Even wild weather can't dim the cinematic beauty and warm welcome of Connemara, Ireland's artistic wild west

Do the Irish ever tire of being so relentlessly welcoming? Does the tourist board issue diktats whereby a hotel manager must advise you reconsider your reservation if the weather’s looking dicey (“We’ll refund your deposit of course”)? Do they ever wake up and think, actually, no, today they won’t yarn for an hour with a passing stranger or make wry, fond jokes about the climate?

“You’ve come for the weather then?” the receptionist said as I checked in in Clifden, rain machine-gunning against the windowpanes.

I hadn’t, no. I thought I’d come to Connemara for scenery.

Here at the ragged edge of Europe, green hills capsize into a testy ocean that’s all foam and glitter. The Wild Atlantic Way tracks up this curlicued coast as it does elsewhere in west Ireland. But whereas they’ve commercialised it for coach-tours in Cork and Kerry, roads remain lanes in Connemara and the signposting’s still brilliantly haphazard. Take a chance, it suggests. Explore. It’s also why nothing in Connemara happens quickly.

In the preparatory poring over routes I always overlook Connemara’s humanity. I arrive lugging the baggage of modern life and instantly feel like a curmudgeon. Everyone’s so bloody lovely. They gossip and yarn and banter. You go into a shop for a paper and find yourself still chatting 20 minutes later.

It’s that most over-mythologised of Irish concepts, the craic, and it’s central to what makes Connemara as seductive as its lilting syllables; what makes it a region of authentic Irish soul.

I should add a caveat at this point. Connemara doesn’t exist. Or at least not as a defined county. Originating as the Gaelic kingdom of Iar Connacht in west County Galway, its modern boundaries are more scenic and cultural than physical. So Connemara’s an idea more than an actual place, which strikes me as peculiarly Irish itself. Still, you’ll know when you’ve arrived.

Beyond Galway city the sleepy landscape shakes itself awake. Low hills yield to empty moorland and lakes as black as stout. The Twelve Bens mountains balloon from the bog, ethereal in low cloud, their wet quartzite flanks shimmering in the shifty light. At one point as I drive up the N59 a full rainbow props itself between peaks.

As much as the scenery it’s that light which makes the soul sing. In air that has been rinsed clean over 4,000 miles of ocean, it’s slippery, oddly luminous. Thackeray wrote of Connemara’s “wild mountains over which the clouds cast every variety of tint, light and shadow”. Oscar Wilde admired the “savage beauty” that was “in every way magnificent”.

Connemara has a peculiar effect on people, Gavin Lavelle tells me. I meet the artist-owner of Clifden’s Lavelle Gallery – garrulous, late-40s, the sixth generation of Lavelles in town – putting finishing touches to a painting.

“There are only two routes in, so everyone has the same experience,” he continues. “It’s up the road and bang! That rumble of hills in the distance, the rainstorms across the bog, the stupendous light with colours changing subtly.

“Connemara is an incredibly cinematic place. It’s addictive. People get this yearning to be here.”

Clifden is the capital. They say “capital” – it has just 2,500 residents. A backwater that emerged in 1812, it has gentrified into a buzzy market town. For weekending Dubliners there are shops like Murray’s selling smart Aran Isles knitwear and more restaurants than seems prudent in a small town. Yet there’s enough to remind you why you came: pubs like Tom King’s as cosy as a cabin, and the smell of turf fires in the air.

Me, I’m there for the scenery.

The Sky Road loops ten miles around a western peninsula. Channelled by scarlet fuscia hedges, it lifts into bracken fern then soars into the clouds above an inlet where Lilliputian fishing boats dredge in circles.

No purple prose, no photo prepares you for the view when you crest its summit. Suddenly revealed are islands and foaming surf and huge cloudscapes. Rainshowers scud across the horizon like smoke. The sea turns from steel-blue to pewter to silver as you watch. It’s a sight beyond the capability of any camera.

Eager to see more I take a backroad beside the Killary fjord. On one side is deepest rural Ireland: hunkered-down white cottages, steep hills boxed by stone walls. On the other are beaches of dreams. Lettergesh is lovely. Glassillaun is even better, a crescent of white powder before pale turquoise water. It’s empty except for plovers when I visit. Being the forgotten bit of the Wild Atlantic Way has its advantages.

I’d recommend you go to Gurteen and Dog’s Bay beaches too. They’re near Roundstone, no eyesore itself with fishing boats and crabpots in a pretty harbour and an inlet reaching to those rumbling mountains. The high street jostles with restaurants and tiny pubs (O’Dowd’s is lovely). Catch it on a still day and Roundstone is the perfect little harbour at the edge of the world.

You can see how it might appeal to Ireland’s master-maker of bodhrán drums. “My family thought I was nuts to give up a career in Dublin and move to the end of a lane at the end of Europe,” Malachy Kearns says. His sister suggested psychiatry.

Ours was a typical Connemara encounter. I’d popped into Roundstone Musical Instruments (www.bodhran.com) out of curiosity and ended up yarning about drums (still goatskin, no longer softened in manure fortunately for customers like The Chieftains, Riverdance, Prince Charles and Barrack Obama) over mugs of tea. Forty years after his move, Malachy still finds Connemara magical: “Something of the spirituality remains. You never get used to it.”

It’s like the sound of a good bodhrán, he says: “It bypasses your head and heart. It goes straight to your gut.” He lifts a drum. The room throbs with rippling beats.

I go to the pub in Clifden that night. Pubs, actually – the centre’s raucous with folk music: blues in EJ King’s, reels on penny whistle and guitar in Lowry’s.

I’m nursing a Powers whiskey in Griffin’s as a trio roll through jigs when something extraordinary happens. An elderly drinker stands up. He squints into his iPhone and, with Googled lyrics, begins to sing, his baritone swelling into the silence, the band following his lead, fellow drinkers joining the chorus: “And round her shoulder was a Galway Shawl.”

It’s like a cue. A young man slips on taps and Riverdances clickety-clack on the tiles. A woman clears space to recite a poem. A cartoony beanpole dances a crazy jig, all flailing elbows and knees. “Ach, the power of Guinness,” says the barman fondly. “Oil ha’ summa tha’!” someone shouts.

There’s no awkward Anglo-Saxon embarrassment, no eye-rolling mockery. It’s just community being communal.

I’d hoped to tell you about Insihbofin too. A wave-lashed speck reached by ferry from Cleggan with 170 residents, Bofin is almost as far west as Ireland gets. You come to walk, to discover Iron Age forts on cliffs and ruined medieval churches in vales. To stop for a while. But a Force 9 storm was helter-skeltering east. The ferry return looked sketchy, hence that hotel manager’s phone call about my reservation.

I’m disappointed. Then I realise that, like the scenery and people, sketchy weather is very Connemara too. It lends the place soul. Perhaps generates it. There’s a line in Seamus Heaney’s poem Postscript about “big soft buffetings [that] come at the car sideways and catch the heart off guard and blow it open”. That’s it exactly.

I return to the Sky Road near dusk. The low sky is like a dishrag. The car rocks in the approaching gale and the first fat raindrops splatter the windscreen. Suddenly the sun explodes into the clear space between sky and sea and everything – the waves and surf, the clouds and grass and gulls tumbling overhead – glows and is turned to gold.