Dream spaces abide with us forever. Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood, and the attic of the March household in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, will be with me where ever I go, and now I must add Connemara to the list. In the west of Ireland, its austere landscape is as conducive to dreaming as any place I have ever seen.
Lately I find it coming to me at odd moments, bringing a sense of pleasure and calm that is every bit as intense as when I first crossed the threshold of Piglet’s house as a child, or imagine myself curled on Jo March’s sofa with an apple and a book. The difference is that I can, with only reasonable expense and a little trouble, return to the real Connemara.
I came to it by accident, having spent three weeks researching a novel in other parts of Ireland. My husband had joined me, and we decided to fill the last few days with a visit to Galway. From there we drove to the area around Ashford Castle, where the road from Cong winds away into landscapes of stunning emptiness on an epic scale. Eventually we reached the edge of Ireland’s only fjord, Killary Harbour; as we motored past a hotel nestled into the base of a hillside, I noticed its sign advertising reasonable rates for B&B. The reluctance to go on was as immense as the hotel’s mountain backdrop, and I made a swift and eloquent plea that rather than continue to Westport we book in for the night.
The Leenane Hotel was a dream component within the larger dream of Connemara. Though not especially luxurious, it had an ambiance I took to at first sight of an elegant wrought iron staircase twisting up from the hotel lobby to the rooms above. Next morning, waking to the view across the water, I could not contemplate leaving. We booked another night, and then another.
By day we went exploring, map in hand yet happy enough to follow a meandering route along a web of small roads. We came across neat lines of freshly dug turf on the hillsides, followed narrow, rutted paths until they petered out. Sometimes they led us to a crescent of deserted beach, sometimes to the closed gate of a farm. We pitched up in the town of Clifden on one of only two days in the year when the sturdy and sure-footed Connemara ponies are brought in for sale; we revelled in the colour of the gorse, and most of all – and this is what permanently captured my heart – the constantly shifting light on the sides of those ancient and massive hillsides.
The philosopher, Wittgenstein, who lived for a time in a hut near Killary Harbour, called Connemara ‘the last pool of darkness in Europe’. Since leaving, I have discovered the books of Tim Robinson, a Connemara-based map-maker and scholar extraordinaire, who has written in painstaking detail about both the Aran Islands and Connemara. The third volume of his trilogy has recently been published and reading it is a pleasure I am saving up for the Christmas holidays. His first two books have made me understand how much we missed, or at least all that could never have been squeezed into a meagre three-day visit.
When I go back, and I must, it will be for the longest possible time. The first thing I will do is make the trip to Roundstone where Tim Robinson’s Folding Landscapes is based, to buy one of his wonderfully detailed maps.
Just outside Leenane is a graveyard with the greatest view on earth. Set on the hillside at the head of Killary Harbour, it faces down a length of shining water with the hills rising on either side, their old, scarred surfaces the background for shifting patterns as clouds sweep in from the Atlantic and cast their shadows.
What I’m dreaming of now is a few more hours spent in the depths of a sofa in the lounge of the Leenane Hotel. It is a place where stories seem almost to write themselves, as if they float by like the passing clouds and all you have to do is to sit quietly, to watch and wait for them.