Sunday was another nice day, dry and in the 50s. We got up early despite being out half the night, and our landlady, Moira, laid out the usual, substantial spread.
The night before we had asked her the schedule for the Catholic church in town. Since many of the the pictures we’d studied in the family gallery in the front hall were taken in what was obviously a Catholic church, we figured she’d know. It turns out the one church in town had mass only at 7pm on Saturday and 11am on Sunday.
We were planning to head northwest into the Connemara region. This was our only day to cover all the west, as well as the town of Cong. If we waited until after 12 to get going, we would never get through it. There was no way I was going to drive around in the mountains after dark. So, hoping that God would understand, we paid our bill, loaded up the car and took off, unchurched. We resolved to go to St. Patrick’s in Dublin on Monday for Evensong, and said a prayer as we drove back down the dusty lane out of Kinvarra.
Galway is something like the 3rd largest city in Ireland. It’s also one of the most bohemian, artsy cities. Its on the edge of the Gaeltacht, which is the Irish speaking, wilder western side of Ireland. Galway is known for celebrating art and traditional music.
Or so we heard. We didn’t actually go there. All we experienced of Galway was their traffic as we tried to get around the outskirts of the city. That part wasn’t very bohemian. It had all the charm of driving around suburban shopping malls, and driving on the wrong side of the road had ceased to thrill.
Heading northwest on N59 was not promising for the first 15 miles or so out of Galway. The scenery consisted of houses and other buildings, close to each other and to the 2 lane road. There was a lot of traffic. Everyone seemed to be out for a Sunday drive.
Just past a golf course we spotted one of the distinctive brown signs that heralds a tourist-worthy location of some sort. As previously mentioned, these signs don’t always show the distance to the site. If they do, you have to be very clever, and schooled in higher mathematics, to realize that while 10 kilometers might not sound very far, it actually translates into 1312.69 miles. Or something like that. We had wasted hours on the way to Cork trying to find some elusive Abbey that apparently vanished into the mist like Brigadoon as soon as we got off the highway. Did we dare try another?
Serendipity! we cried. We turned around and drove down the side lane.
We were approaching Aughanure Castle. According to our guidebook, it was a well preserved example of an Irish tower house. It was built in 1500 by the O’Flahertys, whose family motto was “Fortune Favours the Strong”. In 1546 the O’Flahertys’ daughter married the son of the O’Malley family, motto “Powerful by Land and By Sea”. What the guidebooks don’t mention is the daughter had previously been wooed by the noble son of the house of O’Fallon, motto “Can’t We All Just Get Along?”. We’ll never know why Percival “Chicken Heart” O’Fallon was rejected.
In just a few miles the increasingly narrow, overgrown track emptied into a deserted parking lot. Like many sites we wanted to see, it wasn’t open for the season yet. But we got out of the car anyway, and walked down a long, winding path to the door of the castle. It was locked so we couldn’t get in, but it was a really peaceful, pretty area. I got a great shot of Lib sitting on a stone wall, contemplating our rich, Irish heritage and its impact on our lives today. Or else she was thinking about lunch. Not sure which.
Connemara isn’t a town or county, just a region in the west of County Galway. Clifden is the biggest town in the area. Its at the west end on the Atlantic coast so we chose that as our destination. We figured if we liked it, we’d spend the night. If not, we’d head back east to Cong, another place we didn’t want to miss.
Back on the road the houses and traffic started to thin out. We saw lots of signs for a 10k race that was being run that day, and feared we would have to detour. But luck was with us. The runners were always somewhere else. The sun came out and it was a beautiful day. The farther west we went, the more charmed we were.
Connemara was my favorite part of Ireland. The land isn’t good for much in the way of farming because it is mountainous and rather barren. Here, the sheep run free. We could see them high up on the mountain sides, as well as up close and personal as they wandered onto the roadway. They were long-haired and had numbers painted on them with bright blue or pink paint. Wonder how the paint goes over at mating time? Is it like makeup – does it make them more attractive to other sheep? If a ewe has too much paint, do the rams think she’s cheap and easy? That would be a good science fair project for someone.
As expected, the road here was narrow and twisting. We came around one particularly sharp corner and I was captivated by the view. We stopped to stretch our legs, mindful of the abundant sheep droppings. It looked like the Easter Bunny hid all of his leftover black jelly beans around here.
My kids don’t like the black jelly beans – the licorice flavor – but I do. They end up abandoned in the bottom of the kids’ baskets, under the paper grass. I finish them off as part of the ritual of putting all the Easter stuff away until next year.
Against a backdrop of mountains, there was a little lake. In the center of the lake was a little island, studded with fir trees. It was perfectly lovely. I wanted to build a little house on the little island in the middle of the little lake and live in the shadow of the tall mountains. But we got in the car and drove on, coming at last to Clifden around 1.
That Sunday happened to be Mother’s Day in Ireland. Which might explain why the charming harbor town of Clifden had apparently rolled itself up for the day. The downtown was a pretty good size, filled with interesting shops and restaurants. Unfortunately, only a handful are open.
