(This is the continuation of my Ireland travel journal. See Part 1 here.)
I grew up in the “Midwest” (really the Great Plains) so when we leave Dublin for the weekend to travel west in a broad smile across the middle of Ireland’s legendary countryside, I kind of feel like I’ve done this before. (I haven’t.) Eventually we are to land on the west coast in iconic county Galway, a place where poems, songs, and films, along with real salt of the earth people, are made.
We start the trip at Heuston, Dublin’s main (and dare I say charming) Victorian railway station, after a cab ride with a well dressed, white-haired Irishman who had obviously been there for some time. “They don’t mind waiting,” the hotel clerk had told us the night before, as we stared, wondering if we could have heard him right. Apparently, we did. We arrive early at Heuston after a short 15-Euro fare. Already, two men are standing in the bright yellow jackets we’re supposed to seek out.
We get our tickets and wait for our first train. Our group is composed of west coast overnighters and Limerick day-trippers, so it starts larger and gets much smaller. We west-coasters spend the day with Norman, a 78-year old native of Limerick about whom no one we meet can say enough glowing, admiring things. Aside from the view on the plane, this is where we get our first look at the countryside. It still looks to me like a giant green Monarch wing, but close up now, with dark stone walls and hedges outlining the random shapes of smallish farms. It seems every other farm has its own ruins, or if not, every small townland has some crumbled ancient site in its midst.
Our first stop is Bunratty Castle and Folk Village. The castle, restored from its own crumbling condition in the 1950s, comes with its own tour guide who tells us it took 25 years to construct this fourth structure on this site of an old Norman stronghold circa 925. I lose track in the history lesson involving lots of names like Clare (as in County Clare), O’Brien and McNamara, but I take note when he mentions the castle falling under rule of “the neighboring island.” (Is it impolite to say British when talking about historical conflict?)
We stand in a large room where we’re told soldiers ate, slept, and kept a lit fire day and night, possibly for their whole lives. My mind is littered with filmic images of ironclad men ripping meat from turkey legs and brawling about where they sleep, all whilst gesturing wildly with a mug full of grog. Irish people, I swear I haven’t seen Braveheart. It’s all the other movies. Okay, and Game of Thrones.
Our guide points out the several built-in defenses, such as trapdoors in the floor, a dungeon down a dark winding stair that ends in a 15-foot drop, and all the steep staircases with the railing to the right so right-handed invaders had trouble using swords as they stormed up. I can almost hear the banging and echoing armor that must have filled these spaces, not necessarily in battle but just from walking from point A to point B. Even I can barely fit through some of these narrow, squat doorways in my armor-free condition.
The folk park, on the other hand, is as peaceful, open, and quaint as can be as we wander through the village’s main street and step inside thatched-roof stone huts. Norman says the smell of burning peat and its characteristic blue smoke bring him back to the 40s, when his family spent weeks in such huts during summer vacation.
Our little group is done early and we board our small, comfy shuttle bus and stare out the window as we change counties and the landscape becomes darker and rockier. I’m so tired again, this time from getting not one minute of sleep the night before, for no apparent reason. I can never doze for long, not wanting to miss anything, and also because of the regular hard bumps in the road. A couple of time we stop to see something alongside the road, such as a Famine Graveyard that represents people nearby who died in the famine of the mid-1800s. Once, Norman stops by a small green field and tells us that this is where the fairies come out at night to dance.
Soon we’re in County Clare, just six of us, and we pass as close as we’re going to get to Killaloe, a little town where the Powers-Glasheen line of our family tree originates. Norman pronounces it Killaloo, but I think this is his particular Limerick accent because a Dubliner said it Killalow as I did. He says it’s a nice little fishing village on the River Shannon and then gets distracted by his cell phone. He’s either talking to someone about his schedule, or trying to get hold of someone about our next stop.
We continue for some time through the area known as The Burren, the characteristic dark rocks reaching from the sea to the hills. Dry rock walls become more prominent the further west we go, and after some discussion with the driver and another cell phone call, Norman reveals that we have time for an unscheduled stop at the ruins of a mysterious and isolated abbey. We leave the main road and approach Corcomroe Abbey.
Corcomroe Abbey is said to have been built late in the 12th century by Donal Mór Ua Briain, who built other religious houses including St. Flannans Cathedral in Killaloe – yes, that Killaloe, the birthplace of Anna (Powers) Glasheen, our maternal grandmother’s maternal grandmother. It is perfectly blustery and drizzly as we approach, and the plaintive wooOOOooo through the dry stone walls is appropriately haunting. I’m not one who finds graveyards spooky. On the contrary, to me they’re charming outdoor museums. The earliest grave is from the late 1600s. The latest I see is from 2011, which includes not one but two epitaphs: “Deeds, not words,” and “The greatest sin of all is to think that life is not good.” The words echo in my mind the rest of the day.
We even find another grave of a young man who died at 20 in 1896 and whose site is freshly decorated with gifts. Then I see a Farrell grave. Our Farrells were from Northern Ireland, but I’m told they hail originally from somewhere in the heart of Ireland. I’ll admit, even if I can’t prove it, I don’t mind holding onto this romantic notion that my ancestral homeland goes back to somewhere in the very Celtic heart of this very serene place.
I’m tickled when I find we’re stopping at a pub in Doolin, the place my cousin’s daughter recommended from her Ireland trip earlier this year. The light seems different here, maybe as it reflects off the ocean in huge crashing waves onto the rising cliffs. In the pub, the walls are lined with pictures of travelers like us. I leave another homemade bookmark on the wall, this one of great-grandpa Farrell, his three daughters, and Mom as a kid. Now they’re in Ireland.
We head further west and climb up, up, up, not far from Doolin, and spend over two hours at the top at the Cliffs of Moher. It’s windy and rainy but we eventually get sun and calm on this late November coastal day. A man plays flute on the pathway and when I see them for sale, I can’t resist buying one from this dog.
Okay, from this dog’s person, the shop owner. I then have lots more time to go around taking pictures from all angles. I find a meditation room on one end of the lot. From the other end, I watch from safe perches as others climb off the path in what looks to me like sheer inches from sudden death to take their pictures. I guess if you’re going to plunge to your untimely death, this would be the place to do it.
We’re on our way to the city of Galway now, and the cows have turned into sheep. (Not literally.) We end the day in Galway at a beautiful hotel, Norman heads back to Dublin after a Guinness with a tour guide friend, and Sharon finds the Claddagh ring she’s been looking for. There’s a rugby game on in every pub, Ireland v. Australia, and people seem rather, uh, invested. We have dinner in a quiet hotel restaurant and call it a night. Tomorrow is another day on the coast and Connemara Bay to the north of Galway, and the main attraction of Kylemore Abbey. To be continued soon in Ireland’s Mid/west: Day Two. . .