You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Ireland’ category.
Written on 10/10/10, delayed by technical difficulties.
I remember hearing Anthony Bourdain’s mantra, “be a traveler, not a tourist” and it’s become a bit of a koan for me over the years, an idea that I roll around like a stone, wondering all about it and knowing that I’ll never fully know what it means to myself let alone anyone else. I think there is beauty in both ways of seeing the world, but in the final analysis I hope I come down on the side of the travelers – those who get into the day-to-day life of the culture visited, returning home knowing less in a way; or I guess, more accurately, knowing that they know less about the world than they thought they did when they left home. And still having learned more.
Eric and I both slept rather badly on our first night back in Dublin; somehow we just couldn’t get comfortable amidst the smoke and urine smells emanating from our bed and carpet (Eric described the smell as very much like the inside of Grandma’s colostomy bag), the shower that would mysteriously turn on and off, the bad karaoke from downstairs in the hotel’s bar, the Tourette’s-inflicted drunken Irishman yelling down the street at 2am, or the even more drunken lead-booted tourists clomping in their room above our heads singing “Danny Boy” at 4am. Caulfield’s Hotel was a real corker, all right – by far the seediest place we stayed, which is always more fun in hindsight for the stories you get to tell about it.
Still, we woke up ready to greet the day and hit the pavement (as much to get out of the hotel as to get into the city centre) and caught a quick breakfast before joining the 1916 Rebellion walking tour. We missed it on our first stint in Dublin, so after nixing a day-tour to Newgrange due to dwindling funds, we were excited to learn more about the true turning point in Ireland’s fight for sovereignty and independence.
Lorcan Collins, our tour guide, greeted us with hearty slaps on the back and an invitation to join him in the basement of the International Bar on Wicklow Street. The man must drink a gallon of coffee every morning, for his energy and enthusiasm – no, passion – for the events of that fateful Easter Monday in 1916 are contagious, gripping and wildly entertaining. Lorcan co-wrote a book about the rebellion, and has been leading the tour for 14 years, so he knows his stuff; about twenty of us followed him around Dublin City Centre, hanging on his every word as he taught us about the seven men who proclaimed themselves the Provisional Government of the Republic of Ireland, stormed into the General Post Office (GPO) on an unseasonably warm Monday morning, barricaded themselves in and for six days held off the British forces who stormed them from every side, destroying much of O’Connell Street in the process.
Image courtesy of Sarah T. at Picasa.com.
Lorcan showed us the bulletholes in the GPO’s pillars and in the large statue of Daniel O’Connell himself, introducing us to fascinating characters along the way such as Countess Markeivicz, who commanded an auxiliary force of women and boys that took St. Stephen’s Green, dug trenches, and fought off the surrounding British from there as well – honoring cease fires twice a day so the park’s keeper could feed the ducks in the pond.
At the end of a valiant fight the rebels finally had to surrender, and it looked like the uprising would end with a fizzle – but the British made a grave mistake in rounding up hundreds of innocent people for questioning, and publicly executing 16 rebels, including the seven who had stormed the GPO. The executions turned Irish popular opinion about the uprising on its head, and with their deaths the rebels achieved their purpose: to touch off a powder-keg of rage toward the Brits and rally the Irish people for the cause of independence. Although Ireland wouldn’t gain sovereignty until several years later, the tide had turned and in the end the British had done it to themselves.
The tour was entirely fascinating and we couldn’t have imagined a better guide – in fact, neither of us has ever experienced a better tour; on a scale from 1 to 10 we rate it an 11 (it goes to 11, you know). Too bad Lorcan had another tour, or we would have kidnapped him and plied him for stories for the rest of the day.
Instead we used the rest of the day to tie up loose ends including another walk through Temple Bar where we stumbled upon a farmer’s market in Rory Gallagher Square.
At the Goode Life Food Company’s stand we lunched on free-range County Wexford pork with herbed potatoes and onions – Eric’s with a side of garlic mayo and mine with a dollop of thyme-infused applesauce.
Hello, Delicious! Our remaining daylight was spent picking up last-minute souvenirs, searching in vain for the sweater I loved but did not buy in Connemara (sad face), and packing our bags one last time. And then, after our tourist day, we set off for a traveler evening.
I mentioned in an earlier post that Eric’s great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland to California in the early 20th century, but I didn’t mention that Eric’s mother has a number of cousins still in Ireland. We enjoyed dinner with two of them on our second night in Dublin, and last night fourteen members of the Lalor clan, all living in and around Dublin, gathered to spend an evening with Eric and me. Over dinner and dessert we shared stories of our trip, heard sideways jokes about the truly tragic state of the economy here (did you know that the unemployment rate is nearing 25% here right now? we Americans haven’t seen that high a number since 1933), talked with the younger Lalors about The West Wing and The Wire and other box-set dramas that they love, discussed our tour and heard from the older Lalors about the hushed tones that used to accompany talk of the 1916 uprising – for before 1966 you didn’t want to be perceived as supporting Sinn Féin (even though Sinn Féin had nothing to do with that event). It was a lovely evening with a lovely group of people. At the end of the evening Joe, the last living male in this particular Lalor line, gifted Eric with a book about a historic crossing of the Atlantic in a leather rowboat from Ireland to North America, and me with a young reader’s history book in Irish! How thoughtful and kind. Eric and I look forward to coming back and spending more time with them. As soon as possible!
