Sunday, September 4, 2022

Magical Mystery Tour

It began with a WhatsApp exchange.

Padraic: "Do you want to do something really stupid on Wednesday?"

Me: "I'm intrigued. 😬💪"

Padraic: "Would you do an overnight on Wednesday?"

Me: "No problem"

Padraic: "Departing Duffys at 8:45 am tomorrow.  Be present with your travelling partner, an overnight bag and, most importantly, your golf clubs."

Me: "Deal 😀"

Padraic: "Pack enough balls"

And that's all the information I had as we departed the Duffys' house on Kings Hill for a golf adventure.

The first clue appeared as we left town in a northeasterly direction.  That ruled out Connemara Links to the south in Ballyconneely, Co Galway or Carne Links to the northwest on the Belmullet Peninsula in Co Mayo.

The options going north were endless.  Would it be a return to Rosses Point (Co Sligo) where we had a grand time a few years ago?  Tom Coyne, author of A Course Called Ireland, ranked this course the #1 course for links purists in Ireland.  Gorgeous golf holes, meandering up and down the coastline of Sligo Bay with the constant presence of the mighty mountain, Belbulben dominating the skyline.

Could it be Strandhill, Rosses Point's poor little sister?  This lovely course is sited at the foot of Knocknarea mountain, mythologic burial place of Maeve, the beautiful warrior Queen of Connaught (one of the four provinces of Ireland).  The top of the mountain is capped with bare granite and Maeve is said to be buried upright in the cairn, sword in hand, facing her enemies in Ulster.  Strandhill is right on the Atlantic coastline - as you play you might admire the surfing techniques of its many devotees who travel to this beach for the well-shaped waves.  Although I am fond of Strandhill, it is not among Padraic's favorites.  Just didn't seem to suit his game when we were there a few years ago.  Too many blind shots and not a level stance to be had as you addressed your ball - craters and mounds dominated the fairways.

But as we drove through Sligo town, we passed the turnoffs for both these two tasty bits of linksland.

Still traveling north, Co. Donegal's course, referred to most commonly as Murvagh (the town in which it's located), came next to mind.  Located on a peninsula extending into the Atlantic, we had nothing but fond memories from our visit there last year.  It's a beautiful mix of high dunes and expansive views of land and sea - field and farm in the distance, whitecaps and a disappearing horizon out toward the ocean.

We had been given a remarkable day - hardly a cloud in the sky, the ambient temperature somewhere in the high sixties, a gentle breeze bringing in light scents of the grasses and the seaside.  Murvagh would be perfect...  And indeed, though waiting to the last minute, Padraic steered the car left onto the approach road - we had a teetime at half noon (12:30 to you Yanks), plenty of time to stretch out, have a cappuccino, and anticipate the coming adventure from the clubhouse.  A great day it was.  As always, one hopes for good fortune and a serviceable swing, but the beauty of the day and the setting - and most especially the great good company of our friends - overcame whatever regret arose over the poorly executed shot and the accurately aimed putt fallen short.  As is customary, Candee walked the front nine with us then peeled off to the clubhouse, finding a spot to read her book and enjoy a cider while we finished.

Click here for a drone video.  Oh, do it.

Click on the picture for a larger version

We finished our round, had a quick snack and review of our play, and prepared to move our adventure forward.  As we left Murvagh and approached the main road, Padraic queried "left or right?" - north or south?  Right would bring into consideration the aforementioned Rosses Point and perhaps even Enniscrone or Carne.  But Rosses Point would really be the only probable choice, the others immense golfing challenges with behemoth dunes, unforgiving rough, and very testing carries from the tee over terrain that an Army Ranger would find inhospitable.  We've enjoyed them in the past; our games are just not there at this point.  Padraic ended the suspense and headed north.  Oh, the head did spin.

Rosapenna?  Three courses including the much heralded re-design of the St. Patrick's Links by Tom Doak, one of the hottest course designers on the planet.  All three share space on the Atlantic Coast, all three rank high on the best courses in Ireland.   Narin & Portnoo? Also on the coast, also re-designed - this time by Gil Hanse, perhaps hotter than Doak, and a man chosen to re-do the venerable Pinehurst #2 in preparation for the US Open a few years ago.  Or Portsalon? On the Fanad Peninsula, near one of the most photographed spots in Ireland -  the Fanad Lighthouse.  A fine links hard by the sea.

