Connacht is the Western province of Ireland - and with only five counties it is the smallest of them all. Still marked on some old maps also called “Connaught,” Oliver Cromwell famously pointed the unruly Irish "To Hell or to Connacht!" This should not be seen as a negative omen for the visitor because Connacht has a lot to offer.
The Geography of Connacht
Connacht, or in Irish Cúige Chonnacht, encompasses the West of Ireland.
The counties of Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, and Sligo make up this ancient province. Connacht's major towns are Galway City and Sligo. The rivers Moy, Shannon and Suck flow through Connacht and the highest point within the 661 square miles of the area is Mweelra (2,685 feet). The population is steadily growing - in 2011 it was counted at 542,547 and nearly half of these live in County Galway.
The History of Connacht
The name "Connacht" derives from the mythological figure Conn of the Hundred Battles. The local king Ruairi O'Connor was High King of Ireland at the time of Stongbow's conquest but Anglo-Norman settlement in the 13th century kicked off the steady decline of Irish power.
Shortly after, Galway developed important trade links with Spain, becoming most powerful in the 16th century. This was also the heyday of local "Pirate Queen" Grace O'Malley who hails from Connacht. Catholic settlement under Cromwell, the Battle of Aughrim (1691), French General Humbert's invasion of 1798 and the great famine (1845) were the most important historical events in this western province.
Connacht in Ireland Today
Today the economy and way of life in Connacht relies mainly on tourism and agriculture. Connact's largest city, Galway City, is the notable exception because, in addition to being a popular tourist stop, it also has several high-tech-industries and a university. However, for the most part, a vacation in Connacht would be most rewarding for lovers of nature and a slow, old-fashioned pace of life.
These are the counties that make up the Province of Connacht:
Galway (in Irish Gaillimh) is maybe the most well-known County in the Province of Connacht, especially Galway City, and the Connemara region. The county stretches over 2,374 square miles and has (according to the 2016 census) 258,058 inhabitants. Compared to 1991 this denotes an increase of 40%, one of the fastest rates of growth in Ireland. The County Town is Galway City, and the simple letter G is identifying the county on Irish the license plates.
There are many beautiful spots in Galway - like Lough Corrib and Lough Derg, the Maumturk and the Slieve Aughty Mountains, the series of peaks known as the Twelve Pins (or the Twelve Bens), the rivers Shannon and Suck, plus the Connemara region and the Aran Islands are all on the tourist trail. Galway City had a reputation as a young, vibrant city, with lots of students, a leisurely lifestyle and buskers playing live music left, right and (city) centre. Readers of prolific crime author Ken Bruen might, however, have a slightly different image of the city.
In GAA (Irish sport) circles, players from Galway are known under two names – either as “The Herring Chokers” (a put-down based on the fishing industry) or as the “Tribesmen” (a direct adaptation of Galway City's nickname “City of the Tribes“, the tribes in question being wealthy merchant families).
Leitrim (in Irish either Liatroim or Liatroma, the numberplate letters read LM) is maybe the least-known county in the province of Connacht. Just 610 square miles of land play host to just 32,044 people (as the census in 2016 found). Since 1991 the population has grown by about 25%. Leitrim is one of the quietest counties of Ireland and has one of the highest numbers of uninhabited houses which are the result of an aggressive, but ultimately a deeply flawed policy of tax-incentives for vacation homes.
The name Leitrim stands for a "grey ridge," and the view of some stretches of higher ground certainly make this an appropriate name. Tourism bodies like to speak of “Lovely Leitrim” instead. Common nicknames are also “Ridge County”, “O’Rourke County” (after one of the main families in the area) or, on a literary theme, “Wild Rose County” (the romance “The Wild Rose of Lough Gill“ is located in Leitrim).
Mayo is not the county where mayonnaise comes from - although this is one of the best laugh-out-loud moments in Pete McCarthy's seminal Irish travelogue "McCarthy's Bar". Instead, Mayo is a Connacht county that is named Maigh Eo or Mhaigh Eo in Irish, meaning simply "the plain of the yews". This plain (which can be quite hilly in places) stretches over 2,175 square miles and is home to (according to the census of 2016) 130,507 people. The population grew by just 18% over the last twenty-five years.
Mayo's county town is picturesque Westport, crowned as "the best place to live in Ireland" in early summer 2012 by the Irish Times. The letters denoting Mayo on Irish car license plates are MO.
There are quite a number of nicknames for Mayo, ranging from "the Maritime County" (mainly based on the long and rugged coastline and the sea-faring tradition, which included pirate queen Grace O'Malley), "the Yew County" or "the Heather County".
Roscommon (in Irish Ros Comáin) is the only totally landlocked county in the province of Connacht and rarely visited by tourists. Generally speaking, it is quiet here – and there are only 64,544 on 1,022 square miles of land (according to the 2016 census). Even so, this still is 23% more than in 1991.
The county town is the slightly old-fashioned Roscommon Town, and the car license plates here use the letters RN. While the Irish name simply derives from the “wood of Saint Coman”, in GAA circles players are better known as “the Rossies”. The other and more scathing nickname is “the Sheepstealers”. Sheep rustling seems to have been the main reason why Roscommon folk were once deported to Australia.
More Information on County Roscommon:
An Introduction to Roscommon Town
Sligo (in Irish Sligeach or Shligigh) is the Connacht county named after the many shellfish, mussles and cockles found in local waters. The land mass comprises 710 square miles, with (according to the census of 2016) as many as 65,535 inhabitants - around 19% more than just twenty years ago. Sligo's county town is Sligo Town, and the county license plates read SO.
