ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #07 – Connemara to Kinvara and Bunratty
ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #07 – Connemara to Kinvara
Map of our route route (Connemara to Kinvara)
JUST HEADING NORTH
Today broke with yet again bright sun and warm temperatures. So after yet another Irish Breakfast we took to the road. Our plan was to meander up to the north and into the heart of the Connemara region, then circle back south to Kinvara, our home for the night, in time for our reserved Medieval Banquette and just see what presented itself along the way to see. So as not to get totally lost in these narrow country lanes we programmed our GPS to take us to Westport. Once in Westport the journey back down to the South, to Kinvara, would be on a better class of and hopefully faster than wanderings toward the north on narrow farm roads. On the map, Westport showed as a decent sized town and the literature said it was interesting to wander around. What made it even more interesting is that it was likely to have some place to do laundry as we had run out of clean versions of many important items – even through our rain gear and warm things had yet to come out of the suitcase.
After leaving the B&B we shortly discovered that we were literally within a couple hundred yards of a bay. In short order the road drifted closer to the bay and we stopped to photograph some horses near the road in a fenced field, hopefully with the bay in the background. The two horses were very happy that we stopped to visit and came right over to the fence where we were. However, once they determined we had nothing to feed them they lost interest and went back to grazing. I tried to tell them that I didn’t get the memo about traveling with apples just in case there was a horse in need, but they would have none of it.
Horse near the Bertraghboy Bay
Shortly after being rejected by the horses, we moved along going through towns with names like “Derradda West” and “Doonreaghan”. Really? One house near the road with a phone booth out front is a town? Apparently so. In short order we came to a “T” and turned right along a River.
The river is called the Owenmore and is a lazy thing, where you can’t even tell which way the water is going. More like a string of skinny lakes than a proper river. We saw a sign for some sort of fishing club but didn’t see any buildings or even a road so thought nothing of it. The road pretty much stayed with the river which was lovely. The far side of the river, which was just about wide enough to throw a rock across, had a bit of a rise and was covered with lush vegetation – much of which was Rhododendrons with profusions of pink flowers. These were massive, as large as many single family homes here in the states. The calm water of the river reflected these flower laden rhododendrons as reflecting the hills farther away. The near side of the river was covered with thick green brush. In other words the whole affair was just begging to be photographed, but there were no breaks in the brush between the road and the river to get through. And, even so, with no shoulders on the road and no driveways to pull into there was no place to stop anyway. So, mile after mile ticked by looking for a place to put the car so I could get some shots (well maybe a mile or two). Finally there was a little dirt patch off to the right where a dirt road lead to a closed gate of someone’s farm field. And there was enough room to wedge the car between a rock wall, the paved road and the dirt road without blocking either one – not that the farmer was likely to come by during the time we were there anyway.
Now that the car could be left alone for a while how to get down to the river. Well after crossing the road I found an opening in the brush with a path leading to the river’s edge and then going along the river for a bit. Remember that sign about some fishing venture I mentioned? Well, this path also had a sign that informed us that fishing was restricted to people who were clients or members of that fishing outfit. Well, as we had no fishing gear, and the sign didn’t say anything about photographers we went down the path, I found some rocks and went to work.
Owenmore River, Clifden area near Recess
Owenmore River, Clifden area near Recess
Now I feel better. Not too much farther down the road we came to a place where two lakes met and at a skinny part a decent sized highway crossed over right next to a large dirt parking area. OK, now the scene here was OK but all else being equal not strong enough to warrant pulling over. But, after days of driving these narrow lanes with no place to put the car even when there is a great shot, one doesn’t pass up a large parking area, and so we made use of it. I think this is the end of Lake Balynahinch but it might just as well be the beginning of Derryclare Lough as this is pretty much where they meet.
Lake Balynahinch or Derryclare Lough
Lake Balynahinch or Derryclare Lough
OK - but not the most scenic place in the world to photograph.
