Iar Connacht – Connemara / Barony of Ballynahinch
Connemara shore (Photo by emmaline)
Connemara / Conamara is a broad peninsula between Kilkieran Bay and Killary Harbour. It is bounded on the south, west, and north by the Atlantic Ocean, while its eastern boundary is marked by the western spine of the Maumturks mountain range, Loch Oorid (which lies a few miles west of Maam Cross), and the Invermore River (which meets the sea near Derryrush).
Connamara derives its name from the Conmhaícne (descendants of the mythical Con Mhac – “hound son”), an ancient tribe whose various distinct branches were scattered around Ireland by the early medieval period. The locals were known as the Conmhaícne Mhara – “the Conmhaícne of the sea”. The main family lines were the Mac Conghaile / Conneely clan and the Ó Cadhla / Kealy clan, who ruled Connemara until the C13th, when the region was taken over by the Uí Fhlaithbheartaigh clan (the “Ferocious O’Flahertys“).
The old barony of Ballynahinch (historically aka Balli-nuhinch and Ballinahensie), created in 1585 with the shiring of County Galway, covers almost all of the traditional territory of Connemara, which comprised the former civil parishes of Ballynakill, Ballindoon, Moyrus and Omey, plus Inishbofin in the barony of Murrisk in County Mayo (the last parish was for a time part of Umhall, the territory of the Uí Mháille / O’Malley clan).
Although long divided between two baronies, the South Connemara Islands (including Gorumna & the Islands District, Feenish, Mweenish, St McDara’s Island and Deer Island) traditionally pertain to Connemara, as do Omey, High Island, Friars Island etc., the islands off Renvyle and Inishbofin & Inishark. Galway County Council also administers Inishturk, although the geographic basis for this is not obvious, and even less so for its neighbour Caher Island.
Connemara was traditionally divided into North Connemara and South Connemara. The mountains of the Twelve Bens and the Owenglin River, which flows into the sea at An Clochán / Clifden, marked the boundary between the two parts.
ByRoute 1 (mainly coastal) takes in Iorras Ainbhtheach – Derryrush, Kilkieran, Carna, Moyrus, Glinsk; Cashel, Doonreaghan; Roundstone, the Errisbeg peninsula, Ballyconneely and the Errismore Peninsula, Errislannan, Clifden, the Aughris peninsula – Claddaghduff, Cleggan, Moyard; Letterfrack and the Renvyle penisula, Kylemore and Leenaun.
An Interior Route links Oorid Lough with Ballynahinch.
The Twelve Bens / Pins / Benna Beola /Bennabeola is the name of Connemara’s most famous mountain range, “called by marriners the twelve stakes [i.e. stacks], being the first land they discover as they come from the maine” (O’Flaherty). They provide excellent walking and climbing opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. Dedicated fell runners attempt to hike all twelve peaks in a single day. The highest point in the Twelve Bens is Benbaun / Binn Bhán (729m /2,392 ft), followed by Bencorr / Binn Chorr (711m / 2,333 ft), Bencollaghduff / Binn Dubh (696m/ 2,283 ft), Benbreen/ Binn Bhraoin (691m / 2,267 ft), Derryclare / Binn Doire Chláir (677 m / 2,221 ft), Bengower / Binn Gabhar (664 m / 2,178 ft), Muckanaght / Meacanach (654 m / 2,146 ft), Benfree / Binn Fraoigh (638 m / 2,093 ft) Bencullagh / An Chailleach (632m / 2,073 ft), Benbrack / Binn Breac (582m / 1,909 ft), Benlettery / Binn Leitrí (577 m / 1,893 ft) and Benglenisky / Binn Glean Uisce (516 m / 1,693 ft). A number of other mountains in the range are in fact higher than Benglenisky, but do not have sufficient prominence to be included in the list.
Connemara National Park
Connemara National Park, one of six National Parks in the Republic, covers some 3000 hectares of mountains, bogs, heaths, grasslands, forests, lakes and streams, lacking only seashore to be truly representative of the region.
Opened to the public in 1980, the park stitches together most of the old Letterfrack estate founded by Quakers James and Mary Ellis to help the local population after the Great Famine, and later run by the Christian Brothers‘ notorious St Joseph’s Industrial School, with areas that once formed part of the Kylemore and Ballyhinch estates. The park’s summits are all within the famous range known as the Twelve Bens. The higher ground is mainly dry blanket bog, with wet boglands situated in the lower lying environments.
On 21–22 May 2010, International Biodiversity Day, six wildlife sites across Ireland took part in ‘Biodiversity Blitz’ to see which site could record the most species in a 24 hour period. Connemara National Park won, with a total of 542 species recorded, including four species of bat, seven species of butterfly, 51 species of macro-moth, 10 species of micro-moth, four species of dragonfly/damselfly, 46 other invertebrate species, 2 amphibian species, 55 bird species, 218 flowering plant species, 83 bryophytes, 17 lichens, 18 liverworts, and 18 algae – a reflection of the diverse nature of Connemara’s flora and fauna.
The most common plant found in the park is purple moorgrass, creating colourful landscapes. (Photo – www.dooneenlodge.com)
Other flora include bog cotton, bog asphodel, bog myrtle, milkwort and lousewort, plus a varied range of lichens and mosses. Rare plant species from the colder areas of Europe and the Arctic may be observed growing high up in the mountains, such as roseroot, purple and starry saxifrages, lesser twayblade, and mountain sorrel. Conversely, plants usually associated with the Iberian peninsula grow locally, notably pale butterwort, St Dabeoc’s heath and St Patrick’s Cabbage. Exotic orchids can also be found. Carnivorous plants play an important role in the park’s ecosystem, the most common being sundew and butterworts trap. Bogs hold very little nutrients so many plants obtain their energy from the digestion of insects.
An amateur video of frogs enjoying a spring shower in the park can be viewed here.
Common song birds include meadow pipits, skylarks, stonechats, chaffinches, robins and wrens. Native birds of prey include the kestrel and Eurasian Sparrowhawk, while merlin and peregrine falcon are less frequently seen. Woodcock, snipe, starling, song thrush and mistle thrush are more common in winter, along with seasonal migrants such as redwing and fieldfare.
The park is grazed by a herd of wild Connemara ponies (presented to the nation by President Erskine Childers); feral goats and untamed donkeys can also be seen, although sheep appear to be banned. Red deer, once common locally, were extirpated from the region in the mid-C19th; an attempt is being made to reintroduce them to Connemara with the establishment of a herd within the Park. Fieldmice are common in the woodlands, where pine martens and pygmy shrews can also be found, but the boglands are the best place to sight rabbits, Irish mountain hares, Irish stoats and foxes.
Traces of manmade structures range from 4,000-year-old megalithic court tombs to a C19th century graveyard. From the cultivation ridges and hollows still visible, it is apparent that this was an agricultural region with the higher lands used for grazing and lower lying areas used for growing vegetables. Ruined houses, a lime kiln, an ice house, a drainage system and an ancient road proove that a significant population lived here in the past.
Tobar Mweelin, a Holy Well associated with Saint Maol Roc, was tapped to supply water to Kylemore Castle and enclosed within a Victorian pump house, still in use today.
Letterfrack is the location of the main entrance to the park and a Visitors’ Centre that has an interesting museum and pleasant café, plus lots of information, maps and guides about walking routes etc. and is the starting point for some lovely waymarked trails, 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 the park and live music in the Letterfrack pubs.