Sunday, August 14, 2016

Day 11: Achill Island

The next day was largely taken up with a tour of Achill Island.   Our first stop was Grace O'Malley's castle.  She was the chieftain of a powerful seafaring family, and became famous as a sea captain and a pirate.  

By our standards it's a pretty small castle (though she did have many other properties)- the 'castle' is a 15th century tower house.  

We followed the Atlantic coast route with a number of scenic stops.  Here's Ashleam Bay.  

Our extremely skillful driver took the bus along the appropriately named and inappropriately terrifying Sky Road.  Apparently in Ireland, guardrails are for the weak and cowardly.  Like me.

The island is remote, but there has been in the last several decades a lot of building of seasonal properties, though there are still plenty of farms.  

We stopped at Keem Bay, once the home of Captain Charles Boycott.   Boycott was said to be a cruel landlord, so much so tenants refused to work for him.  And so his name has entered the English language.  The beach is lovely, however.  JT and I and several others of the tour members could not resist going wading.  It was cool, but not so chilly as to discourage hardy swimmers.  
Our lunch stop was the lovely little town of Westport, on the Carrowbeg river.  We were charmed to see signage for a local folk and bluegrass music festival.  

We visited Doolough Valley, and heard the sad tale of the Doolough Tragedy.  
"On Friday 30 March 1849 two officials of the Westport Poor Law Union arrived in Louisburgh to inspect those people in receipt of outdoor relief to verify that they should continue to receive it. For some reason the inspection did not take place and the officials went on to Delphi Lodge – a hunting lodge – 19 kilometres (12 miles) south of Louisburgh. The people who had gathered for the inspection were thus instructed to appear at Delphi Lodge at 07:00 the following morning if they wished to continue receiving relief. For much of the night and day that followed therefore seemingly hundreds of destitute and starving people had to undertake what for them, given their existing state of debilitation, was an extremely fatiguing journey, in very bad weather.

A letter-writer to The Mayo Constitution reported shortly afterwards that the bodies of seven people, including women and children, were subsequently discovered on the roadside between Delphi and Louisburgh overlooking the shores of Doolough lake and that nine more never reached their homes. Local folklore maintains the total number that perished because of the ordeals they had to endure was far higher."
We could only imagine what it would have been like to walk this remote path on uneven roads in bad weather, for people who were already weak from prolonged starvation.  

We stopped for more photos at Aasleagh Falls, on the river Errif. 

And I walked down to the river's edge below the falls for look at the downstream view. 

We stopped in Leenane, at the top of the Killary Fjord- very striking. 

And then we finally drove to the next hotel, the Renvyle House and Resort.  We had a little time before dinner, so naturally JT and I were out of the hotel and walking out toward the beach almost as soon as we arrived.  

We had a lovely walk along the shore, trekked out to a ruined tower we spotted out off in the distance and then opted to loop around by the road and come back to the resort up the main drive (which we hadn't seen coming in, as the bus was too large, and had had to go around to the back of the hotel), and took a quick peek at the gardens- at that point we'd been out longer than we had intended, and had to hustle in to make it to dinner and the after-dinner music.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Day 10: From Glencar Lough to the Great Western Greenway

Sunday June 12

The next day was grey when we set out, but the weather varied wildly throughout the day, in, as we were learning, a typically Irish way.   Our guides once again efficiently issued us umbrellas as we piled out to view the Glencar waterfall, with undampened enthusiasm. 
We took the circular path that led looped up alongside the waterfall and then back down to Glencar Lough.  Lough is pronounced like the Scots "loch", or sometimes with the terminal 'ch' softened even more, and of course it means lake.  Glencar Lough is a small freshwater lake, surrounded by hills and scenic sheep.  No doubt the sheep were arranged for our benefit.  
When we reached our lunch stop in Ballina, the weather was clearing noticeably.
We surveyed our available lunch options -somewhat less extensive on a Sunday- but found a nice litte cafe and ate quickly so we could explore.  
According to the informative plaque we found along the river, Ballina is a center for sport fishing- salmon.  Their pedestrian bridge (above) is designed to convey the impression of a fishing rod, drawn back to cast.    And lest we think that this was mere hyperbole- 
- we did indeed see people fishing, and catching fish!  Although I believe from the stance of the second man, that the size of the fish is getting larger before they've even got it to shore (he appeared to be rehearsing the tale of how it was caught). 
It was a quite pretty town, and we had to tear ourselves away and walk briskly to get back to the bus in time.

