Sligo, Galway, Ring of Kerry: Days 5 – 7
Our first stop en route to Sligo is Duncliffe, where we visit the graveyard of St. Columba’s, final resting place of Irish Romantic poet William Butler Yeats. Although he lived in England and France in later years, Yeats had spent childhood holidays in County Sligo and it is here that he wished to be laid to rest. His real-life story of unrequited love, involving 5 marriage proposals to his muse Maud Gonne, each one rejected, even to the end, makes his poems especially poignant. And shows that he was one persistant guy. My favourite, Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, is engraved on the ground near his tombstone:
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
– W.B. Yeats, 1899
This is one of those quiet country cemeteries that time seems to have forgotten. Surrounded by fields of grazing sheep, stone walls with overgrown vines, the stunning mountain backdrop of Ben Bulben and not a house in sight, the place exudes a stillness and timeless peace. I scan the tombstones for my family name; it is a habit I picked up 20 years ago, searching for anything Irish, looking for traces of family. I could easily spend an hour or two here in the stillness, but the tour must go on.
As we continue south along the Wild Atlantic Way, I notice that the signposts are predominately in Irish. We are entering the Gaeltacht, places in western Ireland where Irish is still spoken by the majority. While it is the official language, Irish is spoken less and less in the densely populated regions of Ireland. Efforts are being made to preserve the language; across the Republic, students study it in primary school and secondary schools.
We pull into Sligo and set up for the evening. The town is famous for the shipwrecks of the Spanish Armada, lying undisturbed for the last 400 years, not far off its shores. The fleet of 130 ships was sent out by Philip II in 1588 to invade England, overthrow Elizabeth I and convert the Protestants to Catholicism. Following their defeat, and braving North Atlantic storms on the journey home, many of the ships were wrecked off the western Irish coastline. Nearly all of the sailors perished, and most who made it to shore alive were killed. Some, however, managed to survive. These survivors, along with other sailors from Spain who traveled to Ireland during this time, are the ancestors of the dark-skinned, dark-haired Irish found along the western coast. I recently found out that I might be related to one of these Spanish invaders.
Last Christmas, my husband gave me a National Geographic Genome Project DNA testing kit. With it, I was able to trace my maternal ancestry over thousands of years and my paternal ancestry over the last few generations. The results were eye-opening. On the one hand, no surprise with 61% British/Scandinavian (interestingly, a large component was Dutch – which would explain my height and some other features) and 16% eastern Europe (= Poland, Russia). But the biggest surprise was discovering I had 23% Italian and Southern Europe/Mediterranean lineage (= Spain, Portugal, Corsica and Sardinia). Could this be linked to an ancestor aboard the Spanish Armada? Perhaps, but that alone would not explain it. The shipwrecks – and period of Spanish invaders on the shores of Ireland – happened 400 years ago, and the 23% percentage is too high. The ties with Mediterranean peoples go much further back in Ireland than that, I have since discovered. Modern genetic research reveals that the Irish are close genetic relatives to the peoples of northern Spain, and in particular the Basques, dating back to the earliest Celtic migrations. How interesting! (As an aside, National Geographic has traced my lineage back to the group of ancestors that produced Petrarch, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Copernicus, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon, Marie-Antoinette and Maria Theresa. Seriously. Of course, that was many generations ago. Nonetheless, my childhood fantasies of being related to someone famous were, in a funny sort of way, true!) Being able to trace my DNA ancestry through the Genome Project made me even more curious to see what else I could discover about my roots. What a thoughtful gift.
We head next to Galway, a lovely seaside town with brightly coloured storefronts, bars and cafés. Here we find a coffee shop that serves excellent coffee and pastries. With her charming Irish accent, the server offers us a “pain au chocolate”, pronouncing ‘pain’ as in ‘painful’ and ‘chocolate’ in English. Pain and chocolate: an oxymoron, in my mind. French words crop up here, I notice, though whether it stems from recent EU connections or older Anglo-Norman roots, I do not know. The words “brasserie” (resto-bar, pub or brewery) and “charcuterie” (deli) appear on menus and the sides of buildings from time to time.
