The west coast of Ireland brings visions of the past -- grander times, desperate times, pleasant times.
Older hotels, ruins of castles and monasteries and manor houses converted to hotels are relics of past grandeur.
The moods of western Ireland range from the rugged desolation of Connemara -- the part of County Galway between Lough Carrib and the Atlantic Ocean -- to the romantic hills and lakes of Killarney. Seeing the wild North Atlantic beating against the dark Cliffs of Moher, it is easy to imagine the fears felt by the Irish who were starving during the potato famine in 1846. Their choices were the dreaded workhouse, death by starvation or the dangers of the wild sea to reach America.
Yet these same rough lands gave rise to nostalgic songs about Galway Bay, Tralee and Connemara. The rocky isolation of Connemara, the winds sweeping in from the North Atlantic and the winter cold are just the right combination for the makers of poteen -- Irish moonshine -- and the sighting of leprechauns, the "little people" of Irish myth. On a sunny summer day, Connemara shows a softer side.
The Olde Railway Hotel in Westport, County Mayo, was built in 1780 and remains a great place to stay. The four-poster beds, the elegant dining room and the friendly pub make it an ideal place to experience the slower pace of the good old days.
Some of the peat bogs of western Ireland are in the shadow of the Holy Mountain of Croagh Patrick, a few miles west of Westport. The unmistakable smell of peat burning in farm hearths hangs over the countryside on cold evenings. Each brown piece of this common fuel is about the size of a building brick. Although some peat still is dug by hand, most of the work is done by machine.
The many monastery ruins are reminders of the importance of religion in Ireland since St. Patrick was there in the fifth century. Kylemore Abbey, west of Leenane, near Connemara National Park, is a symbol of the Catholic Church and Catholic education in Ireland today. Now a boarding school for girls, it is operated by nuns, who have opened shops near the highway to sell souvenirs of the abbey and all types of Irish goods. The restaurant is a delightful spot for lunch or afternoon tea.
In June 1919, this coast of Connemara, inhospitable as it seems, must have been a welcome sight to English aviators Alcock and Brown after more than 16 hours in the air over the North Atlantic Ocean. They were the first to fly the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Ireland, landing just south of Clifden.
After one drives through the wild and rocky Connemara, Galway Bay seems quiet and peaceful. Little wonder the two places have been the subjects of nostalgic songs and musicals.
The walls of an old church stand roofless, overlooking Galway Bay and surrounded by graves more than 300 years old. A carved stone holy water font is part of the wall near the low entrance, now filled by the rains. One can almost see a hooded monk crossing himself as he enters this ancient chapel.
Near Spiddal, a small complex of tourist shops has been opened, selling the work of local artisans, who often are tending the stores.
The friendliness of the Irish goes beyond just a pleasant greeting -- you can expect them to give help whenever it is needed. Whether it is pushing a car with a dead battery, or fixing a flat tire, helpful Irishmen seem to appear.
The two golf courses at Lahinch, alongside highway R478, often are crowded with golfers who stay at area hotels, including the Falls Hotel at Ennistymon, two or three miles away. Most of the big, old rooms of this hotel overlook the falls of the River Inagh, which flows through the center of town.
Spanish Point, on the coast, near Milltown, is the site of the wrecking of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The remaining ships of the proud fleet were fleeing after defeat in the English Channel. Some were driven onto the rocks of the wild shoreline by heavy North Atlantic winds.
Near Limerick the River Shannon broadens to an estuary and flows 70 miles to the sea. The only crossing near the coast is the Killimer-Tarbert car ferry. Its hourly service (on the half-hour when the races are on at Listowel) is a great time-saver between the coasts of counties Clare and Kerry.
Around Adare, south of Limerick, is some of the most beautiful horse country in the world. It is said that the steeplechase started there when Irish neighbors, proud of their horses, challenged each other to a race across the fields and fences to the church, whose steeple could be kept in sight throughout the race.
Beyond Tralee is Killarney, a central point for visiting the southwestern counties of Kerry and Cork. This colorful and active city is on Lough Leane, one of the fabled lakes of Killarney.
The Ring of Kerry is a favorite trip from Killarney, through Killorgin along the shores of Dingle Bay to Cahirciveen. It can be a fierce land -- enough to make one wonder what manner of men were the O'Sullivans, the McCarthys and the O'Connells who called this home.