The following entries are from my summer spent in Ireland in 2013. New blog posts will now appear under the Peace Corps Armenia tab. I hope…
As a traveler there comes that moment when you have to return home; when the visa, money or luck runs out. Sometimes all three. But while you may look forward to going home, it’s not always easy to pick up where you left off. Like an astronaut orbiting Earth, the world continues to turn without you, and while you, the returning voyager, may be keen to share your trip with friends and families, the truth is no one wants to hear about it as much as you want to talk about it. And instead of “how was it?” you’re more likely to hear the dreaded, “what are you going to do now?” You may have given up a job, house and anything else that anchors you to one spot, so you can be faced with the daunting task of rebuilding your life upon return.
Is it any wonder some travelers become permanent nomads? Given that humans are tribal, the traveler by default becomes part of a nomadic tribe; a tribe of outsiders. No one but another traveler can understand their “language,” and it can be difficult to try to assimilate back into the former, village-based tribe.
There’s a Buddhist saying, “you can’t step in the same river twice.” Life moves on, people move on, all while the traveler is off somewhere else. People get married, divorced, have babies, move and even die, all without the traveler. And the world doesn’t stop turning for your homecoming.
The digital world can create a false sense of connectedness, with the ability to post images on social media that draw raves, make Skype calls with video and yes, post adventures on blogs. In reality the medium has changed, but they are still just postcards. (And judging from the visitor count, very few people are reading them anyway.) And of course digital photos make sharing more difficult. It’s not easy to whip out the laptop and flip through pics anywhere, anytime.
People who don’t travel may have trouble relating to your experiences, and not even know what to ask. Conversations in which you want to share your adventures can devolve into talk of local gossip, which now seems inconsequential in your larger world view.
There is also a tendency on the part of the traveler to maximize the good times and minimize the bad, or the boring, which can make your trip sound a lot more exciting than it actually was. This in turn can make people feel their life is not as interesting as yours. So FYI, travel is not all fun and games. There are plenty of boring times, lonely times and, depending on your location, scary times. They just don’t make good reading.
The returning traveler basically has three choices: One: put away your passport and try to assimilate back into society, i.e. don’t talk about your trip unless asked; Two: find other members of the Travelers’ Tribe who can relate to your lifestyle; or Three: start planning your next trip.
Seamus Heaney, Poet — 1939 to 2013
I had the rare and sad privilege today of being part of history, as a packed cathedral in Donnybrook, Dublin, said goodbye to a great man.
Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney died Aug. 30 in a Dublin hospital, after a long battle with the effects of a stroke some years ago. He was 74.
I first learned about Heaney when Professor Fred Thompson at Peninsula College assigned his slim book of poems, “The Spirit Level,” as required reading for English comp 101. I remember discussing his classic poem, “Digging,” about how, while generations before him had used tools to dig for potatoes and turf, his “tool” was now the pen:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
When I was trying to decide to come to Ireland last May, I took out that poem and read it for inspiration, and courage. Substitute “keyboard” for “pen,” but I thought, that’s my tool too. Where better to wield it than in the land that produced Seamus Heaney, and so many other great writers? I even named this blog after his inspiration.
But I was far humbled today. I took the bus from Wicklow Town and arrived an hour early for the 11:30 a.m. service at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, a posh suburb of Dublin where Heaney lived. The media was already thick outside, including live coverage on the RTE (Irish TV). Rather than mill about watching for celebrities, I went in and secured a seat, third pew from the rear, left side, best for people watching. In the next hour the church filled to capacity and then some. Many people lined the sidewalk outside, waiting for a glimpse of the poet’s last trip, and the many A-listers who came to pay their respects.
Heaney’s funeral drew hundreds of mourners, from all the major political figures including Irish president Michael D. Higgins, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, to entertainers including Bono, The Edge, Shane McGowan and Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains. (Although truth be told I didn’t see the celebrities.)
Members of academia and the Irish literati made up the bulk of the attendees that filled the cavernous cathedral. Wild white hair, rumpled black suits and plaid mufflers were the order of the day, as well as more than a few tweed jackets with leather elbow patches. My seatmate pointed out one distinguished gentleman, with his white hair pulled back in a ponytail and tied with a black ribbon, as a member of the Guinness family. I wondered how many people had one of Heaney’s books in their pocket. They certainly had them in their hearts.
