As an expatriate Irishman now based in London who has lived out of Ireland since 1979, I have been back many times over the years but a trip completed in September 2018 to Counties Meath, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry, Cork, Kilkenny and Dublin with my wife and two close friends (also living in London) turned out to be an uplifting and moving experience.
Over the six days of our Irish visit, I wanted to explore what Ireland is as a country, its people, history and culture and, of course, what it means to be Irish. It was not all serious of course as there was plenty of craic introduced at many opportunities enroute; thankfully we were blessed with the best of weather throughout.
I had devised an itinerary that started in Co. Meath with a visit to the Hill of Tara, exploring an ancient place with a history going back nearly 6,000 years. The Hill of Tara ranks high in the collective Irish memory where mythology, spirituality, power and the ceremonial have been part of the Celtic psyche for millennia. It can be easily reached from the nearby Jordanstown/Old Ross Road where the entrance is replete with well-presented, informative signage describing the archaeology, geography and the fabled symbolism of the hallowed site. As you walk over the windswept rolling hills of this place, you begin to imagine what sacred and powerful events must have occurred on this soil all those years ago.
For more detailed information, please see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hill_of_Tara
Afterwards, we headed over to Trim (also in Co. Meath) and visited the magnificent Anglo-Norman castle there built by Hugh de Lacy in 1180. Our friends were captivated by the fact that the Normans had visited Ireland also after conquering England in 1066 but I pointed out that it was the beginning of a sad and bloody tale with the domination of Ireland by a certain foreign power. 752 years of colonial rule kicked off when two Irish high kings, became locked in a sordid squabble for supremacy in their neck of the woods way back in the 12th century CE and one of these kingly protagonists, a certain Dermot McMurrough inveigled the English monarch at the time, Henry II, to send over an Anglo-Norman lord of Wales, Richard FitzGilbert, Earl of Pembroke (aka Strongbow) and a posse of soldiers to enable the aforesaid Dermot M. re-establish his position of power. Looked at from the perspective of the cold light of day, this episode of political shenanigans more than eight and a half centuries ago served as the progenitor of where one country came to be subservient to its nearest neighbour for three quarters of a millennium. But I digress.
After our Hill of Tara visit, we drove westwards through Westmeath, Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon in glorious sunshine and in the afternoon arrived at our destination: the Riverside Hotel in Sligo town where we had a marvellous view of the River Garavogue. We visited the Yeats Society Building in the heart of Sligo where some fascinating details and memorabilia associated with 'W.B.', (one of Ireland's literary Nobel Laureates), are on show to the public - a chat with the curator also proved to be entertaining and enlightening. "Cast a cold eye on life, on death Horseman pass by" - the self-written epitaph on Yeat's grave in Drumcliff churchyard, Co. Sligo "under bare Ben Bulben's head".
The following morning, in continuance of the focus on classical Ireland, we ventured out of Sligo town and climbed the hill of Knocknarea, an outcrop of limestone reaching 327 metres (1,072 feet) in height on a windy and showery morning. At the plateaued summit, we gazed in wonder at the high rocky cairn, legendary burial mound of Maeve, warrior queen of Connacht - Connacht being one of the five ancient provinces of Ireland: the others were Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Meath. From the top of Knocknarea, we also had a marvellous 360-degree panorama where it is said that six counties can be seen.
Later, we found ourselves at the seaside in Strandhill and ate at the incredible Shells restaurant on the sea front. My friends remarked how delicious the food was and the very high standard of service despite the place being packed. Even though this was only the second day of our visit, we noted the friendliness of everyone we came across.
A further peep into Ireland's past was next on the cards so we visited Lissadell House and our inimitable guide, Leo, who was a tour-de-force character in not only beguiling us with an entertaining account of the house, the people associated with Lissadell such as the Gore-Booths, W.B. Yeats, et al., but Leo also gave us a fascinating albeit unorthodox, no-nonsense view of Irish history which held us in thrall, his delivery peppered with wicked humour.
It may interest you to know that my Scottish grandmother told me when she was a 'gel', that she had ridden on horseback with the Gore-Booth sisters, Eva and Constance in the grounds of Lissadell. But I digress again.
We pressed on to Galway and checked in for two nights at Flannery's Hotel. The following morning, our tummies fortified by a 'full Irish', we embarked on a tour of the city and the only negative experience of the entire trip was when I was scolded by an elderly Galwegian for taking pictures of boats in the harbour; to date I have no idea how innocently taking photos of an attractive local nautical scene could cause someone to become so exercised. Undeterred, we later drove out to Clifden in search of a well-known eatery renowned for its marine cuisine. But this is Ireland and we were not in a hurry so we detoured to Cong, just inside Co. Mayo and visited the charming town along with the ancient abbey. You will no doubt recall that Cong served as the backdrop for the film, "The Quiet Man" featuring Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne - both Hollywood stars with Irish roots.
On the road again via Clonbur and the enchanting Lough Nafooey (known as the lake of the winnowing winds – what an incredible name from the original Irish) where I regaled our small group about a geological field trip I had been on to the area more than 40 years previously as a Trinity College Dublin undergrad in Natural Sciences. I found myself reliving old memories and dreams and I felt this familiar haunting magic when the Celtic world re-enters my soul. We journeyed on past the incomparable Lough Mask, Killary Fjord, Finny, and stopped briefly at Kylemore Abbey where the afternoon sunshine danced on the waters of the lake enhancing the beauty of the place.
Happily our goal was achieved when we rolled into Clifden late that afternoon and as weary, famished travellers, we were treated to a veritable fish feast at Mitchell's Seafood Restaurant. Most memorable as it was delicious.
We returned to Galway city and headed out to the Latin Quarter (yes, Paris is not the only city with such a snazzy-sounding district) which was pulsating with energy and people. Pretty soon we realised that there was music a-plenty on offer and we found ourselves in the famous musical watering hole called, Tigh Cóilí where a live band was playing some Irish tunes. The place was heaving but yet the people present made room for us with a smile and a cheery word as we were kindly given seats as we supped away on liquid refreshment savouring the atmosphere. The craic was stupendous. My favourite Irish tipple being a pint of porter, aka a Guinness.
We returned to our hotel around 11.30pm thinking we'd get the semblance of an early night but as we walked through the foyer it was obvious a hooley to the accompaniment of music was in full swing. We were invited to join the group, drinks magically appeared on the table where we sat and, from what we could gather, we had crashed a hen party Irish-style with men and women present. We were welcomed into the fold, as it were, and the party carried on to the small hours in a very joyful fashion: life itself and the continuation of life with a most noticeable joie de vivre palapable was the essence of this celebration. A heart-warming way to end a wonderful day.
Or, if I think of it from a philosophical viewpoint, a most postive existential experience. Take your pick.
(To Be Continued)