Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bloggo Buon Viaggio: Ireland in the Spring VII: Connemara

My last day in Galway I spent on my last day-tour in Ireland, a wonderful cap to my excursions to different parts of the country, and one less tiring than those of the two days before it (Inishmore and the Cliffs of Moher). My destination? The mountains of Connemara, with a few hours at the extraordinary estate/abbey/school called Kylemore. 

We got off to a very slow start because, as I understood it, a driver did not show up to lead a tour. Those of you have read my earlier posts in this series may remember that tour companies run two or three different tours on the same day, and pick people up at hotels distant from the official tour meeting point, Galway's new coach station. This morning three tours were departing, and in addition to the passengers being confused, so were the drivers. All was resolved eventually, and those of us on the coach originally scheduled for Connemara were able to remain on it, led/driven by a fellow named Cam, who began the day thinking he was to guide the tour to the Cliffs of Moher.

I'm not sure if it was because of his confusion, or if he was better at the tour of the cliffs than he was at the Connemara mountains tour, but Cam was the least prepared and least informed guide I experienced on my travels in Ireland. When we began, a half hour later than expected, he spoke to us about the subjugation of the Irish, a theme that would continue as the tour progressed (and rightly so), but his chronology often fell out of order, allowing Henry VIII to live for nearly 200 years and adding about 50 years to the life of Oliver Cromwell. Gradually, however, Cam seemed to recover from his confusion and warmed to his subject, so the tour ended much better than it began.

Ross Errilly Friary

Even if a mute had been guiding us, we were driven into some really beautiful, relatively unspoiled country. We made our first stop in the lowlands, at another ruined friary named Ross Errilly. Founded in 1351 by the Franciscan order, the abbey was substantially rebuilt and enlarged in 1498. Although the monks were expelled several times throughout the abbey's existence the Franciscans can be a stubborn lot, and managed to hold onto it until the mid eighteenth century, when they left and the buildings began to fall into ruin. 

The locals usually call the friary Ross Abbey, but as the place never had an abbot as the Franciscans were less inclined to leaders than other orders, a friary it is. And the most extensive, best preserved of all the Franciscan friaries in Ireland.  

Ireland insists on greenery everywhere,
even on ruined friaries!
Sidebar on ruined abbeys, friaries, call them what you will: One can tire of touring these, but nearly every organized tour I've been on, in England and Scotland as well as Ireland, seems to include one. They are everywhere, and most were made ruins in the 1530s (Ross Errilly Friary an exception), when Henry VIII instigated the English Reformation. Some of these abbeys and friaries were intentionally destroyed, others fell gradually into ruin - you may remember from high school English William Wordsworth's poem Tintern Abbey. That abbey is perhaps the most famous of those abandoned in the 1530s, if only because of Wordsworth's great poem, that mentions the place only in his lengthy title. Although any faith in any religion lapsed in him long ago, Dottore Gianni is for some reason obsessed by visiting churches, though nearly never during services (during a service his very presence could create a lightning strike), whether they are in ruins like the abbeys of the U.K. and Ireland, or in splendor, like many of the great cathedrals built in roughly the same era.

Shorn sheep and lambs in the field next to the friary

One of the most interesting things about Ross Errilly was not the friary itself (though it enchanted Dottore Gianni) but an 

One big bag of shearings
event that had occurred the day before, according to Cam. He pointed to the sheep and lambs in the nearby fields, noting that yesterday there had been a shearing. As evidence he drew our attention to a huge sack of wool, and sure enough, when I looked towards the sheep they did seem a good bit... trimmer (or at least trimmed)...than most of those I'd seen earlier in the trip. While walking through the friary I looked just outside what had formerly been a window and saw the scene of the crime, if you will, leftover bits of shearings where the farmers had done their work.

One of several pleasing streams that surround the village of Cong

On then from the friary to other sights. The next was a village with the odd name of Cong (odd at least to Dottore Gianni) that is charming to visit for its own sake, but there are many such villages in this beautiful area. This one has the distinction, exciting to some, dubious to others, of being the place where a movie from the early 1950s by one of America's great directors, John Ford, was filmed. It is named The Quiet Man, and stars John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, closely supported by Victor McLaglen and Barry Fitzgerald.

When you read my synopsis below you'll know more than you ever wanted to about the film, and after the synopsis, a few interesting things about Cong other than the film!

Briefly, the film concerns an American (Wayne - who couldn't do an Irish accent in any case - he always played himself) who returns to Ireland to claim his family's property. The "villain" (McLaglen) covets the land for himself. He happens to have 

The bar featured in the film is alive & kicking!
as a sister the most beautiful woman in all of Ireland (O'Hara, who WAS a fiery red-haired beauty and in fact was born in Dublin - unlike Wayne she has the accent down pat). One look between Wayne and O'Hara is enough to spark a love match (aided by Fitzgerald as a drunken Irish stereotype of matchmaker), but there are problems as she demands her dowry and her brother refuses to give it. The dowry means nothing to Wayne (who made a fortune as a boxer, until he accidentally killed an opponent in a match and never got over it). No need for more details, see the movie if you like. I did decades ago, and then again to prep for this trip. Except to say that Wayne is goaded into fighting McLaglen and the film ends with one of the most ridiculous and lengthy demonstration of fisticuffs you'd ever care to see - and all turns out well.

