Where’s the farthest north you’ve ever been? South? It’s a different way to think about the world and how much-or how little-of it you’ve seen. I added two new superlatives on my trip to Ireland: Leenaun for the northernmost and Dublin for the easternmost.
Leenaun is a tiny village in the western Irish region of Connemara, home to Ireland’s only fjord (well, depending on how you define fjord) and my new favorite place in the world. Our only firm plan for Connemara was to visit the Kylemore Abbey, which had been recommended by my aunt and uncle. We found a Connemara road trip itinerary online and headed off from Galway (after taking about a million screenshots of Google Maps, of course).
The drive from Galway to our first stop, Leenaun, was beautiful. The rain and fog had set in so we had picturesque views of green mountains shrouded in fog and covered with sheep. Sheep! There were sheep everywhere! The landscape reminded me of southern Montana, where I spent a few cloudy and rainy weeks in college. I should have taken some pictures of the drive but I think taking pictures from the window of a moving car is pretty silly. We arrived in Leenaun around lunch and ran out in the rain to look at the fjord. It was so foggy that we could only see a few feet, but the views were still awesome. They have boats that will take you on a harbor tour and I hope to go back on a sunny day to take one! We had lunch at a local cafe (Tim=full Irish breakfast, Courtney=chicken soup and brown bread), then walked across the street to the Sheep and Wool Museum.
The sheep and wool museum was fascinating! Wool used to be a major industry in Ireland but has largely died out. Our tour guide at the museum had a small herd of sheep and she told us it cost more to have the sheep shorn than she could actually sell the wool for. Most of the wool she sells goes to China to make carpets. The museum had an old Connemara spinning wheel, which is apparently only one of few left. We also got to practice carding wool and learn about the dyeing process-I loved reading about the different materials they used to dye wool, like flowers and plants. I bought some yarn made from Donegal wool and knit a cowl! Of course, I haven’t been able to wear it much since the winter in Texas was nonexistent.
We headed southwest along the N59 to Letterfrack to visit the Kylemore Abbey. The Abbey is one of the most stunning houses I’ve ever seen, especially with a background of emerald green hills and mist. It was built for a weathly Englishman, sold to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, and soon after sold to Irish nuns. The Abbey was used as a refuge for Belgian nuns who had to flee during World War I and served as a school until 2010. We only got to tour a few rooms on the first floor, which was a little disappointing, but that meant we could spend more time wandering around the grounds! There are still some nuns who live there and they make chocolate, which we bought some of in the gift shop. They were cute chocolates shaped like sheep!
After touring the Abbey and gardens, we headed down the road to Connemara National Park. National Parks in Ireland are the equivalent of state parks here in size/amenities. We got there right when the visitors center was closing, just in time for the staff to point out the trail to Diamond Hill, the small mountain in the park. What they call a “walk” is what we would call a trail here! It was cloudy and a little rainy, but we headed up the walk anyway, aiming to make it to the top of Diamond Hill. Well, the weather got worse and worse as we made our way up. We were almost to the top steep part when we decided to turn back (well, I insisted we turn back) because it was so windy I could barely walk without being blown over. Tim really didn’t want to turn back (“I didn’t come all the way to Ireland to turn back before making it to the top of Diamond Hill!” he said) but I’m glad we did, because the next day on the radio we heard about some high schoolers hikers who had to be rescued from the top of a nearby mountain by helicopter!
We headed back south and stopped in Clifden for dinner at a pub. Tim had the local delicacy, Connemara smoked salmon, and I had one of many lamb stews. The rumors are true-everything in Ireland is served with potatoes, and I loved it. On our way back to Galway, we stopped for petrol in a tiny town along the coast and had our only experience with a language/culture barrier. We didn’t know how much petrol the tank held, or how much the petrol even cost (the prices were displayed in euro cents…I think), so we didn’t know how much cash to prepay with. Well, we learned that in Ireland, if you want to pay with cash, you just fill up your car, then go inside and pay. Crazy! We heard stories on the radio later in the trip (we obviously listened to the radio a lot on this trip) about someone who had been caught and convicted of stealing petrol-I guess the reason they’re so trustworthy is because if you get caught, they’ll tell everyone in the whole country on the radio! Tim also asked the clerk where the bathroom was and he looked really confused-I think we should have said “toilet” instead but that feels so weird! It’s funny how something we’ve been doing since age 16 can be so confusing in another country, but there you have it.
When we got back to Galway, we went out for one last Galway pint (we drank a lot of beer on this trip too) and headed to bed. Next stop: Cliffs of Moher and Killarney!