There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Connemara in the Mist and the Rain: Part 2 of the West of Ireland

As Ireland’s second largest county, Galway covers a big chunk of the map and is sliced in two by Lough Corrib, the republic’s largest lake. County Galway’s eastern two thirds is flat farmland, the western third is Connemara where mountains, bogs and a richly indented coastline create a land of legendary beauty.

Connemara, the western third of County Galway
It was our 41st wedding anniversary. Nobody had told the weather gods, but undaunted and weighed down by a full Irish breakfast, we set out to explore. We drove west to Salthill, Galway's beach resort neighbour/suburb. It was not intentional, we were aiming northwest along the N59 to Oughterard, but somehow missed our target. It may have been high summer, but the cool, damp morning rendered Salthill less than appealing.

Turning north we eventually found the N59.  Just before Oughterard we took a minor road past the golf course signposted to Aughnanure Castle. The road petered out with no castle in sight, but there was a car park and a footpath beside a stream. We had not walked far when suddenly the castle was looming above us.

Aughnanure Castle, Lynne, the Tower House, Gatehouse and part of the inner wall
The O’Flaherty’s were Kings of Connemara from the 11th to the 16th century and Aughnanure Castle was one of their strongholds  A well preserved tower house, the guardhouse and parts of the inner and outer walls have survived. Rural clans regarded a little neighbourly cattle raiding as normal procedure and Ireland has over 500 such tower houses where cattle could be corralled within the outer wall when necessary.

The Guardhouse, Aughnnure Castle
A home when all was peaceful and a refuge in times of trouble, Aughnanure, built in the 16th century, was a late example of its type. Defenceless against artillery, tower houses became obsolete only when the armies of Oliver Cromwell introduced cannon to Ireland a hundred years later, by which time the O’Flaherty’s had already lost Aughnanure.

The upper floor inside the tower house, Augnanure Castle 
The castle is now owned by Dúchas (Irish Heritage) and we bought Heritage Cards there giving us access to all their sites.

Oughterard, a couple of miles up the main road is a small town, but offered several coffee options. We dropped into a pub which at eleven o'clock was not only serving coffee but also breakfast - and not only to tourists.

A side road took us to Lough Corrib, a picturesque expanse of water, though it would have looked better if the weather had cheered up.

Lough Corrib
But cheering up was the last thing on its mind as we continued along the N59, then turned north through Joyce Country (named for the Norman-Welsh family who settled there in the 13th century, not James Joyce, though he was a descendant). The natural delights of Joyce Country are well documented but we have to take that on trust, we saw little more than mist and drizzle.

Reaching the other part of the N59 loop, we arrived at Leenane at the tip of Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only fjord. We had lunch - a sandwich and a cup of tea - in a café there. 'It's a nice day,' the girl said as I paid the bill. Hearing no sarcasm in her voice, I paused unsure how to reply. She saw my expression and said, 'Well is not raining,' and, to be fair, at that precise moment it was not. It was a milder day than yesterday, though hardly warm, and perhaps that is all it takes to be a ‘nice day' in these parts.
Me blocking out the view if Killary Harbour from the front, while the mist does the same from behind

A few miles further on, the road veers left and the fjord bends right. Across the water and round the bend the flanks of Mweelrea, the highest mountain in Connaught, drop precipitately into the sea. Not that we saw it, the mountain was sulking in the mist.

We continued towards Clifden, passing Kylemore Abbey which has been a Benedictine monastery since 1920 but was originally a grand Victorian country house. The abbey and its garden are open to the public, but it was expensive, not covered by our Heritage Card and raining, so no visit and no photographs. Instead here is a picture of some fuchsias. Hedgerows throughout Connemara are alive with wild fuchsias, but these were photographed a couple of days later in Kerry where the weather was more cooperative.

Fuchsia hedgerow, County Kerry

Approaching Clifden, scenic circuits known as 'The Bog Road' and 'The Sky Road' head off towards the coast. On another day we might have explored one or the other, but our appetite for more views of mist and drizzle was limited.

Clifden is by far the largest town in Connemara, which is not saying much, but after crossing miles of scenic nothing (not that we saw it) it looked like a metropolis. Central Connemara is one of the Gaeltachtaí, areas where a large enough proportion of the population speak Irish for it to be officially treated as the first language. Clifden, an Anglophone town beyond the Gaeltacht, was a 19th century development and may be a pleasant place, but in the rain nowhere looks its best. The northern and southern branches of the N59 converge here ensuring the narrow streets enjoy a semi-permanent traffic jam. We wanted to leave on the small R341 towards Ballinaboy (Ireland's a great place for connoisseurs of place names) and that involved crossing an endless stream of traffic inching forward with windscreen wipers flapping.

