Every place has a history, but in Ireland the past seems more tangible. Maybe it’s because the people still feel connected to the past, to the hardships and struggles their countrymen and women endured. But today’s Ireland doesn’t dwell on the past. Instead it’s simply part of who they are. You get the sense they don’t want to forget their troubled history, that somehow it inspires them, propels them to a bigger and better future.
When you visit Ireland, you sense this connection to the past in cities and towns, in heritage sites scattered across the countryside, and most importantly in the people themselves. On a recent visit with my husband, Peter, and our teen-aged son, Jasper, I found Ireland to be much more than a pretty destination. It’s a place with heart.
FLOWERS & FOUNTAINS
It didn’t take long for Peter, Jasper, and me to learn about Irish hospitality. After landing at Dublin, we rented a car and headed west, seeking an attraction in County Kildare I’d read about. Before long we discovered that what you hear about driving in Ireland is true. The roads are narrow, hilly, and curvy, and signs are never around when you need one. Driving also takes place on the left side of the road, a bizarre rearrangement of the cosmos that I could never get used to. Luckily, Peter was behind the wheel.
Our goal was Peatland World, where we hoped to learn about Ireland’s turf bogs, an important source of fuel. Instead we got hopelessly lost. In the middle of nowhere, it seemed, we came upon Orchard Garden Center—the only five-star garden center in Ireland, according to the sign—and decided to stop and ask for directions.
Inside an oasis of flowers and fountains welcomed us. As soon as we admitted we were lost tourists, the girl at the counter summoned Finnian, the manager, who said in his lovely Irish brogue, “Come have a mug of coffee and then we’ll help you on your way.” He ushered us into a lovely café and treated us to steaming mugs of delicious coffee.
After a pleasant interlude, we explored the amazing store, where plants, indoor and outdoor furniture, home décor, pottery, statuary, and garden supplies spread out over thousands of square feet of beautiful space. It was easy to get lost in there—and to lose track of time. Checking our watches, we realized we’d have to forego Peatland World, so we could make the four-hour crossing to Ireland’s west coast before nightfall. With a huge smile and a hearty handshake, Finnian showed us the route back to the highway (yay!) and wished us well.
That night I would fulfill a fantasy I think every girl has: to sleep in a castle. Blame the fairytale princesses who have pranced throughout our imagination, but something in our collective consciousness, I think, equates castles to living happily ever after. Fortunately a number of castles offer accommodations in Ireland, making it easy to fulfill a childhood fantasy. We planned to stay in Ashford Castle just north of Galway, nestled next to Lough Corrib, a lake that boasts world-class fishing. Once owned by the Guinness family, Ashford Castle has served as a luxury hotel since 1915.
The walls of a room inside the castle are covered with photos of illustrious guests who’ve stayed at Ashford Castle, among them Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Pierce Brosnan, and various presidents and royalty. Peter, Jasper and I would be sleeping in pretty good company. We checked into our sumptuous rooms, oohing and ahhing over the plush bedding, ornate furnishings, and lake views. That night we dine on bistro-style fare at Cullen’s at the Cottage, a cozy restaurant near the castle. My lamb burger was perfect, and Peter and Jasper loved their dinner choices as well.
Besides fishing, activities at Ashford Castle include boating, falconry, horseback riding, tennis, golf, spa treatments, and clay shooting. Movie fans will want to visit Cong, the nearby village where John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” starring John Wayne was filmed. We only had time for a stroll around the picturesque grounds the next morning before heading on to our next destination. As we took a few photos of the castle before departing, I decided I was already living my own happily ever after.
WARM FUZZY FEELINGS
When planning this trip to Ireland, I’d come across a place called Foxford Woolen Mills, touted as a must-see attraction in County Mayo. Not sure what to expect, I emailed the manager, Joe Queenan, that we’d be coming and he said he’d be happy to meet us, adding that if we were hungry, he’d feed us lunch in the adjoining café.
