A Corner Of Ireland That’s Hair-Raisingly Sublime

One of the most potent experiences a mountain (or any big piece of geography) can give you is that moment when suddenly you feel very, very small and not entirely sure of your importance in the grand scheme of things. 

You’ve felt it too? That mix of pure exhilaration and quietly simmering low-grade terror when you reach a summit and see that there’s very little on all sides of you except an incredible view you’ll remember forever and a terrible drop you’re immediately eager to forget.

The rugged beauty of Connemara
The rugged beauty of Connemara

Or perhaps the inverse is true: there are mountains arrayed on all sides of you, so massive that they don’t even seem to be looking down at you – you’re simply at a scale too tiny to register next to them in any way whatsoever. It’s like shrinking down into nothingness, a collapsing of your own importance. It’s visceral and memorable. What’s not to love? 

(Apart from that thrill of nervousness that makes you feel momentarily weak at the knees.)  

The term for this is the sublime, a state related to beauty but separate from it. Both beauty and the sublime trigger a feeling of awe and wonder (which I previously wrote about here) – but they do it in different ways.

You feel the sublime hit you in the way you breathe, in a dramatic lurch in your stomach & perhaps in lower parts, and in the way your knees suddenly seem unfit for purpose. A joyous lifting of the soul, and a terrible casting-down of the body, all at once. It’s just a lot. And it can leave you marked for the rest of your life.

Like any self-respecting tour company, Wheel & Anchor is always looking for a way to bring a little of the sublime into the sights we show you, in a way that always remains safe.

After the cosmopolitan wonders of Dublin, we’ll spend a few days based in the town of Galway on the western coast – a place of endless festivals and a proud Irish identity (“Barcelona with more rain,” as a journalist dubbed it during its recent stint as European Capital Of Culture)…

And on our second day in County Galway, we’ll head northwest, to where the rising mountains meet the Atlantic coast – and everything will change. 

The region of Galway known as Connemara, containing a relatively new national park of the same name (established 1980), is one of the places in the country most vacationed in by the Irish themselves.

Oscar Wilde was smitten with this corner of Ireland, and it’s not hard to see why: a wild place of grassy plains turning to bog and forest, then rising to form some of the most spectacularly rugged mountains in the whole country. 

Dawn in Connemara
Dawn in Connemara

All of its 2,000 hectares are open to the public – but this is a place where Ireland’s famously bucolic welcome turns into something a little harder, and spectacularly beautiful in a different, bleaker, potentially savage way, the kind much admired by Gothic writers and cautious hikers in search of a sense of isolation that breaks them out in a sweat… 

It’s a little like the wildness of the Scottish Highlands, with stunningly beautiful scenery on a scale that doesn’t just seem a poor fit for the scale of human life – it also seems to ignore it altogether.

You’ll get a sense that you’ve crossed some invisible line, and now you’re in a place that will fill your life with joy while simultaneously being completely unforgiving of reckless mistakes with your schedule, your route or the hiking gear you’ve brought with you. It’ll make your eyes go wide at the sight of it – and it’ll give you a delicious shiver. 

In other words, it’s sublime.

It’s fitting that much of the modern world’s understanding of the term comes from a man born in Ireland. In 1757, philosopher Edmund Burke attempted to pin down this nebulous but important idea in a treatise called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

In his 2003 book Mountains Of The Mind, Robert Macfarlane notes:

“Burke was interested in our psychic response to things – a rushing cataract, say, a dark vault or a cliff-face – that seized, terrified and yet also somehow pleased the mind by dint of being too big, too high, too fast, too obscured, too powerful, too something, to be properly comprehended.

These were sublime sights – hectic, intimidating, uncontrollable – and they inspired in the observer, said Burke, a heady blend of pleasure and terror. Beauty, by contrast, was inspired by the visually regular, the proportioned, the predictable. So, for example, an Attic sculpture was beautiful, or the balanced grace of the Parthenon, whereas an avalanche or a flooding river was sublime.”

Burke considered beauty to be an always pleasant experience, but rarely an intense one, the kind that burns brightly in your memories forever:

“In Burke’s physiological terms, beauty had a relaxing effect on the ‘fibres’ of the body, whereas sublimity tightened these ‘fibres’. ‘Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger,’ he wrote: that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

At the core of Burke’s thesis was the proposal that these sublime sights caused terror, and terror was a passion which, he wrote, ‘always produces delight when it does not press too close’…”

Peat stacks in Connemara, Ireland
Peat stacks in Connemara, Ireland

It’s easy to see a little of the faintly misogynistic machismo of the 18th Century here, consigning beauty to a “less important” feminine realm of manners and order, and using the sublime to encourage men to go out and heroically grapple with Nature (itself tellingly depicted in feminine terms) in order to expand their spiritual power.

But it’s not all macho bluster. There certainly is something in it – as anyone feels when deep in the mountains, with their ears singing, their heart thumping and their skin goosepimpling, and the tears coming to their eyes which might be because of the wind but no, no, it definitely isn’t…

If the purpose of travel is to make great memories, maybe it’s not just all about finding the most beautiful sights, the richest food and the most comfortable places to rest our heads. Maybe that nervous shudder down our spines has a vital place too: the fiery or bitter spice in the meal that gives it a flavour like no other.

Maybe we need it as a contrast, or maybe (as Burke believes) it’s a wholly different thing altogether, not the other end of the scale of beauty and comfort but an essential part of the attention diet of our restless souls, the hunger that makes us travel. Maybe without a little of it here and there (in quantities and at levels that remain on the sensible side of risky and frightening) our hunger for the world can never be satisfied…

Where are you getting your fill of the sublime this year?


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