On a road trip along Ireland’s west coast, T+L discovers that the more things change, the more (thankfully) they stay the same.
Credit: © Jessica Schwartzberg

It’s been a decade since I was last in Bunbeg, in northern Donegal, yet when I walk into Teach Hudi Beag at 10:30 on a Monday night, the pub seems unchanged: the white façade, the dark wood beams, the musicians gathered around a row of low tables to the right of the door. Dark-eyed Hugh Gallagher, the owner, plays fiddle at the head table, and seven or eight other players lean into the circle and ease through a succession of tunes. Soon I am seated among the musicians: a tolerably decent Irish-American flutist with a deep devotion to rural Irish culture, welcomed again into the flow of the tradition. I take out my cell phone and call my wife, a first-rate fiddler herself and a great fan of the Donegal style, so that she can hear what I’m hearing. It feels like a homecoming.

Last time I was here, I was on a quest to find the pure music of Ireland’s west; this time my mission is more complex. I’ve been hearing a lot about changes in the region—laments of rampant real estate development and a dilution of traditional culture—and have already seen ample evidence of this on a two-hour drive along the coast. Tomorrow, I will begin a five-day road trip to see it for myself; tonight, I fall asleep with old Donegal melodies running through my head.

Day 1: Bunbeg to Dunkineely (72 miles)

At noon the following day I meet Gearóid Mooney, son of the legendary Bunbeg fiddler Francie Mooney, for seafood chowder in the stately old Highlands Hotel in Glenties. From there we head to Glencolmcille, in the dramatic coastal highlands of southwest Donegal. The road seems relatively unchanged, and the drive through Glengesh Pass is as hairy and magnificent as ever, with sharp curves, precipitous dips and climbs, and a succession of head-turning views. As we hit the outskirts of Glencolmcille, however, a small crescent of colonnaded McMansions stops me in my tracks. Most new houses I’ve seen in rural areas promise to blend in once the paint fades and the hard edges soften, but these will always look like awkward transplants from Long Island.

In town we rendezvous with Paddy “Beag” Gillespie, a local character and expert guide who leads us down narrow lanes and across boggy pastures to a 6,000-year-old ring fort and a row of 5,000-year-old megalithic graves, then unlocks a medieval souterrain (underground hideaway) in the graveyard of St. Columba’s church. All the while, he and Mooney banter about a variety of topics, from the effect of broadband access in the remote hills of Donegal to the exploits of “Anna from Buncrana”—a local garda notorious for her zealous enforcement of drinking laws.

It’s nearly 6 p.m. when I leave for my hotel. I arrive at the Castle Murray House Hotel after dark in a dreadful downpour, and happily while the evening away by the fireplace after a dinner of local seafood prepared by chef Remy Dupuy.

Day 2: Dunkineely to Sligo (52 miles)

Before heading for Sligo, I spend the morning exploring St. John’s Point, where Castle Murray House is located. I drive down the peninsula past new farm buildings, vacation homes, and B&B’s, then continue on foot up a narrow track between rocky pastures. A mile’s walk takes me out to the point, where the lighting effects—clouds, sun, sea, mist, rocks, hillsides—are positively Turneresque. It’s just me and the cows—and two rainbows before lunchtime.

After stops in Donegal town (for some sweater shopping) and under Ben Bulben (to pay respects at the grave of W. B. Yeats), I arrive in Sligo, a destination enjoying a moment of perfect equipoise, deftly balancing the virtues of the historic provincial town with the excitement of growth. The striking Glasshouse Hotel, which opened in 2007, sits gracefully alongside the River Garavogue, surrounded by 18th- and 19th-century buildings. On a Wednesday evening I find two traditional music sessions: one at McGarrigles Pub on O’Connell Street; the other in the front window of the long, narrow, jam-packed Shoot the Crows, on Market Cross. The young musicians are quite good, and many of the tunes are authentic County Sligo standbys, by turns hard-driving and lilting.

Day 3: Sligo to Westport (114 miles)

In momentary morning sunshine, I head south past rocky dairy farms on the R293, a road flanked by stands of ash, sycamore, and beech. On the outskirts of nearly every village I pass through, I note a belt of new buildings gradually thickening around the historic town center. This is not bucolic or beautiful, but it’s hard to see how to avoid it: farming is no longer the dominant source of income around here, and you can’t expect people to choose a drafty thatched cottage to come home to after a day at the office.

My goal this morning is the village of Gurteen and its Ceolaras Coleman Music Centre. A 1999 brick structure in a village of painted stone, the center has classrooms, a small shop, and a 120-seat concert hall offering performances by some of the region’s tried and true masters. More and more, the rural traditions of Ireland will be sheltered in places like this.

I chat over tea with the center’s James McCarrick, a tall writer-farmer who has been a close observer of the countryside over the course of several decades. As the generations that handed down traditions in kitchens and parlors fade, he tells me, today’s Irish families are becoming as overscheduled as their American counterparts. Meanwhile, the social and geographic isolation that once preserved local customs has been erased by technology and economic improvements. One can hardly begrudge the rural Irish their wider roads, their new houses, their smoke-free pubs and mobile phones and broadband access. The country no longer seems frozen in time, and that’s a good thing—isn’t it?

From Gurteen, I head west to County Mayo by way of the beautiful Lough Talt and the Windy Pass through the Ox Mountains. At Bangor, I turn south toward Westport and soon, straight ahead, looms the distant cone shape of Croagh Patrick, which thousands of pilgrims climb each year to reach the shrine of St. Patrick at the summit.