Master Uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn played during the ceremony, including a haunting version of the slow air, “Port na bPúcaí” (“Song of the Fairies”). Heaney collaborated with O’Flynn on an album, “The Poet and the Piper,” on which O’Flynn wove the tune with Heaney’s reading of “The Given Note,” which was also read at the service.
Seamus Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, but to his great credit he is known as a poet of all the people of Ireland, not just those in the north. As his coffin was carried out, headed for his final resting place in his hometown of Bellaghy in Co Derry, O’Flynn began softly playing the traditional Irish tune, “Óró, sé do bheatha abhaile,” (“Hurrah, Welcome Home”). The tune has a long history as a rebel song, and was a battle hymn sung by members of the Irish Volunteers during the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion.
Hairs rose on my arms and my eyes welled with tears as the entire congregation began singing along softly. These were a people united, saying goodbye to a close friend.
Rest in Peace, Seamus Heaney.
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.
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.
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
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.” http://www.longfordtourism.ie/heritage.php?scid=22&artid=22
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.
“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.
Ireland’s Great Houses: Going, Going…
Ireland’s history of war and oppression, and war against the oppressors, is nowhere more evident than in the crumbling estate houses that were once the glory of Ireland. Or at least, the glory of the English landlords.
And therein lies the rub. While visitors to Ireland look with dismay at the beautiful stately mansions that are decaying and falling away into piles of rubble, many Irish see it differently. Without delving too deeply into Irish history, basically the estate houses were built using the rent that tenant farmers paid to the (mostly) English landlords for their meager plots of land. The to-the-manor-born landlords lived in splendor, while their workers lived in squalor.
There are two main reasons for the demise of the estate houses, of which there were more than 6,000 across Ireland in the late 1700s. The first was the Land Wars of the 1870s to 1890s which led to much of the land being taken from the English and divided up amongst the tenants. Without one massive income, the estates were unsustainable. Some were purchased by Irish owners, but most of the English owners simply packed up and moved back to England, leaving the mansions to crumble.
To the tenants who couldn’t afford to purchase or live in them, they were symbols of dark times. Many were dismantled, with the stones carted off to build other houses, or stone fences. Others mysteriously burned to the ground.
The “big houses” which held on into the 20th century faced a new threat—Irish independence. Again the houses were targeted as symbols of English dominance and many were burned to force out the English owners.
While some estate houses where purchased during the boom years of the late 2000s and returned to their former glory, now they face a new threat—repossession. The banks have no desire to restore these white elephants, so they continue to decay and crumble, often to the point of no repair.
There are some groups in Ireland calling for the government to step in and preserve these national treasures, but the government doesn’t have the cash to be in the home repair business. Case in point is Tyrone House in Co. Galway, which belongs to the Irish Georgian Society. The government said it would provide the funds to restore, or at least preserve, this once magnificent house, but now it can’t. They can’t even provide the funds to repair Thoor Ballylee, the castle home of William Butler Yeats, which was damaged several years ago when the adjacent stream flooded. Once a visitor center, it’s been closed for several years.
A more recent example is Loughglynn House, once a glorious mansion whose landlords were generous and well-liked in the small village. It became a convent and school in the late 1800s and supported a thriving cottage dairy industry, but closed in the 1970s. It was purchased by a developer in 2002 for €2 million with plans to turn it into a luxury hotel. Then the developer went broke, and the bank seized the property. Now, with vandalism and lack of maintenance, it too is in danger of becoming derelict beyond repair, in just a few short years.
The loss of Ireland’s estate houses means a loss of Ireland’s tangible history. I hope more can be preserved before it’s too late.
Irish Antiquities—New and Improved
From standing stones to wedge tombs, the Irish countryside bristles with stone monuments created thousands of years ago, many older than the pyramids. Unfortunately, there has been a disturbing trend among those who should be protecting them, to instead “restore” them. The result is not history as it was, but as they imagined it was.
