Wild north and cosier south
THE Mayo and Galway countryside are ablaze as late spring becomes early summer with wild flowers tall and rather gaudy lupins, deceptively delicate yellow irises surviving in the sea of peat, red fuschias in the hedgerows, and rhododendrons growing wild. Only among the peace and space of the uncluttered western extremes of Ireland could they thrive so abundantly.
The shores and steeply slopping banks of Killary Harbour, more Scandinavian fjord than traditional opening to the sea, combine the feel of plush Surrey countryside with their hedged narrow roads with purple rhododendron blooms and solid pre-war properties and the ruggedness that is so much a feature of the counties to the north, Sligo and Donegal. Doolough, to the north of Killary Harbour, silently and placidly witnesses the convergence of five, or even six, ridges of hills and mountains. On its shores stands the romantically named Delphi, known as Fionnloch before a now long dead Lord Sligo, impressed by its similarity to the home of the Greek Orackle, renamed it.
Lough Doo stands on the road from Westport to Galway. The former is a very twee rather unlrish town, with canals running through its heart, a plethora of amusing but almost intrusive facilities for visitors, and a whole host of pubs, restaurants and shops crowding round the central Octagon, a market place with, as the name suggests, eight sides of equal length and in the middle a Doric pillar.
Westport Harbour, about five minutes drive from the centre of the town, is rather less claustrophobic, but to find real space take a walk in the grounds of the undeniably splendid Westport House, the eighteenth century family home of the Marquesses of Sligo. Unlike many of the other seats of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy
Peter Stanford on his tour of western Ireland
families who ruled Ireland before independence, Westport House has been kept up as a national treasure through the efforts of the Earl of Altamont and his family who are to be seen buzzing around the estate, the antiques shop in the house's basement, and the zoo and amusements in the grounds.
The house's best feature is James Wyatt's dining room with its Wedgwood style decorations dating back to the late eighteenth century, and there are some paintings of passing interest.
Taking the coast road westwards from Westport towards Louisberg, you pass under Croagh Patrick, with its very visible pilgrimage trail winding its way to the small white church on the top of this national monument to the saint. On the south side of Croagh Patrick is the precipice over which all Ireland's snakes are said to have thrown themselves after answering the call of the saint's bell.
For the less energetic traveller and I'm not ashamed to admit I approached much of my Irish sojourn with that group in mind there is a wonderfully peaceful beach at the foot of Croagh Patrick at Leckanvey. A small cob juts out, Lyme Regisstyle, into Clew Bay with the mountain in the background. Further along the coast, and a little more sheltered from the sea breezes than Leckanvey is the sandy beach of Old Head where I even saw hardy souls frollicking in the water.
But if it is solitude you're looking for the stretch of coast from Roonah Quay embarkation point for Clare Island, home to Grace O'Malley, the sixteenth century sea-queen who crossed swords with Queen Elizabeth I to Killadoon features great sweeping bays with mile upon mile of sand and not a soul in sight. The only interruption to my cosy little picnic, spot of reading and a snooze in the sand dunes was the rather ominous appearance of some cows on the beach.
After the remoteness of Mayo, the bustle of Galway City comes as a shock. If you're not quite prepared then a good move is to make your base in one of the towns to the north west, allowing easy access into Connemara and Clifden, its capital, which has something of the air of an Alpine town with its framing ring of mountain peaks.
Oughterard, on the upper shores of Lough Corrib, is a meeting point between the coastal regions of Connemara and Galway City. Famed for its angling the breakfast room of the hotel where I stayed featured a daily pastiche of budding amateur fishermen, their waterproofs already on over their brightly coloured gear that otherwise would be paraded on the golf course, telling endless tales about the twelve foot trout that got away Ougherard has a small flotilla of boats available for excursions on the lake.
Just to the south of Galway City, for those already caught up in the search for WB Yeats from the Sligo leg of their trip, is the Thoor Ballylee, near the market town of Gort. The sixteenth century tower was bought by the poet in 1917 and was home to him and his family until 1929, and fired his imagination in later collections like The Winding Star, reference surely to the stone spiral staircase that leads up through the four floors of the tower that has now been lovingly restored by the Irish Tourist Board.
Galway and Mayo are something of a cross-over point, between the wilderness of the far north west and the more familiar sporting and recreational features and facilities of the west and south. It offers something of both depending on your taste, and nothing extreme.