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BEST OF THE WEST; Great craic and great views make Western Ireland a Celt classic.

Byline: CLAIRE O'BOYLE

So, who knew? The O'Boyles have an island.

Yep, a trip to Ireland to show my Welsh husband Andrew why western Celts are the best uncovered much more than just amazing pubs, delicious seafood and spectacular scenery.

I found my ancestral home - Ballyboyle Island in Donegal Bay. Next stop America!

I knew my clan, now based from Belfast to Dublin, originally came from Donegal.

But to learn we were once fancy enough to own an island, small as it is, is pretty exciting. There are even the stoney remnants of a castle there.

And after hearing that Hollywood star Chris O'Dowd recently snapped up his ancient family pile in Galway, I was tempted to jump off our tour boat, swim across the bay and reclaim it.

But with no family crest to hand and a pretty weak breast stroke, I ditched my plan to conquer and texted my dad instead. Leaving him to mobilise the troops and claim back our land, the Welsh one and I kicked back.

VIBRANT

We spent five days on the west coast, driving from Shannon to Galway before making our way up to Donegal. And all in the most glorious heat and sunshine the country has seen for years.

Our first night in Galway was just about perfect - and showed why Americans love the place.

We walked into the first pub we could find and were greeted with a wall of vibrant music that made us burst out laughing.

Tucked behind the door supping pints of Guinness between numbers was an amazing local ceili band. Yep, we were definitely in Ireland.

Settling into our seats outside in the sun - gin and Guinness in hand - we were greeted with even more music.

An impromptu session started, with a large circle of singers each taking a turn.

I piped up to help a struggling singer remember some words, delighted to prove to Mr Wales this warbling is a national tradition - and not just unique to my mad family.

With our drinks drunk, we went to sample the famous local food at Nimmo's Restaurant by the Spanish Arch. And we didn't hold back.

After three delicious courses each, with crab, mussels, salmon and hake in the mix, I can officially confirm the seafood is good in Galway. We stopped by another fab pub - or two - on our way back to the Radisson Blu Hotel where we were staying.

More great music, more great craic and a very exciting rickshaw ride rounded off our evening.

The next day we met Discover Ireland's Conor Riordan for a three-hour walking tour of the town. A more fact-filled man you'd be hard-pushed to find and he kept us entertained with hilarious, scandalous and fascinating stories from the past.

My favourite story related to St Nicholas', a now-Protestant church. Long ago, after the once Catholic place of worship changed hands, its last Catholic caretaker vowed on his deathbed that his hand, the one in which he'd held the church keys for years, would never rot until they were returned to the rightful owners - the Catholics. Warden Bodkin was buried in the tomb under the church, only to be found 100 years later, his arm still intact.

Terrified the discovery of the miraculous arm would result in hordes of Catholic pilgrims flooding to the church from around the world, a devout Protestant doctor and a local charlatan got rid of it.

They broke into the vault, cut off the arm and fled into the night.

The "blessed" arm ended up in the local pawnbrokers, cut up finger by finger, and was just hours from being sold to believers as relics. But the pair's consciences got the better of them and the hand was returned and locked in the vault. It's been there ever since.

We also visited the vast Galway Cathedral - built in the Sixties with American donations - where you'll find a mosaic of JFK, the first Catholic US president.

After all that excitement we were ready for more grub.

Dinner at the Malt House Restaurant just off the buzzing high street was another treat. My hubby had an evening of firsts, devouring a huge plate of delicious oysters followed by a giant and luscious lobster.

LOBSTER

I tucked into Connemara lamb and a gorgeous plate of scallops. And, of course, I enjoyed wrestling with a couple of lobster legs too.

Our second night in Galway was spent in The Quays bar, a packed pub with a fantastic band.

The next morning, exhausted from all the walking and all the food, we drove north for a couple of days of relaxation and pampering at Solis Lough Eske Castle, a five-star hotel on the outskirts of Donegal Town. For hours we'd been dreaming of flinging ourselves down for a cat nap on the huge four-poster, but there were better options.

First we took a very soothing fishing boat trip on the huge, peaceful Lough Eske.

Our lovely guide, Mike from North West Fishery, took the boat out across the lough as we lay back and admired the spectacular Blue Stack Mountains, the luscious green hills and the still water.

We'd hoped Mike would catch a fish for tea but - another gem we learned in Ireland - fish swim to the dingy, dark bottom of the water in very bright light because they can't close their eyes. That was his excuse, anyway.

All was not lost. When we got back to the hotel, we were treated to a demo from one of its top chefs, who showed us how they smoke salmon in a little wooden house. And, of course, we got to taste some.

The castle is a great base for golf, fishing, lakeside strolls and horse-riding on the beach. But the next day we tracked down Ballyboyle Island - the proudest discovery of my life - and it took an intense full-body massage at the hotel's luxurious Solis Spa to bring me back to my mellow state of mind.

Mr South Wales Rugby Fan had one too - and after much sniggering on his way in, asked on his way out if his mates might fancy a spa weekend for the next stag do. I'm not sure...

With two beautiful meals at the hotel - first at its wonderful Cedars Restaurant, another at the Gallery Bar - we were well fed again.

I've always said Ireland was the best of the Celtic lands and I think five days on the west coast proved me right. Fantastic food, brilliant music, stunning views and loads of laughter. Come on Welsh, you know I'm right...

TRAVEL FILE

WHEN TO GO

Any time. Ireland isn't known for its exotic weather. But come rain, hail, snow or scorching sunshine, the pubs, views, food and music are always there.

TOP TIP

A drive to the award-winning Smuggler's Creek Inn on a cliff edge overlooking Rossnowlagh Beach outside Donegal is well worth it for a great menu and spectacular views across the Atlantic.

BOOK IT

Radisson Blu, Galway, from PS120 per night radissonblu.ie/ hotel-galway, 00353 91 538 300 Solis Lough Eske Castle, Donegal from PS170 per night solishotels.com, 00353 74 972 5100

GETTING THERE

Fly to Shannon, ryanair.com, aerlingus.com

CAR HIRE

Hertz 00353 53 915 2577 Get inspired at mirror.co.uk/travel

CAPTION(S):

Glistening... beautiful beach at Fanad Head, County Donegal

PICTURE: GETTY IMAGES

Handy history... St Nicholas' Church

Craicing fun ...Quays pub in Galway

Stronghold... Solis Lough Eske Castle and (above) one of the rooms

Relaxed... Claire and Andrew. Right: lobster at Malt House

My isle... Claire's clan once lived on Ballyboyle Island
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Aug 11, 2013
Words:1266
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