As Cam reminded us, Americans LOVE The Quiet Man, the Irish not so much, as it engages in embarrassing stereotypes (particularly in Barry Fitzgerald's performance of the drunken stage Irishman). But whether or not every person in 

The Quiet Man Cottage Museum
Cong is enamored of the film, the village has become a must-see stop on every day tour to Connemara. We were given 30 minutes for a tea and a pee. I took the time to look around the town, which boasts a ruined abbey and charming waterways as well as the following references to the film. First the pub in which some of the action was shot, then the Quiet Man Cafe (please!), the Quiet Man Cottage Museum, a replica of Wayne's and O'Hara's cottage in the film, and a statue of one of the iconic images of the film (plastered over posters for it as well) of John Wayne carrying Maureen O'Hara. I think the statue captures him more accurately than it does her.

The Qiuiet Man statue

Let's look at other reasons to like Cong. Dottore Gianni discovered that the word cong comes from conga (still doesn't sound very Irish to him) which means a narrows. Though you wouldn't know it, town is actually surrounded by water, on 

Market Cross, Cong
the isthmus of Lake Corrib and Lake Mask. The Cong Abbey dates as far back as the seventh century but was rebuilt in the twelfth after a fire and again in the early thirteenth. It is said that Rory O'Connor, the last king of Ireland, was buried here though his remains were removed at some point. An important early  piece of Celtic/Irish art is the ornate Cross of Cong which can be seen in the National Museum, Dublin. It's not to be confused with the very dull market cross in Cong, erected there the twelfth century and dedicated to two abbots of Cong Abbey.

Another lovely waterway in Cong

I most like that a fellow named Sir William Wilde was born in Cong. Actually I don't give a tinker's damn about William himself, but he sired a son named Oscar, who spent long periods of time in Cong and about whom I do care if for nothing else than his great play The Importance of Being Earnest. I played the title role in that comedy of manners once a long time ago, and Dottore Gianni tells me that I was VERY good in it! 

There is so much water in and around Cong that this house exploited it - if you look at the glassed part of the place on the left, you'll see the water running under it

But there is also one more person who must be mentioned, a certain evil landowner named Captain Boycott. The great Irish nationalist hero Charles Stuart Parnell advocated that the common people of Ireland should not try to fight the British on the field of battle, as they'd surely lose. Instead they should use stealth and cleverness. A great example of this is what happened to Captain Boycott of Cong. Because he was a cruel landlord that nobody liked, little by little people began to "boycott" him. His workers left the fields, merchants in town did not bring him supplies, even his household staff up and left. Captain Boycott, furious at all this but powerless to stop it, up and left himself, and was never seen again. And that is the origin of the word boycott!

So don't ya go telling me (or Dottore Gianni) that Cong is famous only for The Quiet Man!

A "famine cottage" pointed out as we climbed from Cong into the mountains. Apologies for the glare on the left side of the photo, but we were unable for safety reasons to leave the coach, so I took this through the window

Our guide Cam could not let us off the coach but did stop it for a few minutes to tell us about "famine cottages" - these were small abodes built of stone with roofs of thatch or turf (the Irish term for peat - more about that soon). Large families, mostly tenant farmers, inhabited these nearly unlivable houses, but in the mid-nineteenth century potato famine many were evicted or burned out of these shabby places by their British landlords for non-payment of rent. This was a horrible time for the Irish. Their alternatives were to emigrate, and many did, but in "coffin ships" on which so many were stuffed together, sometimes never seeing the sky in the journey across the Atlantic, that as many one-third of this human cargo would die on the journey; or to die of starvation, and many did. It is estimated that one million Irish died during this time, and a million more emigrated.

But except for potatoes there was no famine! Crops were steadily exported from Ireland at this time, and landlords had plenty of grain - they just didn't give it to the Irish - they either kept food for themselves or sent it out into the rest of the world to make money from it. All the Irish got were potatoes, and when the potato crops began to fail it was their tough luck. The landlords thought the Irish were lazy good-for-nothings - and Catholics! Worse yet. And they treated the Irish as sub-human. It's a nightmare of a story, one that I heard in several versions throughout my time in Ireland, and while I knew about the famine beforehand I had no idea how desperate the situation was. 

Heading through the mountains one of many, many beautiful views

Add a sheep and her lamb and you get bucolic bliss!

On we drove, into the mountains this time, and the scenery became more and more breathtaking as we went. We stopped a few times for photos, once at a lake, once at Killary, Ireland's only fjord. It's a beautiful sight, and we happened to see the tour boat ploughing through the waters, next to mussel beds - the Irish like their mussels!

The Killary Fjord
The cruise boat on the fjord - not a bad way to see it! Note the mussel fields in the water

Then farther up still, and another stop that overwhelmed me, even if my photos cannot capture it adequately.

The higher one climbs, the more dramatic the landscape becomes

Can you count 40 shades of green here? I think I can.
49 shades of green refers to a Johnny Cash song, written after he toured Ireland

Or if not in the phot above, how about here?

An old ham poses with that beautiful view in the background

Beyond that, almost to Kylemore Abbey now, we drove through Leenane (I always thought it was pronounced Leh-NANE as in main - Cam pronounced it LEE-nan as in Ann), a place I was very curious to see because it is the setting for a play by Irish writer Martin McDonagh, a brutally dark comedy called The Beauty Queen of Leenane. It's about a bitter struggle between a mother and her spinster daughter - I looked for evidence in the town itself, but found none. It seems such a pleasant place. In fact two couples from the day before's tour had prearranged to spend the night and be picked up by todays coach, and so they joined us. As I wrote in my earlier post on the Dingle Peninsula, where a young couple did the same thing, "Why didn't I think of that!?!"