From their we went to a historic site called Ceide Fields, which will take some explaining.   After the ice sheets receded from Ireland around 12000BC,  people began moving north in the wake of the ice.  The first people were hunter-gatherers, but around 4000 BC, new people arrived, practicing the newfangled art of agriculture.   And some of these people settled at the site of Ceide Fields.  They build in stone and wood, and walled in numerous fields used for grazing cattle and growing crops.   The site was inhabited for several hundred years, and then the bogs came.  The site became less and less fertile and was abandoned.  Over time the bog covered it over.  It was rediscovered in the 1930s by a farmer cutting peat.  He immediately realized that he had found something significant- the bog had taken thousands of years to form, and yet he'd found stone walls underneath it.   Forty years later, the farmer's son, now an archeologist, started the excavation of the site.  It is several square miles in area, and represents the oldest known field system in the world. 
Unfortunately our tour was cut short, as by then the wind was fairly blasting in from the coast driving drizzle and occasional bursts of rain before it.  
This did give us ample time in the quite excellent visitors center, however.   They had a remarkable exhibit on the mechanics of bog formation.  Bogs form when water is caught standing on the landscape, and seals in successive layers of vegetation anaerobically- things need oxygen in order to decay.  Had the bog been left alone for a few million years, the bottom layers would have eventually become coal.  

What was fascinating to me, is that it's quite possible that the farmers themselves triggered the bog formation when they cleared the land.  Before they came, the land was covered in thick pine forests that would have absorbed much of the water that fell on the land.  After it as cleared, that ran fell on the land.  Several feet below the surface of the site is an iron pan, a layer of iron salts.  These might have occurred naturally- exacerbated by the additional water hitting the site- or they might have been made worse by the charcoal washing through the soil after the original woodland was burned to clear it.   Regardless, the site became gradually barren and was left to be covered over in a state of almost complete preservation by the bog.  Any remaining pines were drowned and then buried.  This amazing example stands in the visitor center- 4500 years later.  
If you're interested, I recommend this lovely article that the New York Times published on it some time back- they evocatively described Ceide Fields as "a Pompeii in slow motion".  By the sound of it, the NYT writer's tour took place in the same weather that we had.  

And yet by the time we reached our hotel in Mulranny, overlooking Clew Bay, the weather had substantially cleared.   The hotel was gorgeous, with spacious rooms and a bathroom bigger than some hotel rooms we've stayed in, tiled in locally quarried slate.   We joked that if any of our fellow tourers were late to dinner we'd have to notify the staff to send out search parties in case they'd gotten lost in the bathroom.    But we did have over an hour until dinner, and the rain had stopped, so we set off in search of the rumored bike path.    We did run into some other guests, but they didn't seem to know where we would find it. 
However we located it on our own easily enough. It's part of the 42 km (26 mile) Great Western Greenway, a rail trail following the route of the former Great Western Railway.  And it's absolutely fantastically gorgeous.  From the views of Clew Bay- 
To brilliant swathes of gorse lining the path- 
To the fields and cottages laid out along the trail in pastoral splendor. 
It started misting gently as we were on our way back to the hotel, but held off the actual rain until we were undercover.  And then it was another splendid dinner followed by music.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Day 9: Megaliths and Innisfree

Saturday June 11
For our second day of the tour we were slated to see sights in the general vicinity of Sligo.   Sligo is has two massive landmarks- the hill of Knocknarea, topped by Queen Maeve's cairn, a large mound believed to contain a passage tomb (like the one we saw at Newgrange) though it has never been excavated.   The second landmark is the rock formation of Benbulbin, which we often glimpsed in the distance as the bus moved from site to site.


