Passing through the desolate Doo Lough and Delphi Valleys towards the village of Leenane in County Galway is a dramatic journey. This is Ireland unplugged.
The rugged landscape and remoteness of the region has allowed Connemara to hold fast to its traditions.
“It is magical,” writes US visitor Janice Bitis on the Tourism Ireland Facebook page. And she's not wrong.
Old stone walls, native ponies and traditional pubs make Connemara feel like the essence of Ireland.
“Irish language, song, dance and literature are all to be found in abundance here,” says Paula Lydon from the Connemara Heritage and History Centre. But first let's start with the food...
Traditions run deep
Bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, north and south, it's not surprising that Connemara has a strong seafaring tradition. Bowls of seafood chowder flecked with meaty mussels are served up on pub tables every night, and the sweet local crab is legendary. To take your fish odyssey up a notch, visit a local smokehouse.
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The traditional art of smoking the wild Atlantic salmon, mackerel and tuna, that lands daily at Bunowen Pier in Ballyconneely, is a skill worth seeing and, of course, tasting.
Skip inland from the ocean, and there’s another treat for the table: Connemara Hill Lamb. It’s succulent, sweet and special enough to be recognised as a unique European food product with a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) certification.
Order a joint, a leg, a chop or a rack from any waiter here and you'll taste hints of wild herbs and notes of Connemara hill flower.
In Connemara, food for the soul is important too. That delicacy comes in the sounds of traditional music and the local language.
Over at An Tobar in Spiddal, traditional music spills out the door most nights of the week in summer. As trad music pubs in Connemara go, it’s just one of many. Pub floors here are smoothed out by decades of toe-tapping locals and visitors. Mannion’s, Power’s, Tigh Hughes… find a session and you never know who might drop in. In Hughes Bar in Spiddal, U2 bassist Adam Clayton once pulled up a stool for a spontaneous tune.
Our advice, though, is to listen carefully: contained within some of these songs are the stories and fables of Ireland that have been passed down through the centuries.
Much of Connemara's magic comes from its hold on its linguistic traditions. As one of the island’s largest Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) regions, locals use Irish on a daily basis. There’s no need to let them have all the fun, though.
In a restored 17th-century hill village lies the cultural retreat that it Cnoc Suain. Here, you can learn the language, bake Irish soda bread or even dive into Irish dancing.
So if you're looking for the "real" Ireland, you know where to come…
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