Or...  Or, might it be Ballyliffin?  Padraic had played there a few times in recent years past with his "lads" - his regular fourball (we'd say foursome) group.  An exciting notion.  Clearly one that would be on my heartheld bucket list.  Close to the furthest northern point of Ireland - Malin Head.   Was this the "do something stupid?" part - to drive so far afield, at least four hours' driving time from Westport, and (perhaps more stupid) play 36 holes in two days?

As we passed each potential turn, the options narrowed.  We had come too far north to be Narin & Portnoo, too far east to be Rosapenna.  Would we go on the west side of Lough Swilly to Portsalon or easterly toward Ballyliffin...

Although Padraic was the master of suspense, I am not.  Yes, dear friends.  It was Ballyliffin.  Two world-class links courses and one of the most handsome clubhouses I've ever seen.

Pat Ruddy, a revered and iconoclastic Irish course developer and founder of The European Club on Ireland's east coast, does more justice describing Ballyliffin than my meager talents would allow.

"Golf arrived in Ballyliffin in 1947 when a links was established by the simple means of cutting grass and scraping some elementary shapes in the sand to create putting surfaces.  This is all that a tiny impecunious golf club could afford to do, but the result was the most amazing moonscape of a links: fairways wobbled and bobbled through acres of otherwise virgin dunesland and fairly exploded in the mind as the eye strove to make sense of the play of light and shadow on verdant hillocks and hollows.  Visually stunning it was, and is, and all the more so when one's white golf ball tosses and tumbles from mound to valley to mound and nobody knows where it goes - until it stops and invites another stroke full of challenge, promise, and uncertainty."    from Emerald Gems, a photo book by LC Lambrecht

Click here for a drone video

Following photos from Ballyliffin website

And Ballyliffin was all of that.  We started in fine weather and watched threatening clouds build behind the mountains.  A drenching downpour looked possible, but no such weather arrived.  All three of us had our moments - Padraic had a particularly discouraging front nine but rallied mightily on the back.  I seemed to alternate good and bad, but loved every opportunity to take another lash at the ball.  And, as always, Marion proved the superior golfer - not in her finest form, but certainly good enough to take the wager.  A tough course to play for the first time; course knowledge would've helped a bit.  If so blessed, I'd love another swipe at it.

Both courses were great value.  Murvagh was 40 Euro.  We played on an "Open Day," a time when Irish clubs allow members of other clubs to play at substantially reduced rates.  We're all members of Golf Ireland, the Irish equivalent of the USGA, and members of Westport Golf Club.  Membership in GI is only available to members of golf clubs and costs approximately 30 Euro for a year.  Playing 18 holes at Murvagh would generally cost 120 Euros this time of year.  Ballyliffin was 80 Euro to us, normally 180.  Having a Golf Ireland membership is obviously a very valuable aspect of having a club membership..

Although I've focused, as I so often do, on the golf, it was only the canvas upon which a lovely and memorable few days with dear friends was painted.  The sights, the food, the music, the company, and most importantly the conversation - the "chats" - were the brush strokes that completed a most cherished portrait of this time of our fortunate lives.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Another beautiful day

Ireland has been having record-setting weather.  This time of year, mid-July, average daytime high temperatures should be in the low 60s.  After all, we leave most of our winter clothes here in storage when we return to Florida - corduroy and moleskin pants, several different weights of sweaters (known as "jumpers" here), almost exclusively long sleeve shirts, several of them various thicknesses of flannel.  Truly, they have gotten more use here than in our typical Florida winter.

Today, the thermometer actually hit 85 (therefore, I stand corrected.  The video below says that it would not make it into the eighties today).  This, and the high two days ago, have set all-time records.  The previous record for today, set in 2013, was 68.  In truth, however, a few years ago temperatures hit similar highs, with an accompanying drought.  The combination of these two phenomena caused the ground to "sink" a bit and drone footage revealed the outlines of passage tombs and old military fortifications from thousands of years ago.  During that hot, but relatively brief, stretch of time we were amused to listen to the announcers on TV and radio as they exhorted their listeners to "wear sun cream and, for godsakes, stay hydrated!"  At the time, I think temperatures were creeping up into the mid- to high seventies.  Beaches were crowded, sunburns were all about, and (truly) roads were melting.  I gained additional amusement when listening to an embattled government official explaining on the radio that it was impossible to produce a blacktop/macadam product that could stand up to such a seasonal change in temperature.  A typical Irish winter will produce lows between 40/46 degrees F.  Certainly there are occasions when the temperature dips to below freezing, but no one's complaining about the roads cracking.  I was thinking of my experiences growing up on Long Island, where temperatures could dip into the teens in the winter and soar to the 90s in the summer.  Melting roads?  Not so much...  Another sign of the times here - both of the major supermarkets were out of ice by the mid-morning.  The Irish were swamping the local beaches and taking advantage of this unusual weather.  We certainly saw some exposed skin yesterday that would have done a boiled lobster proud.

