“My” Ireland

I’ve been four times in ten years now. I am trying to make it mine.

I know there are people who take “big” trips every year, but I’m not one of them; when I was a young married we didn’t have the money for such things, and then I was a single mom and really didn’t have the money for such things. So four visits to Eire in a decade seems miraculous to me, and I have wrung every possible thrill from them. 🙂

Already more trips are in the planning stages. And I’m thinking about what I want to see. Because things are always changing and evolving.

Recent changes were a bit of a surprise:

• At Brú na Bóinne, Dowth isn’t on the Knowth tour anymore. You can drive to it, if you desire (and can find it on your own; I always seem to get lost over in Meath). I don’t know what to make of this; is Dowth unimportant now?

• The National Gallery has been completely rearranged and modernized (since I saw it in 2006). Actually, the reburbishment is still ongoing, and as a result, there are certain key works that may not be available—like Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ. Missing it last September was a huge disappointment. Also, to be frank, I loved the old-fashioned creaky floors.

• The Rock of Cashel has a fancy brickwork sidewalk and a paved road now; in 2003 it was much more rustic. I didn’t mind the old rough path; it felt authentic. However, I also didn’t mind that nice new bench at the halfway mark. 🙂

• There is a little car park at the Drombeg stone circle now. It used to be that you simply drove to the end of the lane, parked, and slipped through a break in the hedgerow—and there they were, the stones. These days you park a hundred yards or so further out, and walk. It’s nice, I guess, but just more evidence of modernization where none is needed. I mean, it’s from the Bronze Age, y’all.

• The bayside cemetery just outside Bantry town has a memorial now, with that spooky sculpture of drowning people. I didn’t like it much, and that has nothing to do with my resistance to change.

• When I stepped outside the graveyard at the cathedral at Kilfenora—to see the West Cross out in the field—I was shocked to see that some farm buildings had been built to the south and the field itself bisected into several cattle pens. The farmer can do what he wants with his land, of course, but it was still a bit of a disappointment.

• I’ve seen the Cliffs of Moher go through three iterations. In 2003, we parked in a field on the same side of the highway as the cliffs and walked about fifty yards out to the edge and looked over. Seriously, there was barely a handrail. The gift shop was a tiny shack. In 2006, they’d started the renovations, including moving the car park to the other side of the road; it’s a bit of a hike now (though in 2006 and 2012 I had pneumonia, so it would feel like a hike, I guess). O’Brien’s Tower was closed in 2006. Now, good Lord, the whole complex is like Disneyland—all bricked and curbed and gift-shopped to death. Forgive my lack of enthusiasm; I know it makes me sound like an old fart. 🙂

Glendalough has been subjected to the same Disneyland treatment, I’m sorry to say. The entrance is completely different; you no longer walk through the sanctuary gates first. In fact, I felt like we were coming in through the back door and was very, very cranky about it.

All of this changing and renovation is inevitable, I guess. And it won’t deter me from revisiting places (or seeing new sights). For example:

• I’d love to go back to Cork when I don’t have pneumonia. There’s a lot there I haven’t seen. I particularly want to go to the English Market and, you know, eat my way through it. 🙂

• Glandore village is calling my name. I want to check in to one of these places during the off season when it’s nice and quiet, and take all my meals in the pub so I can watch the water while I eat.

• I’ve grown to love Kilkenny and the surrounding area. I’d love to visit the farm shops around Mileeven Honey in Pilltown, and I definitely want to stop in at Nicholas Mosse again, maybe take the tour this time.

• Farm shops in general are something I’d like to make a tour of. There’s the Red Stables farmer’s market, Saturdays in St. Anne’s Park in Dublin, for example. And Sonairte, on the Laytown Road in between Julianstown and Laytown. And of course there are specialty food shops all over Dublin. OMG, now I’m thinking about cheese.

• I’d like to have a quiet vacation on one of the eastern beaches. Portmarnock, maybe, or someplace in Wicklow.

• I’m also very fond of Lahinch. It’s both small enough and big enough and I love everybody at Kenny’s Bar. I prefer the off-season, frankly, when things are down to a low roar. Late fall, say.

• I want to go back to the National Botanic Garden in Glasnevin, Dublin. I only had sixty minutes to spend there, which means a lot went unseen. There are plenty of parks and gardens in Dublin I haven’t seen, in fact.

• There’s still a lot I’d like to do in Dublin. The Temple Bar Book Market, for example. Marsh’s Library. The James Joyce Centre and the Dublin Writers Museum. I’d like to revisit the Chester Beatty Library at Dublin Castle.

• Finally, I have yet to see the Aran Islands, and I’d like to spend more time in Co. Donegal. Last time we sort of rushed through.

It’s a worthy list, don’t you think?

Advertisements

The Glen of the Two Lakes and the Two Thousand Raindrops

Day 20, Sunday, 30 September 2012

Today we were going to make up for getting a little lost on the way to Clonmacnoise, so we picked up Gerry at ten o’clock with a plan to drive down into the Wicklow Mountains to see another world-famous monastic settlement: Glendalough. (Pronounce this GLEN-da-lock.)

It wasn’t easy to find either. That is, the signs to get us off the highway were perfectly clear. But then we got out on those little two-lane roads, and it became a little … less clear.

The Wicklow Mountains are beautiful and old, though. Gorgeous country. You’ll recall we could see them in the distance from the Portmarnock Hotel north of Dublin. Remember the Great Sugar Loaf? We drove right around the base of it. Fantastic stuff. It’s good to get out and drive around in the country like this. I always imagine myself living in … that house. Or maybe … that one.

I may get lost easily, but I do have a pretty good memory for what things looked like the last time I was here (partly because I take a lot of photos). And the approach to Glendalough (once we’d found our way there) was completely changed. I mean, changed like the Cliffs of Moher was changed: it was Disneyland Glendalough.

Standing at the entrance of the entrance office. The car park is somewhere off to the left, out of the photo. The sidewalk/path runs all along the outer edge of the lawn; you can see folks with umbrellas coming along it there in the center. (Margaret’s photo.)

Standing at the door of the site office. The car park is somewhere off to the left, out of the photo. The sidewalk/path runs all along the outer edge of the lawn; you can see folks with umbrellas coming along it there in the center. You can click on the photo and click again to zoom in if you really want to see that lady in the blue jacket. (Margaret’s photo.)

There was a huge hotel, for God’s sake, that apparently has been there all along (though it has recently been enlarged) but which is now a main feature, since the entrance has been changed. You cannot miss it; the parking lot is huge.

Surely St. Kevin is rolling over in his grave.

So I was discombobulated. What I thought of as the “front” of the site (you know, like where the sanctuary gate—the entrance—is) is not the front anymore. And what I thought of as the back of the site—back where St. Kevin’s Kitchen is—is now what you see first. Have you been to Glendalough before this change? Does the fact that they removed that gorgeous old squeaky kissing gate distress you as much as it distresses me?