Our drive south continues. We cross the Burren, a strange-looking, barren landscape of grey-white limestone rock.Not so barren after all: wildflowers grow everywhere among the rocks. Later on, we walk along the lovely Cliffs of Moher (by no means the highest in Ireland, but still striking). There are paths running alongside the cliffs and I welcome an opportunity to go for a 30-minute hike to get some fresh air while the others head for lunch.
In the evening, we visit the spectacular Bunratty Castle for a medieval banquet with music and entertainment. Richly-detailed tapestries and artifacts adorn the walls of the castle. The evening starts with a glass of mead (an alcoholic beverage made with honey, a favourite of Vikings, Germanic peoples and the ancient Chinese and Greeks, among others). A local saying goes something like: “One glass of mead and you’ll see double; two glasses and you’ll feel single”. This is strong stuff. My daughter, along with her traveling companion, does not enjoy it, but I do. We toast the traditional way when drinking, with “Slàinte”, from the Scottish Gaelic word meaning “health”. I am struck at how similar the sound and meaning are to our classic Montreal toast of “Santé”, which also means “health”. The banquet is highly entertaining; the singers and harpists are classically trained in medieval and Renaissance music and the actors are professional and funny. A crowd-pleaser. But the beautiful, slow Irish ballads get to me and I am overcome with tears toward the end of the meal. Music touches me profoundly, in a way that words or even images do not. Sad Irish songs (and just a tiny bit too much mead) prove to be a potent combination.
The following morning, we visit the pretty village of Adare, home to cottages renowned for their thatched roofs, then start our two-day tour of the Ring of Kerry, a panoramic coastal drive dotted with bleating sheep, thatched roofs, cliffs and spectacularly narrow roads flanking sharp drops. This is gorgeous country. Rainy at first, the clouds give way to sun. Amongst the green fields and cottages, palm trees, bright fuschia-coloured rhododendrons and wild yellow Irises grow in abundance. The Gulf stream brings warm air over the southwestern counties and the flora is near-tropical.
We pass through Unesco World Heritage site The Skellig Ring, home to the two Skelligs, islands that jut out of the Atlantic not far off the coast and are featured in Star Wars films. The views of the Blasket Islands are another breath-taker. This is the westernmost tip of Ireland and it is stunning. We then walk around the seaside resort of Dingle, where we lunch on excellent fish and chips and Murphy’s, a local ice cream. I strike up a conversation with a young employee giving out free samples of ice cream. It turns out he’s an Irish dancer and singer, and when I mention our plans to see a theatre performance that evening back in Killarney, he tells us he’s in the show. We are told to look out for the guy wearing a fish-net tunic.
Before the theatre, we opt for a horse-drawn jaunting car (a type of carriage) that meanders through Killarney National Park along the lakeshore to Ross Castle. It’s quite the view. The large Park of forests and meadows borders the town and the Killarney Lakes is filled with deer. We see a full-antlered stag grazing in a meadow.
On the way back to the hotel, we visit Ballyheigue Beach and the Banna Strand, a vast sandy shoreline flanked by mountains. The beach and views are spectacular. Later that evening, we are treated to a performance by Siamsa (pronounced “Sheemsa”) Tire, Ireland’s National Folk Theatre, a story told through dance and song about the old ways of life on the Blasket Islands. No longer inhabited, the islands were evacuated by the government in 1953 due to the declining population. Life was harsh for the Blasket inhabitants. Their struggle is a familiar and recurring storyline throughout Ireland’s history: that of displaced Irish peoples leaving their homeland. The Irish now form a diaspora of approximately 80 million people around the world. It is estimated that 9 to 10 million people born in Ireland have emigrated since 1700. Many of the Blasket Island inhabitants found their way to Massachusetts in the U.S.
The Siamsa performance is sung entirely in Irish (Gaelic) and accompanied by fiddles, penny whistle and a Bodhrán drum. It turns out that most of the men in the performance are wearing fish-net shirts, but our ice-cream server-by-day is easy to spot; he’s a standout dancer and exceptionally good-looking to boot. Many of the performers are tall, Nordic-looking blonds with chiseled cheekbones, something we had noticed walking the streets of Killarney. The Norse Vikings, it would appear, found their way down to the Ring of Kerry.
The Ring of Kerry has been a complete feast for the senses. I could spend days here. But on to Cork, Waterford and Tramore in the morning; in two days, we shall be returning to Dublin and setting out for the voyage to England.