Globe and Mail
The land of goodbyes
Amid the rural beauty of westernmost Ireland, Daniel Woodencounters the fierce determination of its remaining population – mysterious holdouts against famine, emigration and, finally, modernity.
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
July 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT
"In a place where the soil is shallow and anger deep, a traveller needn't pause long before glimpsing evidence of tragedy. And here in westernmost Ireland, with the morning mist rising above the Erriff River, and the mountains of County Mayo jewel-green with damp June grass, the forlorn baaing of a hillside of black-faced sheep draws my eyes to a stone pen where two men have corralled 40 or so lambs. When I dismount my bicycle and inquire what's going on, Mike King, 77 and wearing a Yankees baseball cap, explains succinctly: “Castratin'.”
Born on this farm, dispossessed – as were most of his siblings – by rural poverty, King has just returned here after 56 years in America to reclaim a piece of himself. His family, he explains, was here when the Potato Famine hit in the 1840s and half a million Irish, most from the western counties, starved to death under British indifference. Cholera and typhoid followed the famine, and mass emigration followed that, reducing the local population by 75 per cent. Then came war. His father, King boasts, fought the British a century ago. He blew up that bridge there, he says nodding, I've just cycled over. And it is here – with roofless stone farmhouses and abandoned potato-field furrows on every mountain slope – that King will, he assures me, rejoin his ancestors in the little graveyard down in Leenane. “'Tis what an old Irishman does. The land is in his bones.”
Behind me now, on this first leg of a week-long back road bicycle trip, lies Leenane, a tiny coastal settlement at the head of windswept Killary Harbour. As the old photo in Gaynor's Pub shows, little has changed in 120 years. The 19th-century wagons have been replaced by SUVs, and the shops now advertise gear for mountain bikers and kayakers, but somnolence still reigns. It was there, by the pub's fireplace the evening before – amid my first bogwater-black Guinness – that Tom Flagherty, 62, replied to my question about what to do in the village with this rueful observation: “Do? Dare's nothin' here – nothin' but … sheep!” And for that cogent insight, would I buy him another pint?
Ahead of me lie another 250 kilometres, a distance that far exceeds – by a factor of 10 – any I've cycled before. I'd resisted Flagherty's suggestion to imbibe further, and later bid farewell to King and his neutered lambs, knowing that with a lot of hilly miles and a couple of mountain passes, I might be tempted to exchange my two-wheeled heroics for a week riding a barstool.
Luckily, I'll be riding under the aegis of Vancouver-based Randonnée Tours, which has provided me with a good mountain bike, high-scale maps and, most reassuringly, a handbook of explicit directions. With no itinerary, I can ride or loiter at will, knowing that somewhere ahead lies another rural village and another pre-booked bed and breakfast. What's so hard? If other cyclists can do it – and there were a few back in Leenane – so can I.
The gears ratchet down. The slope up. The clouds lift from looming Devilsmother and Maumtrasna to my right. Hedgerows of pink rhododendron and crimson fuchsia crowd the road. Yellow gorse lines descending brooks. Cows ignore my moos, sheep my baas. I save my most effective communication for flocks of wayward sheep blocking the road: “Lambchops!” I shout, and they inevitably scatter.
All around, collapsed stone walls and abandoned farms testify to the tragedy. Why, I ask myself, did people ever choose to live in this godforsaken place? They had to make their soil by hauling seaweed in wagonloads from the coast; had to heat their homes with peat dug from the valleys' bogs; had to find solace in the churches, now in ruins. Such determination. It is something, I realize, I need to rediscover, here on this road less travelled.
Through that day and the next, my trajectory is inland, away from the mountainous coastal moors of Connemara and into the sunny, rolling pastureland of Joyce's Country. It's a region punctuated by vast, indigo lakes, hayfields and place names no sane non-Gaelic speaker would attempt: Cappaghnagapple, this is notesLoughaunenlugheask and, my favourite, Snuffhaconneelagh Lough. For an hour or so, the paved two-lane road parallels the shore of 16-kilometre-long Lough Mask, and I roll effortlessly through an emerald landscape as easy on my legs as my eyes. By late that afternoon – with 60 kilometres and a serious navigational error behind me – I find myself climbing a steep pass above the Srahnalong River, and it is there, for the first time, that I run out of energy and gears.
