Friday, June 28, 2013

Ireland trip, Day 2

This was my favorite, favorite day, so the post is long! Enjoy the photos.
Day Two – May 23, 2013

The Most Perfect Day

Amazingly I awoke energized and rested without a hint of jet lag even though I didn’t sleep for more than twenty four hours the day before! After a filling breakfast cooked by Marion of Coolin House, the Galway Tour bus picked us up outside the bed and breakfast about nine and whisked us off toward the Connemara. This was the Ireland I had come to see. I absolutely loved this area along Ireland’s windy, chilly west. It is a remote land where miles and miles of rock fence square off the lush green land like a quilt. Sheep were thick in the lush, rolling fields and we saw few houses in this mostly treeless environment. Occasionally sheep dotted the winding roads, ambling along the very scant shoulder with lambs as they nipped what must be the best grass. Our tour bus slowed for them, making note that the ewes become road smart quickly but the lambs were new and not quite as savvy. It was a charming sight, worth slowing for. And I was aggravated at myself for not getting a photo!

Dotting the sides of the roads everywhere were the ruins of small rock houses that we learned are the remains of peasant homes from the potato famine, or as the Irish call it, the great hunger.
Fourteen or fifteen family members would live in these small dwellings, sleeping on the floor or on shelves built into the walls. (Thus, the term “left on the shelf too long” used to describe spinsters. Families were eager for them to marry and move out to make space for someone else!) The houses, like the miles of rock fence, were made of found, stacked stones without mortar. How they remain with nothing to hold them is a mystery to me. The houses include a giant fireplace at one end and usually few or no windows because at the time the government charged a “window tax” that poor families could not afford.

Another interesting sight was the peat, or turf, bogs. According to our driver, sometime in Ireland’s ancient past the Connemara was covered in forest which died and “melted” into the ground, thus forming large wetlands filled with peat. The damp peat can be cut like bricks from the earth, stacked and dried, and used for fuel. Many in the Irish west still use turf as their main fuel and struggle against the government which wants to stop peat farming and preserve the disappearing bogs. We passed a peat farmer or two. One grinned and waved for us to come and help him. We enjoyed his friendliness.

Our driver and other Irishmen we spoke with expressed ongoing concern about their country and the struggling economy and sometimes about their frustration with the government. One quoted 40% unemployment, with the major industry being tourism. This is obvious everywhere as the beauty of Ireland becomes more and more commercialized, thus detracting from what makes it special to begin with. Yet who I am to complain? I was a tourist. The Irish also fret about the continuing exit of Ireland’s young people to other countries. And still, all these years later, the resentment toward their 800 year English oppressor runs deep. This part surprised me, but we heard that undercurrent over and over again while in Ireland.

But back to the Connemara where tourism has not overshadowed the wild and natural state of the world’s greenest land. We saw a number of antiquities along the way, including Ross Errilly Friary, a 1351 Franciscan friary and the best preserved monastery in Ireland. To be so old, it is amazingly intact and gives a feel of what life must have been like for those “keepers of the Christian light”.

We stopped at Cong, which was my favorite village of the many we visited.
A beautiful little town, surviving on tourism without being spoiled, Cong was where John Wayne filmed a movie years ago and is credited with beginning Ireland’s tourist trade. There is a museum, which I didn’t visit and a pub that was featured in the movie. Instead of having tea, Sundy and I explored this quaint, charming village that boasts a very old cross in the middle of main street. The tiny row of old shops are squeezed close to one another and painted in colorful hues. A river runs through Cong next to Cong Abbey, a fabulous old medieval ruin where were we told the last high king of Ireland, Rory O’Connor is buried.
I saw no sign to that effect so I don’t know if it’s true or not. I loved it, as I did every abbey or friary we visited! I also enjoyed the swans floating on the river inlet nearby. The entire town has a quiet, park-like beauty. I could see myself living here and would have stayed here a day or two if I had known how much I would love it.

Later on the tour, we saw a little cemetery that turned out to be a children’s cemetery with a sad story.
It seems the Catholic faith, at one time, did not allow anyone who had not been baptized to be buried in consecrated ground with their families. So this pretty little, rock-walled plot of land contains the remains of dozens of children who died before they could be baptized.

A stop by a lake revealed an enchanting Irish superstition I had never heard of - a fairy tree. We were told that people make a wish to the fairies and tie a ribbon on this particular tree. Indeed, the small, wind-bent tree was covered in ribbons of various colors. Our tour guide and others we talked to said that many Irish still take their fairies seriously.

The countryside in the Connemara area is so incredibly beautiful that I was, by now, in sensory overload. My eyes simply couldn’t take everything in quickly enough. Suddenly, we rounded a bend and there spread before us like something out of a magical kingdom was Kylemore Abbey. Set on a lake with the mountain behind, Kylemore is a magnificent manor house built by a man for his beloved wife in the mid 1800s. When she died suddenly, the heartbroken husband built a miniature cathedral a short distance from the house in her honor. It’s such a romantic story that the romance writer in me was captivated. Sundy and I visited the church and spent some time in prayer. There was a quiet reverence and a precious spirit about the place.

There is a charge to see the house and the walled Victorian gardens. The gardens were not quite in full bloom but still very pretty and tidy. For the price of entry, you can actually only visit one floor of the manor house which has some 100 rooms! Because we were on the bus tour, we got a sizable discount on admission—I think it was 8 Euros-and I didn’t regret the expense. High on the hill behind the house is a giant statue of Jesus that can be seen from some distant. We opted not to climb up due to time and the cold wind.

I took dozens of photos because this was, by far, the favorite stop of my entire trip. I’m trying to figure out how to set a book here or at least in the Connemara area. Though the weather was cold and windy and we wore every layer we brought with us, the sun shone and the sky was a breathless blue. Rhododendron quite literally lines the estate like a great green and fuchsia wall. The plants were just beginning to bloom but were so very pretty. I can’t imagine how gorgeous they are in full flower.

Finally, after more stops to view pretty valleys and lakes and vast fields, our tour was over. At our request, our driver dropped us back in Salthill at Lohan’s pub for a dinner of my favorite Irish food-beef and Guinness stew. I had never tried it before and was a little uncertain until I tasted. Oh, my! Yummy. A thick, rich gravy of tender beef tips and mushrooms was topped with a generous helping of mashed potatoes. Brown bread was served on the side. Country eaters like us were in food heaven and now I have to figure out how to make this at home.

Happily filled, we walked back to Coolin House, freshened up, Skyped home to the family from our iPad, and then walked the 10 minutes or so to the Galway Bay Hotel and Trad on the Prom. The venue for the show of traditional Irish music and dance is small and all the chairs set flat so a short person would want to get there early and sit in front. My daughter is under five feet tall and had we not been in the front row she would not have seen much. As it was, the show was very entertaining with a good mix of terrifically performed music and some good Irish dance. Two of the musicians with the same last name were outstanding, each one playing many traditional instruments. I think the woman played 22!  I could listen to the penny whistle, the boudhran, and the pipes all night. Some of the dancers were ho-hum but a pair of brothers proved exceptional. All in all, a good show.

Afterward, we strolled along the promenade-a walkway along Galway Bay-back to our lodging. A full moon shone over the glistening, silvery waters. A few hearty souls—or crazies-were swimming in the cold water while we huddled close inside our layered sweater, jacket, coat and gloves. The walk is safe and pretty and only a few minutes away from the residential area where we stayed. Again, we’d spent a lovely day in Ireland without a bit of rain.



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