Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Tour of Ireland: Day Two

The mezzanine bar at Gallaghers Hotel in Letterkenny could not be confused with a real Irish pub.  On the other hand, the day had been a long one, and, begod, I had a thirst.  My first sip of Guinness in Ireland was heaven.

* * *
September 10, 2011

After (another) solid Irish breakfast (see "Day One"), we boarded the bus for the day's adventures.  Since a great deal of our time in Ireland would be spent on said bus, it's worthwhile to take a moment to appreciate the qualities of this vehicle.  As mentioned earlier, it had a capacity of 20 passengers (no standees) and featured luggage space for 350 kg in the back.  On each side toward the middle were tables that could be used, for, example, to pile books on various aspects of Ireland (good until you hit a turn) or to rest your head when the burden of travel became too great.  Both the driver's side and the 'shotgun' seat had microphones hooked into a PA system.  This can be a good or bad thing.

In our case, it turned out to be a good thing.  Our driver, John Byrne -- called Sean O'Brin when speaking Irish -- was a treasure trove of information on a range of topics related to the Irish experience.  We'd hear the crackle of the PA and John would come on to tell about, say, the Irish roots of the name of the town we were approaching, which would lead to a story about the town's role the an ancient or modern battle and thence to a dissertation on the uniforms of various brigades of Irish fighters, right down to the buttons.  Then we'd hear how the county we were passing through was faring in wildly popular amateur sports of hurling and Gaelic football, followed by a discussion of the rules and tactics of the games.  It was never dull and was greatly enhanced by the soft Dublin accent.

* * *

The Cliffs at Sliabh Liag

Sliabh Liag
A hurricane was approaching.  Katia had been growing in strength over the past two weeks since first spotted off the west coast of Africa and she was now getting ready to slam into Ireland.  This day, we were seeing the wind and rains of the storm's leading edge as we wound up the hills of the Sliabh Liag (Slieve League) Peninsula.  On the southern coast of that peninsula are the highest cliffs in Ireland -- topping 1,900 ft (600 m).  We stopped at a cafe/gift shop to change buses and were joined by a wiry old gent by the name of Paddy ("not Patty -- there are no Patties in Ireland").  Paddy was a entertainer in the finest Irish style, so we learned our history, geography and natural sciences with a good dollop of humor.

You might expect tall cliffs over the ocean to be stark and forbidding.  Not always so.  Sliabh Liag is covered in lush grass and heather -- the latter in glorious bloom -- and well populated with Ireland's ubiquitous sheep.  We learned that these hillsides were a blanket bog ecology, characterized by a deep peat layer that supports heather and other acid-loving plants.  Bogs, which cover about 1/6 of the land area of Ireland, are essentially a man-made phenomenon.  6,000 years ago, the whole of Ireland was thickly forested with both deciduous and evergreen trees.  As the agrarian wave spread across Europe and then to the western islands, more and more trees were cleared for farming, so that by 500 B.C.E or so, much of the land had be denuded.  Without a network of tree roots to bind the soil, the constant rains leached out the nutrients, making it suitable only for hardier plants like heather and rushes.  When these plants die, they don't readily decompose (due largely to the acidity), so that layer upon layer of their detritus builds up as the years go by.  Today, a bog can be up to 5 meters (16 feet) deep, depending on age and moisture content.  Wet bogs have amazing preservative qualities; trees, animals and quite a few humans have been found remarkably intact -- though turned as black as coal -- after thousands of years.

The wind was tearing at our jackets and fitful bursts of rain foretold of the coming storms.  As we walked along the cliff road, Paddy told us of the interesting role these cliffs played in the allied efforts during World War II, although Ireland was neutral in that fight.  Planes coming in from the Atlantic were not allowed to land in Ireland, needing to fly onward to the coast of England.  To provide some measure of aid, however, the denizens of Sliabh Liag carved huge numerals into the face of the bog so that the navigators could verify their coordinates.  More than 60 years later, these are still faintly visible.

After our time in the wild weather, it was good to get back to the safety of the cafe and the warmth of scones and coffee.  Thus fortified, we straggled back to the bus for the next leg.

Ardara, Co. Donegal

Loom at Triona Design
If it's tweed you'd be wanting, Donegal is the place.  The one thing I really wanted to obtain while in Ireland was a good quality 'ivy' or driving cap.  There was some discussion, and it was decided that our next stop would be at a shop in Ardara, half-an-hour or so up the road.

The Mulhern family, owners of Triona Design on the main street in Ardara, have been in the tweed business for five generations.  Anne Mulhern greeted us warmly, then shuttled us to the back of the shop, a space dominated by a massive wooden loom.  During the week, weavers work this loom all day long, turning out dozens of yards of cloth.  Much of it is then assembled into garments in their basement tailor shop.  Half way through Anne's talk, a man appeared with a tray of Irish coffees, compliments of the house.  Our shopping experience suddenly became more joyous!

Within a short time, I found the perfect hat -- a burly Harris tweed in warm gray that was made from Triona's cloth by The Hatman of Ireland, based in Galway.  Leanne had an enjoyable time trying on jackets, and selected one in a beautiful deep brown.  Nearly everyone walked out of there with something (or several somethings) grand and I'm certain that the folks at Triona Design were happy to have seen us!

The Dolmen at Kilclooney
Kilclooney Dolmen and himself with the hat.
All over Ireland, one may find stone structures called dolmens, also known as "portal tombs".  The typical Irish dolmen consists of three or more base stones topped by a larger table-like slab.  In fact, the word "dolmen" derives from the Breton (French Celtic) words taol maen, meaning "stone table".  Our last stop of the day was at one of the larger examples -- the Kilclooney Dolmen -- not far from Ardara.  As you can tell from the photo (using my 5' 10" self for comparison), these are massive stones.  They were placed here for purposes largely unknown by Irelanders of the Neolithic Period (the "New Stone Age"), which makes them somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 years old.  This one, as many are, was set in the middle of privately owned bog land and accessible by a sheep gate that opened to a raised path.  The sky was alternating between overcast and patches of blue but would close in completely by the time we were ready to leave.  

Lunch at Leo's

Shopping and dolmen-inspecting is hungry work and, by the time we were done in mid afternoon, we were well ready for lunch.  Our promised land was a pub called Leo's Tavern in the the town of Meenaleck, West Donegal.  It was another hour up the road but we were assured that it'd be worth the wait.  Leo, the owner, has the distinction of being the father of the famed Irish singer Enya.  The walls of the place were festooned with Enya memorabilia -- gold and platinum records and the like -- and a big screen in the corner played Enya videos on continuous rotation.  Pints were ordered up and sandwiches provided and soon, all was right with the world again.

Day's End

Back to the bus then, and a final hour's ride back to Letterkenny.  In contrast to the upstairs bar, the drinking establishment off the lobby of Gallagher's bears a great resemblance to a real pub.  We stopped in for a drap o' th' Tullamore Dew and to while away the time until dinner.  Life could be a lot worse.

1 comment:

  1. It's lovely to relive some of these moments by reading about them. I hope you'll continue with this memoir -- some of us are just delighted by it.

    Love, light and laughter