Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ireland - Chapter Six


The view halfway up the hill.

We take a roundabout journey through Roscommon to find Kilteevan, a town in which some of our ancestors lived, before we find ourselves in Oldcastle. Oldcastle is west of Kells, and pretty far off the beaten tourist path. There are one or two B&B's, and no hostels nearby at all. We want to be climbing the hill in the pre-dawn. This poses a bit of a problem.

Cairn L at Loughcrew.

Let me backtrack a little. One of the goals we had, in fact the only truly fixed time we had to be at any particular place on our very free-flowing trip, was Loughcrew. Like Knowth, Loughcrew is a passage tomb whose alignment is set to the spring and autumn equinox. This means that, for three days at each of these points on the calendar, the sun illuminates the back wall of the tomb for a brief time. Unlike Knowth, you can actually enter into Loughcrew at this time.

View through the locked gate.

We climb the hill on which the main tomb rests (there are others, on two other hills, which have different alignments, and many smaller tombs) and wander around. I meet a young man who is a local and a pagan, who warms up to me after I start talking about the way different places I've visited feel, and tells me about the oldest beechwood forest left on ireland – which I couldn't spell if I tried, I'm sure. He's off to another hill and another tomb, and we decide to go get liquor and food, and watch the sun go down from the hilltop before sleeping in the car so we wouldn't miss anything.

Earlier in the day, we'd bought cheese at the Burren farm shop, made in Ailwee cave. We got crackers and fruit to supplement this, as well a small bottle of whiskey for me and a couple of cans of Guinness for my mother. We climbed the hill for a second time and took more pictures as the sun went down, occasionally seeing and greeting the people who had also come to see the passage tomb. One such person was Deirdre, who is a pagan and organizer for local pagan and environmental things.

Equinox Sunset at Loughcrew.

As we were descending the hill, which had gotten too cold without the sun, we saw her sitting on a large stone and called out hello. I asked if she'd like some whiskey, and she said she'd trade me for a song, which was the sort of thing, when standing on a magical hill on equinox eve, that you do not refuse. So we approached and she taught me a simple chant, sadly not in irish but pretty nonetheless and befitting of the time and place. It went like this:

The spirit of this land fills my heart and fires my soul
The spirit of this land is a part of us all
Oh mama, oh mama, oh mama Eire

Equinox Moonrise, Loughcrew.

Once she was sure we had it, she told us she would be sleeping in her car as well after she got back from the folk music festival, as would her friends Delacy and Tara with their children. We were in the car munching on our simple dinner when they showed up, and we helped them wrangle the kids and set up their tents in the field while the stars spun overhead. It was the first really clear night we had, and the sky was magnificent – I saw the Pleiades’s rise over the very crest of the hill from where I sat, and certainly there was music in it. Delacy was somewhat impressed that I was able to get his tent up so quickly in the dark, and didn't quite believe me when I told him how often I'd done this before.

He gave me some dark chocolate for watching the kids while he got his instrument, and let me tell you, irish children are adorably terrifying. Irish hippie children. But they were also awesome and reminded me very much of the children of my friends, which combined with the tent-setting made me feel more at home than ever.

Ground stars.

We picked the coldest night to sleep in our car. The temperature hovered at around 1 C for most of the night - which the car dashboard was happy to tell us. We had an emergency blanket, a poncho, and our packed clothes, which wasn't really enough, but we managed to steal a few hours of sleep before the pre-dawn light and sound of arriving cars woke us up. The funny thing about it was that most of the people we met climbing the hill for the third time were locals. There weren't a lot of tourists at all, and people brought drums and pipes and cameras to welcome the dawn. The sky was mostly clear, but a troubling strip of clouds hung low in the east.

Troubling low strip of clouds...

But it was beautiful. I use that word a lot, trying to talk about this country, but there was something deeply evocative in having watched the sun set and the predawn glow before the sun rise, on the same hill. The land spilled out before us, all mist and blue and violet shadows sprinkled with tiny lights that looked very much like stars. Groundstars, I thought, and had a pang for home and the people there who I sorely would like to share the time and place with.

Tara and dog.