One of the most striking examples of this is Newgrange, the passage tomb in the Boyne Valley that was built as much as 6,000 years ago. After centuries of decay and pillaging in search of treasures, in the last 20 years it was reconstructed to become one of the country’s major tourist attractions. Visitors may now buy a ticket to enter the ancient passage tomb and admire the stone carvings and construction. Electric lights illuminate the graveled path. The outside has been reconstructed based on what they thought it probably looked like, using what remained of the fallen stones as a guide. The original creators left no written record, and certainly no building plans.
On the east coast, near Sligo, are two striking megalithic burial cairns, one restored and one undisturbed. Both are gigantic mounds of stones, but while the cairn at Carrowmore megalithic cemetery has been sliced and diced, Maeve’s Tomb has never been excavated. The latter is far more mysterious.
Maeve’s Tomb is said to be the final resting place of the mythical Goddess/Queen Maeve, who was legendary for her appetite for war and sex (usually a man’s domain in mythology). The legend says she is buried in full battle gear with all her weaponry, in an upright position facing her enemies in Ulster to the north. It measures 150 feet wide by 50 feet high. Archeologists think the cairn might hold a cruciform chamber similar to the one at Newgrange and other sites in the east of Ireland. It is estimated to have been constructed circa 2,500 BC.
The cairn tops Knocknarea and dominates the surrounding countryside. Sitting at 1,000 feet you can see it for miles, with its sloping sides, unique flat top and broad path slashing across the green flanks of the mountain. Many of the hills in this area are topped with cairns,but Maeve’s is, fittingly, the largest. Their origin and use is unknown, except that they date to the neolithic period, about 6,000 to 3,000 years ago.
Tradition says that visitors to Maeve’s grave are supposed to bring a stone to add to her cairn. Perhaps that’s why it’s so large, as thousands of people make the trek every year. It’s obvious this area once held great ritualistic significance to the early Celts, as the flat top of Knocknarea once held many satellite stone monuments. All but Maeve’s tomb have been pillaged and “explored” over the centuries. It’s been the fate of many ancient structures in Ireland to end up as part of a farmer’s stone wall.
While the curiosity to see what’s inside this massive monument to a queen is strong, the desire to preserve the monument—and the myth—for now is winning the battle.
For more information on Carrowmore and Maeve’s tomb visit the Megalithic Ireland site.
in the footsteps of legends
While visitors to Ireland are often enamored with the myths and legends of the “Emerald Isle,” modern day Irish people are often too busy with their day to day lives to be bothered with tales from the mystic past.
Case in point, yesterday a friend, Claire, invited me to go for a walk “up a little hill,” which turned out to be Sheemore, one of the most important locations in Irish mythology, as possibly the burial place of legendary hero, Finn Mac Cumhail (pronounced McCool). And the walk was an adjunct to the main event of the day—driving her husband to the neighboring county so he could pick up a vintage VW Beetle.
Along for the ride were Claire’s two youngest children, Katy, 3, and Finn, 6. As we stood in the yard of the Beetle owner, Claire pointed to a nearby small hill, topped with a large white cross. She asked the homeowner if she had ever been to the top.
“Sheemore? Oh no, sure I’ve lived here 30 years but never been up there,” she said in a raspy, smoker’s voice.
Wait, I thought. Sheemore? “As in Sheebeag Sheemore?” I asked. Blank looks. Sheebeag Sheemore is the first tune written by 17th century blind itinerant Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan. It’s based on the legend of a battle between rival bands of fairies that took place on the plains between the two hills (Sheemore: Big Fairy Hill and Sheebeag: Little Fairy Hill). Sheebeag is also reputed to be the burial place of Finn Mac Cumhail (details are murky), and a 20th century excavation revealed the bones of a man and woman, buried standing up and facing the Hill of Tara, the seat of power in ancient Ireland. Historians don’t know who these real-life skeletons might have been.
Sheemore is topped with three burial cairns which have not been excavated. It’s said that at Halloween, or Samhain (Saw-when), the fairies under the hill come out to play. I wondered what twisted logic went into erecting a 30-foot tall, illuminated cross on top of the main burial mound, in 1950’s “Holy Year.”
