Connemara on Horseback
Trailriding in Ireland

Goumet Traveller

by Viginia Westbury
A week in the saddle in some of the loniest, most hauntingly lovely terrain in Ireland, guided by an expert on horses, a man who looks a wee bit like a leprechaun.

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Willie Leahy

Willie on the Connemara Trail

Old House with Connemara Ponies

At the beach

Augnanure Castle


Willie lead the group

Swimming with the Horses

Our Accomodation

Riding on the coast

Riding through the Water


WILLIE LEAHY WAS BORN ON MAY 1, which, he says, qualifies him to become a leprechaun. With his round, tanned face and bushy eyebrows, he already looks a bit like one, mind. Willie is the kind of Irishman who says "top of the morning " to you, flirts with all the women, tells a pretty tall yarn and can, you suspect, charm the brass handles off a coffin. He claims he once had a leprechaun by the throat but the little man distracted him by telling him there was a "sexy woman" behind him. Willie turned to look and when he glanced back, the leprechaun had gone. "He knew my weakness," says the Irishman with a smile.

If there's anywhere in the world you are likely to see a leprechaun, apart from Willie, it is in the West of Ireland where the mountains of Connemara are famous for their rough terrain, treacherous bogs and beautiful lakes, mysterious ghosts and sidhe or wee folk. Famous for horses too - Connemara horses, those stalwart ponies, descended from Spanish castaways, which, Willie says, can "gallop across bogs and rocks and still have a foot to spare". And as Ireland's foremost breeder of them, he should know. A foot to spare is what you need when negotiating the mountains on horseback, as I found out on one of the Leahy family's famous Connemara trail rides - a week in the saddle in some of the loneliest, most hauntingly lovely terrain in Ireland.

We were a mixed band of riders, 30 in all, including a monocle-wearing English cosmetic surgeon and his beautiful wife, an Olympic rider from Japan, several wealthy Americans, a shy Swede, a sleep specialist from Chicago and a Jack Russell pup named Albert. Actually, Albert didn't ride but his owner, Willie's daughter Marguerite, did, and put everyone to shame as she jumped her pony over stone fences and cantered up the white sand beaches of the Galway coast, more adept than riders three times her age. Riding can be a humbling experience but it is also exhilarating, and never more so than when negotiating the steep and stony hills towering over the rugged Connemara coastline or when swimming your horse in the pale aqua waters of Cashel Bay.

Connemara has always been a wild place, too barren and bog-ridden for agriculture but good for ponies, sheep, fishermen and ghosts. Men earn their living by fishing and gathering seaweed and by breeding horses. The annual Connemara Horse Show in Clifden is world famous. You'll hear Gaelic, the native Irish language, spoken here more than anywhere else in Ireland.

The people of this rugged coast have an aura of toughness about them. Four centuries ago, one of the legendary figures in Irish history, the notorious Grainne O'Malley - chieftain, pirate and diplomat (she once made an impromptu delegation to Queen Elizabeth 1 of England) ruled the seas off the Connemara coast. Today, her descendants still practise magic rituals related to their Celtic past. It's not uncommon on the first day of May (the old pagan festival of Beltane) for families to put out a May bush - usually a thorn tree decorated with flowers. The bush is placed on a dung heap with eggshells - a symbol of fertility for crops and animals and a hope for good luck for the coming summer.

Although television is changing many of the old ways, Willie says a lot of farmers are still deeply superstitious. "I know men who would worry sick if they found eggshells in their fields," he says, as such a sign would mean their crop was cursed. Willie himself has seen horses baulk and refuse to go past a section of roadway known to be haunted by the ghost of a famous witch, and he has heard things in "them thar hills" - especially on dark, mistshrouded nights with no moon - that have made his very practical blood run cold. The ghosts are no laughing matter. Guests have been known to flee a certain hotel in the middle of the night because of visitations by the spirit of a lang-departed English lady who drowned in a nearby lake.

"I once bet a couple of tourists a large sum of money that they couldn't spend the night in an old house near the trail," recalls Willie.. "It was, as they say, a dark and stormy night. They were full of bravado at first but they lasted just an hour. After taking some pictures they fled. My money was Safe," he laughs.

As well as sheep, the hills, especially those close to the town of Galway, are full of ancient ring forts, the remnants of Iron and Stone Age settlements. Legend has tumed them into "faerie rings" and imbued them with the magic of the Irish sidhe (pronounced shee), who are said to dwell nearby. Farmers religiously plough around them, for to disturb a faerie fort is to court disaster. One farmer who tore up the ancient stones never had a moment's luck from that day on, or so I was told.

Willie Leahy says he was bom with a love of horses and beautiful women. He bought his first horse when he was only a teenager. Now he has more then 300 and runs the biggest Connemara stud in the country. The Connemara Pony, standing between 13 and 15 hands, is prized for its sure-footedness, essential in such rocky and bogridden terrain, and its intelligente. For his trail rides he uses a mixture of Connemaras and equally surefooted Irish draught/thoroughbred crosses.

The trips cross the Connemara Peninsula, begin near Clifden and end close to Galway. Days are spent traversing the bare, wildflower-covered hills of the National Park or cantering along the beach and swimming the horses in the bay. For those who want the experience, there are stone fences to jump. Willie, who seerns to know everyone in Connemara, frequently Stops to chat to the locals. On our trip, we were introduced to a 90-year-old fisherman who still plies his boat in the waters of Cashel Bay. In the evenings, there may be a concert of Irish music, although, like everything else in Ireland, it is a haphazard affair - depending on whether Willie tan convince the local dancers and singers to turn up.

Guests are accommodated in three- and four-star country inns and charming old hunting lodges such as the Zetland House Hotel on the shores of Cashel Bay. Built in the early 1800s, rhe cosy house is filled with antique furniture and lovely marble fiieplaces. It is named for the Earl of Zetland, who used to be a frequent visitor. Now nm by John Prendere gast (formerly of the Paris Ritz) and his wife Moana, it features a menu based around local seafood, especially wild salmon and lobster and delicious, fresh mountain-bred lamb.

Willie was the first to begin horse trekking in Connemara ("people said I was mad when I started 20 years ago"), and today he's probably the region's most famous horseman. His trips combine safety with a casual atmosphere, not easy with 30 large, highly-strung animals spread out along a narrow trail and topped by 30 equally excitable riders. Part of Willie's success arises from bis refusal to let anything fluster him, although he can manage a significant scowl and some colourful language when riders do the wrong thing.

None of that seemed to bother the Japanese contingent, who for the most part couldn't speak English, nor even the usually critical and demanding Americans, many of them expert riders, ranchers and professional women, who ended up cooing like schoolgirls and promising to retum. Was it the riding, tbe faerie rings, the ghost Stories or the music? A bit of each, I suspect, and, of course, that other fatally attractive ingredient - Irish charm.

Aille Cross Equestrian Centre
Connemara Trails
Loughrea, Co. Galway

Dartfield Equestrian Centre
Horse Museum
Kilrickle, Loughrea, Co. Galway

Tel. No. 091 843968
Fax No. 091 843969
From Europe:
Tel. No. 00353 91 843968
Fax No. 00353 91 843969
From U.S. and Canada:
Tel. No. 011 353 91 843968
Fax No. 011 353 91 843969


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