As you might have guessed by now, I was cranky when I got out of the car. Also: it had begun to rain. And not a light rain through which you might cheerfully press on. Although we did. 🙂

If I’d calmed down (and hadn’t been cold and wet) I might have appreciated this scenic approach :) but I wanted to get up to the ruins. (Margaret’s photo.)

If I’d calmed down (and hadn’t been cold and wet) I might have appreciated this scenic approach 🙂 but I wanted to get up to the ruins. (Margaret’s photo.)

At last, a glimpse of what we’ve come to see, still quite a way off. That’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church) on the left (near the pine tree) and the splendid round tower right in the center. (Margaret’s photo.)

At last, a glimpse of what we’ve come to see, still quite a way off. That’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church) on the left (near the pine tree) and the splendid round tower right in the center. (Margaret’s photo.)

Getting closer!

Getting closer!

There: the backside of St. Kevin’s church.

There: the backside of St. Kevin’s church.

I don’t know why they call it Kevin’s Kitchen, honestly, and I can’t seem to track it down. There’s no evidence it was used as one. Perhaps it’s because the little squat bell tower looks like a chimney.

Glendalough was founded by Kevin, who was born in 498, a descendant of the royal house of Leinster, the province in which Glendalough is located. Kevin rejected his life of privilege, choosing instead to live as a hermit in a cave here; later he founded a monastery on the site in the sixth century. The settlement was sacked repeatedly by the Vikings, yet it flourished for more than six hundred years. The age of the buildings still extant is uncertain, but most date from the eighth to twelfth centuries.

The round tower at Glendalough is one of the finest of its kind in the country. Landmarks for approaching visitors, round towers were, of course, bell-towers, but they were also places of refuge during an attack: the door was always on the second story, entered by a rope ladder which could be pulled up after the last monk was safely inside. The round tower at Glendalough is still all in one piece (the conical roof was rebuilt in 1876 using the original stones) at 110 feet high.

The new approach to the Glendalough monastic site. Now we’re getting close; that’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church).

The new approach to the Glendalough monastic site. Now we’re getting close; that’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church).

A closer look at the round tower.

A closer look at the round tower.

At last, we cross the brook, and there it all is.

At last, we cross the brook, and there it all is. We’re standing about where the kissing gate used to be.

Have you seen enough of this little building yet? It’s all I’ve got, honestly. (Margaret’s photo.)

Have you seen enough of this little building yet? It’s about all I’ve got, honestly. (Margaret’s photo.)

It is, as you can see, quite ancient. (You can also see raindrops on the lens.)

It is, as you can see, quite ancient. (You can also see raindrops on the lens.)

They have Disney-fied the the perimeter, but inside it’s still quite wild and old. (Margaret’s photo.)

They have Disney-fied the the perimeter, but inside it’s still quite wild and old. (Margaret’s photo.)

Unfortunately, by this time it was pouring down rain and the wind was gusting, and though we tried, we just had to give it up: none of us wanted to walk around in the rain.

A last look; the rain is really coming down.

A last look; the rain is really coming down.

So we began to retrace our steps. We stopped in Roundwood (pop. 833), at the Roundwood Inn, right on the R755, for Sunday dinner. The Lonely Planet says the inn is in a seventeenth-century German house; Google+ says it’s been in business for more than twenty-five years. What I can tell you is they had a nice turf fire burning, and we snuggled up to it with a pot of tea while we looked at the menu.

It was pub grub, but it was hot and good. I had the roast chicken and chips. (Margaret’s photo.)

It was pub grub, but it was hot and good. I had the roast chicken and chips. (Margaret’s photo.)

Outside we were struck by the stunning window baskets with petunias and fuchsias and that little blue flower. (Margaret’s photo.)

Outside we were struck by the stunning window baskets with petunias and fuchsias and that little blue flower. (Margaret’s photo.)

Every window had a different selection, and the fuchsias were just gorgeous. This one is a double. (Margaret’s photo.)

Every window had a different selection, and the fuchsias were just gorgeous. This one is a double. (Margaret’s photo.)

It was quite a treat for the eyes. (Margaret’s photo.)

It was quite a treat for the eyes. (Margaret’s photo.)

After we left Roundwood we drove back toward the Avoca Handweavers shop in Bray, just off the N11. It’s quite a place—as the name suggests, they sell beautiful woolen sweaters, scarves, throws, and such—but it’s become quite touristy and pricey. But you can get wool goods there you can get nowhere else. We were glad we stopped, as this is the main location.

Back in Dublin we visited with Bridie for awhile, uploaded our photos, and I finished and emailed those editorial notes I’d been working on. By then it was getting late-ish, so Margaret and I drove back to Clontarf and our B&B. Later we had an evening snack of Cashel Blue (Irish farmhouse cheese: a “subtle creamy blue hand made in Tipperary”) spread on butter crackers, accompanied by fresh pears at the perfect ripeness, followed by a second course of homemade banana bread (brought from the B&B in Lahinch) accompanied by Butler’s dark chocolate with almonds. And it was very, very good.

Today’s Image

St Kevin chose Glendalough (“Glen of the Two Lakes) for his hermitage because it was remote and wild and beautiful. It still is. Even in the rain.

Glendalough in the rain, the last day of September 2012.

Glendalough in the rain, the last day of September 2012.

All Windy on the Western Front

Day 16 / Wednesday, 26 September 2012

My body clock goes off very early, and I wish I knew how to reset it. At home I tell myself it’s because the felines wake me up … but the truth is, even with a bed all to myself, I am awake at 5:30 almost every day.

Not that I mind. I get to see the sunrise most days. This is the view from our window at Craglea Lodge in Lahinch. All three homes on the left side (one you can’t see) belong to Kennys.

Not that I mind. I get to see the sunrise most days. This is the view from our window at Craglea Lodge in Lahinch. All three homes on the left side (one you can’t see) belong to Kennys.

Nine years ago September was warm and pleasant, but these last few days in the 2012 September were windy and cold. (It was, in fact, far too windy for an Aran Islands trip—but we’d known that was a strong possibility.) Of course, we didn’t stay in Lahinch nine years ago. No, Gerry and I came here in 2006 … in February. And February on the western shore of Ireland, my friends, is a chilly proposition.

Nonetheless, I fell in love with this town. It’s small (pop. 600), and the folks are really friendly, particularly during the off season. During the on season, it’s a popular resort town with 1) a gorgeous beach on Liscannor Bay that’s perfect for surfing and 2) the world-famous Lahinch Golf Club. It’s much more crowded then, and I’m not sure I’d like it as much.

Lahinch beach at low tide. You can see Liscannor (pop. 71) across the bay.

Lahinch beach at low tide. You can see Liscannor (pop. 71) across the bay.

For comparison, here’s high tide.

For comparison, here’s high tide.

Edel told us last night she’d normally be closed by now, but when I’d contacted her about our visit, she’d decided it was worth staying open for two rooms for three nights. And then because she’d made the decision, she accepted a few other lodgers. We saw one group in the dining room the next morning. (Sometimes you really can spot Yanks a mile away: this group—two women and a man—were all wearing ball caps, all talking very loud.) They left this morning, though, and by evening we were the only ones in the house.

