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I stand above the ocean at Sky Road’s summit and look out over the islands, where folktales say mermaids sit and sing and comb their hair. A group of French tourists laugh amongst themselves. There’s the smell of saltwater and faraway seagull cries. Behind me Sky Road winds its way back to Clifden, where I started my hike around this 16 kilometre loop that follows county Galway’s Kingstown Peninsula, on Ireland’s western coast. I turn my head the other way and look to where it disappears around a bend on its way down the mountain.
The ocean’s depths are blue and black. Its shallows are green where seaweed grows. I take a picture, listen to the wind and watch whitewater throw itself against black rocks. An hour and a half ago I stepped off the bus from Galway City onto Clifden’s Market Street. It is a town small enough to fit in two cupped palms but it’s alive with history and art and the sounds of foreign accents. I went towards the town centre, walking a road marked Seaview to the fork in the road at the Town Hall. Beach Road fell to the left and Seaview climbed to the right, then turned onto Sky Road. From there an ivy-shrouded stone wall followed my route upwards. Giant rhubarb hung over its edge. Its brighter greens clashed against the ivy’s darkness. I rounded a turn and Clifden vanished behind pine trees and Sky Road stretched on into the country.
Once you have turned that corner the sounds of the town disappear, replaced by the neighing of horses and the wind that shimmers over the fields. Rocks cut through the grass, slabs of grey beside the violets and dandelions. Above me stood D’Arcy’s monument (erected c. 1842), on the peak of a hill overlooking Clifden. I turned off the road and climbed the track up to the squat stone prism put there in memory of Clifden’s founder, John D’Arcy. I walked around its base and looked out over the town, at its church spires and clumps of trees and the skyline of mountains beyond. Clifden Bay’s waters were smooth as a polished glass plain. I swept my gaze across that panorama and turned to face the monument. A vandal’s initials were carved in one corner. Their faded “J” was barely visible after years of weathering storms. I took a final look across the land and remembered how much I love it out here.
I walked back down to the road. It sloped away from me at a steep angle, headed “up towards the sky,” as the locals told the first tourists that came here, giving Sky Road its name. Sheep with curved horns suckled their lambs in the fields and Connemara ponies grazed among the rocks. Once this country was marked only by stone walls, the crumbling cottages that stand by the road, and the tracks that were worn into the land by donkey-carts. This was the edge of the known world once, the last ground before the ocean, and the first wild west. A rough and untamed place.
The paved road made walking easy. Cars drove past that stank of petrol and broke the silence. Most people drive the route I took, going up the mountain at the fork where it splits into Sky Road and Lower Sky Road. From that point on the silence between cars swallowed all noise. I stopped walking and stood still to look across the ocean and listen to the calm. The wind had died away and all I could hear was the sound of my breath, slight and small in the quiet.
I stopped every now and then just to take in that silence as I trekked up here to the road’s summit, where I’m still looking over the islands. I turn to the shining horizon. It stretches across my field of view in a line as fine as an artist’s brushstroke. Behind me a man starts his motorbike and takes off down the mountain. I turn around and pull my backpack on and set off after him.
The wind starts to cool and pick up strength as I descend. I can see ahead for miles to the peaks that reach for the heavens beyond the next bay. Pine trees grow down here and the sound of birdcalls – cuckoos and starlings and crows and blackbirds – starts to fill the air. I follow Sky Road’s turns around farms on its way to the N59, the road that will take me back to Clifden. Up the mountain the only signs of farming were the sheep and ponies and the walls that cut the land into fields. Down here there are machines and hay-sheds and farmhouses. I can smell the peat-smoke that pours out of cottage chimneys and hear the barking of sheepdogs.
Connemara’s rocks would buckle any plough and its soil is too shallow for any plant that needs deep roots. The only animals that live on the peaks are sheep and Connemara ponies, two tough breeds. There were few houses near Sky Road’s summit. All built stout and strong and in modern styles that revealed them to be newer additions, unlike the bungalows here in the lowlands that are cracked and stained with age. Nothing grows tall up the mountains like the trees do in the foothills. Yet people have carved lives out of this place. A process that must have taken almost as long as the erosion that shaped the landscape.
These mountains once stood as tall as the Himalayas. Now they have been worn short and smooth. I look out over the bay to a line of them. They curve like waves of earth that were frozen in place. There are people fishing from a pier across the water and the mountains stand tall over them. Boats float on the bay’s flawless surface.
The relationship between this place and people is not perfect. Those boats have been abandoned for some time. And I pass a yard full of scrap metal where piles of rusted farm machinery claw at the sky. It is possible that the people have started to take Connemara for granted. Even though it has shaped them as much as they have shaped it.
To say that a place and its people are linked is understatement. The people who settle a land have to learn how to balance their needs with its ways. A place will have its own rhythms and tunes and stories and secrets that have to be learned and respected. I look at those boats and that rusted metal and think that once they helped strengthen the people’s bond with Connemara. They allowed them to explore and farm it and be part of its story, to strike a balance between themselves and the place. I pass the scrapyard and think that humankind has taken too big a bite out of this country. And that the scars from our teeth will take ages to heal.
I come to a humpbacked bridge and step off the road to get a better photo of it. A lone seagull stands on a telephone pole and squawks. The gorse’s flowers are in bloom and their yellow petals shine in the evening light. The water that flows beneath the bridge is shallow and muddy. I look into it and wonder if the crab fishing is good here.
A rooster crows. I catch the sound of a stream running over rocks. Two bales sit on the shore wrapped in plastic and there’s a smell of silage on the breeze that has started to ripple the bay. There have been no roadsigns since the hike’s peak. Only now have they started to reappear, bearing their directions and information and spray-painted graffiti – a jarring sign of the boredom that affects all rural youth. I follow Sky Road for its last few kilometres, past a great stone house and up a hill onto the N59 where I sit down on the grass to rest and eat. It’s colder now. The day is dimming and commuters are returning to Clifden on the road south into town. I pick myself up and start walking in that direction.
It takes me an hour to walk the last kilometres of my hike. The road is narrow, traffic has to swerve around me. I get back to Clifden at four o’clock. I had started hiking at noon and took my time with it, not wanting to miss any of Connemara’s whispers or expressions. When I was a kid we used to go on drives through here and I would stare out the window and wonder about this place. Now I feel like I know something about it.
I walk back to the square and decide to head for a bar. It’s quieter here now. The last of the tour buses has passed through and some of the shops have closed early for the weekend. I have a few hours before the bus back to Galway arrives. I choose a pub, walk in, order a pint and dinner and wait, looking over my notes and retracing my steps along Sky Road.