Off-season is a great time to head for the west of Ireland, to see Connemara and the Burren unencumbered by summer crowds
‘Of course, the whole place shuts down in winter,’ a local informed us at the bar of one of Ireland’s grandest country hotels. ‘But it’s still worth having a drive about.’ The prospect of a ‘drive about’ Galway and Clare is what draws visitors to the west. In summer, you can add surfing, hiking, golf and riding to the list, but despite a chill wind and a lot of Closed signs, these landscapes have a dramatic, striking appeal in colder months. All you need is a good base camp, where life, and hopefully a real fire, can be found after a lonely day on the road.
The obvious choice is also one of the best. The stately Ashford Castle was once part of the Guinness estate and sits on the shores of Lough Corrib at Cong, in County Mayo. In terms of activities, it’s got the lot, including horse riding, falconry, archery and its own golf course, but the location is pretty good, too. The estate is a useful access-all-areas point from which both Connemara and the Burren, the stony and distinctive protected landscape south of Galway city, are an easy drive.
Lough Corrib is huge, and both obstacle and delight. To access the rolling hills of Connemara, Oscar Wilde’s ‘savage beauty,’ you head west from Cong along Corrib’s blurred, wibbly northern edge. From here, the N59 loops through to the attractive riverside town of Clifden. Near Connemara National Park, you can cross between the Twelve Bens and Maamturk mountains, or head north to the spectacular fjord of Killary Harbour, with the village of Leenane, quiet in its exuberantly beautiful setting, at its head. Road signs and shopfronts are a reminder that swathes of Connemara are part of the Gaeltacht, where Gaelic is routinely spoken. The landscape may have been filmed and photographed countless times, but there’s so much of it that there’s a wild surprise around a lot of corners.
On the other side of Galway City (where you might fancy the glamour of Ashford Castle’s sister hotel, The G), the Burren is the bane of Irish geography lessons and the delight of days out. Covering 216 square miles along the coasts of Counties Galway and Clare, it’s distinctive for its stretches of grey, fissured exposed limestone, terraced hills and rounded boulders.
In summer makeshift car parks at coastal viewpoints like Poulsallagh, where the easily-accessed pavements and cliffs are a big draw, are dangerously popular; drop by before the blue gentians flower in April and you’ll have both safety and peace. Another site adversely affected by heaving visitor numbers is the famous Poulnabrone dolmen, one of around 70 tombs in the area and which looks for all the world like a megalithic smoking shelter. In high season coachloads of visitors stop off to see it on the road from Ballyvaughan to Corofin, but it’s just as eerie in winter sunshine.
The shale and sandstone Cliffs of Moher don’t count as part of the Burren, but they’re so near it seems rude not to. At 214m high and 8km long, topped by O’Brien’s Tower and battered by the Atlantic, they offer views to the Aran Islands and back to the Twelve Bens. You can’t miss the cliffs, but if you’re not careful you might miss the new visitor centre, which is sunk into the hillside and topped with a natty grass roof. And yes, it is open in winter.