I’m glad Edel decided to keep Craglea Lodge open. It’s nice. And her help serves homemade scones warm out of the oven every morning. 🙂

After breakfast we headed out for the Cliffs of Moher because we’d been advised that in spite of the heavy cloud cover and fine mist, the strong gusts of wind would drive it all away and visibility would be fine. I’ve been to the cliffs three times now, although the first—in 2003—I didn’t see anything because the mist was so heavy. You really do have to be prepared with a flexible schedule (and that year we weren’t) to allow for the possibility of poor visibility. I’d been very disappointed and made certain to plan flexibility on this trip.

Things have changed a lot since that first misty visit. In 2003, we parked on the same side of the road as the cliffs and walked about fifty yards out to the edge. I mean, literally to the edge. There was a small shack that functioned as a gift shop.

The approach to the cliffs in 2003. A short railing was all that stood between visitors and the sea (once you’d turned right or left, the walk along the cliff was virtually unimpeded, except for the warning signs). That’s a busker playing a tin whistle, with the entrance to the gift shack just beyond him to the right.

The approach to the cliffs in 2003. A short railing was all that stood between visitors and the sea (once you’d turned right or left, the walk along the cliff was virtually unimpeded, except for the warning signs). That’s a busker playing a tin whistle, with the entrance to the gift shack just beyond him to the right.

This is what I saw in 2003. That is, not much.

This is what I saw in 2003. That is, not much. You can’t get close enough to see this slab now.

When we’d visited in 2006 (on a windy, sunny day), we’d seen the scale model for everything that was planned for the new, modern site; it was very ambitious. But that year everything was a bit of a mess—just missing the “Pardon our construction” signs.

Take this, for example: the trademark Cliffs of Moher view was obstructed by fencing in 2006.

Take this, for example: the trademark Cliffs of Moher view was obstructed by fencing in 2006.

At the same time, if you wanted to get to the edge and jump off … no problem. Look how short the barrier is. Not that I believe it’s the government’s responsibility to protect potential suicides from themselves. (Yes, I cut myself out of this photo; hate my hair color from that period.) 2006.

At the same time, if you wanted to get to the edge and jump off … no problem. Look how short the barrier is. Not that I believe it’s the government’s responsibility to protect potential suicides from themselves. (Yes, I cut myself out of this photo; hate my hair color from that period.) 2006.

Danger indeed! This is the sidewalk up to O’Brien’s Tower in 2006.

Danger indeed! This is the sidewalk up to O’Brien’s Tower in 2006.

 O’Brien’s Tower in 2006. It was closed to visitors that year, so no spectacular view from the top; all we could do was walk around it. They’ve stabilized it now.

O’Brien’s Tower in 2006. It was closed to visitors that year, so no spectacular view from the top; all we could do was walk around it. They’ve stabilized it now.

It was shocking (in a good way, I guess) to see the finished product. Now it’s like Disneyland: all bricked and curbed and neat and clean … and with a fake signpost for people to take pictures of.

Look, honey! The Cliffs of Moher—thataway! Thank goodness they’ve got this sign—we’d never have found them!

Look, honey! The Cliffs of Moher—thataway! Thank goodness they’ve got this sign—we’d never have found them!

Don’t get me started on this atrocity. I’m not certain that’s even wood. (Jill’s camera.)

Don’t get me started on this atrocity. I’m not certain that’s even wood. (Jill’s camera.)

That said, there are many nice things about the site. (Although, interestingly, none of us took a photo of the setup on the way in.) The new visitors centre is actually embedded in the hillside (which is a great, green choice), as are several little craft shops that line the walkway. And the shop is quite large, unlike the tiny shack from 2003.

This photo is actually taken from atop the visitors centre, looking back the way we came in. The tour buses are parked where everyone parked nine-plus years ago. The car park is now across the highway in the far distance. The cliffs themselves are just out of the fram to the right; the craft shops are just out of the frame to the left. The entrance to the visitors centre is on the lower left, where the lady in the red coat and the big purse is about to go.

This photo is actually taken from atop the visitors centre, looking back the way we came in. The tour buses are parked where everyone parked nine-plus years ago. The car park is now across the highway in the far, far distance. The cliffs themselves are just out of the frame to the right; the craft shops are just out of the frame to the left. The entrance to the visitors centre is on the lower left, where the lady in the red coat carrying the big purse is about to go.

See? Here they are, just out of the frame to the right, the Cliffs of Moher. :) This concrete “roof” is terraced, like an amphitheater. (Margaret’s photo.)

See? Here they are, “just out of the frame to the right,” the Cliffs of Moher. 🙂 This concrete “roof” is terraced, like an amphitheater. (Margaret’s photo.)

The Cliffs of Moher, September 2012. (Pronounce it like “mower.”)

The Cliffs of Moher, September 2012. (Pronounce it like “mower.”)

It’s a view I can’t get enough of, frankly. (Margaret’s photo.)

It’s a view I can’t get enough of, frankly. (Margaret’s photo.)

There are paths along the top of the cliffs; you can walk all the way out there to Hag’s Head, which has a Napoleonic-era watchtower; you can see it here in this zoom photo. I think it’s a couple miles in that direction (south).

There are paths along the top of the cliffs; you can walk all the way out there to Hag’s Head, which has a Napoleonic-era watchtower; you can see it here in this zoom photo. I think it’s a couple miles in that direction (south).

I’m on the terraced roof. You can see how much taller the barrier is now.

I’m on the terraced roof. You can see how much taller the barrier is now.

Jill and Alli took off right away, and walked both north and south along the tops of the cliffs. I couldn’t keep up with that ambitious walk with my pneumonia-lung.

The stairway up to O’Brien’s Tower (on the left in the distance).

The stairway up to O’Brien’s Tower (on the left in the distance).

Gorgeous day, though! (Margaret’s photo.)

Gorgeous day, though! (Margaret’s photo.)

The observation tower—O’Brien’s Tower—was built in 1835 by Sir Cornelius O’Brien for no other reason than to view the cliffs to the south. (Some say he built it to impress women he was courting!)

Taken on the walk up to O’Brien’s Tower; note the stairs on the right. (Jill’s photo.)

Taken on the walk up to O’Brien’s Tower; note the stairs on the right. (Jill’s photo.)

Looking north from O’Brien’s Tower. (Jill’s photo.)

Looking north from O’Brien’s Tower. (Jill’s photo.)

Eventually we all ended up back at the visitors centre, which had a large gift shop, some exhibits, and a really nice café upstairs with fantastic views of the cliffs.

The café at the Cliffs of Moher. We lingered here for awhile before getting back in the car.

The café at the Cliffs of Moher. We lingered here for awhile before getting back in the car.

