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For many travelers to Ireland, Galway is the farthest edge of their journey. Part of the reason they draw the line here is because the county looks so otherworldly -- with its bleak bogs; wind-swept, heather-clad moors; and extraordinary light -- they think that it must be the end of all that's worth seeing in Ireland (if not the end of the world). It isn't, of course, as County Mayo has picturesque rocky coasts and Donegal a kind of exquisite isolation, but Galway is just far enough from the touristy bustle to feel far away.

The history of this area -- the southernmost portion of the region known as Connaught -- is as hard as the rocky soil. In the 17th century, after Oliver Cromwell and his armies mercilessly ravaged the rest of the country, he famously said the Irish could go "to hell or Connaught," and ordered Irish landowners to give up their property and live west of the Shannon River. In so doing, he condemned them to a life of destitution. While English landlords divvied up Ireland's most fertile lands, Connaught was so rocky and barren it held no interest for them. Many years later, it was here that the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849 took its largest toll. Entire towns in Connemara became ghost towns as tens of thousands of people either starved or emigrated.

These days, there's virtually nothing left here to remind you of Connaught's gloomy history. This region is bustling and affluent, its villages brightly painted. The land Cromwell thought contemptible is green and haunting, and much loved by hunters and anglers. Its natural beauty and wild soul make this an unforgettable place to visit.