36 hours in Clifden: ‘Golfgate certainly raised awareness of the town’

Between the number of shops selling lovely, but ultimately non-essential gift items, and several fancy restaurants, it seems the average tourist to Clifden has an amount of cash to spend. Photograph: Aoife Herriott
OUR SERIES ON Irish tourism continues in Clifden, Co Galway where ‘fully booked’ is a common refrain

Monday, August 16th
1.30pm

I am on a train in Connemara, where trains have not run for decades. The tiny carriage is jerking across the tracks behind the landmark building of Peacockes Hotel, where the Maam Cross station was once busy with passengers and goods. This was once a branch line of the Midland Great Western Railway, which closed in 1935.

“It’s a bit unhinged, really,” says the train driver, Jim Deegan. We’ve rattled out and back some hundred metres of track, me the sole passenger in the two reproduction carriages, which each seat five people.

In 2017, Deegan leased some 3.2 hectares (8 acres) of land with a view to renovating some of the old railway buildings at the Maam Cross stop, and laying 8km of track. “It’s a passion of mine,” he admits, adding that he paid for these two little carriages to be designed and built in Britain. He tells me the price, and they were not cheap.

Deegan, whose Rail Tours company was unable to operate during the pandemic, is the force behind this non-profit heritage railway, which has a number of volunteer workers. He’s hoping that later in the year they will be running some tours over the tracks laid so far.

They need about €300,000 to renovate the existing buildings and lay more track. Deegan has big plans. Dinner tours. Ghost trains at Halloween. Santa at Christmas. If it all works out, it will certainly make for an unusual way to take in the glorious Connemara scenery.

The old goods store and office at Maam Cross railway station. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
The old goods store and office at Maam Cross railway station which Deegan and his team hope to soon be running trains through again. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Clifden. Photograph: Aoife Herriott
Clifden. Photograph: Aoife Herriott

2.45pm
I’m driving out the far side of Clifden, towards the boat club, when a helicopter lifts up into the sky from somewhere close by. It’s all a sensationally beautiful part of Connemara, where mountains are blue and the ocean is green, and you know – I know – I could never tire of looking at it all.

At the boat club, a trio of friends, Eva Caulwell, Tom Mullan and Sinead Moclair, have been running their destination pop-up restaurant, Báidín, since July 2nd. The location is gorgeous, overlooking the harbour. They mobilised friends and family to help build the outdoor counter space, tables, and put up parasols and fairy lights.

Tom Mullan, Sinead Moclair and Eva Caulwell of Báidín restaurant at the Clifden boat club. Photograph: Aoife Herriott
Tom Mullan, Sinead Moclair and Eva Caulwell of Báidín restaurant at the Clifden boat club. Photograph: Aoife Herriott

It’s nearing the end of lunch service, and the place is full. I sit up at the counter. There are four choices on the menu. Today, it’s chowder and lamb tagine, both €16.50 a portion, and tempura hake and a vegetarian beetroot tikki chaat at €15.50 each. They definitely know how to charge at Báidín. That’s a lot of money to sit at an outdoor picnic table for lunch, especially if there are two or more of you and you add drinks into the mix.

“We’ll decide this week if we’ll stay open for September,” Caulwell says. She’s returning to Dublin to her job as a teacher, so it would be the others who stay on. On the days they do both lunch and dinner, they have served up to 200 people, Mullen says.

Their most popular dish has been the hake tempura, with slaw, leaves, pickled cucumber and sourdough. “It’s been on since the beginning,” chef Moclair says. She plans the other items on the menu depending on what’s locally available and what she feels like cooking. For her, this pop-up was an opportunity to trial having her own place in the future. And is that what she now wants?

“Yes,” she says, looking thrilled.

4.30pm
Parking at the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel car park, I note not one, but two helipads on the grounds. I also wonder if I’m intruding on a wedding or some kind of party. There are signs up everywhere, saying the hotel is closed for a private function, and it’s residents only. There isn’t a wedding. There is, however, an unexpected African grey parrot in reception, giving me a silent beady eye.

“We put those signs up because we’re only dealing with residents at the moment,” Brian Hughes says.

Along with his brother, Ronan, the Hugheses are co-running the hotel, which has been in their family since the 1960s. The helicopter I saw taking off on my way to the boat club was leaving the Abbeyglen: a private party who had arrived for lunch. They are the only hotel in Clifden with a helipad. “We keep 1,000 litres of fuel on site for helicopters,” Brian says, matter-of-factly, and later, I see the giant yellow tank on the front lawn.

There are 54 rooms at the hotel. Dinner, bed and breakfast per person in a double right now is €129. They are not interested in operating at full capacity. “We want to look after our staff, and not stress them, and to properly look after the guests we have,” he says. They would usually have 75 staff, but this summer they are operating with 47.