On the 14th of June 1919 John Alcock and Arthur Brown left Newfoundland in a converted First World War bomber aiming to win a £10,000 prize for being the first to fly the Atlantic in a single hop. Fifteen difficult hours later they sighted Clifden and knew success was theirs. They had hoped to continue towards London, but technical problems required an immediate landing. South of Clifden they thought they had found a smooth field, but these are rare in Connemara and they soon found themselves nose down in what turned out to be a bog.
A different Connemara bog

According to the Rough Guide a monument commemorating their achievement stands beside the R341 opposite the remains of Marconi's first transatlantic wireless station - from which they sent news of their triumph.

Driving south we came across a carpark with the names of Alcock, Brown and Marconi prominently displayed. There were some foundations, presumably the wireless station, some information about the adjacent bog and a suggested bog walk, which we declined, seeing the conditions.

Opposite was a minor road and on the corner a sign pointing into the empty field where we expected the monument to be. ‘Perhaps,’ we thought, ‘the sign should point up the lane.’
A signpost pointing into an empty field

Something up that lane required a steady trickle of large lorries to drive down it. Twice in a kilometre we reversed to find somewhere a truck wider than the road could get past. 

The Alcock and Brown Monument on top of a dismal, windswept, drizzle-sodden hill,

Persevering to the top of the dismal windswept, drizzle-sodden hill we found a sculpture of Alcock and Brown’s tail-plane, erected in 1959 to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the flight. According to the plaque it is two kilometres north of the actual landing site. Presumably this spot was picked more for scenic potential than geographical accuracy. The views down either flank of the hill into Clifden Bay would be attractive on a different day.

Clifden Bay from the Alcock and Brown Memorial
A fine view on a better day
Later research has suggested the carpark signs had been misleading. Marconi's station is a kilometre further on and a memorial cairn stands in the field opposite, closer to the landing site, but still quarter of a mile from it.

Alcock and Brown were knighted but having survived flying in WW1 and their trans-Atlantic adventure, their luck began to run out. Sir John Alcock died months later in a flying accident. Sir Arthur Brown had a business career but suffered ill-health and died in 1948 aged 62 having never recovered from the death of his son, a pilot shot down in WW2.

The drive back to Clifden was interesting. At one point we, and a small but ever growing line of vehicles had to back up to allow someone to drive a full sized bus down the country lane - rather them then me, but better not at all. Then we queued patiently through Clifden’s one-way system before starting the 80km journey back to Galway.

On the way we detoured to Rosmuc to see Patrick Pearse's Cottage. We had bought our Heritage Cards and meant to make use of them.

Pearse used the whitewashed thatched cottage as a residence and a summer school in the heart of the Gaeltacht for his Irish language students from Dublin. A large visitor centre is currently being built nearby that looks worryingly out of scale with both the cottage and the village.

Patrick Pearse's cottage, Rosmuc
Pearse was born in Dublin. His father was English, his mother Irish and Irish speaking. He developed a love for her threatened language and worked hard to preserve it, but Pearse was not just a language activist, he was also a nationalist.

Albert Einstein observed that 'nationalism is infantile, mankind's measles.' I agree and feel uncomfortable with nationalism of any hue. The guide - or rather lecturer, you can hardly have a guided tour of a two room cottage – clearly regarded Pearse as something of a hero.

The Irish Home Rule bill passed through the British parliament and became law in September 1914, but further action was suspended for the duration of the Great War.  Most Irish independence campaigners accepted this delay, but not all. Arguing that they should strike while the enemy was otherwise occupied Patrick Pearse was among the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. The rebels sought help from Germany - at a time when 200,000 Irishman were fighting against Germany as volunteers in the British army - but when the weapons they sent were intercepted by the British the rising was called off and then reinstated. The inevitable confusion meant that it went off at half-cock and when Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on the steps of Dublin Post Office on Easter Monday it was already doomed. Little over a thousand combatants were active in Dublin and planned risings elsewhere petered out before they began.

Lynne in Patrick Pearse's cottage
 If the Easter Rising had elements of duplicity and incompetence, the British response plumbed the depths of stupidity. The rising was easily put down, but artillery was used inside Dublin with as much disregard for collateral damage as the Americans in Vietnam (over 50% of the 500 who lost their lives were civilians) and the subsequent round-up of suspects was carefully calibrated not to win hearts and minds. Then, showing a rare talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, they court marshalled the instigators, including Patrick Pearse, put them in front of a firing squad and created martyrs and folk heroes while turning their Rising into the stuff of legend.

I have no wish to defend British imperialism, but I do not like nationalism either and when I came across Pearse’s comments on the Great War …

It is patriotism that stirs the people. Belgium defending her soil is heroic, and so is Turkey . . . . . .
It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields.
Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.

…I knew he was not my sort of hero.

Lynne in Patrick Pearse's cottage, Rosmuc
We drove back to Galway. Our day out in Connemara had its moments, we saw enough to know that it is beautiful country and the weather did not entirely ruin it, though it tried hard. As wedding anniversary days out go it certainly ranked above 2007, when we spent the whole day waiting for glacially slow burocracy to allow us across the Russian/Mongolian border.

In the evening we celebrated at Loam, one of Galway’s two Michelin starred restaurants - and that dinner is the subject of the next post.
The West of Ireland
Part 1: Galway

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