(I can’t believe that we didn’t think to take a picture of all the Lalors together – what a missed opportunity. But I promise you, they’re all pretty.)
Back at the ashtray – erm, hotel – we made final preparations and fell into bed, and slept surprisingly well considering the karaoke trainwreck happening beneath us. This morning we awoke with the sun, threw our packs on our backs and hightailed it out of Caulfield’s, caught the bus to the airport and parted ways, as Eric’s flight leaves two hours before mine.
In a few hours I will hit American soil for the first time in two and a half months, and…I am trying to put into words how I expect that will feel. I have had a truly life-changing experience which will likely unfurl its gifts to me over weeks, months and even years. I have learned a lot about myself, and about the big, beautiful, wide wide world, and I am grateful to be coming home…I suspect I will appreciate home in a whole new way.
Enough of the “wander” for a while – now it’s time for the “nest”!
You’ll remember that on our first day on Inis Mór we hiked our way to an ancient ringfort, Dún Eochla, stopping along the way to scale a tiered birthday-cake of a stone structure. At the top we stood on a solid stonework stage easily 40 feet in diameter – truly an amazing feat of craftsmanship! Was it an ancient amphitheatre? A huge burial tomb? We couldn’t find it on our map, and it wasn’t until the next day that we learned the very recent origins of it. Turns out it was built last year.
The island apparently suffers from a shortage of fresh water, and as the pin came nearer and nearer to popping the Celtic Tiger economic balloon, a large water tank was installed near the center of the island. The residents had wanted two such tanks, each costing about a million Euros, but the powers that be on the mainland insisted that the tanks be covered in limestone slabs so that it blended in with the other archaeological sites. This stone work, at a cost of one and a half million Euros, sent the project over budget and lost the island its second water tank and not one year later, this past June, the island ran entirely out of fresh water at the beginning of the high tourist season, requiring water be shipped over from the mainland. Our B&B owner, Máirtín shared this story with us, including the fact that he himself had to install a large rainwater tank in his front yard to avoid going totally dry – at a cost of 1300 Euros, “a lot of bacon and eggs if ye know what I’m sayin’.”
On Thursday morning we stocked up on a fantastically filling breakfast at our Galway B&B, then headed south to the Burren (Boireann), a starkly beautiful landscape much like that of Inis Mór, smeared with limestone slabs that can’t keep down the kelly-green grass and Irish moss. We visited the Burren Perfumery, an odd stop far off the beaten path that offers olfactory poems to the flora of the Burren. Truth be told, the Burren is a national park so no flowers can actually be harvested, but all scents used are those of flowers that do grow in the park. I got a couple of things, including a gift of lavender-mint doggy soap for our dear Harper, who has been staying with her aunt, uncle and cousins (my sister’s family) for the last couple of weeks and will undoubtedly have mixed feelings about coming home with us. Smelly soap should grease the wheels.
After a drive through the Burren and a stop at Poulnabrone (Poll na mBrón - meaning “hole of sorrows” – come on, how beautiful is that?), a Neolithic burial site, we headed to the mother of all tourist destinations: the Cliffs of Moher.
These legendary cliffs were almost off our itinerary because they seemed so over-hyped that we were sure they couldn’t live up to it all. Happily we were mistaken and the €6 entrance fee was a bargain altogether; after a trip through the Visitor Centre we headed up the path to the crest of the 700-foot high cliffs, struggling against a headwind that could truly knock a drunk person right off the edge, mouths agape and cameras snapping away the entire time. The beauty is astounding, and the pictures really must speak for themselves because no amount of words could adequately explain the place. I was particularly interested to see the Aran Islands beyond, and to note the very similar landscapes between County Clare and Inis Mór, most noticeable in the jigsaw-puzzle way that the 700-foot Cliffs of Moher, and the 300-foot cliffs of Dún Aonghasa seem to fit together.
Mid-afternoon we headed up the coast to the village of Doolin, known as Ireland’s capital of traditional music. Doolin has been on my list for at least ten years, and I was disappointed to find that it is about four blocks long and totally dead in the daytime. Our plan was to hang out there until the evening and catch some music, but once we were there neither of us really wanted to stay for the next 4-6 hours in hopes of finding some music in the off-season. Instead we bought some fudge at the Doolin Chocolate Shop (don’t judge) and headed back to Galway.
