With Friends in County Galway
06.24.2008 16 °C
The gang at the top of Diamond Hill, Connemara National Park
These next two weeks in Ireland we'll be spending with our friends from the state of Washington whom we met in Vietnam. If that sounds confusing, see our blog entry from Hanoi. Sherry adopted her daughter Julia from China, and her daughter Jaclyn from Vietnam. Julia's now 11, and Jaclyn 10, and since we all got along so well in Vietnam, they decided to join us in Ireland. Like Sherry says, I have to be careful what I write since "that crazy American lady's here now."
The first indication we had that they'd made it was a call from their airline telling us they'd "found their luggage." At that point, we'd arrived at our cottage in Galway and were waiting for them. Before long, Sherry and the girls came to the door, with just the clothes on their backs, and we were able to say "Hi! Welcome! And guess what? Your luggage will arrive by taxi in the morning!"
We were thrilled with the place here. We're in a town called Oughterard in County Galway. The house is beautifully decorated, and brand new (although when it comes to the fireplace, it's fueled by good old-fashioned Irish peat bog "turf"). It looks like this little house from the outside, but inside it's huge. There's three bedrooms, but all three girls have piled into one bedroom's queen-sized bed for that sleepover effect.
Pouring rain greeted our friends on their first morning in Ireland. We took our time in the morning, and eventually went out anyway in the afternoon to a couple of nearby sites. We saw the Glengowla Mines, closed since 1865, which once mined silver and lead, and got a nice tour there. Most of it took us out of the rain, although we also encountered the "midges" which made us forget all about the mayflies we encountered last week.
Julia, Jaclyn, Anica don hard hats at Glengowla Mine
We also went to Aughnanure Castle, which is only a couple of kilometres from where we're staying. It's a 16th-century "tower house" of the O'Flaherty family, who apparently were "chieftains" living outside of most recognized laws. The main tower rises six floors, and the higher you go, the more important the people living there would have been. The walls of the tower are whitewashed inside, and liberally dotted now by bat poop. Most buildings of the castle are in ruins; there's an impressive-looking banquet hall but only one wall now stands.
The 16th century version of a "dee-luxe apartment in the sky"
With better weather, we decided to make a real day of it and visit the Aran Islands. We drove to the town where you take the ferry. Aran is world-famous for its wool sweaters, but, other than a store that sold them, that didn't figure into our day. When we got to the island, we hired a mini bus tour. That took us all over this wild, rugged island, just two miles wide and eight miles long. I really felt like we were on the wind-swept fringe of civilization. The ground is just littered with stones, to the point that farming is almost impossible. People have piled stones into fences. Every few feet seems completely stone-fenced in. According to our guide, it's not really necessary but it's "something to do with the stones since they're there."
The main attraction on the island is a 3000-year old circular stone "fort" perched on the edge of a cliff. It's called "Dun Aonghasa" (which I think is the Gaelic spelling), and it's really a series of concentric circles of stone walls (about 10 feet high and quite thick). It's from Ireland's "Iron Age" so not much is known about it, although almost certainly there were huts where people lived inside the walls.
I crawled on my belly to peer over the cliff's edge: 250 feet straight down to the waters of Galway Bay. With the wind always blowing, there's no way you could just walk up to the edge and lean over.
Rob, feeling a little on edge that day
Anica, Julia and Jaclyn got to do lots of running around and screaming in the wide open spaces today (except near the cliff's edge). The mini-bus tour also took us to some other spots around the island, such as "The Seven Churches," where the ruins of three churches are still visible, and a cemetery has tombstones from this century back potentially as far as the 7th century, when Ireland's future saints were spreading Christianity to the Aran Islands.
On Aran Island: Rob, Sherry, and the girls
Following the return ferry, we ate dinner in a town called Moycullen, after taking a narrow, desolate road from Spiddal. Between those two towns, there was nothing but stones, horses and peat bogs. This is not the archetypal "green" Ireland, but it's undeniably beautiful in its way.
The driving arrangement's interesting. With six, we need two cars, and I'm the lead car driver. We make sure Sherry's following closely. Coming out of Moycullen, we pulled over because she hadn't made the turn. We waited and waited. Finally, we saw her car in the rear-view mirror. It wasn't until we were back at the house that we found out she couldn't get up the hill at that corner. Sherry's rental car is a manual transmission, which she hasn't driven in years, and never with a right-hand drive. She'd got out of the stalling car back in Moycullen and threw up her hands as if to say "what can I do" until another motorist volunteered to drive her car up the hill. "You might want to get in," he'd said to her.
Perseverance. Courage. Athleticism. None of it mine, of course. What a day! Today we went to the Connemara National Park and climbed a mountain. Technically, we walked up it, but it was still the hardest trail they have. It's 3.7 km long, and the mountain, called Diamond Hill, is 445 metres high (about a thousand feet). Jenn and Sherry are both afraid of heights, so they get the "courage" award. They made it, although Sherry didn't exactly take in the view at the summit. Meanwhile, the girls had been practically running up the hill. Anica soon tired, but then got her second wind. She gets the "perserverance" award. A parks worker was cleaning the trail and as I passed him, he pointed up at the girls, saying "I wish I had their energy." "It's just youth," I replied. "Youth," he said. "Is that it what it is? Well, 't won't come again, then." I caught up to the girls near the top, where it was getting pretty windy. We had to stay low and keep our weight forward. We got to the top, where the little stone pile marks the peak, and waited. Ten or fifteen minutes later, the Moms appeared, to the sound of our applause.
