They were cutting turf. A drizzling rain fell and a mist lay over the Atlantic Ocean. “They’ve cut away all the bogs. There’s not enough to go around,” James Coyne said. Born on the Island of Inishbofin he was out on the moor, in the rain, cutting peat to fuel his winter fires. A little further along, on his small plot of turf, Patrick Joseph Cynnane was working while his dog Tico amused himself waiting for a rabbit to poke out of its hole.
“They call me PJ. Patrick Joseph. I can cut up here. It is common land. Everybody has an area. It is the very last of it now. All cut away,” he offered. Both men, older citizens of this small island off the coast of Connemara in western Ireland. It is a beautiful place of rugged cliffs, broad green pastures, ocean beaches and clear water.
“D’y know the story? Inis Bo Finne means Island of the White Cow. It got its name from a legend. Two fishermen were in a storm and they put into a cove. They saw an old hag holding onto a white cow’s tail. One fisherman went up and touched the woman. She turned to stone. People measured wealth in those days by the number of cows or sheep you had. So one of the fishermen decided to catch the white cow. He grabbed it by the tail and, it, like the old woman, turned to stone. That’s how the island got its name,” Gerry MacCloskey said.
Brian Hughes and Gerry have put together a small company to lead walking tours to and around the remote western isles of Galway off the Connemara coast. It’s only the two of them that created Connemara Safari and they enjoy the discovery as much as their trekkers. Brian, and his father Paul, own a fine hotel in Clifden an easy drive or bus trip from Galway.
“Abbeyglen Castle was built in 1832 by John d’Arcy of Clifden Castle. D’Arcy died as a young man and in those days his wife couldn’t inherit. She was housed here and was bored,” Brian recounted the story of this magic mansion built on a hill overlooking the town.
“She went out at the peak of the famine and took children in that were starving. Her son became a vicar for the Church of Ireland. He brought the church in and created an orphanage for girls. It continued until the 1950s. The building fell into disrepair then the Joyce family bought it. Padraig Joyce and his wife operated the Glenowen House Hotel here until 1969, when my mother and father bought it.”
Brian is a true son of Connemara, born and raised. His family would spend summers in a camping caravan then move back into the hotel in fall and winter when the tourists were gone. Brian and his father continue to offer four star hotel service with excellent food and comfortable accommodations. The hotel is on Sky Road, a wonderful place to walk for evening sunsets and majestic ocean views.
Oysters at Abbeyglen Castle come right out of the ocean and are kept alive until served in a bubbling tank. “The lobster is the best I have ever eaten,” a Frenchman from Paris pronounced. He was a man of some ‘poid’ and difficult to please. He enjoyed the fresh oysters so much at dinner that he ordered them again for his breakfast in Abbeyglen’s regal restaurant. Whatever the menu choice Paul and Brian insure that local foods are expertly prepared and served.
If there is time in Clifden visit the monument to American aviators Alcock and Brown. They made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919. Marconi used Clifden for his first high power transatlantic long wave wireless telegraphy station. The site is interesting as is a visit to Clifden Castle before heading to Cleggan for the ferry to Inishbofin Island.
Round trip passage across to the island costs 15 Euros, included in Connemara Safari’s walking tours as is bed and breakfast at the Inishbofin House Hotel. Have camera ready to capture the channel markers as the ferry arrives into the harbor. Cromwell’s Barracks is in ruin on a cliff at water’s edge. The stone walls and parapets were witness to harsh times in Ireland with the arrival Oliver Cromwell and his troops to enforce English domination of Ireland.
Be prepared to keep pace with Gerry. He carries a grand pack on his back that tinkles as he steps out. There’s a wonderful luncheon in the pack of fine wine, smoked salmon, fresh strawberries and more. After a good walk, a stop in a small ruin for the picnic is welcome respite. Beware though since Gerry’s wine will entice the desire to have a wee nap before continuing the journey.
“This church was completely hidden. One day after a storm they came out in morning and that tip of stone was showing. The local parish priest with his parishioners dug it out. It was hidden down here so the Vikings wouldn’t see it. It dates to the 8th Century and was built by St. Fechin,” Gerry recounted.
There are many memorials to those that drowned in rough Atlantic storms. “They came a long way to die,” Gerry remarked with sadness at a memorial to two U.S. boys, Edward Moll and Richard Mathes, who came with classmates on a trip from Kansas University. The group set off to climb out on rocks when the tide came in. Tides can be twenty feet here. As the water came in most made it to safety. The two boys had gone further out and didn’t wait to be rescued or for the tide to go out again. They got into the frigid February water to swim to shore and drowned.
Inish Shark, another nearby island, is not inhabited after the drowning of three Lacey boys in 1949. They came over to Inishbofin to go to church, dallied in town, then put off from the beach to regain their home across the bay. Caught in a storm their boat capsized and the boys drowned.
Inishbofin has a population of 180 people. Many of the other islands are not inhabited at all save for cattle and sheep that graze there in summer. Connemara Safari offers complete walking trips to Inish Turk and Clare Island. Scuba diving in cold but clear water is available on Inishbofin as is horseback riding on the beach from Cleggan at Claddaduff on the mainland.
The little Inishbofin Heritage Museum and gift shop at the old pier in Isishbofin has its hours posted. Try to visit with Marie Coyne that runs it. It is a wonderful way to take home some photos of a typical island cottage and perhaps some locally made knitwear or souvenirs.
Efficient rail and bus service makes it easy to get to most every place in Ireland. There are hotels and bed and breakfasts everywhere. It is only 90 kilometers from the Cleggan pier to Galway airport, 165 kilometers to Shannon airport and 300 kilometers to Dublin airport.
Websites make it simple to access information of all kinds and booklets, maps and brochures are free at any Irish tourist information office. Some handy websites include http://www.discoverireland.ie, www.failteireland.ie. To find information about Connemara Safaris go to www.walkingconnemara.com or call Brian Hughes and Gerry MacCloskey at 353 0 95 21071, For information about Abbeyglen Castle Hotel visit their website at www.abbeyglen.ie or email them at email@example.com. Abbeyglen Castle’s telephone is 353 0 95 21201.