You know you’re in Western Ireland when the sheep are outnumbering the humans, when the desolate landscapes are so obvious that it feels unnatural to see a village doom up on the horizon and when the skies are so gray that you’re constantly thinking that it might rain (and if you’re not thinking that, it’s because it is). Fortunately, Ireland’s wonderful (Mid)West has too many gorgeous sights, curiosities and natural wonders going on to focus on the cat-and-dog weather. Like these!
1. Fairies and leprechauns (or at least their hideouts)
If you don’t believe in fairies, chances are you will after a visit to one of the many ‘fairy forts’, spread out in the forests and countryside. They look like circular shaped mounds of dirt, clay, grass, bushes etc. and according to Irish legends, it’s the hiding place for leprechauns (little people with orange beards and green hats) and fairies. Most of these fairy forts remain untouched because according to the many folk tales, the destruction unleashes an ancient curse… And now for the more down to earth version: the fairy forts are what’s left of the hillforts or ringforts: prehistoric fortified settlements that were built a very, very long time ago. By humans, not by leprechauns… The mounds were used as protection. Because the houses were mainly made out of wood, the structures are long gone but the vage circular traces in the landscape have remained. I prefer the fairy version.
2. (Killer) sheep
You know you’re in Western Ireland when sheep are starting to outnumber humans. If you’re taking a guided tour, you’ll quickly learn that some of the sheep are a lot less innocent than they look… “Watch out for the killer sheep”, our guide Desmond tells us. “These are bloodthirsty sheep who target tourists. You’ll recognize them by the red stain on their fur.” He’s kidding of course. The colored stains are merely a way for farmers to keep each others animals apart. “You must not make eye contact”, our guide says to keep the myth alive. The ubiquitous animals are clinging on the sides of the road like flies on cow dung and sooner or later, they will happily block the whole road for you. No need to stress out though: all the more time to take in the breathtaking moorland landscape and undulating meadows around you.
3. Castles & medieval ruins
Finding castles and medieval ruins of all kinds in Western Ireland is as easy as spotting killer sheep. They’re everywhere, especially south of Galway. Some of them still make a big impression, even abandoned and worn by time. There’s Dunguaire Castle, a 16th century tower house that is now used for medieval banquets, there’s Leamanah Castle in County Clare, there’s Kylemore Abbey that used to be a private castle and now serves as a monastery school for girls and there’s Ross Errilly Friary in County Galway, a medieval friary that is now a national monument and one of the best preserved medieval sites in the country. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
4. Movie settings
The glorious landscape of Western Ireland – especially the County Galway – has been a star in many films. On the borders of County Galway and County Mayo lies the picturesque village of Cong that was used as a backdrop in The Quiet Man (1952). The Field (1990) was filmed in the charming village of Leenane in County Galway, Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson spent their time in Roundstone (also County Galway) for the making of Marley and Me (2008), Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman did the same in Far & Away (1992) at Ma’am Cross (County Galway) and Amy Adams found herself in the arms of Matthew Goode in the gorgeous Connemara for the movie Leap Year (2010). A scene in Harry Potter and the half blood prince (2009) features the cliffs of Moher in County Clare and the cliffs were also used in the Guns of Navarone (1961). Impressive, eh?
5. Rocks, stones and more rocks
From the spectacular limestone landscapes of the Burren and the colossal coastal cliffs of Moher in County Clare to the granite rocks of the Connemara and the beautiful green meadows that are criss-crossed with stone walls: the West of Ireland has a thing for stone. It comes in different shapes and different textures and sometimesit’s dramatic, other times it’s romantic, weird or just plain beautiful. But it’s always there!