We gathered around the mound, not quite in a line, and are told that there is an hour window where the sun will be in the chamber, that we will go in for groups of five, for only a few seconds, and come out again so that everyone will have a chance. Deirdre and Tara and Delacy are nearby, along with their children, and as the sun threatens to rise, Deirdre begins to drum. We sing the simple chant. I am in that half-awake place that isn't quite dreaming, and when the sun spills over the horizon in a golden spark, then a line, I feel the tears without really being aware of them. People begin to enter the chamber. The sun climbs alarmingly towards the strip of clouds, and we are some of the last people to enter before the sun disappears behind those clouds.

It's five of us, my mother, Deirdre, Tara, Delacy, and I, and two of the children. We climb along the passage, my fingers feeling the carvings in the stone with feather-touches and wishing I could stay and stare at the carvings all day, absorb them into my brain, etch them there as they are etched in the stone. The chamber in the back is small, and we settle around the sides so the sunbeam touches the back, almost a fragile light, thin and beautiful as the wings of a butterfly. Deirdre is drumming again, and there aren't words in the soft thumming of our voices now, so soft it's hard to hear, weaving together for the sparse time we are allowed.

When they tell us to come, to hurry, the light is leaving, I am the first to do so - unwilling to linger and steal that golden experience from another. We stand in the cold and look up to see people dancing and piping on the top of the mound, people gathered, the sun caught in the wispy clutches of the low clouds.

Tea and breakfast are calling to us, so we go, then. That was it - the last thing on our list - yet we had a day and a night to kill before our plane left the next morning. We try for Dublin, but Dublin, after roaming around the less urban areas of the country, is an absolute nightmare and we soon leave. We do pass through Trim to get there, and things are feeling oddly cyclical, or perhaps not so oddly - in any case, we decide to head instead to Drogheda, because it's easier to get to the airport from there and we want nothing more, at this point, than a pint and a very long nap.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Ireland - Chapter Five

County Clare

"The Burren affordeth not a piece of timber sufficient to hang a man, water in any one place to drown a man, or earth enough in any one part to bury him." Thomas Dingley (antiquary)

The Burren is such an alien landscape, yet to anyone who's been to the Aran Islands it's familiar – for it consists of the same bedrock, minus the seaweed that made a sort of topsoil on the islands. Instead, the Burren is ranges of hills that appear at first glance to be ripples of stone devoid of life. But within the grykes, the cracks that run through the stone, a strange mix of nutrient-rich plantlife grows, from those found in the tundra to those found in tropical climes. It is beautiful and strange and the cows here are very happy and fat despite the apparent lack of green.

There are ancient scottish settlements, many court tombs and passage tombs, and a considerable number of caves in this land. We drive around back roads and explore narrow lanes in search of cairns and tombs and other sites. We find some and don't find others.

Look under the big cow.

In many of the towns we see or hear rumors of the famous match making festival in Lisdoonverna, which we do not attend, and eventually we make our way to the Cliffs of Moher, something that's been on my Ireland-visit-wish-list since I was fifteen and found pictures of it that felt so achingly familiar they made me cry.

It's strange to see the visitors center there, though it is built as inconspicuously as possible, and the long pathways up the cliffs with railings for visitor's safety. I didn't expect anything so touristy. On our way there, we passed through Liscannor and a rock shop which described to us the history of stonemasonry in the area. It was pretty cool, and the visitor's center was much more interesting knowing where everything was quarried from and what stories the stone told. The visitor's center is cute – and some of the legends and lore of the cliffs is told there as well, though in no great detail.

The cliffs themselves are more impressive than any photograph can really do justice. I take a lot of pictures anyway, knowing how futile it is, and drink my fill as we wander along the railed in pathways. The corvids – sea crows? Who live by the cliffs, feeding off of whatever the tourists thrown away, are very taken with me. Halfway up the walk, one lands beside us on the rail, grey peeking through the black of his headfeathers, and fixes me so hard with one black eye that I freeze. I get the impression he has Something to Say, and I take two pictures.

He's only in the first one, and he didn't move until we'd made our way far up the path, staring after us from his perch on the rail all the while. Later, I tear up a piece of bread and feed it to the flock before bundling into the car.

We sit for a while, poring over maps and books, because we've hit all the stops we've wanted to make until Loughcrew, and the equinox isn't for another couple of days. We talk about going south, to Dingle and the Ring of Kerry, or further south still to Cork, but it seems so far out of our way. Finally, eyeing the local signs and making a last minute U turn, we head north a few kilometers and into the little town of Doolin. We heard there was good music there, and that you could take a ferry to the bottom of the cliffs. We take the very last ferry that day, in fact, after securing a couple of beds in one of Doolin's three hostels and hearing where “the best pipes player in all of ireland” will be playing that night.

