The Magic of Éireann

The past two days on the West Coast have been full of Irish magic.  Monday morning, I had a yummy breakfast of poached eggs and wheaten bread at Cafe Zealous down the street from my hostel, then picked up the bus for a tour of the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren.   The Burren is an expanse of limestone landscape in County Clare, known as the “land of the fertile rock .”  Because of the nutrient richness of the limestone, the Burren is excellent farmland and, according to our guide, home to over 70% of Ireland’s native flora.

There are a lot of adorable fauna in the Burren too.  We saw an abundance of cows and sheep, as well as one field full of grown Shetland ponies and their baby Shetland ponies.  These teeny ponies were running and jumping around.  It is difficult to say when I have seen a more precious sight, though you will find in the following posts that cute animals were not in short supply in my West Coast adventure.

Among many other sites, we also visited several fairy forts, prehistoric farming rings where you supposedly get stuck if you wander into one at night.  One of these forts contained a fairy tree, which of course you must never cut down unless you want to die and leave your family cursed for generations to come.  We also saw the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a neolithic passage tomb that I had previously learned about in the Ulster Museum, the 6th century Kilfenora Cathedral with its abundance of Celtic crosses, and the  stunning and isolated Corcomroe Abbey.

The highlight of course was the Cliffs of Moher,  Ireland’s “#1 Tourist Destination.”  These dramatic cliffs, over 700 feet high, feature in many tragic Irish folktales that involve falling off of the cliffs, leaping over the cliffs, etc.  They also  appear in The Princess Bride as the “Cliffs of Insanity,” and more recently served as the site of one of Voldemort’ s horcruxes in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  Even though I was on the other side of a stone barrier, I was slightly unnerved by the cliffs’ great height, and their cinematic associations led me to have a sob, Dumbledore, no memorial sort of moment.   Some tourists walked beyond the barrier, which ends at the  monument to  “those who have lost their lives at the Cliffs of Moher.”  Really, tourists?  Standing on a cliff edge that is constantly battered by fierce North Atlantic waves and could crumble away any second?   I ask you.  No doubt they are beautiful and impressive, though, and the tourism of the site has not overwhelmed the ancient energy of the place, like that Kelsey and I felt at the Hill of Tara.

In the evening, I returned to Tigh Coili with two friends who I made on the tour, one of whom is from Greenville, SC!  These women both graduated from the University of Missouri a few weeks ago, and are traveling through England, Scotland and Ireland for two weeks in celebration.  With their encouragement, and that of my esteemed readers, I worked up the nerve to sing for the pub!   Some credit for encouragement also goes to Lorenzo, an Italian flute player who I had met the night before and who is in Ireland solely to learn as much about Irish traditional music as possible.  He’s very earnest.

I told Lorenzo, “I want to sing tonight, but I don’t know what to do!”

“I introduce you!” he said, and told the band, “This is my American friend.  She is a singer.”  I took my place sitting with the band, and the accordion player asked, “Are you going to sing for us?”

“Yes,” I said.   They were very excited and, as tradition goes, banged on their glasses and called out, “Listen! There’s a singer in the house!”  The pub went quiet and I sang “Tomorrow is a Long Time” by Bob Dylan.  Everyone really enjoyed it and no one spoke at all the whole time I was singing!  I received many complements and one British guy asked me, “Is that a  Nickel Creek song?”  Indeed, Sarah Watkins of Nickel Creek sings a cover of “Tomorrow is a Long Time” that is far more beautiful in vocal quality than Dylan’s original (I’m sure he’d forgive me for saying so).  This was an incredible experience, fulfilling dreams I’ve cherished since I was a little girl listening to the Chieftans.

Yesterday, I took the ferry to Inis Mór, one of the Aran Islands where Irish life is still at its most traditional.  I’ll spend the day in Galway today and will blog more about the island tonight or tomorrow morning, when I’m back in Belfast.

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Which Way? Galway!

I embarked on my first trip yesterday morning, catching a bus to Dublin and another to Galway, a lovely town on the west coast known as the capital of traditional Irish music and the birthplace of the claddagh  ring.  When I finally arrived at the Galway bus station after about 5 hours of traveling, I asked the ticket clerk to direct me to my hostel, the Sleepzone, and he said, “It’d be a long walk in this heat.  You should take bus 405 at the top of Eyre  Square.  It’ll drop you off right close.”

Well, the hostel claimed it was within “close walking distance” of the station and the bus wouldn’t arrive for another twenty minutes, so I asked someone else, a young woman working in Tourist Information.

“Oh, it’s just up there past the TK Maxx!”  she told me.  It truly was close and I was there in no time.  Bless the ticket clerk’s heart.  He didn’t know  I was a  Carolina girl, and while  the  70  degree weather we’ve been having here lately is disturbingly hot for locals, it’s quite comfortable for me.  But he was only concerned about my health.

After checking in at the  Sleepzone, which I found to be comfortable and welcoming, I walked down Shop  Street and visited the open air market outside St. Nicholas Church.  I went inside the church as well for a nice respite from the sunshine. It was a lovely old stone church, but had many signs of an active congregation.  The paintings from children’s  Sunday School classes made me miss my “babies” at Oakhurst back in Decatur, GA!

