September 3-16, 2005
Ireland was a different sort of excursion for me. I didn't chase any birds, bears or B-17's. This time I was in search of something else, the spirit of a place which tens of millions claim as home even though most have never been there.
What I found is a place that is defined and sometimes haunted by its long history. The ceremonial tomb at Newgrange predates the Pyramids. Later came the Irish monasteries, beacons of light during the Dark Ages, followed by the pillaging and modernizing influences of the Vikings. (One of those Viking trading settlements is now called Dublin.) In 1690 the Battle of the Boyne was the start of systematic English repression of Ireland, which led to various revolts, the 1845-50 Famine, the eventually successful struggle for independence, and the Troubles in the six northern counties which remained part of the United Kingdom.
On a personal level, the ancestors on my Dad's side came over from Ireland to the U.S. at various times in the 1800's. While I was in County Cork I was especially aware of this, not only because some of my family came from there, but because the port of Cobh was a primary embarkation point for the millions who sought a better life in the New World. It amazes me that the population of Ireland is still less than it was before the Famine. Up until very recently, a large portion of Ireland's youth had to emigrate to find work.
Things are different now. The Republic of Ireland prospers as part of the European Union, and unemployment is low. But during my visit, an echo of the Troubles hit Northern Ireland, which of course made big news down south in the Republic. I had penciled in a day trip to the North on Sept. 14, but the violence the previous weekend put an end to that idea.
So here's what I did for two weeks:
Sept. 3-4 – The overnight flight from Boston to Shannon was more than three hours late, but I still managed to bus to Galway and get checked into the Forster Court Hotel by 12:30 p.m. I napped until 5:00 then had dinner at the hotel. Good seafood chowder, chicken and ice cream, but way too much bread and potatoes. Erp. The hotel is conveniently located near Eyre Square, right next to the tourist office where many of the bus tours start. Eyre Square is an ongoing local scandal – a contractor was hired to renovate the park, but abandoned the project. The park has been torn up for quite a while, and doesn't appear to be anywhere near completion.
Sept. 5 – It was mostly sunny so I decided on the Connamera tour with the hope of getting Kylemore Abbey in good light. Kylemore Castle was built in 1867-71 by a rich Englishman. Also on the estate are a Victorian walled garden and a church. The church was built as a Gothic cathedral in miniature. The property was bought in 1920 by the Benedictine Nuns, who had fled Ypres, Belgium during World War I. There were a few other stops on the tour but Kylemore was definitely the highlight.
Sept. 6 – As several dozen of us disembarked from the ferry on the island of Inis Mór, we were hailed by a line of van and cart drivers. I went with a guy in a older van who said he was ready to leave immediately. There were six people already in the back so I got the front seat. Everyone was (native) Irish so it was amusing to hear them conversing. I understood most of it, except of course when the driver started speaking Gaelic to someone passing by. I was surprised at how widely used the Gaelic language is around Galway and other parts of the country, and sometimes had to take a second to figure out whether some was speaking Gaelic or just had a very thick accent.
The Aran Islands and the neighboring portions of the main island are covered with billions of stones, and over the centuries the people have built many structures and miles of walls. We went first to the Seven Churches site, then came back to the most famous site in the Aran Islands, the 4,000-year-old fort at Dun Aonghasa. The fort is perched on the edge of a cliff. I heard it said that the cliffs on Inis Mór aren't as high as the Cliffs of Moher, but are just as impressive. Which is good because of what happened the next day....
Sept. 7 – I booked a half-day trip to the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher. It was cloudy and rainy, but it was either today or not at all. At the cliffs it was very windy and rainy, so I climbed halfway and fired off just a couple of shots before heading back to shelter. The rain let up by the time of our last stop at Dunguaire Castle.
I was taking bus tours instead of renting a car because I didn't want to deal with driving on the wrong side of Ireland's narrow roads. I got an idea how narrow the roads are when our bus sideswiped a farm vehicle as we were approaching the town of Doolin. There wasn't much damage but it reinforced my decision to leave the driving to someone else.
