The Scenery and Flora of Connemara

J. Stirling Coyne & N. P. Willis
c. 1841
Volume II, Chapter X-4 | Start of chapter

Before quitting the Connemara country, we shall briefly advert to the peculiar characteristics of the scenery, which distinguish this portion of Ireland from every other district in the island. The great and striking features of the Connemara landscape are its mountains, whose peaks of quartz start up magnificently from lakes that want only the arbutus and holly of Killarney to rival the enchantments of Mucruss. The Twelve Pins, a stupendous group of these Titans of the land, lie between Ballynahinch and Killery Harbour; bare, but glittering with the aerial brilliancy peculiar to their formation, their peaked summits rush together,—in elevations of from two thousand to two thousand five hundred feet,—a splendid cloud-pointing assemblage. But while their denuded peaks depend mainly on their own quartoze formation for their effect in the landscape, the sides and bases of the Pins, from which the violence of Atlantic storms has not yet been able to wash away their vegetable covering, take tints still more brilliant and various from their innumerable varieties of heaths and lichens.[51]

Lough Ina

Lough Ina, Connemara

What the arbutus is to Killarney, the heath is to Connemara, and in the absence of any depth or breadth of foliage, the eye rests most gratefully on a substitute so pleasing—for its streaks are of pale pink, rich brown, or glowing purple, mixed with the tender green of mountain-grasses, and occasionally alternating with the black stripes of uplying bogs, giving a combination of colours that, seen under the clarifying influence of western skies, is almost magical. Nor is all this brilliancy inconsistent with breadth. Connemara proper, though a mountainous is not an upland country; the plain from which its greatest elevations rise is little more, on an average, than one hundred feet above the level of the Atlantic; so that its masses lose not a tittle of their real altitude, but lifting themselves to their full height at a stretch, look over the plain with much greater majesty than many other mountains higher by a thousand feet. Lettery and Derryclare stand foremost, like an advanced-guard, to the group on the south; the others are formed in a solid square around Knockannahiggen, the captain of this grenadier company of Connaught Fencibles. In front, flank, and rear open four principal glens, each one with his torrent, and three of them with their proper lakes: Glen Hogan, with the lower Lake of Ballynahinch, looks southward on Roundstone and Birterbuy; Glen Ina, cradling its black waters under the tremendous precipice of Maam,—down which the stream that feeds Loch Ina falls twelve hundred feet, and opens the gorge of its grand prison upon the east.

Kylemore yawns westward and northward on Renvyle; and on the west and south, the ravine whose torrent waters Clifden, grins horribly upon the Atlantic. The Joyce Country, or, as it may be termed, Upper Connemara, which stretches north of Connemara proper along the shores of Killery harbour, is a table-land, very different from the district of which we have been speaking, for the whole formation of the country is here changed; and instead of plains of granite and peaks of quartz, we have extended platforms of sandstone, cut into ravines rather than rising out of valleys, with few or no plains, till we descend their northern declivity into the bogs of Mayo. The deepest and the longest ravine in Joyce Country is that occupied by the waters of Killery harbour, an elbow of the Atlantic, which some consider not inferior to any similar scene in Europe. Muilrea, the highest mountain in Connaught, rises in this district to the height (according to Mr. Bald) of two thousand seven hundred and thirty-three feet above the level of the sea. Its sides are of magnificent precipitousness from the water's edge to the crown of the ridge; and the northern declivities of the whole range, extending from Muilrea to the heights above Castlebar, are full of the most romantic hollows, and every hollow has its own lough and river.

The absence of wood is the greatest drawback to the beauty of the Connemara scenery, and, it must be confessed, to the aspect of the country generally. The whole surface of Ireland presents scarcely a relic of a natural forest, and the few plantations to be met with rarely exceed a century in age. Yet, denuded of trees as it now is, it is certain that at no very remote period Ireland was far more abundantly furnished with natural woods than almost any European country. Noble forests once existed in every province, and even on these western shores, so exposed to the violence of the Atlantic gales, stately pines flourished in situations where it is now imagined that no tree can vegetate. The most authentic evidence of the antiquity of the forests and the nature of the trees which composed them, may be obtained from an examination of their remains, which have been inhumed in the bogs. Oak, fir, yew, and birch, are the species of timber most abundant, and these are found under the bogs, sometimes at a depth of thirty feet from the surface. Indeed it has been conjectured that the decay of the immense forests with which the country was formerly covered, has been the origin of many bogs, and a strong degree of probability is given to the hypothesis from the fact that in such situations the roots of trees have been often found resting upon each other.


[51] The wild district of Connemara furnishes several rare and interesting plants, of which the following are the most remarkable:—Erica Mediterranea, found in Urrisbeg, near Roundstone, and on the side of Muilrea mountain, near the Killeries; Erica Mackaiana, Menziesia poliforia, or Irish heath, which, as well as the beautiful variety with white flowers, are now general favourites in garden collections, are to be seen between Clifden and Roundstone; the curious Eriocaulon septangulare, which also grows in the Isle of Skye, in Scotland, is here to be found in almost every lake. The London-pride, Saxifraga umbrosa, is met with on several of the mountains in the greatest abundance, and the Saxifraga oppositifolia on the mountains which separate Connemara from the Joyce Country. The beautiful and delicate Adiantum capillus veneris, or true Maiden-hair fern, is found near Roundstone; the Pimpinella Magna, in great abundance in the Ross woods, and the Silene Anglica, in great profusion in corn-fields two miles west of Oughterard.