Australian House & Garden
The wild west coast is where you’ll find the heart and soul of Ireland, writes Vanessa Walker.

 Exquisite Kylemore Abbey in Connemara; a remote yet enchanting destination in western Ireland. Photograph from Getty Images.

Exquisite Kylemore Abbey in Connemara; a remote yet enchanting destination in western Ireland. Photograph from Getty Images.

Of the millions who visit Ireland each year, most fly into Dublin, the thriving arts and culture capital. Me? I disembark from my Aer Lingus plane at Shannon Airport and step into a quiet, linoleum-floored terminal where rural families are being reunited. I’m heading away from the crowds to the lesser-known part of Ireland, its wild west coast. 

Accordingly, instead of a cabbie lamenting the country’s dire financial predicament, my driver pipes up about fairies. Not long out of the terminal, on the highway that connects Shannon to Galway, he points out a hawthorn tree that locals hold to be a place where, for millennia, fairies on their way back from battles fought on the country’s west coast have stopped to rest. So strong is this conviction they succeeded in changing the course of the highway in order to protect the tree.

During the drive west the landscape looks every bit the medieval backdrop. Fog crawls over rolling hills, with castles, extant and derelict, glimpsed behind kilometre after kilometre of drystone walls. At the coast, through spitting rain and mist, I arrive at the Cliffs of Moher, eight kilometres of rugged coastline that rise up to 214m from the heaving Atlantic ocean. It’s here that thousands of nesting sea birds, including guillemot (who lay their eggs directly on the ledge; their pointy shapes means they don’t roll off the cliff), razorbill, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmar come to give birth and nurse their chicks. The cliffs are alive with the clamour of new life and it’s lovely to hire some binoculars, pick up an identification chart and watch the birds tending their young.

Out past the cliffs, one can just make out the rocky outcrop of the Aran Islands. I catch a ferry across the roiling sea to Inis Mór, at 14x3.8km the largest of the three islands. It is thought that cable-knit jerseys were invented here more than a century ago by the wives of the island’s fishermen. It’s said they knitted each of their men a distinctive jersey so that if they were lost at sea, when they washed up on the beach, they could be easily identified. Each family had a unique motif that related to life and beliefs on the island – the cable representing the fisherman’s rope, bequeathing safety and good luck at sea. A raw and unsubdued place, you can feel the hidden complexities of life in such a small island, with a population of only 850. Some of the island men, lined up on the pier on ponies and traps are simultaneously friendly and wary. After a walk around the waterfront and, I admit, a cable-knit jersey purchase (diamonds – success and wealth), I head inland to hike up to the remains of Dún Aonghasa Fort. Perched on a precipitous cliff overlooking the ocean the fort was thought to have been erected about 1100BC.

Back on the mainland I make my way to the latest of Ireland’s burgeoning eco-tourism attractions, the Burren. This 260-square-kilometre expanse of grey limestone is, frankly, no oil painting but visiting it is a revelation that draws you into Ireland’s distant past. The guide starts off simply enough, by walking us around pointing out the wild roses, fly orchids and yew plants as well as an abundance of rare species native to Ireland. Then he talks about the mystery that confounds botanists here. Why, alone in all the world, do alpine, arctic and Mediterranean plants – all of which require vastly different climatic zones and soil types – thrive so close to each other? How do lime-loving Burnet rose, carline thistle and mountain avens grow right next to lime-hating heather, lousewort and tormentil? And why does mountain flower gentia flourish here, at sea level? Weirder still, the variety of species is increasing all the time. Visiting the Burren is also a fascinating insight into Ireland’s history – it is denuded because stone-age man stripped the woodlands bare of trees when they began to practise a primitive form of agriculture. We know because the ghostly remains of their lives, including cooking sites, wells, and 90 megalithic tombs they built for their dead, dot the landscape.

I decide to step back into gorgeous scenery and romantic tales by making my way to Kylemore Abbey in Connemara. The road there winds through field and pasture, then quite suddenly the Abbey comes into view; a gorgeous castle nestled into the side of Druchruach Mountain. Built in 1867 by the fabulously wealthy and progressive Englishman Mitchell Henry as a gift to his wife Margaret, it is now home for a dwindling superfluity of Benedictine nuns. It’s a lovely property to stroll around and has a 2.4-hectare walled garden Henry established and planted entirely with species from the Victorian era. By the time I arrive at Galway – the largest city on the west coast – even the stacks of drying peat appear poetic. For hundreds of years the Irish have been digging peat from ancient bogs, drying and shaping it into blocks of fuel. At a pub in Galway that night, two Irish lads stop chatting about Gaelic football long enough to talk fondly of trips back to their parents’ home to help them dig and cut the peat to beat the never-ending chill. It’s a practice as old as the surrounding hills and another tradition that brings the west coast to life for the curious visitor. Along with the landscape and the people, customs are all part of the Irish charm.

When in Galway...

WHAT TO DO Make like a local and head to a pub. If you’re near the village of Ballyvaughan drop into O’Loclainn’s Whiskey Pub. It’s a tiny bar packed full of whisky, spirits and personality. Experience the Burren Visit Kylemore For a great selection of
Irish crafts, visit Spiddal Craft and Design Centre in the village of Spiddal (about 15kms from Galway)

WHERE TO STAY Western Ireland is replete with grand houses and castles. For a my-home-is-my-castle style castle, try Gregan’s Castle Hotel, a great place to stay when visiting the Burren For a full-blown five-star style castle, try Dromoland Castle, which has a trout-filled lake and waddling ducks, bicycle tracks and a guest list that has included Bill Clinton, John Travolta and George W. Bush If you arrive in Galway wanting a hit of designer cool, consider the fantastical Philip Treacy-designed G Hotel in Galway.

HOW TO GET THERE Emirates operates 63 flights per week from Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to London via Dubai, with onward connections to Shannon with Aer Lingus.  Return economy airfares start from $2277. Call Emirates on 1300 303 777 or go to Aer Lingus London to Shannon return flights start from $249