where they hide out at low tide. Further out, there were waving forests of brown kelp and other seaweeds, through which I could see larger fish. I was surprised by the dazzling colours of one, which I now can name as a cuckoo wrasse. I found a pipefish, perfectly camouflaged as a piece of drifting seaweed and with a seahorse-like snout. I disturbed a flounder, a fish I had only considered before as something to eat, and it sent up a plume of sand before swimming away.
It all seemed so wild and rich. It freaked me out a bit if I'm honest, especially when I got so deep that I could no longer see the bottom. Or when I lifted my head and could only see the expanse of ocean surface between me and the shore. I know there are no monsters of the deep but, at times like these, my body is connecting me to a fear of wild nature that we all possess.
This narrow sliver of Connemara, between the sea and the bogs to the north, has retained much of its natural character. Turn left along any of the bóithríns off the main road between Spiddal and Ros a Mhíl and you may still find stacks of hay in late summer. You cannot but walk within a latticework of ancient stone walls, now wreathed in lichens and small plants. The fields are ancient and rich in wild flowers: the blues of field scabious, the yellows of hawkweed, iris and sowthistle, the purples of ragged robin, the hazy drifts of meadowsweet in the hollows where the ground is wet. Wheatears and meadow pipits stand watch on every boulder.
Pádraic Fogarty switched careers after a trip to Galway. Photo: Frank McGrath
These old fields go hand in hand with rich insect life. Butterflies, bees and dragonflies fill the air. The dor beetle, a trundling tank of an arthropod, lives off (and in) the dung of cattle. Dung beetles play a crucial role in returning nutrients to the soil but veterinary medications, especially ivermectin, kill or harm them. Finding dor beetles on every grassy track tells me that this place has something that has been lost elsewhere. Follow the bóithríns down to the sea and you may find sandy beaches where, in summer, you can watch squawking clusters of Arctic terns jostling for sand eels in the surf. I've spent many hours with my children among the boulders here, where the falling tide leaves rock pools big enough to swim in. Dip your feet in one for long enough and a squadron of tiny shrimps will give you a free pedicure.
If you know the area very well, you will know where to find the last patches of native Atlantic rainforest. They are the most enchanting places, like a portal to a lost world. Here, the forest floor does not stop at the ground but creeps up the trunks of the gnarly trees, enveloping the oaks in a luxuriant mat of damp moss, fern and lichen. The forest here feels like it is alive because it is alive.
I can see the tracks of a badger, the worn trails into underground burrows of some smaller mammals, the gnawed shells of hazel nuts. In one of these ancient forests, there is a stone circle. I don't know if it's a genuine archaeological remnant but it feels like it fits in, hinting of a time when people were more at ease with their natural surroundings.
Connemara holds other lessons. Visit the shore near Spiddal and you will see the stumps of ancient trees poking out of peat soil. There are other parts of this shore where the low tide reveals distinct markings of cultivation. The forest, the farmers and hunter gatherers here were inundated by the sea thousands of years ago, in a way that the sea is set to inundate us again.
Today, everywhere in Ireland is a shadow of what it was. Since pulling on my mask and snorkel for the first time, I have not only learned the names of the fish and other sea creatures of Galway Bay, but I have learned about the great shoals of herring, cod and other fish that are simply no longer there.
The fields grazed by cattle and donkeys may look unchanged but you will no longer hear the call of the curlew or the corncrake or the redshank. The screech of the barn owl in the dead of night no longer puts the fear of God into anyone. Walkers along the shore will invariably have the company of a tide of plastic debris, even in the most remote spots. Out at Clifden, raw sewage is still pumped into the sea without any treatment. This year, while walking with my family, we found the corpse of a common dolphin and maybe it died of natural causes, but I also know that there have been record numbers of dolphin strandings in recent years. Something's not right.
Traditional farming goes on in this part of Connemara, though despite Government programmes, not because of them. I've been told the farmers here are either too old to change their ways or have a job in the city and only keep up the farm for the love of it.
Here and there, a heroic soul has dug up the entire field to clear out the stones, level the ground, put in drainage lines and re-seed the pasture but more often we see the field abandoned completely. Rewilding may see the Atlantic rainforest expanding for the first time in centuries, future ecologists may look in wonder at dripping oaks closed in over the stone walls that once divided fields. When in Connemara, I try to stick to this thin sliver between the sea and the brown bogs to the north. It may be a shadow but its outline is clear. In the mountains of the Twelve Bens and the Maumturks, the landscape is so degraded of nature that I prefer to avoid it.
Pockets of Connemara retain their natural character
I can thank Connemara for changing my relationship with nature. I left the pharmaceutical industry to retrain as an ecologist and have returned to my childhood dream of working in nature conservation.
However, I hope that Connemara doesn't stay the same. This small corner of the world continues to inspire me but I hope it will emerge from the shadows. I hope we can find a way to support farmers to keep their traditions and their nature-rich fields and stone walls. I hope we can restore the boglands and mountains to the north in a way that can make local people proud of their landscape. I hope that I will hear curlews and corncrakes calling from the fields and that I will one day feel the fear of God in the call of a barn owl or an encounter with a sea monster as I stare into the depths of Galway Bay.
Pádraic Fogarty is author of 'Whittled Away: Ireland's Vanishing Nature', out now