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Connemara: The Road Not Taken

Ballynahinch Castle, Connemara.

Ireland Hopping / By Margaret M. Johnson

I used to think I knew the map of Ireland “like the back of my hand.” No problem getting from here to there, I thought, until my last trip driving from Donegal to Connemara when it all went terribly wrong at Charlestown, County Mayo. Instead of heading west toward the route that would take me through Westport, past Kylemore Abbey, and into Connemara, I ended up Tuam, County Galway! If you have a map handy, check this out and have a good laugh at my expense. If you don’t, trust me — I traveled 2 to 3 hours out of the way before finally reaching my destination, but as with many unexpected pleasures that can occur when you’re detoured in Ireland, I enjoyed a nice lunch at a pub in Headford, took a lovely drive through the grounds of Ashford Castle in Cong, and ran into one of those classic Irish traffic jams (sheep in the middle of the road) near Maam.

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But finally, my destination: Ballynahinch Castle in Recess, one of Ireland’s finest luxury properties. Set in a private 700-acre estate in the heart of Connemara, this unpretentious, homey castle hotel overlooks its own salmon fishery, has miles of walking and cycling trails on the property, and is within a 30 to 40-minute drive to some of the region’s most delightful places including Clifden, Connemara’s capital; Roundstone, one of the oldest fishing villages in the west of Ireland; Connemara National Park and the Twelve Bens Mountain range; and Ballyconneely, where you’ll find Connemara Golf Course.

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The Fisherman’s Pub.[/caption]


The hotel itself is, simply put, a real charmer, thanks in part to its affable host Patrick O’Flaherty. Once the home of “Humanity Dick” Martin, an Irish politician and campaigner against cruelty to animals, the public rooms at Ballynahinch are more Irish sporting lodge than castle in style, with open log fires, comfy sofas and chairs, and outdoor “stuff” everywhere. There are 48 beautifully decorated guest rooms and suites in the original house and the new wing, all with views of either the courtyard, surrounding mountains and woods, or the river.


There are two restaurants: the fine dining Owenmore features dishes like grilled oysters with herb crumb, pheasant with salsify and swede, and roast loin of wild venison. In addition to its highly regarded cuisine and wonderful views, the restaurant was recently refurbished to include a beautiful collection of art from the likes of Jack Yeats, Louis le Brocquy, and Leo Whelan. The Fisherman’s Pub and Ranji Room, which was absolutely “buzzing” with guests and locals on the night of my stay, offers more casual fare including an interesting Connemara lamb burger, chicken with a bacon hash cake, and a charcuterie plate from McGeough’s, an Oughterard butcher renown for its air-dried pork, lamb, and beef. Chef Pete Durkan’s philosophy is “keep it local, keep it fresh” and he’s a big supporter of ingredients from “friends in food” in Galway: “We also like to throw in a little foraging, wild game and garden herbs when we can!”

Breakfast muffin.




The hotel is pleased to share its recipe for these fruit-and-nut filled muffins, one of the most popular items on its breakfast buffet.

For the topping

1/2 cup flour

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup Irish oats

1 tablespoon sunflower seeds

2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds

1 teaspoon water

1 teaspoon sunflower oil

1 1/2 tablespoon honey

For the muffins

2 1/2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons cinnamon

Pinch of salt

4 large eggs

2/3 cup sunflower oil

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

3 cups grated carrots

1 large Granny smith apple, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped

1 cup chopped pecans

3/4 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup flaked coconut

Softened butter, for serving

  1. Preheat oven to 325° F. Line a muffin pan with paper liners.

  2. Make topping. Combine flour, butter, and sugar in food processor; pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Transfer to medium bowl and stir in oats, seeds, water, oil, and honey; set aside.

  3. Make muffins. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. In another large bowl, whisk together eggs, oil, sugar, and vanilla. Stir in carrots, apple, pecans, sultanas, and coconut; fold in flour mixture (do not over mix).

  4. Spoon batter into prepared pan and spoon topping over each. Bake for 30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes before serving (flavor improves after 1 to 2 hours).


Margaret Johnson’s “Recipes” page now includes “Ireland Hopping: Adventures in Food, Drink, and Travel.” For further details on her work, including how to order her cookbooks, visit