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.