Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photography by Manos Angelakis
Ireland - The Verdant Isle.
Irish people love music, literature, sports, talking… and drinking Guinness! Of course, that is an oversimplification for a people that are fun loving, warm-hearted, talented, good-humored, friendly… and above all, love their Guinness! Instead of coffee breaks, we had Guinness breaks on my recent trip to Ireland. It was great fun, and quickly established camaraderie with the small group I was traveling with. We were on a mission to explore County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland, a lush region of rolling hills, lakes, quaint villages, and historic sites.
We began our peregrinations from Dublin on Ireland’s east coast, and traveled almost directly across the country to Galway, on the west coast. Dublin and Galway are on opposite sides of the country but at its narrowest land point so the journey was surprisingly quick. The traditional symbol for Ireland is the mythic and mystical “Unicorn” aptly coined by the Romans who called Ireland Hibernia and found the green land and its people a mystery. It is truly a mystery that a country so small has contributed so much to the world’s culture in art and letters, music and dance, and majestic storytelling. Consider writers such as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, and Brendan Behan.
We stopped for lunch at the historic Nile Lodge just minutes outside of Galway city. The house dates to 1805 when Commander William Hutchinson, who played a pivotal role in Admiral Nelson’s defeat of Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile, built the house on his return home in a design suggestive of the bridge of a ship. Today the house is still original and filled with antiques and artifacts so that when you walk past the garden into the house, you feel as you are walking back into the early 19th century. Since 1942 the property has been under the ownership of Professor Neil Mac Dermott and his charming wife Maire. We had the rare treat of eating lunch in the wonderful old dining room, served on antique china, silver, and crystal. The fare was a potpourri of traditional Irish dishes, all locally sourced and prepared by a renowned local chef. Maire entertained us with tales of the history of the house and its famous visitors, making it hard to pull ourselves away from her delightful discourse… but we had miles to go before we sleep (sic). The lodge is available for rental to small groups and is a perfect venue for weddings and celebrations. www.nilelodge.net
Turning north, we headed towards the hills of Connemara, a region that can date its habitation back more then 5,000 years. We stopped at the Connemara Heritage and History Centre in Clifden for an overview and on arrival we piled into a trolley hooked up to a tractor. Martin Walsh, the entertaining proprietor, slowly pulled us up the steep mountain non-road to a farmhouse once occupied by a farmer named Dan O’Hara. Dan O’Hara is a tragic case in point of the cruelty of the landed classes to their tenant farmers during the potato famine of the 1840’s. Dan, his wife, and 8 children where forcibly evicted from their home by the local constabulary for non-payment of rent. The custom was to then burn the roof and smash in the sides of the house so that it could not be reoccupied, forcing the occupants to move on. In this case, as in so many others, Dan and his family walked to the coast, where exhausted and starving they boarded a ship to take them to a new life in the new world. Dan’s wife and 4 of his children did not survive the journey and when they arrived in New York, the surviving children were placed in foster homes and Dan barely survived by selling matches on the street. The only positive outcome of the forced emigration was that to this day, the survivors of the diaspora and their descendents return to Ireland, if not to live, at least to visit the land where they and their ancestors came from. On the way down from the farm, Martin paused to explain to us how the bog turf is cut, dried, and used for fuel and provided us with a shot of Potcheen (poitín) the Irish version of Moonshine Whiskey. www.connemaraheritage.com
We overnighted at the historic Renvyle House after a delicious dinner hosted by Ronnie Counihan, Chief Executive, who did everything possible to insure an enjoyable experience. The hotel is set in woodlands and gardens, with a 9-hole golf course and a private beach. All forms of leisure activities are available such as golf, tennis, swimming, boating, fly-fishing, snooker, lawn bowls, croquet, and clay pigeon shooting. Relaxing after all that activity is a perfect opportunity to visit the famous art collection that Mr. Counihan proudly guided us through. Quite a few of the collection is of famous people who spent time at Renvyle House. www.renvyle.com