We stopped at a gas station in Lietrim to get sweets and ask directions. Claire asked the young clerk if he knew the story of the hill, and he said it was “something about Finn MacCool’s dog being buried up there.” “You’re supposed to take a stone, make a wish and place it on the pile,” he added helpfully, shrugging his shoulders. I haven’t found any reference to this being the burial site of either of Finn’s hounds.
As we went up the main road and turned left, then right, then right again at the fork, we passed a large monument to the “Ambush at Sheemore,” which marked the site of an ambush of British Black and Tan troops by the IRA in 1921 during the battle for Irish independence. The IRA volunteers fired down on the Black and Tans from the steep cliffside of Sheemore, killing one and injuring many. The Black and Tans retaliated by burning and looting nearby Carrick-on-Shannon. And so it goes.
There didn’t seem to be a parking area or marked trail up the gentler, grass-covered side of the hill, so Claire squeezed the mini-van onto a dirt shoulder and we headed up the hill. Six-year-old Finn clambered over a metal gate, three-year-old Katy right behind him. Her tomboy determination reminded me of myself at that age, wanting to do whatever my brothers did, no clue that I might be too little for their adventures.
Finn boldly led the way, and I couldn’t help feeling a connection between the Irish hero and this small boy who carried his name. I did wonder about his guide skills though, when he declared he was using sheep as landmarks.
As we reached the top, the panoramic view over three counties was impressive. The Shannon river wound to the west and south, with Lough Eidin in the distance, while the green rolling hills and fields dotted with cows and horses stretched in all directions. This was the midlands, the central core of Ireland that is seldom visited as tourists rush from one coast to the other. I am guilty of that myself, but standing on top of Sheemore, I could see what a shame it is that this area is overlooked.
As I looked across the grassy hilltop I marveled at the simple piles of stone that carried so much mythical baggage. What had happened here so long ago? In the lichen-covered stones beside the white concrete base of the cross, a large flat stone was held up by a group of smaller stones, leaving a small cave-like space.
“That looks like a wedge tomb, or a portal,” I said, pointing it out to Claire. “A what?” she said.
“A place where they might have buried people. This could have been a burial cairn,” I said. Was she suppressing an urge to shudder? Or cross herself?
“You have to wonder if the stones were put here on purpose or just piled up to clear the land,” she offered, voicing the opinion of many modern Irish people.
Finn and Katy had already headed off toward a cairn—or pile of rocks— across the flat top from the high point. Could this be the burial place of one of Finn’s bewitched hounds? Claire picked up a rock and placed it on the pile.
Little Finn climbed on top of a large flat stone, raising his arms as if in victory, every bit a hero.
irish music served here
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.
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.
A Farewell to Inishmore
As I stood at the stern of the ferry, watching Inishmore receding in the wake, I was glad that I had spent time here and gotten to know it a little better. But as my hand closed around the small gray beach stone in my pocket, I felt that I had only scratched the surface—and I already longed to return.
Like most tourists, my first trip to the Aran Islands 10 years ago consisted of taking the shuttle bus from Galway to catch the ferry over for a day trip. Tour vans driven by out-of-work fisherman or farmers meet the disembarking day tourists, all hawking tours around the island. Horse drawn carts and bicycles are also an option. Although, with bicycles for rent seeming to outnumber the tourists 10 to 1, I imagine that if all the bikes were rented in one day the island would look like Bejing at rush hour. Fortunately that is not the case.
This visit I gave myself the luxury of an entire week. Long enough, I thought, to really explore Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran islands. In Irish, Inis Mór just means “Island Big.” Not highly original, but descriptive. The other two islands are Inishmaan (Middle Island) and Inisheer (you guessed it, Small Island).
The Aran Islands are a gaeltacht, as mentioned before, an area where Irish is the primary language. Hearing the locals casually talking in Irish really makes it feel like a foreign country (but it makes eavesdropping impossible).
The islands can be reached either by the bus/ferry combination from Galway, or by a smaller ferry from Doolin, weather permitting. After a blustery weekend I was fortunate that the seas calmed and I was able to take the boat from Doolin. The hour-and-a-half trip affords beautiful views of the smaller islands as well as the coast along Galway Bay. Fans of the BBC comedy series, Father Ted, will recognize Inisheer as “Craggy Island,” with its iconic, rusty freighter washed up on the rocks.