The factory store attracts 100,000 annual visitors, most seeking one of Foxford’s treasured blankets. There’s an exhibit by the entrance which tells the history of the mills. In the 1890s Sister Mary Arsenius took up residence in Foxford, one of the poorest districts in Ireland. After setting up a school and providing relief to residents, she got the idea of starting up a woolen mill to provide jobs and financial security for the town. While many scoffed at her dream, Sr. Arsenius persevered and Foxford Mills became a thriving industry.
But that’s not the end of the story. In the 1980s the mill was facing bankruptcy when Joe, then an accountant, was called in to go over the books. He knew the town would collapse if the mill closed and had a sense that he could help. Gathering investors, Joe succeeded in keeping the mill open, and today business is flourishing.
“The reason we’ve grown,” Joe explained during a factory tour, “is we’ve put a lot of money into design. We go for a minimalist look with a few splashes of color. It reflects the Irish landscape.” When I said he must feel proud to have helped save the mill from closing, Joe shook his head humbly and said he was just one small part of the business’ success. In my opinion, his contributions to the mill rank right up there with Sr. Aresenius’.
Indeed Foxford Mills is so much more than a factory store. It’s a testament to the tenacity of the Irish people. Maureen Leonard, who owns the café there, called it a “feel-good factor” that you notice as soon as you walk into the building. It was true. I felt it. Our lunch at Maureen’s café, called It’s So..., was delightful: homemade vegetable soup to start, followed by a goat cheese and red onion tart for me, a ham-and-cheddar sandwich for Peter, and pizza for Jasper. After lunch, I walked out of Foxford Mills with a warm fuzzy blanket that matched the warm fuzzy feeling inside me.
GREEN ROLLING HILLS
On the northern coast of County Mayo sits a unique heritage site called Ceide Fields. A local schoolteacher cutting turf to provide fuel for his family discovered the site in the 1930s. It was his son, however, who began excavating a few decades later and realized the fields had once been the home of Stone Age residents between five and six thousand years ago. These Neolithic settlers followed the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and were the first to farm the land. Remnants of their settlement are located throughout ten square kilometers.
What’s unique about these ruins is how well preserved they are, having lain for thousands of years under successive layers of bogland, which formed due to environmental changes. In fact, it’s one of the most extensive Stone Age sites in the world, primarily because it’s been so well preserved underground. You have to use your imagination to visualize the ruins however. To keep them from deteriorating, the government has chosen to let the ruins remain underground. You can see a sampling of the settlement that has been excavated: stone fences, a dwelling, an animal pen, but the vast majority of the site is hidden 6-8 feet underground.
So how do they know what’s underneath the layers of bog? Our guide, Muirne Lyons, demonstrated how probes feel beneath the surface to locate fences. With this technique, archaeologists have been able to map out the settlement, and, using carbon dating, scientists have traced artifacts from the site—a primitive plow, an ax, pottery shards—to the Neolithic Age.
The visitor’s center offers excellent exhibits to shed more light on this chapter in history as well as a movie about Ceide Fields. The stunning setting is also noteworthy. Surrounding the fields are lush green rolling hills dotted with grazing sheep and breathtaking views of the Atlantic, where sheer cliffs drop down into the sea. It felt like the edge of the world.
Our next stop was Westport, a charming village on Clew Bay, where we would lodge at the Wyatt, a cozy boutique hotel in the middle of town. Our visit coincided with Westport’s annual music festival, so after a delicious dinner at the hotel, Peter, Jasper, and I headed out to hear live music on an outdoor stage. The whole village turned out for this annual affair, it seemed, and young and old swayed to the music under the dark sky.
That night we ventured into a bright, noisy pub to experience some of the pub culture synonymous with Ireland. Brown foamy Guinness flowed from taps into pint-sized glasses nonstop at John’s Bar as a convivial crowd ebbed and flowed like a tide. It was easy to chat with folks, both locals and other tourists drawn in by the happy noise. Music emanated from one corner, where a few fellows twanged their way through popular tunes. The later it got, the more crowded John’s became, and finally the three of us escaped into the night, our heads thrumming from the heady music and beer.
