West Ireland is a region of Ireland comprising County Galway, County Mayo and County Roscommon. With a population of 453,109 in 2016, it's one of the eight regions of Ireland for statistical and planning purposes, more lyrically named "IE042 - NUTS Level III". It's never been a unit of local government, but it roughly corresponds to the ancient Kingdom of Connacht.
|County Galway |
Almost bisected by Lough Corrib, its east is lowland with ancient towns such as Tuam, while the west is wild scenic Connemara. Galway is the lively city at its core.
|County Mayo |
Sparsely populated with rugged uplands, bogs and a scattering of islands: scenic Clew Bay has some 140 of them
|County Roscommon |
Its low-lying but poor farmland; east is the upper Shannon navigation network. There are ruined abbeys and prehistoric sites.
- 1 Galway is a lively historic city on the coast - even Christopher Columbus came here.
- 2 Tuam is the archbishopric and has been a religious centre for 1500 years.
- 3 Clifden, a Victorian seaside resort, is the main town in Connemara.
- 4 Westport is on scenic Clew Bay. Nearby is the pilgrimage mountain of Croagh Patrick.
- 5 Castlebar is Mayo's market and county town.
- 6 Ballina has several ruined abbeys and a rugged coastline. The French invasion of 1798 began nearby at Killala.
- 7 Roscommon is in an area dotted with prehistoric, medieval and later ruins.
- 8 Carrick-on-Shannon spans between Counties Leitrim and Roscommon. It's near major junctions on the Shannon waterways.
- 1 Aran Islands: all three are inhabited, and dotted with prehistoric and early Christian sites. There are daily ferries and flights.
- 2 Connemara is the scenic west of County Galway, with rugged granite peaks. Be grateful you don't have to farm it.
- 3 Achill Island is reached by a bridge. It has several haunting deserted villages, Slievemore being the biggest.
In bygone times it was easier to move people and livestock around this region by boat than to slog across the terrain, so settlements grew up on the coast. One sheltered bay attracted so many Viking, Norman and other incomers that it was called "Foreigners" - Gaillimh or Galway. Inland there's a surprising amount of fertile lowland, where settlements and religious centres grew up. Yet it's testament to the terrain in the 6th century that when St Jarlath set off in a brand-new chariot, he only got 3 km to Tuam then the wheelshaft broke; despairing of roadside rescue, he settled and founded a monastery.
In early Christian and medieval times this region roughly corresponded to the Kingdom of Connacht, who in legend battled mightily with the Ulaid, the Ulstermen. (Both fielded superheroes: Queen Maebh or Mab of Connacht wielded a debilitating curse, but Ulster had Finn McCool whenever he wasn't busy building the Giant's Causeway.) But from the 1230s they much preferred fighting among themselves, so the Normans took advantage. The Irish rolled back the Normans in the 14th century so not until the Tudor period did England have control. Ironically later it was loyalty to the English crown that was the area's undoing: first Cromwell then the incoming King William took exception to this. Power and sea trade drained away to Dublin, overland transport remained as poor as ever, and there was little industry. Connacht was a poor enough place even in the good years, and the famine years struck hard. Agitation for reform grew in the late 19th century, when one unpopular County Mayo land agent had his name immortalised: Captain Boycott.
There was a great outflow of population in the 19th and 20th centuries, but little inflow. The west therefore has many areas where Irish remains the first language; English is always understood but place names (eg on road signs) are often only in their Irish form. It's travel and tourism that has revitalised this region, with railways, motorways and budget flights. Connemara and Galway city are the best known destinations, but it all deserves exploring; it's marketed by the national tourist agency as the Wild Atlantic Way.
- 1 Ireland West Airport Knock (NOC IATA) is in Mayo, 20 km north of Knock village. It has flights mostly by Ryanair from London Stansted, Luton and other UK cities, and a few European destinations.
- Since you need a car to get around, you might prefer to fly into Dublin or Shannon (near Limerick) and drive over.
- Trains run from Dublin Heuston via Athlone to Athenry and Galway, and to Roscommon, Castlebar and Westport, with connections to Ballina.
