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50 Miles of compressed Irish grandeur: Lakes, Mountains, Seascapes,
Villages, & Sheep. Empty Roads, empty beaches, no empty promises.

This article first appeared in FEBRUARY-MARCH, 2008.         MOST RECENT UPDATE: 2015.


          “Explore the Real Ireland,” says the advertising slogan of the Connemara Loop. I thought: “Beware. The more excessive the Irish praise, the less Irish the experience.”
                                                  * * * * *
          I awoke to a fine, sunny morning at the end of May. Shower, toast, juice, and coffee, and out the door I bolted. I hopped into my rented car and spun the wheels in the loose stones of my driveway so eager was I to get going.
          Years ago I had made a rainy day swing through western Ireland, but the memories of that quick road trip are as dim and foggy as the October weather had been. I had been looking for a day perfect in weather and long in daylight, and the weatherman said, “Go today!”

"My start point was my whitewashed cottage near Terryglass village..." Photo © Home At First
My whitewashed Home At First COTTAGE
near Terryglass Village, County Tipperary

on the road again: My start point was my white-washed cottage near Terryglass village, just south of the geographic center of Ireland. My goal was the Connemara Loop, a scenic 50-mile signed circular route through the mountains and along the coast of western County Galway. The Connemara Loop begins less than 30 miles west of Galway city, but Galway is Ireland’s westernmost large city, located on the northeastern corner of Galway Bay, a lobe of the Atlantic Ocean that permits Galway to be a major port on Ireland’s west coast. Although my cottage in northern County


Tipperary is deep in Ireland’s heartland,

Galway and Central Ireland’s west coast are not far off. (For that matter Dublin, on Central Ireland’s east coast is not far off either the coasts at Dublin and Galway are less than 140 driving miles apart. From my temporary home base in Central Ireland, most of Ireland is within reach by day trip.)

          In about ten minutes I crossed the drawbridge over the River Shannon and entered County Galway at Portumna, one of my favorite Irish towns with one of my favorite Irish castles nestled near the entrance of the Shannon into Central Ireland’s great lake, Lough Derg. From Portumna it’s a straight shot to Galway city, first on the N65, then on the N6. Not many years ago the N65 met the N6 in the usually congested center of Loughrea, another busy Central Ireland market town. These days, however, thanks to the rapid

The River Shannon at Portumna, County Galway. Photo © Home At First.
The River Shannon at Portumna, County Galway

expansion and modernization of Ireland’s


system of roads due to the influx of European Union money, the roads intersect outside of Loughrea, and a new four-lane bypass runs around the congestion. So it is throughout Ireland. Each time I return the highway infrastructure has changed, shortening drive times, eliminating maddening bottlenecks, but also taking visitors away from the real life scenery of commonplace Irish towns. It’s quicker now to race across Ireland to the tourist meccas of your choice, bypassing the mundane realities of workday Ireland. There’s danger in this: soon it may be possible for visitors to see all of Ireland’s famous sights and experience nothing at all of Ireland. Today, however, I want plenty of time for the Connemara Loop, which, you’ll remember, promises me “the real Ireland.” Besides, I’ve been blocked by tractor traffic in downtown Loughrea once before, and do require no second memory of being delayed here in east-central Galway.
          From Loughrea the new, improved N6 fairly races to the county town. Only Dublin rivals Galway city for growth and expansion since Ireland joined the European Union (EU) and became the Celtic Tiger. No longer the large port town on Galway Bay, Galway is now a sprawling commercial city built around a showcase old town. A network of modern expressways ties Galway to most compass points (exception: west into the Connemara), and a ring road (the N6) keeps through traffic moving and away from downtown.

Western County Galway, Ireland, showing Connemara and the Connemara Loop. Map © Home At First.

CONNEMARA: I followed the N6 counterclockwise around Galway, then took the R864 (Newcastle Road) left (south) to the R336 coast road at Salthill. I wanted to see the famous sea promenade that follows the bay just west of downtown, and, despite heavy traffic through here, I got an eyeful of lovely seashore along the innermost Galway Bay. I followed slow-moving R336 west along the coast and then north into the Connemara at Maam Cross, because I wanted the coast scenery, but you don’t have to. When the N6 ends at the Browne Roundabout, you can pick-up the N59 northbound away from the city (where it is also called the Clifden Road), then northwest into the Connemara, eventually intersecting the R336 at Maam Cross.
          The Connemara Loop begins and ends at Maam Cross. The circular route may be followed counterclockwise from here by taking the R336 north to Maam (Maum) and then northwest to meet the N59 again at Leenane on the Killary Fjord. But, because I had plotted a route home from Maam across a piece of County Mayo through the old town of Cong where John Ford filmed much of his 1952 classic, “The Quiet Man”, I followed the Loop clockwise. I headed west toward Clifden on the N59.


