I sat atop the quartzite mound at the summit of Diamond Hill, a strong wind blasting my face and a fog as thick as pea soup blocking my view while slowly drenching me to the core. A magnificent vista of the Twelve Bens spreading out across the rugged Connemara landscape was supposed to have been my reward for running up the 7km trail from the Visitor Center, but even in this disorienting whiteout, I was blissfully happy.
Columbia Compounder II: A wind and waterproof shell is pretty much mandatory for any hike in Ireland, as rain is common and even hiking in dense fog leaves you soaking wet.
Nokia Lumia 820: This is not only my phone, but has also become my camera. I took all my Ireland pictures on the Lumia, as I like the look and the camera works well in the often cloudy, low light settings of the country.
Columbia Conspiracy: My hiking shoes of choice for the summer, the OutDry lining helps to protect your feet from boggy trails. Be aware that although the OmniGrip sole offers great traction in most situations, not so much on wet, slabby stone. I almost wished for my Drainsocks and their OmniGrip Wet soles on certain parts of the trail.
Merino Wool: You are going to get wet. Even if it is raining and you have a shell on, you can't escape the ever present damp of Ireland. So, you might as well be warm and wet. The sheep is this country know a thing or two so follow their lead. An Icebreaker T-shirt and SmartWool socks for me.
Sea To Summit Carve 24L: With 250 days and 1600mm of rain a year, you are almost guaranteed to get wet at some point. Skip the raincover and go straight for a waterproof backpack instead.
I had come to the far West of Ireland in search of Oscar Wilde’s land of “savage beauty”. The heart of the region, County Galway, is rich not only in culture and history but endless miles of untamed landscapes. Although not as popular as County Cork, this part of Ireland is often visited, but mostly by travelers on a quick bus tour originating in Dublin. People on these coach tours are imprisoned behind glass, seldom venture further than the local cafeteria, and almost never walk amongst the sheep or even step foot on a genuine bog. I felt privileged to hike over this rugged and remote land, far from the crowds I experienced at the Cliffs of Moher the day prior (although walk 10 minutes along the trail past the viewing platform and you have the Cliffs all to yourself).
Situated close to the North Atlantic coast, Connemara National Park covers some 2,000 hectares of mountains, bogs, heaths, grasslands, and woodlands. Some of the park’s hills are part of the famous Twelve Bens or Beanna Beola range, a group of small mountains that dominate the countryside. Established in 1980, Connemara is one of six National Parks in Ireland, constructed out of lands that originally formed part of the neighboring Kylemore Abbey estate and the Letterfrack Industrial School.
My original desire was to climb at least one of the Bens, but with the current weather, that would have been a dangerous endeavour. Hiking trails do not really exist in this part of Ireland. Instead, most hiking is done “free form”, making your own way across the soggy blanket bog and scrambling up and along rocky ridgelines. Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park is the one exception. To stop erosion on this popular peak, the park service crafted a true hiking trail, making it easy for visitors (and sheep) to navigate.
Diamond Hill gets its name from the quartzite top that glistens in the sun, particularly after rain. The loop hike begins and ends at the Visitor Center, ascending 510m through blanket bog with a final steep scramble to the rocky summit. At the top you can see all the way to the ocean, across the Twelve Bens, and even down to Kylemore Abbey.
As mentioned before, this view was sadly not afforded me. But no matter, as one of the best things about hiking in Ireland is that there is always a pub close at hand to renew your spirits with a proper pint of Guinness. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to happen upon a trad session, where a small group of musicians casually play jigs and reels, bowing the fiddle, twiddling the keys on an Irish flute, and drumming feet tapping rhythms on the bodhrán.
During my week in Ireland, I hiked only a minuscule fraction of the endless “savage land” on offer. I desperately want to return, exploring farther north into Sligo and Donegal and down to the mountainous regions of Dingle, Killarney and Cork. As Irish author JM Synge once wrote, "One wonders in this place, why anyone is left in Dublin or in London, or in Paris, when it would be better to live in a tent, or a hut, with this magnificent sea and sky, and to breathe this wonderful air, which is like wine in one's teeth."
As I am comfortable driving on the “wrong side” of the road, we rented a car despite the wild protestations of our Dublin taxi driver. If you are not comfortable with single lane roads lined with hedges and stone, barely wide enough to fit two cars let alone tour buses, cyclists, sheep, and the odd rambling pedestrian thrown in, all while being pelted with rain to cut down on visibility, driving in Ireland may not be for you. However, you will get to see a great deal more of the countryside and meet some lovely people along the way.
Connemara & Mayo: A Walking Guide
by Paul Phelan – Detailed description of 33 of the best mountain, hill, and coastal walks in the region. Paul also leads guided hikes across this dramatic scenery.