The next day dawned sunny and clear and off we were to one of the most photographed buildings in western Ireland… Kylemore Abbey & Gardens in Letterfrack. Doctor Mitchell Henry and his bride, Margaret Vaughan honeymooned at a lodge in Connemara in 1850. Smitten by the area, Henry bought the property and built a stunning castle in 1867, turrets and all, for Margaret and their nine children. The fairytale Castle was only enjoyed for a brief time, as on a family holiday to Egypt, Margaret fell ill and died at the age of 45. Henry built a Neo-Gothic Church near the Castle in her honor, which was fortuitous, as the Abbey was eventually purchased, and is still owned and operated by the Community of Nuns of the order of St. Benedict. For a time the Abbey was an international boarding school but is now open to the public. For me, the Victorian Walled Gardens were the highlight at Kylemore. The garden is beautifully laid out and maintained, and positively breathtaking when you first enter and see spread before you the formal flower garden on a rolling hillside. Further along the walkways are beds of herbs, flowers, ferns, wild woodlands, meandering streams, and so much more, making use of the natural terrain. Even in its somewhat deteriorated state it is truly the most spectacular garden I have ever seen. I could only imagine what it looked like when all the glasshouses were in full operation and Margaret entertained her guests in the garden. www.kylemoreabbeytourism.ie
After a light lunch at Kylemore Abbey we continuted on to visit the 18th Century Westport House and Adventure Park. The house is owned and operated by Jeremy Browne, the 11th Marquees of Sligo and a direct descendant of Grace O’Malley, the famous 16th Century pirate Queen of Connaught. In the dungeon, you will find a full size wax figure of the raunchy lady herself. www.westporthouse.ie
Westport is a charming town peppered with restaurants, pubs, and shops. We stayed for two nights at the Westport Plaza Hotel, a centrally located contemporary designed modern hotel. www.westportplazahotel.ie
Using Westport as a mini-base, we drove north to Ballycroy National Park, a fascinating natural environment that is home to one of the last intact active blanket bog systems in Ireland and Western Europe. Walking on a bog is a little trickier then it looks. The bog appears solid but it is in fact turf (peat), with a marshy, watery, underside. We were fitted with “wellies” (Wellington boots) the colorful high rubber boots, de rigueur for walking on the bog. Outfitted in my bright blue wellies I confidently stepped off the road, took a few steps, and declared myself an expert on bog walking, that is, until I fell into the muddy mess. Happily, we were not in the quicksand part and the only injury was to my pride. Truth be told, it added to the adventure of our visit to Ballycroy for the bog is challenging being wobbly and soft and, oh and did I mention wet?
After Ballycroy National Park we headed for Achill Island, Ireland’s largest offshore island connected to the mainland by a bridge. The island is renowned for its beautiful mountains, lakes, wild moors, and magnificent cliffs, but we were here to visit the deserted village of Slievemore. Slievemore consists of about 100 stone cottages built side by side on the high ground with a beautiful view of the sea, a totally defensible position. The village was abandoned when the 1845 famine struck and most of the families moved closer to the sea, while others emigrated. Archaeological evidence suggests that there has been human settlement in the area for thousands of years most likely due to the presence of the quartz mountain adjacent to the village. Patches of quartz can be seen high on the mountainside in man-made patterns. Still to be discovered is how the quartz was used by ancient peoples; for ceremony, healing, or even defense. www.visitachill.com
Next day we visited the small village of Addergoole and the Titanic Society that honors the 11 of the 14 from this tiny village that lost their lives during the sinking of the Titanic. Known as the Addergoole Fourteen, they were among a group of steerage passengers that boarded the Titanic at Queenstown, and the 11 lives that were lost represents the largest proportionate loss of life from any locality. Set outdoors and surrounded by shrubs and flowers, the monument is visually and emotionally stunning. www.mayo-titanic.com
Tonight will be spent at Mount Falcon Estate (see Hotel Review) and tomorrow back to Dublin where we began our journey.
© June 2012 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.