I dismount breathless. But having done that once, I know I'll feel less intimidated by the prospect of future passes. This is not about pride. If I can't ride, I'll push.
At the top of the ridge, my high-scale map of the route ahead contains these words, printed in red: castle, megalithic tomb, holy well, abbey, standing stones, graveyard, stone circles, castle again – and again. Below me lies the valley of Lough Corrib, the historic town of Cong. I reset my gears, bend forward and launch myself on a 10-minute, switch-backing rocket ride downhill. Gravity, oh, delicious gravity, as I lean into the curves and the wind. I bend further, chin to the handlebar, a human missile. My fingertips tease the brakes, but there's no slowing now. My speed increases. The decades fall away. Adolescent bravado returns. Curve coming. What the hell! Hold tight. Cut the corner close. A little sideward skitter. Jesus! I better not fall. Then genuine alarm: Sheep in the road! Sheep in the road! “LAMBCHOOOOOOOOPS!”
The sheep flee. I laugh. By day's end, with 75 kilometres of cycling behind me, this is notesI pull into a bed and breakfast, where my luggage awaits me. There's tea and scones – or sometimes, a glass of whisky, served neat. Later, a thick duvet under which I can recalculate my day's tally of panicked sheep.
The next morning, I rise early and cycle – a kilometre outside the island village of Cong – to the Glebe Stone Circle, one of thousands of neolithic structures that dot the Irish countryside. In a cow pasture, amid a grove of maple and sycamore, two dozen vertical stones form a perfect 20-metre circle. I wander alone, touching the raised rocks, their surfaces layered with eons of lichen. People came here not so long after the last ice age and sought ways to understand the world. To confront death, perhaps. Or maybe commune with Druidic gods. Or calculate the movement of the moon and stars. Or maybe to drink and sing. The stones' purpose is lost in time.
On my way out of town that morning, I stop again, in the middle of Cong, where late-arriving parishioners have gathered at the open door of the town's Catholic church. As the benediction time approaches, the unseen priest calls out from within: “Let us consider the mystery of faith.” And voices inside begin to sing. Just a few steps away, adjacent to the modern church, is ancient Cong Abbey, one of the architectural wonders of Ireland. It was built in 610 AD, not long after St. Patrick passed this way. It is now a half-collapsed ruin. In the old cemetery surrounding the abbey, tilted Celtic crosses and flat limestone slabs record the passage of the dead through the intervening centuries. Few are legible; weathering has left the interred anonymous. this is notes
My route turns southwest now, through a 400-metre-high pass in the bleak Maamturk Range, then downhill on a blood-pumping plunge toward distant Galway Bay. Ahead of me lies the Gaeltacht, the celebrated region of western Ireland where the last 20,000 diehard speakers of Gaelic live. It was a poor land once and is a poor land still. Just before the Potato Famine, 160 years ago, four million Irish spoke Gaelic, a poetic language that far predates English. Life was harsh and families large. With the men and older boys often away in the coal mines and factories of industrializing Britain, it was the women who tended the blighted potato fields and fought the landlords' agents. this is notesThousands of thatch-roofed houses – the ruins I see as I cycle – were set afire for non-payment of rents. Those who didn't die of famine and disease dispersed – a million in a decade – to the corners of the Earth. this is notes
Gradually, the Connemara mountains recede behind me and are replaced with myriad ponds, anthracite-black bogs and, in time, a salty headwind off the Atlantic. In appearance, the terrain reminds me of coastal Newfoundland – stark and elemental. But the names on my map read An Cheathni, Leitir Moir, Ballynahinch. The road signs, too, are in Gaelic. On either side of the road, now-absent labourers have cut deep trenches in the turf and stacked thousands of brick-sized chunks of peat that, once dried, will heat, as it has for millennia, the homes of the people of this region. Its aroma – almost like pipe smoke – fills the air of the tiny villages that cling to the granite headlands and seaweed-lined bays of the Gaeltacht.