- They run from Dublin Connolly via Longford to Carrick-on-Shannon, Boyle and Sligo.
- Buses radiate out from Dublin Busáras and Airport. See individual cities, the main lines are Dublin-Longford, branching for Sligo or Ballina, and Dublin-Athlone-Galway.
- Cross-country buses are Derry-Letterkenny-Sligo-Knock-Tuam-Galway, Ballina-Castlebar-Galway, and Cork-Limerick-Galway.
- By road from Dublin, for Galway and the south of this region follow M4 / M6. For Carrick and Mayo further north, leave M4 for N4 through Longford.
See above for inter-town routes. Where a journey is also possible by train, that's usually the better method: public transport in the West is taxpayer-subsidised but they won't support multiple modes.
Galway is the only place where you're likely to use town buses. See individual towns for details of village and "Local Link" services. These are sparse, and timetables are designed for locals to come into town for work, school, shopping and other necessities then get home; they're not designed for sight-seeing.
- Ferries ply daily to the Aran Islands from Rossaveel near Spiddal and in summer from Doolin. They sail to Inishbofin Island from Cleggan north of Clifden.
- Boyle and Carrick-on-Shannon at the east edge of this region are on the navigable Shannon waterway network, which connects the length and breadth of Ireland.
Rental car hire is available in Galway, but you'll find better deals by pre-booked hire from your airport of arrival.
You'll travel quickly on the main roads, but minor roads are often narrow and twisty, with no opportunity to overtake the eejit tourist ahead of you. Visitor cars may not be taken to the Aran Islands or Inishbofin, but for the other islands it's the best method, as you drive across the bridge. In country areas don't let your tank dip below a quarter, the winding distances are further than they look on the map. E-car charging points are scarce outside Galway city.
- Prehistoric settlements: Rathcrogan near Roscommon is a good example, but the best are on the Aran Islands.
- Castles: crumbling turrets everywhere, Athenry has a well-preserved medieval castle off the beaten track. They were too cold and rat-ridden for modern tastes so their stone was often recycled into plush Georgian mansions, leaving a picturesque stump.
- Hill walking: none of the summits are technically demanding, but they are noticeably wet. Some of the most attractive hikes are in Connemara, with the Twelve Bens and Diamond Hill.
- Pilgrimage: the shrine at Knock draws visitors worldwide, and there's an annual pilgrimage from Ballintubber Abbey to the summit of Croagh Patrick near Westport.
- Gaelic games: each county has a GAA team, playing predominantly Gaelic football, and there are some 160 club sides across the region.
- Watch Rugby Union: Connacht Rugby are one of the four Irish professional teams playing in Pro14, the top European (predominantly Celtic) tournament. Their home stadium is in Galway city.
- Go to the races: there are tracks at Ballinrobe near Cong, at Roscommon, and in Galway. The "Castlebar Races" however were a famous humiliation of the British.
- The Wild Atlantic Way is a coastal itinerary from Donegal all the way to Kinsale near Cork. There's no set route but generally there's a main road near the coast which you loop off to fishing villages or across bridges to several islands.
- Galway has most choice, but few really outstanding: Ard Bia is among the best.
- Around the region, the pubs and small hotels will often be your best bet.
- Top choices are Gleeson's in Roscommon, Mulhern's in Crossmolina south of Ballina, Newport House in Newport, and two places on tiny Inis Meáin island.
- Irish whiskey is distilled in Drumshanbo, at Lough Mask near Cong, in Ballina, and on Achill Island.
- McHale's in Castlebar is the only pub that still serves Guinness by the meejum, an obscure measure short of a pint.
- Traffic is by far your biggest hazard. Take usual precautions about valuables, the weather and conditions underfoot, and the occasional aggressive drunk.
- County Sligo north is haunting scenery of cloud-wreathed limestone scarps.
- East, the Shannon marks the transition to the pastoral midlands, with quiet places for boating and angling such as Carrick-on-Shannon.
- South, limestone scenery resumes in the stark plateau of The Burren in County Clare, which ends in the great Cliffs of Moher.