Wild Atlantic Way Walks

CONNEMARA NORTH: Journey into Joyce Country

The 5km restraining order finally lifted, allowing us to travel anywhere within our county so we headed back up to Connemara in the camper- this time to the far northeast.

Joyce Country is a wild, beautiful and often overlooked area of north Galway and south Mayo between loughs Mask and Corrib from Maam to Clonbur, from the mighty Maamturks mountains to the tranquil wooded shores of the lowland lakes.

Named after the Joyce family who arrived from Wales in the 13th c in the wake of the Norman invaders it kept its name and identity due to its remote inaccessibility. The family married into the O’Flahertys and other clans and ended up controlling a vast area of the Barony of Ross.

We parked up on the pier at Cornamona, last visited when our boat had broken down out in the lake and the rescue services had towed us to shore here ( a story told in my Lough Corrib: Walking on Water blog post)

On arrival I noticed a couple struggling with bailing buckets and ropes tied to a listing vessel and went to help. Incredibly, when I told the fella about the circumstances of my previous rescue there he said “That was me”!

He had been the duty commander of the volunteer team that fateful day- and now, coincidentally I was attempting to help with his leaking boat.

Unfortunately it proved impossible to get the holed aft back to shore and the boat was left on blocks for the night.

Our first hike in the morning was up Benlevy or Mt Gable, a 416m mass that dominates the isthmus between Mask and Corrib, guarding one of the major routes into Connemara from the east. It also has what is reckoned to be one of the most beautiful and scenic mountain walks in Ireland and supposedly gives a lot in return for not too much effort, with one of the reviews on the Mountainviews website reporting on a family birthday hike claiming ” an easy walk for first timers- our 9,6 and 3 yr old did it”! It wasn’t that easy!

Years ago we had walked the Seanbhothar route between Clonbur ( An Fhairche) and Corr na Móna, a 10km hike along the old road along the shoulder of Benlevy ( Binn Shleibhe) and had been enchanted by the views of the island dotted lake. The proper Irish names would often be used as most of this area is within an Irish speaking Gaeltacht, the largest in the country.

Pulling up in a small car park at the base of the mountain at Ballard we were happy and grateful to see we were welcome as hillwalkers and a stile and signage had been provided. The route was unmistakeable though as we followed the old turf cutters track steeply up the side of the hill passed some contented sheep.

The views down over the islands got better and better and in the distance to the west the high ranges glowed in the morning sun. The track went all the way to the broad and open summit plateau where we continued west for another km or so to reach the concrete trig point.

Crossing the summit passed the peat hags we gained views northwest over Lough Nafooey and Finny and further on northwest over Mask and Coolin Lough and the woodlands we were off to explore next.

Sally couldn’t resist collecting some bones that belonged to an unfortunate sheep that had died and was being subsumed into the bog.

The area we were exploring was all part of the 1500 sq km proposed Joyce Country and Western Lakes Geopark , a €1.2 million project running in 2020 and 21 to prepare a submission to UNESCO and hopefully be granted Geopark status in 2023 and join the Copper Coast (Wexford), Burren and Cliffs of Moher (Clare) and Marble Arch Caves (Fermanagh and Cavan). Unfortunately started during the Covid pandemic the plan was to run a series of events and activities and an educational programme for all levels.

Having explored all three of the other Geoparks I’d definitely say the area is worthy, with the contrasting upland and lowland landscapes and big range of rock types and habitats so good luck to them.

On to Clonbur to the glorious woodlands on the shores of Lough Mask. Part of the Ashford estate owned by the Guinness family ( along with another 20,000 acres of County Galway) until sold to the state in 1939, Coillte have restored/created 300 hectares of diverse native woodland here under the EU’s LIFE Nature programme.

We parked up next to the early Christian settlement and abbey of Teampall Brendain at Rosshill cemetery and headed off around White Island and then the 7km Ballykine loop.

The spring flowers were a glory as we followed the path over a man made causeway and around the island, stopping for a rest at one of the scenic benches.

Although there were some mature conifers and exotic non natives the restoration carried out had involved the removal of many to encourage natural regeneration of native species and the planting of many more. The yew wood had been extended by the planting of cuttings taken locally.

After our circumnavigation of the lake island we continued eastwards and out onto the limestone pavement that make this mixed woodland so special. Part of the much larger Lough Carra Mask SAC this is the largest area of limestone pavement outside of the Burren and is home to all the same species of tree , hazel, ash, white beam, buckthorn, black and hawthorn, spindle and yew.

Across a wooden bridge over the Clonbur river we passed small lakes to a track junction at the site of an old sawmill. There we had our antisocial lunch on the ” not happy to chat” bench, although I would have quickly moved if anyone had happened along.

Next up a strange collection of moss covered limestone boulders that was referred to as the Guinness luncheon house ruin, a reed bed haven for bird life, a stone built submerged jetty and the chimney remnant of a shooting lodge.

Not wanting to disturb the dead, (or be disturbed by them!), we moved for the night to a park up on the Lough Mask limestone plateau.

