Ireland’s history will break your heart. It broke mine, and scattered the pieces along the coasts of Sligo and Donegal, and it seems like I didn’t quite put it back together. I left some of it behind. Ireland made sure that I need to go back in search of those missing pieces.
Generally speaking I’m a love ‘em and leave ‘em kind of gal. Most everywhere, I fall for some aspect or other of a place, but, a few days after moving on, the glamour fades….that’s travel addiction for you. That hasn’t happened to me with Ireland. Ireland haunts me.
Perhaps it was because, along with what I saw, along The Wild Atlantic Way, I was hearing the stories, often heart-rending, which created modern Ireland – the myths and the pre-history as well as the facts and figures. Often, as travelers, we marvel at a seascape, unaware that a thousand men lost their lives off the beach; or we read history books, which give us the facts, but omit the passions which drove the history. On this intense and wonderful trip I just took, courtesy of Fáilte Ireland and TBEX, there was a story at every turn, far too many to repeat in this blog post….or even remember!
This has been, perhaps, the most difficult post I’ve ever written. I don’t think I’ve ever rewritten one more. There assuredly will be lots more pieces to come in some form or other.
Streedagh, Co Sligo: A Beach-ful of History
Our journey, learning curve – call it what you will – began on a seemingly remote and beautiful beach, Streedagh in County Sligo. It’s an easy walk, across pebbles, headlands and dunes, to this hauntingly beautiful stretch of sand. It’s enjoyable even without knowing its history.
The one thing you can’t fail to notice amongst the rocks and pebbles are fossils, time travelers from millions of years ago. So common along here that you can’t but tread on them, and for me, who hasn’t seen fossils like this before… that seemed plain wrong. Thich Nhat Hanh it was who said:
“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”
That pretty much sums up how I felt I should have walked there. Walking in Tenerife I used to stop to touch the rocks, feeling the vibrations from a volcanic eruption millions of years ago reverberate through my fingers. Here, slithery sea lilies came to life in my mind as I stroked their trapped remains.
But there is so much more to this short walk. In caves hereabouts evidence has been found of polar bears; unusually for a location on sand dunes, ancient wedge tombs have been unearthed, dating back between 4,000 and 2,500 years; from ports along this coast in the 19th century massive emigration took place; sugar was imported to those same ports for the making of the infamous Irish moonshine known as poitin; but, perhaps most famously, up and down this coast in 1588 no less than 25 vessels of the 130 from the Spanish Armada, which had sought to invade England, were wrecked. It was this Spanish connection which had drawn me to this trip. How could I live so long in Spain and not be attracted to its history?
Many Spanish vessels, in retreat, and failing to rendezvous with the Duke of Palma in Flanders, took passage northwards; rounding Scotland, they turned for home. In the North Atlantic they encountered autumn winds and storms. Off Cape Clear in Cork, close to where the Fastnet Lighthouse now stands, they were driven back along the coast until they reached the relative safety of Donegal Bay, approximately two months after they had first locked horns with the English navy.
On September 21st three ships, which lay off the Sligo coast, were to face what has been described as the area’s worst cyclone in history. All broke up, thousands died, and there remains only one verified account of what happened in the form of a letter written by one of the captains, Francisco de Cúellar.
We were fortunate to have as our guide for this walk, Auriel Robinson of Sea Trails, who is a maritime archaeologist. She is both passionate and articulate in sharing her extensive knowledge, and she brought this story alive for us.
Of the 25 ships known to have sunk, seven have been located, and divers explored three wrecks in 1985. However, a halt was called to further exploration by the passing of the National Monuments Wreck Act in 1987, whilst ownership of any salvage or possible treasure was established. In 1988 to mark the 400th anniversay of the event this memorial was created.
So much in one, short walk, but this was only the beginning of the peeling back of the layers of Irish history. This coast still has history to reveal.