The islands are an extension of the Burren in County Clare, a lunar landscape of karst limestone, scoured by glaciers to create fissures and deep gouges called “grykes,” with little vegetation. It’s been said that all the fields on the Aran Islands were made by hauling in seaweed and animal manure, but I think that might be an exaggeration, as there is soil where obviously no one has cultivated. The islands are iconic for the miles of stone walls which divide them into a patchwork of small pastures, each farmer doing what he can to make the best of the rocky ground.
Island by bike
After landing on Inishmore I checked into the Kilronan Hostel, a large building right on the harbor, and went off to rent a bike. I decided I wanted to explore the island at my own pace and have the freedom to really get off the tourist trail.
The island is hilly, but rental bikes are at least 18-speeds, so it wasn’t that difficult, even for someone who is incredibly out of shape (cough). I headed north, as the bike renter suggested, cruising along the beautiful coast road on the east side of the island (facing the mainland). Fortunately the rains of the weekend had passed on and the weather was bright and beautiful. No one does blue skies and puffy white clouds better than Ireland.
I turned up a narrow gravel lane with a sign pointing to Dun Eoghanachta (pronounced Onachta), a ring fort set on a hill with a commanding view. The lane quickly gave out, and I ditched my bike to walk up the last quarter mile or so. The fort is mostly intact, a large circle with high, thick walls and the remains of several stone buildings inside. I climbed up the stone steps to sit on top of the wide wall, admiring the view and enjoying the solitude. From there I could see a couple winding their way up the trail. As they reached the fort they made a beeline for my exact position, climbed the stone steps right in front of me (although there were at least four other sets of steps), sat down not 10 feet away—and started smoking. I handed her my camera and asked her to take my picture, then departed.
As the bike wasn’t due back until the next day, the following morning I headed to the other end of the island to check out Dun Dubhchathair (Black Fort), a ring fort perched on the cliffs along the Atlantic coast. The most popular ring fort on Inishmore is Dun Aonghusa (Angus), which has been developed into a major tourist attraction. It is impressive, with a semi-circular front facing the island, and a back side that is a high cliff. I had been there before, and wanted to see the lesser-visited Black Fort. It did not disappoint.
Again I rode my bike as far as I could, then ditched it to walk the rest of the way, over the crest of the island. The fort was visible in the distance, but required picking my way over the barren limestone landscape and through several stone walls to get there. These large stone forts were built by the Celts and date to the 5th century. As I stood in the silence, with only the wind whistling through the stone walls, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have lived there. They would have seen the same waves crashing against the sheer rock walls far below, the same expanses of stone stretching to the horizon, the same type of sea birds wheeling overhead. This time my solitude was not broken by company.
I spent another day exploring the south end of the island before the weather deteriorated into rain and wind. The hostel was not very comfortable, with no place to sit and write and very limited internet access, so I decided to move on to Galway for the weekend. Now, as I walk the crowded streets of Galway, it comforts me to hold that small piece of limestone in my pocket and think of Inishmore.
top 5 cheap (or free!) things to do in dublin
Dublin can be an expensive city to visit. The average breakfast or lunch runs €10 to €15 or more, while a decent dinner will cost around €25, more with drinks. Add in the cost of transportation, lodging, shopping and sight seeing and you can quickly run up a big bill. If you can come to Dublin with a big budget, good for you. You can stop reading now. For the rest of us, spending less can mean staying longer. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up having a good time. You’re on vacation after all. After spending some time in Dublin on numerous trips, I’ve come up with a list of things you can do that are fun and frugal at the same time. Here are my top five in reverse order—I’m sure you can come up with your own list when you visit.
1. Hop-on Hop-off Tours: I’m listing this last because it’s the most expensive item. But with your ticket good for two days and 24 stops, it’s still a good deal. The open top buses take a long route through the city, with a tour guide explaining everything along the way. Stops include Phoenix Park, the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin Castle, Temple Bar and more. For €18 adults, €16 seniors and students, it gives a great overview of the city and makes it easy to get to some sites that are quite a hike from Dublin center.
2. Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART): This is Dublin’s commuter rail system serving towns along the coast north and south of the city. While workers use it for getting to and fro, it’s also a cheap way to see some of the beautiful coast and check out village life outside the big city. Traveling south you can visit the free James Joyce Museum in the Martello Tower at Sandycove, while going north you can check out the magnificent Malahide Castle. Start your trip at the Connolly train station and buy a return (round trip) ticket for the final destination in the direction of your choice. Going south this is Greystones, north it’s Malahide or Howth. You can get off at any stop along the way, look around, grab a bite to eat, then get back on. Trains run every 15 minutes. An adult, return ticket to Greystones is €9.60, while to Malahide it’s €5.25.
3. Grafton Street: While the shops along Grafton Street can be a budget buster, there’s no better place in Dublin to people watch. The pedestrian-only thoroughfare stretches from Trinity College to St. Stephen’s Green, so there’s no worry of getting run over while taking in the sights. Buskers (street musicians and performers) come here to hone their skills, make some money and maybe get discovered. On a recent Saturday the avenue featured a team of jugglers, a full band playing rapid trad tunes, an accordionist and several solo guitarists. If you’re lucky, you can get a seat in the window of Bewley’s Café and enjoy a cup of tea while watching the parade of humanity.
4. The parks of Dublin: While the fast-paced city can be exhilarating, it can also be overwhelming. Fortunately Dublin is studded with parks that offer a cool respite from the madding crowd. At the top of Grafton Street you’ll see the stone arch welcoming you to St. Stephen’s Green, the 22-acre city park enjoyed by Dublin citizens and visitors since the 1800s. It features shaded walking paths, green lawns, flower gardens, duck ponds, fountains, and numerous statues. Look for James Joyce, Yeats and Oscar Wilde. The park is set in what’s known as a Georgian Square, with the buildings surrounding it built in the Georgian style.
It would take days to wander through 1,752 acre Phoenix Park , which features the Dublin Zoo, botanical gardens, tea rooms and a castle. It’s twice the size of Central Park! Start at the Visitor Center, which is housed in Ashtown Castle, a fully restored 17th century tower house. For a short visit check out the 22-acre Victorian People’s Flower Gardens. These gardens were initially established in 1840 as the Promenade Grounds and show Victorian-style horticulture at its best. The rose beds in summer are to die for. The People’s Gardens and Visitor Center are located close to the Parkgate Street entrance, which is accessible by the tram that runs through Dublin, the Luas.
5. The National Museums: And saving the best for last, Dublin boasts not one but three branches of the National Museum. And they are free! It can be a little confusing that they are all called “National Musuem,” so here’s the breakdown: The Archaeology Museum on Kildare Street holds treasures from the Mesolithic through Medieval periods in Ireland, including the Ardagh Chalice, the Tara Brooch and a massive amount of prehistoric gold. If you love Celtic Ireland, this is the place to go. It’s about a five minute walk from Grafton Street. The Natural History Museum is on Merrion Street, a short, well-signed walk from Kildare Street. Also known as “The Dead Zoo,” the museum features the requisite skeletal remains and stuffed specimens, but of particular interest are the ones that are unique to Ireland, such as the giant Irish deer skeleton with a 10-foot antler span. The Decorative Arts and History Museum is housed in the Collins Barracks, once used by the British garrison in Dublin, and contains a comprehensive history of war in Ireland, as well as a large section on decorative arts such as silversmithing and woodworking. A separate building, across a gravel lot, is worth visiting as it houses the 1905 wooden sailing yacht, the Asgard, infamously used on a gun running trip to provision Irish rebels in 1914. It’s easily reached on the Luas Red Line from O’Connell Street.
So there you go, several days worth of sight-seeing that will save you enough money to buy at least a pint or two of the black stuff. It’s all about priorities…
What? I thought she was in Ireland! I am. “Araby” is the name of a James Joyce short story from “The Dubliners.” It’s about a boy who is in love with an older girl and wants to impress her by buying her something exotic from the “bazaar” being held in his village. He builds up the suspense all day—waiting for his father to get home to give him money, imagining how wonderful the bazaar will be, like going to a foreign country, and finding the perfect gift to make the unsuspecting girl fall in love with him.