There is so, so much to see in this small area, much of it in what’s called the Burren—a karst limestone region that seems, at first, quite bleak, but which has a beauty all its own. I’ve been told botanists come from all over the world to study what grows there among the rocks (arctic, Mediterranean, and alpine plants). And it is rich with history too. There are more than ninety megalithic tombs (including Poulnabrone), several ring forts (Cahercommaun and Caherconnell, to name two), ruins of medieval churches (Carron, Oughtmama, Corcomroe Abbey, Dysert O’Dea, and others), caves, cathdrals, abandoned castles … You could spend days seeing it all. (And I have. If you looked at the link for Carron Church, you’ll see a photo of a dog; I met her, too, on a rainy day in 2006.)

But we only had hours, not days, so first we went to the cathedral in Kilfenora (pop. 169)—St. Fachtnan’s. Built around 1189 on the site of Fachtnan’s original monastery, this small church, by a quirk of language, actually belongs to the pope. (Yes, that pope. He’s the bishop here. Don’t ask me to explain.) This would be my third visit.

Interestingly, because it was my third visit, I didn’t take as many photos as I have in years past, although some are very different. This one, for example, which is the backside of the church. Some gravestones can be seen through the open gate in the wall that surrounds the churchyard.

Interestingly, because it was my third visit, I didn’t take as many photos as I have in years past, although some are very different. This one, for example, which is the backside of the church. Some gravestones can be seen through the open gate in the wall that surrounds the churchyard.

This is the north side of the yard. You can see a relatively new grace on the far left; the one in the foreground is nineteenth-century. (Margaret’s photo.)

This is the north side of the yard. You can see a relatively new grave on the far left; the one in the foreground is nineteenth-century. (Margaret’s photo.)

What you see ahead is called the Lady Chapel.

What you see ahead is called the Lady Chapel.

Between our visit in September 2003 and our return in February 2006, the Lady Chapel, once roofless, was spruced up with a glass roof. Frankly, I love it. It makes no pretense about belonging; at the same time, it doesn’t distract from the old stone structure.

St. Fachnan’s main claim to fame is the marvelous high crosses associated with it—now just three are still extant. (You can read about all eight of them here; it’s very interesting.) So there are three: the Doorty, the North, and the West, or High cross. Now two of them have been moved inside—to the Lady Chapel, under that glass roof—from the churchyard, to preserve them from the elements. This has been going on all over Ireland, an attempt to keep the intricate carvings on these precious artifacts from eroding. Generally they are housed right on the premises, as here; sometimes they install … um … fakes, back out in the churchyard. 🙂 Not here, though. On my 2003 visit, I saw these crosses in the yard.

This is the Doorty cross; that’s a bishop, St. Fachtnan.

This is the Doorty cross; that’s a bishop, St. Fachtnan.

The reverse of the Doorty cross, showing Christ. (Margaret’s photo.)

The reverse of the Doorty cross, showing Christ. (Margaret’s photo.)

This is the front of the North cross. (Jill’s photo.)

This is the front of the North cross. (Jill’s photo.)

From the Lady Chapel we walked into the still-roofless chancel. It’s lovely. (This website has some interesting photos of Kilfenora’s little church, possibly taken in the 1980s. You will see that many artifacts have been removed—I’m not sure where they are now; perhaps locked up inside the part of the church that is still roofed and unavailable to us tourists? That’s a bit of a disappointment.)

This wall faces east, thus the rising sun would stream through these windows, in front of which would have been the altar.

This wall faces east, thus the rising sun would stream through these windows, in front of which would have been the altar.

This is, I believe, a sedile (a seat for the priest), although it could be a piscina (a shallow basin used to wash communion vessels). Note the bishop’s effigy above it. You can find references to this specific artifact being a sedile (or sedilia, since it would seat more than one) all over the web. But I’m not sure. It’s too small to be a tomb. Perhaps when I’m next there I can find someone who knows definitively. :) (Margaret’s photo.)

This is, I believe, a sedile (a seat for the priest), although it could be a piscina (a shallow basin used to wash communion vessels). Note the bishop’s effigy above it. It seems too small to be a tomb. Perhaps when I’m next there I can find someone who knows definitively. 🙂 (Margaret’s photo.)

The bishop in his mitre, right above the sedile. He looks rather determined, don’t you think?

The bishop in his mitre, right above the sedile. He looks rather determined, don’t you think?

There are still some interesting gravestones in the chancel. This one is in Latin, but has dates in the 1680s, ’90s, and 1700; apparently it represents several members of a family. Don’t forget you can click twice to zoom in on photos.

There are still some interesting gravestones in the chancel. This one is in Latin, but has dates in the 1680s, ’90s, and 1700; apparently it represents several members of a family. Don’t forget you can click twice to zoom in on photos.

Some praying clerics at the top of a column.

Some praying clerics at the top of a column.

The best, for me, is the West cross—and it’s not even on church grounds anymore. I did get a bit of a shock, though, when I saw the large open field of my memory had been sectioned into a half-dozen livestock pens.

Looking out the churchyard gate into the lane. Can you see the cross in the distance? It’s quite large. Let’s walk out there.

Looking out the churchyard gate into the lane. Can you see the cross in the distance? It’s quite large. Let’s walk out there.

Looking back the way we’ve just come.

Looking back the way we’ve just come.

It’s nearly fifteen feet tall. And isn’t it just gorgeous? This face depicts the risen Christ.

It’s nearly fifteen feet tall. And isn’t it just gorgeous? This face depicts the risen Christ.

We drove on into the bleak Burren for our final stop of the day: the Poulnabrone (pronounce this POWL-na-BRONE-ah) dolmen. It is arguably the most famous in Ireland, and its iconic silhouette can be seen everywhere. (Remember, we saw an inflatable of it in Dublin!) The site dates back to … well, who knows. I’ve seen dates ranging from 4200 BC 2500 BC. It was excavated twenty or so years ago, and contained the remains of both children and adults, most under the age of thirty. (It was a very hard life.) Still, we can only speculate about the actual purpose of this tomb.

First sight of Poulnabrone. It’s near the road but you have to walk in to see it.

First sight of Poulnabrone. It’s near the road but you have to walk in to see it.

This is the iconic silhouette. (Margaret’s photo.)

This is the iconic silhouette. (Margaret’s photo.)

A different view. (Jill’s photo.)

A different view. (Jill’s photo.)

You have to be really, really careful where you put your feet out here. It’s a twisted ankle waiting to happen!

You have to be really, really careful where you put your feet out here. It’s a twisted ankle waiting to happen!

The Burren. Designed by glaciers.

The Burren. Designed by glaciers.

This is typical Burren landscape.

This is typical Burren landscape.

It was really, really cold!

It was really, really cold!

When it’s that windy and cold, you get tired quick, so we headed back to Kenny’s in Lahinch for grub and the free wi-fi. Password is kennysbar.ie in case you’re ever there.

I had potato and leek soup and a salad. I loved the way the cook piled different interesting things in the salad with a dollop of homemade coleslaw and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Tasty. (Margaret’s photo.)

I had potato and leek soup and a salad. I loved the way the cook piled different interesting things in the salad with a dollop of homemade coleslaw and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Tasty. (Margaret’s photo.)