Grianan ofAileach, Donegal: Tales to Chill the Bones
If the sands of Streedagh seemed remote, then there are no words to describe the chill of the circular, hilltop, stone fort of Grianan of Aileach, in Donegal. The winds howled appropriately around us as we listened to our expert guide weave tales which harked back to centuries long before Christianity. Before St. Patrick brought a more peaceful era to this turbulent country, it was ruled by fierce and often cruel leaders, I suppose that the modern expression “warlord” would be appropriate. This fort, at 800ft above sea level, with ample (for protection against invaders) and gorgeous views over Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly, was the ancient seat of the Kingdom of Aileach.
Tales of Iron Age human sacrifice sent chills down my spine, which had nothing to do with the winds, which whistled through this slice of history. Historians have deduced that bodies found in the area were specially bred for human sacrifice. Hair which had been styled with fat or resin, well-kept finger nails, and jewels have led to this conclusion – not to mention the fact that their heads were actually found attached to their bodies, in an age when the heads of enemies or criminals were severed from their bodies. It all made “The Hunger Games” seem quite tame in comparison!
History of the People, By the People, For the People
As our coach wound its way along Ireland’s west coast, our excellent guide, Josephine, brought to life the compelling, contradictory and oft times chilling history of the country we, foreigners, tend to think of as relaxed and laid back.
From Irish slave raids to the English coasts (St. Patrick himself had been captured in one of these raids); to Viking sackings of the monasteries and the culture which had been initiated or inspired by the saint; of Norman mercenaries, who were invited to help protect the island, but who stayed and integrated; to the horrors of British occupation, and 400 years of turmoil unleashed, perhaps, because a selfish monarch broke with the Church of Rome (yep I know that’s an over-simplification, but this is my blog, not a thesis); from famine to independence to Bloody Sunday to the Celtic Tiger, Josephine filled in all the gaps in my knowledge and more.
Somewhere along the way I began to understand my dilemma with history. In school it was a favorite subject, yet there were times when it bored me. Standing before a thatched cottage on a windswept day in Ireland I realized why. Those tales of kings and queens, churches and wars never caught my imagination, what fascinated me were the stories of real folk, how they had overcome the odds to become the nation they are, and this is maybe nowhere more true than in Ireland. Irish history is the history of its people.
Famine and Traditions: Glencolumcille Folk Village and Doagh Famine Village, Inishowen, County Donegal
Britain’s colonial history in Ireland was brutal and enduring, and whilst we read about Cromwell’s cruelties and 20th century atrocities, Britain’s part in the famine history is less known, and far too huge a subject to dwell on here. Suffice it to say that, as someone famous remarked, doing nothing in the face of need or of evil is also a sin (that information wasn’t a part of the tour, it was in the reading I did prior to visiting Ireland).
The Doagh Famine Museum recreates scenes from those horrifying times when Ireland lost so much of its population to emigration as well as death. It does it without casting blame, and it does it with some humor… always the Irish saving grace.
Dwellings and scenes from the early 19th century are carefully recreated. From the painful tableau showing an eviction of a family from their cottage home, to paintings which show the crowded boats which carried emigrants to new lives in North America or Australia, to that Irish tradition we all have heard of, the wake, the tragedy and the hardship which was Irish life is outlined. Perhaps it is from extreme hardship that the sense of humor comes, the sense that all of this would have been too hard to bear without making light of things. Nowhere more than in the tableau depicting a wake was that humor more evident, as our very knowledgeable guide regaled us with tidbits about the custom…..stay tuned for some of those in the near future!
The Famine Village exhibit concludes with Ireland’s tragic 20th century history, but moves on to messages of peace and hope. All in all this experience was taking a walk through history, the ability to survive and move on was palpable. Walks tend to lead to sores and calluses, and this was no exception. There was rawness in my heart as we came to the end, but that final exhibit, with quotations from elders the world over was balm. I left in hope of a better world, not only for Ireland, but, for all of us.
