When you see lists of Ireland’s hidden gems including the likes of the Cliff of Moher (which saw over 1.4 million visitors in 2016) then you know that the term ‘hidden gem’ has become a cliche and is in danger of losing all meaning. However that doesn’t meant that the 2500km of the Wild Atlantic Way aren’t fertile ground for hidden gems – places of interest that aren’t very well known or might be over shadowed by better known neighbours – and with this series of posts I would like to reclaim the phrase.
I spend a lot of time last year on the Wild Atlantic Way researching Exploring Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. Richard Creagh, my co-author, and I shared the load, he took the southern half and I took the northern, Galway City was the dividing line. On a tight deadline we didn’t have the time to explore and linger as much as we would have liked however we both discovered many places that we new to us along the Way, even in areas that we thought we knew well. It was these areas – overlooked yet rewarding – that we wanted to document in the book.
This post, the second in the series about the Wild Atlantic Way’s hidden gems (the first covered Mayo), takes a look at County Galway. And despite the fact that Galway or more specifically Connemara, is one of the best known and most popular tourist regions along the Way, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds.
The following five places are just my selection, obviously it’s all very subjective, so I would love to hear any suggestions readers had.
1 Ceantar na nOileán
Ceantar na nOileán, which translates as the Island District, is a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) district on the north western edge of Galway Bay. The archipelago of low-lying islands is one of the quietest parts of Connemara and is characterised by drystone walls and a patchwork of small rocky fields.
The five largest islands – Annaghvane, Lettermore, Garumna, Lettermullen, and Furnish – are linked by a series of bridges and causeways. And even though the Wild Atlantic Way only goes as far as the bridge that connects Lettermore and Gorumna Islands it’s well worth pushing on to discover more of this hidden gem.
There are numerous small sandy beaches on the islands, particularly on the western shore of Gorumna and the southern shore of Lettermore. Also on Lettermullan Island is the Lettermullan Heritage Centre a small cottage where the private collection of local historian John Bhaba Jeaic Ó’Confhaola is on display. The collection, which includes old books, tools, instruments and photographs, gives a great insight into life as it once was.
The islands are covered in a network of narrow roads and boreens, many of which lead down to hidden bays and sandy beaches, which are perfect for leisurely cycling and walking. The Ceantar na nOileán Teo website has details of six walking routes.
Another way to experience this maze of tiny deserted islands, sheltered bays and sandy beaches is from the water, aboard a sea kayak. Shearwater Sea Kayaking offer kayaking instruction and guided tours, ranging from short evening paddles to multi-day camping trips.
2 Brigit’s Garden
While not technically on the Wild Atlantic Way, Bridit’s Garden isn’t too far from the coast and is just off the main road (the N59) between Galway City and Clifden. I had driven past the sign for Brigit’s Garden so many times that finally one day I had check it out.
And glad I was, it’s an amazing place, perfect for kids, there is a huge amount of interest packed into the gardens including a playground and discovery trail. The enchanting gardens, inspired by the Celtic festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasa, are set on eleven acres of native woodland and wild flower meadows. As well as the gardens there is a nature trail, an ancient ring fort, thatched roundhouse, crannóg, a calendar sundial, excellent café and gift shop. It’s not far off the N59 between Moycullen and Oughterard, look out for the signs.
Don’t pass it by.
Only a stone’s throw from the fishing village of Roundstone is Inishnee. Connected to the mainland by a bridge the island is small, only 5km long, consisting of three sections joined by narrow strips of land. The best way to experience the island’s charm is to follow the 6km signposted walk along that starts from the bridge and follows narrow roads and lanes in a sort of figure of six. En route you will meet some sad eyed donkeys, pass the small graveyard – Reilig Naomh Maitiú, and enjoy the views across the water to Roundstone and inland to the Twelve Bens.
4 Omey Island
Maybe describing Omey Island as a hidden gem might be stretching the definition a little but I think it’s fair to say that it isn’t as well known as it should be. Since childhood I have spend many summer holidays in Ballyconneely only a short distance south yet it was only in the course of researching the book that I first visited the island.
The island is accessed at low tide by walking/driving/cycling across the sand, this in itself gives it a special feel. The best way to experience the island is on foot by walking the tracks and paths in a loop around the coastline. Make sure to leave plenty to time to explore the beautiful machair on the western tip which is littered with wild flowers in the summer. There are great views across of Friar, High and Crow Island. All hidden gems as well no doubt.
5 The Famine Road, Killary
The dramatic, glacier carved inlet of Killary Harbour marks the border between the counties of Galway and Mayo. And even though geographers may object to it being described as a fjord it’s certainly the closest thing we have to one in Ireland. The more remote northern shore, formed by the massive bulk of Mweelrea (Connacht’s tallest mountain), is only accessible by boat or on foot, however on the south side there is a historic path that offers a unique perspective on this dramatic landscape.
Near the mouth on the southern shore of the Harbour is the tiny fishing settlement of Rosroe, little more than a small pier and a few houses, it’s starting point of the path which was built in 1856 as a famine relief project. As you walk along the path you will see many reminders of its past including ruined cottages and the outline of fields and cultivation ridges, these give some sense of how hard life was for the large population that once struggled to make a living in this barren place.
If you are short on time or energy, to just walk the length of the Green Road and retrace your steps, with the option of taking the steeper route through Salrock Pass on the return leg. But if you have the time it’s well worth doing the full 15km loop.
Park at the pier at Rosroe and walk 200m back up the road. Turn left at the small white cottage and follow the track east. After about 5km the track improves and becomes a proper road and you pass Killary Sheep Farm where visitors can watch working sheepdogs, sheep shearing, turf cutting demonstrations and, in spring, bottle feed a lamb.
The road leads uphill to the busy N59 where you turn right and a short while later take another right. This quieter road leads past the shores of Lough Fee. Keep right at the next two junctions and the road will lead you back to your starting point at Rosroe.
For more information about these and other similar areas check out Exploring Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.