Our first stop was the court tomb of Creevykeel, a vast structure surrounding a dolmen, a single chamber tomb marked by two or more upright stones capped by another 'table' stone.

The sight also had a vast hawthorn grove of 'blessing trees'.  The custom is to tie a bit of fabric around the tree as a wish for ones own health or that of a loved one.  Note all the strips of fabric tied to the branches.

From there we passed close to the coast, with a brief photo stop.  The scenery was stunningly beautiful

Next was Drumcliff Churchyard, a lovely little church and the burial place of William Yeats.  This was to be a very Yeats-heavy day.

Our next stop was the megalithic tomb complex of Carrowmore, where we had a fascinating tour.  

He told us that the central tomb area had been heavily reconstructed (as had the exterior of Newgrange).    At the entrance is a 'footprint stone'

As with Newgrange and many other major tomb complexes, it sits on a hill, with lovely views in every direction.

There was a lunch break in Sligo, and then we set out for our last two sights of the day at Lough Gill. The first was Parke's Castle, a plantation era castle.  In this context plantation refers to English settlers who were offered land in 16th and 17th centuries after the conquest of Ireland.  In 1610 Robert Parke built a fortified manor house on the site of an ealier O'Rourke castle.   He kept some of the original walls and the base of the original tower can be seen in the courtyard of the castle today.

The prior O'Rourke owner was executed and all his property confiscated for harboring a shipwrecked Spanish officer from the Armada...who of course would have been a fellow Catholic.

The interior structure of the castle was extensively restored at the end of the last century, with appropriate period building techniques used throughout.   The structural elements were left exposed so that visitors could see them.  We duly admired the timber roof (done entirely without nails).

And also got to see the inside of a thatch roof.

As romantic as thatched roofs look from the outside, as described they are not for the faint of heart, as it involves living with a whole ecosystem overhead.   The roof timbers were made from local trees, then the smaller rods were laid perpendicular to support an underlayer of turf that was cut, rolled up, and then unrolled across the roof in long strips.  Smaller branches were bent into a U-shape and used to anchor each sheaf of thatching material- of which there are a variety of varying quality and longevity.    Ordinarily, the inside of the roof would be covered, but this, like the castle timbers was left open so the structure could be seen.  They did have to cover the outside with very unperiod chicken wire, however, to discourage the birds from burrowing through the thatch and nesting inside the building.

The tour finished with a walk through their permanent exhibit on Irish vernacular architecture- that is buildings that were built over the ages by the people who lived them or used them.  A remarkable number of these still exist, many of them still used as houses, barns and outbuildings.

We barely had time to do it justice, however, as our last event of the day was a boat tour around Lough Gill, most famous as the site of the Lake Isle of Innisfree from Yeats's poem;
"And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings."

It was easy to see why Yeats loved the place.  The boat captain recited several of Yeats' poems for us from memory as we cruised around.

And then it was back on the bus to Sligo, and an excellent dinner, and more music in the evening. This time our guides were joined by uillean piper Tommy Keane with his wife Jacqueline McCarthy on concertina.   They were outstanding.  Naturally we got a CD.

And when we returned to our rooms, we found that our laundry (which we had dropped off in the morning) had been returned.   Now, we had opted for the cheapest (though still expensive) bulk laundry option, and frankly we wouldn't much have cared if the laundry was even folded, so long as it was clean.  But it was not just folded, it was pressed with military precision- even the T-shirts and JT's jeans.  And organized by color.  Even the ancient long-sleeved denim shirt I'd brought as an extra layer was meticulously pressed, put on a hangar and sheathed in a long plastic cover.   None of these clothes had looked so good since we had bought them!  JT and I were almost sorry that they had to be rolled up and put straight into our backpacks- but we did it anyway, because in the morning we were to check out and head out to the coast, and eventually to our next hotel in Mulranny.