PADRAIC Canavan fussed over his border collies as they boiled around a flock of shaggy sheep, those odd-looking white ones with black “stockings” on the lower legs.
“American, are you?” he inquired, narrowing his eyelids. Canavan’s English was that of a man who had spoken Gaelic all his life and even then only as often as necessary.
“Ah, Australian.” His sudden grin exposed a row of gapped teeth. “Those Americans, they’re buying up houses everywhere…ruining the character of the place, they are. And the Dubliners.”
“The place” was Connemara, a wet, windy panorama of harsh beauty and a very special part of County Galway on Ireland’s west coast.
The name translates from Irish as “the people from the sea” and while the sea still plays a central role in their lives, most Connemarans scratch a hardscrabble living out of a remorseless rock-strewn landscape.
Not for them the pretty rolling farms with broad fecund fields. Here they make do with a few meagre plots crammed into each hectare and divided by stone walls built with rocks removed from the fields to render the land at least half arable. It was a scene that had remained unchanged for as long as these stoic people could remember.
They and their quaintly guttural language have become the great survivors with Connemara, especially in the south, now the heartland of the Irish speaking Gaeltacht.
Connemarans’ views toward “the outsiders” could be heard frequently in the pubs. People from the Continent, they said, treated the area with more regard than some locals did. Dubliners, on the other hand, were almost never welcome.
“They act as if they own the bloody place,” truck driver Billy Gallagher snarled. “They take the land and build their big holiday homes and only use them four weeks a year. They treat us with no respect at all.”
Probe a little deeper and you might hear stories in lowered tones of the outsiders’ water supplies being cut off and cow blood being thrown through windows.
The cheerlessness of daily life, a potato famine that almost destroyed them, the brutality of Oliver Cromwell and British determination to crush their Gaelic language have imbued successive generations of Connemarans with an engaging sense of defiance.
But look closely at Connemara and you’ll discover a beautiful, if almost treeless countryside tinged with mauve and pink flowering heather and all hues of green and brown.
Fast flowing rivers and streams cut between dramatic mountain ranges like the Twelve Bens and the Maumturks. Clear glassy lakes border great peat bogs where the mint-like fragrance of bog myrtle hangs in the salty air and mingles with the sweet smoky smell of smouldering peat warming the scattered hearths.
Around the craggy Connemara Coast bruised over centuries by the Atlantic Ocean were countless inlets covered in rich brown seaweed, a string of little seaside villages and ruins of abandoned stone cottages, a legacy of less auspicious times.
Offshore when conditions are right, Connemara hookers take to the sea. These tiny black-sailed boats with distinctive curved lines haven’t changed in size or design for hundreds of years. In the 19th century they carried goods, livestock and fuel to the communities around the Connemara Coast when the sea was the primary means of transport and communication.
Hookers were on the verge of extinction until the mid seventies when many old ones were restored and new ones built for traditional ocean fishing. Now, during the summer months, they compete in a series of offshore regattas.
There are always some in the harbour at Roundstone, one of the oldest fishing villages on the west coast, a pretty place of stone houses and slate roofs in the shadow of Errisberg Mountain on the western side of Roundstone Bay.
The town where rock singer Sting once kept a residence has become a seriously chic retreat for those wealthy Dubliners who come here for holidays bringing with them a disagreeable reputation and a taste for fine food.
And Roundstone had oodles of it with intimate pubs and restaurants spread down the steep main street overlooking the most attractive working harbour in the West of Ireland.
O’Dowd’s is a real Irish pub that has been in business since 1840 with wood panelled walls, open fires and now, reputedly, the finest seafood in the country.
The Beola Restaurant, part of Eldon’s Hotel across the road, specialised in lobster while O’Dowd’s Seafood Bar did a cod and scampi curry, fresh grilled or poached Connemara salmon Irish stew and the finest raspberry and apple crumble in the civilised world.
A number of small craft industries like woollens and pottery operate here and Malachy Kearns, the only full time bodhran maker in the world, can be seen making these ancient Irish drums in the local craft workshop.
Three kilometres away, Dogs Bay is blessed with pure white sand washed by the cool clear waters of the North Atlantic, eminently swimmable at the height of summer but a brass monkey at most other times.
Heading north toward Clifden, the regional capital, on a road with more ducks and sheep on it than cars, I passed an unsullied landscape of lush grasses, blackberries ripe for picking, wildflowers, herbs and sheep the same colour as the scattered granite and limestone rocks around them.
From a distance they were distinguishable only by daubs of iridescent dye on their backs, a ploy to discourage sheepdogs from trying to round up rocks.
Clifden is one of those treasures that survive from era to era, a chummy sort of town where the houses, restaurants and pubs are painted the same sorts of pastel colours trimmed with white that were used to adorn pre-chocolate Easter eggs.
There were some classic Irish pubs there like Griffin’s Bar, a rugby stronghold where, if you were “in” you could keep drinking until the wee hours of the morning, a privilege usually reserved for locals.
Mannion’s Bar was a good old timers’ pub, Mullarkey’s was the haunt of local teenagers and twenty-somethings and E.J. King’s was where the young hopefuls went talent spotting to the sound of the Two Toms playing in the corner.
At the local Clifden markets, turnips were on special, there were row after row of sturdy, functional farm boots and hand-woven woollen socks from the nearby Aran Islands were only six euros for a pack of three.
There were also some delightful souvenir shops with windows displaying the sorts of wonderful old Irish kitsch that seems to have been around forever – musical cottages, the almost obligatory plastic farm sets and those ubiquitous statues of St Patrick. Like Connemara itself, some things just never change.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited)