Slow Travel in Ireland, Connemara Dreaming

Maddy Harland
Tuesday, 19th July 2011

Maddy and Tim Harland visit Connemara in County Galway, Ireland and discover a dream of a place with empty beaches, crystal clear waters and staggering biodiversity – a wild campers' paradise.

Tim and I have reached that time in life. Our lovely daughters, 21 and 18, happily go to festivals, films and art exhibitions with us for family outings but the days of two weeks of rough camping in Cornwall with them and a posse of their friends is no longer on the annual agenda. We go our own slow travelling ways these days. So faced with a holiday on our own we thought we'd do something different.

We decided to visit Ireland – land of my grandparents and holiday destination of my childhood – and specifically Connemara. I had fallen in love with the place when I was five and its haunting beauty has never left me. I had to go back.

Irish property collapse

Having heard so much about the post-Celtic Tiger economy and the housing collapse that has left countless new builds empty, even unfinished, I wondered whether my fond memories of this country and its gentle people would be challenged. It wasn't.

Eco camping

Tim and I love wilderness and we love weather. We love to be in nature, especially by the Atlantic with its wild beaches and cold water. Having decided on Connemara we found a campsite on the internet that seemed to fit all of our requirements, and more. Set on a 20 hectare organic farm, Acton's Camping and Caravaning Eco-Park is right in the dunes on the Claddaghduff road, near Clifden, bordered by an estuary, Streamstown Bay, on one side and the Atlantic on another. It is a low density site with modest but clean facilities (that's fine with us) and run by a kind and helpful couple, Kris Acton and his partner Tatjana. They live on the site with their two lovely children in a mobile home but are in the middle of self-building an eco-house.

Biodiversity and botany

The site itself is stunning. It is carpeted in orchids and many other wild flowers (I'll write a blog about the biodiversity next time) and the dunes are held together with marram grass (an ecological machair habitat site). This place is a botanist's dream. The unpopulated beaches are of golden sand and the estuary at high tide has a run of seven knots, a great place for an experienced kayaker. There are also more gentle tidal paddles to be had on the estuary and Ireland's only fjord not far away at Killarney.

Our pitch looked out to the Twelve Bens mountains in the distance, our back garden was the crystal clear estuary, and a short 100 meter walk away was the open sea with those glorious beaches.

Wild Glamping

Luxury accommodation!

Our trusty canvas bell tent kept us comfortably sheltered and warm even in a gusting gale and we quickly became immersed in the changing weather and landscape. We watched herons, cormorants and aerodynamic terns fish in the bay behind our tent, lobster fishermen pull up their pots, clouds scud across the changing skies and rainbows grace the hillside beyond. We had the promised mist, wind and rain, but also adequate amounts of sun to send us home tanned and well.

Outdoor cooking and fishing in Ireland

Outdoor life suits us. We love to live simply and cook outside, walk miles every day, beachcomb, forage, fish and clamber over rocks. We also love the Connemara people, generally so friendly and generous with a healthy degree of eccentricity. Most of all, we love the simplicity of watching weather, landscape, tide and creatures converge into the grand natural rhythm of life.

Carbon footprint: Holidays

Coming back this week, people have remarked on our great tans and how well we look. We could of course have flown to some warm destination in an urban complex on the Med, expensive on the pocket and unacceptable for the eco-footprint. Instead we have chosen a car ride and a ferry to a wild place. To us, this kind of trip is a homage to nature, a meditation of place and a journey in which we re-wild ourselves. It feeds our souls and enables us to carry on with the other life with the multi-media digital complexity that is permaculture publishing.

The temptation is to keep quiet about places like Actons, but Kris and Tatjana deserve to be busy. Running an small organic farm in Ireland is not easy and their stewardship of their local environment deserves to be celebrated. And Connemara? It is still a dream place, even 40 years on from the childhood idyll.

