Sweeping strokes of geology have carved up the landscape of Galway and Mayo, forming a many-pronged block between Galway and Donegal bays that’s almost cut off from the mainland by a string of lakes. In the south, the forty-kilometre stretch of Lough Corrib neatly bisects County Galway, the second largest county in Ireland after Cork. On one side, the largely flat, gentle grasslands of east Galway stretch across to the Shannon, sheltering a fascinating diversity of historic castles, cathedrals, monasteries and country estates. Between Corrib and the sea, however, stands the violent jumble of Connemara, a much-romanticized land, but with plenty to get sentimental about. Interest here is provided in abundance by the ever-changing scenery of beaches, bogs, lakes and wild mountains, though if you’re looking for specific tourist attractions, there’s a diverting cluster around the lakeside village of Oughterard. Clifden, however, is the main base, boasting a fine range of facilities at the heart of the mountains.
On the narrow neck of land between these eastern and western halves sits Galway city, an animated historic town with an enjoyable social, musical and artistic life. The city gives a whiff of the Gaelic culture that’s far more noticeable out on the Arans, starkly beautiful islands that used to form a barrier across the entrance to Galway Bay. As well as sheltering some breathtaking prehistoric and early Christian sites, the islands are part of the country’s largest Irish-speaking area, which also comprises the eastern section of Connemara.
Though ranking just behind Galway in terms of size, County Mayo has only half its population and is far less developed for tourism. An exception is the eighteenth-century planned town of Westport, a comfortable, elegant base from which to tackle the pilgrims’ path to the top of Croagh Patrick, and to visit the diverse inhabited islands at the mouth of Clew Bay. In the north of the county, the intriguing Neolithic agricultural remains at Céide Fields provide a compelling focus, surrounded by kilometre after unexplored kilometre of desolate bogland and rugged seascapes.