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Inland: Away From the Storm

The Image of the Irish Bahamas

When our vacation was just beginning, while we were still on our way to Ireland, we had to change planes in London, at Gatwick. For reasons connected in some obscure way with the French air-traffic controllers' strike, we had to wait four or five hours in that unlovely place.

But chance threw us together with four Italians from Milan, and so we passed those hours very well. We ate, and talked, and sat and waited together.

This contact had an important impact on our trip. One of the girls from Milan told Mywatt that they were going to spend some time on a beautiful island. I wasn't part of that conversation, but I imagine that the image of an Irish Bahamas was created. Probably the island is somewhere off the coast of Kerry, in the southwest corner of Ireland.

What happened next was that Mywatt, with images of hot sun, white sand, palm trees, deep blue water, sunglasses, and swimming, said to me, "I want to go to an island, too."

The word "island" entered my brain, and was immediately cross-referenced through the annals of my memory. After bouncing off the section-heading "Ireland," it flew into a cobwebbed room - a dead end I never visited - that contained a single item: a fifteen-year-old article from National Geographic. It was an article about some islands off the west coast of Ireland.

"Yes," I replied, "there is an island we could go to. It's in the far west, and we can reach it as we come down from Donegal."

Somewhere, a cosmic being was laughing.

Through Sligo to a Dry Place

That morning, in Glencolmcille, we looked at the map. The only problem with our intinerary was: when to go to Clonmacnoise. Our plan was pretty much a tour of the coast, and Clonmacnoise is in the center of Ireland. At what point would we cut in? And once there, which direction would we take out?

"Let's head for Clonmacnoise now," Mywatt suggested. "Maybe it won't be as stormy since it's inland. Then we can go almost directly west to that island you talked about."

We went quickly through county Sligo, passed the eerie shape of the mountain Ben Bulben, decided against visiting Yeats' tomb, decided that we would not "arise and go now, and go to Inisfree," but we did perch briefly on two bar stools in Sligo town. An old man ordered a whiskey, and asked the barmaid to put in some lemonade "to keep me from talking to myself." Then he and she had a rapid, witty interchange of the type that only the Irish are capable, but I was too tired to register any of it.

Sligo seemed worthy of a visit on its own, but we mushed on, and as we got further inland, the weather got better and better.

The River Shannon and Clonmacnoise

The chief attraction of Clonmacnoise is a group of ruins set on a hill above the Shannon. It is one of Ireland's best-preserved early monastic communities. Like most of the others, it was a center of learning as well. The first ruin you see is a castle on a hill. You want to go have a closer look, but the thing leans over at an angle so extreme, it makes you wonder if it's safe. The castle's foundations were undermined by one group of invaders or another - they wanted to render the castle unusable. But do wander around and through it: sit in the soft grass, and watch the Shannon flow through the valley.

You may wonder why I mention it, but all around the castle were old, dried-out cowpats. I guess that on those rare occasions when I see a cowpat, I cannot help but remember a story I read oh so long ago in which a cow blundered into a country store and left just such a calling card. The cow quietly found its way out, and no one was the wiser until a pair of tourists from the planet Mars came in, looking for souvenirs. Of course they bought the thing, and started a craze, which is why the story is called "The Big Cow Pat Boom."

Anyway, the monastic community itself is walled in, and you may amble (as Shakespeare says) "without let or hinderance" among the old buildings, the celtic crosses, and the various monuments. The best of all the buildings, the Nun's Church, is somewhat hidden: you have to leave the enclosure by a back gate and take a short walk.

Two things that particularly interested me were two of the "crosses": The North Cross, which is not a cross at all but a square pillar, is a carved stone dedicated to the celtic god Cernunnos. The other cross is a large celtic cross, which is carved on every side with various biblical episodes. Although the pagan cross was a surprise, seeing as it remains, and stands so close to a church, the pair of them interested me because they seemed more than all the rest to have some kind of life - the sort of power that all good art has. And both were so worn by rain and weather that it was difficult to make out the carvings. I stood for a long time studying each in its turn, and the more I looked, the more I saw. At first, on the North Cross, I saw only vague lumps over the face of the stone. Then I began to see a pattern, and suddenly the curves resolved themselves into a pair of intertwining serpents.

This is not a question of imagining something that isn't there. The eye needs time to attune itself to something new. Mywatt asked about the deterioration of the celtic cross, and was told that a local man is trying to produce new ones, using the same technology and materials used back then. She was also told that a group of Germans had made a full-scale reconstruction of the deteriorating cross for a show abroad, and when that exposition was completed, they would donate the cross to Clonmacnoise. The original would move inside the museum, and the model would take its place outside.

We arrived in the late afternoon, and found a bed and breakfast on the road south from the monastery ruins. The woman gave us tea, and it was very good tea, and along with it she served scones she'd baked that morning.

During our tea we pressed our hostess to stay and talk a bit. We wanted to know if there was anywhere we could hear Irish music that night, and she told us of a pub in Shannonbridge. We wanted to know about peat, since we were sitting in front of a peat fire, and could smell its unmistakable mossy smell. We wanted to know about the Irish language, and she happened to be a teacher of it.

When we asked about peat, she put a piece of it in our hands. It was a cylindrical log about six inches in diameter, and surprisingly light in weight. It had a dark greenish-brown color. Then she told us to climb the hill in back of her house and look into the valley, where we could see the peat harvested. We did this later, and saw deep furrows running across a huge valley. These cuts were made by machines about the size of big tractors, and what they do is to churn up the peat and extrude it out the back. These tubes of peat are dried, then burnt. Because it's a vegetable, it grows back and can be cut once again. Once the peat is dry, it burns for a pretty long time.

"Irish Music"

We drove into Shannonbridge, as our hostess recommended, to a pub that was really a lot of fun. I can't remember the name, but if you want to find it, it is the pub closest to the bridge that crosses the Shannon.

One of the things we wanted to find in Ireland was Irish music. There is a kind of Irish music that sounds as if it comes from another world, and it takes you to this strange beyond. We heard this music in snatches here and there - a voice on the radio, a tin whistle on a film soundtrack - but we could never catch it, get the name or the tune or anything.

Here in the pub we did hear Irish music, but it was mainly reels, and the reels alternated with American country and western music.

You can only listen to so many reels, you know, before they all begin to sound the same. We found this same combination in other pubs we tried later in the trip. I was surprised, but I guess that country/western is what the people want to play and hear.

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