Unfortunately his father gets home so late that by the time the boy gets to the bazaar it’s closing up. The lights are turned up and the merchants are packing to go home. He sees it’s not an exotic bazaar at all, but just the plain old community hall. The veil falls from his eyes and he goes home, sadder but wiser.
I’m not planning on going home soon, but I thought of the story this morning as I sat in a cafe, stewing about being overcharged for a skimpy breakfast and looking out at the statue of Jame Joyce, framed by a sign for a Thai noodle restaurant. How many tourists, I wondered, find that Ireland is not Araby either?
It wasn’t a shock to me, having been here before, but Dublin is a big, dirty city, far from the shining image portrayed in glossy tourist brochures. The streets are crowded with more people speaking Polish or Chinese than English, panhandlers are more prevalent than street performers, and litter blows down the sidewalks like snow. Parks are closed “for maintenance” and buildings on the main streets are shuttered and decaying.
Friday I walked for what seemed like miles in the hot sun to reach the James Joyce Museum in the Martello Tower in Sandycove, featured in the opening of Ulysses. The exhibit was tiny and musty, with the ceiling sagging badly from the dampness. The tower was anticlimactic, with views over the tiny beach crowded with sunbathers.
No, it’s not all rainbows and leprechauns on the Emerald Isle.
But it is still a country with an amazing history of producing artists, writers and musicians unrivalled anywhere. Sunday afternoon I attended a free (free!) concert at the nearby Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (a mouthful, I know) with a trio called Triocca, with viola, flute and a beautiful concert harp.
The event was special because they were debuting a composition by a Dublin composer, John Buckley, who was in attendance. His composition was called “To Lands Beyond Time,” and was his musical interpretation of six Japanese haiku. Before each musical haiku a lovely Japanese woman stood up and recited the Japanese version, followed by one of the performers reciting it in English, with of course a soft Irish accent.
The senior gentleman who sat beside me, Charlie, said he was taking a musical appreciation class from Buckley at the local college. He clued me that the composer would be present, and said I would recognize him because he “looked like a composer.” The caterpillar eyebrows and sideburns were the giveaway.
Buckley said he liked to think of haiku as what Joyce called “epiphanies”—little moments in time. I thought that was a graceful way to tie the two cultures together. So, with all due respect to Joyce and Buckley, I composed this haiku to Dublin:
Red brick buildings stand erect
Black-shawled beggar woman
Dances in the sun
it doesn’t always rain in ireland
Case in point, today, my first day, the temp was topping 17 C, which is, um…62.6 F. OK, that doesn’t sound hot, but it really is. It was a lovely, sunny day for exploring Dublin on foot.
As my funds are extremely, extremely, extremely limited on this trip, I’ve decided to make a game of it called “Ireland on the Cheap” (Look for the book on Amazon soon). I’m starting with Dublin, which is known for being a pricey city. I’ve been compiling a list of things you can do in the city that are free or low cost. Some of those things today included sitting on a bench in Saint Stephen’s Green, watching the gardeners put in the first flowers of spring and the ducks paddling along on one of the many ponds; strolling through the grounds of Trinity College, trying to find the exit, then ending up down in the docklands at the Famine Ship and Memorial—sobering and beautiful; sitting in Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street, lingering over a pot of tea and reading the real estate ads (or adverts as they say here) while admiring the stained glass; walking some more, and sitting in the lobby of the fancy Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street. That last one, I figure that as long as I look like a tourist no hotel staff is going to harass me for sitting in their lobby, “waiting for my husband.” Hey I could be…
Tomorrow I think I’ll take the Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) for a ride along the coast south of Dublin to see the James Joyce Museum at the Martello tower featured in the opening of Ulysses. It’s an inexpensive commuter run, and the views over Dublin Bay are stunning. There are also numerous beaches to stroll and hills to walk up with panoramic views over Dublin. Although, I probably won’t feel up to that yet.
