A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for purchase. Includes Places to Stay in proximity.
ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
This itinerary takes you off the beaten tourist track through the wild, hauntingly beautiful scenery of Connemara, and County Mayo. Lying on the coast of County Clare, The Burren presents a vast landscape of smooth, limestone rocks—whose crevices are ablaze with rock roses, blue gentians, and all manner of Arctic and Alpine flowers in the spring and early summer. Otherwise, there are no trees, shrubs, rivers, or lakes—just bare “moonscapes” of rocks dotted with forts and ruined castles, tombs, and rock cairns. Traveling to Connemara, your route traces the vast, island-dotted Lough Corrib and traverses boglands and moorlands. Distant mountains fill the horizon and guide you to the coast, where gentle waves lap at rocky inlets sheltering scattered villages with whitewashed cottages dotting the landscape. Ireland’s holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, and the windswept Achill Island leave a deep impression on the visitor.
Recommended Pacing: It is possible to tour the west in just a few days, but this beautiful area calls for you to linger. Our ideal would be one or two nights on or near The Burren, two or three nights in Connemara, and two or three nights near either Crossmolina or Sligo.
Leave Limerick in the direction of Ennis and Shannon airport and you soon arrive at Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. An interesting history and guide to the castle is available at the entrance. As the majority of castles in Ireland stand roofless and in ruins, it is a treat to visit a 15th-century castle that has been restored so beautifully. The authentic 14th- to 17th-century furniture in the rooms gives the castle a real lived-in feel. In the evenings, firelit banquets warmed with goblets of mead whisk visitors back to the days when the castle was young. In the castle grounds, a folk park contains several cottages, farmhouses, and a whole 19th-century village street of shops, houses, and buildings furnished appropriately for their era. The community is brought to life by costumed townspeople who bake, make butter, and tend the animals. Bunratty Cottage, opposite the castle, offers a wide range of handmade Irish goods, and just at the entrance to the park is Durty Nelly’s Pub, one of Ireland’s most popular pubs, dating from the 1600s.
Just to the northwest lies the strangest landscape in Ireland, The Burren. Burren means “a rocky place” and this is certainly the case for, as far as the eye can see, this is a wilderness-a wilderness that is rich in archaeological sites (megalithic tombs, ring forts, and the remains of ancient huts) and strange rock formations whose tiny crevices are a mass of Arctic, Mediterranean, and Alpine flowers in springtime. Ludlow, one of Cromwell’s generals, passing through the area in 1649, wrote, “There is not enough wood to hang a man, nor water to drown him, nor earth enough to bury him in.”
Base yourself at either Corofin or Ballyvaughan to explore this unique area. One of the most photographed sights, the Poulnabrone Portal Tomb, is found alongside the road between Corofin and Ballyvaughan.
To help you appreciate this unusual landscape, first visit The Burren Display Center at Kilfenora, which offers a film on the geology and rare flora and fauna of the area. Models explain the pattern of settlement and the geological makeup of the area, and show the non-botanist what to look for. Next to the Centre, the crumbling remains of Ladies Chapel has a glass roof sheltering three celtic crosses with symbolic carvings from the elements. A fourth cross is open to the elements in an adjacent field.
Turn right as you leave the interpretive center and left as you come to the main road to reach the Cliffs of Moher-the most spectacular section of the coastline-where towering cliffs rise above the pounding Atlantic Ocean. These majestic cliffs, stretching along 5 kilometers of the coast, are one of Ireland’s most popular sights. The cliffs face due west, which means that the best time to see them is on a bright, summer evening. The visitors’ center offers welcome shelter on cool and windy days. A short distance from the visitors’ center, O’Brien’s Tower (built in 1835 by Sir Cornelius O’Brien, Member of Parliament, for “strangers visiting the magnificent scenery of this neighborhood”) marks the highest and most photographed point along the clifftops.
On leaving the cliffs, head north toward, but not into, Lisdoonvarna. Follow the coastal road around Black Head, where the rocky Burren spills into Galway Bay-to Ballyvaughan, where you turn right following signs for the Aillwee Caves on the bluff above. The visitors’ center is so cleverly designed that it is hard to distinguish it from the surrounding gray landscape. Beneath the eerie “moonscape” of the Burren lie vast caves, streams, and lakes. You can take a tour through a small section of these underground caverns. The first is called Bear Haven because the bones of a brown bear that died long ago were found here. In other chambers, you see limestone cascades, stalactites, and stalagmites before the tour ends at the edge of an underground river. Remember to dress warmly, for it’s cool in the caves.