Continuing our meander toward Westport, we now found ourselves on a better road, the N59. The lanes were a bit wider so you could go a bit faster (maybe 35-40 mph) but there was still no shoulder. However the hedges and stone walls were now set back 5 or so feet from the edge which made for much less anxiety. From where we got on this road, it makes a big sweeping arc through the Connemara region first heading almost due west then looping around to north and winding up heading almost due east until it veers northeast up to Westport. This giant arc more or less loops around Connemara National Park.
This portion of road was a quite pleasant to drive when we weren’t stuck behind a slow moving lorry (truck to us west of the pond folks) or tractor. We meandered through farm land, what I suppose are moor’s and through quaint little towns and villages like Clifden, Moyard and Letterfrack to name a few. About 20 miles from our last stop we arrived at our next stop which is Kylemore.
Kylemore Castle was built as a private home for the family of Mitchell Henry, a wealthy doctor from London whose family was involved in textile manufacturing in Manchester, England. He moved to Ireland when he and his wife Margaret purchased the land here. Later he went into politics eventually becoming an MP for County Galway from 1871 to 1885.
Construction first began in 1867, and took one hundred men four years to complete. The castle covered approximately 40,000 square feet (3,700 m2) and had over seventy rooms with a principal wall that was two to three feet thick. The facade measures 142 feet (43 m) in width and is made of granite brought by sea from to Letterfrack and from limestone brought from Ballinasloe. There were 33 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 4 sitting rooms, a ballroom, billiard room, library, study, school room, smoking room, gun room, various offices and domestic staff residences for the butler, cook, housekeeper and other servants. Other buildings include a Gothic cathedral and family mausoleum containing the bodies of Margaret Henry, Mitchell Henry and a great grand-nephew. 1867, when it was built, is relatively late in terms of castle building and being so late in history they did not have to build it for defense, but rather they built it for pleasurable living.
Mitchell Henry was quite modern and scientific for his time and he spared no effort (or expense) to bring new ideas and self-sufficiency to the castle. He created his own hydraulic water system by tapping into a lake on the top of a nearby mountain to bring the water to the buildings, heat it and provide hot and cold running water throughout the castle not to mention installing facilities for fire suppression. The existence of this is one reason that a fire in 1959 only damaged a portion of the castle and the whole thing didn’t burn to the ground. He created his own fire department with estate workers, built a fire station, trained them in modern firefighting techniques and conducted periodic drills. In fact, the only real fire they had during his ownership was in the fire station itself when all their gear burned up as they could not get to it to put out the fire. Ahh, the best laid plans. When electricity became a thing he had the entire house switched from gas lighting to electric light and built his own power plant using the water pressure from the lake above to run turbines. Rather than having fireplaces in every room for heat he created a central heating system.
The Abbey remained in Henry's estate after he returned to England but was sold to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester in 1903 for 63,000 pounds It seems that a Mr. Eugene Zimmerman, an oil baron from Cincinnati purchased it as a wedding gift for his daughter who had married the duke of Manchester. The newly minted Duchess went right to work renovating the interior by removing gothic arches and stained glass windows, re-arranging and enlarging many rooms – particularly some of the bedrooms - all in a vain attempt to lure royalty to come for a visit. It didn’t work. The duke it seemed had a gambling habit and lost most of his fortune. It is not clear if he staked the deed to Kylemore on a hand of cards (and lost), or if he just had to sell the estate to pay gambling debts but either way in 1914 (only 11 years living there) they were no longer the owners. It is also said that before marrying Zimmerman’s daughter, he had also lost the family fortune to his habit. And, having nothing left went off to America to find a woman from a rich American family to marry. It worked.