Food will be a large part of my budget, as it’s always more expensive to eat out every meal. Today I ate lunch at Subway, and before you say yuck, the tandoori chicken on flatbread with mint raita sauce was pretty darn good. And cheap at €5 including soft drink. Now to find the cheapest Guinness in Dublin…
One reason I chose to stay in Dublin for seven nights is that I found a hostel for €20 a night (about $26), on a quiet street lined with red-brick Georgian houses. Turns out it’s also one block from the Dublin Writers Museum and the same block as the James Joyce Center. And Bloomsday Week starts on Monday. Bloomsday, June 16, marks the day that Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses takes place, as the protagonist Leopold Bloom wanders Dublin with a non-stop stream-of-consciousness narrative. I’ll miss the actual day though, as I’ll be on the west coast at an Irish folk music festival in Doolin.
The hostel is pretty bare bones, and my six-bed all-girl dorm room is on the second floor (that’s the third floor for Americans), so I’ll be getting some much-needed exercise. I already made four trips just getting my laptop set up in the common room where there’s wifi. I would have posted this sooner but I forgot my camera patch cord and couldn’t face another climb. So far there are only two other bunkmates, both young Asian girls who are staying for a month. As long as a party group doesn’t move in this weekend I’ll be good.
One trick I’ve learned for creating some private space in a hostel situation (haha) is to bring a sarong to hang as a curtain from the top bunk (yes, bunks). It’s lightweight, colorful and clearly marks your territory. I’m actually using a kanga that I got in Tanzania in 1995. See, Mom was right: never throw anything away.
house sitting in ireland
Well here we go — June 5th I leave for Ireland! On the advice of a friend, I decided to look into house sitting as a way to stay in Ireland for more than a few weeks and without having to shell out a lot of money for the joy of Irish hospitality. Or a hostel. Not the same thing at all. Within a week of applying I was set up to sit for two homes in rural Ireland, for two months total. Free! Well, in exchange for pet and house care. Here’s how I did it.
After an internet search I signed up for two services that match people looking for house sitters with sitters looking for houses. Housecarers.com and TrustedHousesitters.com both require a paid subscription in order to list your request, but I think if you’re willing to pay $50 it shows you’re sincere. They also have vetting procedures and a lengthy application to increase user safety. Sounded good to me.
Housesits often involve pet care, which the sitters can specify on their application. Choosing to care for all kinds of animals—even snakes— greatly increases your odds of being picked. There are approximately three times as many wannabe sitters as there are houses, worldwide, so being flexible is essential.
Both services send out daily emails with the latest house sitting requests and within a few days two came up on Trusted Housesitters that sounded pretty good for my purposes: a six-week housesit with two dogs in Co. Roscommon immediately followed by a two-week stint caring for five dogs and two cats in another rural area not far from the first.
After exchanging a few emails with each homeowner, we agreed to do a Skype call so we could “meet” face to face. Skype is the greatest invention since rolling luggage for travelers. I got to talk with the homeowners, get a virtual tour of my new “homes” and meet my four-legged roommates. We all hit it off and agreed to proceed. Some homeowners may want a contract, but we just agreed verbally.
This will be a new adventure for me; a change from my usual mode of abode, hostels and B&Bs. Next up: Couchsurfing! Stay tuned…
Standing on the Edge
The Great Gretzky said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” Thanks, Wayne, I needed to hear that today. Last week (May 8th to be exact) I was turned down for what I had widely and publicly proclaimed to be “my dream job.” I spent three months trying my best to take on the role of managing editor for Incomes Abroad, a members-only publication from International Living magazine. The role was tailor-made for me: writing about expats making a living while living abroad. And the job was based in Ireland. I talked to people in Costa Rica making chocolate, people in Italy running cooking schools, writers making a living while based in Asia, and more.
The whole time I kept thinking, “that’s what I want to do…” Well, with the publisher’s pronouncement that I wouldn’t be continuing beyond the three-month probation, I’m now free to do just that—pursue my dream of making a living overseas as a freelance writer. It’s a long shot, but not impossible. This website is the first step. Through it I hope to spotlight my writing abilities, and give some useful travel advice along the way. Won’t you join me?