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Hiking Connemara National Park and Killarney

The San Clemente beach trail is under my feet today and my eyes see the Pacific Ocean. In my mind my boots are sinking into the bog and the waves are rolling toward the Atlantic shore. I am dreaming of the green hills of Connemara and Killarney. 

Shannon Airport, west of Limerick   

After a 9 hour non-stop flight from LAX to Shannon, Scott clutched the wheel on the right side of the small red rental car. Shoving road maps at me on the left side of the car, he started the engine, “You’re the navigator now.” (I can’t read in a moving car without getting motion sick.)

“Why don’t you practice a few turns around the parking lot?”

“I’ve thought about this 3 hour drive to Connemara everyday for 3 months, if I’m not ready now I’ll never be!”

Off we went jockeying down narrow, shoulderless two lane roads north toward Galway grazing a vine-covered stone wall with the left fender. In a matter of ten miles and after negotiating numerous round-abouts (traffic circles) he relaxed his grip on the wheel. “I like this. It’s fun! Give me those maps.” 

I relaxed relinquishing my role as navigator. Being left-handed and a power commuter from Orange County, this driving challenge engaged his mind like a New York Times cross word puzzle. I on the other hand wondered why the oncoming buses weren't hitting us? At this high speed, how were we not clipping the grazing sheep or the hikers and bikers burdened with bulging backpacks? I closed my eyes. Soon, in a light rain, we tailgated through Oughterard, James Joyce country, where the Quiet Man was filmed.


In many ways this land reminded us of northern Minnesota around Grand Marais, low, wet and boggy. Soon the rolling countryside changed as we wound into the valley of Connacht’s highest mountains. We passed through the town of Leenane ( where the film The Field was shot) on our way to the Delphi Lodge in County Mayo; the sporting lodge of the Marquis of Sligo in the early 19th century.

Delphi Lodge

We turned down a narrow tree-lined driveway into the woods. Gleaming in the shadow of monstrous green hills, the lodge on Finlough ( Fin Lake) leaped out at us. 

As we opened the over-sized red door of the manor, Hanne Blake greeted us and whisked us up a flight of stairs to our spacious room. Taking her leave from us and hearing of our long flight and 3 hour drive, she offered  “You’ll be wanting some tea, coffee and biscuits down in the library now. Cocktail hour is 7:15 and dinner is at 8 o’clock—guinea fowl.” 

Our room, without key or lock, was located directly above the library looked out on the still surface of Finlough. (lough is pronounced lock) Salmon erupted on the lake like small volcanoes jumping so high their tails were out of the water before splashing back under. The lodge is famous for wild salmon and trout fishing.  

Guide books had  warned heavy suitcases will be a burden. Scott struggled to get our bags up the steps. This is not a hotel with bellmen and a front desk. Rather you are treated as a welcome guest in this home. 

Hanne's fire still smoked in the library fireplace. This room bulged with salmon and trout fishing books, books on Irish history and left-behind paperbacks. Mouse, the house  Jack Russell terrier, begged for the biscuits crumbs on my plate. I savored my first taste of Irish tea: hot, steaming, full-bodied Darjeeling with real cream.  

Our room location would prove interesting as the evening progressed. The lodge was full of Americans, some just graduated from law school. Their jubilant rendition on the piano of God Bless America at 12:30 am was rousing enough to wake the dead. I only wished I had the energy that night to join them. Since rooms have no TV's or radios  it usually  quiet.

Connemara National Park

Without losing a beat, the next day we rose early and devoured made to order scrambled eggs, fruit, raisin scones and tea. Like the previous evening's meal of roasted goat cheese salad with poppy seed honey mustard vinaigrette, guinea fowl with oyster mushroom dressing, roasted potatoes, spinach and shredded carrots and a chocolate torte with cappuccino crème, it proved to be the most wonderful food ever. A Springer spaniel puppy made the rounds of all 25 guests at the table pushing a friendly nose on our laps as a gentle reminder that the chef's dog was starving.   

Making the short drive to Connemara National Park we arrived just as Sean, the Park Ranger and his assistant from  Galway College, majoring in environmental study, were starting a guided hike of the bog. They advised that everyone needed sturdy shoes. Glad we had dragged our hiking shoes to Ireland, we fell in step with the group. 

The Bog 

We followed them through the bog like ducklings. Bogs are squishy, wet, lush and oozing water. Once Connemara was a heavily forested area but long ago ancient man chopped down pretty much the last of the trees. Sean said it has only been in recent prosperous times that the Irish people could  look to preserving their precious resources. 