I am astonished at how difficult it has been to find some ceol tradisiúnta, traditional Irish music, around here! No longer the tourist season, I suppose most Irish folks don’t really mob to the quaint music of times past – more popular these days is good old rock’n’roll and, believe it or not, American country music is huge here! We found information about some trad music at the Cranes bar in Galway, but upon arriving learned that it had been canceled. Instead we had a fantastic dinner of gourmet (gluten-free!) fish’n’chips at Oscar’s, and headed back to the B&B.
Friday was a long drive back to Dublin, intersected by a stop at Bunratty Castle & Folk Park, a 15th century castle lovingly restored by minor royalty in the mid-1900’s, with an adjacent living history park where we could see typical 1800’s and 1900’s homes of poor people of counties Clare, Kerry, Galway, Dingle and others. The quirky point of interest was an Hallmark Hall of Fame movie being filmed in the village, which gave Eric great fodder for his vitriolic cynicism toward the Hollywood industry. After much shaking of fists and muttered obscenities about the whole thing, which I found quite amusing (I laugh at Eric’s rage!) we finished with Bunratty and headed east to drop off our rental car and check into the worst hotel ever – see the next post for more about that.
Our original plan was to see a show that night, as the Dublin Theatre Festival is in full swing, but you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men…we got settled too late, so instead we wandered through the dodgy streets around our hotel, across the Liffey and into Temple Bar to witness the Friday night mania that we dubbed Irish Mardi Gras – stag and hen (bachelor and bachelorette) parties everywhere and everyone totally knackered. We did get to catch some trad music at last, in the Ha’penny Bridge Pub, chatting with a very nice and tipsy fella named Feargal who was endlessly impressed that we had visited Inis Mór – turns out he was born there and still keeps a house on the island.
“Ye say ye’s got out to Inis Mór, is that right? Good on ye! Wow…so ye’s spent some time out on Inis Mór then? Well that’s just grand of ye’s. ’Tis beautiful….I can’t believe ye’s went out to Inis Mór! Fantastic…. Well, good on ye fer gettin’ out to Inis Mór, that’s grand, yeah.”
The music was quite nice, but we saw better out on the street in the form of a kickin’ rock-trad fusion band called Mutefish, whose independent CD we bought for a song.
My dear Eric and I have many things in common, but not our body clocks – I’m a night owl while he definitely veers early to bed, early to rise. The poor guy was nearly a zombie by ten o’clock, so with a few songs under our belts we headed back across the Liffey and tried our best to hit the sack. Oh boy, did we try…
So as this morning arrived, Eric and I had some prep work to do before our bus tour at 11:30am. Would we leave the book at the ancient fort, Dún Aonghasa? Or at Na Seacht dTeampaill (The Seven Churches)? Leaving it at a tourist site would give the book a greater chance of being picked up before weather ruined it, but there was no way to be sure and we didn’t want to inadvertently leave litter at a historical site.
As we discussed the options over breakfast, I heard the B&B owner’s wife, Cáit offering breakfast to a fellow traveler; both were speaking Irish. I seized the opportunity for a little more practice and ended up speaking with the traveler, Conor, both in and about the Irish language. It seems that the language was taught, for many years, as a compulsory subject in the schools, and was taught more as a duty than an enthusiasm. It was a literary rather than conversational language, as students were forced to pore over ancient poetry and literature and often got to leaving cert level without really knowing how to converse or use the language in any practical way. The unfortunate result is that many Irish people hate the language, and there continues to be embarrassment and disdain toward it rather than pride and enthusiasm. I find this very sad, and I hope that academics will change the way they present the language so that it can be reclaimed as a point of national pride.
I also practiced my Irish with Cáit, who as an island native was very excited and encouraging toward me. She even gave me her email address and offered to be a Skype-pal so I can practice conversing in the language! I plan to take her up on it. I asked her if she could help me translate into Irish Christine Mason Miller’s statement, “This is a gift for you. Yes, YOU.” Since this island is inhabited by native speakers, I wanted to extend the invitation to them as well as the tourists who ebb and flow like tide over the island every day. We got it figured out and I wrote it next to Christine’s: “Seo bronntanas duit. Is ea, duitse.” (pronounced “shuh brawn-tuh-nus gwitch. Sheah, gwitch-shuh.”) Perfect!
Putting our luggage in safe keeping for the day, we headed down to the pier to meet Máirtín for the bus tour. As we passed by the Aran Sweater Market, I wondered whether we should leave the book tucked in among the piles of sweaters? It would stay dry, at least. But then I noticed the beautiful Celtic Cross monument in the square opposite the market, facing the road up from the pier to the village. This would be a good place for sure! It’s picturesque, symbolic of the culture of both Ireland and Inis Mór, and in a spot where people get up close to read the monument plaque anyway so they would get close enough to the package to read the invitation. The morning ferry was docking, so there would be a lot of traffic at this point. I ran up and placed the package there, took a few pictures, and started to walk away when one of the other bus tour guides offered, “Hey there, ye left yer parcel.” I let him in on the plan, and he seemed both entertained and intrigued. I ran back to the bus tour and we set off for the fort.