We also slowed for a look at turf, or peat, a major source of fuel for the Irish from the deep past until now. It is not used only in Ireland, in fact whenever I think of using peat for fuel 
This is a peat bog, and some of the peat, or turf, has been
dug up and is ready to be dried
I think of another role I played (Dottore Gianni just interjected "And you were brilliant." I dare say I was.), Dr. Astrov in Chekhov's great play Uncle Vanya. Astrov, as well as breaking his best friend Vanya's heart by being caught by him kissing the love of Vanya's life, is an early environmentalist. In fact the seduction scene begins with Astrov telling Yelena (who is married not to Vanya but an old man) about how so much of Russia landscape had been destroyed because of all the trees needlessly chopped down (brings to mind another of Chekhov's grand plays, The Cherry Orchard, doesn't it?) Astrov shouts out at one point in the play "Burn peat!" and launches into a passionate defense of conservation.

And here is peat dried and cut and ready for burning - again,
pardon the glare - we were unable to get out and have a look around, so  I got this shot through the window.

Interestingly, and unhappily for many people in Ireland, particularly in rural areas such as Connemara, turf/peat is a fossil fuel, and the European Union is cracking down on its use. As of this writing that issue has not been resolved.

You, dear readers, may have noted that by now Cam was in his element, for other than my addition of theatrical references, most of the above stories came from or at least were initiated by him. Also that while the day has been one of near continuous rural beauty, the only stop we made so far that one could call major was Cong. And at 20-30 minutes, that's not major compared to other trips, which offer two or three. This was fine with me, as it was my last tour, and easier than the last few, as I mentioned above. The big stop was coming up.

Our "big" stop - Kylemore Abbey in the distance

In fact let's get to it now. The story of Kylemore Abbey is fascinating, and dramatic enough that I'm surprised no one has made a film version, or maybe a TV mini-series. It began with a very wealthy Britisher, Mitchell Henry, who unlike almost all the other English liked the Irish people. He also liked privacy and discovered, with his new wife Margaret, a beautiful area in Connemara. Both fell in love with it, so he built what is now called Kylemore Abbey not for religious purposes but for her, as a "stately home of England" deposited in rural Ireland. Not an abbey then, but a castle. He employed three hundred Irish and paid and treated them well - unusual to say the least - good for him! 

Here's the abbey closer up

And here's one of the views from the property

To keep a long story brief - not easy for me or Dottore Gianni (and of course we're in this together) - his wife died young, and his daughter not long after. Broken-hearted, he built on the property, which also housed a large formal English garden, a beautiful Neo-Gothic church that some have called a miniature cathedral, to honor her memory. And then he left himself, but not before the King came for a visit in 1903.

The lovely "cathedral-in-miniature" that Mitchell Henry built in his wife's memory, not far from the castle/abbey, about a ten minute walk, also with views to the lake & mountains

It's a little beauty

That same year the estate was sold to the profligate Duke and Duchess of Manchester. She was an American heiress whose father subsidized the purchase. Alas, the Duke gambled all his (and her - read Henry James) money away and ultimately the estate too.

Another dramatic view from the castle grounds

Cut to World War I, when a group of Belgian Benedictine nuns didn't "climb every mountain" (though there are many to climb around Kylemore heh heh) but did need to get out of that war-torn zone. THEY bought Kylemore after the war, which became an abbey. Also a school, a very posh school in fact, for girls, the daughters of very wealthy men from as far afield as the Middle East and India (the daughter of Maharaja Ranjit studied there). The school closed in 2010, but the nuns still own and run it (along with about 100 employees, a far cry from the 300 who worked it in the early days). The Benedictines allow only three or four rooms to be seen by the public these days, but from what I understand, more will be opened for public view soon.

A view from the vicinity of the English gardens

Part of the formal English gardens

I had a very quick take-away sandwich at Kylemore, as I wanted to get the most out of the Abbey, the church and the gardens. There is a restaurant there where one can purchase full and fairly expensive meals or a simple sandwich as I had. I found myself with some time to spare and hunted around the nice gift shop, then hopped aboard the bus and off we went.

A view from our last photo stop

The tour was nearly but not quite ended, as there was one one last beautiful photo opp stop, where I made the acquaintance of a charming young Spaniard named Alba who was also traveling solo (and who had taken the earlier photo of me. We sat together for the ride back to Galway and chatted constantly. She wants to be a diplomat and I think has the skills to do so. While I am shy in such matters Dottore Gianni is not, and he suggested that she and he/I become Facebook friends - which we are!

Alba posed in a similar position to the one I'm in at this craggy mountain, so I decided to do the same - glad I did - farewell, Connemara!

My chat with Alba allowed the time to fly on the drive back to Galway. We here dropped at the coach station, she headed to her sister's place, and I to dinner! Back on my usual stroll this evening, through Eyre Square, into the pedestrian zone, and once there in search of an eatery that looked inviting. 

Back in Galway, the place where I dined

I found one in the Druid Lane Restaurant on the main pedestrian drag located at, as luck would have it, Druid Lane, 
and my delicious dinner
with the famed Druid Theatre only a short walk down the street. Not many people were being served, but I found it a charming little place, and also found sea bass on the menu. Ordered that, which came, as you can see, with a serving of mussels too, and washed it all down with glass of dry white wine - a delicious last supper in Galway.

Walking back along the pedestrian zone (after purchasing a few souvenirs for my brother Phil, his wife Kara and their son Cam, who take such good care of me here in the Carolinas), I had the great good and serendipitous fortune to stumble on the really good guitarist I heard playing, in the same spot he had been before, between two statues of seated men, one of whom I recognized as Oscar Wilde. I dropped some money into his guitar box and strolled back to my shabby room, after making a quick purchase of another Harp Lager and crisps to get me through my last night in Galway. I miss it.