I like boats, okay? And the Cliffs of Moher. I really like those. In all honesty, cold or not, the water was so unearthly beautiful, such a clear and vibrant shade, all folded in on itself into the depths, that I would have happily fallen in if I wasn't wearing a coat and boots that would have not liked it half as much as I. The cliffs of course were fantastic, impressive, soaring. I wish it hadn't been such a short trip, but on the way back in, a school of dolphins followed. Because my stepfather has a sailboat, my mom and I knew to look for them – but no one else believed us until several of the dolphins had been a bit obvious about it.

There's a merrily burning fire in the common room of the hostel when we get back. We roast ourselves by it for a while and make friends with some of our fellow hostel mates. Eventually it's time to go to the pub and get some dinner and hear some music – something Doolin is famous for. I flirt with the bartenders and for the first time on my trip, I have my sketchbook with me, and delight in making them both self conscious and flattered by attempting to draw their faces.

There will be sketches here when I scan them. I swear.

When the music happens, it's as good as promised, and I try to draw them too. As far as live music goes, we are lucky, because the pipes player is amazing – and the music itself makes me abandon my drawing and tease the closest group of young men until one of them dances with me. We entertain the crowd by jumping and spinning around, and afterwards I find he is Italian, and it's even funnier as neither of us are Irish. I'm too overheated to dance more for the time being, so I have another pint and find I am exhausted – yet as we make our way towards the door, I am caught up by an irish guy this time, who waltzes with me (or some approximation) until I am spun free towards the door. There, my mother is trying to show my sketchbook to the people standing there – one of whom is American, another an Australian businessman who is both retired and on a golf trip. When he tells me that he's into buying and trading stocks, his eyes slide away and his grin is half-guilty.

Our walk home in the dark reminds me of the Aran islands, and in the distance the waves make muted crashes and whisperings. Closer by, a little stream that winds through town rushes to meet those same waves. The stars are out, mostly, and we fall into our beds with the feeling that maybe we will stay another night here, in this pleasant place.

And we do. The next day, we find that two of the women in our dorm are also Reillys. They don't have a rental, so we drive them to the cliffs and drop them off while we go in search of a holy well that we both saw a sign for on the way (Bridget's Well) and also read about in the visitor's center for the cliffs (Since anyone can remember, on Bridget's festival days there have been very important happenings by the well from all around – even the Aran islanders would come in little boats in a pilgrimage to the well on these holy days.)

All the other pictures came out blurry.
Only this one, taken from outside the shrine, was in focus.

The Well here is, along side the one at Tara, one of the most sacred-feeling wells I have encountered in my trip. It is far more a shrine, and when we get there, someone is within the structure, so we wander around the graveyard. There are very old graves, a few bearing one of our ancestor-branches name, “Ahern”, which in our family tree is anglicized to “Heron”. A very narrow stream circles the graveyard.

There are stars in.

We then visit the shrine, which is cave-like and layered with decades of offerings, pictures, statuettes, and a hand-woven St Bridget's Cross or three. It throbs with energy, and as my mother goes to get the camera, I kneel before the well. There was no real intention in my mind before then, but as I kneel, words flow through my mind, intention, desire, a mantra I had no knowledge of until it was drawn from me as if by a gentle whirlpool. I touch the water to my forehead, my eyes, my lips, my ears, my throat, as I murmur the words that come to me, and it isn't until I speak them that I knew what it was I needed. I give thanks and stand as my mother returns, and give her time as well, because that's just the kind of place it is. When we leave, we both already know without needing to say so that the next place we want to go is the crescent of sandy beach in Liscannon.

Populated by locals walking their dogs or just walking, the beach is eerie but beautiful. The wind is fierce, so we don't walk for long - longer than we would have otherwise, though. When we get back to the car, we're just in time to pick our new Reilly-friends up, and we all go back to Doolin with equally satisfied experiences. When we return, we do a little grocery run with a pink-haired hitchhiker named Monica from Seattle who is very nice. Later, we do a pub crawl of sorts, listening to music for a while in one pub before moving on to the next. The stars are out again, and after everyone has gone to bed, I wander alone to a bridge that spans the river, and sing softly to let the wind and the water carry my voice to sea. It's a good night. In the morning, we leave for County Meath where, on the very western edge, the Loughcrew passage tombs sit on the highest hills in the county.