It’s not just staff they have less of this summer. “It’s almost impossible to get crab claws. Or Connemara lamb. Since Brexit, the buyers in France and Germany have lost their British market, so they’re all buying shellfish and lamb from us now. The prices have gone way up as a result.”

How has Hughes seen Clifden change over time? “There’s more of the quirky shops. It used to be that the shops in the town were there to provide services to the locals, and now most of them are for tourists. Most people in this town depend on tourism to some degree.”

Between the notable absence of fast food joints, the shops selling lovely, gift items, and fancy restaurants, it seems the average tourist to Clifden has an amount of cash to spend

5.30pm
I check into my hotel, the Alcock & Brown on Market Square. Even though I had booked my accommodation 13 days in advance, the town was so full that I have one night here and one in the Station House Hotel. It’s high season. Consecutive nights weren’t available anywhere I called.

As it happens, a full breakfast service isn’t available in the Alcock & Brown either. On Friday, August 13th, I received an email saying “due to the impact of Covid-19 we have had to make the unfortunate decision to close the Gallery Restaurant for the remainder of 2021... We are serving continental breakfast daily.”

The Station House Hotel, Clifden. Photograph: Aoife Herriott
The Station House Hotel, Clifden. Photograph: Aoife Herriott

Coincidentally, on that same Friday, the Station House Hotel, for which I was paying €205 a night, telephoned to ask what time I wanted my breakfast on the following Wednesday... a full five days hence.

Back at the Alcock & Brown I ask a receptionist:“Is it a staffing issue that your restaurant isn’t open?” “No, it’s because the hotel has new owners, and they will be making renovations later in the year.”

The hotel certainly needs updating. The mattress in my very tired room, 201, sagged shockingly, and when the toilet wouldn’t flush, I lifted the cistern to discover the innards were held together with pieces of black plastic wire. For this, and a “continental” breakfast, I paid €140.

7.30pm
The streets of Clifden are buzzing. There are high-end homeware shops (Whistlestop), a well-curated bookshop (the Clifden Bookshop), a great deli (the Connemara Hamper), a beautiful boutique (Millars), a gallantly traditional drapers (Stanleys), offbeat souvenir shops, and various craft shops. There are also a few charity shops. One of them, Vincent’s, clearly has an employee with a sense of humour. There’s a white jacket in the window, bearing the sign: “Fabulous Armani jacket. Perfect for outdoor dining.”

Clifden: It’s all a sensationally beautiful part of Connemara, where mountains are blue and the ocean is green, and you know – I know – I could never tire of looking at it all. Photograph: Aoife Herriott
Photograph: Aoife Herriott

Between the notable absence of fast food joints, the number of shops selling lovely, but ultimately non-essential gift items, and several fancy restaurants, it seems the average tourist to Clifden has an amount of cash to spend. I also hear something unusual; something I haven’t heard in more than 18 months. It’s different accents. Mostly French, but some German and British. International tourists are back in the west of Ireland, and like all of them wandering round the streets, I am looking for somewhere to have dinner.

I don’t have a fabulous Armani jacket to dine in, or much worse, a booking anywhere. “Fully booked inside,” is what I hear everywhere. The sky looks dodgy, but I decide to take the outside table offered at Mitchell’s. More fortunate diners have parasols over their tables.

The staff turn away at least 30 people while I’m there, as by now, the outside tables are also occupied. The minute my €13.50 half-dozen Oranmore oysters arrive, it starts raining. There is some rearranging of tables, including mine, to partially avail of canopy space. Everyone is doing their best, but frankly, it’s a bit miserable.

“Eating in the rain, and a big bill at the end of it,” one of the two women sitting at the table beside me declares to her companion.

It’s clear from the silence and sudden froideur in the room that everyone is unhappy at me bringing this subject of Golfgate up.

Tuesday, August 17th
10.30am

I’m at the Clifden Community Arts Festival office on Bridge Street. The festival has been running for an astonishing 44 years, and a lot of that is due to its long-running, modest and visionary director, Brendan Flynn.

The window of the office is filled with Joe Boske’s distinctive posters from former festivals, and 1980s names of Clifden venues long since demolished, gone out of business, or changed names. The Clifden Bay Hotel is now the Woodfield. The Rockglen is now a private home. As for the Clifden House Hotel, “We’re in it,” Flynn says. It was demolished and a new building constructed on the site.

Brendan Flynn in the Clifden Arts Festival office. Photograph: Aoife Herriott
Brendan Flynn in the Clifden Arts Festival office. Photograph: Aoife Herriott

Des Lally is Flynn’s right-hand man, and Sean Mulkerrin is the tech man. They are preparing for the festival next month, the programme for which was being finalised this week. At present, there will only be audience capacity of 50, but things may change before September 15th, when it is due to start.