The Glencolumcille Folk Village was a gentler experience. Its replica cottages take us back to life in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries (isn’t it odd, to a baby boomer, that the 20th century is now assigned to history?). They are packed with antique artefacts or reproductions illustrating life in those times. Close to the ocean from where so much sustenance came, my favorite was the fisherman’s cottage. It set me musing about the similarities of the lives of fishermen throughout Europe, where I’ve seen similar nets and boats and buoys…..mostly, there is far more which unites folk than separates them.
The sea, generous in its provenance, of course demands much in return. This Donegal coast was turning out to be spectacular and very beautiful, but at the same time desolate and bleak. Our days were mostly overcast, giving us more than a glimpse into the realities of life here in the days before mass communication or even good roads. The ocean gave up food in the forms of seaweed and limpets, as well as fish, and beach grass was used for thatch in some parts, a tradition unique to this part of Ireland.
We learned about crafts like spinning and weaving, necessary back then for producing warm and protective clothing, and now prized for quality, and tradition. Our guide, Margaret, clearly committed to keeping these traditions alive, and not letting the area’s history slip away, communicated her passion with grace and that wonderful Irish talent for words, which we admire so much. The Blarney Stone is a long was from this coast, but I swear that every Irish person I met must have kissed it!
Oideas Gael Cultural Centre
On a journey which had taken us through Irish history, our stop at Oideas Gael Cultural Centre confirmed how passionate is Irish desire to remember history, and keep traditions alive. The centre not only runs courses in Irish language, which is the only Celtic language recognized by the E.U., but also in a variety of cultural activities from harp playing to archaeology, and from tapestry weaving or marine painting to hillwalking. These courses run throughout the summer months from May to August, and include not only the specific events, but social activities too. We were given just a tiny taste of Gaelic language, all of which I’ve already forgotten….in fact, the only words I learned on this trip were sláinte (cheers) and fáilte (welcome) – not bad words for starters in fact.
By the time we arrived at the Centre I was already falling in love with Ireland, and desperately wanted to book right there and then for a course next summer. and I know I wasn’t the only one of our group! Only poverty prevented me!
Preserving traditions and customs is something I’m passionate about, wherever it may be, and I can explain a part of this in no better way than to quote a participant the short video supplied to us by Oideas Gael:
“You have so much stored in a language…the memories and experiences of a people….wisdom. So when a language dies it’s an entire way of looking at a world, an entire people’s experience of what it is to be human that goes with it. I think we’ll be greatly impoverished if all of these languages do die out.”
Crossing my fingers to get back next year!
There was so much more to this tour than I could sensibly fit into a blog post. Here I am at over 2,000 words and I don’t know how many photos already. There are folk who reckon that a blog post should never be more than 500 words! I’ve saved some of the snippets I had to leave out, and I’ll post them to Facebook or Pinterest or Instagram over the next few days.
There are also folk who maintain that if you have a travel experience which is provided to you free, whether you’re guest of a tourist board or a small hostel, then you can’t be objective in your opinions, regardless of how many times you repeat “all opinions are my own.” My opinion is that that possibly may be true for some writers, but not for this one. In the case of this post, there is nothing that anyone reading this, and wanting to do a similar trip, couldn’t recreate for himself or herself. Our group was incredibly lucky to have the guide we did. In the absence of a guide, much information can be found online. I did research before I left Spain. If you’re really interested you will do that. In the museums guided tours are offered, and in County Sligo, Sea Trails offer a variety of historic walks, not only the Spanish Armada one.
And the Last Word Goes to W.B.Yeats – How Could It Not?
To any old school friends who may come across this blog post, I know your heart skipped a beat at that name, and no-one has ever captured the soul of this coastline on paper more beautifully, or with more passion. Best let him have the last word:
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
If you hadn’t gathered from the post, I took this trip along The Wild Atlantic Way as a guest of Fáilte Ireland. The well-worn phrase goes something like “All opinions are my own”. I very much hope that’s obvious. I can only say a huge thank you to Fáilte Ireland for this incredible glimpse of their country, and say I will be back to search for those pieces of my heart in the not-too-distant future!