The West of Ireland: Stories in Stone
By Stephen Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Associate Editor
The first thing you notice about the West of Ireland is the predominance of stone in the landscape. There are no trees to speak of, and even the outbuildings are built of stone, yet the countryside is lush and green with a unique mix of Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean vegetation.
From the Stone Age tombs on the Burren, to the Iron Age hill forts of Inis Mor, to the battered castles and monasteries of the Middle Ages, to the ubiquitous stone walls enclosing tiny patches of land, these stones tell the story of Ireland. And a grand, uplifting story it is, though surely not a cheery one.
But it has a happy ending, or at least as happy as one could hope for in an imperfect world. Ireland is free and at peace, jobs are plentiful, the crime rate is low, everyone has health care and the government is committed to protecting the environment. To many Americans that starts to sound like the Land of Oz.
As everyone knows, Ireland is a great vacation destination, especially if you like horses, or fishing, or hiking, or golf, or sailing, or gardens, or music, theater, poetry and dance, or SCUBA diving, or surfing, or spelunking. But one of the main reasons people come to Ireland is to learn more about its history.
A Great Diaspora
With more Irish people outside the country than in it, Ireland is the center of a great diaspora, and people all over the world turn to their “mother country” for their heroes and their values and their sense of what is decent and right.
I was born in the thirty-third county of Ireland — that would be Boston, Massachusetts — where to be more Irish means to be a better person. In fact I found the Irish accents in Ireland are less pronounced than they are in Boston, because in Ireland they don’t have to work so hard at being Irish. It just comes to them naturally.
I think it’s important to remember that unlike many other peoples who came to America, the Irish didn’t emigrate because they wanted to. They had no choice. They were not received as well as they ought to have been, and times were hard for a good long while.
Is it any wonder, then, that they would pass on to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren their fond, even passionate memories of this exquisitely beautiful country with its 45 shades of green?
The West of Ireland is an especially good place to explore Irish history because it is the center of the “Gaeltacht” — the part of Ireland where Irish, also called Gaelic, is the predominant language, and because here the history — not just of Ireland, but of the human race — is written in stone for all to see.
The great thing about archaeology is that we’re learning more and more all the time, and the research that goes on at the historic sites in Ireland is shedding new light on life in the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, the Middle Ages right up to the 19th century. The sites are very well managed — some by the European Union — with helpful informational displays.
My Next Trip to Ireland
I can sketch the bits of history I learned on my five-day cycle holiday, but the ones you will find most enjoyable will certainly be the ones you learn from the stones themselves.
On a cycling tour you get up close and personal with the countryside, smelling the manure and the burning peat and taking in some of the finest scenery in the world. It’s exhilarating, but you’re on the road most of the day, so you don’t have as much time for sightseeing and socializing. I decided I was only reconnoitering for my next trip.
But in the interests of full disclosure, I’m an out-of-shape fifty-something. A veteran cyclist like GoNOMAD’s Matthew Kadey would eat up those thirty miles a day before lunch time and be quaffing Guinness and doing the Irish jig into the wee hours of the morning.
Our group, conducted by Cycle Holidays Ireland, flew into Shannon Airport and mustered at the Bunratty Castle Hotel. We dropped off our luggage and got right onto our bikes and cycled through the farm country of Southern Clare County.
We stayed on rural roads lined with dense hedges that sheltered us from the wind. It’s best to stay out of high-traffic areas because you will probably be making the adjustment to riding on the lefthand side of the road.
It sounds simple, of course, but I found that later in the day when I was beginning to get tired, I would stop for a rest and then out of habit I would start up again on the righthand side. When the occasional car or truck came along I would have to veer back over to the left. Thankfully the motorists of County Clare were very courteous. Not one of them leaned on the horn.
Once you learn to stay to the left, all you have to worry about is running into a crazy Yank driving on the right.
We were issued laminated maps which we attached to our handlebars showing routes of varying mileage. Our group spread out considerably, with the stronger riders in the lead, while our guide John Heagney moved up and down the line on a motorcycle, making sure none of his sheep went astray. His associate John Joe Conwell brought up the rear in the support van.
The Abbey at Quin
We all met for lunch at the pub in Quin, where they’ll have to put up a historic marker because it was there that I had my first Guinness in Ireland. It’s true what everybody says about it being smoother and fuller than the export product we get in the States. Or maybe it just tastes better in Ireland, like everything else.
After lunch a few of us took a walk around the tumbled-down remains of Quin Abbey. It was in monasteries like this one that the great works of the classical world were assiduously copied by the monks. If it weren’t for their efforts these works would be lost to us today because all the other copies were destroyed by waves of barbarian invaders. You can read all about it in How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.
After cycling nearly thirty miles we returned to Bunratty, the site of Bunratty Castle, which, because of its strategic location, was knocked down and rebuilt eight times during the Middle Ages. It is also the home of the Bunratty Folk Park, a recreation of a 19th-century Irish village.