So, we thought the beautiful weather provided a good opportunity to show you around the town a bit (our section of town, at least) and show you around the apartment and the changes we have made - lots of sweat equity.  Click on the videos for a brief tour.

Click here to take a tour of the town center

Click here to tour our apartment

Sunday, July 4, 2021

A Month in...

Can't believe that today marks a month that we've been in Ireland.  Of course, the first seven days were consumed with COVID activities - first, five days quarantining, then two days waiting for our PCR test results.  In past years, a month would've been close to half our typical summer visit.  I'm so pleased that this year we still have three months remaining in our holiday.

But, since from emerging from quarantine, it's hardly seemed like a holiday - we've been in a whirlwind of activity.  We've been busy renovating our apartment, a sixteen-year-old property that has always been a rental, owned by a absentee landlady from England, and a property that has received minimum maintenance and upkeep.  It's got "good bones" and there's no major issues - good plumbing, an adequate and safe electrical system, mostly new appliances, quality windows and doors with fine weather proofing - but it looks like it must still have the original paint (Candee dubbed it "landlord beige") and the carpets would probably frighten G. Gordon Liddy.  Work would need to be done...

Our tenant who had been in place since we bought the apartment in late 2019 was supposed to stay until the end of June.  She advised us at the beginning of May that that would be her last month.  She had been having difficulty finding a place for her and her young daughter to move to - Westport just continues to get more and more popular and rental property costs have been increasing at an alarming rate.  So we were relieved and happy that she was able to secure a place.  We certainly didn't want to turn her out - she's a nice young woman with a good, and increasingly successful, career and a very involved single mom.  And, boy, did the early exit work in our favor.  We immediately set to work tearing up carpeting, painting the place from top to bottom - including cutting in at the ceiling level - up and down the ladder innumerable times - and crawling around on hands and knees painting the skirting (baseboards).  We remained at our rental, the "Lodge" on Barleyhill.  And thank goodness for that.  We couldn't have kept our sanity for long living in the mess we created - a pile of carpet and underlayment shoulder high, dropcloths, cans of paint, brushes, and rollers all about, the remaining furniture covered with dust and paint splatters, just a complete and total mess.  We worked several hours a day, but the time change (five hours ahead of Florida) and our fatigue from these tasks - on the edge of silliness for this septuagenarian, and even for the significantly younger Milseain (in a different decade for mercy's sake) to attempt this major reno - had us exiting the Lodge closer to noon than sunrise.  A subject of continued mirth for our lovely, but much more industrious landladies, Carole and Colette.  But work did we...

In addition to the aforementioned grunt work, we had many decisions to make - who would be our broadband provider, who would provide electricity to the apartment, who would we select to provide our TV service - here there are many choices, Airtricity, Energia, Prepay Power, Eir, Westnet, Sky, and many, many others.  Luckily, we had our local friends to advise us.  I must say, it's nice to have choices - and the competition shows in the prices.  At home, we pay $110 per month for cell service and $140 for broadband/TV -  and that's with no premium channels.  And add in extra charges for Hulu, and for Amazon Prime, and for Netflix, and for Disney +...  Padraic had directed us to a deal with Eir (a major mobile and broadband provider) that would've provided unlimited calls, text, and data for our mobile phones and high quality broadband for our internet for a total of €50 per month.  I stumbled a bit and selected a local provider for our broadband - not a bad deal, but lacking the power of the mobile/broadband combination.  So I'm probably paying €100 per month instead.  I will follow his advice on TV service, however, and be able to access just about anything on the planet for a very reasonable fee.  He's also scouting out deals on a high-quality Smart TV and we might have a road trip to Galway this upcoming week to secure one.

But back to the apartment...  We selected wood flooring to replace the tired carpeting, but had a very tight deadline.  Luckily, we were referred to Mulchrone Carpentry Services in the neighboring town of Newport.  Alan came out to assess the job (and us, I believe) and agreed to do the job within the allotted 10-day window.  He declared it a "one day job" - 60 square yards of difficult-to-click-together laminate and over 150 linear feet of trim, careering around columns and doorways and nooks and crannies. He even offered to haul away, at no additional cost, the extraordinary amount of detritus we had created - "just reimburse me for the landfill fee."  Meanwhile, everyone had said we'd be lucky to get someone out within six weeks' time.  The price was fair; we said deal!  Still, it seemed too good to be true - we were moving in on June 30 and had furniture arriving on July 2.  It really had to go like clockwork.

