I first encountered this unique part of the world some twenty-five years ago when travelling, for a New Year’s break with my siblings, from Cork to a slightly damp cottage on the Renvyle peninsula. I awoke from a back seat slumber to what can only be described as a Tolkinesque scene. In the foreground there was a flat sedge-filled wilderness, wind-whipped and waving in the manner of a seascape. The road narrowed into the distance in a perfect demonstration of the perspective and, in the immediate distance loomed, sentinel, a range of dramatic, yet not at all forbidding, mountains. All this would have just been a wet landscape had it not been for the Light.
Light defines Connemara and its character in a way that other canvasses of nature cannot be enlivened. It is the sorcerer’s secret ingredient, the chef’s private trick, the element that elevates the mundane to the spectacular. On that late December afternoon in the Inagh Valley the light was so celestial that it would not have been out of place in a scene by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
Be it the folds and clefts of the mountains, sometimes clear, sometimes shrouded, the azure blue of the sea or the sparkling treasure trove of the lakes and rivers of this land there is a soul-lifting, heart-gladdening humility that comes from standing in the light of Connemara. It can be said that something is released in us, something, visceral, when engaging with this landscape.
Today, when returning to Connemara from any absence, the sense of place is palpable. There is an affirmation of belonging as one rounds the corner after Sweeney’s hotel in Oughterard and simultaneously, Connemara opens before you and the Maam Turks prepare to embrace you. I reserve my embrace for the Twelve Pins a little further down the road but always offer a passing nod to her sisters as I pass through Maam Cross, then dip into the barony of Ballynahinch.
This sense of place is not some abstract self-indulgence; it comes from my neighbours, the unique people of this corner of Ireland. Maybe it is their close proximity to the sea, the fact that they are of a land that is nearly an island. There are many islanders living here now and they share a unique sense of community. Whatever it is, the decency of the people is striking. Be it help lifting a boat, capturing errant livestock, celebrating a birth or standing in the good clothes, in the pouring rain, waiting to take their turn on the shovel to help bury your dead, the people of Connemara will never leave you needing.
And so the land of celestial and earthly light shines on and in the words of poet Michael Cody,
is a state of light.
Of fluent sky, flayed rock
and flowering bog.
Of storied lake and inlet
and deep song.
Of wind and wild.
My favourite place in Ireland, my home, Connemara.