          Each mile confirmed the wild beauty of

Connemara: farmstead on the south flank of the Maumturk Mts. west of Maam Cross. Photo © Home At First.
Connemara: Irish farmstead on the southern
flank of the Maumturk Mountains
west of Maam Cross

Connemara. Bald mountains, bog, loughs, and rocky streams gave the place a Scottish aspect, but the architecture of the few houses and farms said Ireland. Fewer still around most of the Connemara Loop were villages and towns. Maam Cross is a crossroads with a service station, but swells with activity when it hosts the annual harvest fair in October. The delightfully named village of Recess — wedged between Glendalough and Derryclare Lake, 8 miles west of Maam Cross — has a petrol station, post office, and shop where you can buy snacks and drinks. Turn right (north) on the R344 at Recess, a glorious pass road


that bisects the Inagh Valley between The

Twelve Pins and the Maumturk Mountains. The road follows the length of stunning Lough Inagh, which mirrors the high (2,333’ above sea level) Bencorr peak. Watch for sheep meandering along and across the R344, and also, watch for the meadows and bogs full of blooming purple rhododendrons if you go in May/June. The Inagh Valley is as pretty a picture of pastoral Ireland as I’ve ever seen, except that there are few signs of people, other than hikers entering or leaving the Maumturks.
          As you exit the Inagh Valley you rejoin


the N59, turning west at Kylemore Lough as you enter the Kylemore Pass through a low place in The Twelve Pins mountains. Adding drama to this narrows are the foreboding crenellations of the massive Kylemore Abbey, home to an order of Benedictine nuns since 1920. The Abbey hosts an international girls school. A stop at the abbey (open 9AM-5PM), which, despite its medieval appearance, dates from the 1870s, permits a visit to the buildings, gardens, the visitor center, the abbey’s pottery, a craft shop (featuring the abbey’s own ceramics and jam), and the largest restaurant on the Connemara Loop. Visit Kylemore during May/June to see

Sheep grazing along Lough Inagh with Bencorr of The Twelve Pins in the background. Photo © Home At First.
Connemara: sheep grazing along
Lough Inagh with Bencorr of the
 Twelve Pins in the background

its forest of rhododendrons in full glory.


          Letterfrack comes next. Worth a visit if only to say you’ve been to Letterfrack and back. Also worthy of a visit is Molly’s Pub, one of several places to eat and drink in the village. Letterfrack houses the Connemara National Park visitor center. The relatively small (11½ square miles) and remote national park occupies moorland extending into The Twelve Pins southeast of Letterfrack. Much of the land formerly belonged to the Kylemore Abbey estate and ceded to Ireland in 1980.


          A bigger surprise is that you’ve

Kylemore Abbey. Photo © Home At First.

somehow come back to sea level: Letterfrack sits on the furthest inland reach of the Ballinakill Bay. If you have the time, boat rides are possible here for fishing or dolphin encounters. If you visit at the end of October, the village celebrates Sea Week. At the end of May, when I visited, Letterfrack was up to its knees in Bog Week.
          Turn right (north) at Letterfrack on the secondary road signed for Tullycross. Drive about 1 mile uphill, watching carefully for the left turn for Derryinver, southern gateway to the Renvyle Peninsula. Make the turn then go over the shoulder and back down to the sea’s edge at Derryinver. Stop for the view of The Twelve Pins from the shore, or from the balcony of the Harbour


Café, a fine place to take tea. Watch, too,

for seals, sea birds, and dolphins in this pretty arm of Ballinakill Harbour. From Derryinver the roadway deteriorates into a one-lane, semi-paved road that steeply climbs Tully Mountain with outstanding views (except for the driver) back across

Letterfrack and The Twelve Pins mountains.


Cresting Tully Mountain provides more drama: the Renvyle Peninsula jutting into the open Atlantic with the islands of Inis Bofin and Inis Turk just offshore. At the top of the hill, the rugged road makes a sharp right turn (watch for the Connemara Loop signs pointing the way), and, quickly, another sharp right, as you descend to the north coast at Renvyle Point. You will see extensive white beaches on this side of the peninsula, steep meadows grazed by sheep and horses, and Renvyle Castle, the romantic ruins that once was home to an Irish pirate queen. There’s unseen prehistory all

The view from Derryinver across Ballinakill Harbour to the Twelve Pins and the Connemara National Park. Photo © Home At First.
View from Derryinver across Ballinakill Harbour
to the Twelve Pins & Connemara National Park

around the peninsula, rich in archeological sites


you can walk to if you’ve had enough driving and  would like to stretch your legs.

