How To Spend Christmas in Connemara

WESTWARD HO-HO: pristine beaches, snow-sprinkled mountains, A GENTLE PACE, turf fires, TRADITIONS WITHOUT PRESSURE. Christmas in Connemara is magical …

Tethered to our city homes by commitments and convention, the urban Christmas is the norm for most of us, with perhaps a few days’ fresh air in the countryside between St Stephen’s day and New Year. But how tempting it would be to minimise the fuss, trim the shopping list and head west (or south, or east, or north for that matter) for a week to relish simple local traditions against a backdrop of sea, sky and mountain? As well as the pleasures of the countryside, in every rural town in Ireland there are interesting things to do and see, and local traders and restaurants and pubs who help create an atmospheric and cosy Christmas just the right side of traditional. Think brisk walk on a long beach followed by a pub lunch with turf fire, Christmas Eve carols, followed by various church services, and waking up to blessed silence and days of freedom stretching ahead, in which to enjoy simple tasks, normally shoehorned into a long list (mostly of our own making). Connemara, from Spiddal in the north to Killary in the south, with its mountains, sea, lakes and forests and sophisticated capital, Clifden, is a magnet for visitors who like a balance of seclusion and social life.

Cliodhna Prendergast of Lens & Larder lives in a lakeshore house on the Ballynahinch estate with her husband Patrick O’Flaherty, general manager of the hotel, and their children. “On Christmas Eve, I collect velvet crab from our friend and fisherman John Sullivan in Inishnee, for potted crab on Christmas Day. We spend hours on Christmas Eve picking all the meat from the tiny little legs. For her, the sense of community a rural town thrives on is central to Christmas. “Living in Connemara often means living miles from your nearest neighbour so there is a tradition of gathering in Clifden town square for carols on Christmas Eve.” Hot whiskeys and punch, provided by EJ Kings, Guys and Mannions Bar and hot chocolate from the Off The Square café, keep the crowd, which of course includes citizens of Connemara, returning from abroad, warm. And as Prendergast adds, in winter “You can walk entire headlands, beaches, mountains and bogs, without seeing another soul. The low winter light is often spectacular and there is a special sense of nature and peace to be found here at this time of year.”

You might find yourself in Stanley’s emporium on Christmas Eve, joining last-minute types choosing Dubarry boots or lambswool sweaters. John Stanley is always prepared for a run on woolly socks before he shutters up for the evening and joins the rest of the revellers on the square. After that, it’s time to go home. Quiet descends. “Clifden is a very beautiful ghost town on Christmas Day,” says Stanley. “Everyone retreats to houses or hotels and they don’t re-emerge until Stephen’s Day or the day after, when more ‘summer house people’ arrive to spend New Year.” The weather can turn glacial in early January, so talk is always of when to leave before the “Big Freeze”. Second home-owners with local knowledge make the best of their break, starting with the best place to buy a tree. Grainne Hyland of Whistlestop, the smart interiors shop on Market Street, admits to importing her tree from Dublin until Enda in the fruit & veg market started selling magnificent specimens. And she never misses the carol service by local schoolchildren, or supper in Mannions on Christmas Eve. A tree, a choir, a turf fire, and potted crab … time for some new Christmas traditions.

Sarah McDonnell

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