Thanks for sticking with me on the journey so far!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Ireland - Chapter Four

Cong, Cross, and Neal

Connemara is wild country. It is mountains and bog and no houses, no people, no cows. Golden and stretched long from the late of the day, sunbeams spill across miles of stark mountains with enigmatic faces, across vast flat stretches of marshy red and green with the occasional long boulder to interrupt. Lakes shimmer one one side, then the other. We drive through the Maam valley and later we both talk about how it is a beauty that is forever burned in our hearts, unreal and unlike anything else we are to see in the country. We take no pictures. Sorry.

Our plan is to go to Cong, where, thanks to McCarthy, we know there are several ancient cairns located in a trio of towns on the isthmus between Lough Mask and LoughCorrib. Lough Corrib is massive, and we drive along its shore for a while on the way. The water is beautiful, and the land meets it steeply, with scatterings of little islands and mountain teeth. By the time we get to Cong it is late in the day. They filmed the QuietMan there – which anyone will tell you, in addition to there being a Quiet Man Museum and other such attractions. That just goes to show that, even when something happened fifty years ago, people here will remember it. We eat at the Crow's Nest pub, which boasts such rarities as pizza – we get something else. I drink an alcoholic ginger beer advertised, which is very good, and stay up reading McCarthy's accounts of Cong.

The morning brings the same sort of weather we've been having for most of the trip, which is to say, sudden rainstorms followed in ten minutes by blue sky and sunlight. We eat breakfast at the Hungry Monk, which has real coffee and delicious food, and wander around town. I am entranced by the idea of the “rising of the waters” that happens in Cong, but there is water everywhere, and while my mother fills up the car at the gas station, I wander across the street to a book shop. Every proper town should have a book shop.

It is more interesting than I'd hoped, a large building with part of it walled off to a back room or stock room. New books mingle with used books, and there are antique volumes both on the shelves and behind the counter. I browse for a while and settle on a palm-sized little black and white book that looks as if it were written by someone in town – indeed by a German hiker and the man who runs the Quiet Man Museum. The book is about Cong and the various caves, trails, islands, and local legends that are attached to these places. Sometime over the course of the night and the rainy-sunny-rainy morning, I have realized I feel a very strong attachment to this place.

My mother has joined me, and we check out, and as we do I casually ask the bookshop owner about the rising waters – which he says are just outside, and actually that Cong is on a small island created by the parting streams – and Moytura. He scoffs somewhat at this, and is of the opinion that Sir William Wilde, father to the far more well known Oscar Wilde, invented much of what is currently accepted as ancient mythology sometime in the mid-1800's. He had a summer lake house here in Cong, and his wife was much more interesting, fixated on collecting the local folklore – even publishing a book on it which was never reprinted, while also writing pro-Irish-independence and feminist-leaning articles under the pen name of Speranza. At my mother and I's hopeful glance at the shelves behind him, the book seller shakes his head and says his only copy recently was sold for 300 euro. He is Scottish, and returned to Cong after 10 years away. He seems a little tired of stone-chasing weirdos like us, but he lends us his umbrella to get to the car through the sudden downpour and we drive on.

Off to Neal. Or was it Cross first? The two towns are roughly equidistant, and there are many strange things along the way. I see my first proper stone circle here, marked by a brown sign half hidden by trees. As we climb through the gap in the wall, sky sky opens up, and we run across the field towards the stones and the thick trees that grow in a circle around them, more for cover than anything. There is a fence, but the fence has holes, and we step among the stones and trees with as much reverence as we can muster what with hiding from the rather heavy rain.

After it eases up, I notice a second circle of stones over a wall enclosing a cow field. I hop the wall, startling a cow, and wander around it as well. There's a concentrated feeling in both places, a sort of stillness that vibrates.

As we walk across the field again to look at some very old trees growing on top of a wall that must be even older, the sun breaks the clouds and the ground becomes cool green fire, too bright to take in.

The beginnings of a suspicion have taken root in my mind, having to do with trees and holy places. I don't say much about it, but we get into the car and drive on.

Same stone circle and fence, sunlit.

