COUNTY GALWAY, IRELAND — The M4 out of Dublin is like an asphalt railway through the fog. As we race through the mist, I keep telling myself to keep to the left, keep to the left. It’s all I can do to keep my head — and the car — in the clouds.
We touched down at Dublin International just an hour before and have yet to catch a glimpse of the green hills of the Emerald Isle. The plan is to spend the week leading up to the mother of all things Irish, St. Paddy’s Day, touring along the west and southern coasts before rolling into Dublin for the big green day.
All of a sudden, at Athelone on the M6, the clouds part, the sun comes down and the wide, flat, wet fields stretch out along either side of the motorway. We pull over to take in the scene and explore the ancient monastic ruins at Clonmacnoise, once the center for learning in Ireland before the Vikings and Celts arrived and pillaged.
Back on the motorway, we shoot straight west across the island, cutting through the Midlands. First stop is the fisherman’s haven of County Galway, on the windy western coast.
We roll into Galway City around 5pm, find a spot to ditch the far-too-big rental minivan and check into our hostel. The sun has since disappeared behind a chilly Atlantic mist, but we head out along the cobblestone streets of Galway’s famous city centre.
Whether it’s 5pm or 5am, it seems that every visitor to Galway ends up at McDonagh’s at some point. Perhaps the most famous “chipper” in Ireland, this temple to fish and chips allows you to choose from over half a dozen catches — Salmon, Cod, Plaice, Haddock and more — and fries it up to a golden brown. We feast on Cod and Hake and a dozen of the local oysters. Fish-full and happy, we explore the ancient mariner’s harbor before tucking ourselves away in one of the exceptional local pubs to warm ourselves by the fire and our bellies to pints of Guinness and Bushmill’s whiskey.
The next day and it’s off for something even wilder than Galway City’s trad pubs.
We roll out early and head northeast for the Connemara peninsula. Cut off from the rest of County Galway by Ireland’s largest lake, this barren, utterly beautiful spit of land sticks directly out into the North Atlantic. Next stop, Novia Scotia… literally.
At the little crossroads of Leenane, we come upon the Killary Fjord. The steep limestone cliffs plunge straight down into the icy water as fishing boats outpace the road traffic. Our only destination is to get lost in this soulful, empty space and we twist and turn down half-paved roads. The landscape is otherworldly; the rusty bogs and hardscrabble meadows are home to thousands of sheep and seemingly nothing else.
Suddenly the fjord opens up and we find a perfect little cove beach to explore and breathe in the cold sea air. The clear azure water and crashing waves — if only 15 degrees warmer — could trick you into thinking you were in Barbados rather than Ireland.
We follow the coast further, seeking out a famous fish smokehouse on the end of a lonely road. We manage to find the little shack, thick with the smells of the sea and birch smoke, and feast on some of the freshest, richest Lox we’ve ever had. Truly the gold of the sea, 200g of wild Atlantic salmon goes for around 35 euro. But we can’t resist the smoky fish that just melts in your mouth.
We warm up on Irish stew and seafood pie at E.J. King’s pub. And naturally, a couple pints follow.
Our first real taste of Ireland has just given us the hunger for more. This rusty, desolate, remarkable landscape is just the first of many faces that the Emerald Isle had in store for us.