Sure enough, Alan and Martin showed up on July 1 at 8 a,m., threw all our waste - the carpet, the underlayment, a wardrobe, a gigundous couch, two immense chairs, floor lamps, table lamps - over the balcony, down three floors, and to their waiting trailer.  Loaded and strapped - done and dusted, and they were tearing apart packages of flooring before 9.  We access our apartment from the second floor of the building, but the land slopes away and we gain an additional floor in the back.  We live on the American first floor, but the Irish second floor - here the ground floor is referred at as the first floor - got that?

As the lads got going, we decided it was prudent to get out of the way - in fact, get the hell out of the way - and told the lads we would vacate the premises for awhile.  They looked relieved and nodded in fervent agreement.  I still thought it a job that would take a full two days - after all, I've done a fair amount of this kind of work.  We used the time to find the many small and large items it takes to establish a new home  - plates, cutlery, cleaning supplies and implements, sheets, a duvet cover, pillows, glasses, coffee cups, a microwave, a toaster, placemats, a creamer and sugar bowl, table lamps, hamper and a big et cetera right here.  We went over to the neighboring "county town" - Castlebar, the seat of County government, to shop.  More selection and the big box stores that Westport so charmingly lacks.

We got a call from Alan that they were running out of flooring so we hustled back to pick up two more boxes of flooring and brought it to them.  We were astonished at their progress and, in fact, they were done with the whole project by 7.  Eleven hours of hard, non-stop work.  He refused payment, said he needed to take the stuff to the dump, pay them a so far undetermined amount, and figure up his charges.  He'd be back to me.  I held my breath.  He installed 62 square yards of flooring, talked the dump guy down from €290 to €250 and said that payment for 60 squares would do him just fine.  I had budgeted €1,200 for the project and am thrilled to get away with €850 (plus certainly a gratuity of at least 50 quid - respect must be paid...).  In case you're wondering, right now it takes $1.19 to purchase €1.00.  It's a calculation I do constantly, and it drives Candee to distraction... 

So, a few pictures - not enough - of before and after.  Still bunches to do, like paint the bathroom, kitchen, and the hallway, purchase some flowers to put on the living room balcony. And, of particular interest to me, hang some things on the wall.  I've ordered a print from a well-known local artist that incorporates many elements of the town and its environs - click here.  I've also ordered a print from a painter who captures the light and essence of the beautiful area south of us - the Maam Valley and Maamturk Mountains - click here.  I have a few other things in mind, but I'm most hopeful to acquire an original M. Duffy painting and a stunning P. Sadowski photograph to grace the halls of this unlikely, but so fortunate, home.

Click on picture to enlarge: red arrow - kitchen window,
blue arrow - 2nd bedroom and balcony.  

Living room - pre-demolition

Demo done - we're too old...

The timber is down

Furniture has arrived

Master bedroom - pre-reno

Tom missed a spot

Wallpaper down, carpet cleaned, room painted

New mattress and bedclothes, shelving installed,
lights placed.  So comfy.

1st lunch - during reno, so glad that
Leafy Greens is a neighbor

1st cooked dinner after move-in.  Tasty.

Everything cleaned, flowers to be added to windows,
re-painting planned, center island to be added

Morning light through the kitchen, afternoon light in the living room.
Yup, I'm in trouble again.

For some pictures of the area around the apartment, and the story surrounding its purchase, click here

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Years of Plague


Well, we are back again.  In another year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Last year, you might remember, we came to Ireland late.  It has been our custom of the past several years to leave Florida in the last week of May and stay in Ireland until sometime during the first week of August.  In 2020, Aer Lingus cancelled our May flight and we thought the summer was lost.  COVID restrictions in Ireland pretty much made it worthless to go anyway.  All shops - with the exception of grocery stores - were closed, along with pubs, restaurants, hotels, etc.  Although this might have been acceptable, the fact that we'd be unable to drive to the many scenic spots that have become such a part of our connection to this place rendered a visit barely worthwhile.  At the time our flight had been cancelled, Irish people were limited from driving more than 5km, approximately 3 miles, from their homes.  Not much to see in that radius of adventure...