Dún Aonghasa was our first stop, a 20-minute hike from the village of Cill Mhuirbhí (Kilmurvey). This semi-circular stone fort opens up to the 300-foot high cliffs of the north side of the island, a site not for the acrophobic. It lies on fertile soil so the landscape of the fort is that of large limestone slabs layered with bright green grass and moss – altogether a totally stunning location. Eric and I were pretty brave, hanging our heads over the edge of the cliff and even getting our picture taken from a stone seat near the edge. My own particular brand of acrophobia kicks in several hours after the actual frightening event, so I wasn’t visited with panic attacks until bedtime that night!
Back in the village we got some water and visited with the village dog until the bus took off for the rest of the island. The other highlight was Na Seacht dTeampaill, which actually means “Seven Churches” but is a site where two churches and five other buildings once sat, and where one of the island’s graveyards has stood since Romans first laid gravestones there in the 8th century A.D. Some Roman gravesites still exist in the far corner, the stones still surprisingly intact.
The three-hour bus tour also took us to the far edge of the island, to the Man of Aran cottage (built by American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty for use in his 1933 film “Man of Aran”) and to a few other sites. Eric and I particularly enjoyed the tour guide, who repeated all facts at least four times so that they were drummed into our head:
“The main crop of the island is potatoes…potatoes are the main crop of the island…”
“There are four freshwater lakes on the island…this here is one of the freshwater lakes, there are four on the island…freshwater lakes…”
“Sheep were brought to the island but their legs had to be tied up to prevent them from jumping the fences, so they didn’t do too well here…the main crop of the island is potatoes…”
After the bus tour finished we got some lunch within plain view of the 100 Books Project parcel, which still sat undisturbed on the Celtic Cross in the main square. Cameras at the ready, we captured a few people checking out the package, but no takers. By the time we left the village a couple hours later, still no takers! The tour guide who I’d let in on the project that morning laughed and said, “Ye see, we’re too honest here! Ye’d do better in Galway!” That’s probably true, but my love for the island had been cemented by then, and I wanted someone there to benefit from Christine’s beautiful book.
Aboard the ferry, we watched the square on our zoom lens, but as we pulled out of the dock the book still stood, patiently waiting for its recipient to take it home. I am so curious to know its fate! But of course, I may never know.
In no time we were back on the mainland and had found our lodging for the next two nights, the Amber Hill B&B in Galway, by far the most beautiful place we’ve stayed. Decorated in Tuscan red and gold with luxurious touches everywhere, it’s obviously lovingly owned by two men who took great care of us. We brought a take-away dinner and settled in for the night; the next few days would be pure tourism, but we wanted to savor the time we’d had on Inis Mór, with its beautiful history and wonderfully friendly people, and the Irish culture more intact than anywhere else we’ve been. I can’t wait to go back.
Máirtín, our B&B owner, was on double duty our first morning as his wife was across the bay in Galway visiting the grandchildren. He peddled out the full Irish breakfast in a breathless, distracted way that we found charming nonetheless, and we chatted with a couple from Boston who had come in with us on the ferry the night before. They were doing almost the same trip as us but in reverse, having come up via Cork the night before and working their way up Ireland’s west coast and then over the north and down into Dublin; we got to share stories on what we’ve seen so far and gather information about what to add to our itinerary.
As we finished up Máirtín came in and said to me, “Your friend Mac just called after ye.” Imagine that! MacDeara (you’ll remember Mac from yesterday’s post) offers horse-and-carriage tours of the island and on the ferry over we had talked about the possibility of using his service, but he thoughtfully called to let us know that the weather was not good for an open carriage, and we’d better use Máirtín’s bus tour after all. (At half the price we had decided to do just that.) Máirtín told us that ol’ Mac is “the richest bachelor on the island” so thereafter he was referred to simply as my new boyfriend:
“Hey Eric, my new boyfriend told me that sometimes the ferry ride over here is so smooth it’s like sitting at your own kitchen table.”
“Is that right, Maggie.”
“Yeah, and my new boyfriend? He also said there are four forts on the island, not two like I thought.”
“Awesome. Your new boyfriend is really something.”
The couple from Boston was taking Máirtín’s bus tour, but we decided to explore the island on our own and then take the tour the next day. So we walked into the village of Cill Rónáin (Kilronan), during which Eric would like to point out that he saved my life not once but thrice from surprisingly brisk car traffic on the narrow roads, and checked out the Aran Sweater Market, a huge shop at the end of the walk up from the pier, perfectly situated to please every tourist right off the boat. Part shop and part museum, it is dedicated to the international symbol of, and my first introduction to the Aran Islands: the Aran fisherman sweater.
