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Exploring Ireland’s Connemara, where mayor-elect’s roots run deep

A Connemara pony stood before the ruins of Bunowen Castle.Thomas Breathnach for the Boston Globe/Thomas Breathnach

CARNA — "So, what part of the motherland are you in right now, Tom?" Boston's Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh asked me in a recent phone call as misted peaks loomed beyond my window. I had just arrived at the Carna Bay, a family-run hotel nestled here in the village where Walsh's father lived until he emigrated in 1956. "Ah, I know it well," he said. "You're getting the five-star treatment then?"

As an Irishman in search of Connemara's travel gems, I should have held home advantage in procuring the local lowdown. However Walsh didn't take long establishing the fact that I was on his home turf.


The Connemara region, a wistful expanse of wild heathland, blanket bogs, and lonesome islets, spans the outermost rural fringes of County Galway in western Ireland. "Oh, I've been over there at least a dozen times," Walsh said, easing into his trip down memory lane with affable aplomb. "Every summer I'd go over as a kid to my grandparents' house in Rosmuc, where my mother is from. I loved it there: planting cabbage or sowing potatoes in the fields, feeding the chickens or fishing on the pier."

For Walsh the area is a pastoral paradise and he was eager to sing its praises. "It's still the old Ireland in Connemara: You'll find traditional stone walls, the Connemara ponies, the red-haired girls with the freckles," he added, crowning our conversation with the kind of commendation Ireland's national tourist board only dreams of.

With Walsh's favorites in mind and some local tips, I began my Connemara loop with a stock-up of road-trip goodies at Rosmuc's village shop, Tí Mhaidhceo's. Much to my surprise, a familiar face appeared from behind the till: Linda Bhreathnach, one of the country's most recognizable Irish-language actors, was working in what is her parents' business. "I come back here to help out and center myself when I'm not acting," she said. "Connemara has that power to calm you — and make you think."


The conversation soon turned to the Walsh campaign sign on the store's front window. "Oh, my sister sent that over," said Bhreathnach. "She lives over in Quincy. There's been quite a bit of a buzz around the place since he won, you know, so many people here have connections with Boston."

That wasn't hard to fathom. As I continued through Rosmuc, tuned to the mellifluous banter of Radio na Gaeltachta, the national Irish language station, callers seemed to be discussing two matters: the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination and Walsh's election.

Given that Rosmuc is a tight-knit community, it didn't take me long to track down Walsh's cousin Maureen Kearney and her mother, Margaret Mannion, who live on either side of his grandparents' cottage. As a Gaeltacht, an official Irish-speaking region, all of Walsh's relatives here are native speakers. "He's so proud of his Connemara roots," Kearney said. "He was always interested with our local history, going to Gaelic football matches, or just helping out on the farm. I'd say as soon as he arrived he had his wellies on."

Across the peninsula in Ard East Walsh's paternal uncle Francis King, 80, hosted me for a brew of tea and a chat. "It's a mighty achievement for the man, isn't it?" he said of his nephew, proudly producing a copy of The Globe's Nov. 6 issue with the headline, "It's mayor-elect Walsh." "There was great celebration when we got the news."


Tourists are sparse in Ard East, though hill-walkers pepper the region in summer. "I once met an Israeli man visiting here who said Connemara reminded him of home," King said. "He can only have meant all the rocks."

As I headed north for the Inagh Valley the clouds lifted. Clear skies silhouetted the barren mountains against a dew-drenched terrain, tear-dropped with lakes. Kylemore Abbey, Connemara's most exalted attraction, appeared like a mirage along the banks of Lough Pollacapall. Built in 1868 by wealthy London landowner Mitchell Henry for his wife, Margaret, the castle has been under the auspices of the Benedictine nuns for almost a century.

After visiting its sumptuously restored interior of period chambers I followed a woodland trail to the abbey's walled Victorian gardens, where late-flowering fuchsias were parading November's solitary color burst. The nuns have established the Forest Friends program, where donors, including Walsh, sponsor the planting of Irish oaks around the estate in memory of a loved one, helping to restore Ireland's indigenous woodlands, one tree at a time.

Connemara National Park lies a few miles farther westward, folding dramatically around the foothills of the Twelve Pins mountain range. The park, much of which once formed part of Kylemore Estate, offers visitors a place to stretch their legs with a bracing hike across its hillocks. I embarked on a three-mile trail around Diamond Hill in a gusty shower that was followed by a quintessential Irish rainbow arcing into the Atlantic. It's little wonder Oscar Wilde described Connemara as a "savage beauty."


Clifden, the region's largest settlement, is home to just 2,000 residents. Its brightly-painted streetscapes offer a downtown feel against the forlorn backdrop of its hinterland. This bustling market town is also the culinary crossroads of Connemara with a number of emerging eateries meriting a stop. Mitchell's on Market Street is the local gourmand magnet and Boardwalk Café on Beach Road draws the local surfer crowd. My Carna contacts pointed me toward Guy's Bar and Snug on Main Street.

Beyond its sage wooden doors awaited an utter homage to Gaelic gemütlichkeit, or geniality, with lunching locals and bantering tourists sitting around a smoldering peat fire. It was a most inviting refuge after a morning hiking the moors. I tucked into a deliciously fresh seafood salad with organic greens from across the swells in County Clare and flavorful crab from up the road at Cleggan Pier: It's best to order local when the North Atlantic is on your doorstep.

As I cruised around Connemara I found a region dotted with stumble-upon finds along its heaths and havens. The Connemara Smokehouse in nearby Ballyconneely is such a spot. Here visitors can view traditional salmon smoking methods and indulge in tastings of Connemara gravlax on sliders of soda bread. Heritage and history buffs can follow in Walsh's footsteps to Patrick Pearse's Cottage, where the Irish poet and revolutionary sought solace in the wilds of Connemara. Farther north in Lettershea, Dan O'Hara's Homestead is a magnificently located heritage center, run by local entrepreneur Martin Walsh (no relation) and his wife, Nora.


Back at Carna crossroads that night, a billboard sign of Walsh (who is patron of the village's new Emigration & Diaspora Centre Project) was my point of compass to turn right to base. I ended my Connemara sojourn by experiencing the Gaeltacht social scene at Tígh Mheaic's, Carna's largest pub, which traces its roots to a 19th-century inn. Inside, the off-season winter trade was being stoked by the pub's resident darts team (in battle with neighboring rivals from Clad-daghduff), and a smattering of local gents quietly savoring a glass of stout. After being served my own pint, I was soon trading life stories with Aisling Ní Chualain, a young Carna native, whose sister runs the family establishment. "Marty Walsh?" she said after I explained I was a writer visiting the village. "Well it's great news for Connemara," she added, before whisking off for a keg change.

I had heard that sentiment often on my journey whenever Walsh's name had cropped up, and on her return, Ní Chualain offered perhaps the best insight as to why. "I think there's still a certain preconception of people from Connemara," she said. "If I tell somebody from Galway City that I'm from Carna, I sometimes see a look of disdain in their faces; as if they believe that here in the Gaeltacht we're living out in the sticks. But Marty Walsh's election gives that wider sense of recognition to Connemara people and their capabilities — even if we ourselves were always aware of them."

A couple hours of chat later I was winding my way back to the Carna Bay as the season's first frost breathed a veil of ice flakes over the village. I'd soon be leaving Connemara and was a bit nostalgic, having been swathed in a richness of culture and beauty of landscape. I'd been transposed to a deeper realm of Irishness. Walsh's words rang true: "It really is the stuff of calendars there. In Connemara, you'll experience it all."

Thomas Breathnach can be reached at thombreathnach@