The fine guitarist and his captive audience - Oscar and Eduard!

Sidebar re the statues: This is such an unusual story that I have to let you know about it. In the photo above the statue on the left is, pretty obviously (if you're Dottore Gianni at least) Oscar Wilde. I thought that perhaps the other statue was of his father, or a friend. Instead the statue on the right is of an Estonian writer, Eduard Vilde, a contemporary of Oscar though the two never met. The Estonian woman who sculpted the statue of Wilde as well as Vilde (note the similarity of the names) said that she imagined the year 1890, when the two, "Wilde & Vilde" might have met, and sat, and chatted. A lovely thought. Here's the capper: the statue was a gift to Ireland from Estonia, on the occasion of the latter's admission to the European Union. A perfect gift in my opinion, as the union, albeit imaginary, of two fine writers is a symbol of the EU...or what the EU could and should be.

Sunday 25 May: Thought I was finished, didn't you? Truth to tell there is not enough left to say about the trip to Ireland to merit another post, so I am going to very quickly take you through the next morning in Galway, the train ride back to Dublin, and a bit about my afternoon and evening there, the last day I'd spend in Ireland. Nothing about the 26th, when I flew back - though I'll say that I got to the airport easily and the flights were smooth.

When I returned to my room I was in good spirits, but when I walked into the bathroom I became upset, as whoever cleaned my room, which didn't seem very clean at all, left me 
The torn towel
with one small towel - and that ripped in several places and not, to my mind, terribly clean. There had been two perfectly fine ones in my room when I left in the morning for my tour. One I used, the other was sitting on the window sill. The simple thing would have been to leave that in place. I must tell you it almost felt as if those who ran the B&B were trying to anger me. I have since written a TripAdvisor review that will not please St Jude's Lodge, but I don't care - the last straw, yes?

I easily got to the Galway Rail Station as it was but a short walk away, and boarded my train in plenty of time. It filled to overflowing, particularly on the stops close to Dublin, and an obnoxious brute sat down next to me, reeking of cigarette smoke and booze. He couldn't seem to stop talking to his friend seated opposite in a loud angry voice, but in an accent so think I couldn't decipher much of it. Didn't care to, in fact.

My compact but pleasant room at The Townhouse - the area at upper left leads to a tiny balcony looking over a nice courtyard

In Dublin I hopped on the LUAS tram, which was also jam-packed - it was a Sunday afternoon in the capital and the weather was lovely). I found my new hotel, The Townhouse, very easily, a MUCH better hotel than the one in Galway (wouldn't have been difficult to outdo that one) with very friendly staff - AND it was at one time the residence of Dion Boucicault, one of the great melodramatists of the mid-nineteenth century. There was memorabilia all over the walls. When I saw that I found myself wishing that I'd stayed there on my first two nights in Ireland, rather than Wynn's. Ah well, so what? 

I made a dash around an absolutely PACKED Dublin for last minute souvenirs - one for myself that almost makes me long for winter, as it is a dark green hooded sweatshirt with the Trinity College logo on it - delighted with that - and a few last-minute items for my brother and his family.

In fact Dublin was so sadly packed that I made no attempt to engage in any other touristic activity. If that last phrase sounds pretentious, it wasn't my idea - Dottore Gianni insisted I write it that way. I wasn't saddened by the ridiculous crowds, as on my way to souvenir and Dublin hell I noticed two appealing places very near my hotel. The first was The Celt, a pub just around the corner, where I saw a sign that claimed "Traditional Irish Music - 5:30 pm" - those of you (you few, you precious few) who have read all of my posts on Ireland will know that as in most cases "trad" music sessions don't start until 9:30 pm, I had so far attended none, as I was exhausted from my very active...touristic activity...(sorry) at the end of every day, and was nearly in bed by that time. So I was delighted to be able to end my Irish travels with a bit.

I also saw two Italian restaurants on the same street a few blocks down from the pub, so when I returned to the area at about 3:30 pm I chose the better looking of the two named The Italian Connection) and had a very nice Margherita pizza, salad, and glass of red wine at this family run restaurant. I couldn't finish the pie (or did I realize that it could also serve as my evening snack at the Townhouse?) so they wrapped it for me. Then I dropped my shopping bags and the pizza in my room at the hotel, freshened up a bit and strolled to the "trad" music session. 

The delightful bar at the place that advertised "trad" music - if you have a look above the clock, there's a sort of license plate that says "Pog mo Thoin" - it means kiss my arse in Irish!

When I arrived I found the bar VERY cool-looking, heard a solo musician warming up, and drank a portion of one of the tastiest draughts of Guinness that I'd had in my entire trip. Wonderful, right? But the music was NOT wonderful. The fellow played a song that he had clearly written himself, then one actual traditional Irish dance tune, then a Beatles song (?!?) and finally (for me) invited a young woman up to sing a song SHE had written. This song was woefully bad, but at least it was long. One man I took to be the manager seemed to agree, as he looked to the barman and made a sign as if slitting his own throat. I took it to mean that this was the last chance the featured musician had, and that he'd never play here again. At least I hope that's what he meant. In any case I didn't stick around as the young woman, who by the way got almost no applause, was embarrassingly kept up at the stand while the featured musician kept saying, "Come on, let's hear it for her! You can do better than that!" It seemed that no one wanted to do better than that, but I really couldn't tell, as I was out the door and in the fresh air, which I inhaled deeply, thankful to be free of that bar and those musicians.

