Category Archives: solo woman travel

Good-bye Bog, Hello Wicklow

My housesitting experience came to an end Sunday as my second hosts returned home, and I wasted no time putting the midlands of Ireland behind me on Monday morning. Good-bye soggy bogs, grey skies and same-same views. Hello lovely east coast, great coffeeshops and the sparkling waters of the Irish Sea.

My nearest neighbors in the midlands. ©Marcie Miller

My nearest neighbors in the midlands. ©Marcie Miller

Midlands review in a nutshell: It is a nice place to visit, on your way somewhere else. As a tourist, two days with a good list of things to see there would be plenty.  My two months of housesitting worked out very well; I feel lucky to have found both of them so quickly and I have no regrets there. But, if I do this again, I think I would look for appointments farther apart. Live and learn. But more on that in another post.

Wicklow Harbor - feels like coming home.

Wicklow Harbor – feels like coming home.

I moved on to Wicklow Town, a six-hour bus trip from Roscommon Town, and a world away. OK, well it is still Ireland, but Wicklow is set on green, rolling countryside running down to the sea, where sailboats mix with fishing boats, and swimmers in wetsuits maneuver around the boats at anchor in the harbor. The Irish have a passion for swimming in the sea all year, often without wetsuits. Keeps them tough I guess.

Dublin is an hour train or bus ride to the north, with plenty of interesting stops along the way. The coastal stretch from Dublin to Greystones (approx. 10 miles north of Wicklow) is historically where the rich from Dublin used to come on holiday — back when 20 miles was a long way to go. The towns are chock-a-block with stately Georgian homes, and it really feels like stepping back in time as you stroll the promenade along the beach.

I’m staying in a historic Georgian house on Bachelor’s Walk, which runs along the Leitrim River, parallel to the shore. It’s now  Capt. Halpin’s Hostel. I thought it would be quieter and cheaper than staying in Dublin for the final 10 days. And there is only one other hostel between here and Dublin. The room I’m sitting in, the parlor, has an original marble fireplace, high ceilings, a crystal chandelier and upright piano. It smells musty, but that’s pretty much the smell of Ireland. It used be Leitrim Lodge and it’s claim to fame is that the town’s most famous citizen, Capt. Halpin, once lived here. I had to share a bunk room with three smelly, and I do mean smelly, boys last night, but for the rest of the time I’ll be in an all-girl room.

Enough for now — sun’s out, time to go strolling!

This Time it’s Personal: Searching for My Family’s Irish Castle

Mornine Castle, keep of the Farrell clan in Co. Longford, still stands after 500 years. ©Marcie Miller

Mornine Castle, keep of the Farrell clan in Co. Longford, still stands after 500 years. ©Marcie Miller

I’m often asked in Ireland if my family is from here. Yes, I say, but both sides emigrated in the 1750s and we’ve never traced them to living relatives in the “ould country.” I don’t mention that my Irish ancestors were Scots-Irish Protestants, sent to America with healthy land grants to water down the brewing rebellion. But that’s another story.

My maternal ancestors were the Farrells, which came to be spelled Ferrel in America. The Farrell and O’Farrell clan are centered in Co. Longford, about 40 miles from where I’m staying. Here’s the Farrell history in a nutshell:

“The O’Fearghails were one of the four chief clans of the Conmhaicne, the race of Conmhac , son of legendary Fergus MacRoigh and Queen Maedhbh (Maeve).  Fearghal, King of Conmhaicne,  fought alongside Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf and there lost his life in battle. His descendants thereafter took the surname of Uí Fhearghail -descendants of Fearghal. The name Ferghal means ‘Man of Valour’. The Uí Fhearghail went on to become Princes of the territory of Anghaile (Annaly), a kingdom which included all of  County Longford as well as parts of Westmeath and Leitrim. Their chief seat of power was Longphort Ui’ Fhearghail or O’Farrell’s fortress, the present-day Longford town.  Other sites in County Longford  associated with the clan are Moatfarrell (Móta Uí Fhearghail), in the east of  Longford (Annaly) between the present day towns of Ballinalee and Edgeworthstown, and Mornine Castle close to Moydow.”

Spiral stairs to nowhere hang on the ruined castle walls. ©Marcie Miller

Spiral stairs to nowhere hang on the ruined castle walls. ©Marcie Miller

Pretty cool, huh?  When my mother went to Ireland with me in 2003 she was very excited about finding the “Ferrel castle” so we made a special trip to Longford, which is not really that scenic or on the way to anywhere. But…she forgot the paperwork saying where the castle was, so after making a meager attempt at driving around randomly looking for it, we gave up (we were about 20 miles off). She was very disappointed. So this time, 10 years later, I was determined to find it for her. With the internet, it was pretty easy to track down its general location, as mentioned above — “Mornine Castle, close to Moydow.”

I carefully studied its location on the map, noted the roads that would take me there from Roscommon town, what small towns were nearby that might be mentioned on road signs, then set off…forgetting my map on the kitchen table. Must be a family trait.

I had seen a picture of it on the internet though, so basically knew what I was looking for and where. Sure enough, after only a short time of wandering the byways I spotted it across a field — a simple, square tower about 40 feet tall, looking a bit worse for wear at 500 years old. It was on a slight hill in the pasture of a working farm, with tin cowsheds huddled below. As is the custom in Ireland, if there’s not a locked gate or NO ENTRY sign, I figure it’s open for business. Haven’t been shot yet. In this case there wasn’t even a fence to climb over. Two farm boys seemed totally disinterested in talking, probably bored with another tourist coming to look at the old pile of stone.