A remarkable spot. In the morning we ventured out onto the slab and marvelled at the walls, the grikes and clints, the egg box and boulder in socket formations ( unique globally to the Lough Mask region) , the bonsai tree microcosm and the tenacious orchids.

Our last walk was another circumnavigation, this time the 3.5 km loop of Big Island again joined to the mainland by another Victorian causeway. We were greeted by chainsaw carvings in the children’s nature corner and fine mature tree specimens.

With the sun shining we took advantage of another scenic bench to sit in the sun and admire the views of the Partry mountains before climbing up to the top of the island’s inner mound for more meetings with remarkable trees.

Venerable old trees, giving life even in death, we returned homewards along a fine wide woodland ride, planning our own journey into native woodland management.

Stepping Stones – the Burren Way

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In the northwest corner of County Clare, halfway up the Wild Atlantic Way coastline of Ireland lies a unique environment.

250sq km of a glaciated karst landscape, with swirling terraced hills of limestone rising up from the ocean to the west and standing guard over the plains to the east. Scoured clear of earth and vegetation by ice age, erosion and man, the pale grey rock appears otherworldly and from a distance, denude of life.

But the naked stone stores and radiates the suns heat, the grikes or narrow channels between the slabs or clints provide shelter and the calcium rich soils undisturbed by the plough all make for a botanical wonderland and botanists and plant lovers from across the globe come to marvel at species from arctic-alpine and Mediterranean habitats living happily together in the west of Ireland.

The rock has discouraged intensive farming and this has helped to preserve ” a vast memorial to bygone cultures”, with the stone itself used over the last 6000yrs or so to create the tombs, cairns, homesteads, forts, castles and churches and holy wells that litter the maps like freckles on the face of the land.

The Burren Way meanders for 100km, with additional spurs to towns and villages, with Irelands most famous natural attraction- the Cliffs of Moher forming a southern gateway.

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Setting off from Liscannor I planned to take 4 days to cover the route, ending my ramble in Tubber to take in the splendours of Mullaghmore in the Burren National Park. The first leg was 20km to Doolin and the long straight road headed west past field walls made of the flag stones the area is renown for. The movements of sea creatures millions of years ago are etched into the surface of these slices of time as a record of the oldest journeys on earth and the flags are used as hardwearing floors and heavy roofing.

300 million years ago the Burren was the floor of a tropical ocean, and the Cliffs of Moher were formed by layers of shale and sandstone building up and up in a vast river delta. As I climbed up from the coast past the last farm with its brimming car park supplying a modern cash crop I was joined by others on the way towards the tower at Hags head.

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There is a cliff face here that supposedly resembles a womans head where, the story goes, the hag Mal crashed into the cliff while pursuing her love interest, Cu Chulainn, who stepped across the sea stacks to escape her advances.

As we reached the tower the dramatic views opened up and the number of people drawn in to the area by the successful marketing of the Wild Atlantic Way since my last visit became apparent.

Moving on along the cliff path I past a Liscannor flag quarry producing the stone for the nearby walls and a public gallery of miniature sea stacks in a dramatic setting.

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The nesting seabirds were a constant distraction as they wheeled around the cliff face with perfect timing and grace and I stopped to watch their acrobatics and spy on their domestic activities.

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Living as I do in a very quiet rural pocket and not getting out among mass humanity much, I found the antics of my species nearly as fascinating and spent a while photographing them photographing themselves. The ‘selfie’ phenomena .

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My favourite selfie photos were many years ago and accidental. A friend working in a photo lab had developed a roll of film taken on a tour of Europe’s top tourist destinations and was puzzled to see pictures of only bits of head and ear and crowds of people before realising that the hapless photographer had held the camera the wrong way round.

At the highest point in the cliffs, near the car and coach park and the “visitor experience”, is a tower built as a viewing platform in 1835 by local landowner, M.P., and descendant of Brien Boru, Sir Cornelius O’Brien. He once fell very ill in London and asked for some water to be sent over from St Bridgits well near the Way at Liscannor which he attributed to his recovery and payed for the construction of a well house, still much used today.

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700ft below me the atlantic rollers crashed onto the base of the cliffs and it would certainly be the spot from which to watch the worlds top big wave surfers try their luck riding Aileen, the 50+ft wave that can form here.

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It was a beautiful sunny day and I certainly didn’t begrudge sharing the natural splendours with so many people but by the time I had had my lunch around O’Briens tower I was ready to escape the hordes and carry on towards Doolin another 8km away.

Although Doolin is another of Ireland’s tourist hot spots and the coastal path goes all the way there this was definitely a quieter section, allowing more space for contemplation of the surroundings and take notice of the birdsong and wildflowers.

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In a couple of places streams tumbling over the cliff edge were being blown back up on to the top creating a kind of natural perpetual motion of water as it tried to reach the sea.

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The Aran islands were visible to the north west, strung out in a line towards the mountains of Connemara and as I approached Doolin the first sight of the rounded grey hills of limestone made me keen to get amongst them.

