My Favorite Place in Ireland: The Wild West

An innkeeper, a painter, a bodhran maker.

Almost 30 years ago on a chilly June night I stumbled into Ballinalacken Castle House Hotel in County Clare and came upon a gruff lion of a man with an unruly mop of hair who offered me a country welcome amid peat fires, heavy blankets, and flowing pints of Guinness.

Denis O’Callaghan has endured my comings and goings at all hours, my crashing into his car, my insistent requests for more of his wife Mary’s unmatchable soda bread, nearly every year since.

He has become as much a part of my visits to the west of Ireland as the nearby Cliffs of Moher, the traditional Irish music played in McDermott’s Pub just down the hill in Doolin, or my wind-whipped hikes across the Burren. His site on a bluff overlooking the sea and the Aran Islands beyond is a place I return to in my mind on a weekly basis.

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A large canvas covered by a roiling blue-green sea led me to find Carol Cronin halfway out on the Dingle peninsula, a craggy finger of unmanicured land jutting out into the Atlantic in County Kerry. Carol’s gallery on Green Street in the town of Dingle is filled with a riot of seascapes—gray, golden, turquoise; some placid, some in turmoil.

A view of Dunquin Harbor and the Blasket Islands beyond (Photograph by Marshall Ikonography, Alamy)
A view of Dunquin Harbor and the Blasket Islands beyond (Photograph by Marshall Ikonography, Alamy)

She can be found there painting—usually barefoot, long brown hair yanked back off her face—on most afternoons. It’s Carol who pointed me to Curran’s, a Main Street pub where the owner/barkeep shared with me crumbling letters of gratitude sent to his grandfather by so many of the people who had fled Ireland during the Great Famine with a few pounds of the elder Curran’s money in their pockets to ease the way.

It was Carol, too, who insisted I go out to the Blasket Islands, the now deserted, treeless outcrops that were home to a few dozen rugged, Irish-speaking people until the mid-20th century. Alone on Great Blasket, amid the handful of derelict houses, under raging wind then lashing rain then burning sun, I spent a day in potent silence that I have never forgotten.

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And it was out in Roundstone along the coast road in Connemara that Malachy Kearns told me, “I had a wild call to be by the sea and I couldn’t wish it away.”

A stone wall keeps a horse from wandering in Connemara. (Photograph by Medford Taylor, National Geographic)
A stone wall keeps a horse from wandering in Connemara. (Photograph by Medford Taylor, National Geographic)

It explains why Ireland’s premier bodhran maker has secluded himself far from the beaten path in County Galway, and why musicians make the pilgrimage to his seaside studio for his custom-made drums.

An outsize man in every way, with pale blue eyes full of mayhem, Malachy embodies much about this wild, merciless, untamable corner of an already wild and untamed west. Connemara is Ireland’s Ireland, “a different world out here, to be sure.”

For more than a quarter of a century I’ve traveled this coast, up from the filigreed fringe of west Cork, along the lakes of Killarney, to the world-class golf links of Ballybunion and Lahinch, to Yeats country in Sligo, meeting people like Denis, Carol, and Malachy.

Next year, I’ll meet still more.

Celebrated travel writer, actor, and director Andrew McCarthy is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewTMcCarthy.

Comments

  1. Mark Dorrian
    Santiago decCompostela
    August 5, 2015, 3:01 am

    Hi Andrew, just thought I’d let you know that the Camino is being killed by smart phones. Wifi everywhere, people chatting as they walk, awful. I’ve even seen people facebooking during the pilgrims mass. Little time for contemplation now. Tragic really. M

  2. OhHoneyHoney
    Disneyworld
    May 20, 2015, 8:25 pm

    Hi little horse keep wild

  3. Garrett
    West coast of Ireland
    May 15, 2015, 11:18 am

    Thanks for the great words and photos. The first photo puts me in mind of the Grand Canyon where the middle is flooded and opposite side is the USA!

  4. John Sloan
    United States
    May 13, 2015, 8:01 pm

    Wonderful description of the real Ireland, the West. Spent the last 12 years touring and visiting North and South, and always return to Doolin. We rent a self catering home for 2 to 3 weeks fall or winter or summer, makes no difference, just different paced life. Cannot resist the place or the people.

  5. Kathleen Kavanagh
    palm coast florida
    May 13, 2015, 5:05 pm

    I have severe COPD . I was just wondering does anyone know of a travel agency that is just for disabled. You see my Nana’s relatives were from Ireland. She was left land but never went back to claim it. I just want to see Ireland it has been on my bucket list. Then I became sick. That is whyiam looking for an agency for disabled for traveling. Thank you

  6. pATSY
    FLORIDA
    May 13, 2015, 1:50 pm

    your Irish genes show up in your beautiful writing !

  7. Jim Carvey
    vermont, USA
    May 13, 2015, 1:49 pm

    I have been traveling to Ireland over the past 40 years and have been around the majority of this beautiful jewel of a country. I have met the friendly people who are always willing to share their Wit and Wisdom. My favorite place to just “Sit and Think” is atop the cliffs at slieve league in the wind and rain.
    Maybe I’m not normal, Oh Well.

  8. John Curry
    Helena, MT
    May 13, 2015, 11:23 am

    No matter how long I’m away, Ireland keeps calling me back. If I can pull it all together, I’d like to go at the end of summer. The Wonderful West is the first place I’ll head.

  9. Jayne
    Ireland
    April 12, 2015, 6:31 pm

    Captures the beauty in picture and prose, lovely to be reminded of the spectacularity of my home land it lifted my spirits , thank you :)

  10. Alicia
    Waco, Texas
    March 25, 2015, 9:49 pm

    I am in a Sr. Citizen Group Therapy group. We have about seven people in the group and one member plans to go to Ireland in August. Her family originated from there and she and her family are going for the first time. She seems so excited and thrilled to get the opportunity to see the land where her family started. I am happy for her and will tell her about this site. It is just breathtaking.

  11. samina soomro
    Abudhabi
    March 9, 2015, 12:12 am

    Yes .wonderful and a mazing place.I’m keen to visit TT his place.but to much expensive for me.but hope one day I will see this place

  12. Bruno B.
    Barcelona, Spain
    March 3, 2015, 7:04 am

    The first photo is stunning!
    Makes me wonder why hasn’t Ireland been on my bucket list.

    http://www.geekyexplorer.com

  13. Daniel Hehir McGrath
    Virginia
    March 2, 2015, 11:53 pm

    One of the highlights of our lives was the two weeks our entire family of eleven grandparents, sons, daughters and grandkids spent in Doolin. Our people came from Miltown Malbay which had around sixteen pubs when we visited.

  14. Jennifer Stevens
    Shanghai, China
    March 2, 2015, 7:22 pm

    Beautifully written prose! I can (and want to) imagine myself there, drinking a Guinness. But alas, I am downing coffee at my desk, preparing to teach the youth how to write. ;) Great job.

    http://www.adventurousappetite.com