I also did some window shopping in the jewelry stores on Shop Street, as I am in the market for a sterling silver, Connemara marble ring.  The two jewelers I spoke with made great conversation!   When I told one of them that the Connemara marble was “lovely,” automatically pronouncing the o like those in “hoof,” as they do in Northern Ireland, he started.

“For a minute there you sounded like you were from Northern Ireland!”  I laughed and told him I had been studying at Queens and must have picked up the rhythms of speech a wee bit.   He told me his theory that “The American accent came from the Northern Irish accent.  So many Presbyterians moved to American from Northern Ireland.”   Considering that I am descended from one such Presbyterian, I certainly couldn’t argue.

I need to relinquish the computer to another hostel guest, but here’s some homework for my readers.  If you have an idea for a song I could sing in an Irish bar during a traditional music session, what shall it be?  I heard some traditional music last night; as I was by myself, the badhran player at Tigh Coili, a pub renowned for its live music, invited me to sit with the band!! When I told him I was a singer, he promptly pressured me  to sing for them, but I  was of course too flustered to come up with a proper song.  I might return tonight, however, after my day trip to the Cliffs and Moher!

So, what’ll it be? It doesn’t have to be an Irish  song, I was assured, but please don’t suggest my hit single  “Christmas with the Weasleys.”  😉

I’ll write again soon!

Freedom!

Yesterday I turned in my final essay of the semester; I’m free from academic work at last, and can spend my last two weeks traveling and having fun in Belfast!

I am too ashamed to count how many days it’s been since I last blogged.  Final essays and presentations and a stream of visitors have given me plenty of excuses not to.

Here’s a quick recap of what I’ve been doing while my parents, British friends Jan and Alan, and sister Kelsey have been visiting at various times.

The Grand Opera House.  A glorious old theatre in Belfast, where Kelsey and I saw a beautiful adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire by the Scottish Ballet.

Being a diva as we wait for the curtains to rise.

May Street Presbyterian Church, one of the oldest churches in Belfast, where Kelsey and I were welcomed warmly by the tiny and rather geriatric congregation.  One of the men who spoke to us was a retired police officer; at one time, about 90% of Belfast police were Protestant, which was a huge source of controversy (and often power inequality) during the Troubles.  A perfectly friendly, grandfatherly man, he alluded to the Troubles in describing the church’s history; the central location of the church was at one time very dangerous, contributing to the decline of its membership.

Titanic Belfast.  The new museum covers everything from Belfast’s booming industries at the time of the ship’s building to the building and fitting out processes, the sinking and the aftermath.  It’s elegantly designed, very interactive, informative and a lot of fun.

Kelsey in the sign outside the museum.

St. George’s Market.  Of course, I go here all the time, and I couldn’t wait to introduce my visitors to its wonders.  Kelsey and I went after the May Street service, as St. George’s is just down the street, and I finally bought the pretty apron I’ve been eying at Tees and Toasts, hand-stitched with rainbows, clouds and sunshine in differently patterned fabrics.

Derry/Londonderry.  Kelsey and I met up with Kathryn Dean to take a wee day trip to Derry, where we had our own personal trolley tour, visited the Bloody Sunday memorial, and climbed about on the city’s historical walls, built in the early 1600s.

One of many civil rights murals in Derry/Londonderry, this one in the historically Republican “Free Derry.”

The three of us with our personal tour guide.

A lovely view of Derry from atop the city walls.

“Londonderry…No Surrender” – historically Loyalist territory.


“You are now entering Free Derry” – historically Republican territory.

The Ulster Folk Museum.  My parents and I enjoyed learning about urban and rural life in Belfast and County Antrim at the turn of the century.  Highlights included my mom and I eating soda bread we found sitting on the kitchen table in a demonstration house (clearly free samples) and petting the hens in one of the farm areas.

Giant’s Causeway.  You know all about this, but now I’ve been three times in total, and explored Dunluce Castle (Cair Paravel), which was a dream.  I think they ought to let you camp inside the ruins during the summer months.

Kelsey on the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge.

Dublin.  On my second trip to Dublin, Kelsey and I visited the National Leprechaun Museum (a pure delight), toured the Guinness Storehouse (where I discovered the Guinness tastes MUCH better than in an ordinary Belfast pub) and went on a literary pub crawl, led by two hilarious and knowledgeable actors who performed excerpts  from Joyce, Beckett, Plunkett and many more.  We stayed the night in the lovely Globetrotters Hostel, had a full fry in the morning (minus the meat for me) and went on a Mary Gibbons tour to Newgrange and the Hill of Tara.  Both were amazing!  Standing on the Hill of Tara, where the ancient Kings of Ireland were crowned,  took our breath away.  There is an incredible energy about the place, and you can see practically all of Ireland!

I’m enjoying more sunny weather in Belfast, and I’ll be traveling more in the Republic soon.  Trip planning begins now, so feel free to post suggestions if you’ve been somewhere in Ireland I shouldn’t miss out on!