The travel restrictions made sense though, at least to me.  If you had a infection hotspot, you didn't have to worry about people from Cork taking it to Dublin, people from Sligo taking it to Galway, etc.  Seemed so much better a plan than what we were witnessing at home in the States, folks flying from ground zero - New York City - and coming to Florida to hide at their winter getaways - and, of course, with no nod to quarantining. In many ways, the Irish government's response to the pandemic was more cautious than almost any other nation.  Many, many sacrifices made by Irish citizens to control the infection.  People over the age of 70 were required to stay home - for months.  After all, they are the most vulnerable.  Public transit was shut down; church services prohibited, weddings cancelled, funerals sad and lonely - with only a few family members permitted to attend - funerals normally exhibit the best of social cohesion in this country, with hundreds of people providing support for the bereaved and celebrating the unique life of the deceased. 

In addition to restricted travel, and certainly more important, we would not be able to visit with friends, including dear friends like the Duffys, the Maddens, Pawel Sadowski, Mary Sheridan, Uri Kohen, Ger McGreal, Karen Brennan, and others.  We cherish these relationships and would be saddened to miss a full year of catching up and hanging out with these kind, funny, generous, and interesting people.

But, things started to loosen up.  We changed our minds and booked another flight.  We now knew we'd be able to drive anywhere we would like, cafes and restaurants were opening for takeaway, soon for inside dining, golf courses re-opened, our friends would be free from lockdown.  The price, however, was to self-quarantine for 14 days.  That would leave us 3 weeks to be free-range before we had to return to the States.  We took the deal.  We had a fine time.

The view from lockdown (click on the photo)

For awhile, it looked like this year's prospects were turning out to be worse.  The Irish government loosened restrictions substantially at Christmastime and infections and deaths soared.  Not only were more severe lockdowns instituted, but the government started regarding travel from abroad as a luxury they could no longer afford.  Thirty-three countries were identified as "high risk" and visitors from these locations would have to quarantine at a designated airport hotel upon arrival, under guard for 14 days and at a cost of $2,000, before being released into the country.  At first, America was not listed as a high risk country, mostly due to the Irish government's awareness of the importance of the relationship, but they could no longer ignore the numbers and placed the States into this category.  It was an obvious deal killer for us.  Despite our willingness to quarantine for a reasonable period of time, the approximate $3,250 cost to stay in a Dublin hotel (rooming together, we wouldn't both pay full freight) just didn't make sense.  Alas and alack...

But, of course, we kept a close eye on things.  And, sure enough, a more sensible approach was arrived at - an option for "fully vaccinated" persons.  Such individuals would need to provide proof of vaccine and a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival (remember that number), quarantine "on their own" (read Carole and Colette's idyllic "lodge" on Barleyhill), and either stay in for 14 days or get a 2nd PCR after 5.  We've opted for the latter.

We were fully vaccinated - second "jab," as it's referred to here - by the middle of February, therefore allowing it to percolate for full immunity.  Thanks to Treasure Coast Community Health for that.  And we took and received negative results in a PCR test no more than 72 hours prior to arrival - thanks to Whole Family Health Center for that.  But, no thanks to American Airlines for almost messing up the whole carefully planned sequence.  We were scheduled to leave Orlando at 5 p.m. Friday, arrive in Philadelphia at 7:30 pm and fly out to Dublin at 9:40 pm.  This would have us arriving at Dublin Airport at 4 am EDST - a period of 62 hours after the PCR had been administered.  A perfect plan!  However, at MCO, lightning appeared on the horizon and they halted loading baggage.  Not the significant problem though.  AA was unable to produce a full flight crew and kept assuring us that the next American arrival would produce a willing flight attendant and soon we'd be off.  Not to be.  We finally took off after 8 pm, with no hopes of making our connection.  We arrived at Philly, were given vouchers for a hotel and a meal (mind you, you don't receive vouchers if the cause of the delay is weather) and informed that the very next flight to Dublin wouldn't be until the following night at the same time. Yikes!  My math all of a sudden says 86 hours since the test.  And remember, the Irish government is not regarding their rules as Camp Whatuwanta.

I examined our options - they were three: 1) take our chances, explain the circumstances, depend on the kindness of strangers; 2) re-test the next day at the service in the Philly airport - results available in four hours.  Well before our flight.  Cost $249 each.  Heck, WFHC had only charged us $75 and got the results to us in a half-hour; or 3) make it through the Philly Airport and get caught in Dublin.  With any luck, be sent to the Hotel Quarantino for one day until we could get results of an additional PCR.  Jeez, we picked option 1 and it worked out.  I chewed a few extra Tums, relied on my spouse's undaunting courage, and refrained from my usual approach in such circumstances - some might unkindly characterize it as verbal incontinence.  So, here we are, in search of our 2nd PCR and hopeful to be let free on Saturday.

