My love affair with the west of Ireland began some years ago when I attended a family reunion. It was great fun – for two short days.

Due to work commitments, I was pressed for time, so I rushed around the Ring of Kerry, took a photo at the Cliffs of Moher, and drove across The Burren without realizing it was a geological wonder.

I also stopped briefly for one evening in Westport as part of my charge through County Mayo and the rugged Connemara region. However, there was something beguiling about this quiet market town that has stuck in my memories over the years.

Slow Travel

Now, retired and with the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, I decided to go back to the region, following the coastal “Wild Atlantic Way” as my guide. This time I was determined to practice the concept of slow travel, which emphasizes connections to local people, cultures, food, and music.

Luxuriously, I gave myself two weeks in the west of Ireland including eight days in Westport. Airbnb helped me find a comfortable apartment a few kilometers outside of town. The rental came with stunning views of Clew Bay and Croag Patrick, a mountain closely associated with Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. In the field next door was a herd of cows that woke me each morning with their soft mooing. This was rural Ireland.

I jumped into the local scene by taking an Irish baking class. The two instructors, former teachers, were charming and chatty. They talked about locally sourced foods, a fascinating history of Irish butter, and quite a bit of town gossip. For breakfast, I was able to have my own freshly baked scones, washed down by a cup of tea.

But now it was time to nourish my mind. If the Irish excel at anything, it’s writing and Shamus Duffy’s ‘The Bookstore’ was full of enticing titles. Shamus himself steered me in the direction of a shelf full of new Irish writers.

Pubs and Grub

Westport’s pleasant and very walkable center, known for its stone bridges and tree-lined riverfront lanes, is full of shops, cafes, pubs, and restaurants. For lunch, it was difficult to make a choice, the options were so enticing. One damp afternoon, I settled for some locally sourced, hot celeriac and parsnip soup.

In the evening my Airbnb host kindly dropped me at his local pub with the advice to go to the bar first, meet the locals, and engage in conversation. The pub, Cronin’s Sheebeen, sits across the road from Clew Bay, a long inlet of the Atlantic Ocean. The pub is a lovely, unassuming place and radiates warmth from the moment you walk in. The publican poured a perfect pint of Guinness.

The “Snug”

After drinks, I joined several others in a cozy dining area called “the snug”. Irish cooking has come a long way over the years and the menu reflected a variety of choices. How do you choose between smoked Irish salmon, fresh haddock chowder, mussels, local oysters, roasted Irish lamb, or a typical plate of ‘fish and chips?’

In the evening, I headed for the most popular spot for music in Westport which is Matt Molloy’s, and whose owner played for Ireland’s most popular band, The Chieftains. Does it get any better than singing ‘The Wild Irish Rover’ in a local pub?

And don’t worry about drinking and driving, Uber cars are everywhere in Ireland, including Westport.

Irish Fairies

Eight days in Westport gave me plenty of time to meet my goals of interacting with the people and culture of the west of Ireland. Along the way, I heard several stories about the Fairy Faith (including the Banshee and the Leprechaun), the supernatural folk figures who populate Irish mythology. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet any – or was there one in the Guinness glass – but I felt that Irish good luck had accompanied me on my magical journey to Mayo.

To conclude my slow travel experience, I dropped the rental car in nearby Galway City and took the train to Dublin and the airport. At the station café, I picked up a traditional Irish corned beef sandwich. The train journey gave me ample time to gaze out the window at the endless green fields, herds of sheep and cows, and the billowing clouds that drifted over the countryside. It was a perfect way to finish the trip.

The Wild Atlantic Way

The 2500 km drive, well signposted, follows the Atlantic Ocean from County Donegal in the northwest to County Cork in the south of Ireland. The route goes past the beautiful bays and inlets of County Mayo.

 

 

Historical Note:

When the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray visited Westport, he wrote of the town:

“The most beautiful view I ever saw in the world. It forms an event in one’s life to have seen that place so beautiful that is it, and so unlike other beauties that I know of. Were such beauties lying on English shores it would be a world’s wonder perhaps if it were on the Mediterranean or Baltic, English travelers would flock to it by hundreds, why not come and see it in Ireland!”

The Irish Sketchbook of 1842

When you go:

Wild Nephin National Park (45 minutes from Westport) – includes much of the Nephin Mountains and one of the largest expanses of peatland in Europe. After a brisk walk, you can stop for lunch at the Ginger & Wild Café, where the specialty is an Irish cheddar & caramelized onion panini.
www.nationalparks.ie/wild-nephin

Achill Island (45 minutes from Westport) – the attraction is its remoteness, sandy beaches, and small villages at the edge of the sea. Achill Island was the setting for the 2022 film The Banshees of Inisherin and the local tourist office can give you a map with the film locations.
achilltourism.com

The National Museum of Ireland of Country Life (30 minutes from Westport) – This gem of a find is the only major national museum outside of Dublin. A whole floor is dedicated to the difficult conditions during the Irish famine. The museum has an inviting café with indoor and outdoor seating.
www.museum.ie/en-IE/Museums/Country-Life

Sheebeen Pub
croninssheebeen.com

Kylemore Abbey (45 minutes south of Westport) – Getting there was half the fun as the local road runs past the Killary Fjord, an aquaculture center, and between the high Partry Mountains. In addition to the fascinating abbey, there is the Victorian Walled Garden, six acres of flowers, plants, fruit trees, and reconstructed greenhouses. The Garden Tea House serves lunch.
www.kylemoreabbey.com

Booking on Irish Rail, including seat assignments couldn’t have been easier.
www.irishrail.ie/en-ie

Duffy Bookstore
www.facebook.com/duffysbookshopwestport

Matt Molloys
www.mattmolloy.com/home

Irish Baking Class
www.irishsodabreadway.com

Written by: John Heard

 Heard picture John Heard worked in the field of international education for over 30 years. He had the good fortune to live in London, The Hague and Istanbul. John, a former Headmaster, was also a consultant for an international education organization, where he advised schools in Europe and North and South America. His wife, Susan, a retired teacher/librarian, chronicles their travels with her photography.

 

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