Connemara with Phil
Connemara with Phil
We studied the weather forecast for days before we chose when to book our tour into Connemara, determined that a sunny day would give us the best experience, and we weren’t disappointed.
Phil greeted us and told us the story of the area along with many anecdotes in his gentle Irish voice all day long. We were making our way out of Galway Town when he pointed out some thatched cottages with deep over hanging eaves. “So the man of the house would pop outside for a smoke and while he stood under the eaves with the door open the overhanging thatch would act as an echo chamber so he could hear everything that was being said in the room behind him”;- hence the term ‘eves-dropping’. When the tax on windows was introduced along came the term ‘daylight robbery’ and the word ‘crack’ over here refers to a place where anything of interest and fun is going on. We were on a crack day out.
Our road, the N59 took us along an elevated route where we had frequent glimpses of Lough Corrib that leaks out into the river of the same name through Galway and Claddagh. Enthusiasts have to book hotel rooms five years in advance here for a spot of fly fishing and they fly from all parts of the world for the privilege. Gold, lead and silver were once mined in the area and it is a popular sheep dog training region too.
The pretty white Connemara horses arrived with the Spanish Armada from the Mediterranean fields of Andalusia and Phil encouraged us to pet them as they have the gentlest natures. He was right as we found when we set out on our walk up Diamond Mountain.
Some of the stone walls appeared to randomly rise up the hillsides and then stop without forming an enclosure. Phil explained they are called ‘famine walls’ and were built by otherwise unemployed men who were paid by the government to give them an income. The fields that are growing wild are referred to as ‘lazy fields’ because their last product was the blighted potato crop that led to the Great Famine (An Gorta Mór – The Great Hunger) of 1845 – 1849 which changed the national demographic permanently reducing the population through death and emigration by 25%, but it wasn’t the only famine. A century before a greater proportion of the population died in the famine that lasted two growing seasons.
This central and northern part of Connemara is looked upon as richer and more productive than where Zoonie is moored in the south west of Connemara. There is less rock debris so the fields are much bigger, in fact they are vast in places, lying green and sloping up to the rocky topped mountains, sheep dogs are used to gather up the far roaming flocks for the hill farmers. We were driving up the pass between the Maumturk mountains. Maum means pass and turk refers to the wild boar that used to live in great numbers in this region.
Tiny lakes dotted the landscape amid the boglands and Phil mentioned the small islands in the lakes, many man-made and called crannogs. Throughout history they have proved useful for building wooden huts that would be higher than the surrounding wet bogs but also as a means of escaping authorities. Sometimes underwater stepping stones to these retreats were known to locals and could be a useful way to escape to a safe hiding place. Must have looked as if they were doing a Jesus and walking on water.
A group of hunched men were busy cutting turf (peat) and laying it on the ground to dry. There is considerable tension at the moment between the government and turf cutters as the former are banning the cutting of turf in two years’ time. The tradition goes back thousands of years and was the means by which the Irish population survived the cold winters. So industrialised cutting of the turf to fuel power stations for example, along with all the other industrialised processes that have led to the rapid warming of the world’s climate in the last two hundred years means the ordinary people wonder how they are going to keep warm in their homes. They don’t have the money to install an alternative means of heating. Same story the world over.
The rural route we turned onto at Maam Cross eventually brought us to Leenaun, a pretty little village at the head of Ireland’s only fjord, Killary Bay. We will be passing there soon in Zoonie and it is possible to anchor off the shore nearby or pick up a mooring buoy a little further down the fjord and between the mussel rafts. The pilot book shows still waters reflecting the mountains but not on our day I’m afraid as a stiff chilly wind was funnelling up from the Atlantic.
Rob and I hastened to Gaynors Pub for a quick coffee after a good look at the waters and the surrounding hills. A really pretty spot.
The thirty-nine of us on board were in fact two groups and all but eight of us were dropped off at Kylemore Abbey for a two hour look at the Victorian limestone building, now run by an order of Benedictine Nuns, who have lived there since they escaped the destruction of their nunnery in Ypres during the First World War. In 2010 they were forced to close the school they ran there and now run new educational and retreat activities there including business and leadership courses and research projects to explore biodiversity on the estate.
As we left the thirty-one making their way towards the house, he reckoned we had made the right decision, “Bloody tourist trap” in his view.
The coach backed into an off-road area and as we donned our back packs in readiness for our half way up the mountain picnic lunch Phil said, in an off the cuff comment, “You might want to visit the boys’ graveyard too, it will break your heart.” I wondered what he meant.
He walked us towards a street corner and pointed up a side road, “Keep walking up there and you cannot miss the entrance to Connemara National Park. I’ll be back in two and quarter hours.”
The sunshine brought out the gold specks on the path and the quartzite rock on the mountain top glinted like bright diamonds, hence the name Diamond Mountain.
The Connemara mare was as gentle as Phil said and all the sheep, cattle, donkeys and horses we saw had this year’s babies with them. A lovely sight.
As were the views from our rock seat. Not into epic treks at the moment we left the others to race to the top and back and just relaxed in the perfect surroundings munching ham and cheese and peanut butter and sister Sue’s home grown and made rhubarb jam sandwiches.
With time on our hands the stroll along gravel paths with wild and natural bog and ponds and patches of white bog cotton around us were a complete contrast to what they saw and the lives led by the boys in nearby Letterfrack School. We returned to the centre and noticed the sign to the Letterfrack Industrial School Graveyard. Soon the tragic story of physical, mental and sexual abuse of young boys was revealed to us. In this tiny town one hundred and forty-seven poverty stricken and unloved young boys from four years old died in the 76 years of the school’s existence and were buried around the school. One past pupil led the way to the spot in the nearby woods where his friend had been hastily buried; he had been playing with him the day before.
A public enquiry brought the deeply disturbing national scandal to the eyes of the world and claims for compensation by the families are ongoing. If you want to learn more, the Ryan Report revealed the extent of the abuse in Catholic run institutions based largely on the memoirs of Peter Tyrell in his book ‘Founded on Fear’. He set himself on fire at Hampstead Heath Park in London as an act of defiance, making the ultimate sacrifice.
Phil said that he was discouraged from mentioning this tragic history to the punters on the coach as it is so disturbing, it could spoil the spectacular day out that they had paid for. He was right of course but I am glad he did, the children should not be forgotten.
Our return route deviated toward the south west of Connemara, our area and what Phil had said was clear, the fields were smaller and very rocky, a struggle for anyone to grow enough food to survive. We stopped beside Lough Inagh to explore a turf cutting area and held a chunk of dried turf as light as charcoal, and admire the oaks that were growing on the far side of the water. Few are left having been replaced by the planting of profitable Sitka Spruce plantations that now make up 96% of the tree growth in Ireland.
It had been a long interesting day made especially enjoyable by our capable and warm-hearted guide, Phil.
We are moored out of the marina now and plan to set off to Inishbofin Island tomorrow. That will place us about half way up the west coast of Ireland, so we are on schedule to be leaving Ireland for Scotland in August. But there’s no sign the weather is settling down and we continue to watch for good weather windows, preferably with a sailing wind.
As there are numerous photos I will divide them between a number of files, I hope you enjoy them.
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