Ireland Travel and Culture

Ireland's Mythical History: Connemara - A Terrible Beauty

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When the phrase "Terrible Beauty" was coined about Ireland, the author likely was in or had just come from the region on the west coast known as Connemara. Beautiful alone does not describe this land. With its chain of lakes or loughs, the striking mountain range known as the Twelve Bens (or Twelve Pins, depending on where you're from), wild ponies, unique marble, and spirited drink, "Terrible Beauty" is the perfect description for Connemara.

Head north from Galway City. Take a few turns and curves, skip the lough, and you can't miss it. The road is narrow, the land, vast on either side. All around, either close or in the distance, you'll see the mountains called the Twelve Bens. Gorgeous lakes, barren or surrounded by trees, visitors will see it all. This rugged land is the home to some of Ireland's hardiest and wildest inhabitants.

The famed Connemara Ponies are considered to be Ireland's only native equine breed. Known for their easy temperament, they are a favorite of many breeders, and especially good for children. Their origin is not known for sure, but it is believed they are descended from horses introduced into Ireland by the first invading Celts. As the warring Celts settled and began to farm the land, the horses ran wild, and a native population grew up from them. They had to adapt to the rocky, rugged terrain, thus making them to this day sure-footed and athletic. It is believed that in 1600s when the Spanish Armada sank, the horses swam ashore and mixed with the native ponies. Connemara ponies are now bred around the world. The first Connemara Pony Breeders Society was founded in 1923 in the town of Clifden, in the heart of Connemara.

Wildest of all aspects of Connemara, however, is the controversial Irish poteen (puh-cheen). Called "Mountain Due" by some, it is far from being a soft drink. Legend has it that the production of poteen began with the first potato harvesting. No one really knows when it began, but for sure and certain it's been around a long time. In 1661 the English passed a law and levied a tax on all spirited drinks. Only producers licensed by the state could produce alcoholic beverages. The very word poteen, meaning small pot, tells quite a bit about this interesting brew. Made in small home stills, this Irish "moonshine" became highly illegal...and naturally, more desirable. It was condemned by most doctors as dangerous throughout the years, but one Irishman claimed that, mixed with garlic, poteen could cure rheumatism. (A likely excuse given when the man's house was searched and a bottle, nearly empty, was found by authorities.) In March 1997 poteen became legal, and is now produced and exported by legitimate companies.

Part of the richness of the Connemara region is its beautiful marble. Although other colors are available, by far the most beautiful is the green marble. Visitors can find all sorts of souvenirs and jewelry made of this "green gold."

There is so much to see and do in Connemara that one article would never be enough. There is trout fishing, Kylemore Abbey, the Connemara Heritage Center and Dan O'Hara's farmhouse. If you like hiking, there are plenty of mountains and off the beaten path places to see. And as with all places Irish, there are the people...Ireland's most precious of all commodities.