What a view! I'd asked the parks worker, about halfway up: "What's that body of water?" "The sea," he said. I pointed in the opposite direction. "And that water?" "The same," he said. It wasn't until we were at the top that you could see how what looked like a series of lakes were really just inlets and bays of the sea, which filled 180 degrees of our view, several miles in the distance.
Back, back, back...ok, stop! Stop. Right. There. No...farther.
The drive to and from the Park was amazing. There are no scenic routes in Connemara. This is the wild west of Ireland: they're all scenic. (Literally: every Connemara road in our road atlas is highlited in green as "scenic drive"). We rode alongside lakes, weaved in and out of mountains, rocky farmland and peat bogs.
Kylemore Abbey, seen on our Connemara drive
At one point, we turned a corner and saw this beautiful beach. We decided to stop. Turquoise water, white sand, crescent-shaped...everything you'd want in a beach, except of course it was too cold to swim! Both the water and the air. It was probably about 19 degrees, but with a chilling wind.
We wound our way around Connemara, stopping in Roundstone where they make the Bodhran drums, before eventually returning to Oughterard for a dinner at an atmospheric pub. It's been one of the best days on the whole trip.
Completely worn out, Anica rebelled against the sleepover arrangement and ended up in our room. In our bed, actually. Then Julia and Jaclyn decided they'd go to their Mom's room, so one of our three bedroom ended up completely empty for the night.
After our huge, exhausting day yesterday, we took things a little easier today. We did go out to a place called "Brigit's Garden" nearby, which our three girls enjoyed. It's a newly-built Celtic-themed gardens, laid out with imaginative decorations like basket swings, and a grotto you can call into using "whispering tubes." They liked running around in the gardens and nature trail, and we also had our lunch there.
Photo-op at Brigit's Garden
Then it was back to the cottage, where I laboured to get the peat fire burning ("I'll just throw some more sods of turf on the fire!").
Sherry brought a book of Irish legends and each night so far Anica's been reading a bit of it outloud to Julia and Jaclyn. That's a new twist on our bedtime story routine!
Here's what you do when you have a "home base" accommodation from which to explore an area: make a day trip by car, cover about 300km in total and take in a selection of natural and historical sites. That's what we've been doing throughout Europe, and today we had a classic day trip.
First it was the "Cliffs of Moher." Anica wanted to know if they were "world-famous." Yes. Not Niagara Falls or Taj Mahal famous, but yes. Famous enough that they now keep the tourists back from the eroding and dangerous cliff edge with a tasteful stone barrier running along a wide, paved walkway. Many ignore huge signs, such as "Extreme Danger," or "Private Property," etc. and get right out to the edge of the 650 foot high cliffs. Jenn and Sherry were happy to obey the signs, and glad that I set a good example for the kids, too.
It is a beautiful and dramatic set of cliffs and coastline, with some distinctive features, such as the "Hag's Head" (which I couldn't pick out), or the "The Stack," which looks like it's calved from the mainland. It's not thrilling, though, just pretty.
The girls liked the "Atlantic Experience" in the Visitor's Centre just as much. They have a three-screen video setup called "The Ledge" that makes it seem like you're a seagull flying, or a gannet diving.
After the over-priced cafeteria lunch there, we were back on the road, heading to Bunratty. This town has the "Bunratty Castle and Folk Park." We've been to some castles, and even a "folk park" or two lately, but Sherry, Julia and Jaclyn haven't, and this is one of the best attractions in the west of Ireland. The castle was extensively decorated, with nothing past 1619 shown, and the rest of the grounds are a reconstructed village and collection of farm houses from the 19th century. The funny thing was seeing the same sort of turf-fire equipment that we have in our brand-new cottage back in Oughterard. Times haven't changed that much!
What really transfixed our little girls, however, was watching three costumed women prepare a huge apple pie to be baked. They stood there for the whole process, exclaiming "cool" from time to time. "It's like they've never seen baking before!" moaned the bewildered Mums.
You shall have no pie! Arrested at the Bunratty Folk Park.
In the morning, we visited the Galway aquarium (actually in Salthill). The girls liked the manta rays and starfish they got to touch. We also liked how it was focussed on Ireland/The Atlantic, so we could imagine what's under the sea all around us.
Then I had cod for lunch.
After that, we headed into Galway City itself. Mostly we just walked around. There's a vibrant pedestrian-only area, and we had three VERY vibrant pedestrians with us, so we looked at some of the landmarks like Lynch's Castle, St. Nicholas Church, etc.
