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Connemara National Park and Leenaun - Ireland at a Slower Pace. Connemara cannot be beat for a slow-paced Irish fix complete with misty harbors, rocky beaches, sheep crossings, woolen sweaters, Irish coffee, stew with brown bread, and carrot cake served with a Gaelic accent. Leenaun Fjord Connemara ireland

Galway City is the obvious starting point for any trip to Connemara (the west of Ireland), a land made famous by the 1950's film starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara - The Quiet Man and infamous by the plays of Martin McDonagh – most memorable being The Leenane Trilogy including Beauty Queen of Leenane. Being an actor and living in Ireland, I was drawn to Connemara, compelled to see the place that inspired McDonagh’s trilogy.Leenaun Village Centre, Connemara Ireland

I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in sleepy seaside village of Leenaun (leenane) about a four-hour bus ride north of Galway. It is not far in distance from Galway but culturally it is on another planet. It is like in the chill zone. Leenane has one main road, two pubs, a hotel and restaurant, a cultural center, gift shop, and convenience store. That is it. But it sits on the edge of one of the most majestic sights in all of Ireland - Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only Fjord.

Leenaun is a secret vacation spot for adventurers. It supports a dive school and two adventure centres which specialize in mountain climbing, orienteering, bungee-jumping, archery, canoeing, and sailing. The less energetic visitors walking paths weave throughout the foothills, and through woodlands.
 
I was there in October after the tourist rush so the pace was slow and I had an opportunity to listen to residents sharing their version of the local lore on which McDonagh based his plays. It seems not much has changed in four decades. Fishing remains the livelihood of the hamlet.  Mussel farms, marked by straight lines of floats joined by ropes, interrupt the coast line. During the warmest months adventurers and families walk, hike, bike, or run the gamut of pathways and trails in the surrounding area. Bonus Points: In this area of Ireland Irish (Gaelic or Gaeilge) is still spoken making even the simplest of conversations interesting and sometimes challenging.

The residents of Connemara will insist with a rhythmic Gaelic lilt that it is the most beautiful place in all of Ireland, and I agree with them. There is a sense of place – peaceful and uncomplicated. Leenane is a picture-perfect snapshot of Ireland – quiet, comfortable, and family friendly. Bonus Points: From Nancy’s Point just west of Leenane, Killary Cruises runs 90-minute Killary Harbor excursions aboard a catamaran. The trips weave the waves passing along mussel farms and stopping at a salmon farm. Local donkey of Connemara, Ireland

The countryside is bucolic yet slightly bizarre. Color-coded sheep graze along narrow roadways and Irish is still spoken making the atmosphere at times surreal. A focal point for the area is The Sheep & Wool Centre not far from Leenane. It is an excellent spot for all ages. The Centre is open from mid-March to October with demonstrations of carding, spinning, weaving sheep shearing in peak season plus exhibits and an informative audio-visual display. The highlight for children is a chance to meet the sheep and sometimes feed them. The gift shop sells very tempting, 100% Irish wool knitting yarn in an array of hand-dyed colors. 

Bia Blas Café at the Centre is alone worth the trip. They are known for serving the best fish chowder and carrot cake in all of Ireland. 
Leenane was only one part of my excursion to Connemara. I also had time to hike Connemara National Park and enjoy an energizing walk along the Cliffs of Moher.Connemara National Park Diamond Hill Trail
 
Connemara National Park, located near the town of Letterfrack, is truly a natural national treasure. I stumbled upon it by accident while I was waiting for my bus from Leenane back to Galway. I had time to kill and a hike seemed like the perfect solution. The Park spans more than 4900 acres on the slopes of the Twelve Bens. The Visitor Centre houses exhibits, and shows an informative film worth watching before hiking the nature trails.

The shortest and most popular walk, also the one I chose, is to the top of Diamond Hill. It’s about a two-hour hike in total on a looping path with options for shorter stints along the way. The people of Ireland are known for being friendly and that is indeed the case. During my solo hike to the top I met a wonderful Irish gentleman and his son who shared their lunch with me while relating fantastic stories about Connemara. 

No trip to Connemara would be complete without seeing the picturesque vistas from one of the three observation points along the trail. Be wary though, the last leg of the trail to the Diamond Hill summit involves a lot of climbing. So if that isn’t your thing then avoid that stretch of the journey because once you start it will be even more tricky to come back so you will be in for the long haul. Bonus Points: During the summer months there is an array walks, talks and special events geared to families and younger visitors. 

Vacation Planning Details 

Sheep & Wool Centre. Leenane sits along N59 about mid-point between Clifden, County Galway, and Westport, County Mayo. +353 (0)95 42323 +353 (0)95 42323 or www.sheepandwoolcentre.com   

Connemara National Park Visitor Centre. Letterfrack County Galway. +353 95 41054+353 95 41054/41323/60900 or Connemara National Park 

Make it happen. Authentic Ireland Vacation Planning Resource. Discover Ireland provides free vacation planning kits. Simply contact them online at www.discoverireland.com or call from USA or Canada toll-free 1-800 SHAMROCK (1-800-742-6762).

Content and images provided by Jule Nelson-Duac, actor and teacher who spent five months in Ireland. Copyright updated 2017. 


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