Explore by rental car
The West of Ireland is the region encompassed by the province of Connaught, although in tourist brochures, the West specifically means the counties of Galway, Mayo and Roscommon. This remote area of the country hosts wild and rugged countryside, although its land is not so fertile. With that in mind, the 17th Century British invader, Oliver Cromwell, threatened agriculturally dependent natives who resisted him to go either "to Hell or to Connaught” – a phrase that lives on in the popular culture today.
Many of the older elements of Irish culture – including the Irish language – still thrive in the west. Traditional music can be found in local pubs, for example, and community and cultural traditions remain strong. While prices throughout the island do not vary greatly, visitors may find prices in the west of Ireland to be a bit lower.
Visitors with a rental car in West Ireland are in the best position. They enjoy relaxed, scenic drives on quiet country roads. Look out for the following areas of interest:
Ireland's third-largest city is its bohemian capital – a magnet for artists, writers, musicians and journeymen. Galway's population swells during the summer months, when visitors stream in to attend its Race Festival and Arts Festival. Indeed, visitors flock to Galway all year round, though the vibrant local scene staves off a touristy atmosphere. The large student population also contributes. Galway's meandering and colourful lanes retain some of their medieval character. Indeed, it has been observed that a map of Galway from the 1700s could still be used to get you round today. A short stroll from the small city centre is the Claddagh area, which juts out onto Galway Bay and leads to the popular Salthill promenade.
In the words of Oscar Wilde, the famous Anglo-Irish poet Oscar Wilde: "Connemara is a savage beauty." Many visitors come to Ireland expressly to enjoy this savage beauty, and they are routinely surprised to discover that Connemara itself may not even be on the map. This is because Connemara (like the nearby Burren in County Clare) is a not an administrative entity like a town or county. Instead, it’s a region stretching from west of Galway City north and south to the Atlantic. Connemara is a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) region renowned for its barrenness and beauty. The coastal area includes a highland region of quartzite domes and cones and twelve mountain peaks, known as the Twelve Bens.
North on the Galway-Mayo border is beautiful Killary Fjord – the only natural fjord in Ireland (there are none, as it happens, in Britain). Other beautiful visitor attractions in the region include Kylemore Abbey near Letterfrack, the towns of Clifden and Spiddal (see below), the beautiful beaches of Dogs Bay and Gurteen Bay near the equally picturesque village Roundstone and the popular Aran Islands.
This small village is located about 10 miles west of Galway City on the coastal road. It overlooks Galway Bay, providing views of the Aran Islands. Spiddal has two fine beaches, one by the roadside and directly visible from the village, the other behind the pier, accessible via a narrow road west of the village. Students come here in the summer to learn the Irish language directly from native speakers. Spiddal is also home to many skilled artisans. Crafts produced here include Celtic jewellery, bodhrán, candles, pottery screen-printing, weaving and wood-turning.
Achill Island and Clare Island
The largest island off the coast of Ireland, Achill Island in County Mayo is linked to the mainland by a swing-bridge and is easy to access. The coastal route around the island, favoured by visitors, is known as Atlantic Drive, which comprises over 40 kilometres of fabulous scenery that can be enjoyed by hire car from Galway. Achill is one of Ireland's beauty spots and boasts a total of five EU blue flag beaches. The island also offers stunning seascapes and landscapes that feature rugged sea-cliffs, mountains and open moorlands.
Dolphins and porpoises are often sighted here. Achill was inhabited as far back as 5,000 years ago, as evidence by the island's megalithic tombs and promontory forts. Other historical relics include Kildamhnait Castle, used by the legendary pirate queen Granuaile (Grace O'Malley). Granuaile was born on the nearby smaller island, Clare Island, in 1530. Granuaile became a fearless leader and is reputed to have struck a deal with Queen Elizabeth I in 1593. She died circa 1603 and is buried in the O'Malley family tomb on Clare Island.