Dec 1, 2009

Ireland. The Land of Storytellers

The above shot was taken of what appeared to be 3 actors in costume on break from a set.  This perspective gives you an idea of the depth and beauty of the Dingle Peninsula’s cliffs.

A friend and I shook off the last summer of the 20th century in the magical land of Ireland.  We were two single (at the time) gals looking for a little adventure in the mountains, by the sea, and in those famous Irish pubs.  We got an unexpected surprise.  Everything (I mean everything) about Ireland is a great story.

Our master plan was to drive across the country, starting East in Dublin (Hello, the Guinness Factory is there) to Galway (the music scene, of course); then drive back to Dublin.  We are both hikers, so we mapped our trip according to places where we could be brave explorers by day and pampered bluebloods by dinnertime. 

Driving on the Left – Fairy Tales & Realities
When we picked up the car at the Dublin airport, we were reminded that no matter how well traveled you are, a new country likes to toy with you a little – just to point out that you are a humble wanderer in strange lands.   Ireland (at least in 1999) rents mostly stick shift cars, which I love.  But that meant that I would do all the driving (not everyone drives a stick), which I actually preferred.  It also meant learning to drive a stick on the “wrong” side of the road. 

Fairy Tale:  I was excited for the challenge.   Reality:  The woman at the rental desk saw past my bravado and our first Irish tale was told, “If ‘ye would, may I give ‘ye a bit of advice?  I’ve had some experience with other American girls drivin’ in our fair country...”  (If I weren’t so tired I would have been a little insulted.  But hearing how we were to be shocked and awed by the men of Ireland on the roads, I was intrigued.)  “Now, when ‘ye leave the parkin’ lot, just take yer blessed time.  Go as slooow as ya need, and don’t ya mind the. . . shall we say . . . the ‘descriptive’ gestures from the other drivers.”  She went on for quite some time recounting the experiences of foreign car renters past – and we were riveted.  When we entered that story ourselves via the highway, the gestures we received were vivid indeed.  And for two New Yorkers, quite deliciously funny to witness a new variety of shapes and motions that followed us during our virgin driving days.

Fairy Tale:  The cross-country highway is California-sized.  Reality: our 5 hour trip turned into a 15 hour, 20 mph crawl through torrential downpours, and the narrowest small-town turns you have ever seen (all surrounded by hedges that obliterated the view).  It also included one angry Irishmen who chased our car for about 100 feet (Well… I forgot to stay on the left when we made a right, resulting in a James Bond-style near miss).  No damage to anything but our adrenal glands and pride, but by way of advice -- it’s always best to out-run an angry Irishman. 

Dingle Peninsula – Stories were Born Here
Once we landed on the west coast, however, the leprechaun pranks dissolved into the most wonderful experience.  Our first stop was the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry.  Simply breathtaking.  This mountainous peninsula has the most dense and varied archaeological monuments in all of Western Europe. Dingle has been inhabited for over 6,000 years, and there are over 2,000 monuments from these cultures preserved there.  The first story every told was probably told on Dingle.  Each site’s mythology and history has been passed from generation to generation in Gaelic, a language heavily spoken in the Irish west.  The beauty of Dingle, is that you can in surrounded by tourists in one spot (and still it is worth every minute) and have another, equally beautiful spot all to yourselves.  For more expert information on the history of Dingle from the Mesolithic Period (8000-4000 B.C.) to modern times, visit http://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/history.html

 We continued our Dingle experience along Slea Head Drive, where we stumbled upon several “beehive huts” or “Clochans”.  Most likely from the Bronze Age (3300-1200 B.C.), they were built to withstand water, wind, and enemy; and were the family housing of the times.  Many are still incredibly in tact and they are everywhere.

Beehive Huts

Morning Bedtime Story

Our beautiful B&B on Dingle

We stayed at a marvelous bed and breakfast here, whose name sadly escapes me after all of these years.  My obsession with our drive from across Ireland was partly because I hadn’t slept since we left the States (I love travel, travel doesn’t love me).  The proprietor of this B&B told me a bed time story as I stared absently at my beautifully presented hardboiled egg.  “So, you didn’t sleep well, then?”  The remark was kind and understanding (and I realized about a year later that I must have looked like hell for him to be so direct).  “I’ll give yeh the cure,” he pronounced, “Tonight go down to the pub (pronounced “poob”) called the Three Cats.  Order a Guinness.  Drink it down.  Listen to the music and order another.  Drink that down.  Then gather your skirts and head back to yehr bed.  You will sleep like a beebeh on mother’s milk.”  I don’t know if it was the morning bed time story, or the beer, but I did.  I slept very well.

There are beautiful B&B’s and guest houses on Dingle.  Check out http://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/accom2.html for more.



 On the Dingle Peninsula, we trekked with horses on the beach, road bikes, and hiked the peaks called the Three Sisters.  That’s me (top picture) getting as close to the edge of a heather-filled ledge as courage allowed (it dropped off right below me).  When you visit, you will take a picture exactly like this one, trust me.

