It's our last night in Ireland, and we were talking about our favorite place. For me it has to be Connemara, but there is an important caveat here. We were very fortunate with the weather in Co. Galway. Sure, it rained some every day, but for five minutes and then the sun would come out. If we had switched this for the weather we had in Co. Kerry, we might have climbed a mountain in the McGillicuddy Reeks, and this might be my favorite place in Ireland.
There's no getting away from it: this is a wet country. There is a stereotype about it raining all the time in England, but it really doesn't. Here it really does. My rain jacket packs away nicely and clips onto the outside of my backpack, but I haven't done that since we sailed from Wales.
I have lost all track of the time of year. I will hear something about the French Open or hear that school has let out for the year somewhere in the USA, and think "Oh yeah, it's June." There does not seem to be a season here, at least not one called summer. This is not a complaint, though; a week from now I may be sweltering on the continent of Europe and longing for a single Irish cloud.
The weather is one element of what has become our nomadic way of life. Our days are dictated by elements of the environment in a way they wouldn't be if we were living in one city and going to work every day. What shall we do? Check the weather. What shall we eat? Well, what is there? What shall we wear? Check the weather again. What's the first thing to do when we get to Kerry? Sit in a parked car and wait for the coin laundry to finish. The joys of clean clothes and being dry.
Two other things that stick out about Ireland are the public Catholicism and, cleanliness being next to godliness, the Tidy Towns competition. Seemingly every town we pass through has a sign boasting of the year it won Ireland's Tidiest Town. (I can tell you Clifden is not going to win it--lovely as Connemara is, get into a town and you've never seen so much dogshit.)
That's Dooneen Pier, and it shows how accustomed I'd become to the shrines to Mary that I didn't even notice this one when I took the picture. We saw terns, a grey heron, oysters, and starfish on our boat tour, though no interesting mammals. Well, there was one woman whose accent sounded similar to mine. She told us she was born in Wales, grew up in Canada, and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia. From the UK to Canada to the southeastern US--an exact reverse of my own journey up to now.
You see, I feel I've been on a journey for years already, which is why I don't keep thinking this is a vacation and I am about to go home. My time in the UK has felt like one long study abroad program. I'm adjusting to life on the road, sometimes finding ways to pass the time, sometimes struggling to take it all in. The world outside continues to shock with its violence and the idiocy of politics, but meeting people one by one as we travel, I continue to think what a beautiful world it is.
|Skellig Ring, Kerry coast|
Connemara concluded with the best of the live music sessions we've found--not advertised on the street, just a family and friends group jamming in a pub in Letterfrack. The tin whistle player started singing a song about "He kissed me on the navel"; at least that's as far as she'd gotten when she realized there were kids listening. One of the little girls carried a pint of Guinness across the room. I assume it was for someone older...
On our way out of town we stopped at Ocean's Alive, which I've already mentioned--John's labor of love. The little museum was included in the price of our boat trip, and well worth it. Even before we met John, I could tell from the highly eccentric spellings of the signs, and random displays, that this was the work of one person collecting everything he could about farm and coastal life so the visitor could step back in time. It was fascinating.
Another person who's been following me around Ireland is the president, Michael D. Higgins. Not that I've met him, but for someone I wasn't previously familiar with he sure pops up a lot. I read his highly moving poem "The Prophets are Weeping" on the Connemara nature trail the day before the London attack. Then in Galway city on the Salthill Promenade, we started talking to a saxophone player who proudly displayed a picture of himself with Michael Higgins. And the next day's Irish Times pictured Higgins with US Senator Bernie Sanders and his wife, whom they were careful to name as Jane O'Meara Sanders.
It's hard to get away from politics, especially when Northern Ireland holds the keys to the UK election results. Somewhere in the Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking region on the coast of Galway Bay, is Patrick Pearse's cottage. On my visit to Dublin in 1994 I learned that Pearse was one of the executed leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. It was several years later that I heard Fergal Keane, the BBC News correspondent, reading his "Letter from the South," in which he talked about the disconnect between the history he learned growing up in Ireland and the living present. He remembered meeting a hero of the Irish past and thinking "this is just an old man, not glorious and dead like Pearse."
You know you're in a Gaeltacht when there are suddenly no English-language place names on the signs. And then as suddenly, you're in Galway. Traffic lights! The first McDonald's I'd seen in Ireland! Not that I wanted one--the almost complete absence of chains has been one of the pleasures of this country. But I remembered these pedestrianized streets and the constant music in pubs. We met a priest from Pemba, off the coast of Tanzania, who was posing for a picture with the accordion. He said he'd see us later in his country.
We took a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher, in Co. Clare. I'm used to seeing tree branches blown into permanently horizontal shapes by the wind, but this was something else altogether. I have never before walked in such a wind. T. reckons it's not that people throw themselves off the cliffs suicidally--they were having a perfectly nice day, they just blew off!
|Next stop, Newfoundland|
And so to Dromin, Fossa, Killarney, home of the aforementioned coin laundry. The guy at the caravan park offered to make us cups of tea. We have learned to appreciate whenever food or drink is offered to us, especially when it is free. The full Irish breakfast the next morning went down very well too!
The weather dictated that we should not attempt to hike in Killarney National Park, so we drove out on the Dingle Peninsula instead. I should probably have pointed out before now that I am not the one driving. If you could see some of the narrow roads, hairpin bends, and blind plunging-over hills that have made up our driving in Co. Kerry, you would be glad of this too.
|Inch strand, the beach where movies I've never seen were filmed|
It was only raining steadily for part of today so, giddy with possibility, we went around the Ring of Kerry. This is Ireland's biggest circle drive, and with Killarney being such a well-known tourism machine, it seems to be the country's biggest attraction as well. Getting off onto the more remote Skellig Ring was better, and avoiding the coach trips entirely by cutting through the Black Valley and the Gap of Dunloe. The point at which we gave up on the main Ring of Kerry was a village called Sneem, which had the twin merits of clearly marked free public toilets (not to be taken for granted) and a sewing kit on sale for €2. Yes, I admit I have turned out to need needle and thread.
And so, with apologies to my mother who composed "The Ballad of Smoot, Wyoming" all those years ago, I give you a song about Sneem:
"Well I'm driving to Sneem
Looking for a sunbeam
We could get an ice cream
T. is ready to scream!"