Saturday, July 06, 2013

Ireland, Day 10: County Mayo and Connemara

This morning we left Bundoran quite early--luggage had to be on the bus by 8:45, and we were supposed to leave by 9. As a rule, we tend to leave about 15 minutes late every day. Part of it is misunderstandings--for instance, today many of the girls thought that the bus left at 9:30. The other is that the bus clock is a little bit fast. Still, we've gotten everywhere we needed to go in reasonable time, so it's not been terrible.

It's probably a good time to talk about the pros and cons of bus touring. The plus is having a knowledgeable guide, and being able to go to places that you might not get to see as an individual, unless you were willing to go out of your way. The main "con" is a lack of freedom--you are on a schedule, have a certain amount of time in each place, and then you have to leave again at an appointed time. There have been many places where I would have preferred to hang out for hours, and then maybe get a pint locally and bring a book to read. But that isn't possible on a tour. The other thing--which could be a pro or con depending--is that you are obviously a tourist when you come off the bus. My general traveling rule when I'm abroad is to try to blend in. Certainly I don't have an Irish brogue, so I can still be picked out. But I like to feel like I'm participating in the landscape in some respect, not just gawking at it. I'm not complaining though; everyone on this tour is very nice, no one is really out of line, and it gives me a good introduction to a possible future trip on my own.

One thing I didn't mention from the previous night is that I finally tried black pudding for the first time at La Sabbia's. Paddy had it as an appetizer, on what looked like small slices of Italian bread and some cheese on the top. It was the most delicious thing I've had, ever--I don't even care what's in it, it was SO good. I will keep that in mind the next time we have a full Irish, though I'm not sure if the black pudding will be of the same quality as that of La Sabbia. Still...

The itinerary for the day ended up being changed, because our hotel was changed by the tour group. Originally we were supposed to stay in Westport, but we were switched to a hotel in Ballina, the Downhill Hotel (which doesn't sound good, but is actually a gorgeous hotel). I was a little disappointed about not being able to spend time in Westport--we drove through it and it looked like an amazing town with lots to do. The Irish Times took a survey, and apparently it was voted the best place to live in Ireland. I couldn't speak to that, but I definitely wanted to visit.

Our first stop of the day was Turlough Park. This was just supposed to be a quick bathroom stop, but our driver thought it would be a good place for us to check out, and he was right. It is a folk life museum of Ireland, and shows the clothing, the basket weaving, the thatching, and all of the other crafts that the Irish had to be "handy" at on a day-to-day basis. What was most amazing was that they had videos from the 1930s of residents thatching roofs, making baskets, making fire fuel out of slurry, and so forth. We would have liked to have spent a lot more time there. As I was heading back upstairs, my roommate Deborah stopped me, and asked if I'd seen the whole Brigid exhibit downstairs. I hadn't, so I wandered down to see it, and was glad I did.

A bit of background--Brigid is the saint whose popularity is only rivaled by St. Patrick. However, Celtic Christianity tended to blend the old and the new--old pagan customs were interwoven into the new religion. Before being considered a bishop and a saint, Brigid was a fire goddess to the Celts. I was fascinated to see that they had an old-time video of the Brigid festival of February 2, which we know as Imbolc, Candlemas, or St. Brigid's Day. In this case, the family was praying the rosary when a young girl came in holding a bhrideog--a straw effigy of Brigid. The museum had two bhrideogs on display. This is reminiscent of the ancient pagan ceremony, where the exact same thing happened, except that it honored the goddess Brigid, who was bringing the first light at what was the beginning of Celtic spring. "Imbolc" has to do with lambs being born, so this was connected with the beginnings of new life. I have some pictures of myself next to this display, though I can't post them at this time (good old 35mm single use cameras...).

The Turlough Park is on a property owned by the DeBurghos, which is the Burke family. So, this was really a place that I could connect with, at least in terms of names. In spite of the sunny forecast, it started pouring rain, so we got back on the bus and headed down to Croagh Patrick--the holy mountain of Saint Patrick that pilgrims climb. There are still some who make the climb in their bare feet, though this is discouraged. The sun did come out for this part of the trip, so we got some good pictures of the mountain. This was mainly a lunch stop, so we got to see the natural beauty of the area, and go across the street to see John Behran's famine memorial commissioned by the Republic. This particular famine memorial is quite disturbing, showing a coffin ship with rotting skeletons. Coffin ships were the ones that took many Irish overseas to Canada mainly, as the U.S. had certain standards for ships entering their ports. Often the people had no fresh food or water for 14 weeks, and many died. About half of those who came over to escape the famine died on these ships.

On the way out of the famine memorial area, I saw some beautiful red and purple flowers. Jodie thought they might be fuschia, as they were not bleeding hearts, though similarly structured.

We then headed through County Mayo, towards the place where Connemara marble is mined, and the Daniel O'Hara homestead is located. It was a LOT of driving--the homestead was 2 hours from Croagh Patrick. I think I slept through most of it, which was a shame, because the scenery was gorgeous. The weather flipped from being sunny to being rainy, and the mountains were often covered in thick fog. And of course, there were sheep everywhere.

At the Daniel O'Hara homestead, we were taken up on a bus pulled by a tractor to the mountain top. Our guide explained that this was the western-most part of Europe. He told us about the radio tower created by Marconi not far below, and noted that the some of the first transatlantic planes landed here. The radio area was destroyed during the Anglo-Irish war, when the British tried to use it to send for reinforcements against the rebels. At the homestead itself, the guide explained that Dan O'Hara's story was that of 65,000 others. The landlords of the estates would evict the tenants, set the roof of the house on fire, and push the walls in. The tenants then often got on the coffin ships to the new world. There is a famous song about Dan O'Hara, selling matches on a street corner in America:

Sure it' poor I am today,
For God gave and took away,
And left without a home poor Dan O'Hara
With these matches in my hand,
In the frost and snow I stand
So it's here I am today your brokenhearted

The English tried to get rid of Irish culture, and their way of life, because they didn't understand it. The first thing Cromwell tried to ban was the drinking, because he thought the drinking made them fight the way they did. But the Irish are of Celtic heritage, and don't fight like the English. This was Napoleon's mistake, as Wellington, despite the British uniform, was an Irishman. The fact that Irish culture has survived is a testament to the strength of the Irish people, and a lesson to the world. We ended our visit with a shot of Irish whiskey (Uisce beatha, the water of life), and a toast that went something like this:

Many blessings from my heart
And to our friends
I wish them well
And to those who don't like us
They can go to hell

After the tour, I bought myself a ring containing Connemara marble. The tour guide told me that the marble is about 900 million years old.

Another two hours of driving, and we ended up at our hotel. After enjoying some O'Hara's barrel aged series of Leann Follain Irish Stout, it was time for an early bed and a book. Only two more days to our trip.

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