Since right now I can't remember if we went to Neal or Cross first, so I'll tell you about Neal, and the Gods of Neal. We stop at a little grocery and are directed on a “loop” walk that takes in the stone we came looking for, a holy well, and the two “follies” built by some enterprising man who decided that what the town of Neal really needed was an Aztec style Pyramid and a more Greek-styled temple. When it starts to pour again, I suspect we are close to Neal. I look for the first place that fits with my theory, a small strand of trees, and indeed, as we take shelter from the nearly horizontal rain, we find ourselves face to face with the stone of Neal.

Our pictures don't really come out of it, and we leave it at that. After sheltering behind the stone itself for a while, we move on, walking a very beautiful path around fields and peering in passing into the little well. When we emerge onto the road again, we head back to Cross, from which our journey will turn again southwards.

There's a cairn along the way, mentioned in both Pete McCarthy's book and the little Cong guidebook I bought in the bookshop. It is supposedly the cairn of this particular legend, wherein at the end of the first day of the firstbattle of Moytura, the Firbolg king bade his warriors bring back a stone for every warrior they slew in battle. Eventually, the king's son – or in some stories the king himself? Is laid to rest here as well. It is also cited as very likely being a passage tomb just like Newgrange and Knowth, but no archaeological digs have been made.

I see one of the brown signs indicating a historic site, and we pull off the road. The blue sky turns decidedly grey, which I have been taking as a sign we are going to find something interesting, and we walk along what is most assuredly someone's driveway until that sky opens up on our heads again. Over the thick bushes lining the stone wall, I see a grove of trees. Suspicious, that. There aren't a lot of trees in ireland, see, because there are an awful lot of cows and sheep that eat an awful lot of grass. And so when they let the trees grow, there's generally a reason they've been allowed to. As I spotted the pale and distinctive glitter of white quartz against the grey sky, just barely taller than the trees, I pointed to it and we jumped the stone wall into the field. The rain was really coming down at this point, so we ran to the trees and took the first opening through the brambles we could find.

Within the grove.

And there it was – ringed by trees and underbrush, a sizeable mound of loosely stacked stones. It was made eerie not just by the wind and rain that surrounded us, but by the cool cave-like atmosphere of the dark green growth. We don't exchange many words, instead finding a path further in and around, out of the wind. As with the rest of the weather, the rain is brief, and it's less than ten minutes – or maybe a tad more this time – before it eases up. My mother has by then circled further without me, and I begin the task of climbing the cairn to the curious structure at the top.

Much bigger than it looks.

It's tricky. The stones are loose, not stable, and slippery to boot. It feels like the thing I am climbing is only half there, not real or quite solid, and that's unsettling too. When I reach the top I hear the exclamation from below that my mother has discovered the startling venom of the nettle plant. My fingers throb in sympathy that isn't entirely psychosomatic.

I'm in most of these for scale.

As I stand beside the cairn, the sky opens a blue eye down on us and the sun spills through – the view is spectacular.

Before we drive away, we are drawn to a secondary copse of trees, because surely it concealed something – and we are not disappointed, though it is much harder to penetrate the brambles here, and the feel within the nest of trees is sad. It felt like the ghost of a place, and indeed there are stones there, though scattered and torn away. A few white-quartz faces glitter from the long grass around the grove. As we leave, we spy sloe berries growing, blackthorn and whitethorn hand in hand to guard the path we walk.

We turn south from Connemara and some part of me wishes we could stay. Cong, the Aran Islands, and Doolin are three places I'd return to and stay longer, if I could. But we are off to the Burren, to some of the oldest tomb structures and strangest geological sights of Ireland, and the Cliffs of Moher in the county that shares one of my names.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ireland - Chapter Three

Day 3 and 4 – Inishmor

We wake in the morning before the rest of Galway does, and subsequently, breakfast and coffee is at first difficult to obtain. We get them, then wander to the tourist office to buy ferry tickets to the Aran Islands, which have been on the list of things to hit for a while now. I'm lucky to have my mother as a travel companion. We like and want to see the same things, and have the same loose definition of “plans” that basically contain a list of things we'd like to see but don't have to, with plenty of room to run off to the next destination.

Over a quick breakfast, listening to irish talk radio hosts playing fairly dramatic love songs while a call in waxes poetic about how he met his husband in an airport, I lament that the ferry logistics forced us to pick a single island rather than seeing all of them.

