Leenane hotel was buzzing. Every few minutes, newcomers would make their way into the dimly lit foyer of the three-star guesthouse with a mix of pride and exhaustion on their faces. They had just completed the gruelling 25km, 2,300m ascent of the Maamturks mountain range as part of the annual NUI Galway-organised Maamturks Challenge. Most had started out at 5am and completed the walk within eight to 11 hours.
This was the hotel’s first weekend open after the winter break in April, and as more tour buses pulled into the village the next day, you got the sense that Leenane was awakening for a new season.
On the Galway-Mayo border, situated at the head of Killary harbour and under the Maamturk and Maamtrasna mountains, the townland Leenane is unquestionably a place surrounded by savage beauty. From one moment to the next the colour of the mountains — dotted with potato ridges and wild, grazing sheep — changes from a dramatic black to green.
It was the setting for The Field, Jim Sheridan’s 1990 hit, for which Richard Harris received an Oscar nomination for best actor, and has gained international attention thanks to Martin McDonagh’s play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
Martin Gavin arrived in Leenane in 1976 at the age of 22, having come down the road from his native Westport. He and his wife Martina raised their four children — Liam, Bridget, Alan and Colm — on a 30-acre farm across the water from the village.
His main occupation is as a sheep and cattle farmer, and every few months, he and other local farmers form meitheals, or work groups, to climb up the mountains to gather the blackface sheep.
In the 1990s, Gavin became involved with the Irish Farmers’ Association, representing farmers who operate in special areas of conservation, such as Leenane. A shift from cattle to sheep farming in the 1980s because of new regulations meant that many had to change their way of life.
“The vast majority of farmers are here because they want to be here. If they were to do it for financial reasons, I doubt there’d be any,” he says.
As farming became less viable, Leenane’s population — of about 200 people — had to look at other ways to survive. Tourism was an obvious choice. The area is now vying to become the adventure capital of Ireland with businesses such as Killary adventure centre and Delphi adventure resort making it a real destination. Every May it holds the Connemara Walking Festival, of which Gavin is chair, to “highlight what the area has to offer”.
During peak season, the population of the townland swells to more than 600 people, and there are about 600 jobs in the area. “Leenane is a very rural area but it’s dependent on tourism,” says Gavin.
Unemployment among men is high but many who work have more than one job, supplementing farm income with tourism income. In the 2016 census, Leenane’s population had dropped by about 15%. Its farming population is also getting older, so Gavin and other locals would like to see more people moving in.
There is one obvious obstacle: a lack of affordable housing. There are no housing estates in Leenane. The area is dotted with mostly low-slung, one-off houses. There are numerous holiday homes, most of which are vacant throughout the year, but there are also empty, abandoned houses. Within metres of Leenane hotel, for instance, three lie vacant. Adrian Mangan of Clifden-based Sherry FitzGerald Mangan says few properties come to market. “Planning permission is confined to local people only, which adds to the shortage of property for sale.”
However, locals would argue that even they find it difficult to buy homes. Kim Young, who grew up in Leenane and owns Misunderstood Heron, a food truck on the shores of the Killary fjord, says that, when she moved back to Leenane after four years travelling, she had difficulty finding somewhere to rent. After living with her parents for her first year back, she now rents a house beside Leenane hotel. “Everywhere is holiday lets. There are so many derelict houses in Leenane that would be perfect for families and young couples who could live in one of the most beautiful places in Ireland.
“When houses do come up for sale, some vendors are looking for silly money — €700,000 for a five-bedroom house. Nobody here has that sort of money.”
Young’s parents Mary and Jamie moved to Leenane in 1990, when they purchased a dilapidated country house, renovated it and ran it as a guest lodge for 15 years. They now run Killary Adventure Centre.
Young met her Chilean boyfriend and business partner Reinaldo Seco when he worked as a kayaking instructor at the centre. Now aged 27, she says Leenane is “like a slice of cosmopolitan Connemara”. “There are people from all around the world here. From the age of 15 to 20, I thought I’d never live in Connemara — I was going to live on a beach somewhere — but the more you leave and come back, the more you see how amazingly beautiful it is and how fantastic the community is.”
The seasonality of the tourism season is a big issue for many people in Leenane. Young and Seco will shut up Misunderstood Heron in October and head to Chile for a couple of months, but she knows this won’t be possible when she has a family.
The tourism season is extending, however, and this year Leenane hotel will open for the first time at Christmas.
Alex Goor runs Killary Fjord Boat Tours. His boat Connemara Lady goes out on 90-minute trips four times a day during peak season, serving local mussels, salmon and craft beers on board — mussel farming is also big in in the fjord. Goor spends his winters marketing the business and maintaining the boat — which welcomed 37,000 people aboard last year. They say if you make it through a winter at Leenane, you’ll be there for life. Goor, 43, stayed on after a six-month stint at Delphi resort 24 years ago. He set up the tour company in 2000. “Leenane hasn’t changed a huge amount since I arrived but tourism has grown. Now you get the people doing the Wild Atlantic Way. When I started, pretty much all of our business was off the road, but now 60% of our business is pre-booked through tour operators.”