In 1920, Benedictine Nuns purchased the castle and lands and turned it into an abbey. They did this after they were forced to flee Ypres (Belgium) during World War I – making this the oldest Benedictine Abbey in Ireland. These Benedictine Nuns spent their lives here and in Ypres providing education to girls of the mostly Irish nobility. However, going back to 1688, at the request of King James II, the nuns had moved from Ypres to Dublin. But, they returned to Ypres two years later following the defeat of King James at the Battle of the Boyne. After being in Ypres for several hundred years, bombing during World War I destroyed their Abbey there at which time they left and took refuge in England (London I believe). From there they moved to County Wexford south of Dublin and then in 1920 bought this place. During this entire period of time the nuns continued to offer education to Catholic girls
After buying the place in 1920, it was opened as an international boarding school for the daughters of Irish and European nobility in 1923. They later established a day school for girls from the local area. The day school acted as the main educator for most girls from Renvyle, Letterfrack and further afield for almost a century. . During that time they also ran a farm and guest house at Kylemore. The schools flourished until a major fire in 1959. After rebuilding the boarding school stayed operational until 2010 when they had to close it due to the amount of reconstruction required to bring it up to new safety codes.
This was one of the most picturesque castles I’ve ever had the privilege to photograph as you’ll see below
View Across the lake from the Abbey
KYLEMORE WALLED GARDEN
The Walled Victorian Garden at Kylemore is one mile west of the main abbey and is a 6-acre classic Victorian Walled Garden. It was built by Mitchell Henry at the same time as the construction of Kylemore Castle between 1867 and 1871. This garden was one of the last walled gardens to be built during the Victorian period in Ireland and is the only garden in Ireland that is located in the middle of a bog. The garden was so advanced for the time that it was even compared with Kew Gardens in London.
You get to the garden these days by walking or on a shuttle bus that uses the original highway. When Mitchell Henry first built Kylemore, the highway went right past the front of the abbey, actually between the abbey and the lake. So, Mitchell moved the highway the other side of the lake and behind a bunch of forest so it couldn’t be seen from the abbey. He then ripped out the old highway, except for the section connecting the abbey to the garden.
In order to make the estate as self-sufficient as possible, Mitchell wanted all the food needed by the estate to be grown within its boundaries. This included fruits and vegetables not native to Ireland. To do this, he built 21 glasshouses and undertook huge engineering feats to heat them. These glasshouses were heated by three boilers, one of which doubled as a limekiln - which produced fertilizer as well as heat - and a complex system of underground hot-water pipes measuring almost a mile in length. When in use, most of the 21 heated green houses were designed and used for just one type of crop (Banana, Pineapple, Avocado, Persimmon, Orange, lemon, Etc.)
The rest of the walled garden was split into two areas. One was used for all the flowers that would be used to decorate the interior of the mansion year round. This section was laid out in a formal Victorian manner. The second section was used to grow the produce used in the castle throughout the year which didn’t need the heated glasshouses. This second section was laid out in a more traditional manner with rectangular plots. Throughout both gardens, sight lines were very important to the design. Hedges were used to mask off sections that didn’t look good with other sections.
In later years, under the ownerships of The Duke and Duchess of Manchester and later Ernest Fawke, the garden went into decline. In time the Flower Garden became a wilderness and the glasshouses collapsed, leaving only their brick bases. In 1996, the Benedictine Community, who have always used the garden, began restoration work with the help of grant aid, large bank loans and the generosity of donors. To date, two of the glasshouses have been rebuilt along with the Head Gardener’s House and Workman’s Bothy.
The Garden was re-opened in 1999 and won the prestigious Europa Nostra Award in 2002. Uniquely, only plants and vegetables which grew in Victorian times are grown in the garden today. Currently, there is a vinery, banana trees, vegetables and herbs that are used in the restaurant for lunch as well as a beautiful array of plants and flowers.
Formal Victorian “Flower” garden with reconstructed Glasshouses in back
Formal Victorian “Flower”
Yes, he had sheep too
We continued our northern direction on to Westport and at some point we crossed over into County Mayo – not that it mattered all that much as it all looked the same. The drive from Kylemore to Westport was a bit under an hour and on a decent road.