Another look at the bar - note JFK in a place of honor

I stopped at a grocery to pick up a pint of beer for the evening. I needed to be awake at 5 am, so I called it an early night, drinking my beer, eating my leftover pizza - I love it cold, don't you? And thinking on what was for the most part a quite wonderful two weeks on the Emerald Isle.

And that, in seven separate posts, is much of how Dottore Gianni and I spent our Irish journey. Hope you liked it! Slainte!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Bloggo Buon Viaggio: Ireland in the Spring VI: The Burren and the Cliffs of Moher

After one rough, rugged day on the Isle of Inishmore, I was off again to rugged and rough - this time on the stones of the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher, courtesy of Galway Tours. A comfortable coach driven by the guide, Damien, took me and about 25 others to these two primary and several other secondary spots - a good day, a full day, so let's begin:

Friday 23 May 2014: This tour, like yesterday's to Inishmore, began at the new coach station in Galway. It took a little time to be sure the right people were on the coach, as the company runs tours to Connemara as well, in fact I  took that one the next day - at a discounted rate because I booked two consecutive day tours. 

Damien, our guide, seemed to me at first almost too clever - his narration shifted between stand-up, artful insights, and politics - jokes about his wife were too frequent and the least clever, though some on board favored them. But he grew on me, and I ended really appreciating his wit and wisdom. As he took us out of Galway he spoke a bit about the town, the 14 "tribes" and Galwegians in general, elections in particular - these were occurring today throughout the country, local elections but also for the EU, where representatives go, said Damien, "to do nothing on our behalf for four years." 

Castle Dunguaire

Gradually his topics shifted to our itinerary. We were headed to the Burren as our first primary site, but stopped less than an hour out of Galway at a nice looking ruin of a castle, called Dunguaire. The name is derived from a legendary king of Connaught (pronounced CON-knock - as in Harry!). It was built in 1520 but became more important under a restoration by the writer (contemporary of James Joyce) Oliver St John Gogarty, during the Irish Literary Revival. In fact meetings of major writers of that brilliant time for Irish literature and drama including William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw were frequently held here. We only had time for a short photo stop, but that was enough to satisfy my curiosity. 

The area around Dunguaire Castle

Across from the castle, next to our coach park, were three traditional homes - white plaster with thatched roofs. 
a traditional home - note the added layer of thatch to the
upper roof
Damien reminded us that Irish had made roofs of thatch for "9,000" years - I wondered at times if he wasn't exaggerating just a wee bit - and pointed to the top of the thatch, where an extra layer that he called the boook, yes, that's three "ooo"s in the middle (though my subsequent research did, was added for extra protection, as it took the brunt of the punishment regularly meted out by wind and storm. The rest of the thatch did not have to be changed all that often but the top required frequent changing for the protection of the interiors. 

We then moved on, as Damien pointed out two martellos, rounded towers built by the English during the Napoleonic wars as the French tried to use Ireland as a back door to England - this wasn't the first time I'd heard that story (and I've written about it in an earlier post) but Damien offered the most colorful version of it. He pointed out a fishing sail boat, its hull painted a bright red - there were many of these he said, and were called "hookers," boats, he reminded us, "not gals in mesh tights!"

We passed this house on the outskirts of Ballyvaughan - sorry about the glare, but not too bad a shot from the window of a moving coach - bucolic bliss!

We stopped for tea and pee (sorry, Dottore Gianni forced me to write that rhyming phrase!) in a charming village with a charming name, Ballyvaughan. The plan was to buy the tea at 
Pretty tea rooms in Ballyvaughan - could have had
a tea here, but wasn't in the mood
a pub, but that was so packed that I used it only to...well, for the second part of the phrase above - I felt bad as the line to the ladies' loo was ridiculously long. As usual there was no wait to get into the gents, so I was able to get a nice walk in as well - we were next to the water, and a ferry called the Queen of Aran was pulled up at shore. It would have been a longer ferry ride from Ballyvaughan to the Arans, but boats do leave from there, as well as Doolin (about which more later) in addition to Rossaveal, the port that I'd embarked from the day before.

The Queen of Aran docked at Ballyvaughan
Limestone on the Burren

On then to the Burren, an almost surreal landscape made of porous limestone. Long stretches of this inhospitable substance give ways to patches of green, so the Burren is not all barren - one letter difference in the words, but a perfect definition - one for the other! And yet, the Burren is a 
Burren landscape, but with small plants, patches of green
in the foreground, and fertile fields in the rear
treasure trove for archeologists as well as biologists. Archeology should instantly make sense, but in this unique region arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants all are to be found growing between the limestone blocks - a botanist's paradise and fauna is well as flora flourish (that's a pretty silly bit of alliteration, notes Dottore Gianni) - for example 28 species of butterfly have been discovered in the Burren - and there are only 30 species in all of Ireland! Damien calls it "a book written in stone." Several books I'd say, as it figures in all of the above, and also in Irish history. Edmund Ludlow, second in command of the English forces in Cromwell's campaign to subdue Ireland in the mid-seventeenth century, captured the sharp contrasts to be found in the Burren succinctly, if brutally: "The Burren is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him...and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth...that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing."

The lines you see on that bleak hillside, particularly the middle right of the photo are the famine fences described below - sad, sad story

Damien pointed out limestone hills, completely barren. In the nineteenth century brutal British masters, having already created the infamous "famine" forced Irish laborers to create stone fences such as I discussed in my post on Inishmore throughout those hills - to quote the quotable Damien again: "the purpose? to separate nothing on either side." The more I understand of it the more nightmarish the history of the Irish people becomes. They were nominally British subjects, but the English treated them like slaves for centuries. There is no excuse for any groups as violent as the IRA (or some of those on the Protestant side) but one begins to understand how some might be led to atrocious acts after centuries of atrocious acts by England.