Sept. 8 – Unlike the greeting at the Inis Mór ferry landing, there was no line of vans and carts waiting for me on Inis Meáin, the middle island of the Aran Islands. I took off on foot for the hotel, which I found eventually. Fortunately the roads were paved and my suitcase has good wheels. After checking in and ditching the suitcase, I went exploring and came to the island's biggest fort, Dun Chonchúir. Workmen were busy building temporary stairways and a stage inside, so I thought maybe Bono was going to jet in and do a music video. It turns out that they were preparing to stage the six plays of J.M. Synge, who lived on the island the summers of 1898-1902. "Are you here for the plays?" was a question I had to fend off several times the next few days.
As I headed back into the village, I made sure to find the other sights marked on my map, including the beehive hut of Clochán, the "new" church (1939), the barely visible remains of an old church, and the fort Dun Fearbhaí. As I started back toward the hotel, it started to rain. At the hotel pub later, the locals were making ominous statements about the weather for the next day.
Sept. 9 – I was scheduled to leave on the 8:30 a.m. ferry and head to Dublin to catch a three-day Railtour of the southeast starting the next day. It was raining and blowing fairly hard as I hiked the 1.5 kilometers to the dock. There were a few dozen waiting for the ferry including a half dozen or more Americans who were college students in Cork. We saw the boat come toward us from Inis Oírr, the third of the Aran Islands. The waves were crashing into the dock and it looked dangerous, but the ferry lined up to give it a try. At one point the ferry looked as if it was swept quite a few yards by a strong wave. If it had been next to the dock at that point I think there would have been a crash. It might have been a deliberate turn, but I don't think so! One girl said, "I don't want to get on that." She didn't have to. After a few more minutes of fruitless maneuvering they gave up and sailed to the mainland. I headed back to the hotel and reclaimed my room key where I had left it on the front desk. The college kids streamed in, hung around the pub, and made arrangements at various B&B's for another night. I cancelled my hotel in Dublin and the Railtour. I called the ferry company regarding the 4:30 p.m. scheduled sailing and they said they were "hopeful." With that encouragement I went down to the dock and waited, but it never came. As I trudged back to the hotel yet again the thought came to me, "I'm pretty good at trudging." Slow but deliberate.
It was Friday so the TGIF crowd was in the pub – six locals holding down barstools and solving the problems of the world. It was still pouring rain but the sentiment among the locals was the ferry would be running in the morning.
Sept. 10 – Once again I did the trudge to the dock, and conditions looked much more promising than the previous day. The 8:30 a.m. ferry docked and started taking on passengers, but I wasn't on board yet when a series of swells hit the boat and they suspended loading. I was hit by a fear that they might have to sail away and leave me stranded for another day, which would have been a huge problem because they had already put my suitcase on the boat! But after a few minutes the swells subsided and all of us got underway. When I got to Galway, I still wasn't sure whether I was headed to Cork, Killarney or Limerick. In line at the bus station I had to make a decision – Cork it was. Four hours later I was there. I had no place to stay and the first two hotels were full, but the clerk at the 2nd one was helpful and found a room at the Clarion. I roamed around town a little bit. Coincidently, the two teams competing in the All-Ireland hurling final that weekend were Galway and Cork, so I saw plenty of paraphenalia in both cities.
Sept. 11 – The Ring of Kerry bus tour I had hoped to take was full, so instead I caught a train to the nearby port city of Cobh. The trains going the opposite direction to Dublin were full of Corkers going to the hurling match. My first stop in Cobh was the "Queenstown Story" exhibit which describes the reasons the port (called Queenstown when Ireland was part of the UK) is famous – millions of Irish emigrants embarked from here, it was the Titanic's last port of call in 1912, and the Lusitania was sunk during World War I not far off shore. After I trudged up the hill to the cathedral, the sun came out. I looped back down to the waterfront past the City Hall and the Lusitania memorial, but I could not find the Titanic memorial. I finally found it on a street corner I had already walked past twice. It's not very big.
Back in Cork, I covered some of the same ground from the day before, but the light was much better this time. I got as far as St. Finbarre's Cathedral as the sun was setting. Cork won the hurling match so celebrations were starting in the pubs and on the streets.
I don't like wearing my Canon G6 camera around my neck when I'm not shooting, so while carrying it back to the hotel I wrapped the strap around my wrist. It got a bit tangled so as I was unwrapping it, the camera popped loose and fell three feet onto the pavement. There was no obvious damage so I fired off a couple of test shots and they seemed to be OK. I guess I have to be impressed with the sturdiness of the G6, but I really don't like the way the strap and lens cap are arranged.