As a full fledged city similar in size to Galway (at least the font size on the paper map is the same), we figured it would be a good place to find a Laundromat as well as see the sights. We really didn’t have any particular attractions mapped out to see and needed to also make sure to leave enough time for the drive down to Kinvara for checking into our B&B and getting to the medieval banquette we’d reserved. So, not knowing where to actually go in Westport we just followed the signs down to the harbor.
After finding a parking place we got on our trusty smart phone to search out a Laundromat. Well, it seems that such things as coin operated self service laundry facilities were not known in Westport. We would meet up with our formal tour group the next evening after which doing a major laundry run would be quite problematic so the urgency of this matter was somewhat high. As it turned out by this time it was mid afternoon so taking the laundry to a service would not work as we wouldn’t get it back before we had to leave town. So we formulated a plan. As Kinvara was only about 20 minutes from Galway, and all we needed to do the next day was get ourselves to Bunratty (a bit over an hour drive) we had plenty of for in Galway.
But, guess what. Galway too has no Laundromats either. What they have is laundry services, some of which also have some self serve, coin operated, machines on the premises but they are only available when the store is open – which is not on a Sunday or Bank holiday. And, wouldn’t you know, tomorrow was a Sunday and the next day was a bank holiday. OK so maybe no one would sit near us on the tour bus. But wait. On the call to the third laundry place in Galway we tried, a very nice person on the phone told us about doing our laundry at the Texaco Gas Station in Galway. Huh? The Texaco gas station? Well, it seems that this particular Texaco station also features an outdoor coin operated laundry. You don’t say! So now we had a (marginal and unlikely) plan and could relax and see some of Westport.
As we were parked near the harbor, and only had a couple of hours – which had to include dinner - till we needed to hit the road again we decided to wander around the harbor area which turned out to be Clew Bay. This is not a bustling harbor/marina but more just an estuary with some shops and apartments overlooking a manmade lake. Off the other way nearby is a tidal marsh and walkway along a tidal channel. There were some boats in a storage lot but no real marina that we could see. But we walked around anyway and found a wonderful old abandoned barge of some kind, but not much more, so we had some dinner and took off.
Shops and apartments at Clew Bay, Westport
On the pier
LAUNDRY AT A TEXACO STATION
After leaving Westport for Kinvara and seeing as how we would be attempting to do laundry at the suggested Texaco station in Galway and the next morning and that Galway was on the way to Kinvara we thought we’d stop to check it out – not really assuming it would be what was needed if indeed it existed at all. So, into Galway we went. Now, normally I’d not be too keen on center city driving with all that it entails on the left side of the road and not knowing where I’m going, but seeing as how it was late afternoon on a Saturday it wouldn’t be that bad. So, after a few wrong turns we found the aforementioned Texaco station and lo and behold, right there at the edge of the asphalt was an outdoor coin Laundromat. What a great idea – get gassed and washed at the same time.
One big washer, one small washer and one dryer. Just what the doctor ordered. However, it was full and had several people waiting and we did need to get to Kinvara. But now we knew where it was and that it would work for us the next morning where, being Sunday, there’d probably be less of a line.
Finding the B&B in Kinvara was a bit of a challenge as we just had its name and since it was a last minute arrangement over the phone we had no confirmation number and as luck would have it we couldn’t even find the slip of paper with the phone number. After driving up and down Kinvara a few times we finally found some locals who said it was at the main intersection in town across from a pub and built over a super market. Uh-oh, this doesn’t sound too promising but what choice did we have it being a 3 day weekend with warm sunny weather. We found the place and rang the buzzer of the locked door to be let in.
I nice young Irish girl with flaming red hair came down to greet us and the first words she spoke in a wonderful Irish brogue were, “You must be the Hartford’s. I have to apologize but there’s been a bit of a mix up and we have no rooms available”. Say what? However, she continued, “But don’t worry, we booked you into another B&B a bit closer to the castle which we think you’ll like and it’s 15 Euro cheaper. Well, with no other options we said sure and got instructions on how to get there. Indeed it was a few blocks away and in a more residential area of single family.
