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