Retrace your steps a short distance down the road towards Ballyvaughan and take the first turn left, passing Gregans Castle hotel and up Corkscrew Hill, a winding road that takes you from a lush, green valley to the gray, rocky landscape above. Take the first turn to the left and you come to Cahermacnaghten Fort, a ring fort that was occupied until the 18th century. You enter via a medieval two-story gateway, and the foundations of buildings of similar date can be seen inside the stone wall.
Some 7 kilometers farther south, you come to Ballykinvarga Fort, which is another ring fort. You have to walk several hundred meters before you see the Iron-Age fort surrounded by its defensive, pointed stones known as chevaux de frise, a term derived from a military expression describing how Dutch Frisians used spikes to impede attackers. Ireland has three other such forts, of which the two most impressive are found on the Aran Islands.
When you leave The Burren, head directly for the coast and follow it east (N67) to Kinvarra, a pretty village with boats bobbing in the harbor and small rocky islands separating it from the expanse of Galway Bay. On the outskirts of the village, the restored Dunguaire Castle has a craft shop and, on summer evenings, hosts medieval banquets.
From the castle car park, turn towards the village and immediately take a left-hand turn (opposite the castle entrance) for the 5-kilometer drive to Ardrahan, where you turn right on the N18 and, after 6 kilometers, left for the 2-kilometer drive to Thoor Ballylee. William Butler Yeats bought this 13th-century tower house and cottage in 1917 and it was his summer home for 11 years. The cozy, thatched cottage is now a bookshop. An audio-visual presentation tells of Yeats’s artistic and political achievements. Two floors of the tower are sparsely furnished as they were in his occupancy. By pressing a green button on each room’s wall you receive information and hear excerpts of his poetry. Leaving Thoor Ballylee, retrace your steps to the N18 for a 24-kilometer drive to Galway.
SIDE TRIP TO THE ARAN ISLANDS
If you are planning to visit the Aran Islands, take the coastal route through Spiddal to Rosaveel where two ferry companies operate a shuttle service to Kilronan on Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands. Until a decade or so ago, time had stood still here and the way of life and the culture of the islanders had changed little. Now their traditional dress comes out only for TV cameras and special occasions, and their traditional way of life has been replaced by a more profitable one-tourism. In the summertime, more than double the population of the islands arrives on Inishmore as day-trippers. When you arrive, visit the Tourist Information Centre by the harbor to discuss the cost of horse and trap, bicycle (there are plenty of shops where you can rent bikes), and minibus transportation. The barren landscape is closely related to that of The Burren: sheer cliffs plunge into the pounding Atlantic Ocean along the southern coast, while the north coast flattens out with shallow, rock-ringed, sandy beaches. You will have no difficulty obtaining transportation to Dun Aengus Fort (about 8 kilometers from the harbor), which is the best known of the island’s stone forts, believed to date from the early Celtic period some two to three thousand years ago. It has sheer cliffs at its back and is surrounded by pointed boulders designed to twist ankles and skin shins. Despite the hordes of visitors scrambling over its walls and stones, Dún Aengus is remarkably well preserved. With four stone forts, remains of stone huts, high crosses, and ruined churches to examine, the archaeologically minded could spend many days with detailed map in hand exploring the islands.
Those who are not island bound should follow signs for Clifden (N59) around Galway. Leaving the town behind, the road is straight and well paved, but a tad bouncy if you try to go too fast. Accommodation signs for nearby Oughterard alert you to watch for a right-hand turn to Aughnanure Castle. Approaching the castle, you may be greeted, as we were, by a friendly family of goats snoozing on the wooden footbridge before the castle gates. Aughnanure Castle was the stronghold of the ferocious O’Flahertys, who launched attacks on Galway town until their castle was destroyed by English forces in 1572. The clan regained their castle for a period of time until wars with Cromwell and William of Orange saw them expelled again. Nearby Oughterard is a pleasant, bustling town, “the gateway to Connemara,” whose main street has several, attractive shops. A stay here affords the opportunity for fishing and exploring the island-dotted Lough Corrib by boat.
