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Published: September 3rd 2019
Breakfast at the hotel, à la carte in this establishment, then off to explore the Connemara peninsula. The terrain soon becomes quite rugged and mountainous. We are once again in bog territory on the Irish moors. The weather is unsettled; windy with brief downpours. One mountain in particular dominates the landscape. This is Croagh Patrick, where in July every year, thousands of Irish Catholics make a pilgrimage to the top on foot as a penitence.
Tony gives us a history lesson on the Great Famine of 1845–52. The English version of this tragic episode is that a potato blight affected the Irish potato crop and caused widespread famine. This is in fact what I learned in school. Tony says that the potato blight was a factor but the real cause of the famine was excessive taxation and rent (paid in foodstuffs) on the part of the British overlords.
We stop at the National Famine Memorial, a striking sculpture crafted by John Behan to commemorate the millions of Irish who perished during the famine. It depicts a “coffin ship” with skeleton bodies in the rigging. Coffin ships was the term used to describe the horrendously overcrowded boats that left Irish
shores with emigrants fleeing the famine in dire and unhygienic conditions. The monument was unveiled by President Mary Robinson in 1997.
Our coach now takes us into Connemara, a pennisula known for its striking coastal views, barren landscapes and dramatic mountains and valleys. Much of it has been designated as Connemara National Park. A movie named The Fields was filmed here, which I don't remember seeing but will check out.
As we drive, Tony points out the prevalence of huge rhodedendrum trees. They are an invasive species and are apparently causing a lot of problems for local flora and fauna.
At Louisbourg, we turn south and enter Doolough Valley. It was here in 1849, during the famine, that the so-called Death March to Delphi occurred. Starving Irish in the area were told that supplies were available at Delphi, about 10 miles away. They set off on foot, many dying along the way. When they arrived, they were told that they were too late and were forced to walk back home, with even greater loss of life.
Tony invites volunteers to walk the valley route ahead of the bus. About six of us take up the challenge.
It's raining again and we get pretty wet, but I enjoy the hike anyway. Sheep standing right on the side of the road look at me as I walk by and wonder if I'm crazy. The views of the valley, mountain, icicle-thin waterfalls and islands are awe-inspiring, even under these less-than-ideal conditions.
Pit stop at the tiny town of Leeane, where there's a craft shop and small restaurant. We purchase some gifts for the family.
Our next stop is Kylemore Abbey. It was originally built in the late 1800s on the shores of Kylemore Lake as a home for doctor and tycoon Mitchell Henry and his new wife Margaret. It boasted many innovative features, such as locally generated electricity. Mitchell also constructed an expansive walled garden with greenhouses heated by hot water. The story has an unhappy ending, as Margaret died young. Grieving Mitchell constructed a beautiful church adjoining the mansion in her honour. Fast forward to the 1920s when Kylemore became the home of the Benedictine sisters, fleeing France. They opened a girls' school that operated until 2010.
We begin with the walled garden, which seems to go on forever. Different areas have different themes. Meticulously
maintained, the garden is a feast for the senses. Just to keep us grounded, a host of almost invisible and extremely annoying gnats accompanies our every step.
We return from the garden and tour the main building. It too is a visual feast, both inside and out. The bottom floor is a museum depicting life in the Henry's time. The second floor is reserved for the current owners of the property, who live upstairs.
We eat lunch (soup and sandwich) at the cafeteria. The soup is remarkably good for cafeteria food.
On the way home, Tony points out the mussel farms in the lake. He tells us that one man started to farm mussels here some 15 years ago and everyone thought him crazy. Today his business exports some 15,000 tonnes of mussels a year.
We have a final photo stop at a wishing tree. A wishing tree (sometimes called a fairy tree) is traditionally a hawthorn tree to which people tie ribbons and other objects to ask blessings from the local saints/deities/wee folk. For example, one might tie a ribbon with a lock of hair to ask for recovery from an illness.
back to Westport. A chance on the way back to hop off the coach and explore Westport on one's own, but we two are too bushed, so we return to the hotel. We opt instead for a walk along the line of shops bordering the hotel. We're also looking for a place to eat, because we're on our own tonight for supper. The day's experiences are making us think that local mussels and lamb might be in our future.
However, there's an Gaelic football match on–and it's the final championship game between Dublin and Kerry. Apparently Dublin is going for a 5th straight championship, which has never been done before. Every pub is packed with noisy people roaring at the TV. I watch a bit of the game and realize I don't know anything about this sport. It looks like a cross between rugby, soccer, basketball and American-style football. There's a soccer-like goal you can score in, but there are also uprights extending from the net that you can kick the ball through for points. And the weirdest thing is that you bounce the round ball as you try to move it downfield. Anyway, we decide that the best
option is the restaurant attached to the hotel. As we sit down, the game becomes tied in extra time and the place is going mad, but before we order, the game ends in a tie. The waitress tells us that that means they replay the match next week. Bizarre.
Anyway, we do indeed have local mussels and lamb, and both dishes are terrific, with extremely generous proportions. We also try Guinness with blackberry, which means a shot of cassis is added to the head of your beer. It actually works.
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