For hundreds of years before the ferries and planes brought the tourism industry to the islands, the residents subsisted on fishing and farming. Fishing on the Atlantic was harsh and dangerous work, and the geansaí (sweater) became an intricate part of island life. The wives and mothers spun the rough wool and knitted sweaters that were hardy and water-repellent, which kept their husbands and sons warm and dry on the seas. They also developed special stitch patterns and knit them into the fabric, creating family-specific combinations of patterns which were worn as a sort of family tartan. The sweaters also served the tragic task of identifying any bodies that drowned.
In college I costumed a production of John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea which takes place on one of the Aran Islands; through my research I became totally fascinated with the place and culture, and the tragic poetry of the sweaters. Now that I am a knitter my appreciation is even deeper – imagine a garment that can tell a story, represent a clan’s lineage, and so uniquely outfit a man for the work that the island demands.
I didn’t find a sweater that called out to be mine, but we did find a couple of other souvenirs. At the register I threw out a little bit of Irish and the shopkeeper happily struck up a bit of conversation with me. I found myself regaining more and more of my vocabulary as we went on, and I oozed only slightly about my love of the language. We both agreed that no other language is quite as poetic and lilting.
Up the street we wandered into a souvenir shop with an internet cafe upstairs; as we walked in the shopkeeper gave us a “good day to ye’s” and made his way down to help us out. I found a couple of children’s books in Irish (just my speed) and, looking for a good CD of songs in Irish, I screwed up my courage again and shot a “gabh mo leithscéal” (“excuse me”, pronounced “go muh lish-kull”). The shopkeeper’s eyes lit up as he answered, “Ah! An bhfuil Gaeilge agat?” (“Do you have Irish?”) and we were off. In between our Irish stints we included Eric and the three of us talked in English about life on the island, the state of the Irish language and its encouraging resurgence both in and out of the country, and we even started speculating about staging a week-long Irish immersion course for adults in the summer. Gearoid, now known as my other new boyfriend, gave me his email address so we could keep in touch about American interest in a summer course.
Gearoid didn’t have a map of the island so he directed us to the tourist office, which helped us out and told us how to hike up to the Black Fort, one of the neolithic monuments still intact on the island.
Well, I thought we were going to the Black Fort, but in fact we went the opposite way, heading steadily for a large ring fort (Dún Eochla) at the highest point on the island, easily seen from where we started. We hiked from paved road to graveled road to dirt path, up to another nearby monument which looked very neolithic but which we couldn’t find on the map – a large tiered wedding-cake of a stone structure, flat across the top. (We later discovered that this was actually built last year, and it covers the islands only water tank. Quite a contentious project! More later.) We climbed the monument and looked for a road up to the ring fort, but it was soon clear that the only way up was over the stone fences and through the fields.
Inis Mór is reported to have approximately 7,000 miles of stone fences, segmenting the land into small paddocks which are evenly distributed among the island’s residents so that no one person gets all the good land (or all the rocky, unusable land). I have to admit that Eric and I were both a bit intimidated and nervous about what lay before us, but a great spirit of adventure swept us up and suddenly we were scaling the fences, dropping into blackberry brambles (delicious, by the way), padding over limestone fields, doing our best not to upset the livestock we came upon, and before we knew it we had climbed the ten-foot outer wall of the fort. Almost as soon as we dropped in the rain joined us, pouring down buckets as we entered the inner ring of the fort. It was eerie and awesome, to be all alone on the crest of the island in a fort built by residents nearly 2,000 years ago. And imagine, being able to simply hike your way into such a place! No entrance fee, no visitor center, no restrictions except those of common decency and respect for the history of the place. After walking around slack-jawed and giddy for a while, we found that there was, of course, a sort of path leading out of the fort via openings in the stone fences here and there – certainly not a path for just any tourist, but for the adventurous hiker nothing too difficult. The rain let up and we hiked back down into the village. After a change into dry clothes and a bit of a rest, we counted our rainbow sightings for the day (three, including one full rainbow and one double), got some dinner – local oysters and seafood chowder – and turned in early. The next day would be just as full, and we wanted to be ready.
We found such weather on Monday morning in our hostel at An Caoláire Rua (Killary fjord). After sleeping like rocks we awoke early and padded downstairs for some tea and a breakfast of leftovers – chicken salad and gluten-free toast. We packed up, paid the sweet French ladies who run the place, and even took a quick hike down to the fjord’s edge before taking off for our noon ferry to Inis Mór (Inishmore), one of the Oileán Árainn (Aran Islands) in the middle of Galway Bay. During the 45-minute drive down to our port of call, Ros a Mhíl (Rossaveel) we saw the beautiful countryside of Conamara (Connemara), widely regarded as the most unspoiled region of Ireland, a “savage beauty” as Oscar Wilde called it. Forty-five minutes hardly did it justice but fortunately for us, I had completely mis-remembered our departure time to Inis Mór which was to have been 10:30am, not noon. (Those who know me well know that my mind works well in conceptual themes, but not so much in details…) The woman at the ferry office gave us a sad look as she told us the next ferry would not be until 6:30pm, but perked up a bit and asked, “Well, have ye seen Conamara? ‘Tis a beautiful land to be sure.”
