Taken for a ride
My teenage daughter and I, who have been riding since we could walk, decided the time had come to convert the two menfolk in our family to the joys of the saddle. We hoped a week's horse-riding holiday through the highlands on the remote west coast of Ireland must surely do the trick. The 'Connemara Trail' has horses to suit all levels of rider from complete novice to experienced. And age doesn't matter so long as you're fit and determined enough to manage five hours a day in the saddle. The rewards are a four-star hotel most nights, a warm welcome and gourmet cuisine created from fresh local meat, game and seafood.
We touched down at Galway's tiny airport to be met by a muddy Land Rover and trailer carrying two ponies for our children, and drove north and west out of town through wild and lonely bog country. Finally we stopped. Up ahead of us was a corral full of Connemara ponies — descendants of the Arab stallions that swam ashore from the sinking Armada galleons in 1588. Leaning against the sides were the other half a dozen riders, quite an international bunch from Los Angeles, New York and Brussels.
This was the start of our 110-mile journey to the Atlantic coast. Within minutes we'd left the road behind, and were headed up the hillside dotted with isolated little farms, each with its whitewashed thatched cottage, stacks of turf harvested from the bogs, and miniature stonewalled fields. Willie, our guide, a larger-than-life character who seemed to know everyone along the route, stopped to chat in Gaelic to an old lady who appeared at the door of one of the farms. This part of the west of Ireland is considered the uncorrupted heart of the country and repository of its ancient culture and language. The identification of the west as the home of the true Irish people stems partly from Cromwell's 17th-century clearances of the native Irish from the best land to the county's poorest province; hence the persistence of the saying 'to hell or Connaught'.
With four hours of the trail behind us we stopped for a picnic lunch, sitting among the stone remnants of an old village abandoned during the potato famine of 'Black Forty-Seven'. Cromwell's penal confiscation of land, combined with an inheritance tradition which divided the land equally among all male heirs, was directly responsible for nearly half the population subsisting on between five and 15 acres of poor stony land. Under these circumstances only potatoes could be grown in sufficient quantities to feed the average family of eight to 15 children. 'The famine changed everything,' said Willie as he munched his way through some delicious Cashel Blue cheese from Tipperary. The year 1845 saw the start of the infamous blight which had spread from the US to northern Europe and struck Ireland particularly ferociously, spreading 50 miles a week. By 1847 the famine was raging out of control.
After lunch we cantered along the `Famine Road', lasting testament to the belated attempts at social security at that time. Spurious public works such as draining swamps, or building roads like this one from somewhere to nowhere, were commissioned to allow the working populace to be 'paid'. The shameful irony was that during this time the country was producing more than enough grain to feed the entire population. But, through a combination of bureaucratic disasters and slavish adherence to the commercial market, Ireland continued exporting its food and what remained was beyond the means of most. No less than three million people — out of a population of eight million — died or were forced to emigrate in just four years.
Our last day was spent galloping along empty white sands and crashing through the surf of the Atlantic, looking out for thousands of miles, next stop America. These were, of course, the shores from which so many Irish went unwittingly to their deaths from typhus either on board the 'coffin ships' or in the quarantine camps on their an-ival. Only half survived the journey to enjoy opportunities in the New World as part of the Irish diaspora. Ironically, today, the magic of Connemara derives from that sense of total isolation and wilderness. Experiencing this ancient culture and landscape from the back of a native Connemara pony was a very special privilege. And father and son agreed.