Saturday, March 24, 2012

My Big Fat Irish Vacation: Day 6: Connemara

 A bit of geography here. Galway and its bay are on the west coast of Ireland. The the south is County Claire with The Burren and the Cliffs of Mohr. To its north is Connemara. We wanted to see both, so Galway made a great base to work from. The Tourist Information Office found us a B&B in the same general area DunRovin was in, Salt Hill. Ross House was actually larger, with a bigger bedroom, and a very nice living room that was the perfect place to curl up with a glass of wine and catch up on my journal. All B&Bs like to say they are "homey," but Ross House actually fit the bill.

Having discovered the joys of letting somebody else do all the driving and navigating, we were thinking about taking a bus tour of Connemara, one of Ireland's great beauty spots. Our landlord, Sharon, piped up and told us that one of the bus companies could pick us up at the house - no figuring out what to do with the car! One bus ticket cost about a Euro more than it cost us to park the car all day in Galway, so that was a no-brainer. So we joined another pair of Americans who were staying at Ross House and caught the bus at the head of the street - I, at least, feeling like an overage school child while we waited in the early morning damp.

Our first stop was our first Irish ruin, Ross Errily Friary. It was founded in the mid-1400's by the Franciscans. The community thrived until the English Reformation. The friars came and went depending on the political winds of the times, but finally left for good around 1740. I soon discovered one of the Big Drawbacks to bus tours – you can't poke around as long (or as briefly) as you like. We only had 15 minutes here. I could have spent hours!

Loch Nafooey, County Galway
Connemara is noted for it wild beauty. Even on such a gloomy day as this one was, it is a striking place. It is also known for the Connemara pony and the tough sheep that graze its hills. The sheep have a habit of getting onto the roads, and it is up the drivers to avoid them, not the other way around! At one point we had four trotting down the road headed right for the bus.
Connemara Sheep, who have complete confidence in the power of the disc brake.
 Tony the Connemara pony has a sweet gig. He galloped alongside the bus until we stopped. I wondered what the excitement was about until the bus driver got out with a bag full of apple slices. Small wonder he was so happy to see us!
Tony the Pony's place.
A bit of an essay here about Ireland in general, and Connemara in particular. For somebody like me from a country with barely 200 years under its belt, the sense of history here is amazing. The Tombs at Bru Na Boinne predate the pyramids; hills all over Ireland were capped with circular "ring forts" put up by the people who preceded the tomb builders. Round towers built during the Viking invasions 1000 years ago dot the countryside, as do the ruins of castles whose origins may go back farther than that. It's humbling to be in a place where so many have gone before.

The remnants of history that touched me the most were those connected to the potato famine. The potato blight was actually the second blow to the Irish in the mid 1800's. In 1839, a huge storm nearly destroyed the fishing fleet - a serious blow to a people hugely dependent on fish for their food. They were still struggling to put those pieces back together when the potato blight hit - and hit again. And again. The famine lasted from 1845-1851. Countries all over Europe suffered from the potato blight, but Ireland was far and away the worst, in large part because of the political situation of the day. The English landlords owned the land; the native Irish had to rent their cottages and farms from them. What was described to me sounds a lot like the American sharecropper system, and just as hopeless a hole for the people who actually worked the land. Even as the Irish starved, the English landlords were exporting other crops by the ton from Ireland for sale in overseas markets. Some landlords had decided there was more profit in sheep than in farming, and were putting the people off the land at the same time. To make sure they wouldn't come back, they would pull the roofs off the cottages. You see these roofless stone cottages all over the place; the locals call them "famine cottages." Ireland had 8 million people in the 1841 census; today the population is finally up to half that number.

Connemara was particularly hard hit. The locals had built up beds on the hillsides, using seaweed and sand to create friable soil - you can still see the lines of these "lazy beds" up and down the mountains. When the potato crop failed, they had little else to turn to. It was here I saw my first "famine walls." 
Two and three years into the famine, it was becoming plain to all of Europe that Ireland was in serious trouble. The English landlords began looking for some way to help.They were afraid that just giving the Irish food would make them lazy, but that having them break rock and build pointless walls and roads would teach them the value of working for their bread. It seemed to have escaped the Landlords' notice that many of the people were in such bad shape that said work was killing them. You still see these around the landscape, always, it seems to me, in the middle of nowhere. When I did the math, I realized that my great-grandparents would have been growing up right in the middle of all this. Small wonder their children left for America at the first opportunity.

History lecture/consciousness raising over. On to brighter, happier things...

We stopped for lunch at the little town of Cong, a town dedicated to the proposition that just because it's been more than 60 years since John Wayne shot a movie there, there is no reason you can't still make some money off of it. It really is a pretty little town.
One of the rivers that flank the town of Cong
We studiously avoided all things "The Quiet Man" related, though in fairness to Cong, it wasn't that hard. But once again, the curse of the time schedule hit. I'd have loved to have had more time to explore Cong Abbey in the center of town. It dates back to the 1100's. We found out later there are also some very nice walks along the rivers on either side of the town. That would have been nice.
Cong Abbey

We got our chance to take our longed-for walk when we finally reached Kylemore Abbey. It had started out as a great house, built by a wealthy English businessman in the 1860's. Things went well for a while, until first his wife, then one of his children, died. He left the place. It went through several owners until World War I when Benedictine nuns from Belgium took it over and moved the girls' boarding school they'd been running from war-torn Belgium to Ireland. A combination of lack of nuns and lack of rich people interested in housing their daughters in the middle of nowhere -  if your daughter was one to get into trouble, she'd have had her work cut out for her trying to find any out here! - caused the school to close in 2010, though some of the nuns still live on the property.

Tom and I were not interested in seeing how either rich Englishmen or Benedictine nuns lived. Instead we headed for the woods - a proper walk at last!
The trees looked like something out of Tolkien's  Middle Earth - wrapped in layers of moss and ferns, huge and very wise-looking. The ponds and lakes were as still as any we saw that day, perfectly reflecting the surrounding hills. 
Tree framing one of the Twelve Bens
And I got to see my first European Robin! Turns out it is one of those gorgeous little birds the pictures just don't do justice to. The breast is not orange or yellow, it looks more like there is a living ember flitting around in the trees overhead. They are just little guys, but they pack a big punch.

We could have taken the bus all the way back to Ross House, but got off in Galway instead - we wanted to stop by an internet cafe so Tom could see how the Brewers were doing in the playoffs. That done, we just roved the town, looking for a place to eat but in a very desultory way. We poked our heads into a pub and there it was - American NFL on a big-screen television. Tom was at the bar before I really registered what was going on. I think it was the Lions playing somebody - what I mostly remember was a young man nearby who had apparently spent time in America and come to love NFL football. He was trying to turn his pals on to it, but they were not buying. I noshed some fabulous fish and chips and enjoyed his futile efforts. My appetite for dinner and Tom's for some American sports taken care of, we made our way across the Wolfe Tone Bridge and back to Ross House. Long as the walk was, I decided I could get used to this long stroll after dinner routine, at least when it was as through as interesting a place as Galway is.

We weren't really in a good signage area, so I had to settle for this rather unique county line sign in Cong--
I suppose they just want you to be sure where you stand.
Even if it is over water.