The drive west from Dublin to Connemara is a kind of transformation. Your city self is gradually left behind the further west you go. The landscape changes from the rich pastures of the midlands to the rock and gorse of Connacht. By the time you hit Galway, your old, everyday life seems a long way away.
The way marks are familiar by now: Moyard, Oughterard, Maam Cross. Then you pass the turn for Roundstone and you know you’re nearly there. Clifden is just ahead. Skirt the lake and the 12 Bens and you can see the spire of the church.
Clifden did not grow into a town organically, around a church, say, or because there was an ancient settlement there. It was planned from scratch by John D’Arcy 200 years ago. “We need a town around here,” he said, and founded one on the banks of the Owenglen River.
It has expanded and contracted over the years, survived the Famine (just) and has had its ups and downs. A few years ago, its three main streets, laid out on a pleasing triangle, were pockmarked with vacant premises. Now, it’s buzzing again.
But we’re not staying in Clifden, my wife, daughter, dog and I. We head out of town, further west still, towards Ballyconneely, over the bridge and around the head of the bay. At Ballinaboy bridge, we keep left and, a few yards up the road, turn into “our” house, Ardagh Lodge.
Ardagh Lodge is a fine Georgian rectory-style house, square and solid, looking out over its own lake. It’s owned by the Morris family, who have lived in this area since before the Famine. We have rented it six or seven times now, and there’s something about it – the light and space and feeling of it – that makes us feel very at home here.
By now, we have our rituals and our favourite places: Vaughans in Roundstone for lunch or supper, sitting outside taking in the view of Inis Nee and horsing into the catch of the day and the banoffee pie; Gurteen, Dog’s Bay, Dunlochan and the beach in front of the golf club for swimming and beach stuff; the bog road to Roundstone for restoration of the soul.
Last week, the weather was fine, the verges were blooming with dog daisies and Connemara was looking its best. It was still June, still early in the season, and the hordes of barristers, accountants and media types had not descended on the place yet.
Once again, we wondered what exactly it was about this part of the world that made it so wonderful, so healing. The big skies and low horizons? The 12 Bens, now benign in the sun, now dark and menacing in the cloud-shadow? The clear water, or the simple idea that this was as far west as you could go?
Over the years coming here – we’ve been regulars ever since my wife and I met at a wedding in Roundstone 15 years ago – I’ve become interested in the history of the place: the founding of the town by the D’Arcy family in 1812; the role of the Big Houses in the area – Ballinahinch, Kylemore, Cashel House, Rossleague.
On this visit, we get to spend a night at Ballinahinch Castle, once a grand fishing lodge and now a five-star hotel. In the 1930s, it was home to Ranjitsinghi, a minor Indian prince who played cricket for England and who came to Connemara to fish.
Ballinahinch has just been bought by Irish tycoon Denis O’Brien. Apparently, he’s been coming here for years and, when the place got into financial trouble, stepped in to buy it and ensure it would continue just as it always had: informal, friendly, old style, very Connemara.
Our last day was spent on Gurteen beach, our dog providing free entertainment by leaping for the Frisbee. The sun was our and the water glistened in the bay. Behind us stood Errisbeg Mountain and before us, the beach curved into the distance.