THE HEART OF THE PEOPLE
The next morning cloudy skies greeted us, and storm warnings put a slight damper on our plans to explore the region. Bronach Joyce, our tour guide, showed up at our hotel with an umbrella and a determined smile, saying we’d just have to make the best of it. She proceeded to show us around Westport, which she proudly proclaimed had recently won an award as the tidiest town in Ireland. I could see why: colorful begonias spilled out of planters everywhere and equally colorful storefronts all shone as if they’d just been painted.
Our tour would take us around Clew Bay north to Achill Island, the largest island off the coast of Ireland. Remote and windswept, Achill is known for its haunting beauty, attracting tourists from near and far who enjoy activities like cycling, hiking, painting, bird watching, and surfing. Unfortunately, our visit would be confined mostly to our car since the heavens decided to open up and pour down. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a scenic drive around the island, stopping between cloudbursts for photos and a tasty lunch at the Beehive Craft and Coffee Shop.
We also stopped at a poignant site called the Deserted Village before leaving Achill Island. Here we saw the ruins of crumbling famine houses that belonged to people who died in the Great Irish Potato Famine. The famine, which started in 1845 when a potato blight wiped out the crop, lasted for six years and reduced the Irish population by between 20 and 25 percent. In a steady rain, we climbed up a hill to see the ruins, which have been left standing in honor of those who died. The dreary weather made the scene even more sad and forlorn, and after a few minutes we quietly left the Deserted Village behind.
I asked Bronach what we should do the next day before leaving the area, and she said we must visit Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy—and most climbed—mountain. Named after the country’s patron saint, who is said to have fasted on the mountain summit for 40 days, the 2500-foot mountain reaches up to the heavens. Bronach said it takes around four hours to climb up to the peak and down again. While we wouldn’t have time to climb to the top, I wanted to go halfway. Jasper was game, but Peter opted out, blaming his pesky knees.
The next morning the sky was a brilliant blue in places, but clouds hovered overhead, including some circling the peak. I’d read that weather could be changeable on Croagh Patrick and there was no shelter on this bare mountain, so Jasper and I donned rain jackets and headed up the mountain, hoping the rain would stay away.
Just a couple weeks before, the annual pilgrimage had taken place, where 15,000 pilgrims climbed to the summit, many doing penances along the way and some climbing up in bare feet. That this was an astonishing achievement became very clear as I negotiated sharp, slippery stones that covered the trail. Loose stones would be a constant threat.
In fact, the amazingly steep climb was one of the most strenuous I’ve ever experienced. I often had to stop and catch my breath, giving Jasper reason to tease. Never wanting to do things halfway, my son longed to climb to the top, but we had to stick to our schedule. Besides sprinkles were beginning to fall, and I worried the rain would get worse. The weather didn’t seem to bother the steady stream of pilgrims we passed, however, some smiling and jovial, others with solemn faces who stared intently ahead.
Too winded to talk much, I found myself contemplating my spiritual connections. Something about the energy on this mountain must have penetrated my thick skin because I suddenly felt very Catholic, although I hadn’t been active in the faith for many years. It was as if my Irish grandmother were there somehow, reminding me of my roots here in this land. I thought about how Bronach pronounced Ireland with her Irish accent as “our land” and realized it was my land, too.
The rain started pouring about the time Jasper and I got to the bottom. Though we didn’t make the summit, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Not only had I succeeded in climbing halfway up Croagh Patrick without falling, I also discovered what it was about Ireland that sets it apart from other places I’ve been. It’s the sense of connection you feel to the land and the stories of the people. In Ireland the past is never far away. It hovers over your shoulder like the clouds around Croagh Patrick. It shines through the eyes and the hearts of the people you meet.
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