The ferry departs from Rossaveal along the coast of Galway Bay. As we drive along the coast, the sun is coming out and the water glitters. Then we hit a place it's impossible not to stop at, a beach where a rapidly flowing river meets the bay and pale sand stretches between tumbles of rock. It's beautiful, and strikes the sort of homesick chord you get when you see a place you miss but can't stay. A lot of places in Ireland hit this chord for me, but I'm an ocean thing, a seaside girl, and the rushing water draws me out and makes me smile though the cold wind hurts my face.

We drive on. Rossaveal is nestled on an edge of Connemara, which is wild country, bogs and stone. The town is tiny, and the ferry won't come until later. We drop into the pub for a while, where a local tells us jokes and quizzes us about our own country, entertaining at first and annoying later. I am beginning to learn that while everyone asks you where you're from (even though they can already tell you're from the US by your accent) unless you're from Boston or New York, they just stare at you blankly and expectantly when you name a place they don't recognize. A guy who lays pipes and other public works jobs on the islands tells us the smaller island is better because they have no Garda and the pubs stay open until 3 or 4 am. Eventually an old guy who speaks more irish than english and is extremely drunk hits too much on my mother and we leave.


We pass more time in the car until a crowd begins to gather for the ferry. I write my first batch of postcards, not really knowing what to say in many cases, because there is both too much and too little – too many people I wish to travel this country with, and yet a strange feeling of being utterly removed from their world and lives. Before the ferry comes, I watch fisherman feed a gray seal at the docks, daydreaming of selkies and hugging myself against the chill of the wind. My leather jacket is well insulated but short, and though my layers serve me well through most of the trip, I wish I'd brought more of them.


Despite the cold, and because of my love of the open water and boats, I stand at the open air top deck of the ferry with two other people – a young man from Switzerland who speaks very little english and an old irish man with a really excellently carved out white beard, who tells me about the Burren, which is all craggy rock with the most beautiful wildflowers growing in the cracks, and how the Aran islands are formed from the same rock. The three of us teeter and totter along the ferry as the waves toss the deck to extreme angles, and it would have been impossible to pry the smile off of my face.
The trip is 45 minutes, and the sun is going down stunningly over the island as we race towards it. I take an embarrassing number of pictures of this, licking salt-spray off my lips and clutching to the rail with numb fingers. As we get into the lee of the island, the waves calm and we see a rainbow touching down onto the land.


Night falls fast, here, and once we check in to our B&B we head out in search of dinner. A local pub, good food, and a musician that tunes his guitar but never plays. When we leave it is night and there is a tangible otherness to the air, a spooky, hair-raising energy that causes us both to laugh into the dark, but quietly, and express to each other that it was the sort of electric feeling that ends in things rising unexpectedly from behind stone walls, strange shapes dancing in empty fields in the light of the glittering stars. The wind is more alive here, whispering softly, so that you strain to catch words that would most certainly not be in English.

Up until this point, my mother has been quoting a book at me, which she picked up at a thrift store a month or two prior to our trip. It got a bit on my nerves – how could one guy be the go to source on an entire country, anyway? But that night I started to read McCarthy's Bar and I found it very difficult to set aside. It was ten years out of date yet managed to be both funny and accurate, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in travel stories. McCarthy also shared our interest in old rocks, and later we would follow his advice to find some very out of the way sites that otherwise we'd never have known about. From that night on, his experiences helped me to better frame my own in some ways – with the culture, the people, and even the navigation.

I cannot sleep that night – there is a stillness here that is bones deep, and in that stillness there is a music. I know that the waves are whispering on pebble beaches, and in my dreams figures wait to speak with me there if I'd only wander out to see them. Here is not a place of seeking to connect – it is being surrounded by the thing I have always sought to connect to, feeling the bedrock of it beneath my feet, tasting it in the perfect clarity of the air. The trees whisper, and that music one hears not with one's ears pulls at me, beckons me, and my rest is fitful from the lure of it.

In the morning, we ate breakfast while it rained, and rented bikes with the well-meant plan to ride around the island, to Dun Aengus and the other interesting spots on the map, including several megalithic tombs, a holy well or two, and a seal colony.

Oh, intention. It rained on us intermittently which was not at all unenjoyable, and I began what was to be a days long discussion about why on earth the Irish don't have blackberry everything, since every spot that isn't cow field or stone seems to be covered with thick thorny bushes full of bright, ripe berries. I snack as I go, and the sun comes out briefly as we reach a small, swan-filled lake. They swim in groups of four, and we talk briefly to one another of the story of the Children of Lir and try to take photos. They show off for us, and the sun goes away again.