When I was growing up, everything was closed on Sunday. When stores started staying open, Mom said it was terrible that people had to work and couldn’t be with their families, and we shouldn’t shop on that day to send them a message. I always agreed with that. In theory. In practice, it was darn annoying to have allotted a day to shopping, dining and possible pubbing in Clifden only to find everyone was off somewhere with their families instead of being stationed behind their cash registers where they belonged!
But that was just the tip of our disappointment iceberg.
All Richart family members know the old joke about the 2 dogs. But let me refresh your memories.
Indian boy asks his father: “How do we Indians get our names?”
Father says: “When squaw gives birth to child, she looks out flap of tepee. What she sees then, she names child. So your sister is Leaping Doe, your brother is Soaring Eagle. Why do you ask, Two Dogs Fornicating?”
OK, cleaned up for the general audience and definitely not politically correct, but all it takes is Dad to say “Why do you ask, Two Dogs?” to crack us all up. I wonder if the Kennedy’s snickered secretly at a dirty, family joke?
Anyway, during her online research for our trip, Lib had discovered that the harbour town of Clifden was home to a pub named, you guessed it, the Two Dogs Pub. That’s the real reason we took a whole day to drive to Clifden. According to the one person we could find who had ever heard of the Two Dogs, it had closed down some time before. Not even a storefront sign left for our picture-taking pleasure!
We did find a cute shop that sold homemade soaps and candles, and a thrift store with overpriced books. (Note we were able to find thrift stores just about everywhere we went – its a gift!) We walked around the downtown twice trying to settle on a place for lunch. We were kind of cranky and peevish and couldn’t agree on a place. Must have been the crushing Two Dogs disappointment, coupled with a lack of shopping opportunities. The place we ended up in wasn’t anything special, lacking in atmosphere and with really slow, unfriendly service.
By the time we got out of there, it was 4 and we knew we didn’t want to spend the night. We decided to head back east through the Connemara National Park and try to get to Cong before nightfall.
The mountains in Connemara are called the Twelve Pins. Sometimes they loomed in the distance, and sometimes the road took us right up against them. It was partly sunny, partly cloudy and the quality of the late afternoon sun gave an extra sheen to the landscape. We drove by Killary Harbour, a natural fjord, went through the town of Leenaun and miles of twisting roads with lakes here and there.
As mentioned, we were in the Gaeltacht. That is the western section of Ireland where they still speak Irish. All the road signs were in Irish, without the English version right next to it, as in the rest of the country. Irish words don’t necessarily sound anything like their English translation, so it made it “interesting” to try to figure out where we were.
Just 2-1/2 weeks before our trip, I had embarked on a rigorous training program to learn Irish. I ordered 3 different Irish language courses from the inter-library loan program and quickly learned Irish isn’t pronounced the same way its written. So I sent back the book and tapes and bought an MP-3 player. I figured out how it worked (without having to have Gwen do it for me, I’ll have you know!), and downloaded the two CD courses onto it. I listened to the CDs in the car, and the MP-3 player just about everywhere else; doing housework, power walking around the lake, but mostly on the treadmill. I was trying to get in shape for all the wonderful nature hikes we were going to take over the rolling, green hills of Ireland. So picture me at the YMCA most every evening, huffing and puffing on the treadmill, clutching my MP-3 player and muttering to myself in what sounded like gibberish.
While I was doing all this Irish cramming, Bill didn’t bother to hide his amusement. “Everybody speaks English there – you aren’t going to need to know Irish! You’re wasting your time.” But I was determined. So I mastered quite a few phrases, and was even getting into verb tenses and the like. I could handle greetings, ask about streets and roads, order food or drink, introduce myself, etc. Never did find out how to ask for the bathroom, so I recognize my education was not complete.
We didn’t go on any hikes, and I didn’t get to speak Irish with anyone. Nobody knew more than a few phrases most places we had been. Now that we were finally in the one place on earth where they DO speak Irish, we didn’t have time to stop.
We were passing the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen, but couldn’t enjoy it except in brief glances. Lib was trying to take pictures from the window of the car as we hurtled down the road as fast as safety would allow. I was determined that we were not going to be on the twisty, mountain roads when night fell, dealing with Irish-only signs and wandering sheep, and having no idea where we were going. There were no towns of any size between us and Cong, and Lib was determined that our last night in the country could not be pub-less.
Sometimes we would come around a bend and the view would make us gasp. This was Joyce Country, and I could believe the land had been his muse. The road wound past a placid lake, or lough, and hugged the base of a mountain littered with sheep scattered in ever-diminishing specks up nearly to the top. Around one bend we came suddenly upon Kylemore Abbey and both said “Oh, wow!” like a couple of country hicks. We simply had to stop.
The Abbey is a beautiful, huge mansion snuggled up to the base of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Its beauty is reflected in the calm waters of the small lake in front of it, and there is a private church further down the shore. It was given to an order of nuns about 100 years ago, and is now used as their Abbey, as well as a girls boarding school. Since it was out of season, the place was closed, but we were able to appreciate it from the parking lot.
After that refreshing pause, we continued on our way, barely able to make out the street signs in the gathering gloom. We finally made it to Cong just as full dark fell.
TaTa For Now,