          If you would rather stretch your legs in civilization, drive a little further to the seaside village of Tully. There’s a small beach at Tully, and rock pools, a pier, walking paths, a grocery, pubs, restaurants, and even a bike rental. You have crossed the


halfway mark of the day trip, so you can judge

The ruins of Renvyle Castle on the Atlantic shore of the Renvyle Peninsula. Note the offshore islands. Photo © Home At First.
The ruins of Renvyle Castle on the Atlantic shore
of the Renvyle Peninsula with offshore islands

how much time to spend knocking around Tully.

          Whether or not you pause at Tully, plan to pull over at some parking spot along the coast road as it heads east towards Tullycross to gawk at the splendor of the Killary Harbour with its long, white strands, the shimmering blue bay, and the distant, misty mountains of County Mayo as a backdrop. To this eye, Ireland is never more scenic than from this vantage.
          One more temptation to stop occurs at Tullycross, the northeastern corner of the


Renvyle Peninsula. Tullycross is an inland

village, set among the folds of a hilltop, and is as pretty an Irish as you will see on this trip. All the wished for Irish architecture lines the intersecting streets of Tullycross: thatched cottages, pubs, and a small café.
          By now, properly gassed and oiled, you should be ready to turn east and homeward. Turn left at the Tully Cross intersection onto the secondary road for Lettergesh, Glassilaun, and Salrock. In a minute or two you will cross up and out of the hills and back to the coast, with more sweeping views of Killary Harbour and the mountains of County Mayo opposite. If the approaching Lettergesh beach looks vaguely familiar, it’s because it was used as the setting for the horse race in John Ford’s “The Quiet Man.” John Ford, best known for his westerns shot in Monument Valley, liked to choose locations that display the geographic soul of their culture. Lettergesh beach is one soulful Irish location.

          After Lettergesh the road turns southeast past Salrock, and rejoins the N59. Turn left on the N59. In a mile the road hugs Ireland’s only fjord, the Killary Fjord, on its way to the county border with Mayo. Watch for the Connemara Lady, the public cruise ship that offers 90-minute rides down past the mussels farms and mountain slopes that line the fjord as far as Killary Bay and back four times daily from April through September (twice daily

Killary Harbour with the mountains of County Mayo. Photo © Home At First.
Killary Harbour with the mountains of County Mayo

in October), including a 2:30PM departure


that returns at 4PM. The modern twin-hulled cruiser has capacity for 150 persons. Like a fjord in Ireland, the sleek fiberglass boat seems out of place, especially in this mostly uninhabited valley where the population either fled or starved to death during the Great Famine 160 years ago.
          One and a half miles after the cruise boat landing, but before crossing the border into County Mayo, you arrive in the junction village of Leenane. At the wye by a pub restaurant, Route N59 swings left, but you take the right leg and lonesome, starkly beautiful route R336. This last 10-miles of the Connemara Loop heads southeast around the back of the Maumturk Mountains for Maam Cross and completes the 50-mile circle.

Rhododendrons and the Maumturk Mountains. Photo © Home At First.
Rhododendrons and
the Maumturk Mountains

HOMEWARD BOUND: By now it may be late afternoon and you are ready to head home with more than two hours of driving left to do. If so, turn left at Maam Cross for Galway, the N6 and home. If, however, you have raced around The Connemara Loop and have plenty of stamina and daylight remaining, consider this unusual route home:
          Instead of taking the R336 all the way to Maam Cross, from Leenane drive six miles to Maam village at the intersection with the R345. Turn left and head east between Lough Corrib and Joyce’s Country for Cong, “The Quiet Man” village, where you enter County Mayo. If you’ve time, nose around the old village, frozen in aspic but still recognizable from the film and amusing. Just beyond Cong is Ashford Castle resort with expansive grounds and golf course. At the wye intersection by the entrance to Ashford Castle, leave the R345 and bear right for Cross. In a couple of miles, at Cross, turn right on the


R344 for Headford. Once again in County Galway, from

Headford you can plot your own route home, none direct, none especially fast, and none with the luscious scenery of western Galway and the Connemara Loop.
          But, if you elect to head east from Headford, making your way with a zigzagged series of R-routes (perhaps via Tuam, Mountbellew, and Ballinasloe) you will pass through the agricultural Midlands, home to a mostly prosperous, tradition-rich, family-oriented, religious population of hard-working rural Irish, people working Ireland’s fertile flat interior with an unremarked constancy that John Ford would have recognized as noble. It is during this last two hours of the long day that the promise of The Connemara Loop is fully realized: you will have explored, and, indeed discovered, “the real Ireland.”


as part of your next visit to Ireland.

This article comes from Home At First's exclusive
"Ireland Activities Guide" that comes to you as part of your trip.
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