Beyond Oughterard, you plunge into Connemara past the Twelve Bens Mountains, which dominate the wild, almost treeless landscape of bogs, lakes, and rivers; a landscape that is ever being changed by the dashing clouds that rush in from the Atlantic. Apart from the occasional craft shop, there are no houses until you reach Clifden on the Atlantic coast (N59, 80 kilometers). Clifden is the major market town of Connemara and the home of the annual Connemara Pony Show (third week in August). The town presents a gay face with shopfronts painted in bright hues of red, blue, yellow, and green. Craft and tourist shops alternate with the butchers, the hardware store, pubs, and restaurants. On Market Street, you find the Connemara Walking Center where you can buy booklets on the locale and sign up for one of the walking tours that vary from an interesting stroll through the Roundstone bogs-great walking amongst lakes full of otters and interesting plant life-to the demanding climb up one half of the great Glanhoaghan Horseshoe in the stark Twelve Bens mountains.
SIDE TRIP TO ROUNDSTONE
To the south of Clifden, the road has more views of sea than land, as little boats bob in rocky inlets and cottages gaze westward across tiny islands. The road passes the marshy area where Alcock and Brown crash-landed after the first transatlantic flight in 1919 (commemorated by a monument about 500 meters from the main road). Via Ballinaboy, Ballyconneely, and Roundstone, the sweeping seascapes that this route presents are so compelling that it is difficult to concentrate on the driving.
SIDE TRIP TO INISHBOFIN ISLAND
If the weather is fine, a delightful day trip can be taken to Inishbofin Island. The Inishbofin boat leaves from Cleggan pier at 11:30 am, returning at 5 pm (the crossing takes less than an hour). Be at Cleggan pier half an hour before sailing time and buy your ticket at the Pier Bar. Sailings depend on weather conditions, so it’s best to phone ahead to verify departure times. The boat sails into the sheltered harbor presided over by the remains of a Cromwellian castle, and you wade ashore at a cluster of houses that make up the island’s main settlement. Many islanders have left in search of greener pastures and their cottages have fallen into disrepair, but those who remain eke out a hard living from the land and the sea. As you walk down lanes edged with wild fuchsias and brightly colored wildflowers, whitewashed farmhouses appear and you see fields dotted with handmade haystacks. At the far side of the island, a row of cottages fronts the beach, one of them housing a welcoming little café, where you can have lunch or tea before walking back to the harbor to take the evening boat back to Cleggan.
Clifden stands just outside the Connemara National Park, which covers 5,000 acres of mountain, heath, and bog-there are no pretty gardens or verdant woodlands. The video in the visitors’ center gives a beautiful introduction to the park, which has wonderful hiking trails. If you want to tackle the smaller paths leading into the Twelve Bens mountains, consider joining one of the guided walks that begin at the visitors’ center (four of the Twelve Bens, including Benbaum, the highest, are found in the park). Two signposted nature trails start at the center: one leads you through Ellis Wood while the other takes you into rougher terrain.
Leaving Clifden to the north, the N59 passes the much-photographed Kylemore Abbey. Originally built by a wealthy Englishman in the 19th century, this grand home, surrounded by greenery and fronting a lake, passed into the hands of Benedictine nuns who have a school here. You’ll find ample parking (lots of coaches) and a large restaurant and gift shop. You can walk beside the lake to the abbey, where in summer the library is open to visitors. In the grounds, you can visit the restored Gothic chapel with its pretty, sandstone interior and different-colored, marble pillars. Follow the shore of Killary Harbor, the longest and most picturesque fjord in Ireland, to Leenane, a little village nestled at the head of the inlet. Continue along the shoreline and take the first turn to the left, signposted as a scenic route to Westport via Louisburgh. This interesting side road gently winds you along the sea lough to Delphi, an area of pools and loughs amongst some of the highest and wildest mountains in the west. Acres of woodlands offer shelter and there is not a bungalow in sight. The Marquis of Sligo built a lodge here in 1840 and called it “Delphi” because it reminded him of Delphi in Greece. After falling into dereliction, the house and estate were bought by the Mantles, who welcome guests to their restored home (see listing under Leenane).