The cook heard there were Yanks about and came out and spoke with us. I should say, he had quite a conversation with the cool Californians in our group! Ha! Margaret and I might as well have not been there. :)

The cook heard there were Yanks about and came out and spoke with us. I should say, he had quite a conversation with the cool Californians in our group! Ha! Margaret and I might as well have not been there. 🙂

Our room at Edel’s was really nice, with a pair of barrel chairs snugged in under the eaves, which have a window looking out on the Kenny compound (grandparents and siblings all live on this little lane). From there I watched the sun go down.

Sundown at the Kenny compound in Lahinch. Again, that’s Liscannor you see across the bay.

Sundown at the Kenny compound in Lahinch. Again, that’s Liscannor you see across the bay.

Today’s Image

This morning I sat in this same chair while Margaret slept, watching the ravens on the peak of the roof of the house in front of the B&B (the small one on the right in the photo above). It was very windy, a steady wind, and the birds were all facing into the wind. One spread its wings and lifted its feet … and then it was flying in one place, just enough to rise up and drift backward onto the edge of the chimney, about two feet higher than he was. Smooth move.

The Morning After

Friday, February 10, Co. Dublin/Co. Kildare/Co. Laois/Co. Tipperary/Co. Limerick/Co. Clare
You’ll recall that we were out late last night at the pub …

I was awake at five a.m.—apparently the time needed for my body clock to adjust to a different time zone is just forty-eight hours. I’d hoped to sleep longer but unfortunately that was not to be; perhaps I was just excited about leaving for County Clare.

We’d had a small disappointment yesterday when the booking agent for our planned destination (some of you may remember how excited I was that our apartment in Clare was to be right on the ocean) called and said that our rental had been storm-damaged, and they were putting us in a holiday village just one minute down the road. Uh-huh.

Definition: holiday home, holiday village
Ireland—especially towns near the coast or in some desirable destination—is peppered with holiday villages, little neighborhoods of identical or nearly identical houses that are intended to be rented to vacationers. People rent a holiday home by the day or week or month, but no one actually lives there permanently. So there’s no landscaping, no pleasant potted geranium on the front porch, no wreath on the front door. I find them sterile, sad, and lonely-looking.

Definition: storm damage
Storm damage is what happens when you’ve promised an apartment to someone who’s only going to rent it for three days during the off-off-season (and paid for it in advance!), but then someone else comes along who wants to rent it for a week (or, to be fair, maybe longer). Even if there hasn’t been a storm on the west coast of Ireland for weeks. 🙂

So, I’m awake with a bit of a nervous stomach that might or might not have something to do with County Clare. That’s it, no more drink for me (don’t we all swear it off on the morning after?). And no shower either—I couldn’t bring myself to take off my clothes and get into cold water feeling that lousy. Maybe our apartment, er, holiday home in Lahinch would have a reliable shower … so I decided to wait.

But no, no, actually, the reason I couldn’t sleep and felt so lousy was I had the scratchy throat of an impending cold. After the “full-Irish” (i.e., breakfast) downstairs, I realized truly that I was sick; it wasn’t a hangover I had—it was a full-blown head/chest cold with a ferocious sore throat and cough. I drank some more Airborne and resolved to pick up some over-the-counter cold remedy once we got on the road.

As was the case during my last visit, I managed to get us just a little bit lost at first (I’d forgotten that the pictographs on the road signs are as important as the words are), but then I began to hit my driving-in-Ireland groove. The real problem was that I getting visibly and audibly (anti-audibly: I was losing my voice) sicker by the minute, and we finally stopped to buy cough syrup and medicine that would at least alleviate the cold symptoms.

I’d planned to do some sightseeing along the way—taking the N7 from Dublin south and west to Portlaoise to see the Rock of Dunamase—but as we approached the town (pronounce it port-LEESH) it was evident I wasn’t up to climbing rocks, so we continued on. I wasn’t even much up to enjoying the scenery, frankly, although it was beautiful—and completely different from the countryside I’d experienced in September 2003, since it was a different season altogether. Gone were the charming, tree-ceilinged lanes; instead I saw dramatic branches outlined starkly against the soft winter sunlit sky, and wild gorse in brilliant, yellow bloom. A harbinger of spring, the gorse—I’m sending a photo—is a spiny shrub that grows nearly everywhere in Ireland, providing shelter for birds and small wildlife.

Wild gorse!

Wild gorse!

We continued on the N7 through several counties … through Roscrea and on to Nenagh, which skirt the lovely Silvermine Mountains (Gerry pointed out every mountain range as being the “Dublin Mountains,” which don’t actually exist—Google them and you are redirected to Wicklow Mountains—and this became a running joke for the entire trip: “Amazing that you can see the Dublin Mountains all the way from County Clare, eh?”) before dropping you down into the basin of the River Shannon.

The Republic is in the process of switching from miles to kilometers (don’t ask my why; Wikipedia seems to imply that metrication is being done to impose a single system on the whole world—but that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to me!), which means all distances and speed limits are given only in kilometers … so I got a chance to practice my math skills on the drive as well. The change means that all those quaint old pressed-tin signs that listed both miles and kilometers are disappearing, replaced by new, flat signs that only indicate distance in kilometers. The locals still refer to distances in miles, though, I learned to my amusement when I stopped for directions. You can take the miles off the signs, but you can’t take them out of minds and hearts, by golly!

Irish humor: I wondered out loud where all those historic old signs were going, and Gerry replied that “they’re no doubt being sold in America at a handsome profit.”

The Ford I was driving was brand new, and the speedometer was in kilometers, which was good, since I had no idea, when I started, how fast 120 kph is, although those of you familiar with my lead foot can imagine the little thrill it gave me every time the speed limit was 120 (it’s 74.56 mph)!

The N7 takes you all the way to Limerick city (we used the bypass to avoid traffic in this very busy city rather than going in to explore, because at this point I just wanted to be “home”), and once you cross the Shannon, you’re in County Clare, which was our destination.

From Limerick we jumped on the N18 to Ennis, a town we really enjoyed in 2003; today there was a traffic jam in the city center, and we spent more time than we wanted there. Though we’d been driving in lush dairy farmland, once you reach Ennis the landscape becomes more and more bleak until you reach the Burren, the vast limestone plateau that dominates northwest Clare (and which really must be seen to be appreciated).

In Ennis we found the N85, a smallish road that heads northwest straight toward the coast, through Ennistymon to Lahinch … at last! A journey of just 160 miles took us six hours—and most of that was on main roads. This was the Ireland I remembered, and love.

The Links holiday village is on the main road (the N67, in fact) between Ennistymon and Lahinch, just before you enter the little seaside village itself; a walk into town might take five or six minutes from the front door of our house (which had been left open for us). Again, back in August when we made our reservations, we’d rejected the Links in favor of the Wharf (which, as mentioned earlier, sits, ahem, right on the wharf). Parked in front of this grim—but pink—house, I wasn’t sure if I was as disappointed as I was—deeply—because I sick, or what … but I do know I’d had my heart set on watching the tide roll in from the warmth of a cozy apartment.

