The West’s Awake

I slipped off to Clifden to find the west is not only awake, it is burnished in gold. Deep into autumn and a summer’s day emerges so warm and still that my swim across Dog’s Bay feels semi-tropical.

Our host is pleased we are seeing the west well dressed and prettily turned-out. No, I am under-selling her at pretty, she’s a stunner. Connemara, more often than not, is shrouded in mist, washed in sheets of rain, and almost always windy, so this weekend is a big win on the scratch card.

Connemara is the whole of this island in miniature, she offers a tasting menu of the country. Here is my take on this place.

It is soft and tree-filled and fuchsia-hedge laden, its verges are lush with wildflowers, its end plots and long acres are home to pairs of donkeys pushing their heads through brambled fences, begging to be photographed. It is horsey with big houses and high walls and wrought iron gateposts and walled gardens with apples reddening, readying to drop, and gillies tying flies and guiding the wealthy booted up the right rivers for plump trout. It is wild ponies and poverty and turf stacks and rusted-out tractors in the narrow stony fields behind cottages thirsty for whitewash.

It is heathered high bog studded with boulders and standing stones and the occasional wily, wizened hawthorn bent out of shape, pointing to the better land in the east. It is mountainous and lake-filled, some as small as big puddles, some as big as small loughs, some with crannógs in the middle where gorse and alder have taken root and where, sometime in the far distant past, when the west was a hell not a haven, two brothers rowed out to build a stone shack that centuries have crumbled into a three-wall-tumbled shelter for badgers and stoats and rabbits.

It is dune and beach and white sand, it is headlands to the north and to the south, and when I face west, it’s next stop America. It is calm estuaries where oysters and mussels are farmed, where pots are pulled daily for lobsters, where currachs put in when the open sea is wont to eat them up, and fishing boats chug into Roundstone haloed by gulls hungry for guts from the quay.

It is secrecy and tradition, a place where you’ll find mass rocks on top of one of those twelve yonder mountains, sheer and unclimbable, a place where ancient graveyards trim the strand – Casey, Conneely, Coyne – gravestones lining the cusp of a hill overlooking a bay coddling fourteen small uninhabited islands, but for seals.

It is a place where local faces are those from famine times – the barman with the jug ears in Lowry’s, somehow his ancestors didn’t leave yet survived, eked out a living and passed on that face with those two great windsocks of lugs, and his princely, gracious way of throwing out drinkers two hours after closing time. “I’m terrible sorry now, but it’ll be you and me both getting into the Guards’ bad books if we don’t get red up and home to our beds half an hour ago.”

It is blackbirds at dawn and bats at dusk and bejewelled sunsets two hours before strings of stars drape the sky. It is a place where the half-moon throws light on the back road wide enough for only one car, a boreenreally, with a spine of grass growing up the middle, where your eyes adjust to the soupiness of the thick, dark night walking home from the pub home by miracle moonbeam under shooting stars.

It is a place of narrow roads choked with D-reg SUVs down for the weekend, kayaks strapped to the roof rack, stopping for a dressed crab, brown bread and a pint of stout. It’s a place unsure if it’s lucky or not to have all these run-ins spending money and buying pottery and willow baskets, and parking in awkward places, making bottle necks without glass.

It must be a quiet place in the coming months when us passers-though have passed on through leaving those resident in peace to enjoy the destitution of a long winter’s unhurried slope into spring, when even the oak and elder and holly grove, held in the soft hollow of the better land close to town, becomes a swamp, starved of everything but rain, rain and more rain, and the sheep huddle into the flank of the two-hundred-year-old drystone walls, and the mountains disappear for days on end, and old women watch the ever-changing skies and pray for the wind to drop and the sun to shine and the west to wake and the long golden evenings to return.

4 thoughts on “The West’s Awake

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