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Two Weeks in Heaven - Ireland 2009
by Jane Fadely

Somewhere, out at the edges, the night
Is turning and the waves of darkness
Begin to brighten the shores of dawn.
The heavy dark falls back to earth
And the free air goes wild with light,
The heart fills with fresh, bright breath
And thoughts stir to give birth to colour.
~John O’Donohue, Benedictus

“How was your trip?” people ask. It was…. Well, it was so many things, on so many levels. It was, first and foremost, the people: Their depth, sincere kindness and obvious love of life; their friendliness, their sorrow, their faith, their laughter, their humor and their sensitivity. And it was the wild beauty and heart and soul of the country and the culture. And it was also a tour guide, Dave, who is everything you might imagine a genuine born and bred Irishman might be: Bright, funny, kind, perceptive, wise, interested in the world and the people around him, with the ability and inclination to break into song, a tall tale or a joke from time to time, all with a twinkle in his eye. He didn’t just guide and entertain; he connected with us and in so doing, connected us with and immersed us in his country and his culture.

It was talking: to fellow visitors who seemed as thrilled and happy to be in Ireland as I was… to a lovely laughing Irish lady “on holiday,” almost giddy from the appearance of the long-awaited sunshine, who spied us as we sat eating lunch at a picnic table on the waterfront in Port Magee after returning from our boat trip to the Skellig Islands, some of us still a bit unsteady on our land legs… and to another lady to whom we gladly paid 2 euro to walk among the beehive huts on her land, and marveled at her spectacular seaside view, then laughed at her response to what we thought was a rhetorical question, “do you ever tire of your view?” “Oh, I never look at it!” she said… It was pleasant and polite and friendly bartenders and waitresses and store clerks and lodging proprietors, all wanting to know about you, all hopeful that you were having a good time. The conversations always began “On holiday, are you?” “We are,” we’d respond, as Dave taught us. (There is no “yes” or “no” in the Irish language.) “Where you from?” was the next question, followed by “Are you having a good time?” “We are!” It was practically like clockwork and while somewhat humorous to encounter, it was also very heartwarming.

It was stunning scenery: calendar-worthy patchwork vistas of more shades of green than can be described, outlined by meandering stone walls…. Magnificent rugged cliffs and mountains, deep, gentle valleys that made you feel as though you were being cradled by Mother Earth herself; winding roads; tree-lined country lanes where branches met overhead to form a leafy green tunnel… cows and sheep grazing in the fields, blissfully unbothered by us or anyone else, completely at home and one with their surroundings …wild white/blue/green splendidly empty beaches…yellow gorse and purple heather standing out in colorful relief to the endless green of the fields… magical, mystical, moss-carpeted fairy tale forests… sweet fresh air… sunshine… and soft rain. It was turning corners and being incredulous that the next vista was even better than the last and wondering when and where it would end.

It was wonderful food: delicious fresh seafood, chowder to die for, and that incredible brown bread; Irish cheeses and Wolfhound Dave’s self-titled “gourmet snacks” he generously offered to share… Guinness and Irish coffee and the occasional pint of Bulmer’s cider… An afternoon cup of tea sitting with Dave in the Wolfmobile, waiting for the cyclists to arrive, and gazing out at the quiet misty expanses of green, the tea tasting different and better than I recall tea normally tasting… and sharing chocolate as we rode along, and the ginger cake we found helpful for tiding us over 'til lunch, purchased at a local market but as fresh and moist as though it had just been lovingly baked by someone like the Port Magee laughing lady, in a rustic cottage overrun with ivy and fuchsia.

It was walking: down country roads, through farmer’s fields, across beaches where tide pools reflecting the sky and the clouds and the craggy rocks covered with moss and mussels created a series of still life masterpieces in varied hues of blue and green; on the high cliffs to the Giant’s Causeway with jaw-dropping, dizzying, sweeping views of the sea and the cliffs; on spongy peat bogs and down quaint, quiet little village streets… in the morning in a light rain, in the afternoon in the sunshine and at night under a million stars with Dave’s “torch” to guide us. It was discovering the wonder and indispensability of Wellies (rubber boots) and it was picking wild blackberries and wildflowers and hunting for delicate shamrocks and collecting interesting stones on the beach and breathing in the unique pungent smell of peat fires.