My own Westport pilgrimage—after a lonely drive through the wilds of coastal West Mayo—is to Matt Molloy’s pub, owned by the flute player of the Chieftains and famous for virtuoso trad sessions. There is no session in progress on this Thursday at 11 p.m., but in the capacious back room, a pianist, an accordion player, and a fiddler are set up on a stage playing ceili-style dance music for a roomful of eager listeners.

Day 4: Westport to Galway (98 miles)

Connemara is the wildest part of Ireland’s wild west, a mountainous region where the bogs are boggier, the crags craggier, the silence silenter. The town of Leenane, clinging to a strip of land between mountainside and bay, serves as a kind of gateway. When I drop in to a small shop to ask for directions to a hiking trail, the man at the counter replies not with a brogue but an Eastern European accent: “Sorry, I not from here. Maybe you ask in pub.”

At Connemara National Park, the parking lot is nearly empty. Though I’m skeptical—the place seems too touristy, too easy, too close to the small but jarring commercial core of Letterfrack—I decide to take a quick peek at the trails before I drive on. After an hour and a half of strenuous walking, I find myself atop the 1,300-foot Diamond Hill, taking in views of Ballynakill Bay to the west and Kylemore Lough to the north, with the peaks known as the Twelve Pins to the south and east. It’s my first taste of a moderately lengthy Connemara hike, and it is exhilarating. The rocks, mottled with lichen and striated with veins of quartz; the sky, once again performing its dramatic mood shifts; and the rampant mountain heath—green and red and brown and purple—combine to create a series of 360-degree panoramas.

Day 5: Galway to Lisdoonvarna (42 miles)

I spend Friday night exploring the streets of Galway City—full of college students socializing well after midnight—then wind my way into County Clare in gray, drizzly weather. After a damp hike in the limestone hills of Burren National Park, I head to the 18th-century spa town of Lisdoonvarna to meet up with Maryangela Keane, a social geographer whose charm is as remarkable as her deep knowledge of the region. She leads me to the ruins of Kilcorney, a 900-year-old church hidden beside a narrow back road, and from there points out an ancient stone ring silhouetted faintly at the top of a hill. Against the misty sky, it looks like an apparition.

From there we move on to Corcomroe Abbey, a 12th-century Cistercian complex centered on the now-roofless Church of Mary of the Fertile Stone. Just down the road, a half-dozen or so brand-new cookie-cutter bungalows stand single file on a pancake-flat quarter-acre, fronted by a sign reading Rent an Irish Cottage. At the abbey, however, the sense of history and remoteness is not diminished. If anything, the awesome quiet of a place like Mary of the Fertile Stone reduces the affronts of contemporary real estate speculation to a passing joke.

Ironically, the next day breaks clear and sunny for my drive to Shannon Airport. During a twisty climb on the R480, I recognize a pulloff where Keane and I stopped the day before. I park and again pick my way through hazel brush to the narrow footpath and a historical marker, undetectable from the road, identifying the early medieval ring fort known as Cahermore, situated on a hilltop so that its residents could be forewarned of the approach of strangers from land or sea. Today, unlike yesterday, I can clearly see Newtown Castle in the far valley, and beyond, Galway Bay and the distant Galway coast. The view is not notably different from what it would have been 10 years ago—or 200.

Michael S. Cain is a freelance writer and editor based in New York.

Getting There

It will take a solid five days to recreate this itinerary; Tourism Ireland (800/223-6470; discoverireland.com) can help. To reach Bunbeg, fly into Donegal Airport (there are daily flights from Dublin). The closest airport to Lisdoonvarna is Shannon, an hour’s drive to the southeast.

Where to Stay

An Chúirt Gweedore Court Hotel

Great Value Contemporary country hotel near Bunbeg. Gweedore, Co. Donegal; 353-74/953-2900; gweedorecourthotel.com; doubles from $109, including breakfast.

Castle Murray House Hotel

St. John’s Point, Dunkineely, Co. Donegal; 353-74/973-7022; castlemurray.com; doubles from$202, including breakfast; dinner for two $143.

Glasshouse Hotel

Swan Point, Sligo; 353-71/919-4300; theglasshouse.ie; doubles from $192, including breakfast.

Hotel Meyrick

Historic property recently redone by Douglas Wallace, the architects who brought you the G. Eyre Square, Galway City; 353-91/564-041; hotelmeyrick.ie; doubles from $226, including breakfast.

Knockranny House Hotel

Great Value Book one of the oldest rooms, and consider dining in. Castlebar Rd., Westport, Co. Mayo; 353-98/28600; khh.ie; doubles from $170, including breakfast; dinner for two $147.

Where to Eat

Coach Lane Restaurant at Donaghy’s Bar

Pub fare and inventive seafood dishes. 1 Lord Edward St., Sligo; 353-71/916-2417; dinner for two $108.

Druid Lane Restaurant

A cozy haven on a frenetic block. 9 Quay St., Galway City; 353-91/916-2417; dinner for two $130.

Monks Bar and Restaurant

Superfresh seafood opposite the town pier. Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare; 353-65/707-7059; dinner for two $73.

Pubs and Music

Ceolaras Coleman Music Centre

Gurteen, Co. Sligo; 353-71/918-2599; colemanirishmusic.com.

Matt Molloy’s

Music nightly. Bridge St., Westport, Co. Mayo; 353-98/26655.

McGarrigles Pub

Music on Wednesdays and Thursdays. O’Connell St., Sligo; 353-71/917-1193.

Shoot the Crows

Music on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Market Cross, Sligo; no phone.

Teach Hudi Beag

Music on Mondays and Fridays. Bunbeg, Co. Donegal; 353-74/953-1016.