Now I have to admit that I did not take to this detour at first, not at all. Of all our itinerary I had been looking most forward to our scant 30 hours on Inis Mór, and I had just cut that by a half a day. I was sorely disappointed in myself, and Eric knows me well enough by now that he gave me the gift of empathetic silence while I moved through my emotions, coming out the other end with a plan.
We drove west along the stunning rocky coastline, stopping every now and then in the middle of the one-lane road to snap picture postcard shots all around us. The weather changed every fifteen minutes and could turn on a dime – sunny and bright, then charcoaled sky and pouring sheets of rain gusted sideways, then fine misty drizzle and sunshine everywhere. After a couple of hours and a few hundred sheep we reached the town of Cloch na Rón (Roundstone) where I was able to make some phone calls and juggle our lodging reservations so that we would have one night less in Galway but two nights, not one, on Inis Mór in the end!
With our itinerary re-arranged, we enjoyed this seaside town and even got to visit the workshop of Malachy Kearns, master bodhrán maker. Ten years ago while living in L.A. I had ordered one of these traditional Irish drums from Mr. Kearns, and even though he had just left for the day (I didn’t realize it was he walking out as I walked in) it was a thrill to look into his workshop and see the place where my bodhrán was born. Eric found a lovely gift to grace his family’s mountain house, built by his great-grandfather after emigrating from the Emerald Isle in the early 1900’s, and I bought us some turf incense, because we are both absolutely intoxicated by the smell of a peat-turf fire. There’s nothing else like it.
After a stroll along the shore we headed further west to the beautiful town of An Clochán (Clifden) for a short stop, then high-tailed it back to catch our ferry to Inis Mór.
Conamara is also a gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) and it was on this day that I started, with some trepidation, to use my Irish. First at the ferry office, with a shy “Dia duit.” (pronounced “jee-a gwitch” and meaning “Hello” or literally translated, “God be with you.”) The woman behind the counter looked up so quickly I thought she’s give herself whiplash, and a curious smile crept across her face as she answered, “Dia is Mhuire dhuit.” (pronounced “jee-a ‘s wirrah ghwitch” and meaning “God and Mary be with you.”) I went even further with a “how are you” which she answered again, returning the question to me which I also answered! Both of us beaming, I promptly lost all the rest of the Irish I’ve ever had, and we went on in English after that, but clearly she was happy to hear her language spoken by a non-native. I was exhilarated to have been able to create that bond between us, to show respect and enthusiasm for her language and thereby her culture. In the days to come I would have the chance to do much more of it, for I knew that Inis Mór was part of the gaeltacht but I didn’t know that it’s actually the everyday language of the islanders. I learned this on the ferry ride over, from my first island friend, MacDeara.
MacDeara is a life-long resident of the island, my father’s age with Paul Newman eyes. As the boat left the mainland I asked him if he was going toward home or away from home, and we talked the rest of the way to the island. I haltingly (through a bit of seasickness on the rough sea) told him that I’d been studying the language for the last four years, and he kindly practiced kindergarten Irish with me for the rest of the way. As we disembarked he took one of my bags and walked me to the owner of our B&B who was waiting for us at the dock. (Eric would like me to point out at this point that ol’ Mac didn’t speak a word to him the whole time.) Our B&B owner, Mairtin, greeted us with “What a feckin’ evenin’! ’Tis pure winter all of a sudden!” Jovial and cursing all the way, he drove us through the cold, stormy dark night and showed us to our warm room which, we would learn the next morning, afforded us an ocean view. We settled in, then walked up the path to Tí Joe Watty’s, the nearest pub serving dinner by a warm fire, surrounded by the language that I love, both spoken all around me and painted on a wave that ran across the ceiling. A dinner of island-caught mackerel for me, and a burger for Eric, set us right for bed and neither of us got through a page in our books before giving in to sleep, serenaded by crashing waves and intoxicated by the fresh salt air.
Today Eric and I woke up and packed before going downstairs for the second “B” from our B&B. Seawinds B&B in Na Cealla Beaga (Killybegs) is owned by Gerald and Patricia, a lovely Irish couple, he from the Aran Islands and a fluent speaker of Irish, she a native of County Donegal and a very good speaker herself. Over tea, coffee, eggs, bacon, sausage, potato waffles and grilled tomatoes, we discussed my strange obsession with Ireland and the four years I have spent learning the language for no good reason. I got to speak a little and hear more, which was thrilling in a way that you just have to understand, to understand. Then we were off for a bit of a haul down from the north to the middle of the west coast. On our way out of town we admired the red-and-white-festooned town, geared and giddy for today’s game against Na Gleannta which they’ll probably lose due to two major injuries last week, but they’re still going in whole hog.