So, was the Irish approach the right approach?  I guess only time will tell.  One needs to remember that the Irish closely watched the devastating outbreak in Italy, while it was mostly a blip on our radar.  Plus their government didn't expend energy pretending it would just go away - soon as the warm weather comes... - well, you know the story.  There are some indicators to look at, however.  In the most general sense, it appears to have made a difference - Ireland has had approximately 5,000 deaths in a population of 5,000,000; America has had 600,000 deaths in a population of 331,000,000.  Had we had their rate of deaths, 269,000 Americans would still be alive.  As I had said, in the most general sense.  It's probably sensible to hold all statistics regarding COVID at some level of skepticism, but this stat may, in the end, have some significance.

At the end of the day (I obviously watch too much political commentary), we'll be out no later than early next week and we'll be staying until late September - twice as long as we've stayed before.  We'll take possession of the center-of-town apartment we purchased in 2019 (we've had a lovely tenant there for all this time) and have some fun doing some upgrading and decorating.  I'll play some golf.  We'll take some trips.  We'll eat some great food.

But most of all, we'll be able to re-connect with all these lovely people.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

A drive out to a special place

Our friends and acquaintances here will most often start a conversation with us inquiring about where we've been.  They know that we'll take any excuse to go on an extended drive to the many spots we've become so fond of in our visits here.  Sometimes the excuse is that it's a "fine day" (the most positive descriptor of the weather you'll probably hear spoken).  On a fine day we'll see the longest vistas and things will be in sharpest focus  - nothing but achingly blue sky and puffy white clouds.  Sometimes the excuse is an overcast day with dark and brooding clouds that evoke a somber and melancholic mood.  And sometimes the excuse is a misty, miserable, unsettled day serving neither of the above goals, but a day in which we can say, "Ah sure, tis a grand soft day" and pretend we know what the hell we're talking about.  For a Google definition - "A soft day is a description of the weather, and is probably very unique to the Emerald Isle. It is a day when the precipitation is a cross between mist and drizzle. The rain does not fall to the ground in heavy droplets, but seems to hover and linger in the air."

We are often greeted with amusement when we recount a five or six hour circuit drive through the Co Mayo or Co Galway landscape.  Of course, as you know, it's not five or six hours exclusively in the car.  Somehow I'm always able to find a pub, cafe, or restaurant with a superior coffee and an extraordinary crumble.  But without fail, we are more than happy to go far afield to see this stunning countryside once again.

Often, our friends, upon learning where we've been, will give a heartfelt "lovely" (sure wish I could convey the lilt and charm of this word as delivered in this part of the West)).  But, anytime we let on that we've been to Silver Strand beach, the response is always "ooohh lovely."  There's definitely a difference in the verbal expression and the emotional import.  We certainly feel that it's an extraordinary place.  That opinion seems to be heartily shared by the folks that live in this part of the world.  I think it was Padraic who ascribed a sense of deep spirituality to the place.  It's remote and untamed.  One has to walk fully a half-mile on the sand from the carpark to the water at low tide, drinking in the Connemara hills, the high dunes, the rough grasses, the boundless sky, the abstract patterns on the sand where the sea painted its geometrics, the strident calls of seabirds in frolic, the ever-increasing susurration of the sea as you approach it.  It's an immersive experience and if you have the mood upon you, you can see how you might be gently transported to ethereal and transcendent realms.  At the very least, you'll certainly feel very blessed and grateful to have found such a place.

On our last visit two years ago, we had set out close to sunrise, with a picnic breakfast in hand, to enjoy the early light and the solitude of the place.  It was during a record-setting heat wave and we were sure that we had chosen the day wisely.  We set our blanket close to the shore, quite confident we had the place to ourselves.  But, as the sun started to crest the hills behind us, we were surprised to see some tents and caravans placed deep in the dunes.  And pleased to hear the peals and squeals of delight as children emerged from their peripatetic abodes and headed for a sunrise dip in the bracing surf.  It replaced our sense of solitude with an equally pleasant sense of satisfaction that this sublime place was shared, and that it quite evidently served as a place of wonder and enchantment for these fortunate children.

Westport to Silver Strand
Remember, to see a picture in a larger format, click on the picture

White Strand Trá - that's beach to you

Silver Strand Trá, click here to see video

A storm in the distance off Silver Strand

Old Head Trá, Clew Bay, Croagh Patrick - click here to see video

From our picnic breakfast two years ago.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Along north Galway Bay

Although we've driven so many roads in this area - nearly all of north and west and south Co. Mayo, it seems - as well as much of northwest Co. Galway  - we've never really explored the area south of the Clifden to Galway road.  We have popped down to Ballyconneely to play golf at the Connemara Golf Links and into Ballynahinch Castle to view a grand old home still operating as a very high-end hotel, but we've never explored the area on the north side of Galway Bay.

