Exploring Ireland’s Rugged West Coast

My family is what I like to refer to as “Classic Canadian,” a colourful mix of French, English, Scottish and Irish ancestry  On my world travels I’ve had a chance to eat my way through London, attend the acclaimed Edinburgh Festival and prance about the streets of Paris. A visit to Ireland would be the last adventure required for my family puzzle to be complete. I grew up surrounded by stories of these roots. My grandfather used to love to show us the the Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People starring the dashing Sean Connery. The finest fiddle music, a Leprechaun kingdom and pot of gold? Yes please!

My Irish adventure started with a three day private tour of the Emerald Isles rugged west coast. I was picked up at the Dublin Airport by my always smiling guide Conor Delaney. We quickly found ourselves zooming across the country from the East to West Coast. Amazing for a Canadian to cross a country in just two hours! Our first stop was at McGeoughs Butchers in Oughterard. Owner James McGeough trained for four years in Germany working in both butcher shops and restaurants then returned to Ireland with his German wife to take over the family business. Their little shop in Oughterard is one of the few craft butchers in Ireland still operating their own abattoir  James makes delicious air-dried and smoked hams, an innovative air-dried and smoked lamb made from nine month old Connemara lamb and even his salami has an Irish spin, flavoured with Irish Whiskey!

Hopping back in the car we enjoyed a leisurely drive into the heart of Connemara. The region is know for its picturesque Emerald Isle lush green, rural farmhouses and steep coastal cliffs. This is the Ireland we dream about: unspoilt and moody landscapes featuring roadside sheep herds, rolling hills and ancient bridges over roaring rivers. Just as the sun began to set across the sky we arrived at the stunning Ballynahinch Castle. Built in 1756 by the Martin Family, Ballynahinch was the Manor House for one of the largest estates in Ireland and The British Isles at the time. The area, previously ruled by the O’Flaherty Clan in the 16th Century, and home of the infamous pirate queen, Grace O’Malley is steeped in history and legend. The Estate offers a wild variety of woodland and riverside walks with ample opportunity to explore local flora and fauna: red squirrels, pine martins, peregrine falcons, Atlantic salmon and red deer.

I had a quick shower and then strapped on my dress shoes for a photo shoot of the castles stunning interior. I poked into rooms filled with shimmering chandeliers, antique sofas, ancient libraries and cracking fireplaces. The castles little pub is where I had the opportunity to enjoy my first pint of Irish beer, a cold glass of Smithwick’s. After a few sudsy swigs I pranced through the lobby and arrived at their Owenmore Restaurant where I would spend the evening feasting with GM Patrick Flaherty. 

The following morning I marched right back to the restaurant to enjoy my first Full Irish Breakfast. While sipping on tea and slathering scones with fresh preserves I read through the newspaper which announced the worlds next Pope from Argentina. After checking out of our rooms we hopped back into the car and spent the early morning zooming along rural roads, past ancient castles and curious cows. Our first stop of the day was Connemara Smokehouse located in a wee building right on the water. This family run Smokehouse has been operating since 1979 and employs traditional smoking methods handed down through generations. Delicate flavours from the wild Irish Atlantic blend subtly with aromatic beechwood smoke. Favourites included honey roasted smoked salmon and cold smoked tuna.

Our next stop was at the adorable Burren Perfumery located off an unassuming dirt road. Founded 40 years ago, the team at Burren have been taking advantage of the West Coasts unique limestone uplands outstanding floral diversity. The surrounding hills feature 70% of the countries wildflower species which are curated into Burren Perfumery’s uniquely Irish cosmetic products. Guests can wander through the gifts hop, enjoy a video presentation in their wee theatre, wander through the garden, chat with staff in the workshop and enjoy their organic tea room offering savoury lunches and sweet cakes. I thought how much my sister, mother, aunts and grandmother would love this place. A little cottage filled with perfume, cream, balm and soap. All made by hand in small batches.

Blasting back onto the coastal highway our last stop of the day was at the epic Cliffs of Moher,  one of Ireland’s top visitor attractions and a designated UNESCO Geo Park. The Cliffs are 214m high at the highest point and range for 8 kilometers over the Atlantic Ocean on the western seaboard of County Clare. From the Cliffs one can see the Aran Islands and Galway Bay. The Cliffs take their name from a ruined promontory fort “Mothar” which was demolished during the Napoleonic wards to make room for a signal tower.

The wind was rather wild on The Cliffs that afternoon and the skies were a rich grey. I saw showers dropping across the ocean and motioned for us to hop back into the car and end our day on a dry note. That evening we checked into the stunning boutique G Hotel in Galway. The interior here is jaw dropping and designed by the world famous hat designer Philip Treacy. A visit to Galway is not complete without a stroll through the wild and whimsical rooms of The G. I had a quick shower in my room before throwing on my dress jacket bound for Michelin Star Aniar Restaurant.

The following morning I sauntered over to Restaurant Gigi at The G Hotel and enjoyed a hot cup of tea and hearty plate of eggs benedict. After refuelling for the day we hit the streets for a walking tour of Galway. Medieval Galway is the 4th largest city in Ireland and began as a small fishing village centered on the estuary of the River Corrib. There is vibrancy to this friendly University city: live music, festivals, horse racing, pubs, restaurants, shops, theatres and most of all the smiling people who fill its streets.  Highlights of our city walk included Galway Cathedral, river side stroll, the bustling Latin Quarter, Eyre Square, St. Nicholas Church a wee pork butcher and Sheridans Cheesemongers.

There really isn’t a better way to say goodbye to a place than feasting on fromage. Sheridans in Galway is a food emporium paradise offering dry goods as well as a speciality in cured meats and cheeses from across Europe. Upstairs at their wine bar guests enjoy sips from a collection of European bottles. My final and fond memory of my adventure along Ireland’s West Coast will forever live within the whispers and odours at Sheridans Cheesemongers. Durrus raw milk semi soft from West Cork, the creamiest Cashel Blue from County Tipperary and Killeeu Goat from Galway itself. The region impresses with a final bow from its cheese masters.

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