The Gaelic Athletic Association organizes Irish Football, which is a cross between hurling, European football and rugby, or so I hear. Each parish in the country has its own club (team) which to me feels very tribal and clan-like. Very fitting for this country.
A quick drive down the road was Donegal Town, where we stopped briefly to tour the Donegal Castle. Built in the 15th century by Red Hugh O’Connell (don’t you love that name?) it was the seat of Tír Chonaill (the land of the O’Connells) until the British stomped old Red and sent him packing to Spain. This was my first visit to a castle ruins and it was really…well, cool!
Just out of Donegal Town we turned a corner and like magic the landscape changed from harsh rocky country to the lush green patchwork farmland seen in posters and postcards of Ireland. We left County Donegal and over the next three hours drove through Counties Sligo and Mayo, finally reaching County Galway and the unspeakably gorgeous Connemara region and then, our stop in the village of An Líonán (Leenane). The drive was beautiful, but the pinnacle is truly our humble hostel, Sleepzone Connemara, situated a half-kilometer off the road in wild woodland, perched just above An Caoláire Rua (the Killary), Ireland’s only fjord. The sun is going down now, but Eric and I just enjoyed a self-cooked meal in the dining room of the hostel, with a panorama of the sunset over the fjord.
Hostels are a great way to save money not only on lodging but on food, if you want to make your own meals. All hostels have a very usable kitchen stocked with all the basics, while the fridge usually boasts a box of free food left by previous hostelers. Tonight we enjoyed roast chicken, local mixed greens, some cornichons and mature Irish cheddar (I did have a square or two as it’s my very favorite cheese) from the free food box, and a bit of gluten-free bread with honey for me, a teensy bit of Ben & Jerry’s with local Irish cream for Eric. And the sunset. Seriously.
This afternoon we also got to visit the Kylemore Abbey, itself perched between a mountain and a lake, a beautiful castle which even today is home to a group of Benedictine nuns. We decided not to pay the rather high entrance fee to see inside – no matter, the outside is stunning all by itself!
Tomorrow morning we hope to wake early enough for a hike along the fjord before we head out to catch our noon ferry from Ros a Mhíl (Rossaveal) to Inis Mór (Inishmore), the largest of the Aran Islands. I am very excited to visit this island! In college I designed costumes for a production of Riders to the Sea, and had the pleasure of researching the dress of the island fishermen and their families. It definitely deepened my love for the country, and I have wanted to visit there ever since.
A quick word about my use of the Irish names for towns: yes, it’s because I’m a geek and love the language, but also because the names actually make sense in their Irish form. The stupid Brits came over and just slapped phonetic names on all the towns, not caring what the names actually meant! Rossaveal, for instance, is just a silly sounding name until you translate it and learn that it means “peninsula of the sea monster”. Donegal sounds whimsical enough, but Dún na nGall, “fort of the foreigners”, speaks to its history as a Viking settlement in the 8th and 9th centuries. Galway’s Irish name is Gaillimh, meaning “stony river”. An Caoláire Rua (Killary fjord) means “reddish narrow sea inlet”, a perfect description of this spot where the peat’s slightly reddish color seeps into the spring water, giving us a slightly brown-tinged bit of drink. Geesh. But see what I mean? Okay, I’ll stop now. But I think it’s cool.
Oiche mhaith ó An Caoláire Rua (good night from the Killary fjord)!
Oh, friends. Friends. Friends, I am here and it is perfect. But I have to admit, it took me a couple of days to find the Ireland I had hoped to visit – the wind-scrubbed brilliant green and red-clay landscape, cut with steppes of deep black peat bogs and thick wild hedgerows, dotted with cows, sheep and horses…….oh dear, I’ve gone into the reverie already, have I? Let me go back a bit.
Between Hamburg and the peat bogs: our cheap flight from Germany into Ireland included an overnight stopover at the London Luton airport, arriving around 7:30pm and leaving the next morning at 6:30am. After a brief psychosis in which I thought we could travel the hour in and out of London and see a bit of the city before catching a few z’s and hitting the airport, I came to reality and we decided to just stay in Luton. Even with the super cheap flights, I’m not convinced that we saved money by stopping in the UK. We had to change Euros into Pounds for the night, at a ghastly airport rate, so that we could take a taxi to and from our hotel and eat dinner. Walking around Luton turned out to be slightly life-threatening as it appears only coal-mining vampires live there, and our easyHotel accommodation proved that the man who invented Port-A-Potties is now designing hotel rooms. Luckily, we only had 11 hours there and many of them were spent sleeping so the stop was mostly an amusing anecdote.
Wednesday morning we arrived in Dublin and spent two days there. Dublin was great – we stayed in the famous Temple Bar district which meant that everything we needed and wanted to do was within walking distance. Our first stop was Dublinia, a museum dedicated to the city’s origins as a Viking settlement and later Medieval development. As someone with Viking blood in my veins as well as a deep love of Ireland in my heart (oh, can you tell?) it was a pretty cool blending of cultural interests for me. During our time there we explored the neighborhood, visited the National Gallery, the Book of Kells and Trinity College, spent $25 doing laundry, and witnessed the aftermath of a cement truck which had run into the gates at the Parliament building that morning in protest of the bank bailouts, which were passed the next day.