On the Westport to Clifden road today

I felt a particular interest in visiting the area this year having recently been reading Tim Robinson's book Connemara, A Little Celtic Kingdom.  Robinson had just died and I became intrigued with his work after reading a tribute from Fintan O'Toole, a renowned columnist who writes for The Irish Times.  As follows:

The word “geography” means in its origins “the writing of lands”. Ireland was blessed to have had, for almost 50 years, the loving attention of one of the greatest writers of lands.

Tim Robinson, who has died a fortnight after he lost his beloved wife, Máiréad (the M evoked in so many of his works) was a Yorkshire man who came to know, as they have never been known before or since, three Irish landscapes: the Burren, the Aran Islands and Connemara.

Generations of tourists have been guided and enthralled by his marvellous maps of these radiant places. But it is his astonishing books, the two-volume Stones of Aran and the Connemara trilogy, that will stand as timeless monuments to a genius who combined the linguistic brilliance of a poet with the precision of the mathematician he once was.

In fact, though, Robinson called what he did, not “geography” but “geophany, the showing forth of the earth”. His concern was the planet – our luck was that he chose to concentrate his great powers of observation and expression on some small rainy western Irish corners of it.

His subject, as he wrote in his last book, Experiments on Reality, was nothing less than “our aesthetic, corporeal and affective relationships with the Earth”. That is, surely, the most urgent subject of our times, and Robinson was no escapist eccentric. On the contrary, in teaching us how to pay attention to the places we inhabit, his work, for all its depth of erudition and contemplative serenity, has a profound moral urgency.

After his studies in Cambridge and some years as a visual artist in Istanbul, Vienna and London, Robinson came to live on the Aran Islands in 1972. He conceived, as he put it, “a totally unreasonable project of mapping all the land I could see from my home – as if I were so far lost that only a comprehensive universal map would find my place.”

That gloriously unreasonable project produced the two-volume Stones of Aran and the three Connemara books that collectively constitute one of the great literary achievements of our time on these islands.

Perhaps only an English outsider could have given this project such care. “Among the historical roots of Ireland’s carelessness of place,” he wrote, “is the retreat of its language and the accompanying anglicization of its placenames, which have been defaced, rendered dumb and sometimes reduced to the ridiculous. To undo a little of this damage has been for me, an Englishman, a work of reparation.”

What made Robinson so special, and so irreplaceable, was his ability to see what he was looking at with many eyes simultaneously, to take in at once science (geology and botany), art (the fall of land and light on the perceiving eye) and narrative (the history and folklore of the people who inhabit it).

Robinson was in many ways a late flourish of the great English Romantic tradition, an heir to William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. He was “drunk on flowers, on the nectar of their names” and he practiced “the priestcraft of water”. But he was no mystic. He practiced a quiet revolt against the dualism of mind and body: his legs and his ears were every bit as important as his eyes and his mind. He walked the land, he was present in its contours and its weathers, he stopped to talk and to listen.

His personality – gentle, generous, inquisitive, quietly humorous – was important too.

He paid attention to the people who lived in and worked the land as much as to the landscape itself. “A rush of talk like the whirl of starlings coming to roost” – a lot of it talk in Irish – lies beneath his writings, in the stories he gathered, the old (and sometimes not so old) place-names he recorded.

Robinson believed in bringing to bear every kind of knowledge and delighted in the way every place became richer and more complex the more you looked at it and the more you listened to its people. “Every tale,” as he writes at end of the Connemara trilogy, “entails the tale of its own making, generalities breed exceptions as soon as they are stated, and all the footnotes call for footnoting to the end of the world.”

No one has disentangled the tales the stones of Ireland have to tell so deftly and retold them so beautifully. We are blessed that because of his maps and books, the end of Tim Robinson is not the end of the world he came to know so minutely. It will live forever in the gifts he left us.

Roundstone, Carna, Glinsk, Rossmuck - Tim Robinson's Connemara
On our ride to explore this area, we were greeted, unfortunately, with a moody, brooding day - heavy fog, occasional rain, low cloud cover - the kind of weather that obviates long views and stunning vistas.  I never really mind this weather too much - unless, of course, golf has been planned - because it just seems to fit the landscape.  But I was looking forward to high views of the bay and a dramatic distant panorama of the brutal and majestic Twelve Bens of Connemara - the muscular granite mountains that populate the south quadrant of the Irish province of Connacht (or Connaught). 