As we neared the Nora Barnacle House, we made a point of seeing it. Nora was the wife of James Joyce, but really we just wanted to show the girls what her childhood home looked like. It's a preserved example of a "one-up/one-down" 19th century rowhouse. What we weren't expecting to find was a celebration! It was Bloomsday, something I'd read about when we were in Dublin, but I forgot that it's June 16th. Bloomsday celebrates James Joyce because it's the day his epic novel Ulysses (whose main character is named Bloom, of course) takes place. In Dublin, people dress as the characters and follow his fictional path through the day.
The women who work at the Nora Barnacle House had baked up a storm and we were warmly ushered in. Our main hostess must have known that three girls under 12 wouldn't be big Joyce fans, but the three of us adults could at least say we've read a little Joyce back in college. There were a few other people there, and we soon realized that volumes of Joyce's prose and poetry were being passed around, and people were taking turns doing impromptu readings. Sherry was the first of us to take up the invite, then me. (Most of us preferred to perform one of his short poems...) Just as Jenn was about to give it a go, Anica said she'd like a try. She picked out a couple of stanzas, and read it out nicely. So then Jaclyn wanted a turn, then Julia. All three of them gave a public poetry reading. Everyone thought that was great! Right in character, Julia walked up a couple of stairs to make sure everyone in the room could see and hear her. It was priceless.
As we left the house, I was in a daze - how had that just happened? There's only one day in the entire year that we could have had that experience, and we just stumbled onto it by accident. Serendipity.
Jaclyn, Anica and Julia outside the scene of their first international poetic performance
Eventually (because we were full from all those home-made baked goods), we ate a place called "Couch Potatas" that specializes in, you guessed it, jacket potatoes. Lots and lots of variations on the theme. So Julia and Jaclyn, in particular, liked that.
Home to pack up! We're on to County Kerry tomorrow!
Today me, Julia (!), Jacyln (!), Sherry and M & D stayed in for a bit because it was raining. I can't belive that I'm actually seeing them! It's really fun! We watched T.V., played multiplayer Nintendo and Pictochat.
Julia, Anica, Jaclyn inside our County Galway cottage
Then we went to the Glengowla mines. We went on a very cool tour but we could only where helmets. And too many flys. We then went to a ruined castle. We went on a nether tour where we went up lots of stairs trying to be inside. We then went back, played, had dinner, went home, G.N.
Today we went to Connemara National Park. It was a very long drive. When we got there, Julia, Jacyln and I were hungary. So we had our picnic of meat, cheese, chips, and cookies and veggies. We then climbed up a very high mountin and it went like this: kids, Dad, Mums. It was really fun but hard. Going down was even easier and I and the girls zoomed downhill. We then drove around for a bit before coming to Roundstone - Recess - Maam Cross - Oughterard. Had dinner, went home, G.N.
Today we went to Brigit's garden. We started off with our activity sheet which took us all around the gardens from sundial to swinging chairs. It was everything. We climbed on earth woman, had lunch, swinged on the chairs and lots more. We then went home and played nintendo before we watched tv, then we had dinner, played more nintendo, G.N.
Today we went to the Cliffs of Moher. It was very fun but we think it was funny because people were passing by the private property and risk of death signs (we diden't)?! We had lunch at there restaurant after there atlantic exibithian. My favrite part was the ledge where you I could watch a movie and pretend you were a seagull or a fish. Then we went to the folk park. It was very fun and funny and cool because they turned the shops into modren day shops! It was very fun. I also like the playground. We then went home, had dinner, went home, G.N.!
And now, let's her from our two young guest authors, Julia and Jacyln, who are here in Ireland with us for this week and next week:
The first time we saw each other we were shocked because we couldn't beleive that we were in Ireland. We spent alot of time until we had to go to bed.
Then we went to this mine place and then we went to a castle and looked around. There were lots of stairs. We came home and played and talked and then to bed.
After that we went to Diamond Hill then a beach. Diamond Hill had lots and lots of steps. They were stone steps. The beach was really clean but then we saw a big pile of junk. It was called Dogs bay. And then went home and went to bed.
Then we went to the Cliffs of Moher and we saw alot of cool awsome exciting things. This trip has been really cool, aswome and exciting!
First we, my sister and mom and me, flew to Ireland to see Anica!
The first day we went to Glengowla mines.
After the mines we went to a castle to look at. When we done looking at the castle we went home.
The next day we went to clime Diamond Hill. Diamon Hill was about 1,000 feet high.
But before Diamond Hill and after the mine & castle we went to Aran Island. Then went to Diamond Hill the next day. We stopped at a beach called Dogs Bay. After we left Dogs bay we went to Roundstone and went to Spiddal. And after all that it just keeps going!
Today we went to Galway and Salthill. The first thing we did was go to Galway Aquriem. The first thing that was really cool was a tank where it would be really quiet and then all of a sudden a wave would come down on the fish! We saw Manta Rays, Babys, movies and lots more. We also got to pet. We then went to lunch which was called Salt and Pepper. Then we walked all along the pretty streets of Gaway and walked into a museam. Then we dizzied our selfs around on the thing (in the playground) and then we went to Couch Potatoes which I just had garlice bread because I was feeling sick and dizzy. Went home, G.N.