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The path descended to near sea level and continued along the shore past strange diamond shaped rock formations and blowholes to the colourful shops and pubs at Fisherstreet where a ferry goes to the nearest Aran island, Inisheer, and people come to swim with Dusty, a dolphin that likes to hang out with humans.

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Back on tarmac I made my way past the 16th century Doonagore tower house on the outskirts of Doolin to my bed for the night at a friends house.

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The next days stage was a 30+km hike, mostly on ancient green roads, into the Burren uplands where I planned to meet Sally and the Trusty Tranny camper van at the top of Corkscrew Hill above Ballyvaughan.

But first I had to make my way along about 10km of country roads through a sometimes gorsey and rushy landscape under a leaden sky, which coupled with a number of neglected and abandoned homesteads made for a slightly melancholic atmosphere.

Climbing up the backroad from Ballylacken castle at about 200m the tarmac gave way to track and the green road leading over the shoulder of the Burren’s highest hill, Slieve Elva, began.

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There was a stiff wind and from the look of the contorted vegetation there usually is. The lack of shelter on this exposed hillside must have made it a tough place to live and the remnants of stone cottages told their own tales of hardship.

Finally moving beyond the sandstone and shale and onto the limestone the track became stripped for awhile as it revealed the underlying formation of clints and grykes in the adjoining fields(?).

After roughly 8km of the high plateau I was led down into the Caher valley where the only surface river in the Burren to make it to the sea runs down to the beach at Fanore. The porosity of the limestone means that water easily eats it’s way through to create a network of underground caves and tunnels, another feature of this area that makes it special and contributed to the famous saying by one of Cromwell’s generals that ” it is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury them”.

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Up and over the long southern plateau of Gleninagh Mountain on another green road and I landed back on the tarmac of a cul de sac backroad running down the Feenagh valley.

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A couple of kms later I was off up another ancient green road, lined at first by another section of river, then hazel scrubland,and winding past megalithic tombs, ring forts and enclosures with fantastical views of the surreal landscape surrounding me, to eventually, and suddenly, leave the limestone and find myself atop an upland of turf bog and forestry.

The wind was still blowing and now as evening approached it was cold so, getting to our meeting point early after 30km, I was happy enough to do an extra couple of km down Corkscrew hill to the warm embrace of the Gregan House hotel bar and a pint of Murphys while I awaited the arrival of Sally in our mobile kitchen and bedroom.

We woke the next morning to a nasty drizzle blowing in on a horizontal wind and with only about 20km to do that day we decided to trust the forecast that the rain would clear in a couple of hours and take a quick spin to Kilfenora, location of The Burren Centre and   cathedral ruin.

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The Catholic cathedral, part of which is used by the church of Ireland has a glass roofed transept, built to protect some ancient high crosses and there are other fine carvings.

Back on track we had a fair bit of road walking to do but it was pleasurable hiking along tiny backroads through a varied landscape dotted with megalithic and early christian sites, including an impressive baptismal font in the ruins of Kilcorney church.

Crossing the high ground above Carron it started to drizzle again and we ducked into Cassidy’s bar for a drink in the dry before carrying on along the eastern shore of the turlough, or seasonal lake. These loughs are another unique feature of the area, with the groundwater beneath the limestone rising and falling with the water table and creating what can be huge areas of flooding in the winter and rich grazing land in the summer.

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The hazel woods were thick alongside the road and rich with wood anemone, ferns, sorrel and mosses and lichens. All of which make good feeding for the herds of feral goats that keep the vegetation in a bonsai condition and sometimes end up as burgers in Cassidy’s when the population is deemed in need of a cull.

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To end the days hike we had another green road stretch, leading us eastwards into the National Park. The sun was out and it was a truly beautiful path, a match for anywhere in the world in weather like that. A little over halfway along is a charming cottage in what has to be one of the finest locations in the country. (Teas available in the summer).

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Another good dinner and comfy bed courtesy of friends just off route and we were ready and able for our last day on the trail. I had walked nearly all of the Burren Way previously but not continuously and I had never walked one section of the days route so it felt like the highpoint of the Way to be climbing the iconic terraces of Mullaghmore and gazing at the virgin territory ahead.

We were a little early for the glories of the wildflowers for which the area is famous but we were lucky enough to have early purple orchids, wild garlic and gentians strewn around our feet that day.

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As we climbed above Lough Gealain to the summit at 200m the full effect of this special place became tangible. Feeling deeply connected to the surroundings and yet looking out onto a strange and foreign land, it’s no wonder the area has attracted “outsiders” for many years with the magnetic appeal the landscape holds.

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Clambering down the rough stony track on the north of Mullaghmore we turned to follow a wall below Slieve Roe down to a crossroads at Cooloorta where some of the pre mentioned “outsiders” have created homes for themselves.

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3km up the road we turned to come 3km back down on another green road through an area of limestone canyons studded with ash woods until, passing through a swing gate, we walked towards Lough Bunny on a long straight and flat track to the grassy farmland.

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Surrounded by green fields and grazing cows again, with the bare grey stone of the Burren behind us, it wasn’t long to the end of our journey where friends conveniently living right on the Way supplied tea and biscuits and a lift back to the Tranny.