However, the atmospherics of the day may have better met Tim Robinson's representation of the area - a much more circumscribed and closer look at the land before you. Robinson's book describes the land hill by hill, every stream and lake, every bridge, stone wall and tumbled cottage - and each with its ancient Irish name. An Scailp Mhór - "the big cleft",  Garraí Pholl an Chiste - "the treasure-hole garden",  An Corcal - "the quaking bog", Loch Pholl an Mhaide Giúse - "the lake of the hole of the bog wood."  The weather forced us to keep a close perspective and to note the roughness of the terrain and the constant presence of bogland and of granite - in pebble, stone, and massive boulder.  How very hard it must've been to clear the land and eke out an existence on this cruel and unyielding landscape.

Connacht in green

If you know any Irish history, you'd be familiar with the phrase "To Hell or Connacht."  This phrase expresses the punishing sentiment of the English overlords as they kicked the Irish out of the "Pale" - out literally to "beyond the Pale" - out of the fertile and fecund and developed area around Dublin.  Read this description of the Pale from Conde Nast Traveler - and recall the picture heading the article.  Contrast it with the pictures that I took today.

Connacht is one of the four provinces of Ireland and is comprised of the mid-western counties of Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo, Galway, and Roscommon - a harsh and untamed landscape, battered by the north Atlantic rain and gale winds.  You know how we're relieved in Florida when a hurricane turns out to sea?  Many of these storms turn directly on a fast route to the west coast of Ireland.  They weaken somewhat, and mostly lose their rotation, but they slam into Connacht with an impressive fierceness.

In most areas of Connacht, there wasn't enough farmable land to support a family.  The Irish who were banished to this area had to "build" their own soil by gathering vast amounts of seaweed to mix in with the spongy bog vegetation in order to try to support life-sustaining crops.

For further background on To Hell or Connacht, I share an excerpt from An Phoblacht - a publication which memorializes and celebrates the efforts of the Irish Republicans who rose to defeat the English imperialist forces:

 ''Under penalty of death, no Irish man, woman, or child, is
to let himself, herself, itself be found east of the River Shannon.''

- A 1654 order from the parliament of England.

Three and a half centuries ago, Celtic Ireland was scattered to the winds by an indomitable enemy. The Brehon laws by which the people lived were abolished. Anti-Catholic laws were introduced. The Celtic chiefs were killed or exiled. The Celtic poets were banished. Peoples' land was taken away from them unless they took the Oath of Abjuration - which was an act of apostasy. The people fled, mostly to Connaught. It was simply "hell" east of the Shannon.

Despite colonial oppression, successive generations of Irish toiled and sweated on the rocky bogland and the barren soil of Connaught. For many it wasn't much of a life and particularly during the Famine years, when hundreds of thousands died in the West and others emigrated, it seemed that hell was Connaught itself.

People, however, prevailed, rebuilt their homelands and established communities which survived on mutual aid, sharing and cooperation.

People were not well off, many lived in unhealthy accommodation. Emigration was the generational safety valve. Yet people got by.  They had no choice.

On the way to Roundstone

The road toward Cashel

Granite, rough grass, and a hardy inhabitant
Swampy bogland, suitable only for sheep
Of course, we stopped for lunch.  A delightful veg soup and hearty and humble brown bread.  And a cappuccino that would make a Seattle barista proud.  A nice day out.

Through the Inagh Valley for the ride home.  Nestled between the Twelve Bens
and the Maumturk mountains, and filled with the immense Lough Inagh, it can
be just a breathtaking drive.  And a fisherman's dream.

Friday, July 10, 2020

OUT and abOUT

Yes, the emphasis is on out.  After self-isolating for two weeks, we are so very grateful to be up and out.  We got up a bit earlier today than has been our custom of late (anything before 10:30 would meet that criterion).  We packed a picnic breakfast and headed out on the south side of Clew Bay toward Doolough.  The morning greeted us with mostly heavy clouds, but the beauty of the bay as we drove out to Louisburgh (self-proclaimed as God's Pocket) was bracing and spirit lifting.  So good to be back.  There's just something in the air, something in the hills, something in the waters that lead to a grand sense of calm and serenity.  It's something we deeply agree on.  It's just plain healthy for us to be here in the west of Ireland.  Although, as always, we relied on the generous orientation to this glorious area given to us by Padraic, I struck out down a new road and we were richly rewarded with beautiful vistas as we approached Lough Na Fooey from Leenaun rather than our traditional approach from Tourmakeady.  Old dog and new tricks...