By late afternoon – with side trips and 50 kilometres of peddling behind me – I pull into Therese Conroy's Ros Muc bed and breakfast. Its front door sign reads: “Irish Spoken Here. English Understood.” That evening, at my instigation, I join 66-year-old Conroy, her dog Camus and Conroy's visiting sister in the oceanside living room to hear their recollections of life at the westernmost frontier of Europe. To assist in conversational matters, Conroy produces a half-gallon bottle of Powers' Irish Whisky and proceeds to fill my tall glass to the brim. “I pour a wee bit heavy-handed,” she says, as if to apologize. The mid-summer sun is still high at 9 p.m. My legs are weary. The whisky smooth. Conroy conjures up the world that existed here between two apocalypses – the 19th-century famine and the arrival of modernity in the 1960s, television and all.
When she was young and her family dirt-poor, survival depended, she says, on a one-acre potato field near Ros Muc, some chickens, sheep and her father's bootleg whisky. Conroy herself cut turf and piled stones on walls – which the sheep kept knocking down – and would look forward to the Sunday night “hooleys,” with accordions and fiddles and a barrel of Guinness to propel the gathered dancers. Everyone spoke Gaelic. Electricity, phones and running water were unknown. But the rural poverty that produced this closeness also produced, without jobs, its eclipse. Through the 1950s and ‘60s, people left in droves, their departure preceded by an American Wake – a boisterous, tear-filled party for those leaving for opportunities across the Atlantic. The arrival of television only made matters worse with its English sensibilities. To the young, speaking Gaelic became unfashionable, lower-class.
Today Conroy, looking out upon Camus Bay to nearby Camus Peninsula, its pastures and stone houses empty, estimates that 97 per cent of those she knew as a teenager have gone. I, she says, represent the future, as back road travellers discover this remote region, a place little altered by the economic boom that is sweeping the rest of Ireland.
The catamaran ferry that crosses the mouth of Galway Bay arrives, after an hour, at Inishmore (population 800), the largest of the three Aran Islands, the last fabled outpost of pure Gaelic – and one of the strangest places I've ever been. Bound uphill on bicycle from the tiny port of Kilronan, my legs now accustomed to peddling the steeper slopes, I survey a world of almost existential desolation. Windowless, two-storey limestone houses stand amid the thousands of derelict limestone walls that crisscross the glaciated, bare limestone of the land. In places, grass sprouts from cracks in the grey rocks. But the sheep are mostly gone, the cows entirely so. Most of the people are gone, too.
It is, in a Zen way, strangely beautiful. But my eyes search for substance and colour. Laundry drying in the wind, a cultivated field of potatoes, a passing horse cart with a load of tourists, a child's pink tricycle in a front yard. I know that people have lived here and fought over this island for thousands of years. But why? It's a barren, 15-kilometre-long rock. In the middle of the stormy North Atlantic. The sun is an occasional rumour. I can understand why medieval Christian penitents sought isolation here. It may have fostered the inner life. But since then? Now? What madness. What fortitude.
That evening, on my homeward journey, I stop for a pint in the American Bar on the waterfront in Kilronan. I'm told it's the place where, for generations, the people of Inishmore have said their farewells. On this early evening, however, I'm the only customer. The publican nurses the tap, letting the creamy Guinness settle, and reflects on Irish history: “It's a terrible thing, sayin' goodbye to someone who's still alive and knowin' it's possible you'll never see ‘em again. The Irish are always sayin' goodbye, you know. You have to have a heart of stone.”
Pack your bags
Air Canada flies daily to London and has recently opened a route between Toronto and Dublin (www.aircanada.com). It's a four-hour train ride from Dublin to Galway or a short flight to Shannon; from either town it's a long-distance taxi transfer to Leenane.
Randonnée Tours, Vancouver - 1-800-242-1825. www.randonneetours.com. Randonnée offers a variety of self-guided cycling and hiking explorations through rural France, Italy, Holland and Ireland, including the eight-day Connemara trip described in this story. Clients are provided with connecting transportation, maps, bicycles, nightly accommodations and some meals. They then travel on their own through the countryside. Cycling distances average 40 kilometres a day. The best time of year for cycling western Ireland is mid-May through July. "