Wednesday 25 August 2010

The Journey West

Last weekend we went to the West of Ireland, where The Girl and I spent a full day driving through Conemara, the pastoral land to the north of Galway Bay. We meandered over the rugged countryside, stopping often to picnic, run around, take pictures, feed birds or climb hills.

We then went south through Galway to the stark and windswept moonscape of the Burren, where the one of Cromwell’s generals once complained there was not enough soil to bury a man there, enough water to drown him or enough rope to hang him. The advance and retreat of ice ages and the tapping of meltwater carved the limestone rock into ripples, eddies or strange marbled designs, or eaten vast caves through the bellies of the mountains.

At Ailwee we saw a bird show at the Raptor Center, which delighted The Girl. The organisation takes in birds that have been injured or captured in the underground animal market, breeds them and trains them to perform in the shows that fund the place.

A bit up the trail is the entrance to Ailwee Cave, which trails for kilometres under the rock – an Irish farmer discovered it in the 1940s and kept it secret for the next thirty years, finally selling it to people who made it a tourist attraction. The Girl found the cave itself a bit scary -- underground cliffs, dripping ceilings, claustrophobic walkways – and, for one moment when the lights went out, total blackness. She put on a brave face, but held me tightly, and I didn’t mind --- she won’t do that forever.

Near the caves we saw the Poulambrone Dolmen, one of the many stone tables built by Celts long ago, like a piece of Stonehenge. The Girl absorbed the stories I told her about the people long ago, but was more interested in playing hopscotch across the jigsaw patterns in the ground.

I wanted to see the Cliffs of Moher for the first time, but The Girl was tired and rain had begun, so we headed back. I visited the Cliffs of Moher ten years ago when I first came to Ireland, but never saw them – it was so foggy that I couldn’t see three metres in front of me, and I wasn’t walking too close to the Cliffs. The Irish have a different sense of public safety than most Americans – in front of a sheer drop of fatal height, I recall only a small sign saying, “Warning: Cliff is dangerous. Stay back.” No fence, no railing – not walking off the cliff is considered your responsibility. Giving the driving winds there, I wasn’t bringing The Girl too close either.

The next day we saw Ireland’s national Museum of Country Life, dedicated to preserving the images and crafts of the old ways of Irish life. It’s a fascinating place, and I recommend it to anyone passing through that area of Ireland, with one caveat: for a museum devoted to preserving the customs and crafts of country people here, perhaps they could have created a building that looks less like something by I.M. Pei.

One advantage to living in Ireland is that a more traditional way of life was preserved longer than in other places, simply because people couldn’t afford anything else, so museums like this have clothing, tools, shoes, chicken coops, ropes, fishing nets and dozens of other items made entirely by hand, but from only a few generations ago. The last people to live with almost no technology here when Jimmy Stewart was making movies, so places like this have recordings, interviews, and film footage. Such places become even more interesting if you, like us, believe that we need to keep such knowledge alive.

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