Saturday, 20 September 2003
Dooagh, Achill Island, Co. Mayo – Glencolmcille, Co. Donegal
That glass dining room was everything I’d hoped it would be! The view of the early morning sun on the Atlantic Ocean was just spectacular. Achill Island is another place to which I’d really love to return.
We backtracked off the island, and passed from County Mayo into County Sligo. Again, there was a change of scenery, a change of terrain, albeit subtle, in Sligo. It was a bit softer, a bit gentler than Mayo.
We were headed north to County Donegal, through Castlebar, Tobercurry, and Sligo town. This area is Yeats country, and we stopped at the country church in Drumcliffe where he is buried, because I am a big Yeats fan. William Butler Yeats became the first Irishman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1923, and his poetry is infused with the musical lilt and rhythm one can hear in the Irish accent.
Oh, I love them all, the poems of Yeats, and have since the day I stumbled on “When You are Old” when I was nineteen (“But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face …”). Now that I am older, I am less affected by the romantic poems; Yeats was also a realist in his later years. Some of you may have studied another of my favorites in high school, as I did:
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The church site at Drumcliffe—St. Columba’s Church of Ireland, at which Yeats’s paternal grandfather was rector—has religious associations going back to the sixth century and the Battle of the Books involving St. Columba, or Colm Cille (read more about it, it’s really interesting—probably the first copyright infringement case) which happened on the site, although the church there now was built in 1809. Evidence of this older Christian settlement remains, though, in the form of a magnificent high cross and the remains of a round tower.
A sign near the church says:
This monastery, which is now divided in two by the main road, was founded by St. Colmcille about 574 on land donated to him by a local king. Later coarbs of the monastery (guardians who were responsible for administration) were often members of Colmcille’s family, the Cenél Conaill. In 1267 the monastery suffered extensive fire damage.
The 10th or 11th century Round Tower, which was struck by lightning in 1396, originally had a doorway high above ground level and facing eastwards, probably towards the doorway of the monastery’s principal church.
The High Cross, which dates from about the 9th century, has on its east face carvings of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Christ in Glory, and on its west face a Crucifixion and other unidentified images. There is also extensive interlacing and animal ornament. These crosses were used to illustrate stories from the Bible to a mostly illiterate congration.
Back on the road, we had mountains (Ben Bulben, made famous in Yeats’s—and others’—poetry) on our right, and Donegal Bay on our left, and were constantly climbing upward, into harsher land again. Interestingly, we saw two more weddings, making that four in two days!
Just after entering County Donegal, we found a lay-by with a fantastic view from tall cliffs overlooking crashing waves below. The sun was shining and the wind was whipping our hair and clothes and the day was so perfect, I just had to call Jesse. It was 9:00 a.m. in Cookeville, Tennessee, and a sleepy college boy was unimpressed that his mother was calling him from a cliff on the edge of the world! 🙂
We were headed to Glencolmcille (promounced GLIN-collum-KILL), which truly is on the edge of the world, and after we reached Donegal town, we left the N15 and headed west on the N56. After we passed Dunkineely we left even that small highway to travel a narrow, twisting lane (the R263) within constant sight of the sea.
Another mile or two and we were in Killybegs (are these place names great, or what!), a fishing village situated on a natural deepwater harbor, Fintra Bay.
And, at last, Glencolmcille.
The village is named, of course, for Colm Cille, one of the three patron saints of Ireland (the other two being Brigid and Patrick), mostly known by the more familiar, Latin-ized name of Columba. Born in north Donegal in AD 521 to a royal family, his name translates to “dove of the church” (cille being Gaelic for church), though how the church fathers knew, when they named him as a monk, that he would become one of the greatest evangelists ever is a mystery to me. I’ve read a lot about Colm Cille, now, researching items for this travelogue, and I think that the reason he is so beloved is that he was so human, so full of human failings (read the story of the Battle of the Books and you’ll see what I mean). He left behind not only a legacy of service to Christ, but some lovely poetry as well.
After eight days on the road, we’d decided to splurge on a hotel—and what a hotel it was, perched on a bluff with an ocean view and sheep grazing in the yard. The hotel—truly out in the middle of nowhere—was flying three flags out front: the Irish tri-color, the blue-and-yellow European Union flag, and, not surprisingly, the Stars-and-Stripes. After we checked in—and made a reservation for dinner in the hotel’s dining room—we got back in the car to go find the church of Colm Cille.
We’d asked about it in the hotel. They thought we meant the church pictured above.
Oh, silly me! I’d read about it, of course: “Just north of the valley’s main village of Cashel,” D-K’s wonderful Travel Guide says, “on the way to Glen Head, there is a tiny church where St. Columba worshiped. It is said that between prayers the saint slept on the two stone slabs still visible in one corner.” What I’d failed to register was an earlier sentence: “The ‘Glen of St. Colmcille’ is a popular place of pilgrimage …”
They weren’t kidding about the pilgrimage part. It started easily enough, following the brown signs from the village. We even found a “turas” stone (one of the stations on the pilgrimage) along the way.
Finally we found ourselves on a (scary, I don’t mind saying it) one-lane track, roughly paved, climbing higher and higher, which dead-ended at a gravel trail that headed up the final bit of mountain at—I’m not kidding—a 45-degree angle.
There was even a brown sign right there, pointing up!
So we parked, and started walking, thinking silly thoughts, like “It’s probably just right around that bend.” Well, no. We got about a hundred yards up—again, climbing at an angle that encouraged one to put one’s hands on the rocks in front of one—and realized that there was probably about another hour’s worth of hiking, straight up. It was nearly 5pm, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be picking my way back down the mountain at dusk, so we gave it up, to my great disappointment.
When I return to Ireland—and I will someday!—I want to climb that mountain in the early morning, when my energy level is at its highest.
So we drove back to town, consoling ourselves with some of that marvelous Irish ice cream, and then back to the hotel, since they’d evidently rolled the town’s sidewalks up whilst we were out traipsing around on Colm Cille’s mountain.
The hotel was very nice—I would definitely recommend it. (Update: It’s closed—but up for sale.) The building was antique, to my eyes, probably 1920s or so, but well cared for. It had lots of character and was attractively decorated. However, we felt it was a bit pretentious—for example, the restaurant was good, but very pricey, particularly in comparison to other meals we’d had. I think the hotel fancies itself as an oasis of civilization in a wild land—and it wouldn’t be wrong about that—but still …
We did get quite a kick out of what we’d begun to call the Bathroom Sweepstakes (and more specifically, the shower sweepstakes: electric or not, and how the heck does this one work?). The bathtub at the Glencolumcille Hotel was actually larger than the entire bathroom at the B&B on Achill Island.