Sept. 12 – Happy birthday to me, but it's just a travel day. I took the train to Dublin and walked from the station across the bridge over the Liffey to the Ashling Hotel. The Yellow Pages weren't helpful in indicating which company to contact for the Newgrange tour so I headed downtown to the tourist office. I got my first impression of how hectic Dublin is – lots of double-decker buses and other motor traffic, and lots of pedestrians. At the tourist office, I booked my Newgrange tour and picked up brochures help plan the other two days. I had seen a couple of recommendations for the Nancy Hands pub not far from the hotel, so I headed over there for dinner (and a few pints) and was not disappointed.
Sept. 13 – The interior of the ceremonial tomb at Newgrange is the oldest man-made room in the world, 5,300 years old. The passage is tight and low in spots, but the room is fairly big and has a high ceiling. (No photos are allowed inside.) Outside, scattered around the site are stone monoliths similar to those found at many other sites in Ireland and Britain. I couldn't help thinking about a Dr. Who episode, "The Stones of Blood," where stones in an ancient circle come alive to roam the countryside and suck the hemoglobin out of people. I had no reason to be worried – they only roamed at night.
The tour also stopped at Mellifont Abbey, which was in its heyday in the 12th-15th century. The main church is in ruins now and only a few surrounding structures remain, but the model in the visitor centre shows that it was a large and impressive place. The guy conducting the abbey tour was an encyclopedia of knowledge, but he went into so much detail that my attention lapsed sometime around the 13th century and I wandered away from the group. As a result I'm not sure why the place fell into neglect and ruin.
The Battle of the Boyne site is not set up to handle group tours so we just drove past it. Really, there's not much to see – fields similar to other fields in the area. But as I mentioned earlier, the 1690 battle still has repurcussions to this day. There was lots of traffic as we headed back into Dublin, and the LUAS trolley ride from downtown to the hotel was jam packed.
Sept. 14 – This was the day I had tentatively scheduled for the Northern Ireland Railtour, but decided not to chance running into lunatics with guns. Rather than take an organized tour I caught a train to the suburban town of Malihide, which has a large castle. My map wasn't very detailed but I know now I should have turned right instead of left coming out of the train station. I took the long way around, which was sort of interesting because I walked through a neighborhood that gave me some idea how Irish yuppies live. Nice houses, but very small lots. Eventually I found the castle which has an impressive exterior and grounds, but I decided not to pay to see the interior. I headed back to Dublin and over to the Guinness Storehouse, the most popular tourist attraction in Ireland. (Insert stereotype here.) You keep going up and up and up through the displays and eventually come to the Gravity Bar, which has a panoramic view of the Dublin skyline. Except for the mountains to the south, it's not a very impressive sight. Dublin doesn't have any towering buildings.
Sept. 15 – Today was a bus tour of Powerscourt Gardens and Glendalough. It was rainy at the gardens so I did the one-hour loop in about 40 minutes. With the extra time I dried off my camera as well as I could. The rain had mostly subsided by the time we got to Glendalough. Some of the buildings there date back 1,500 years, but there are also lots of gravestones scattered around from much more recent times.
Sept. 16 – At places like misty, ancient Glendalough, even a skeptic can almost understand why people believe in unseen powers guiding their fate. There's something out there, just beyond the mist, either watching over you or plotting your doom. This morning I headed over to the station to catch a bus to the airport, and stopped at a soda machine to buy a Diet Coke. St. Patrick (I can only presume) pulled me away from the machine as I started to deposit the coin. I put the coin back in my pocket and went out to the bus stop. On the way, a young woman wearing Diet Coke paraphenalia gave me a free can. I stuck it in my jacket pocket, and a few yards later a young man gave me another one. I just wish St. Pat had showed up a bit earlier, and with more than two free cans of pop. Ireland is an expensive place, and not just because of the weak dollar. A lot of what I know about Ireland I learned from tour bus drivers, and one of them said Ireland is the most expensive country in the Euro zone.
For the first time during the two weeks, it was cool enough to be wearing a jacket during the day. After two weeks of clouds, rain, and trying to figure out whether someone was speaking English or Gaelic, I was ready to head somewhere where the weather was warm, skies were clear, and the people spoke a version of English that I understood. Unfortunately, I lost out on all counts and my plane made its scheduled landing in Boston rather than continuing on to Phoenix. The tops of Beantown's skyscrapers were hidden in fog as I made my way home from Logan.