In all my 30 years of visiting Connemara, I had never stopped in Letterfrack. Nearby Renvyle, Tullycross, Cleggan, Kylemore Abbey and the town of Clifden are all familiar and well-trodden territory. But Letterfrack? No, I just couldn’t go there.
Letterfrack, after all, was a place of darkness, a place where children suffered unimaginable pain and abuse. Here was a place whose very name was synonymous with its infamous industrial school and with all the anguish and hurt that was inflicted on so many youngsters there.
So I’d drive straight through every time, glancing neither right nor left until I’d cleared the village and was once again bathed in the healing beauty of the Connemara landscape.
Last week, however, that changed.
The bookshop was the carrot. Books at One stands just behind the former industrial school building and is located in a little end-of-terrace premises that was once a forge. It’s a jewel of a place.
Opened last summer by Vincent Murphy and Mary Ruddy, here is a bookshop that perfectly illustrates the point that size doesn’t matter. Yes, it’s small, but boy, does it punch well above its square footage.
While the books themselves are a delight – well categorised, beautifully displayed and with a terrific children’s section to boot – there’s also the added delight of an outdoor cafe courtyard bedecked with colourful chairs, vases of wild flowers and a beautiful, specially commissioned bench whose striking design incorporates myriad literary references to Connemara.
My having discovered this particular little bookish haven, it was Vincent Murphy who then pointed me toward yet another Letterfrack must-see.
“You should go and see the student exhibition,” he said, indicating across the way toward the old school building that now houses the Letterfrack wing of the multi-campus Atlantic Technological University, where furniture design is one of the specialties.
The following day, therefore, I found myself stopping once again in Letterfrack and heading in to the exhibition. How to describe the pieces of furniture on display? Exquisite. Such workmanship, such detail, such absolute beauty.
And as I climbed the path along one of the trails in the Connemara National Park the day after that visit, I pondered the dichotomy of Letterfrack with its juxtaposition of historical, horrendous abuse and current day, life-enhancing aestheticism.
For all those who suffered there and still carry the painful memories of those horrific days of their childhood, Letterfrack will forever cast its long, dark shadow over their lives.
And yet, as I looked at those exquisite pieces of furniture last week, walked amid the breath-taking national park landscape above Letterfrack and drank coffee in the colourful and flower-filled courtyard of Books at One, I couldn’t help but think that, in the end, it’s good that has triumphed over evil in this little corner of Connemara, that the beast has been vanquished and beauty has finally prevailed.