Read Maddy's second Irish blog: Wildfowers, Wildfowers Everywhere! Connemara Dreaming Part 2

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Rhizowen Radix |
Wed, 20/07/2011 - 14:54
Haven't been to Connemara for ages. Do they still have Gunnera tinctoria growing wild there? I remember lots of it growing along the edge of Killary Harbour and elsewhere. Invasive weed, yes, but an impressive nitrogen fixing one. Also remember Corsican mint, Mentha requienii growing on gravel by the side of the road. I expect there were lots of pyramidal orchids (and many others) in the machair. Did you see the remains of lazy beds in any of the fields?
Maddy Harland |
Wed, 20/07/2011 - 15:23
Hello R, Nice to hear from you! Yes loads of Gunnera by the hedgerows - they love the damp climate - and huge specimens as well. The wildflowers on our campsite were so abundant that we photographs many of them and will blog about them next week. The fields had many remnants of agricultural practices inc lazy beds and they were still cutting peat for the fire in the backwaters. I reckon Ireland could be a resilient place for peak oil - so much of the older culture is still near the surface - unlike here in the south west of England!
Martin Holme |
Wed, 20/07/2011 - 16:50
Sounds like a wonderful time. I reckon if you have the space to transport it the secret to a fantastic camp experience and a mediocre one is the quality of the bed and pillow! I was at the Buddhafield Festival and noticed the effort people were making to have a great bed. Also I reckon there is a big difference in camping under canvas and camping under lightweight nylon - canvas is so much better. Finally fire makes camping so much better - fortunately my tent can have a fire in it (but you have to be very careful as it can be incredibly dangerous unless your tent is designed for it) Having said all that the best camping for me is under a tarp with lightweight gear so you can really engage with nature around you in a way you can't with an enclosed tent.
Maddy Harland |
Thu, 21/07/2011 - 10:18
Hi Martin, I agree. Canvas is wonderful, especially in and rainy and windy climate. It is far less noisy than nylon in a gale and last much longer so the upfront investment is well worth it. Our bell tent if cared for properly should last for years. It is also light in the evening, meaning we need less artifical light. I was reading until 10 pm without a head torch. We also had a small portable woodburner which was brilliant for warmth on rainy evenings and also for cooking on. I liked it so much I am going to blog about it and share some tips on the gear we used. I know you are the bivvy king - I have yet to sleep under a tarp and wouldn't chose that method of camping by the sea in Ireland but it is on my list to experience in a sheltered wood! We also had a wonderful cotton mattress - more about that later too. Happy days!
Suzie Cahn |
Tue, 26/07/2011 - 00:29
I run a small permaculture teaching farm in Co Wicklow with my husband called Carraig Dúlra. We've been teaching lazy bed construction there since we were taught by a fella called Christy from Mannin near Ballyconneely. He told us he was "the last man in Ireland to knows how to construct them in the same way as they'd done since the famine." He uses his own cattle manure and seaweed from a particular beach and grows the most amazing spuds, carrots, beets and cabbage on the edge of the Marram Dunnes. In Wicklow, our students are usually immediate converts to this method of starting new beds from grass land. Its very permaculture as the soil is not disturbed leaving soil life intact and enhanced with the introduction of nutrients and organic matter. We've planted everything straight into them with great success and to the amazement of the digging diehards. Pre-famine Ireland had 8 million people and there is evidence of lazy beds high in the Wicklow Hills. Our carrying capacity in food has not been reached since. After the recent boom ended, interest in resilience, food security has grown and helped a renaissance in grow your own, local food etc. We also have enough critical mass for our first all island permaculture gathering this summer in Wicklow. Perhaps the racial memory (that Christy refers to) of a time when we were forced to be dependent on the humble, but vulnerable spud, due to global trade of our other abundant crops by powerful food controlling institutions, helps us reawaken the debate in Ireland more easily about our food being dependent on oil and megacorporations. In any case Connemara is still the place of inspiration it has been for many a long year Long live lazy beds.
Maddy Harland |
Tue, 26/07/2011 - 11:46
Dear Suzie, I would love to run an article on how to make lazy beds the traditional way - and to hear how you use this method on your smallholding. You are right about a growing awareness post-crash about resilience. My friend Barry who lectures in agriculture in Co. Galway says his college is full of students now whereas a few years ago young people were turning away from the family farm. This trend will grow as the basis of our economy changes with peak oil and you guys are ahead of the game, preserving traditional knowledge which will be useful for future generations. Thanks for your comment. And yes, Connemara is inspirational. The place got under my skin when I was 5 years old. We used to go every summer. Missing it very much!
Suzie Cahn |
Tue, 26/07/2011 - 23:27
Thanks Maddy I'd be happy to. Our website is but I'll also send you an email. One photo of newly made lazy beds here