As it turned out, it was actually quite nice in a newly constructed building. We were on the top floor of a two story addition annex of the main house so it was warm inside (no one in Ireland has A/C), but had all the things we needed and I dare say turned out to be much more serene than I imagine it would have been across the street from a bar and above a Supermarket looking out on the parking lot. So, all turned out well in the end – and we saved 15 Euro.
Originally we had wanted to take in the medieval banquette at Bunratty Castle, which we did in 1981 and had a great time, but when we went to make reservations a couple a months earlier it was already sold out. It seems that many tours go there now. So, we found this much smaller one in a small castle in Kinvara.
The dinner was in Dunguaire Castle which is a 16th-century tower house on the southeastern shore of Galway Bay, near Kinvara. The castle name derives from the Dun of King Guaire, the legendary king of Connacht. The castle's 75-foot (23 m) tower and its defensive wall have been restored, and the grounds are open to tourists during the summer.
The castle itself is pretty modest. Just a tower house and small walled courtyard. However it does have a bit of cinematic history. In 1969 it appeared in the Walt Disney movie Guns in the Heather (which I don’t remember ever hearing of), featuring Kurt Russell, in which the castle was featured as Boyne Castle. It was also the Scottish castle home of the main character in the 1979 film North Sea Hijack which I also never heard of.
The banquet was a somewhat subdued affair with family style seating for maybe 50 to 80 people. The staff who checked us in also played music for us downstairs in the reception area, waited tables upstairs during dinner and put on a stage show in between on a tiny little stage. The stage show was basically a male and female lead with a harp player and an odd additional person from time to time. They gave us a history of the place, sang traditional songs, told stories and performed skits. It wasn’t bad but nowhere near as dramatic or entertaining as what we remembered took place at Bunratty Castle where people got thrown in the dungeon and the cast included a royal family as well as court jester and a knight or two. But going to a medieval banquette is something one needs to do when one visits Ireland – and so we did.
Performance during banquette
ON TO MEET OUR TOUR GROUP
Route from Kinvara, with stop at Galway for Laundry and ending in Bunratty
The next morning we got laundered at the Texaco station as I already talked about after which we just drove down to Bunratty and checked into the B&B where about half of our tour group would be staying that night (the other half was at another B&B down the lane). Before getting too involved though we had to return our rental car to the Shannon Airport which was only about a 15 minute drive away. The idea was to drop the car at the rental car return, catch the free shuttle over to the terminal and then grab a cab back to the B&B.
All went according to plan except one thing. As no flights were due to arrive anytime soon, there were no cabs. In fact the “transportation” kiosk in the terminal was open, but no one was there. Lights were on, computer was on, a jacket was on the seat back, but no person. So we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally we found a little sign with a phone number and just as we were dialing someone showed up and was quite surprised to see people at her kiosk looking for a cab. As it turned out she had been out getting something to eat with a friend of hers who happened to be a cab driver. So, they called someplace to get permission for him to take us back to Bunratty. I’m not clear what the issue was, but I suspect he wasn’t licensed for airport pickups or some such. Anyway we made it back.
That night a bunch of us went out to dinner in the town of Bunratty and took a nice evening stroll back to the B&B.
So ends our 6th and 7th day in Ireland, still Bright Sun, mid/upper 70’s (f), and no rain. I was so thankful that for our entire time with the rental car I never had to drive I the rain or after dark.
Next on our agenda –Bunratty to Skibbereen
I hope you enjoyed reading this travel log and will read accounts of future trips.
- Images of this trip can be found on my website at.
The Ireland blog series can be found here:
This Blog can be found online here:
Thanks for reading -- Dan
Keywords: Bertraghboy Bay, Blog, Clew Bay, County Galway, DanTravelBlog, DanTravelBlogIreland, Derryclare Lough, Dunguaire Castle, Ireland, Kylemore Abbey, Kylemore Castle, Kylemore Walled Victorian Garden, Lake Balynahinch, Owenmore River, Travel Blog, Travel Log, Westport
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