THE Republic’s hospitality trade is opening slowly, with some restrictions, and at long last we were able to enjoy a short holiday which was booked for my sister’s birthday in 2020. The hotel at Ballynahinch Castle is among my favourite places in this world for in addition to fine dining, wonderful service and luxury accommodation it also offers good salmon fishing, a sport I have enjoyed since boyhood. The hotel is usually booked out in summer by wealthy Europeans and Americans for it is better value than Ashford or Dromoland where luxury is obscene. The scenery in Connemara is stunning. Here you will find the romantic picture book Ireland. Desolate mountains and golden sands are sandwiched between sapphire seas and azure skies – when it is not raining or battered by Atlantic gales. The local people are friendly; there are thatched cottages, turf stacks and a pony or two. But behind the holiday illusion is the real Connemara – it is a microcosm of modern Ireland. The economy is fragile, prices are high and the average wage will not keep a roof over your head.
Few places have been so changed by the last two centuries as the once gaelic-speaking western wilds that inspired poets, painters and playwrights. It was hit hard by famine and remained among the poorest regions of Europe until international tourism arrived in the 1950s fostered by the success of John Ford’s feature film The Quiet Man. Ford’s father, born John Feeney, was from Spiddal and his mother from the Aran Islands. They were among the millions of Irish people who fled to America to escape crushing poverty and injustice in the 19th century. The famous film bears no resemblance to Maurice Walsh’s short story of 1933 but the clichés it created have an enduring appeal to visitors who expect to find John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara frolicking in the hay. On the way we paused at Cong in Mayo where much of the filming took place. The town exploits the movie shamelessly. We enjoyed a pint in Squire Danaher’s Hotel and had our picture taken at the statue of Sean Thornton and Mary Kate. A polite woman from Leitrim offered to take the snap for us and asked if we were Irish. I said yes, though my wife was born in Glasgow into a family which had emigrated from Mayo. “Sure haven’t you just come home,” said she.
My last visit to Connemara was at Halloween 2018 and even as Clifden was closing down for the year there were French and German voices to be heard in the restaurants and the ubiquitous loud Yank at the end of the bar. Tourism has been the biggest employer for over 60 years but was wiped out in 2020 bringing a good deal of hardship which was only partly alleviated by generous government support for those who found themselves out of work. This year the streets, restaurants and bars were bustling again all helped by a heat wave which sent temperatures soaring to over 30 degrees, forced Met Éireann to issue a weather warning and the county council to impose a hosepipe ban. There were fewer loud Americans at the end of the bar but plenty of wealthy Irish people to take their places. There is always plenty to see and do no matter what the weather brings. Low water put paid to my chances of a day’s salmon fishing but I took the opportunity to learn to use a shotgun properly under the expert tuition of Shane Bisgood. His Connemara Shooting School is just one of the many small attractions which have developed in the area.
A proposal to create an ambitious marine innovation and industries park at Cill Chiaráin in west Connemara has been refused planning permission, because of environmental concerns, and the local politicians are mounting an appeal. It is hoped Páirc na Mara will provide quality jobs and attract modern businesses and investors to the area. It would help to supplement the seasonal income from tourism. The Conamara Láir campaign has produced a series of short films extoling the virtues of the region in a bid to encourage people to settle. It has the support of the state agency Údarás na Gaeltachta and its own slogon Tá muid ag fanacht leat – ‘we are waiting for you.’ Good digital infrastructure is on its way which will help but a major hurdle is property prices. A modest family home in the area now costs anything up to €700,000 and even a site with a pile of rubble will set you back €250,000.
On this trip, like the novelist Brian Moore before me, I attempted a kind of pilgrimage to the grave of Bulmer Hobson. A Quaker and pacifist, leading Republican and campaigner for social justice he played a significant part in Ireland’s drive for independence. He was born in Belfast and was a founder member of Sinn Féin but fell through the cracks of history, written out by nationalists because he tried to stop the bloodshed of the 1916 Rising. To unionists he is simply another traitor. He died in August 1969 as the Troubles erupted in his native Ulster and is buried in his adopted home near Roundstone. Hobson was a modernist, economic thinker and political activist all of his 86 years. It would have amused him greatly that I was unable to get anywhere near his grave because of Dublin registered SUVs belonging to sun-worshipers heading for nearby Gurteen beach. He disliked the Ireland of ‘frugal comforts’ created by Éamon de Valera and would have been angered by the reckless champagne years of Bertie Ahern’s Celtic Tiger.
On the glorious morning that marked our departure, this pilgrim stood by the shores of Ballynahinch Lake, under the witch’s hat of Benlettery, with my nephew Peter and great-niece Camilla who is just nine weeks old. I wondered what Bulmer Hobson would make of the 15 billionaires and 10,000 homeless people who live in the tax haven overseen by Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar.
© Maurice Neill