The folk park began in the early ’60s when a farmhouse had to be demolished to make way for a new runway at Shannon International Airport. The house was taken to Bunratty and reconstructed brick by brick. Over time more and more structures were added illustrating the dwelling places of poor laborers, wealthier farmers, tradespeople and lords and ladies. A schoolhouse, a church, a post office, shops and a pub were added to complete the village.
At Bunratty you hear more American accents than Irish because the folk park is primarily designed for visitors, but what separates a living museum or “interpretive center” from a tourist attraction is, in a word, scholarship.
The scholars and preservationists who have created Bunratty Folk Park and other interpretive centers in Ireland are passionate about the story they have to tell, and recreations and reenactments bring history to life and stimulate the imagination in a way that books and pictures cannot.
The same goes for the castle banquet at Bunratty. It’s primarily a show for visitors, but what a show! Who could pass up a chance to dine in a beautifully furnished banquet hall, mellowed by mead and serenaded by exquisitely costumed harpers, fiddlers and singers? The food is excellent, you get to eat with your knife, and the music is superb.
On my next trip, I’m going to the banquets at Knappogue Castle and Dunguaire Castle and the music night at the Bunratty Corn Barn. I’d also like to visit the Lough Gur Stone Age Cente, the Craggaunowen Bronze Age Project, and the Brian Boru Heritage Centre in Killaloe. Brian Boru was the great king of Ireland who drove out the Danes.
I’m also going to go to the Galway Races and the Connemara Pony Show, and do a little fishing in Lough Inagh, and go to a hurling match. And I’m going to do a heck of a lot more pubbing.
A Carboniferous Limestone Landscape
On our second day we biked along the Atlantic coast through the area known as the Burren, a carboniferous limestone landscape with thousands of varieties of rare flowers, including acres and acres of wild orchids. Botanists come here from all over the world to study the unique combination of Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean plants.
Back in 1651, General Edmund Ludlow wrote to his boss, English dictator Oliver Cromwell, that the geography of the Burren was interfering with his favorite pastimes:
“It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him,” he said, “and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.”
The Burren is also a mecca for archaeologists who study the many Stone Age burial sites, including megalithic tombs built around 3,500 BCE, two thousand years before the sack of Troy. These tombs give us many clues to the lives of these early farmers, who farmed with stone tools and made implements and jewelry from animal bones.
You can also visit caves formed back in the Ice Age, with magnificent stalagmites and stalactites and the bones of antediluvian bears.
After a delicious seafood lunch at Monk’s Pub in the harbor village of Ballyvaughen, we visited the Poulnabrone dolmen, a megalithic tomb where 26 people are buried, cycled some more and then visited the magnificent Cliffs of Moher in Doolin, the tallest vertical cliffs in Europe.
The Hill Forts of Inis Mor
The following day we took our bikes on the ferry from Doolin to the Aran Islands, where everybody goes to buy the famous hand-knit Aran sweaters. These islands were first settled in large numbers during the brutal invasion of Oliver Cromwell, who offered Irish Catholics the choice of going “to Connacht or to hell.” Connacht is a name for the western province of Ireland.
The new settlers eked out a rugged existence by fertilizing their tiny plots with seaweed, fishing in their canvas “currachs” and raising sheep and cattle. This way of life has been the subject of many books and movies including The Aran Islands by J.M. Synge and Robert J. Flaherty’s 1934 classic documentary “Man of Aran.”
On the largest of the three islands, Inis Mor, we visited the Iron Age (~600 BCE) hill fort known as Dun Aenghus.
Here is a place where you can really commune with the stones and get a sense of the people who built this massive series of concentric stone fortifications enclosing eleven acres, built atop 300-foot cliffs. Outside one of the inner rings of stones there is a “chevaux de frise,” a bunch of vertical stones, kind of like New England milestones, placed together in front of the walls to slow down invaders.
I can just imagine how hard it would be to scramble over this barrier in full armor while dodging arrows and slingstones. There are three other equally interesting forts on the island, Dun Duchathair, Dun Eochla and Dun Eoghanachta and many other historic sites.
We biked from the landing to Dun Aenghus, about six miles each way, with a half-mile climb to the fort. On my next trip I’m going to take a pony cart to save energy for exploring all the other great historic places on the island.
At the end of the day we took the ferry (a much larger one) to Rossaveal harbor in Galway and during our trip we got to watch a hurling match on television. It’s a combination of lacrosse and baseball where the players carry a kind of wooden scoop to pick up the ball, and then toss it up and smack it like a baseball.
We stayed and dined at a family hotel, An Cruscien Lawn, in the village of Spiddle and took in some Irish music at Tigh Huges Pub.
