James Taylor knew what he was talking about. Except instead of sunshine and moonshine, I can see the flourishing clouds covering and uncovering the sky and feel the drunken ecstasy.
The mountains are one of my favorite things in the entire world, and though Ireland isn’t mountainous, per se, the terrain is rugged and craggy and, of course, green. Strung with valleys that cater off into the distance, and sheep that dot the landscape, it is a storybook fantasy come alive.
While in Galway, Sam and I booked a tour through the Connemara Valley with Viator, an eight-hour bus ride with stops at Kylemore Abbey, Ross Errilly Friary, the town of Cong, Lough Corrib, and Loch Na Fooey. Since neither of us was prepared to rent a car and try our hand at navigation, and Viator is highly rated, we went for it.
Our tour began at the bus station in Galway City, and Sam and I boarded around 9:30 with cups of Butler’s hot chocolate and porridge/yogurt items. If I can side note this for a second, I would like to say that Butler’s hot chocolate is everything your chocolate-craving mind could ever want. It’s so rich, it’s basically melted chocolate. You know how most times, hot chocolate is the best at the bottom, where the deep flavors pool up and give actual meaning to saving the best for last? That’s Butler’s, but all the way through. Yes. I know.
We were slightly sickly full from the drink, neither of us able to finish our small cups, but promptly at 10 our driver, Mike D., as he had introduced himself, pulled away from the sidewalk. He kept us entertained all day, cracking jokes about how the Irish eat their potatoes and informing us of the (real estate-prime) lands that cannot be built on.
Our first outing was at Lough Inagh, an hour into the trip, where it was spitting rain. We marched along the squelching earth along with everyone on the bus, mirroring the army of sheep that kept their distance.
From there, Mike D. went over our options for Kylemore Abbey, the next stop on our itinerary. We could either receive our ticket from him on the bus and pay him with cash, or purchase a ticket with the group rate inside with card. We could either begin at the gardens, which we would take a shuttle to, or to the home and chapel’s grounds. Sam and I handed our eight euros over to Mike D. on our way out, hit the restroom, gawked at the sight of the abbey rising almost naturally from the ground, and waited in line for the shuttle to the gardens.
Kylemore Abbey was designed in the late 1860s by Mitchell Henry, as a gift to his wife Margaret. This was a token of Mitchell’s affection for his beloved, and probably the most romantic gesture I’ve ever witnessed. An estate nestled into a valley, seemingly built by fairies, and literally jumping out of the pages of a Victorian novel, Kylemore Abbey is a dreamscape, just in the way it was meant to be. Add in the colorful legends of the land and you’ve got yourself a fairy tale to end all fairy tales.
When Margaret fell ill and passed away, her bereaved husband built a Gothic church in her honor and remained on the estate until 1903, where he sold it to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. In 1923 it was opened as a benedictine and remained an operating boarding school until 2010.
The clouds that hung over the estate were a piece of the story, making it even more magical and exposition-worthy.
Sam and I went to the perfectly manicured Victorian walled gardens first. It was stunning neatness, secretive and surrounded by the mountains drenched in light fog.
Just outside the walls stand 10,000 oak and ash trees planted by the Benedictine community here in a reforestation effort.
Guests can also sponsor a tree here to contribute to their initial work. And Kylemore is derived from the Gaelic coill mor, meaning big wood that was found on the north side of the area’s lake.
And after touring the few rooms open to the public at the estate, we followed the road down to the Gothic chapel, featuring the Ironing Stone where children can make a wish and sculpted giant’s fingers crawling out of the earth.
We were allotted two hours at the abbey, which was the ideal amount of time to explore without feeling rushed. Sam and I stopped at the Tea House by the walled gardens for scones and protection from the sudden onslaught of rain as we waited for the shuttle back.
Back on the bus, Mike D. led us further into Connemara:
The only salt water carrier we’d pass and the place where the sun burst out from behind the clouds with gusto. It was like some god was looking down on us, knowing we were stepping into a trap of glory, and said, “let there be sunlight.” The view was a poem, verses as valleys and refrains in the lake’s stillness. I still look at my photos and immediately lose my jaw.
These photos were taken not five minutes later. This, my loves, is the glory of Ireland.
Sam caught me clicking my heels in the air, but I think this photo is a more accurate celebration of my awe.
For 45 minutes, we spent leisure time in Cong, the filming location of The Quiet Man. It is a quintessential Irish town in its pastel buildings, quiet shops, and remains of a monastery all living in harmony. The walkability is a lovely plus.
Ross Errilly Friary
The final leg of the tour went to Ross Errilly Friary, one of the country’s best-preserved medieval monastic sites. There was time here, too, to sit, to admire the cows roaming the land, to climb up the ruins, to weave through rooms-turned-burial grounds and apologize to the remains of people you are walking all over.
I followed someone up around this set of ruins, and was kept up there like a Rapunzel whose Mother Gothel liked to live on the edge by a boy who decided to sit and relax right by the makeshift stairs back down.
And we were so excited about this threshold! The perfect size for Sam, and making me feel slightly like a giant! I banged my head off of it after picking up the comb that fell from my bag (and, as Sam said: you know we’re best friends because while other people looked on and called out to see if I was okay, Sam was doubled over laughing.)
The day was long, but it was an excellent way of seeing Connemara. The drive was enough to keep us enthralled, staring out the window for hours, and every stop was like another slice of cake granted to me. I loved being handed information and exploring knowingly, and the timing of everything was right on.
Since then, I’ve been squirreling away my money to share in the cost of a Connemara estate with my eventual Prince Charming. See you there in twenty five years.
Visit Viator to book your Connemara Day Trip from Galway. Prices range from $30-40 USD. Tours leave from the Galway Coach Station at 10 am and return at 6 pm.
I hope you’ll tour with this group!