Letterfrack and Ballinakill Harbour on Barnaderg Bay, with Tully Mountain on the Renvyle Peninsula in the background. (Photo by Chalky Lives)
Letterfrack & the Renvyle Peninsula (Co. Galway / West)
Letterfrack (Leitir Fraic) is a small community with a range of accommodation and dining options, popular with hearty backpackers / hill walkers who tend to congregate on summer evenings in and around the three local pubs, known for their jovial atmosphere.
The toponym derives from Leitir, meaning “rough hillside”, and either fraig, the Old Irish word meaning “woman”, or fraoc, meaning “heather”.
James and Mary Ellis moved from Bradford in England to Letterfrack during the Great Famine, becoming the resident landlords in 1849. As committed Quakers, they wanted to help with the post-Famine relief effort, and built a schoolhouse, housing for tradesmen, a shop, a dispensary, and a temperance hotel, leasing some 1,000 acres of rough land for farming and tree planting.
John Hall, a staunch supporter of the Irish Church Mission to Roman Catholics, bought the property in 1857 with the aim of converting the locals to Protestantism. After 25 years of only very limited success he sold it in 1882 at a low price to a purchaser he believed to be a fellow Anglican, but was in fact Dr John McEvilly, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, acting under a false name.
St Joseph’s Industrial School, established by the Christian Brothers as an institution for homeless and delinquent boys in 1885, won belated notoriety through revelations of a regime of terror involving neglect, mental cruelty, extreme physical punishments and routine sexual abuse of young boys over many years, with 147 children dying under the Order’s “care”. Following timid media exposure, the school closed in 1974.
Former inmate Peter Tyrrell, who claimed he received better treatment as a German POW during WWII than he had as a child in Letterfrack, described the place vividly in his memoir Founded in Fear, published some 40 years after he burned himself to death on London’s Hampstead Heath in 1967. Playwright / author Mannix Flynn is another graduate.
Guglielmo Marconi chose Letterfrack in 1913 as the location for the European reception of transatlantic wireless messages from the Marconi Towers in Nova Scotia simultaneously with westbound messages from his Clifden station until the latter was damaged during the Civil War and the facilities were transferred to Wales, by which time such duplex operations had became standard practice.
The former Industrial School complex has been run by Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) since 1987 as a Furniture College / Campus, which holds an end-of-year furniture exhibition from June to August; Connemara Community Radio also broadcasts from here.
Connemara National Park largely comprises land formerly belonging to the Industrial School. The park’s Visitors’ Centre in Letterfrack has an interesting museum and tea rooms plus lots of information, maps, guides etc. and is the starting point for some lovely walks, including a track all the way to the top of Diamond Hill, which commands stunning views of the area.
Bog Week and Sea Week are two annual festivals that take place here, with programmed talks and workshops on environmental matters, hill-walking in Connemara National Park and live music in the pubs.
Letterfrack Lodge is a modern hostel with self-catering accommodation facilities.
The fishing port is just a two minute walk away. There are also several other walking trails and numerous isolated beaches within a ten minute drive.
The Renvyle Peninsula / Rinn Mhaoile (“Bare Headland”), described by the painter Augustus John as “the most beautiful landscape in the world”, is a jewel, best explored by walking or cycling along its pretty country lanes, garlanded with bright red fuchsia and many wild flowers.
Derryinver Quay is a popular watersport venue, where boats can be chartered for fishing / scuba diving excursions and trips to the peninsula’s offshore islands, inhabited and uninhabited.
The Ocean & Country Museum has exhibits on Connemara’s seafaring heritage, an impressive aquarium, a Sea Angling Centre, a panoramic telescope, and also organises Ireland’s only glass-bottomed tours.
Near Derryinver there is a conspicuous set of six Standing Stones known as Finn MacCool’s Fingers, aligned E-W with the Winter Solstice, and an impressive chamber tomb.
Tully Mountain (355m), an imposing ridge dominating the landscape, is actually very accessible, despite the lack of formal paths; the summit commands stunning views of the Atlantic coast.
Renvyle Point is the location of Teampaill na Seacht nInion,a medieval church dedicated to the Seven Sisters of Renvyle, said to have been the daughters of a King of Leinster or a chief of Omey Island, who supposedly built it to give thanks for the cures they received from the waters of a nearby Holy Well.
Renvyle Castle & Renvyle House
Renvyle Castle, a C13th / C14th Tower House, is said to have been erected by a member of the Joyce clan; according to legend a Joyce wedding party was interrupted by the rival O’Flahertys, who massacred all the guests but one and took over the stronghold, but in fact it is more probable that they built it themselves.