Another Lesson in Geology
The following day we cycled down the beautiful Maaum Valley in Connemara and I got yet another dramatic lesson in geology. The limestone of the Burren is permeable so the water sinks down and there aren’t even any puddles after a rainstorm.
The granite of Connemara is not permeable, so there are beautiful lakes and streams full of salmon, trout and pike. It was here that my rear shifter got caught in the spokes and since the back wheel wouldn’t turn, I couldn’t even walk the bike.
I tried to use my cellphone, but apparently I was in a dead spot. I tried to call again, but I am not a cellphone kind of guy and I must have pushed the wrong button because the instrument began to vibrate and asked me if I wanted to see my credit balance.
Fortunately my fellow traveler Jen came along. Her cellphone didn’t get through, either, but she went over the hill and called again.
I had to wait nearly fifteen minutes in a beautiful Irish meadow beside a babbling brook, exchanging curious glances with the sheep, before John pulled up in the van, climbed on top and hoisted my bike up onto the rack.
“Let’s have some lunch, shall we?” he said as we drove off. And we did, another wonderful seafood lunch at the Blackberry Café in the village of Leenaun (don’t miss the the chowder or the mussels!) served in beautiful locally-made crockery.
By the time we finished lunch, John had replaced my shifter and trued up the spokes and I was back on the road. We didn’t even have to use the extra bike he keeps in reserve. For a solo biker, a mishap like that would have been a catastrophe.
The Inagh Valley
We motored up to a village called Tully Cross, where we saw the famous Ogham Stone, which bears the earliest known writing in Ireland.
From there we biked along the coastal cliffs for a bit and then sailed down the Inagh Valley. That’s where Oscar Wilde went on his vacations, and it’s easy to see why. The scenery really is breathtaking.
We stopped for a beer at the gorgeous Lough Inagh Lodge, and then we were off to The Station House in Clifden. Here, as at all the hotels we stayed at, the people were as friendly and helpful as can be, and the accomodations were positively sumptuous, though I have to say that after thirty miles of cycling, I would have been happy with a straw mat and a ewer of cold water.
But I certainly appreciated the breakfasts. There’s none of this “ham OR bacon OR sausage” that you see in the States. It’s ham AND bacon AND sausage AND anything else you might want — fruit, yogurt, cereal, you name it.
The So-Called Famine
Everywhere you go in Ireland you see stone walls enclosing tiny plots of land. These enclosures tell the story that more than any other defines Irish and Irish-American history — the story of the great famine of 1847 when the potato crop failed for the second year in a row.
As any Boston boy knows, it wasn’t a famine. There was no shortage of food. There are countless proofs of this, but one is enough: when relief ships arrived from Canada they had to wait three days while other ships were loaded with grain for export. It wasn’t a famine, it was an atrocity.
It was the culmination of the Penal Laws imposed in 1651 after Cromwell’s conquest that had reduced landholdings to such tiny plots that the only way for farmers to feed their families was to grow potatoes.
Of a population of eight million, one and a half million people starved to death and another three million emigrated, so more than half the population was dead or gone. Those who stayed held wakes for those who left because they knew they would never see them again in this world.
I thought about this terrible crime while I biked around this idyllic countryside, imagining a million and a half men, women and children starving to death while those with plenty stood by unmoved.
It was not so much a matter of nationality. It’s well known that Ireland and England have always had what one might call a love-hate relationship without the love, but Irish scholars point to English landlords like John D’Arcy, the founder of Clifden, who spent his fortune on food for his tenants and finally wound up giving his land to them.
This atrocity was committed out of arrogance and greed by a ruling class that had lost all sense of decency and humanity, and it should be studied and taught and remembered as an example of man’s inhumanity to man.
We saw the monument to John D’Arcy on a cliff overlooking the town of Clifden before beginning our last day of cycling. We started out in Clifden, and cycled through beautiful little fishing villages and peat bogs with a mountain range called The Twelve Pins in the background.
Our Last Evening
Our trip ended in Galway City where we stayed at the Fairgreen Hotel. Our final dinner was a one of the finest restaurants in Galway, Kirwin’s Lane, where we had a chance to talk over the high points of our trip.
While demolishing an exquisitely prepared plate of duck and a memorable chocolate mud cake, I expressed my admiration for the indomitable spirit of the Irish people, for after centuries of conquest, sacking, looting, famine and oppression, they have always been preeminent among all other countries in literature, music, dance, and theater — in short everything that is ennobling to the human spirit.
Things are better in Ireland now. They’re free and at peace and they have full employment. They even have 160,000 Polish immigrants to fill all the jobs that have been created by an economic mini-boom.
I asked John, whose family has been farming in Ireland for many generations, whether all this prosperity might mean that Ireland will have to relinquish its preeminence in the arts. He laughed and said it’s a chance they’re willing to take.
“Besides,” he said, “maybe it’s time for some other countries to have their turn.”
Stephen Hartshorne is the associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He lives in Sunderland, Mass.