Goor lives two minutes down the road from Nancy’s Point in a house that he and his wife Zoe bought as a ruin 10 years ago, after spending nine years commuting from nearby Louisburgh due to a lack of housing. “Now I can drive to work within two minutes. The pace of life is fantastic. My kids Neva, who is nine, and Leo, who is four, go to school here, and we’re outside all the time whether it’s up in the hills or fishing in the pier,” says Goor.
Living in such a rural location comes with drawbacks, however — there are fewer services. The village has a couple of pubs, shops, cafes and a tourist centre, but for big shops residents tend to go to Westport. Public transport is also non-existent — one bus comes every Tuesday to go to Galway at 10am, returning at 8pm. To live in Leenane you must have a car. Likewise, there is no real ambulance service, with ambulances coming from bigger towns such as Clifden or Westport.
Chloe Bolger made the headlines in 2017 when she made an open appeal to Simon Harris, the health minister, to provide a proper ambulance service in Leenane. A few days after giving birth to her first daughter Lily in 2014, Bolger haemorrhaged. A near two-hour wait for an ambulance was nearly fatal.
Originally from France, Bolger arrived in Leenane in 2006 to work for a season. She took up a manager position at Connemara Adventure Tours in 2010. “I knew this was the right place for me. It’s the wildness and roughness, the colour that changes with the seasons,” she says.
Bolger married Conor, a Carlow native, in 2013 and they bought a three-bedroom bungalow that year. Conor works as a guide and a bike mechanic. Their second daughter Cerise was born in 2017. The population of Leenane may have decreased in the last census, but there is a generation of younger families coming up. A creche has opened and the local Leenane National School, which has 18 students, remains open after fears it would close a few years ago.
Planning consent was recently granted for a local amenity park. It will include a children’s play area, adult exercise area, running path, car parking spaces and barbecue benches. Locals have embarked upon a €125,000 fundraising drive to complete it. “And they’ll do it. The community spirit is amazing,” says Siobhan Bennett, who works with the walking festival.
Originally from Newbridge in Kildare, Bennett knew she was destined for a life in Connemara when, at the age of 15, she visited her brother who was working at Delphi. She worked in the centre herself when she turned 17, spent a couple of years travelling, and moved to Leenane about 15 years ago. The 39-year-old has now moved up the road to Renvyle where she lives with her boyfriend Brendan and their six-month-old daughter Maebh, but she still feels the draw of Leenane.
She set up the local kayaking club and will send Maebh to the creche. “I love Leenane,” she says “When you live there you can’t help but have an amazing view from your window. Rent is cheaper, schools are better. There is lots to do. ”
Schools: There’s just one school in Leenane, and that’s the national school, which has two classrooms and a student population of about 18. For secondary school, locals can go to Louisburgh, Cornamona or Westport.
Amenities: There are two pubs in the village – Hamilton’s and Gaynor’s. For food, there’s Bia Blas Café, the Village Grill and Blackberry Restaurant. Alternatively, you could eat in Leenane hotel, or the 814 Restaurant at Delphi Resort.
The Leenane library is open for a few hours a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. The local kayaking club goes out once a week. There is a 2km coastal path for those who like to walk, and there are lots of trails around the mountains — and the Famine trail. Scenic Aasleagh Falls is a few minutes form the village, just before the River Erriff meets Killary Harbour.
Celebrities: If you watch 1990 film The Field, you’ll spot many Leenane locals who starred alongside acting giants Richard Harris, Sean Bean, John Hurt, Tom Berenger and Brenda Fricker.
Homes for sale
Period home with sea views €350,000
Riverside House is a five-bedroom period home two doors up from Leenane hotel with sea and mountain views, and there is a river at the back of the garden. It has a wrought-iron balcony to the front. There’s a bedroom with en suite on the ground floor and four bedrooms on the first floor, along with a second en suite and a family bathroom. mattosullivan.com
Mountain hideaway €245,000
Ben Gorm mountain forms the backdrop for this three-bedroom cottage on the Louisburgh Road from Leenane village. A stream runs by the site and the Aasleagh falls are a five-minute walk away. The cottage has three bedrooms, one en suite, a kitchen, living room, bathroom and utility room. Heating is oil-fired and there’s a private well. sherryfitz.ie
Historic Lodge on the fjord €850,000
Overlooking the fjord, Aasleagh Lodge is a 19th-century house built by the Marquess of Sligo. It was restored in 2002, drylined and rewired with a new heating system. As well as the nine-bedroom main house, there is a two-storey lofted barn with a two-bedroom apartment. It sits on 20 acres, along with two semi-detached cottages on sale for €450,000. kmsgalway.com