Warm and cozy are not words that can be applied to the place we’d just arrived at. Lucky for Gerry, I’d completely lost my voice at that point—so I couldn’t complain! Ha! The place was freeeeeeezing; holiday homes are not kept warm and toasty in anticipation of your midwinter arrival. (In fact, you pay extra for heat.) We immediately overrode the automatic timers on the radiators, and turned every single one to the equatorial setting as we unloaded the car.

Our little pink house in the Village of the Damned.

Our little pink house in the Village of the Damned.

In retrospect, the place was not so bad. It was very roomy, with a bedroom and bathroom downstairs, and a bedroom and bathroom upstairs as well. The full kitchen was large and adequately supplied with cooking utensils, a microwave, dishes, flatware, and so forth (and an electric kettle, the likes of which most of you have probably never seen, but which is, let me tell you, one of God’s great blessings in this dark world). There was a cheery dining room, and a comfortable living room with both a television and a fireplace (and a comfortable couch and large coffee table, on which we ate all our meals). There were ample windows.

No, there’s really no reason for me to refer to the Links as the Village of the Damned (well, OK, perhaps the teenagers renting the home next to us shouting drunkenly outside at three the next morning have something to do with it), but in my cold, cranky, coughing state, that is what it became, and what it remained for the duration of the trip (world without end amen amen), even though we did manage to warm it up after the first twenty-four hours.

More pressingly, however, there was one unresolved detail: there were no towels. The fact that we needed to bring our own was clearly stated in the written material and on the website; in our excitement, we’d just failed to make note of it. This oversight had an unexpected, and pleasant, consequence, however, as we were forced to drive back to Ennistymon for towels, and where we got some excellent recommendations for places to eat in Lahinch.

Lahinch, you see, is pretty much a resort town. The population is just 800 or so, and it only has one retail area about a block long. But—and this is a big but—it has two claims to fame: it has a magnificent mile-long beach (locals call it a strand) enjoyed by sea-lovers and (as I was amazed to discover in cold, cold February) surfers, and it also has a world-class championship golf course that dates back to 1892. There are several pubs and restaurants, a few shops, a grocery store, a church, a post office, a seaside aquarium along a boardwalk, and—even in February—a casual, surfer dude vibe. (On Saturday morning the beach was teeming with surfers in colorful wetsuits.)

But—no bath towels. Ennistymon is just five minutes’ drive from the Links, though, and it is a bit larger, with a busy city center. And, as I’ve said, the woman who sold us towels gave us two recommendations for eating, both of which we tried over the course of our visit. Neither of us had eaten since breakfast, so we hustled back to Lahinch and the Corner Stone, which is a snug little pub with an excellent menu. I choose exactly what I’d been fantasizing about for the last three or so hours: beef stew. And oh man, it was just what the doctor ordered! The beef was fork tender, the stew was loaded with meat and carrots and potatoes, seasoned with porter ale and onions, and was served with thick slices of brown bread.

I wrote in my notes, “I am so going to indulge myself in this Irish brown bread,” and I did. This simple wheaten bread, made without yeast, had caused me to search out local artisan breads when I returned from Ireland in 2003. Nowadays that’s all I buy. Interestingly, I’d noticed in every grocery store we’d been in so far that the artisan bread mania has hit Ireland too. Only there it’s—oooo la-la—labeled French Bakery, and the choices are fantastic. It was easy to give in to temptation!

After dinner we strolled Lahinch’s main street, shopped a little (I bought a mohair/wool scarf, which I would use on the rest of my trip), picked up some turf for the fireplace, then headed back to the Stepford House.

For those of you who’ve never smelled a turf fire, I’ll say you’re missing one of life’s great pleasures. Just imagine the coziest, homiest smell possible, though, and you’ve got it. It’s a little smoky-flavored, and makes me think of what it smells like on a fall day when someone in the neighborhood has been burning leaves. Gerry built the fire while I boiled water for tea (for Gerry) and a stiff hot toddy (for me—the best possible thing for a cold!), then we skootched the couch up close to the fireplace, pulled the duvet off the bed, and huddled up underneath it while we watched an Irish American-Idol-type show on the television. After a second hot whiskey I was asleep and snoring on the couch, and at eight-thirty I gave it up.

Gerry’s Hot Toddy Recipe:
Place two thick slices of lemon in a large mug; squeeze the juice of whatever’s left of the lemon into the mug too. Add a teaspoon (about two dozen) of whole cloves. Add whiskey (I prefer Jameson’s Irish Whiskey) to fill half the mug. Pour boiling water over lemons, whiskey, and cloves to fill, and muddle (mash) the lemons with a spoon to bring out the juice. Add sugar or honey to sweeten if you’d like (I do).

Saturday, February 11, Co. Clare
We were both awake around three-thirty (which is what happens when you go to bed so early, I guess), listening to the kids next door, who were outside in the yard, shouting and carrying on. Actually, they woke me up around midnight, too, with similar antics, but I’d thought the party was over. Oh, how wrong I was.

We’d been wary of the kids when we’d come in yesterday; there were several of them, boys and girls, in expensive cars that they’d parked carelessly, thinking they had the cul-de-sac to themselves. This, as it turns out, did not bode well. Gerry had asked the village superintendent whether we should be concerned, and he’d said no, they were Good kids! Locals! Just on their spring break! If we had any trouble, he said, call and he’d sort it out. Of course, one doesn’t really want to call anyone in the pre-dawn hours.

Later I woke myself up coughing, and I decided to get up and drink some medicine and some hot tea. I was, I realized, very, very sick—probably developing a sinus infection. Gerry took excellent care of me, though, by cooking big breakfasts, keeping the fire built, and making sure I always had a cup of hot tea to keep my cough down. Meanwhile, I had no energy, and no “wind”—it felt like something was constantly pressing on my chest.

Finally around eleven a.m. we managed to get out of the house. It was overcast and windy, but there were patches of blue sky trying to peek through, which was encouraging, and off we went, heading straight for the Cliffs of Moher. You may recall that on my last visit here we weren’t able to see the cliffs due to heavy mist, so I was particularly anxious to see them on as nice a day as possible.

They’d changed the entrance to it since the last time I was here; in the past you could drive by and see the cliffs in the distance. If you wanted, you pulled into the parking lot, paid the per-car entry fee, and walked down to cliff’s edge. Well, no more. The temporary visitor center is on the opposite side of the road, and they’ve built up a huge earthen barrier, which prevents you seeing anything of the cliffs until after you’ve climbed it. I wish now that I’d taken a photograph of this path, because in my memory it looms as large as Mount Everest.

Construction at the Cliffs of Moher.

Construction at the Cliffs of Moher.

It will be nice when it’s done, I guess, but right now it’s all still a construction site. (In point of fact, it’s a twenty-one-million euro project, with the tourist center to be dug into the side of the cliffs, leaving it virtually invisible from ground level. We saw plans for it, and when it’s finished, the views should be stunning. It may be that the path we climbed was on top of this structure, which is due to open in spring 2007.