For the first time since arriving in Clifden, I mention the word “Golfgate”. It’s almost exactly a year to the day – August 19th – when 81 people, including several members of the Oireachtas Golf Society, attended a dinner at the town’s Station House Hotel, in contravention of restrictions in place at that time. Resignations followed, and the wider public subsequently became very familiar with Clifden.

It’s clear from the silence and sudden froideur in the room that everyone is unhappy at me bringing this subject up.

“John Sweeney [the owner of the Station House] has always been very supportive of the festival,” Flynn says eventually.

“That event has come and gone,” Lally says. “I completely ignored the publicity.”

Mulkerrin says nothing at all, head bent over his computer.

Noon
Stephen Foyle runs the family-owned Foyles Hotel on Main Street with his brother Jason. It’s the oldest existing hotel in Clifden, and has lovely, atmospheric dining rooms, both at the back and front. They have 24 rooms, and tonight, they are all full. It’s €130 for a double.

I mention Golfgate again. Foyle laughs. “To me, any press is good press,” he says. “It was publicity for the town. It certainly raised awareness of the town with the domestic market.”

'Some people – especially the French – think it’s awesomely cool, and others say, what’s wrong with who made them'

He has just bought some crab that day, and checks the price for me. “It’s gone up three times this summer already.” Today, crab was €19 a pound. “Lamb is up in price too, and so is beef.”

2pm
I am standing in front of Quinn’s craft and hobby shop on Market Street, and I’m laughing my head off. There is a window display that can only be described as creative, unexpected and bonkers. There are a number of zombie dolls, none of whom look like they’re having a good time. They are all in various medieval torture devices. Some are vaguely recognisable as former Barbie dolls, now dismembered. The head of one is beside a tiny guillotine; the rest of her body on the other side of it.

“Happy Halloween in August! If this display offends you, make sure you tell everyone just how offended you are!” declares a handwritten sign outside the shop. It’s quite the ad for a hobby shop.

Gary Quinn with his ghoulish creations. Photograph: Aoife Herriott
Gary Quinn with his ghoulish creations. Photograph: Aoife Herriott

Canadian-born Gary Quinn and his wife Noaleen own the shop. He’s working on another zombie doll at the back as I walk in. “I can crochet, do models, sew,” he says. “Someone in the town bet me I couldn’t build a guillotine that worked, so I made one.”

It does indeed work. He takes the tiny model out of the window and shows me how the blade descends. I ask them what customers think of the models.

“Some people – especially the French – think it’s awesomely cool, and others say, what’s wrong with who made them,” says Noalene.

3pm
“Walk on them. That’s what you’re meant to do with them,” instructs John Nagle. I’m at the Connemara Carpets showroom in town, looking at some very striking and very expensive hand-tufted silk and (New Zealand merino) wool carpets. Nagle bought the business two years ago, and took on the existing staff: the workshops themselves are a few kilometres out of town.

This year, the theme of the collection is wildflowers. There’s a montbretia carpet, a thistle exploding like a firework, blue cornflowers and others. They are made to order, and these range in price from €3,500 to €27,000, but bespoke carpets can be any price. They sell about five carpets each month. The plan is to open two showrooms in the US in the near future.

Nagle, who is the former founder and chief executive of card payments company, Payzone, moved to Clifden two years ago. This is where his new business ideas began. The most recent one, which made national headlines, was the “posh loo” that opened on Main Street on July 3rd, entrance to which is €3.50.

“It’s much more than a loo,” Nagle says, walking me to the location. U-luu, as it’s called, is a complex of five spacious toilets, two showers and a number of wash basins in a former shop. Everything is spotless, there are clean towels, it is staffed all day (9am to 7pm) and cleaned after each use.

Who uses the showers, I wonder.

“People in camper vans,” he explains. Since opening, they have had about 160 people come through a day, with 200 daily on the weekends. Nagle has big plans for expansion of the U-Luu model around the country.

6.30pm
I’m at the Lamplight wine bar on Market Street. Lamplight is run by chef and sommelier Anke Hartmann and her partner, Ray Gannon. They have 10 rooms at the back, as well as a restaurant, and an off-licence with some 150 wines at the front. Their rooms are €100 a night with breakfast for a double, and they’re booked through till September. They opened in 2019. It’s a very Francophile-looking place, with lots of character.

“We were doing food seven nights a week until a couple of weeks ago,” Gannon says. “The business is there. We can see tourists on the streets, looking for somewhere to eat. But we don’t have the staff any more to open seven days a week, and we need to look after the staff we have.”

The restaurant is open five days a week now. Hartmann does a lot of smoking of meats. Their menu includes nine-hours smoked pulled-pork shoulder for €12, and half-smoked duck with champ for €19.50.

On my way back to the Station House Hotel, where I’ve checked in late that afternoon, I pass a large crowd of French tourists. They look like two families, with small children in tow. They are trying to find somewhere to eat.

“Sorry,” says the man apologetically on the door at Restaurant Darcy Twelve. “We’re fully booked, inside and outside.”