It was listening: to traditional music in cozy pubs, music which prohibited one from standing or sitting still and fairly demanded that you tap your foot or clap your hands or dance… the lilting, musical, comforting sound of Irish voices… the wind rustling through the leaves of the trees… the mooing of cows, the bleating of sheep, the singing of birds and the occasional bark of a dog… the quick burst of Dave’s siren grabbing our attention when the “incessant chatter of women” became less than music to his ears… the crash and boom of waves breaking against the high jagged faces of the cliffs and, in sharp contrast, the delicate tinkling sound of tiny streams fed by thin silver waterfalls running down the mountainside after the rain.

And it was the less than splendid, downright insane - due to my inclination toward motion sickness practically at the mention of it - but still unforgettable boat trip to the Skelligs, motivated by the chance to see the mystical rock islands up close, with the 600 steps cut into the stone by the monks, leading up to the 6th century monastic settlement, and the beehive huts they inhabited for 600 years still clinging to the sides of Skellig Michael, 714 feet above the sea… It was Dave’s kind concern, periodically asking me if I was doing okay, to which I would respond, "I am," in the proper Irish way we’d so recently been taught, mustering a weak smile, eyes steadily fixed on the land as instructed, hands firmly gripping the cabin door for support against the roller coaster swells of the very rough sea, and eventually relaxing not because of bravery or getting my sea legs, but because of the nearly catatonic state I temporarily descended into for nearly 2 hours from the double-dose of motion sickness pills.

It was being interested, stimulated and wildly entertained by the history, the legends and the folklore… Being mesmerized as Dave played music so perfectly suited to the scenery, and enchanted when, from time to time, he sang to us in his lovely clear voice… His rendition of “The Fields of Athenry” and Christy Moore’s recordings of "Ride On" and “Lisdoonvarna” continue to weave through and haunt the spaces in my mind to this day. It was the delight of just joking and laughing and visiting with Dave; his endearing and knowing ways warming my heart and soothing my soul and bringing laughter bubbling up from deep recesses, where it’s lurked dormant for too long. It was being touched when he told the stories of The Troubles and the famine and the lonely bachelor farmers, and a sadness that was hard to shake after visits to Derry and Belfast.

It was exploring and feeling: castles and forts and other ancient sites, struggling to grasp just how ancient these places are and being overwhelmed by my own insignificance… Riding a horse named Murphy, perched precariously atop an English-style saddle (where the feck is the saddle horn?!), across beach grass bent sideways by the wind, pausing briefly near the sea’s edge, and hanging on to the edge of the saddle with my finger tips (remember, there’s no feckin’ saddle horn!) when he became annoyed as another horse tried to pass us, all the while the sunshine reflecting off the water with such blinding brilliance that the rest of the world just faded away … Hiking through wet and muddy fields to a stone circle and being startled by a sudden fierce wind that blew through, causing us to clutch the nearest standing stone or each other, then just as suddenly ceased… Picnicking in a sloping field overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the rock of your choice for a chair, the view more than you can absorb during your brief stay.

It was drifting peacefully on a lake in an old rowboat while Dave took a break from rowing to the island ring fort, with a dog named Rover sitting behind me in the stern and buckets for bailing resting against my ankles…and the utter surreal nature of sitting atop the ancient stone wall of the fort in the middle of a lake, eating a peanut butter sandwich… Following Dave to a hidden healing well nearly obscured by trees and bushes and wildflowers and ferns, and the strangeness of collecting some of the water in a paper coffee cup instead of an ancient urn or goatskin bag… And sitting alone on a sunny white-sand beach on a smooth rock, watching the achingly beautiful sea come crashing in, waves like brilliant green glass, surging and breaking into frothy white foam, talking to me, saying "You've been here before" -- the wind wrapping me in safety and comfort, while tears came unbidden.

It was camaraderie: Coming together for dinner and sharing a toast (Sláinte!) over the first pint of the evening…Having 11 women with whom to talk and walk and hang out and stand watch during “al fresco” toilet breaks or times when, in the interest of expediency, we took over the men’s room (‘FIR”) as well as the ladies’ (“MNA”)… Some of us going on pub crawls and walking back to B&B’s in the dark, calling cadence and laughing... Borrowing a euro when needed, sharing mints and sunscreen and binoculars… taking pictures of one another and exchanging e-mail addresses and shopping.