You can see why, though: this was the path that tourists used to use to walk along the edge of the cliff. Probably a bit dangerous, all things considered.

You can see why, though: this was the path that tourists used to use to walk along the edge of the cliff. Probably a bit dangerous, all things considered.

This is a bit of the new path. Better, but still dangerous. If you wanted to go over the edge, you could. A work in progress!

This is a bit of the older path. Better, but still dangerous. If you wanted to go over the edge, you could. A work in progress!

See? I took this standing next to the danger sign.

See? I took this standing next to the danger sign.

Still, the cliffs were there, they were visible, and that made me really happy, even if it did take every bit of my energy to climb the hill to see them. You really get the sense, as you stand there struggling against the wind, that you are on the edge of the world, with nothing but the roiling Atlantic between you and New York City. The cliffs are five miles of sheer rock face with a massive 700 foot drop; get too close to the edge and a gust of wind—and there’s plenty of that—could carry you right off the edge. Walk the dirt path along the edge at your own risk.

But it made me happy, sick as I was.

But it made me happy, sick as I was.

We even walked up to O’Brien’s Tower, a Victorian-era observation tower (that is, a tourist attraction).

O’Brien’s Tower in 2006, just after the remodeling at the Cliffs had begun.

O’Brien’s Tower in 2006, just after the remodeling at the Cliffs had begun.

This is what it looked like in 2011—all shiny and new! (I got this photo from Wikipedia.)

This is what it looked like in 2011—all shiny and new! (I got this photo from Wikipedia.)

In fact, it was extremely windy and cold, but that was invigorating. Invigorating enough, that is, for me to drive us back to Lahinch. (It was a continuing theme of this trip that my original itinerary had to be modified, cut back, to accommodate the fact that I was moving slower and had less stamina. And really, that was OK. We thoroughly investigated the things we did see, and we enjoyed them. The rest can wait for another time.)

On my 2003 trip I’d picked up a brochure for a shop located in Lahinch that offered silk-screened T-shirts featuring original Celtic designs; when we’d driven through that time, though, I’d failed to find it. Since we were to be staying in Lahinch on this trip, I wanted to be sure to visit, and—knowing that some places shut down during the winter—I’d emailed the owner to ask if he’d be open.

This was the response I’d gotten last September:

Dear Jamie
I apologise for not answering this mail last month.
I think it was because I like to reply immediately ..but didn’t know the answer.
February is so far away !
If you get to our door and find it closed, just call [redacted]
and it will magically creak open within minutes
yours
in fear of forward planning
Mike O’Connor

So when we got back into Lahinch, we parked and walked along the boardwalk (I’m sure that’s not what they call it in Ireland, but that’s what it is), where there were, again, quite a few young men in wetsuits surfing in the vigorous waves on a day when the temperature couldn’t have been over thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit.

The low-tide beach at Lahinch, February 2006.

The low-tide beach at Lahinch, February 2006.

The shop was closed, but I raised Mike on the mobile phone; he was watching the big rugby match (Ireland/France) at one of the local pubs, and preferred to continue watching it, so we agreed to meet at the shop at four p.m., and Gerry and I hustled home to watch the game ourselves.

At four we were banging on the door, when a young man—not Mike—showed up. It turns out that he was the silk-screener, and was planning to work a little. He was a bit puzzled by us pounding on an obviously locked door, but when we explained the situation, he laughed, said Mike might have dozed off at the bar, and let us in the back door, where we had a private shopping excursion. After that we went back to the Corner Store where we’d eaten the day before, because I was hankering for more of that hot beef stew.

So this was not an action-packed day, but it was as much as I could handle. That evening we watched an interesting show on the subtitled all-Gaelic channel (yes, a channel for Gaelic-speakers, complete with news shows, documentaries, and even soap operas in a language that is a marvel to hear, as it’s not like anything—French, German, Swahili—you’ve every heard before). It was about how the indigenous folk on the island were a matriarchal society up until the time the Celts arrived in 500 BC. The Celts were warlike, and men did the fighting, so that influence began to change the society, and then when Patrick arrived with his Christianity, the switch from a woman-revering society to a patriarchal one (even, one might say, a misogynistic one) was complete. It was suggested that perhaps Mary’s importance was emphasized here to gain allegiance from the locals who still intuitively remembered the old, female-centric ways. Regardless of what you believe, it was an interesting hour of television.

And that seems as good a place as any to close this episode, curled up in front of a warm turf fire, nursing a hot toddy, munching on a scone. There’s more to come, including my semi-annual rant about tour buses. 🙂

Falling in Love With Clare

Thursday, 18 September 2003
Ennis, Co. Clare – Salthill, Co. Galway

Leaving Ennis, we modified our route to take in Kilfenora, a tiny village with a lovely twelfth-century church and some ancient high crosses. (Interestingly, quite a few of the early high crosses one might see are now … um … fakes. Which is fine with me. They take them down, out of the elements—often housing them right on the premises somewhere—and put an exact replica in place.) So we detoured to Kilfenora.

We wandered the churchyard—it was actually raining for the first time during my visit—and then Gerry motioned me to walk out the back gate.

Kilfenora Cathedral churchyard, 2003.

Kilfenora Cathedral churchyard, 2003.

The spots you see are raindrops.

The spots you see are raindrops.

I liked this one for the shamrocks. Kilfenora Cathedral churchyard, 2003.

I liked this one for the shamrocks. Kilfenora Cathedral churchyard, 2003.

There, ahead of us, alone in a field, was a truly magnificent high cross (still the original, they told us in the shop later), a simple crucifix with the short, round Christ representative of art of the 1100s. It was probably fifteen feet high; I took some photographs with Gerry in it, for scale.

The West Cross, Kilfenora, 2003. Blackbird on top.

The West Cross, Kilfenora, 2003. Blackbird on top.

You see, it’s huge. A raindrop obscures the crucifixion.

You see, it’s huge. A raindrop obscures the crucifixion.

You know, now we see these crosses as grey stone, with their carvings softened by age … but in its first life, this cross would have been brightly painted—a pretty impressive sight, if you use your imagination. High crosses were used much the way totem poles were used by the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest of North America: to tell a story. The crosses, of course, told the gospel story to an unlettered populace.

It was peaceful, and quiet—a “soft day,” the Irish would say (just as the Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, the Irish have quite a few ways to say “rain”!), just a misty rain, and yes, soft. We were pleased that we’d come someplace so spiritual … and then a tour bus pulled up, so we left, grumbling.

Standing beside the West Cross, looking at what lies beyond it. Kilfenora, 2003.

Standing beside the West Cross, looking at what lies beyond it. Kilfenora, 2003.

From Kilfenora we were off to the Cliffs of Moher (pronounce this “mower,” like lawn mower), one of the most famous sites in Ireland, and one I really, really wanted to see. They are wild, rugged cliffs stretching along five miles on the western edge of the island, two hundred meters high, falling straight into the sea.