A vertical lengthwise crack could spell the end for Mornine Castle. ©Marcie Miller

A vertical lengthwise crack could spell the end for Mornine Castle. ©Marcie Miller

“Castle” is a generous description — it was built more for defense than comfort, with no fancy crenellations, turrets or moats; just a sturdy block of stones from which to survey the countryside and see the enemy coming. One side has completely tumbled down, and the stone spiral stairs end in midair. The story goes that a cow once got stuck going up the stairs so they had to knock a hole in the side to get it out.

As I stumbled my way over fallen stones buried in the tall, wet grass around the base, I tried to gauge whether I felt a connection, a kinship, to the Farrells, my ancestors who built this tower and ruled in Co. Longford for nearly a 1,000 years. I laid my hand on the lichen-covered stones at the base, set in place in the 15th century. Would my ancestors recognize my genetic connection and try to reach out to me across the ages? I closed my eyes and concentrated. Birds warbled, cows mooed, tractors churned in the distance. The smell of manure wafted on the summer breeze… Nope, not a thing. The castle seemed as bored with me as the farm boys. But did I feel something? No, not really. But I was glad to have found it, if only to tell my mother that it still exists, and to take these pictures as proof that I was there.


Irish Music Served Here

Follow the piper to the best trad music pub in Ireland, The Crane Bar. ©Marcie Miller

Follow the piper to the best trad music pub in Ireland, The Crane Bar. ©Marcie Miller

Hostels are like crossroads where travelers meet, exchanging tips and information which often lead one to change one’s travel plans and head off in a new direction. Galway wasn’t originally in my travel plans, but then, neither was Inishmore. But if I hadn’t stayed at the Kilronan hostel on Inishmore I wouldn’t have met Rachel, who told me about the Galway Sessions, a weeklong extravaganza of  music going on throughout Galway. So I shortened my island stay and hopped on the ferry, bound for the mainland.

I was happy to see that many musical events were taking place at my favorite pub in Ireland, The Crane Bar. Most of the pubs in Galway are heavily touristed, but the Crane is still enough off the beaten path to actually be patronized by locals. It’s also difficult to find—as I told one friend, you almost have to be lost to find it. But when you have wandered down the labyrinthine streets of Galway for what seems like hours, the sight of a full-sized Irish whistle player painted on the side of a bright green and white building tells you you’ve found the home of real Irish music.

Unlike the pubs in Doolin, you won’t find a horde of cameras and smart phones fixed on the musicians, with flashes going off at random. I did take a few pictures, but sans flash they aren’t very good. It’s best just to sit back and be in the moment.

The Crane has not one but two levels, both with full bar, both offering live music most nights of the week. When I arrived on Friday night I headed to the upstairs bar, where the audience was awaiting the Northern Irish band, Beoga (Irish for ‘lively’). The pony-tailed bartender was pouring Guinness non-stop, with a few simple mixed drinks and lagers on the side.

A stage lines one wall, with low tables and stools crowded right up to the edge. Even though it’s a small space, it has excellent acoustics and a sound system. I talked to the sound engineer, who said the Crane was the best place for live music in Galway, with phenomenal acoustics for a small room. And unlike the rowdy pubs on Shop Street where the music is just a backdrop for drinking, people come to the Crane to listen. In fact they have christened the upstairs bar “The Listening Room.”

Also unlike many pubs now in Ireland, the Crane doesn’t serve food. I heard a tourist ask if they had food, to which the bartender replied, “No, this is a bar.” Ha! They do serve peanuts though.

I found a stool at the end of the bar and signaled for a Guinness. I watched as the bartender poured the perfect pint—fill it slowly to within two inches of the top (just to the harp logo), let it sit one minute to settle, then slowly top it off, leaving a one inch creamy foam head. Once it’s served you have to wait another minute while it stops roiling and comes to its inky black state of perfection.

I sat there quietly sipping my beer and waiting for the music to start, but when I finally said something to the older Irish  gentleman seated next to me he looked surprised, then said, “I thought you were Irish!” Compliment taken. I’ve never seen a solo Irish woman in a bar, and they don’t usually order pints—it’s not considered ladylike. Instead they order by the “glass,” which is a diminutive half pint.

Clandestine smart phone shot of Beoga at the Crane Bar, Galway. ©Marcie Miller

Clandestine smart phone shot of Beoga at the Crane Bar, Galway. ©Marcie Miller

The walls of the Crane are lined with photos of the Irish musicians who have played there, legends in their profession but practically unknown outside of Ireland. I wondered if the band of young musicians taking the stage felt their presence. The band made their own history that night, playing a mix of traditional tunes, new songs and adaptations. Lead singer Niamh Dunne has that winning combination of great voice, killer fiddle playing and cute as a button. Bodhran (Irish drum) player Eamon Murray brought down the house with the penultimate number – a long, long drum solo that would have made Steppenwolf proud. By the end everyone in the room was whooping, whistling and clapping as hard as they could. The energy seemed both condensed and magnified by the small room. It was a night to remember, or, just another night at the Crane.

I took a break Saturday, but spent most of Sunday at the bar, with the set trad session in the afternoon and a Galway Session-ending evening concert by Rue de Canal. No, that doesn’t sound very Irish—the band is a blend of  music by Belgian accordionist Serge Desunnay and Irish musicians Kieran Fahy and Ray Barron. The band really brought home how much Celtic music has influenced, and been influenced by, other cultures. Those Celts got around.

And no, I’m not giving you directions to the Crane Bar. You’ll just have to discover it for yourself.