There are so many nicknames for the county that it is hard to know where to begin. Sligo inhabitants are known as “Herring Pickers” (with a nod to the rich fishing grounds just offshore), and its teams within the GAA are also known as “zebras” or “magpies” because they wear a black and white uniform. The nicknames that are more geared towards tourism include “Yeats County” (hinting at the whole Yeats family, but mainly poet William Butler Yeats) or “the Land of Heart’s Desire” (after a Yeats poem).
Best Things to See in Connacht
The top sights of Connacht? That might sound strange considering Cromwell's threat to Catholics was "to Hell or to Connacht" and the province was long regarded as the backwater of all backwaters. Today this actually means that most of the wild landscape is unspoiled by mass tourism. Nature, ancient monuments and small-scale attractions are the norms, with only few tourist towns and caravan parks thrown in. This is the part of Ireland to see the great variety that the country has to offer at a slower pace.
Sligo and Area
The town of Sligo itself can be underwhelming, but the surrounding area more than makes up for it. Knocknarea has the (reputed) grave of Queen Maeve on top and spectacular sights to enjoy after a steep climb. Carrowmore is the largest stone age cemetery in Ireland. Drumcliff sports a (truncated) round tower, a medieval high cross and the grave of W.B.Yeats right next to the spectacular table mountain of Ben Bulben.
A splendid Neo-Gothic pile in the middle of nowhere, once designed as a family home, then taken over by Belgian nuns fleeing the First World War. The nuns opened an exclusive school for girls (now closed) and a small part of Kylemore Abbey (and grounds) to visitors. This remains one of the top places to see in Ireland, and visitors will find one of the most famous views of Ireland (the abbey seen across the lake), a well-stocked souvenir and craft shop and a good (if sometimes very full) restaurant.
Every visitor to Connacht should at least see Croagh Patrick, Ireland's holy mountain. And if you are able and willing, you might want to climb it as well. The saint stayed up on the peak for 40 days and 40 nights, fasting, but normally a day will suffice for the ordinary tourist or pilgrim. The views are magnificent in good weather. You shoul also visit the nearby town of Louisburgh. Head for the Granuaile Visitor Centre, especially if you have kids - the story of "Pirate Queen" Grace O'Malley (c. 1530 to c. 1603) is stirring stuff!
Technically still an island, Achill is now linked to the mainland by a short, sturdy bridge. It is also a favorite holiday haunt for those seeking unspoiled countryside, peace, and quiet. On the flipside, all of this means that Achill is quite busy in summer. Local attractions include miles of beaches, the former holiday home of German writer Heinrich Böll, a deserted village, an abandoned quartz mine , and spectacular cliffs and mountains. Local roads can, however, be daunting and it is better not look down the side if you are driving near the cliffs!
The Connemara National Park
Just below the Twelve Pins, an imposing mountain range that is also called the Twelve Bens, you will find the Connemara National Park. Sheer endless walks in a lush landscape await the visitor. A stop here is strongly recommended for anybody wanting to get away from everyday life without too much effort. Look out for wild Connemara ponies, reputed to be the last survivors of the Spanish Armada.
Cong - the Village of "The Quiet Man"
The first glimpse at this village might convince you that nothing happened here before (or after) John Huston invaded and John Wayne was "The Quiet Man". Wrong. The extensive ruins of Cong Abbey (its processional "Cross of Cong" is now in the National Museum of Ireland) and the luxurious hotel in Ashford Castle (the extensive grounds are open to visitors) are witnesses to medieval history. Its dry canal is a fitting memento to the great famine.
The Aran Islands
Life on this group of islands is a far cry from the portrayal in the seminal movie "Man of Aran". These are some of the best islands to visit in Ireland and the tourist industry is blooming. Trips are possible by ferry or plane as long as the weather isn't too bad. Day trips are good for a first impression and those pressed for time, but a longer stay will be more rewarding. Inishmore, the Irish name means "great island", is the largest of the group and has the cliff fortress Dún Aengus.
Malachy's Bodhran Workshop
When you tour Connemara, visit the small harbor town of Roundstone, make your way to the craft village and drop into Malachy's workshop. Ireland's most famous bodhran-maker (he is even featured on a postage stamp) produces these potentially deafening instruments in the traditional way and can create any design to match your personal taste. While contemplating a possible purchase, why not tickle your taste buds with the home-made food on offer? The bread pudding is to die for!
In true Zen-like fashion, this is more about the journey than the destination. Connacht's Omey Island is nice, has some ruins, but otherwise unexciting. But, oh, the road there! Or rather the road signs indicating the safest way across the sea-bed at low tide. Be sure to be there in time to drive through the Atlantic or to enjoy long, bracing walks. However, make sure to park your car on the mainland or the island and to observe the tide tables. Otherwise, you might not only get stuck on Omey, but your car may also be swept away towards America.
Clifden and Cleggan
Clifden is the tourist capital of Connemara and a central place to stay. Lots of accommodation is available, as are pubs and restaurants. Though all of these come at a price - Clifden can be expensive in summer. You will find two "transatlantic sights" nearby. Marconi had his first powerful transmitter in a bog nearby and Alcock and Brown chose the vicinity to (crash-)land after the first successful transatlantic flight. The tiny harbor of Cleggan is renowned for chowder and the ferry to Inishbofin, a perfect destination for a day trip. However, don't miss the pretty ruins of Clifden Castle.