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Travel: Ennis, Ireland

Ireland 2007–Ennis

Ennis is in the southwest of Ireland and we stayed the night after our long drive through the Burren. Its Gaelic name is Inis. We found a little B&B a little farther out of the town center. All the Irish towns have the oldest buildings at the center and the newer more moderns ones the farther out you go. The streets were once built for carriages and are narrow. If there is any parking, people usually just drive up over the low curbs and you have to drive around the cars. This was true of Donegal town too. Ennis was set up as a one way, with the sidewalks widened and penant shaped streamers through the streets. There was some sort of game, the local team or something that was winning but I can’t remember what.

Rose Cottage, our B&B, wasn’t a cottage but had a small dining area as well as a wee pub downstairs with quite lovely and clean rooms upstairs. The food seemed kind of Americanized so we went into town and found one of few restaurants open. The food there was extremely good, one of those higher end restaurants. I believe it was called the Town Hall, denoting what it once used to be.

After dinner my sister and I wandered up the street to a cute little pub. There were people playing inside but as opposed to an organized band they were more just jamming. A fiddler or two, I think one on bodhran but it was very low key and background. I don’t even remember much about that pub.

The next day we wandered about the town, which still has many medieval buildings, and did some shopping. I think it was my favourite town for the looks and being just a pretty place. The streets all gently curved and the shops and pubs have an old feel. This town had the most medieval feel of the towns we had been in. There were many interesting shops and I wouldn’t have minded more time there. We found our way to the Ennis Friary by asking the Garda (the police) since we somehow couldn’t find a street that went through and it turns out there is the old friary, the ruins, and the new one, which is still in use. Of course we wanted the ruins.

Ennis Friary was built in 1240 making the town a religious center. It was a Franciscan center until the expulsion of the monks in the 1800s. It’s a fine example of gothic architecture, with remains of the cloister walk and many walls with the skeleton of the windows left. Some windows, side by side, would have a different design from one to the next. The floors were festooned with old tombs, leaving no space to walk that wasn’t over someone’s grave. I found that tombs older than about the 1700s were unreadable. Many were set in the walls and the O’Brians and MacMahons were families of note in the eiarly days of the friary.

The friary has some great sculptural images, with a monk, a skeletally thin Christ, and a virgin Mary as some of the plaques and such embedded in the walls. The Creagh tomb was large and ornate, in better condition but then it was put in, in 1840 and incorporated some elements from the 1500s. Overall, the friary was in good condition, for a ruin. I really wished these old churches still had the stained glass. It’s a bit hard to imagine what they would have looked like in their full glory, with the bright hues of glass, candles, wooden ceilings and floors, rushes perhaps, and walls not yet pitted by age and weather in rebellion.

When I get back to Ireland I want to spend more time in Ennis and exploring around the town.

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Slieve League and Carrowmore

On Tuesday Oct. 2 we bopped around Donegal for part of the day, using an internet cafe, seeing Donegal castle (which we drove around three times because we couldn’t find it behind the trees and the wall, and then couldn’t find the parking), and doing a wee bit of shopping.

I tried to call a woman near Carrick on Shannon. I’d been given her name by a friend but the one thing we never mastered were the phones. It was a phone booth on the street. I tried punching the number. I tried putting money in. I tried various buttons on the phone and only got the long distance operator who I couldn’t hear anyways for all of the traffic. So we never did see Bee, but then we didn’t pass through her area. Of course in retrospect, it was probably only a half hour from where we did drive.

Slieve League was past Killybegs, a small fishing town west of Donegal. We drove out and it was a meandering drive along or near part of the coast. This is tweed country; lots of sheeps and a few tweed shops that we stopped in, partially for directions. So we drove and drove and weren’t sure if we there so we asked a man, dressed in that classic Irish farmer attire of cap, tweed jacket, baggy pants and wellies In Ireland the standard greetings is “How are you doing?” This man was walking along the small village road. I believe there might have been a total of 20 cottages at most and it was at the end of nowhere. I don’t know if that was Killybegs or not. I think not but I don’t know what that village was called.

He said we were on the right road for Slieve League and as it turned out it was only about five minutes past that village, and dead ended there. We were high on cliffs and below was a long reddish sand beach. It was a long hike down the stairs and would have been a long sweat up. We didn’t go down as it was getting late in the day. We could see a couple of people sunbathing down there.

As we drove back we found the sign to the Bunglass Cliffs.  Since the guy at the tweed shop had mentioned them we decided to go check them out. I’m sure if my sister realized what we were getting into she would have run screaming.

We drove through a village as tiny as the one at Slieve League, passing dogs, goats and chickens all running about the road. We rounded a corner where the family working in their yard kind of stared at us like we were mad. Then began the ascent. I’ve lived in BC and Alberta all my life. We have mountains, the Rockies, and some mountain roads are treacherous switchbacks. This was something else.

At first it wasn’t too bad but then it wound higher and higher. And then we were on a hairpin where you looked across to the other side of the hairpin (about 75 feet away) with nothing but cliffs down the curve. My sister, who is terrified of heights, said not a word, breathing heavily and grasping the car door handle so tight I thought she’d take it off. I could hear it squeaking but didn’t dare look. And she was on the outside edge.

