Willie on the
Old House with
At the beach
Willie lead the
Riding on the
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.
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.
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.
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.