Beneath this foliage is a ring fort...or fairy fort - see below

Less depressing, exciting in fact, are the number of discoveries from Neolithic times are to be found on the Burren. We paused at two and stopped for a good bit of time at a third. None of us could figure why Damien stopped the bus (we were not able to leave) to show us a circular mound covered by trees and surrounded by pasture land. He explained that under this mound and many other mounds ancients lived. There are similar mounds made of stone - both types are called "ring forts" and date back thousands of years. To this day farmers fear them. The Irish, according to Damien, are a superstitious lot. Many believe that to chop the trees that cover the mound or to take anything from under it is VERY bad luck. They are also known as fairy rings, and not all fairies are nice - nor are leprechauns - and the farmers still warn their children, "If you go near these forts...the fairies (and/or leprechauns) will get ya!"

We only slowed for the Gleninsheen tomb (see below), but it happened to be in good view for me, out the window on my side of the bus, so I got a pretty good photo of it.

More than 90 megalithic tombs have been found in the area, and we were shown two. The story of the first, the Gleninsheen wedge tomb is interesting because it's about a young fella named Paddy Polen who in the 1930s was running around the Burren and came across something unusual, a rock formation with one large stone balanced atop two others. So he crawled in and found...more than he bargained for. The lad brought one of his finds, a beautiful necklace back to his father, who insisted he put it back. "We do not steal from the dead." (Dottore Gianni suggests that he might have been afeard o' fairies!) Being an obedient boy Paddy did as told, but when word got out, as it always seems to do, archeologists investigated. The necklace now sits in a place of honor in the National Museum, Dublin. The wedge tomb that Paddy stumbled upon dates from 3200 BC. 

Sidebar on historical accuracy: The above is the version that our inventive guide Damien shared with us. In subsequent research I've not found many of the "details" that Damien offered. Who knows if most of it is true? The tomb dates from c 2500 BC, later than Damien claimed. What DO we know? A person (most sources say a farmer, no more than that, and no mention of a Paddy Polen) DID find the tomb and the necklace (the Gleninsheen Necklace, to be exact, dated to c 700 BC) and it IS one of the highlights of the National Museum - the two facts from my longish relating of Damien's story. But I must admit it's a good'un! - Damien may be full of...blarney, but he surely has the gift of gab!

The Poulnabrone dolmen, or portal tomb

The second we did stop for, a larger dolmen, or as certain of these are also called, portal tombs. This is probably the best-known of the many in the Burren, Poulnabrone, by name. It's larger than the wedge tomb, and different as well in that several stones support the one atop the others, whereas, as noted above, in wedge tombs there are only two supporting stones, one on either side of the top stone. The Poulnabrone dolmen is older than the Gleninsheen, some of the bodies in it - up to 22(!) dating from as early as 3800 BC. 

Poulnabrone from a different angle

I was really impressed by this site. I had seen a similar tomb in Cornwall, far southwest England, but that was not as large as Poulnabrone. The Poulnabrone site is very well documented, several explanatory markers discussing the stone itself, the geology and biology of the Burren, and with a coach park for easy access - though it's not easy to step from stone to limey, sometimes slimy, stone. In Cornwall my guide and I had to trudge for about 15 minutes through the heath to get to it, and there were no markers or signs - just a lonely ancient tomb in a lonely, inhospitable area.

The portal tomb from a distance - note its size relative to the people on the righ, and the flora around it

Next stop, the Cliffs of Moher! But on the way we passed  Leamaneh Castle. The story of this place is really the story of a fiery redhead, appropriately named Red Mary. Once she 
Leamaneh Castle - I'm very happy with this photo
as I took it from the other side of the coach -
the nose of the man sitting in that window
is JUST cut off at lower right
got hold of this place, she did just about anything to keep it. She married a young fellow whose property this was and then he died (or was he done in? and was it she "what done him in?" (to be cockney about it - thank you Eliza Doolittle - but there is an Irish connection as the play was written by GB Shaw). She quickly married another, a powerful man for whom she'd already developed an interest, and they shared the castle. He AND she battled against Cromwell's English forces in the mid-seventeenth century. He was killed and she was captured. To her British captors she made this bold offer - "I'll marry whichever one of you will have me!" And sure enough, one wanted her. They married and she was able to retain her castle, which would surely have been taken from her had she not been so quick-minded in adversity. And then, for good measure, she killed her third husband as well, was tried for it, freed and allowed to keep Leamaneh Castle!

Also on the way a few quips worthy only of Damien. There are many Irish names of places and people that begin with "kil" - in Gaelic "cill" - it means church, innocent enough. When we crossed into County Clare Damien began to tell us a bit about two nearby towns in said county, one called Kilnaboy, another called Kilmore. He told the sad story of a man who was wrongfully arrested all because he once told some people, "I just come from Kilnaboy and I'm going to Kilmore." I hope you get took me a minute! This could be an old Irish joke, or Damien could have made it up himself, and I'm thinking the latter!

Not all his quips were jokes. For instance he told us the story of why the Celtic Cross (see below) is shaped as it is. St 
three examples of a Celtic cross, combining
Christian and pagan symbols
Patrick saw it as his job to convert the pagans, and came up with a clever way to make himself more welcome when he first approached a group of them. He carried the Christian cross, yes, but on it he placed a very important pagan symbol, a circle symbolizing the sun, which they worshipped.