At the seal colony, I stop and walk down stair-like slabs of dark grey stone to the rainswept vista. There are a few seals, and they circle in the water, curious but cautious. Tidal pools and kelp are scattered in my path. I spend a while there, and listen to the water and feel the rain on my face. When we begin to move again, the sun is back and I soon spot a brown sign, which, consulting my map, I leave behind my bike and hike up a narrow path to what I hope is a stone circle.

I never did find it, but the sign I followed was for Teampall Chiarain, which I also didn't find. Not that time, at least. At last we stop in a small neighborhood of houses, at a loss as to where the brown sign was leading us, when a very kind woman came out and began to talk to us. She didn't know what we were looking for in regards to stone circles, but we talked about the Teampall Chiarain and the holy well there, which is rumored to heal eyes and eyesight. She tells us that no one here really cares about saints or legends, that the history the elders of the community wish to impart is the one of their own hard work, about how difficult and harsh their lives were, and how their efforts had combined to make things better in the present day.

“The holy places, though, the wells, the water places, everyone is still drawn to. Something about water, eh?” She pauses, considering this. “You know, they were drilling here to put in a pipe system, very deep, and they discovered, just this year, there's a massive underground river running under the island, and many streams.” When I ask if they used dowsing rods, she nods. “Oh yes, I asked them to take a look at my parents' home, you know, because it was always so damp, and apparently they have an underground stream running right under their front doorstep!”

We thank her, making a note to visit the holy well, and I wander around fruitlessly looking for stone circles for another half an hour before giving up. This was my first real conversation about the underwater network of streams, and the holy wells. The people of the Aran islands specifically seem to be more powerfully drawn to these places than most, I am to later learn, but I too feel it, and as we cycle ever onwards (and upwards) I think about the ocean, the water that surrounds us, and the water that flows beneath us. It is strange for me, being a pagan for so many years, yet finding such real and physical elements of that belief here.

Water is life, is sacred, is healing, and the people here know that in their blood without the cage of religion on it. There isn't a question. Things are, and you can see them and taste them and touch them. The very geography of this country formed the beliefs of the people who lived there long ago, and even today, and I think people sort of forget that about earth based belief systems, get too lost in the stories and names and words of it.

We eventually, uphill and against the wind, reach the foot of the hill on which Dun Aengus is situated. We climb. People pass us going back down, and others walk along behind or ahead of us, all wanting a look at the ancient, triple ringed fort. It is beautiful and strange, the kind of thing that really makes a person wonder what the people who lived there were like, and why in the name of all the stars anyone was crazy enough to try to take it from them – the place is desolate, the hike is steep, and the rings end in a steep drop into the churning and beautiful sea. People creep up on bellies or crouched on hands and knees to get pictures over the edge of the cliff. I do this, and the wind makes my eyes water to the point where I cannot see unless I blink rapidly.

The color of the water is astonishing against the dark grey and green of the cliff and the flat silver of the sky. It's deep and vibrant, and the waves seem to make glyphs as they fold and foam in layers atop one another. We wander a while longer, and eventually descend the hill to the little shops, where I find one in particular I was looking for, some friends having purchased a hanging scroll print there some years before. They had new designs but neither the owner or her son were there and the shop lady, while happy to give us descriptions in detail of every piece, did not offer the artistic connection I'd hoped for. Nonetheless, I want to purchase something from there, though at the time it would have simply gotten ruined in the rain and wind on the bike ride back.

A couple of pints and thick hot soup later, we return by a different road. Midway down it, I see another sign for the Teampall Chiarain, and skid to a somewhat more dramatic halt than I'd intended. I pointed it out, and my mother too halted, as did the young man who was riding behind us, who turned out to be from Seattle. Together, we wandered down the side lane for a ways, though no temple presented itself. Instead, the sun burst out and we got another rainbow – and the other two, to my disgruntlement, decided to turn back. Reluctantly, and feeling now as if I had to find the thing, I followed.

Our ferry left at five, and we had a little less than an hour, but we were nearly back to town. It was then that I saw the third and final sign, and with the stubbornness that comes of having not seen any bleeding stone circles yet, I dismounted my bike and wandered down the lane. I ought to have taken it with me, but instead, I kept going – just past that house I'd turn back, I said, and then that one. It was at this point that a kindly man changing his horse from one pasture to the next noticed me, a wayward tourist with a camera slung over one shoulder, and we talked a bit.

