Connacht, on some old maps also called “Connaught”, is the Western province of Ireland - and with only five counties the smallest of them all. Encompassing five counties, it was the general direction Oliver Cromwell pointed the unruly Irish. As in "To Hell or to Connacht!" This should not be seen as a negative omen for the visitor ... as 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. 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. Nearly half of these live in County Galway.
The History of Connacht
The name "Connacht" derives from the mythological 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 started the steady decline of Irish power. 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. 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.
Today Connacht relies mainly on tourism and agriculture - Galway City being a notable exception with several high-tech-industries and a university. Spending a full holiday 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 5,939 square kilometres and has (according to the 2011 census) 250,653 inhabitants. Compared to 1991 this denotes an increase of 40%, one of the highest growths in Ireland. County Town is Galway City, the simple letter G is identifying the county on Irish numberplates.
There are many beauty 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, the rivers Shannon and Suck, the Connemara region and the Aran Islands are all on the tourist trail. Galway City had a reputation as ayoung, vibrant city, with loads of students, a leisurely lifestyle and buskers left, right and (city) centre. Readers of prolific crime author Ken Bruen might, however, have a slightly different image of the city.
In GAA 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 1,525 square kilometres of land play host to just 31,798 people (as the census in 2011 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 non-inhabited houses ... result of an aggressive, but ultimately deeply flawed policy of tax-incentives for holidays homes.
The name Leitrim stands for a “grey ridge“, some stretches of higher ground certainly bear witness that this is appropriate. 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". The Connacht county in Irish is named Maigh Eo or Mhaigh Eo, meaning simply "the plain of the yews". This plain (which can be quite hilly in places) stretches over 5,398 square kilometres and plays host to (according to the census of 2011) 130,638 people. The population grew by just 18% over the last twenty years.
Mayo's county town is picturesque Westport, crowned as "the best place to liev in Ireland" in early summer 2012 by the Irish Times. The letters denoting Mayo on Irish numberplates 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 – on 2,463 square kilometres of land only 64,065 people live (so says the 2011 census), this still is 23% more than in 1991.
County town is the slightly old-fashioned Roscommon Town, the numberplates 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” ... if one is charitable. The other, more scathing nickname is “the Sheepstealers”. Sheep rustling seems to have been the main reason why Roscommon folk where 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 1,795 square kilometres, with (according to the census of 2011) as much as 65,393 inhabitants - around 19% more than just twenty years ago. County town is Sligo Town, the county numberplates reads SO.
The nicknames of the county are manifold ... inhabitants are known as “Herring Pickers” (with a nod to the rich fishing grounds just offshore), teams within the GAA are also known as “zebras” or “magpies” (they are using a black and white teamkit). More geared towards tourism are the nicknames “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).
The top sights of Connacht? That might sound strange. After all, "to Hell or to Connacht" was Cromwell's alternative for Catholics ... the province was long regarded as the backwater of all backwaters. Today this translates as "unspoilt by mass tourism". Nature, ancient monuments and small-scale attractions are the norm, with only few tourist towns and caravan parks thrown in. This is the part of Ireland to take everything easy in.
Sligo and Area
The town of Sligo itself can be decidedly underwhelming, but the surrounding area makes more than 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. 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. 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 favourite holiday haunt for those seeking unspoilt countryside, peace and quiet. Which in turn makes it 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 ... 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, you will find the Connemara National Park. Sheer endless walks in a lush landscape await the visitor. 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. And a 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". And the tourist industry is blooming. Trips are possible by ferry or plane ... if 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 and has the cliff fortress Dún Aengus.
Malachy's Bodhran Workshop
When you tour Connemara, visit the small harbour town of Roundstone, make your way to the craft village and drop into Malachy's workshop. Ireland's most famous bodhran-maker (he even featured on a postage stamp) produces these potentially deafening instruments in the traditional way. And can supply any design to 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 the way is the goal here ... 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 there in time to drive through the Atlantic. And enjoy long, bracing walks. But 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, 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. Loads of accommodation os available, as are pubs and restaurants. 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 harbour of Cleggan is renowned for chowder and the ferry to Inishbofin, a perfect destination for a day trip.