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TAKING HIGH ROADS AND LOW ROADS THROUGH IRELAND : In Connemara, nestled in a remote cottage in a Gaelic-speaking pocket of Ireland

July 10, 1994|I. HERBERT GORDON | Gordon is a New York City-based free-lance writer

LINSK, Ireland — It was early morning. Cool and damp. I was fanning a turf fire in a fireplace that had been kitchen stove and central heating before the Irish cottage, where my wife, our twin teen-age daughters and I were staying, had been modernized. Suddenly there came a heavy knocking on the sturdy wooden front door.

Glancing out the window I saw an elderly man who I supposed to be a motorist in trouble and seeking a telephone in this barren region, where the next phone may be 10 miles away. Edging through a closet-sized foyer bulging with coats and dirty Wellingtons, I pulled the door open.

"Can I help you?" I asked.

"Sure, and I should be helping you," the man said, smiling and walking past me directly to the fireplace.

"You've got it burnin'!" he exclaimed. "Howd'ye know about turf fires?"

"Well, uh, I have built a few fires," I explained apologetically.

We had arrived the night before and that was my first meeting with Tom, a man with eyes as blue as the Irish sky and a face as craggy as the rocky shore of the small inlet off Bertraghboy Bay, a few yards behind our isolated cottage. The farmer and his wife lived a half mile down the road. They had a long-standing arrangement with my wife's family in Dublin, who owned the charming cottage we were staying in, to keep an eye on it when it was unoccupied.

On the rare occasions when he saw an unfamiliar car parked on the narrow road's grassy shoulder, generously dotted with splatters of manure from free-roaming cows, he would walk over and show the temporary occupants how to build a fire with turf, somewhat comparable to very soft coal.

A few minutes later his wife, as bright and friendly as your favorite aunt, delighted all of us when she arrived carrying a loaf of homemade bread baked on a fireplace hearth and faintly redolent of turf smoke, carefully wrapped in her worn, blue apron. She said she had baked it "this vera mornin'. And 'tis for yer breakfast."

Their warmth is a universal trait of the people who live in a lonely and hauntingly beautiful corner of all Ireland, the western coastal region of Connemara whose epicenter is Glinsk.

It is a stark and unyielding land. The thin soil has always given grudgingly of its fruits, and fishermen long battled the sea in fragile, oar-driven boats known as currachs . Separated from the rest of Ireland by vast bogs, bleak terrain and barren, precipitous quartzite mountains, it is a sparsely settled area, which the 20th Century is only beginning to invade, and the customs of the past are still much alive.

This is the heart of Gaelic-speaking Ireland. Though the people are fluent in English, the ancient tongue--referred to locally as Irish--is their language of street, pub and classroom. Place names usually are written both in English and Gaelic, and sometimes only Gaelic. Ancient pride, you know.

To me, a powerful lure of this barren and remote countryside, where we have traveled on several occasions and most recently visited last December, is that it is off the tourist paths--a wondrous place for those who seek the road less traveled, but not for those who enjoy bright lights, theater, elegant shopping and an active night life.

You won't hear Mozart at a live concert, but your toes will tap merrily as you sit in smoke-filled pubs listening to the beat of traditional Irish music by local musicians. It is a taste of real country Irish life.

Connemara has traditionally been a sparsely settled land. Because of its isolation, it historically resisted a close alliance with the rest of Ireland. The locals waved to Columbus when his flotilla stopped in Galway Bay on its way to the New World. In the mid-1800s, more than half the population left, most coming to America because of the potato famine. In the late 1800s, Clifden--today one of Connemara's main tourist centers--became the unofficial capital of the region and a popular vacation location for British hunters and fishermen.

Motorists have no trouble finding Glinsk, sometimes spelled Glynsk or Glinsce, on road maps of Connemara, 176 miles almost due west of Dublin. But they may never know they've found it while driving along a narrow and lonely coastal stretch of Route L102. Glinsk consists of only three or four widely scattered cottages and the gleaming white Glynsk House, a modest hotel atop a small hill in the middle of nowhere, between bog and ocean, with sweeping views of the striking landscape.

The hotel has a dozen charming rooms, a bar popular as a local gathering place and a turf fire always flickering cozily in the lobby. Some eight empty miles south is the village of Carna. As Connemara is a center of one of Ireland's Gaelic-speaking pockets, this tiny community is the very soul of those who cling to the ancient tongue.

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