 He offered to let me take a picture of the horse, which I happily did, and told me the place I was looking for was just a half mile down the road – and he'd give me a lift if I wanted (he said, gesturing to the tractor parked in his drive). I accepted, and my mother wound up riding behind on her bike, having gotten worried I'd wandered off for good and us running out of time.

He pointed out both the well and the old church (rumored to be built amidst curiously carved standing stones) and the third time was indeed the charm, because I finally found the thing. By now the sky was blue and the sun warm and bright, and we walked the winding path to see what we could see – a small stone structure, a long and narrow stone with a hole in it that was said to have wish-granting properties, and the trickle of a stream nearby.

I tried to part the plants to find the stream and got a finger or two worth of nettles. Let me tell you something about nettles. You read “stinging nettles” and you hear about nettle tea being healthy, and nettles being edible once you cook them, but AGH do those things sting. It was not unlike tiny wasps, raising up fiery welts on my hand and in general being very unpleasant. Also, it lasts. Just in case you thought it was like a thorny bramble or something... no.

Ahem, anyway, I was in a great rush to find the healing well after this, as you might imagine, and when we did we had so little time left that all we did was dip in our hands briefly, and dab our eyelids (after I held my wounded hand under for a bit – which helped immensely) and we were off again, my mom biking and me walking as fast as I could after biking and hiking all around the island all day. We were cutting it close, we knew, because we still had to return the bikes and pick up our bags.

Then, I heard it. Plaintive, distressed, and utterly unmistakeable – a cat in distress. I am incapable of ignoring that any day, and moreso having been away from my kitty for a few days, so I stopped dead in my tracks, made apologetic handwaving, and turned to face the source of the noise. There was, you might imagine at this point from the pictures, a stone wall, and from behind it, amidst the thick tangle of blackberry bushes with some very impressive thorns, came the cries. They were loud, insistent, and continued without pause. My first thought was that the cat, or kitten, as I was beginning to suspect, was hurt and trapped there. I was wrapping my arm to the elbow in one of my layer shirts, and peering through the cracks between the stones, when I attracted the notice of a local man who was walking down a connecting lane, workbag in hand.

He stooped next to me, wherein I expressed with distress the situation. He told me he had heard the cries in the morning when he went to work, and that he'd found a couple of cats recently, abandoned by one of the Traveling folk. We were both peering into the wall when the kitten emerged, from some slightly larger hole. I have not seen a tinier mobile bit of fluff. It couldn't have been walking long, and indeed was toddling around like a drunk, rubbing its tiny skull on anything even remotely close to express its pleasure at being found and expressing its happiness all the while with a volume that really did sound like it came from a cat twenty times its size. We both waited, me with a hand outstretched in offering, for the kitten to make a move, and its stumbling walk eventually collided with my fingers. I picked the kitten up and was uncertain. I could hardly take it with me in any practical way.

But then the man told me he would take her, as if he was surprised I hadn't realized that. He scooped her up and told her in the gravelly voice with the unique island-burr that they'd have to get her some milk, and planted a kiss on her tricolor forehead. As I watched, he picked up the tool filled and dusty workbag in one hand, cradling the kitten in the other, and walked the other way down the road. Reading this, you might think me sentimental for in that moment loving him and the people he came from deeply for being the sort that would, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, be so unconditionally kind. If I learn no irish, if my other memories of the people and places there fade, I hope that some of that nature has lodged in my own heart and soul. It's like the healing wells.

At this point, there's pretty much no way we'll make it on time but we try anyway – my mother going ahead to return the bikes and me tasked with retrieving our stuff from where it was stashed under the staircase of the B&B. I walk, and sing to myself, and try not to think about time passing. It works. When we board the ferry, we both sit at the top, alone this time, aside from the skeptical look of the captain. The journey back is much smoother, and the sky ripples with a mixture of cloud and sun, and I think about the book, and about the island, and I almost wish we'd have missed the boat to stay another night. But sometimes you have to let the momentum of the journey carry you on, to not fight the flow of the river you're riding, or, in this case, the ferry on the bay.

When we find our little rental car, I open the map again, and we turn our faces north to Connemara and the mountains.