Kylemore Abbey, Connemara.
Shannon .. My extended family decided to meet at Ireland’s Shannon Airport in the off-season. That included my brother, his wife, my two sisters, and two nephews. We weren’t fanatics about things Irish but there had been a recent death in the family, and we decided to soothe blue moods in proximity to the soft syllables of an ancient tongue in a land where we had roots.
In the early summer, my sister Judy’s husband died while jogging at the too-young age of 53. So, while the remaining family members still pushed air from our lungs, we planned to go en masse to the Irish-speaking part of Ireland, the Gaeltacht, and seek peace in dark rooms amid the earthy smell of smoldering peat.
The Irish language suited people in the Far West of Ireland where native speakers, mostly Irish Catholics had been driven by English colonialists to the worst land in the country, west of the Shannon River. The bleakness extends all the way to the Aran Islands – the most barren, rocky ledges of land people could hope to survive on.
The well-scoured Western Way in the Burren of County Clare.
Cliffs of Moher, County Clare.
Our first couple of nights on Irish soil were hectic. Whoever travels as an extended family anymore? We had no group leader, that being a predicament of equality. With the necessary two rental cars, we got separated outside Lahinch in a manner I had worried about in emails to my nephew – the women will have a “to do” list requiring endless driving, I predicted, and the men will want to hike the hills and cool down over a Guiness in cozy pubs.
The first night in a Lahinch pub there was Judy talking about driving from central Shannon to Donegal in the far northwest, then to Dingle in the far southwest then a night or two on an Aran Island out in Galway Bay. With only a week in Ireland, we would be driving maniacs to accomplish her trip, all tanked up on expensive gas and the terrible coffee they dole out in Ireland.
The death of her husband was so sudden and shocking that we had worried how Judy would act on the trip. Was her driving urge the old American response to hit the endless highway for emotional escape? If that were true, Ireland wasn’t the place for it. The narrow, precarious roads were littered with sullen cows and countless plodding sheep.
Another pub advertised live music on a sign outside.
“When’s the music start?” I asked a table of locals.
“Ten p.m.” said a woman. “Take a seat.”
“We’ve been up all night flying,” I said, “Can’t wait that long.”
“Then buy a round of drinks for God’s sake,” the lady said, “and I’ll sing for you right now.”
Pub Band in Killaloe, outside Shannon.
Rudderless and tired, we checked in to a local B&B instead. The next day we lost track of the car of our elder sisters who had taken a back road to a prehistoric dolmen. We spent the following night in different towns with no way of getting in touch with each other. We hoped our sisters would drive to the Aran Islands ferry dock next morning, and, to our relief, they did.
Doolin town, County Clare.
A tiny fifth century Christian church dedicated to St. Patrick, Inishmore.
Inishmore is the biggest of the Aran Islands, and a desolate, rocky sight it was. The islands are part of the same geology as the Burren on County Clare mainland, which, a local had described, “lacks the wood to hang a man, the water to drown him, and the soil to bury him.”
We stayed two nights near Inishmore’s Kilronan town. The days were filled with bike rides and hikes, and the nights with pub stops. In one pub we found our live music and learned about uilleann pipes – an Irish bagpipe unlike Scottish mouth-blown ones, with the air supply produced with bellows squeezed by the musician’s elbow. With a light rain outside, the haunting sounds suited our moods. You could be completely blue in Ireland and be content.
Inishmore’s prehistoric rock forts were hypnotic. I photographed these chevaux-de-frise (horses of the Frisians) at Dun Aengus over and over. Picture a tank trap dug around a modern military camp, then one created in similar fashion against horse soldiers a few thousand years ago. Limestone slabs jutted out at all angles from concentric pits, sure to slow down even foot soldiers under a barrage of arrow, spear and rock. These slabs were named after similar barriers around forts the French found on the Frisian Islands.
The rock fort, Dun Aengus, with the chevaux-de-frise barrier in foreground.
Maumturk Mountains, Connemara National Park.
Our clan of Aiken/Doran/Johnsons had mellowed on this jagged isle and we returned to the mainland with a plan of action to satisfy everyone. However, the first hike the male clan members took was a disaster. Driving to Connemara National Park, we saw a dirt road with a hiking sign. A short drive took us to Cregg Hill, with a view of a lake so desolate that we had to get closer. We hiked beside a stream and stepped over sod clumps sinking with every step. The lake was merely the deepest part of a huge, boot-sucking bogland. By the time we returned, we were soaked through and could barely wait for the car heaters to kick in.
Even so, I loved the hiking and the photos taken from high ground. We’d try again. Once inside Connemara Park, we stopped at Inagh Lodge and left the women. I told the men folk we would hit the mountains where the land appeared dry in the sun up around the summit of the Maumturk Mountains.
The side road we turned down led to a paved section of The Western Way, a hiking route that went to the coast. The land that looked dry from below was wet too. But the Maumturks are famous for beautiful white quartzite rock that juts above the turf and we could climb concentrating on the quartzite as stepping stones.
The walk to the summit, Connemara National Park.
The sun cleared from behind streaming clouds that rushed from the seacoast. The view just below the summit was spectacular: angled sunlight over white stone, a stream zigzagging to a plain crisscrossed with furrows made to salvage peat. Neat peat piles lined a cattle path to the road and, across the valley, the mountains called the Twelve Bens lolled above Lough Inagh.
At the horizon was the sea. I thought I could make out the Aran Islands but the sun hid behind clouds again. Connemara locals say: if you can see the Aran Islands, it’s going to rain, and if you can’t see them, it is raining.
Aran Islands farm on a rare clear day.
We stood on a peak called Cnoc na Uilleann, the name for the Irish pipes. I pictured an Irishman, standing at this spot, squeezing out a mournful dirge in memory of my vanished brother-in-law, Dick Johnson. In my head I heard a melody of thanks for knowing the man as we slid down to the flat land before evening. Connemara had a landscape you could cry in and the soft rain would hide the tears.
FOLLOW UP FACTS
Check these websites: Tourism Ireland, www.tourismireland.com;
Irish Hotels Federation, www.irelandhotels.com
Car rentals: Major national and international rental car agencies are represented at Shannon Airport. Good weekly rates can be locked in before arrival in Ireland. Gas is expensive and driving is on the left.
Ireland is a great country to meet up for a family reunion and stay in one of the beautiful country cottages that are available to rent direct from their owners.
While serving in the American Peace Corps, Peter Aiken taught high school for two years in Western Samoa and English Language and Literature for two years in Thailand. This, together with a long route home through Asia and Europe, got him hooked on travel and writing. Peter has written for the New York Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Islands Magazine, Discovery, Travel Holiday and many more. Travel stories have appeared in Travelers’ Tales India and Travel Unlimited. He has contributed to two guidebooks on New England, and edited the Access Guide to his home territory of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.