It was in fact fairly treacherous. I was only going about 5km and if we’d met someone coming the other direction, I’m not sure what we would have done as the road wasn’t big enough for two. Then there were the spot where suddenly we were looking straight at the sky. The car was at more than a 45 degree angle facing up. I had to take it on faith that there was road on the other side and crept over the edge. We didn’t stay up there very long. My sister was a bit too nervous and once you saw the view in a few moments (and the sheep) there wasn’t much else to do. However, the Bunglass Cliffs are the highest cliffs in all of Europe so my sister had a right to be nervous with the height. And I have to say my heart was beating a little fast on the way up. It was easier going down and a pretty good view.

Names like slieve, killy, kil, bally, carrow, bun all mean something specifically in Gaelic, such as hill or bay or mound or… I have no idea what Killybegs meant or Slieve League but there are a few place names that have the similar beginning.

Ireland 2007–Slieve League & Carrowmore

We then started beetling south to outside of Sligo. We wanted to do the Carrowmore passage tombs and thought we would go that far for the night and have a head start in the morning. Regretfully I saw nothing of Galway. We made an error this night by being far too late in travelling. It was dark by the time we ended up in the vicinity and I think we were near Lough Arrow (lough means lake) because there was coast on one side. But it was so dark we couldn’t see a B&B anywhere and finally found a small pub/tavern with rooms upstairs. It was dirty and cold (no heat), the shower didn’t work in my sister’s room and the rooms were so small we had to lift our suitcases over the bed. We did find a little restaurant farther in (if we’d known we could have checked that area for rooms) that had fairly good food. Many places did a combo course of appetizer and/or dessert plus a main course, so for 25 euros it was okay. The food was decent too but never that cheap in Ireland.

In the morning, Wednesday, we trotted off to Carrowmore and with the customary few wrong turns (though not many) found Carrowmore just as it was opening. It rained quite heavily while we were walking through the fields. These are small mounds or rings of rocks, and a few dolmen tombs. Not as impressive of Newgrange, still I found it interesting and the number of graves brought such a sense of time and history. We finished in under two hours, soaked to our knees, so we changed in the bathroom and then drove on. This was the wettest day we had in Ireland and we dropped Queen Maeve’s tomb from the walks as it would have been 45 minutes slogging through the rain.

Still, overcast sky and the wet gave very rich color to all of the photos.

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The Stones of Ireland: I

Giants Causeway In October, 2007 I travelled to Ireland, a place I had wanted to visit for years. I’m not sure why exactly as there is no Irish in my blood and other countries have more and bigger castles. It was more the sense of rolling green hills and the land of faery, a romantic notion perhaps.

We circumnavigated Ireland in two weeks, going north, then west, then south and east, starting and ending in Dublin. There were some key sites we wanted to see but then let ourselves be guided by road signs and guide books.

This was a mostly outdoor expedition involving trips to old castles and monasteries and some cemeteries, as well as driving through the changing landscape. The history of the architecture and how it had changed over time was fascinating, small enclosures and Viking settlements built over with increasingly sophisticated fortifications or ecclesiastical buildings.

Newgrange and Knowth were amazing in that these structures were built over 5,000 years ago and are older than the pyramids of Egypt. Some of the passage tombs fell apart or were scavenged for stones for other buildings and roads. Many of these barrows have a corridor or an interior built with slabs of stone, then dirt is mounded over. Newgrange’s corbeled stone roof has never leaked in 5,000 years. The hummocked hills gave rise to the tales of the homes of the sidhe and the Tuatha de Danan.

Knowth BarrowsOther barrows were built over with time, dirt being added, and villages or cattle settling upon them. Some of their original use is a mystery but some contain bones or human ashes. Others may have been ceremonial or religious structures. Newgrange is the most impressive as it was built upon a hill and the outer wall lined with white quartz (this was rebuilt in more recent times and there is argument as to how it may actually have been placed), which would be striking in the bright sun and visible for miles around.

Giants Causeway on the north coat of Northern Ireland was a natural structure of basalt rock that had been rapidly heated and cooled millennia ago causing large octagonal pillars to form. They break apart in slabs, maintaining their structure and can be walked over like steps. Some form natural seats or chairs. There is a section called the organ because it looks like a giant pipe organ in the hill. There seems to only be that one area in Ireland that has such unique stones.

The castles and monasteries abounded as well as the very old cemetery of Monasterboice with the millennium old tower (imagine Rapunzel) that they believe was used for storage, sanctuary and to watch for marauders. Some of the carvings on pillars still showed wonderful detail; leaves, faces both animal and human, various designs. Some of the blocks of stone seemed to have been placed with a sense of tone, dark and light stones alternating, or smaller pebbles placed in the mortar between larger stones.

Over the centuries many of these castles and churches fell into ruin but they were not abandoned. Tombs and graves pepper every place. The oldest monastery floors are nothing but tomb after tomb. There is nothing to do but walk over the bones of the past. Even walls have been taken over, a person interred into the very foundation and a plaque sealing them in. The oldest readable stones go to the 1700s. Older than that, the words become too worn away, by feet and weather. There are graves dating over a thousand years in some cases, right up to months of the current date.

Some graveyards have been held by the ruling families or clans and there might be dozens of McDonnells buried in one area such as Ballycastle. Other graves are family plots and in the more modern ones, configured by a low fence, a bar, about six inches from the ground. These more modern plots have pebbled glass or stone in different combinations of color, and some flowers, real or not. Some are very individual. Headstones often denote many generations entombed in the plot, going back a century or more. At one Benedictine monastery there was a family of four cleaning and smoothing the stones of their family’s plot on a sunny day.

Continued tomorrow

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