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Diary of a travel writer: Race tips and french lessons out west

Thursday

To think I sent my daughter on an exchange to France when all she had to do was go to Connemara. Kylemore Abbey does 180,000 visitors a year and a quarter of them are French. The hitchhikers I pick up en route to the Abbey are from Lyon. Even the manager of the facility is French. The charming Isabelle Pitore says Michel Sardou's power ballad, Les Lacs du Connemara, is partly responsable for sending people here; a huge hit in the Francophone world in 1981 but scarcely known to anyone here.

I am at Kylemore to see a banner that was captured by the Irish Brigade at Ramillies on display in the hall. My uncle John Joe used to sing the Flower of Finea, a love story based on the story of the banner. Most of the French trundle past it, unaware of the significance it has in commemorating the hundreds of thousands of Irish who died for the glory of France.

Friday

Camping, and I am very afraid. Afraid of the weather. Afraid of the bugs. Afraid the tent won't fit back in the bag.

Saturday

The library sign in Clifden says 'Library, Leabharlann, Bibliotheque'. At Shanaheever campsite they have Wi-Fi in the main building. Pitching a tent costs €20 and the place is efficient and full of happy, er, campers.

Sunday

A 300km drive around Connemara almost comes to a halt outside the Hooker Bar on the R374 between Rossaveal and Lettermore, when someone pulls out across my path. It is a picturesque pub, named for the sort of Hooker you find in Galway, not in Puerto Banus. Another thing that probably takes some explaining to the French.

Monday

Galway Race night, and the hotels of the city have gathered forces to promote the capital of the west. The hospitality area is humming. Michael D Higgins is among the guests. Paddy Power has reduced his odds for the presidency to 3/1, but he knows that many a good race is lost in the parade ring and is taking his counsel.

It is showery. Most of the hats are intact. Not so the dockets. Mine are failing at an appalling rate. Fogra to self: Dermot Weld always wins the first race. Fogra eile to self: Don't listen to the punters at the parade ring who have the strongest opinions. To paraphrase Ambrose Bierce, the horse that whinnies loudest doesn't win the race.

Tuesday

The Meyrick hotel has the best location in Galway (it used to be the Great Southern, last relic of the railway system). Twenty people can gather for the races without noticing each other's hats. That doesn't happen in new hotels.

"How are you?" asks the enthusiastic waiter at breakfast, the sort of old-fashioned spirited enquiry which has been at the heart of the Irish hospitality industry for 150 years. You can't teach that.

Hotels come and go, fall in and out of fashion, Nama takes them over and shuts them down, but the breakfast enquiry is what makes the difference.

Wednesday

A sign by the roadside between Maam Cross and Clifden says 'Beer, books, eggs, marble, wool'. No wonder they love it here.


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