I said all his quips weren't jokes...but how many of them are true? Who knows?

Finally Damien drove us through the village of Lisdoonvarna, a sleepy enough place eleven months of the year. In September however the place comes alive, as that is the month of the matchmaker. Matchmakers played a very important part in Irish life. One good example of such a person was the character played by Barry Fitzgerald in The Quiet Man. It was his "job" to get Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne together, despite the jealousy (for the hero's land as well as for the gal) of Victor McLaghlen. In Lisdoonvarna every year matchmakers match up couples from all over, as lonely hearts gather in September in hopes of being lonely no more by October!

The Matchmaker Bar in Lisdoonvarna

And then the village goes back to sleep.

We finally got to the Cliffs of Moher, the last major stop on our journey. Except for lunch. Galway Tours had three coaches doing our tour on the same day. In the morning all three stopped at more or less the same time at the same place. Damien negotiated lunch with the other two drivers and volunteered to take us to the Cliffs BEFORE lunch, while the other two took them to the Cliffs AFTER lunch. This cut down on the crowd that would hit the same pub at the same time. By arranging for our coach to get to the pub later in the day it was a bit less crowded for the first two coaches, but much less crowded for us, not only because we'd be the only bus to arrive at that time, but the time we'd arrive was after the usual lunch hour. At this point, in spite of the silly jokes about his wife and hookers as boats vs hookers in tights, I gained respect for him.

The Cliffs of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher. If not THE top tourist attraction in all Ireland (and it may well be) it is certainly one of the top two or three. When we arrived there I could instantly see why. There is a large coach parking area in a low, flat area between to areas that rise very sharply in height. In the low flat area, actually burrowed into the hillside, is a visitor center, cafe and shop, and most made for that first. I on the other hand, charged up the cliffs to the right, then to the left, and only after I'd satisfied my curiosity and nearly exhausted myself did I pay a visit to the tourist center.

O'Brien's Tower

Damien had explained to us that the cliffs are 18 kilometers in length, and that at their highest they reach 214 meters. However long, however tall, they are impressive! In heading to the right one cannot miss the large 19th century building called O'Brien's Tower. He it was that decided he could make money charging people to climb the tower and get an even better view. And in fact there is still a charge today So I decided against and continued on. In each direction there are rather easy walkways along the cliffs that also offer some protection against falling (or leaping) over them. Another Damien tale, this one in the form of a question to us while on the coach:

"How many times do people jump off the Cliffs of Moher?" 

As we have no clue how to answer this, Damien provides the answer/punch line for us: 

"Only once - nobody's tried it twice..."

But then gets serious, for, sad to say, suicide has claimed many lives at the cliffs. There is in fact a memorial put up to 
Memorial to those who died at the cliffs
honor those who died here. One has to wonder how many of the deaths are accidental, how many purposeful? 

Dirt paths farther along on each side of the cliffs make the risk of accidental death or the ease of suicide much easier. The official tourist area stops at farmland. There is a fence on the field side of the land, and a sort of small wall that is very easily got over, in spite of the warning to the effect that this IS farmland and the farmer has given permission to walk upon it, but that if something happens to you it's no one's fault but your own. Of course many, many people make this forgiven trespass. In fact in spite of Dottore Gianni holding me back, I was one of them. It's simply exhilarating, at least at first, to be walking out near the edge of the cliffs. On those to the right of the tourist center, as one faces the sea, there is a rather well formed path in a slight declivity, then closer to the cliffs two much smaller paths made of dirt where people have trod over and over in an effort to get as close to the edge as possible. 

A good look at the three choices of path

I started out on the best-made path, farthest from the cliffs, but gradually tried the middle path, and for a wee bit the path nearest the cliffs. I did not stay on that one long, as I felt myself getting slightly busy, so stuck to the middle and ultimately back on the safest path. The land turns fairly mildly upward once on these paths, and so it's also exhilarating to climb higher and higher along them. I climbed to what I sensed was the highest point of the cliffs, and looked ahead - many were going on, down a bit. In fact you can walk these cliffs, which at some point descend towards a less dangerous shore for a long, long time. 

What I think may be the highest point on the cliffs - and about where I turned back, though as you see many went farther

I used my zoom on this photo to show the cattle and sheep in the farm fields - I did NOT see at the time what was going on at center...what IS going on at center???
Tourists heading down to the visitor center from the cliffs - while the view in this direction is not as breathtaking as that of the cliffs themselves, it's rather nice, yes?

I was on a schedule, and also, as confessed above, I was tiring myself out. And I'd not even got to the cliffs to the left of the area around the tourist center and coach park. So I turned 
The climb to the highest point
on the cliffs to the left of the center -
I got up there, then turned back
back, stopped at the center to relieve myself - no place for that on the cliffs, at least not at this time of day when the crowds are out - and headed up the left side. While it is not quite as dramatic as the walk on the right (or IS it, and my nonchalance indicating that I was getting used to them by this time, and was not quite as shocked by the literally breathtaking beauty of them? Hmmmm...). As on the cliffs to the right, after a walking certain distance in the official area of the center I trespassed (forgiven in advance by the farmer) on private land. The cliffs on this side also offer a well trod path closest to the farm fields and two small dirt paths nearer the cliff.