 The Chronicles of Connemara
The Connemara is full of stunning sights and visual fantasies.  We could see why artists so prolifically paint, sculpt and photograph this area, and why writers find such rich inspiration.  Changing lights and watchful spirits welcome you with open arms.  You feel a strange and incredible sense of aloneness without being alone.  The Connemara was named by ancient Gaelic tribes (called “the tribe of Cormac”) and isn’t a city or county but a group of lands shaped by people, stories and legends.  Connemara National Park is 2957 hectares (I think that’s around 7000 acres), but you will hear different versions of where the Connemara actually begins and ends (and requests for directions, we found, were just an opportunity to tell a tale).  The Connemara does lay in County Galway and has dramatic mountains, extraordinary castles, lakes and ruins.  It is a place to be experienced more than described. But the islands off the coast of both Galway and the Connemara are legends worth a descriptive attempt.
 Somewhere off the Coast of the Connemara / Galway

 The Aran Islands – Warriors Live Here

The historian we bumped into doing an archaeological dig.

From the city of Galway, we hopped a ferry to two of the smaller Aran Islands (there are 3, the largest is Inishmore).  The islands are made of limestone and though a tourist destination, are full of surprises.  The ferry stops briefly at the smallest island, Inisheer, which we experienced in a couple of hours with a stop for a hot beverage at an ancient house turned pit stop.  Inishmaan is a little bigger, and here we spent most of the day.  We stumbled across an archeological dig, where the historian (pictured with marriage stone) shared the findings of the dig with passersby.  Of course, each artifact had a story.  One story was of Celtic warrior women who were buried on Omey Island (off the shores of Connemara) in a “women’s only cemetery”.  The legend claims that any man buried on that hill would be coughed up onto the beach the following day.  The historian told us that just a few years before our visit, 300 bodies were uncovered from the coastal sands after a powerful storm.  The bodies were being examined to see if they were indeed male.  (Boy, if so, talk about rejection.)  He also showed us a Celtic-Christian fertility (or standing/marriage) stone.  It was used in marriage ceremonies and was a sign of fertility, power, and well… it is intended to be a phallic symbol with certain applications I cannot recall properly or find via Google.


The Characters & Legends of Inishbofin Island

A repeat of our earlier cross-country experience was unanimously ruled out.  So we changed our final destination before returning to Dublin and ended up in the bedroom where Nicolas Cage once slept.  Inishbofin Island is filled with characters, and the owner of our bed and breakfast was one of the best.  Lena was her name and Mr. Cage was her guest a few years earlier.  She had a small, quirky cottage and cooked a killer breakfast.  With the knowledge that my friend was a vegetarian who ate fish, she walked to the ocean (across the street) at 6:00 A.M. and caught the most delicious mackerel we have ever tasted.  Lena must have been in her 70’s at the time and had more energy, hospitality, and passion for life than I have ever seen.  She frequented the local pubs and pointed us to music, drink and late night fun.  She always came home in the wee hours -- well after we did.  And was up at the crack of dawn doing superhuman things.

 The author as she leaves the cottage where Nicolas Cage once slept.

Inishbofin has had characters for (I’ve read) about 10,000 years.  Its history sets a strong example with the fierce Grace O’Malley, a 16th century pirate queen who fought off English ships and undoubtedly plundered them.  The ruin of her fort, Dun Grainne, is located here.  The island also has the remains of Oliver Cromwell’s 17th century barracks built in 1652 (good heavens, is this guy everywhere?).  While he ruled, Inishbofin was used as a penal colony for Catholic priests – one of whom was reported to have been tied to “Bishop’s Stone” and drowned in the quickly rising tides (be forewarned on certain romantic looking shores, the tides are still very quick).  The island got its name from legend as well.  The story goes something like this - two fishermen walked into a bar.  Oh sorry, wrong story.  Actually, seafarers got lost in the fog and happened upon this little island.  They came to shore and lit a fire.  In the light they saw a woman chasing a white cow.  The woman caught up with the cow, hit it with a stick and turned it to stone.  Thus, Inishbofin means “White Cow” in Gaelic.  The woman and her cow are said to appear every seven years.  Is this, perhaps, why Lena came home so late in the night?

 A ruin of an unknown barracks in one of the island ports.
  
Inishbofin is best traveled by foot or on bike during the day, and local residents will pile you into one of the rusty cars or trucks to take you home at night.  Just get into the car with the most sober looking driver and the most people.  There were less than 200 residents on Inishbofin when we visited, and cars travel along either the high road or the low road along its 3-1/2 mile stretch.  There are no trees and residents use peat moss for fuel.  It is quirky, hauntingly beautiful, and was an unexpected stop.  But our memories of Inishbofin are the most vivid.  Who knows, maybe we followed the spirit of the white cow all along.


The End (Although there is No End)

In the end, we dumped the car at a rental shop in Galway and hopped the train back to Dublin.  The train was spectacular and relaxing (though the obsessive hedges blocked the view even on the train).  Our New York City life made us yearn for fresh air and soft ground.  We got that. We also found that you could spend a lifetime in just one Irish town and only scratch the surface.  I could write more about the food, the hiking and the incredible music.  But even after a mere two week stay, 10 years, and a few fuzzy facts later; it is the touchable history that sticks.  And the stories change you just a little.  And that is very good.

No white cows, but we did get a visit from one of the many furry characters we encountered. 

About the Author

Elisabeth Veltman is a writer, marketing strategist and owner of Blue Pearl Customer Strategies.  Elisabeth has no real claim to fame other than a slightly checkered past, wonderful people in her life, and a tendency toward foodie-ism and accidental experiences. 


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