It is known that land at Renvyle was purchased from the O’Halloran family in in the early C17th by the great clan chieftain Murrough na Maor O’Flaherty; the property was inherited in 1636 by his son Edmund, who as one of Inishbofin‘s defenders against Cromwellian troops in 1653 was forced into hiding in the woods above Renvyle only to be captured, tried and executed.
Grace O’Malley / Granuaile is supposed to have lived in the castle with her first husband Donal O’Flaherty, and later partly demolished it with a cannon shot from a ship.
In 1680 the Renvyle estate was purchased from Richard, Earl of Westmeath, by Henry Blake, a Protestant member of an old Galway family who acquired a large section of Connemara. At Renvyle they built an impressive house between the sea and the rocks…
A girls school established under the auspices of the Kildare Place Society of Dublin and controlled by the Blakes, although the pupils were Roman Catholic, lasted from 1820 to 1824.
In 1883 Mrs Caroline Blake, finding herself in conflict with her tenants and the Land League, was forced to turn the house into a hotel, apparently without much success.
Oliver St John Gogarty bought Renvyle House early in the C20th, and described it thus: “My house…stands on a lake, but it stands also on the sea – waterlillies meet the golden seaweed. It is as if, in the faery land of Connemara at the extreme end of Europe, the incongruous flowed together at last, and the sweet and bitter blended. Behind me, islands and mountainous mainland share in a final reconciliation, at this, the world’s end”.
During the Civil War Gogarty was known to support the Free State side, and the house was burned down by Anti-Treaty vandals in February 1923. In 1930 he rebuilt the house with the compensation money he received, and opened it as a hotel.
Renvyle House Hotel *** is now a Lutyens-esque mansion with a charming old fashioned atmosphere, notwithstanding its heated outdoor swimming pool. The 200-acre grounds take in a beach, a private lake stocked with trout, a small golf course, a clay pigeon shooting range, tennis courts and lawns for croquet or bowls, which together with mature woodlands and varied gardens provide a striking contrast to the surrounding rugged landscape.
The conservatory bar is a great place for snacks, while the formal dining room, complete with open fire and a classical pianist playing Count John McCormack‘s Steinway Grand, is fitting scenario for top-class evening meals.
The history of Renvyle House is recorded in JA Lidwill‘s A Seagrey House (1987). Guests over the years have includedWB Yeats (who found the domestic ghosts courteous), Lady Gregory, George Bernard Shaw, Augustus John andWinston Churchill.
Tully, a quaint seaside village founded c.1828, has a number of B&Bs; the oldest is the Coneely family’s Sunnymeade, while the pictured Castle House was built in the C19th for the Diamond family; both families also offer Self Catering accommodation.
The Diamonds of Renvyle have cultivated their local business interests for four generations, and are the proud owners of Renvyle Fisheries, Diamonds Bar & Restaurant and Diamonds Equestrian Centre. They also hire out bicycles.
The Teach Ceoil (music house) draws traditional musicians and dancers from far and wide, especially on Tuesday nights, and also hosts drama and story-telling sessions.
Trá ns mBean (Ladies Beach), flanked by a small pier where fishermen land their daily catch, has rock pools and sheltered corners where visitors spend hours exploring, fishing, swimming and picnicking.
Tully Lough and Rusheenduff Lough, two lakes surrounded by blanket bog and wet pastureland, are habitats for several rare species of plant, notably the Slender Naiad. The former has a large island where an old house shelters a colony of Natterer’s Bats.
Tully Cross / Tullycross (Crosairean Tulaigh – “cross of the hill”) is a little village noted for its traditional thatched cottages, several of which are available for holiday rental. Its two pubs, The Anglers Rest and Paddy Coynes, are popular with visitors and locals alike for their traditional and contemporary music sessions.
The church of Christ the King (RC), overlooking the square, has a three-panelled stained glass window designed by Harry Clarke at the request of Oliver St John Gogarty.
An Ogham Stone bears the druidic script version of the name of the townland, Gurteenachough (“little garden of stones”).
The Connemara Mussel Festival is held at Tullycross annually on the May Bank Holiday weekend.
Lettergesh and Glassilaun / Glassaluan boast cinematically famous beaches; the first, nowadays popular with scuba divers, was used for the horse race scene in John Ford’s filmThe Quiet Man (1952), while the latter was the primary location for Ridley Scott`s Tristan and Isolde (2003).
The Renvyle peninsula also featured in The Field (1990), The Seventh Stream (2001) and the ITVpolice drama Single Handed (2006, 2007 & 2008).