Hag's Head in the distance - one of the towers was built during the Napoleonic era in the early nineteenth century as a look-out for French ships

I did rather well getting up to the heights here. In the distance to the right the cliffs jut out in a place called the Hag's Head and much as I wanted to get that far I realized I'd 
never make it in time to get back to the coach on time. So, using my head (for once) I took distant photos of the Head, and headed back! It was somewhere along the return journey that I found myself on the path nearest the cliffside - let me say that I wasn't standing literally on the edge, but the grass beyond that path heads vertiginously down a slope that ultimately could have led me (and over?) the edge if I tripped. I suddenly became dizzy and felt the need to reach down and make my way not quite in a crawl but with both hands and both feet on the ground until my first opportunity to take the safer path. It was a genuinely frightening feeling. No one commented, no one laughed (well, maybe to themselves) but I was damned happy to get back to the safety of the path closest the farmer's fields.

The paths on the way back to the center from the cliffs on the left - in the distance atop the cliffs is O'Brien's Tower, and to the left in the water is a "sea stack" known as Bhreannah Mor

And then I headed back to the visitor center, had a look at some pretty interesting exhibits, though there was some renovation going on and not all that much was to be seen, had a look around the shop, and headed back to the coach. I was one of the first to arrive, stood around for a bit, then boarded.

Here you can get some idea of how primitive the paths are to the far left and right (which you can't see here) compared to the steps leading down to the visitor center (which you can see) - again, O'Brien's Tower on the upper left of the cliffs

By this time I was more than ready for lunch! Doolin, another charming seaside town and ferry port, was our destination, and it didn't take too long to get there. Gus O'Connor's Pub 
Gus O'Connor's Pub, Doolin
was our destination and I was one of the first off the coach. I got in, decided against a table (for one? why?) and headed straight for the bar, where a very nice young Czech woman took my order almost immediately - many others waited and waited in line, so I was quite pleased with my choice - of drink (Guinness), food (bangers & mash - nicely done) and server (pretty young Czech woman). We had a nice chat - she's not been in Ireland all that long, but at first I couldn't detect an accent. When I was about to leave she asked if I was coming back to hear the traditional music later - for a moment I wished I was!

The bright colors of Doolin - grand old thatched building at center

Eating first allowed me some time to stroll around this once again brightly colored village -really brightly actually! I had time as well to walk just out of the village to the seacoast - the Doolin-ites have a nice view (on a clearer day) of the Cliffs of Moher, though I could see them fairly well - and even if I couldn't the pastures next to the sea made a lovely bucolic scene.

From the waterfront at Doolin, the Cliffs of Moher in the distance - they don't look all that dramatic from here - I wonder if that cow often thinks about the great view?

The little cliffs photo stop in the foreground, with the Cliffs of Moher in the distance

Back again to the coach, we drove only a short distance to some relatively diminutive cliffs that made for photo opps, as the the larger Cliffs of Moher are evident in the background. 
Dottore Gianni at the little cliffs
The younger folks were having a particularly good time getting in poses dangerously close to calamity there. But then I saw people doing so at the much higher cliffs earlier in the day - a photo taken of two girls sitting on the cliff edge, legs dangling over...Dottore Gianni almost became physically ill watching them! Here a group of Spanish girls asked me to take a photo of them (nowhere near the cliff edges, thank the gods, and I did, on condition they return the favor. We solo travelers have to seize our opportunities whenever we can!

Corcomroe Abbey

We now thought we were on our way home, but Damien took us to one more stop and even got off the bus to speak to us within what was left of the site's walls. This was another abbey, Corcomroe by name, a monastery run by the Cistercians beginning in the late twelfth century. While it, like so many other abbeys, were torn apart during the English Reformation on orders of Henry VIII it is more substantial than most I've seen, and relatively large.

Damien our guide in the abbey - note the rather nice Romanesque ribbing on the ceiling

Damien waited patiently for us to gather, and then spoke. Frankly he didn't have much to say about it - it was cruciform, but that what other twelfth century church was not? He DID comment on the sheep and lambs that fed picturesquely near by. "When a gal sees a sheep she thinks "Aaaahhh, such sweet sheep." When a boy sees one he thinks "Kebabs!"

Sheep grazing - sweet? or kebabs?

I don't think Damien told us this other short story, but I read about it in my subsequent research, so I'll include it. It was said to be commissioned for the Cictercians by the king whose grandson, another king, is buried within its walls. The king who commission the abbey found it so lovely that he had all five designers of the complex killed, so they wouldn't go off and build something equally nice or nicer! As the intellectual historian Mel Brooks points out, "It's very good to be the king!"

The king buried in the abbey
After a bit of photography we got back on the bus. I think by this point most of us were tired enough to be more than ready to be back in Galway, but one obstacle kept us from moving far from the abbey. The Abbey is set in a lovely setting in the Burren. you can see the barren mountains but also green fields, and as I noted above, sheep and lambs grazing peacefully nearby. Cattle do too, and there's only one tiny road from the abbey to the primary way back into Galway. It was the time of day for the cattle to return from the fields. Damien made the mistake, while we were waiting in, as he called it "an Irish traffic jam," of letting people out to take photos. Only a few did. Dottore Gianni is very pro-cow, but how do these differ from those in the US? And I got a shot of them through the bus window, anyway. But the effect the people nearby had on them was to make them freeze in their tracks. So the "traffic jam" went on longer than expected. Damien got the people back on the coach, noted that the farmer would be pissed off - and off we went!

An Irish traffic jam

On arrival back in Galway I took another walk along the pedestrian zone. My very late lunch, my increasing exhaustion - too much fresh air? asks Dottore Gianni - and my awareness of a big day tomorrow - Connemara, the last tour I'd take on this trip to Ireland, made my decision to grab a take-away sandwich and a beer and call it an early night. And so I did! 

Next post, my last about Ireland: the beautiful mountains of Connemara, Ireland's only fjord, and a castle in the midst of nowhere!