The Western Way is a local route for us here in Hillwalk Tours: the starting point, in the fishing village of Oughterard, is less than an hour from Galway and is therefore right on our doorstep. Those who live in the West of Ireland can count themselves lucky to be surrounded by magnificent landscapes: steep cliffs, secluded islands, dramatic mountain profiles and romantic lakes surround us. But even among all these impressive places, Connemara stands out for its rough charm. Therefore, in this post we present some of the Western Way’s best highlights.
Hiking in Connemara
Those who like rugged rock formations, shimmering masses of water and earthy moorlands will delight their heart with the wild beauty of Connemara. Connemara is in County Galway and includes the area west of Lough Corrib. What distinguishes this unmistakable area, in addition to the grandiose nature, is the presence of the Irish language and the preservation of folk traditions such as song, dance and storytelling.
The many signs with the inscription “Gaeltacht”, which can often be seen on the roadside, mark Irish-speaking communities and are characteristic of Connemara. It is actually the region with the highest number of Irish native speakers in Ireland. Connemara is also a place of great spiritual importance: holy places and ancient buildings tell of an Ireland from a bygone era.
1. Lough Corrib
The Western Way starts in the fishing village of Oughterard, from where the path runs along the banks of Lough Corrib. Lough Corrib is Ireland’s second largest lake.
The most striking landscape is the enchantingly beautiful islands that protrude from its waters like the heads of giants. It is not entirely clear how many islands there are exactly: a local legend said there are 365 but new measurements with GPS technology have shown that it could be up to 1,332. Part of the discrepancy is certainly due to the definition of an island. Also, depending on the water level, many of them can be hidden under water.
It is believed that the name of the lake is of Celtic origin and goes back to the Irish sea god Manannán mac Lir. The “son of the sea” is a ferryman who moves back and forth on his boat between the underworld and the mortal world.
There is only one island further north. The pirate queen Gráinne O’Malley once lived in the impregnable “hen fortress”, which can still be seen from the bank. So Lough Corrib cannot complain about a shortage of interesting residents.
2. Máméan: The “Pass of the Birds”
If you follow the Western Way from Maam, a steep ascent will take you to Máméan, a historic mountain pass. Máméan means “pass of the birds” and connects the Maam valley with the Inagh valley. It is an ancient and mysterious site: there is a small chapel, a statue of St. Patrick and a holy well. The highest point allows a fantastic and sweeping view of the valleys that unfold in front of you. The use of this special place also reflects the turbulent history of Ireland.
It is assumed that the pass was a transport point for goods and a festival site at the same time before Christianization. Then, with the advent of Christianity, a shrine was built and dedicated to Saint Patrick. In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, the “Penal Laws” made practicing Catholicism a punishable offense. Secret masses were nevertheless held in Máméan. Places like this are also known as “Mass Rocks” and can be found all over Ireland.
It was only recently that the priest, Fr. Micheál McGreal, made the place popular again as a place of pilgrimage and since then has held an open-air mass once a year.
3. The Inagh Valley & The 12 Bens
After climbing Máméan, you will come to the Inagh Valley, one of the most beautiful and peaceful valleys in Ireland. Looking out of the valley, a picturesque mountain range rises to your left, which is also called the “Twelve Bens” or “Twelve Pins”. Some of the “Bens” already belong to the Connemara National Park area.
Rising on the opposite side are the Maamturk Mountains, some of the wildest and most challenging mountains in County Galway for hikers. Another familiar sight in the Inagh Valley is the ubiquitous Connemara sheep. Characteristics of the Connemara sheep are: black legs, a black head and great stress resistance when it comes to avoiding car drivers along the local roads.
4. Leenane: famous setting for Irish films and literature
Across from the towering, bare mountain of Ben Gorm is Leenane. The village looks out over the magical waters of Killary Harbor, Ireland’s only fjord. As a reminder: a fjord is an arm of the sea created by moving glaciers, which extends far inland and can be extremely deep.
Despite its tranquil size and remote location, Leenane achieved world fame. Probably it’s best-known cultural export is Jim Sheridan’s 1990 film “The Field”. In this drama, the award-winning screenwriter and director tells the story of a man and his obsession with a piece of land. After spending his life working this field, the rightful owner puts it up for sale. When an outsider in the form of a businessman from the USA acquires the field, the consequences are dramatic.
The work raises profound questions about ownership, identity and home and is to be understood as a metaphor for the history of Ireland as a British colony. For it’s 25th anniversary, the village organized a festival in honor of the cinematic masterpiece. To this day, you can stop off at Gaynors Pub, one of the most important filming locations, and enjoy a pint to traditional music.
But Jim Sheridan isn’t the only creative who was inspired by Leenane. Playwright Thomas MacDonagh also locates his tragedy about a mother-daughter relationship here. The village even appears in the title of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” from 1996. More recent is Kevin Barry’s text “Killary Harbor”, part of his grandiose collection of short stories “Dark lies the Island” from 2012. Again, the action takes place in a pub and deals with the fictional flooding of the village and humorously portrays some typical characters from rural Ireland.
5. The view of Croagh Patrick
Good Saint Patrick will meet you again on the Western Way, even if this time he greets you gently from a distance. On the final section of the Western Way to Westport, “his holy mountain”, Croagh Patrick, looms in front of you for some time. After leaving County Galway as you set out from Leenane, you are now in County Mayo territory.
Clew Bay, the bay at the foot of Croagh Patrick, is speckled with islets and is absolutely magical.
The ascent of Croagh Patrick is still a popular pilgrimage route in Ireland to this day and on weekends you can see countless hikers who dare this challenging hike, some even on their knees or others bare foot. These extreme acts of faith are reminiscent of Saint Patrick himself. It is said that he fasted for a full 40 days high up on this mountain in AD 441.
Even if such a radical practice of religion is not recommended for imitation without serious consideration and training, it nevertheless underlines how people express their innermost being through their relationship with places. It is certain that the world that surrounds us can effect us in many ways. But regardless of whether a hike on the Western Way leads to literary effusions or spiritual insights, it is difficult for anyone not to be touched by the vast natural beauty of the West of Ireland.
We hope that you enjoyed this guide to the highlights of the Western Way. If you’re interesting in hiking an Irish trail like the Western Way, we have the biggest selection of itineraries to choose from.