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Day Seven in Galway: Letterfrack

It was definitely meant to happen this morning.  I was at the coach station at 8.45am, lunch in bag, ready for the bus to Letterfrack at 9am.

Passing through the outer suburb of Moycullen, before I knew it civilisation was falling away. The land had gone from lush green pastures to rolling, sprawling grown grasslands, the hills in the distance shrouded in clouds and mist. The trees and forestry briefly closed in on the winding road at one point as we passed a large lake. Stone was embedded in the landscape, protruding from the green and brown of the grassy hills. These vast planes were mostly vacant of trees, and where there were trees they were brown and leafless.

Connemara National Park

We passed through the small townships of Clifden and Cleggan, and finally arrived at Letterfrack. The bus dropped us off right outside Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, which was handy because that was exactly where I needed to be. GMIT was once the site of Letterfrack Industrial School, also known as St Joseph’s Industrial School, an institution for young boys. The school was opened in 1887, and run by the Congregation of Christian Brothers.

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St Joseph’s received a lasting notoriety through revelation of physical and sexual abuse of the boys by some of the Brothers there, with evidence of sexual abuse and extreme physical punishments going back to the 1930s. 147 children died there while in the care of the Christian Brothers mainly from abuse and neglect. The school was closed in 1974.

 Up behind the main buildings was the Old Monastery Hostel, which was once the living quarters of the clergy who ran the institution.

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Opposite the hostel, tucked up behind the forestry, was the Letterfrack Industrial School Cemetery. Following the dirt path up the small hill through the trees I came to a small iron gate. A plaque attached to the stone wall beside the gate displayed a poem. Entering through the gate, I sat down on one of the benches and observed the multitude of plaques on the lawn listing the names of boys aged anywhere between three and thirteen years old. Some of the remains found at the site have since been returned to families, while some are still at Letterfrack. This cemetery and the hostel’s namesake are the only homage to its dark history that the site presents.

 I continued up the hill to the visitor centre and had a walk through the small museum which displayed the ancient history of the Connemara. From here I headed to the park behind to eat my lunch at one of the picnic tables.

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After lunch I began the long trek up Diamond Hill, which you can see behind the playground in the above picture. Diamond Hill stands at 277 meters high, it is just short of mountain status, but it sure felt like a mountain to me!

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The track up the ascent was made up of gravel in some places, timber walkways in others and later rock steps. The path was surrounded by birch scrub and boggy grassland.

The air grew colder and the wind stronger as the path became steeper. At one point I actually felt fearful to continue because I could feel myself being blown around. At some stages of the track I was on my hands and knees to keep balance.

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It’s getting colder!

 And just when you think you must have reached the top, there is just that little bit further to go. The wind was howling and pushing me around. The sole of my boot was becoming separated. My nose was running but my body was dripping sweat inside my coat. Finally, I reached the top.

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Far down below was Kylemore Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1920 on the grounds of Kylemore Castle, for nuns who had fled Belgium in World War I.

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After taking a multitude of snapshots and panoramic photos, I took a seat for a little while to admire the view and eat a snack. It was an incredibly humbling scene, as everyone marvelled at the beauty around them and their achievement of making it to the top. Eventually it felt time to head back down. While the climb down seemed less tiresome on my legs, my suffering boots were sliding around, and I was rolling my ankles every few minutes. Up on the hillside I spotted what I thought to be a white rock, and for a few minutes myself and some fellow hikers weren’t sure if it was a rock or a mountain sheep. It proved to be the latter when it popped it’s head up and moved along the side of the mountain. It you look closely enough you might be able to see it!

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The walk through the valley below Diamond Hill was breathtaking, the area so silent and still. So rugged and wild, sold and inhospitable. It made me think of boys who might have dared try to run away from Letterfrack Industrial School and taken their chances out in this wilderness. It was also obvious to me why the church had chosen this location for the institution. Out here was a million miles from nowhere, and no-one would know what was going on at the school.

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Finally I arrived back down at the visitor centre and enjoyed a hot chocolate and piece of carrot cake to warm myself from the inside out. I had started the hike at 12.15 and was back at the centre by 3.30. After my refreshment I continued back down to the grounds of GMIT to take more photos for my research. It was still two hours until the bus back to Galway.

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The visitor centre was previously farm buildings owned and used by Letterfrack Industrial School

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The former infirmary of Letterfrack Industrial School

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At 4.30 I I wandered back up the hill and returned to the visitor centre cafe and purchased a second pot of tea, but the cafe closed at five, so I went down to the bus stop outside GMIT to wait. It started to lightly rain, but even the light rain in Ireland is icy cold. As the hour pressed on more and more people arrived and sat down on the low stone wall to wait, and by 6pm there were quite a few of us, will the bus to arrive to give us reprieve from the worsening weather. Finally it did arrive at 6.10pm, and took us back to Galway.

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