It was a few side trips, too: Good times, wonderful sights, memorable places and kind faces, but without the companionship and trusted guidance of our Irish guru, it meant bumbling along, trying to figure out the where's, what's, why's and how's of Dublin, Galway and Inis Mor. In Dublin it was foot-stomping trad music at the Temple Bar and Oliver St. John Gogarty's...the moving and eerie tour of Kilmainham Gaol... and discovering at the Guinness Storehouse that Guinness not only gives you strength, but it tastes good, too.

It was flying to Inis Mor and traveling to Dun Angus, a 3,000 yr old ring fort via pony and trap, driven by an older gentleman, a lifelong islander, providing a steady commentary on the land, the people and his political views, occasionally interspersed with greetings called in Irish to fellow islanders... and a long steep trek up to the fort, perched on a hill, with literally breathtaking views of the cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean, and a wonderful sense of peace.... It was a good meal at the King's Head in Galway… and meeting a kind young man, a school teacher from Limerick (whose wife was “from Cork, like”), who went out of his way to find and lead us down cobblestone streets to a pub with the trad music we were seeking…It was taking pictures of the rushing waters of the River Corrib, and our new friend and his mates playing “Canoe polo” - in kayaks, on a sunny afternoon... Standing at the edge of Galway Bay at midnight and shortly thereafter sadly saying "Slán go foíll, slán abháile" to my Canadian friend while country western music played in the bar of the Salthill Hotel.

It was a 3 hour bus ride north from Galway, past Sligo, hoping the Wolfmobile would meet me there as planned, even though my bus was 10 minutes late and Ena's Pub, the appointed meeting spot, didn't exist…it was walking up and down the street, luggage in tow, pondering what to do and repeated unsuccessful attempts to use my cell phone when, just before low-level panic set in, sunshine appeared from around the corner, in the form of Wolfhound Dave with a wave, a smile and a hug, and all was right with the world once more.

It was being sleep-deprived due to a strong aversion to going to bed at night for fear I’d miss something like another tune at the pub, a chat with a local, a laugh with one of my fellow Wolfhounders, or a sighting of the International Space Station while standing outside a north coast farmhouse just minutes from the sea, surrounded by fields and cows and the biggest, deepest sky I’ve ever seen with more stars than I’ve had the pleasure of previously meeting.

But most especially, it was laughing – lots of laughing – and feeling good. Laughing as Dave jovially hawked his wares -us!- by calling out his window to the bachelors lining the roadside as we drove through Lisdoonvarna during the Matchmaking Festival, cardboard sign attached to the rear of the trailer “12 Women for Sale – Lisdoon Tonight!”… The bachelors waved, some smiled, all stared; we waved back. And laughing some more at Dave’s clever renditions of the different Irish accents and local expressions and his instructions on how we should greet and respond to the locals… (“What’s the craic wit’ yerself, Paddy Byrne?”)…and getting mixed up when we practiced, thinking that “What’s up wit’ yer craic, Paddy Byrne?” just somehow didn’t sound right (feckin’ eejits!), dissolving us into helpless, hysterical laughter.

That was my trip to Ireland: A magical mystery tour, a patchwork of delight and learning, of amazing beauty and depth, a feast for the senses and the soul, shot through with green and wrapped up in wildflowers, blackberries, ocean waves, Guinness, new friends, stone walls, music, smiling faces, sheep, shamrocks and laughter – oh, the laughter! I wasn't just a tourist in Ireland for two weeks, I was Irish, and it felt like I was home. My heart awaits me there - and I am forever changed.

Addendum: . Truth be told, there were a few “dang-it!” moments (misbehaving ATM machines and cameras; various shoe fiascos; “low” stone walls; nettles) which briefly punctuated my idyllic time in Ireland, but none of it did anything to mar the trip and instead, merely became a part of the fabric of the journey. If someday you should find me wandering through the Gougane Barra forest or sitting on a rock on White Park Beach or having a pint in McCarthy’s Bar, and you’d like to stop and chat, I’ll tell you about them.

Fri, Jul 10, 2015

The Galway Hooker

This unique vessel, with its distinctive curved lines and bright red sails, originated in the village of Claddagh. During the 19th century, hookers supported a significant fishing industry and also carried goods, livestock and fuel. Seán Rainey is remembered for building the last of the original boats, the Truelight, for Martin Oliver who was to become the last king of the Claddagh; as king, he was entitled to white sails on his boat. Since the mid seventies, many of the old sailing craft which were on the verge of extinction have been lovingly restored and new ones have been built. During the summer months they can be seen at festivals such a Cruinniú na mBád - the Gathering of the Boats - in Kinvara.

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