As the blanket bog plants die they never completely decompose due to extraordinary amount of rain falling over 250 days a year, the highest precipitation in Ireland. Today was one of those rain days. While his assistant pointed out the four different kinds of heathers, I scrambled to pull on rain pants and jacket. A slight white-haired English lady somewhere between 70 and 90 changed from street shoes into pink flip-flop thongs and donned a plastic rain hat. Soon after that we noticed she was walking barefoot. When Scott slipped and fell down in the bog, she was the first to offer a hand to pull him to his feet. I only wish I had taken her picture.

Sean pronounced his T’s like this : tousand instead of thousand. You can listen to the Irish talk all day. They have a positive upbeat lilt to everything they say: "That’s grand! You’re brilliant! Have a lovely day!" This is the Irish character. At the end of the tour we expected our boots to be caked with bog mud. But clean the soles were with just a few grains of soil clinging to the bottoms. Our little lady already knew this secret! 

The next day Hanne at the Delphi advised us the hike we were planning would be treacherous and slippery after 2 weeks of rain. She suggested we do a favorite walk of hers from Old Head to Louisburgh along the cliffs. 

Old Head to Louisburgh 

Parked at the deserted beach on Clew Bay on the Atlantic Ocean, we began the 2 hour hike out and back hike. Hanne said we couldn't miss the trail, "Even dogs can find it." 

We climbed the path leading away from the beach to the cliff top. Under blue sky and brilliant sun the grazing sheep made way for us to across the rolling green fern-covered hills. Fences had to be negotiated but when we nearly climbed over one marked "electric fence danger" we knew we had  lost our "track" as they call it. Doubling back it was obvious that the trail led through commonage where sheep grazed. The fenced areas where cows nibbled the grass were not for trespassing. Seeing clearly the track from a high vantage point we saw what we thought must be the road to Louisburgh rambling past neat white farm houses. It looked much farther than an hour's walk away.

While popping juicy blackberries from thorny bushes into our mouths 2 women and a dog caught up with us.  "Are we on the road to Louisburgh?"

"We don't know we're just out walking" they shrugged. We pushed on and soon were funneled via a back road to the main street of the two hundred year old town. Seated at the  Derrylahan Pub we ordered vegetable soup, brown bread, an open face chicken sandwich and Guinness. The Guinness in Ireland is 4% alcohol, unpasteurized and instead of carbon dioxide they use nitrogen." One of the locals told Scott as he was taking a sip before the head had all settled. "Ya need ta let it cook."

On the way back we found a shortcut to Old Head. We stood transfixed as 2 border collies herded sheep along our road so fast it was nearly quicker than the eye. They simply vanished from our sight. 

Back at Delphi Lodge 

Dinner at the Delphi lodge proved to be another gastronomical delight. Confit of Duckling with a celeraic and a hyssop jus, roasted monktail with a tomato and olive butter and coriander pesto and tart tatin with honey and walnut ice-cream. This night instead of 25 guests at the table there were only 4 of us. We dined with a charming couple from London who were on their way to visit the family farm in County Clare. They confessed they couldn't believe how many Americans now had found their secret hideaway! We confirmed what they surmised, the internet had led most of us Yanks to Delphi.     

Reluctantly the next morning we hugged Hanne goodbye, packed up the car and drove 9 hours to Killarney for the start of Scott's business meeting. I thought then even if I had to go home now I would have treasured memories of Connemara! Little did I know the memories to be made in Killarney.  

Killarney, County Kerry 

At first glance, Killarney seemed to be a tourist trap. We longed for the rough, woody country of Connemara. Tourists have been coming to this town for hundreds of years--our waitress said," Everyone knows the Lakes of Killarney!"  Soon the secret mountains and lakes were revealed to us. 

On our first day in Killarney Scott hired John for a one-way jaunting cart fare through the Gap of Dunloe. Georgie, his horse, pulled out with a quick start then settled into a plodding gait.  John got out and urged him on by running alongside when the going got steep. We had hands in pockets, the sun had not yet penetrated the Gap. We jostled by Echo Lake, Black Lake and Ager Lakes. At the halfway point John stopped. "This is as far as we go. You're my only fare today, I'm goin' ta the beach!" John now had $55 dollars in his pocket.  

Georgie and John galloped away leaving us to walk back through the still dark Gap. We were disappointed to be on pavement with cars passing us. But lightened up as the sun mounted the Gap and we recognized the ruins of an old bouley house, shelters in the summer for sheep tenders. Then Scott spotted a real trail up on the ridge-a way to get up into the MacGillycuddy Reeks above us. Scott poured over the topo maps he had ordered before our trip. 

We wound up the trail to the top of Strickeen through heather and gorse stepping carefully over tiny butterwort plants. The baaing sheep made me think Scott was calling my name. At the top we were rewarded with panoramic views of the Lakes of Killlarney. Piles of rocks may have been megelithic tombs.