This is the path to the edge of the cliffs. Even on a rainy day there was a busker, playing his tin whistle. Cliffs of Moher 2003.

This is the path to the edge of the cliffs. Even on a rainy day there was a busker, playing his tin whistle. Cliffs of Moher 2003.

Unfortunately, the rain had intensified, and by the time we got to the cliffs, it was so misty that we couldn’t actually see them, even though they were literally right there under our noses. Naturally, I took my camera on the hike out to the edge, to take a picture of the thing I couldn’t see!

All you can see here is the flat top of the cliff; the rest is shrouded in mist. The white you see in the lower right is the foam of waves breaking against the cliff.

All you can see here is the flat top of the nearest cliff; the rest is shrouded in mist. The white you see in the lower right is the foam of waves breaking against the cliff.

There was a busker on the path, playing a tin whistle in the rain (I took a photo of him too). It was disappointing, to arrive at that place on a day of such thick mist, but it couldn’t be helped. Rain happens. So we repaired to the gift shop to purchase postcard photographs of the thing. I was single-handedly keeping the Irish postcard industry alive.

From there we headed to Doolin, a little village situated right on the northern boundary of the cliffs, and right on the sea. The view from the main road, in fact, was humbling.

Doolin looks like any other tiny sea village, but it is known for its heritage of Irish traditional music. The village and the surrounding area is home to many talented musicians, and other musicians come from all over the world, year ’round, to hear and participate. We couldn’t stay around for evening, when the music would begin, but we did visit a local music shop, where we bought a very cool T-shirt for Jesse.

Leaving the village, we had a very Irish experience: we encountered an Eireann bus stuck on a tight turn, and we were blocked in. The driver got out, noticed the rain, reentered the bus for his raincoat, came back out and had an animated conversation with a local chap who’d been watching. All the while, we waited. Finally, the passengers—a dozen or so European kids with backpacks—disembarked, headed up the road behind us for the youth hostel, and we were directed, very carefully, around the bus, a limited area next to an unforgiving stone wall.

We were driving through some of the most bleak country on earth. It’s called the Burren, a unique geological occurence of miles and miles of a limestone plateau, characterized by outcroppings and layers upon layers of rock. Everything is stone, both field and fences. I’ve called it bleak, but this bleakness has a profound beauty, and in fact geologists and botanists and archeologists converge on the Burren (from the Irish boireann, meaning a rock or a stony place) to study it, be4cause there are flora and fauna and prehistoric phenomenon found here and sometimes nowhere else.

In the Burren, there are plenty of rocks for fences.

In the Burren, there are plenty of rocks for fences.

Not a particularly hospitable place, though, the Burren.

Not a particularly hospitable place, though, the Burren.

It would have been a hard, hard existence here, eking out a life from this rough landscape. Indeed, the area has a bitter history associated with Oliver Cromwell, the English Lord Protector (he’d refused the crown of England after his victory in the English Civil War) who’d engaged in a ten-year war of extermination against the Irish, and by the mid-1600s had forced them to surrender. (Actually, Cromwell had it in for Catholics, full stop, not just Irish Catholics.) Cromwell tried once and for all to crush the Irish resistance to English rule by deporting thousands of land-owning Irishmen to west of the Shannon, saying he would send them “to Hell or Connaught!” (The Burren is a part of the province of Connaught.) At the sight of the poor and barren province, even one of Cromwell’s own generals observed that there were “neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him.” The area of Connaught to which the former landholders were assigned was—and still is—barren and totally unsuitable for the amount of farming that would need be done to sustain a population as large as that which was forced there by Cromwell.

There’s strong evidence of a thriving prehistoric life in the Burren too. There are megalithic stone hilltop cairns (graves), wedge tombs, and portal tombs (called dolmens) that date as far back as 3800 BC (although they were used well into the Bronze Age, which is put at 2200–500 BC). There are over 300 fulachta fiadh—horseshoe-shaped mounds of burnt stone, built around stone or timber water troughs, which are the remains of giant Bronze Age cooking-pits (remember, we saw a small one of these at the stone circle we found near Toormore), and there are stone circles too. There are several impressive stone forts that date from the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500). And early Christianity is represented as well, with up to 82 ecclesiastical sites—church ruins, cemeteries, hermitages and monastic enclosures, holy wells, saints’ seats or beds, and penitential stations—covering a millennium of worship.

I find this all quite amazing, considering the terrain.

So we drove through the Burren, in the soft-turned-soggy day, on roads barely wider than the car we were in, searching for some of the prehistoric sites I’d read about and longed to visit.

Driving around in the Burren in the rain, 2003.

Driving around in the Burren in the rain, 2003.

We found one (Cahermacnaughten, a stone fort which was inhabited down to late medieval times, where native Brehon lawyers carried on a celebrated law school until English rule in the seventeenth century finally ended such Gaelic traditions), and failed to find others in the pouring rain.

It doesn’t look like much now, Cahermacnaughten, 2003. But it was very important.

It doesn’t look like much now, Cahermacnaughten, 2003. But it was very important.

We drove through Lisdoonvarna and on to Kinvara, where we stopped for lunch at Keogh’s Bar on the main street. I had an open-faced sandwich of ham, tomatoes, cheese, and red onions on a thick slab of brown bread. The bread was so good—and this in a country that truly makes an art out of a humble loaf of bread—that I asked the proprietress about it. “Baked right here,” she told me, and thus “not in the shops.” She sensed my disappointment in that news, and offered to sell me a loaf if the chef would part with one. He did, and I snacked on that bread for days!

From Kinvara we drove on to Galway city, and straight to the city centre, where we parked and got out and shopped a bit. Although its population is only about 60,000, it is the fastest growing city in Europe; with a couple of universities, the city has a young, vibrant feel to it, yet it is grounded in its ancient roots as well.

But we weren’t staying in Galway city—we were going to Salthill. (Aren’t these names just great?) Thirty years ago Salthill—a little seaside resort town on the north shore of Galway Bay, Ireland’s answer to Atlantic City—was distinct from Galway city, but now is simply a part of it. It has a beautiful long promenade on the strand for strolling, with a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean … and our B&B, the Star of the Sea, was right across the street from it.

Our B&B, right across from Galway Bay, 2003. Looks small, doesn’t it! And yet there are six suites plus a kitchen and dining room. (Count the cars in the parking area and you’ll believe me.) We had one of the claustrophobic basement rooms.

Our B&B, right across from Galway Bay, 2003. Looks small, doesn’t it! And yet there are six suites plus a kitchen and dining room. (Count the cars in the parking area and you’ll believe me.) We had one of the claustrophobic basement rooms.

Galway Bay, just across from the B&B, at low tide, 2003. See the man in the lower left? He was walking a dog, which didn’t make it into this shot.

Galway Bay, just across from the B&B, at low tide, 2003. See the man in the lower left? He was walking a dog, which didn’t make it into this shot. Don’t forget, you can click on the photo to enlarge it.

Next we’ll head to the wilds of Connemara, so stay tuned!