Friday, March 18, 2016
Over the Hills and Galway
In the past, I've posted excerpts from my unedited 2005 Ireland journals in order to mark St. Patrick's Day. Those previous entries can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.
The Day began with a horse ride around Killarney National Park. We sat seven in the buggy, knee-to-knee. It was a glorious morning. The storm which had dumped rain on the me the night before had swollen the rivers, knocked down some trees, and frightened off the deer. Seagulls blown 20 miles inland foraged in the grass. The town's cathedral loomed behind the trees liked a two-dimensional backdrop. The good light and atmospheric clouds threw shadows on the high mountains behind the lake. A couple Cromwell ruins stood on small islands. Our driver narrated as we did an hour-long lap. His rap consisted mainly of sex, those bastards the English, and "Go on, Cap'n."
One of the other tour members had gotten lucky last and made us wait 45 minutes. Joey blasted us along in order to catch a 12:30 ferry, speeding through hillside and town. In one, a small Buddha sat above a door. Sod farmers were at work cutting squares from the earth, piled up like wet cord wood. Joey told us that there are certain villages in Ireland that have chosen to speak Gaelic over English. Throughout the country, many signs are posted in both languages. But in these towns, it was only the former.
We made our ferry in time and drove aboard. I stood out on the deck, to feel the wind on my face and to try to steal a glimpse of the Atlantic far off to my left. Huge waves broke on the bow, sending up large plumes of spray. I felt truly happy today, standing under mostly blue skies, damp and chilly from the wind. I felt alive.
When we landed, we were in County Clare. It was soon easy to see why it was considered by many to be their favorite part of Ireland. The hills were low and flatter with no real tress to speak of, offering long views. Houses dotted the green. It was Father Ted country out here. The houses were a bit taller, with thick walls for protection against Atlantic storms. A few had thatched roofs. We stopped for lunch in Tralee, a small beach town known for its surfing (!). I had a bowl of seafood chowder in a pub which stood on the lone road through town. I then hurried to the long beach at the end of the bay here to see the source of my lunch. I glimpsed the Atlantic a couple of times today, but this was the first time I've stood on its eastern shore, looking back to where I had once frolicked. It grew shallow gradually as I'd remembered, so I walked far out in inch deep water. The wind blew foam across its rippled surface, like little Men-of-War. A surfer was coming out and told me that although the surf wasn't so big here, today it was particularly shit. Props to him though, as he was in the cold north Atlantic on this day, February 12.
We drove on up, overlooking the vast space, dotted by multi-colored houses. Large towers built by the French overlooked the sea. The land here along the shore looked like sand dunes that had been painted green. Joey talked of fairy circles where dead children had been buried. He pointed out the kitchens that had once taken on the hungry, and now stood in ruin. He pointed up at an obelisk, the monument to the man responsible for such misery in the land.
Cromwell had continually pushed the Irish west until they were put on limestone land unfit for crops. Potatoes were the only thing that could grow here, yet the blight had changed that. Taxes eventually moved them off. Door taxes could be avoided by using half-doors, but the chimney taxes turned the residents black. Dance taxes led to the devlopment of the Riverdance, where the feet moved but the upper body looked stationary to prying eyes looking from outside.
Before we set off, I asked Joey if there were any holy wells that he knew of, and he told that one of the holiest, St. Brigid's, was near. Thus we stopped at a little stone igloo set into a hillside below a graveyard. Inside, the walls were lined with poems and offerings given by Catholics. In the back was a small spring, filling a rock-lined pool. I put my hand in the water and touched my head and chest. Strangely, I couldn't breathe well for a number of breaths. I had to walk back up to the graveyard until I caught it again.
Next was the Rock of Mohor, huge cliffs falling 700 feet into the sea. On the walk up, I passed a guy playing the fiddle, and was amazed that he could move his fingers in the strong icy wind. Atop the walk was a long flat set of slabs, where truly insane people could lay on their backs and look upside down over the edge. From here, the ridge rose toward the right. Midway up, the strong wind was blowing a waterfall back up, spraying the trail and us walkers on it. (If a waterfall doesn't actually fall, can it still be called a waterfall? And why do we call a dry waterfall, a waterfall?) At the top of the trail was a tall observation tower. (Building a castle here would have been foolish, putting your back to 700 foot cliffs.) The wind here was unreal. At one point I could no longer physically move forward. It was if a hand were holding me in place. The trail was cut a meter or so below the cliff's edge so there was no real danger of being blown over. Still, it felt as it I could be lifted off my feet at any second. I gave up and moved sideways. Heading toward the bottom, the wind whipping through the wire fence sounded like an army on the move, groaning into battle.
We drove on toward the Burren. On this tour, Joey usually told his stories while driving. But for this tale he stopped completely. And as he spoke, his voice was emotional, angry. He talked of the famine and the systematic elimination of 2 million people from the island. The people had been forced to dig up the large stones on the landscape, both to improve the farming conditions for the English, and to break the spirit of the Irish. I had been noticing these walls all day, thinking them beautiful caterpillars crawling across the hillside. Now they looked like stitches. Joey told us that a million folks had been displaced to wander these roads. We drove into this harsh land, with the sun ducking toward the horizon and the uilleann pipes mournful on the stereo.
We tried to catch rugby on TV at a pub, but missed it by minutes. Drove to Galway after dark. Had a meal at a pub near a JFK monument, yet another tribute to this man. A couple of good blues guitars went at it. I stayed for an hour, then led the troops in search of trad music. We popped into every pub that had bands, but it seemed mainly cover bands playing to college aged crowds. Each pub was packed and the streets outside busy. Finally, I followed someone's directions and went over the fast water rushing under Wolfe Tone Bridge, up a maze of stubby streets to The Crane.
Inside its small packed space, a few musicians were going through their paces, playing a slow quiet tune. But there was a second, darker bar upstairs where it was going off, the musicians cooking up a groove. The fiddle player was Asian, and the drummer had Joyce spectacles, braided locks, and long bushy beard. He was jamming on the spoons. I;d come looking for music but had found something better, an organic jam session of dudes who had happened to find each other. The bar was noisy and the music tough to hear, but occasionally someone would shush the crowd and a woman would begin to sing a mournful love song. There would be no other sound in the place. I loved how much music was such a part of the everyone's soul here. You can enslave a people's body or mind, but you can't enslave their spirit.
During a break, I talked to the drummer about how to play Irish style. He was a generous guy who showed me a few tricks. I left the pub at just past one, humming Irish songs as I wandered up the near empty streets, running the gauntlet between weaving drunks...
On the nighttable: Afro-Celt Sound System, "Sound Magic, Vol. 1"