On the way back down we met a man from Kent, Wales. In town for the horse races in Tralee, he was anxious to tell us a horse from New York had won big. He said it had taken him 6 years to find the trail we came up.

The first night’s Garden Party at Hotel Europe took place on the shore of Lake Leanne where perfectly manicured green lawn was bordered by hedges and flowers.

Outside the white tent I watched an exhibition of fox and hounds staged for the kids. Fifteen fox hounds responded to their names called out by the lead hunter wearing a red coat and blowing a horn. Another young man rode O’Sheenan, a majestic white Celtic horse that stood seventeen and one-half hands high.

Shamrog, a well-known Dublin band, had been brought in just for our group. With fiddle, bodhran (pronounced bow-rawn) drum, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and pipes they spell-bound us with driving traditional Irish ballads. 

One of the foxhounds wouldn’t go back to the pack sniffing the BBQ grills. Finally one of the chefs, chicken breast in hand, lured him back The evening ended with cigars outside the bar and a white stray cat sitting on Scott’s lap.

Killarney National Park, Muckross House 

The next day we hiked in Killarney National Park, just 3 K out of the town of Killarney. Our start began with an outstanding guided tour of the Victorian Muckross House. Built in 1843, this 19th century great house was eventually owned by the daughter of a wealthy San Francisco magnate. It now belongs to Ireland. A young tour guide skillfully led us through the manor. Gazing up at Waterford crystal chandeliers and down on priceless inlaid Muckross furniture crafted from the local trees gave us a view into the lives of the upper class. The billiards room included a 3 ton pool table. Queen Victoria herself had stayed in the house in 1861.  

Outside of the house the sky looked like an old bruise.  As we walked toward the woods,  jaunting cart jockeys warned us of the pending rain. We waived them off. We were prepared and had enough of jaunting carts!

The Muckross Peninsula 

The downpour camped us under a  hazel nut tree. In the hush we heard a nut fall to the ground. The tree's large broad leaves kept us completely dry. When the rain let up we followed the Arthur Young Trail. Hiking the Muckross Peninsula we were walking through Europe's most extensive natural yew, oak, arbutus and holly woods around Muckross Lake. At Dinis there was a cottage. We ducked in for a sandwich here at the Meeting of the Waters. Finally back at the Muckross House we devoured a bowl of mushroom soup and brown bread. American Express must have wondered about the unusual credit card activity as we purchased 3 hand- loomed blankets and a wool scarf in the seven minutes we had before the bus left for our hotel.  

The Fossa Way 

Our last day in Killarney we decided to forego the bus trip to Blarney Castle and spend more time walking around Killarney. From our hotel we began the walk into town via Ross Castle. The Fossa Way wound through dark woods, past golf courses and out into oak sheltered meadows.  Now, so used to walking in the rain, Scott just  called out the command "Umbrella" to which I responded by grabbing the umbrella from the  pocket of his back pack and handing it to him. He'd pop it up for the 2 or 3 minutes of rain and I'd stow it again as the  sunshine came as quickly as the rain.

Along the trail came 2 puppies, one brown and one black. They did not dally but pumped tiny legs along a  determined course on some sort of mission unknown to us but probably having to do with food.  

At one point in our hike Scott stopped and said," If we're quiet I think we might see some deer." Not more than 10 steps forward a Sitka deer bolted deep into the woods. 

Ross Castle 

Finally after nearly 2 hours of walking, gloomy Ross Castle appeared in our view across the lake. Built in the 14th century, it was the last important stronghold in Ireland taken by Cromwell's armies when blockaded from the Lake. Beautiful swans swam in the placid water. Boat loads of tourists swarmed the grounds. Like the puppies on a mission we decided to forego the rest of the hike to the Castle and head into downtown Killarney for lunch.  

Outside of the Laurels Pub a crowd pressed close to hear Kauzay a band from Peru play My Heart Will Go On, the theme from the movie Titanic. Later, Paul Kelly, in kilt and feathered hat, pumped a hurdy gurdy with gusto. 

The memories we cherish of our trip came from the ordinary daily images of life in Ireland and the  moments the Irish people shared their good humor and indomitable spirit with us. The words of a song the band Shamrog played for us summed up our experience in Ireland. 

It's a long long way 
Gets further day by day 
It's a long long way from here to there."

But we'll definitely be back!.


www.delphilodge.ie  Delphi Lodge Tel: 353-95-42222 Fax: +353-95-42296 Mr. Peter Mantle

Connemara National Park
Entrance is west of town of Letterfrack on N59. Open 10AM to 6:30 PM year round. Entry fee.

Muckross House House & Gardens  and Killarney National Park
Route N71 south from Killarney for 6 kms, entrance on right.

traveling to Dublin City www.theclarence.ie