On our first day we visited a bookstore and I bought Our Man in Hibernia by Charlie Connelly, a Londoner who long dreamed of emigrating to the beloved Emerald Isle, and then…did. It’s a perfect fit for me, no? The book is providing some interesting new background for me as we travel around, especially as regards the mood of the country in the wake of the devastating economic downturn, and the fantasy versus the reality of “the real Ireland”. (For something completely different, Eric bought Columbine by Dave Cullen and is absolutely riveted by it. If you like journalistic non-fiction, you might want to check it out.)
Okay okay, so here’s the deal: despite Dublin’s coolness and history, I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed with my first two days in Ireland. I wanted to see the Ireland I’d dreamed of, and here I was in a city which can never really give you a taste of the true culture of a place; it’s too conglomerated and pot-melted and global, really. I half-suspected, half-hoped that I would find (my fantasy of) “the real Ireland” after we left the city.
I was not disappointed.
Yesterday we rented a car and drove north out of Dublin. I am driving on the left side of the road and doing it pretty darn well! It took some adjusting, but by the end of the day I felt surprisingly comfortable.
Sidebar: Our money is running out more rapidly than expected over here, which is cause for some concern and frustration. After discovering on Thursday night that we had already spent 2/3 of our food budget in the first 1/4 of our trip and shuffling money between budget categories to make it okay, I got a little snitty about shelling out an additional €125 for comprehensive auto insurance on the car rental. As I fretted out loud about this while waiting for the shuttle to the car pick-up, my beloved said with great sincerity, “Well of course, the most valuable part of this trip will be the most inexpensive…our memories.” To which I replied, “Oh my God I will punch you in the face.” Eric looked like a kicked puppy only for a second, but since I couldn’t even get it out without smiling, we both broke out in peals of laughter that left the rest of the shuttle bus passengers wondering what was so funny.
About an hour out of Dublin we stopped for lunch at a kitschy seaside place called Fitzpatrick’s, where we chatted with four Americans who were just wrapping up their vacation; two of them lead a tour to Ireland every year! (Hello dream job, I’ll take one.) They tipped us off to a dolmen stone about ten minutes down the road, behind a hotel and golf course. It was my first standing stone and very cool indeed – the doorway to a long-gone burial tomb from about 2000-3000 BC with a top stone weighing about 40 tonnes. Not tons. Tonnes. So many extra letters, these people use. I secretly love it.
Then our drive took us into Northern Ireland to the Giant’s Causeway, a natural rock formation on the northern edge of the island that is starkly gorgeous. We got there at a glorious time of day, when the light was just right. After an hour or so of scrambling around the Causeway, we headed west through Londonderry and back into Ireland proper, stopping for dinner in Letterkenny before the final stretch to our hostel in Ardara. It got dark, and then it got rainy, and then the road got narrow, and then we saw “Deer Crossing Next 9km”. My driving confidence faded, but we made it safely to Ardara around 10:30pm and found that we had the cold, cavernous hostel all to ourselves. It was a strange night, but after a fair-to-middling night’s sleep and a full Irish breakfast we set off for the absolutely stunning scenery of southern County Donegal.
Gleann Cholme Cille (Glencolumbkille) – which might be the unofficial capitol of the Dún na nGall (Donegal) gaeltacht – was our first stop, and an ironic one for me. Over the last few years I have attended an Irish language immersion weekend in San Francisco, taught by teachers from Oideas Gael, a language and culture school in that town. This weekend I’m here, but they’re all there, teaching the weekend. Boo! Still, there was plenty to see along the coast. The highlights were the beach at Gleann Cholme Cille and the summit of the stunning Slíabh Líag (Slieve League) mountains – “possibly the highest sea cliffs in all of Europe” which boasted not only beautiful 360 degree views but also a sky and sea that glistened absolute silver and made the Irish belief in fairies more understandable.
But the whole day was the highlight, really. We drove on the left side of the road through endlessly stunning scenery, listening to Raidío na Gaeltachta, the national Irish-speaking radio station, as they narrated the horse races and played lovely Sean Nós tracks (we also heard a beautiful rendition of “Falling Slowly” sung in Irish!), breathing in the scent of burning peat from the cottages along the road, avoiding both hillwalkers and sheep in the road, and generally taking in the loveliness of southern Donegal. By the afternoon we landed in our B&B in Na Cealla Beaga (Killybegs) where the entire town is papered with the flag of its Gaelic Football club in preparation for tomorrow’s big game against Na Gleannta (Glenties) and where I now write to you, by the fire, sipping tea, belly full of Killybegs shrimp and Donegal lamb, lungs full of sea air, with my dearest Eric reading next to me. I am a happy girl.