My grandmother, one Mary Conroy, schoolteacher, came from the far west of Connemara – from a small and beautiful island near Cleggan called Omey. I never knew her, but lore about Connemara was transmitted through the collective family memory. They seemed to be a people both wild and romantic: clever individuals who thought highly of themselves, and eccentrics, Bohemians, cosmopolitans who would as quickly take the Galway boat to Spain as sell a heifer at a fair (indeed, one great-uncle took the Spanish boat when sent to sell a heifer: and remained in Spain for eleven years).
The English may have thought of the Irish as peasants, but the Connemara people regarded themselves as dispossessed princes, having been despatched ‘to hell or Connaught’ by Cromwell. In North and West Connemara, though, the people were not Irish-speaking: indeed, like both Karl Marx and the Catholic Church, they believed the future of progress belonged to the great languages of Europe, not minority folk tongues they thought of as ‘backwrd’.
But Connemara, that wild and beautiful region of Galway and Mayo, has, like the rest of Ireland, altered a great deal in the last few years. And so have the people. The young man whose family owned the modest pub in Cleggan where we would meet at holiday time is