Leaving Delphi, the isolated mountain road takes you along the shore of Doo Lough at the foot of Mweelrea Mountain and on through wild, remote scenery to Louisburgh; where, turning towards Westport, the summit of the conical-shaped Croagh Patrick Mountain (Ireland’s most famous mountain) comes into view. Swirling mists substantiate its mystical place in Irish history. It was after St. Patrick spent the 40 days of Lent atop its rocky summit in 441 that the mountain became sacred to Christians. Every year thousands of penitential pilgrims begin their climb to the oratory at the summit at dawn on the last Sunday in July, several going barefoot up the stony track. The ritual involves stopping at three stations and reciting prayers. No climbing skills are needed as it’s a well-worn path to the top and, on a clear day, a walk to the summit affords a panoramic view across Clew Bay to Achill Island.
Nearby Westport lies on the shore of Clew Bay and is unique amongst Irish towns because it was built following a pre-designed plan. The architect walled the river and lined the riverside malls with lime trees and austere Georgian homes, forming a most delightful thoroughfare. There’s a buzz to the town and, on a sunny day, you can enjoy a drink at the tables and chairs outside Geraghtey’s Bar and Grand Central Bar, on the Octagon (the heart of the town with a granite pillar in the center of the square). At Clew Bay Heritage Centre on Westport Quay, postcards and old photographs show the town as it was at the turn of the last century. There is also a genealogical research center and a display on the maritime traditions of Westport.
From Westport, the most direct route to Sligo is by way of the broad, well-paved, fast N5, and N17. However, if the weather is clear and bright, it is a delightful drive from Westport to Sligo via Newport, Achill Island, Crossmolina, and Ballina.
Achill Island is Ireland’s largest offshore island. Traditionally, the Achill islanders traveled to Scotland as migrant farmworkers during the summer; but now the population that has not been enticed away by emigration, remains to garner a meager living from a harsh land. This was the home of the infamous British Captain Boycott; who gave his name to the English language when tenants “boycotted” him for his excessive rents during the potato famine. Today, this island holds the allure that belongs to wild and lonely places: in sunshine it is glorious; but in torrential rain, it is a grim and depressing place. On the island, take the first turn to your left, signposted for the windswept Atlantic Drive, where you drive along the tops of rugged cliffs carved by the pounding Atlantic Ocean far below. The “drive” ends at Knockmore where scattered houses shelter from the biting winds.
Returning to Mulrany, turn north on the N59 for the 32-kilometer drive across boglands, where vast quantities of turf are harvested by mechanical means, to Bangor and on to Crossmolina, Ballina, , and Sligo. The many sightseeing opportunities in the Sligo area are outlined in the following itinerary.
SIDE TRIP TO CÉIDE FIELDS
From Ballina, you can detour north 20 kilometers to Ballycastle and drive another 8 kilometers east to the great cliffs of Downpatrick Head, where the Stone-Age settlements at Céide Fields (pronounced “kay-jeh”) are being excavated. Under the peat has been unearthed the most extensive Stone-Age settlement in the world, with walls older than the pyramids, a vast site which once supported a community of over 10,000 people. Wander round a portion of the archaeological dig, and enjoy an audio-visual presentation and a cup of tea in the pyramid-shaped visitors’ center. The surrounding cliffs are amongst the most magnificent you will see in Ireland. Retrace your steps to Ballycastle, and take the R314 through Killala (a workaday village whose skyline is punctuated by an ancient, round tower) to Ballina where you turn left for Sligo.
From the Sligo area-you can go into Northern Ireland, continue north on the following itinerary, or return south. If you travel south, consider visiting either Ballintubber Abbey, a beautifully restored church dating back to 1216, or the village of Knock. A religious apparition seen on the gable of the village church in 1879, and some hearty promotion, has led to the development of Knock as a religious pilgrimage site and a tourist venue. A giant basilica stands next to the little church, a large complex of religious souvenir shops sits across the road, and nearby Knock airport has a runway capable of providing landing facilities for large jets. Surrounded as it is by narrow country lanes, this sophisticated complex seems very out of place in rural Ireland.