Let’s Go to Sligo!

A highlight of my semester that I don’t want to miss describing is my amazing trip to Sligo this past weekend.  My friend Emma from my English class lives there, and she invited me to stay.

Sligo is a town of about 20,000 in Sligo County, Connacht, Republic of Ireland.  Connacht refers to the four historical provinces of Ireland: Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht.  Ulster includes the counties of Northern Ireland as well as three in the Republic.  Connacht encompasses much of the rocky and wild west coast, including Sligo and Galway, where I’ve been traveling.

I loved Sligo, and here’s why.  The varied landscape is stunning and provides many opportunities for outdoor recreation.  Sligo looks much like the part of Vermont where I’ll be working at summer camp when I return to America, but with a beach as well as beautiful mountains, rivers and lakes.  Emma, her mum and I canoed on the river (I believe the Garavogue), docked, climbed out and visited the Holy Well across the road, a secret holy well in the forest which has pagan significance as a fertility site as well as Catholic significance.  It was used as a secret spot for mass in penal times, when England controlled the religious, educational and property rights of Catholics in Ireland.  Mass services still take place at the Holy Well today; for example, one of Emma’s cousins was baptised there!  We had tea on the dock with a swan who was a little too interested in our biscuits (or “biccies” as my hosts would say) and canoed back.

Sligo Abbey, a fantastic local ruin.

Another element of Sligo I loved was that it’s steeped in history, like much of Ireland.  At Drumcliffe Cemetary, I visited the grave of Yeats, who loved Sligo so much he wrote tons of poems there and lived there much of the time, though he wasn’t from there.  There is also the largest megalithic cemetery in Ireland, the Carrowmore tombs.  Emma’s mum, a recently retired university lecturer in art and design, actually helped excavate one of these tombs back in the day!  The tombs include dolmens in the style of those like Poulnabrone and the Giant’s Ring, as well as more elaborate passage tombs like that at Newgrange.  We also climbed Mt. Knocknarea to see the cairn that probably contains the remains of the legendary Queen Maeve (Mebhdh if you’ve brushed up on your Gaelic).  Mebhdh was a feisty, fierce and determined warrior queen.  In other words, like many heroines from Irish folklore, she coulda been a Scottie.

Emma’s mum Marie studying a dolmen. “That’s a lovely wee dolmen,” she said.

Finally, I had fun in Sligo because Emma’s upbringing in Sligo reminded me in certain ways of my upbringing in Union.  Emma’s mum eats porridge for breakfast every morning, just as my mum eats oatmeal every day.  Emma and her mum were also pleased that I prefer brown bread and rice over white, red wine over white.  “You’ll fit in well here!” Emma kept saying. They took great care of me as a vegetarian; we ate delicious vegetarian food all weekend, including fresh veggies from their little back garden.  We also consumed large quantities of tea, naturally.  Because Sligo is a small town, whenever we went to the pub and such, Emma and her mum saw people they knew.  Emma caught up with several people she knew from school when we were out, something I inevitably find myself doing when I go to, say, La Fogata or Wal-Mart in Union.

I made so many fun comparisons!  Queen’s is about a three and a half hours drive from Sligo, comparable to the distance from Union to Agnes Scott.  Finally, at one point when we overheard a very colloquial conversation on the street, Emma giggled and said, “That’s a Sligo accent.  People are like, you’re from Sligo?  Yeah, I don’t have a Sligo accent.”  This is what people often say about me and South Carolina as well!

So, Emma and I have some interesting background and experiences in common, even from different sides of the Atlantic.  If only I had Emma’s lovely red hair as well;)


I am finished packing!  In just about an hour and a half, family friends Ciaran and Loretta will pick me up and take me to their house in Antrim, close to the airport where I’ll catch my first flight towards home in the morning!


From Ulster to America

No, I’m not going home yet.  I just went to the Ulster-American Folk Park today, an outdoor, interactive museum in Omagh that explores immigration from the Northern Irish region to America.

My Czech friend Martin and I decided to make the trip to Omagh spontaneously and I’m so pleased that we did!  A few of my ancestors emigrated from County Antrim to South Carolina in the 1740s, so it was incredible to learn a little about what their experience may have been like from the Folk Park’s exhibits and historical interpreters.

The museum includes replicas and original dwellings from Irish homesteads, churches, schools and shops as well as American frontier shops and homesteads.  We visited Ireland first, including the actual homestead and cottage where Thomas Mellon, one of the founding benefactors of Carnegie-Mellon, was born.  There were chickens, ducks and geese there, including chicks and ducklings, so it was of course one of my favorite parts of the Folk Park.  Then we headed for the dockyard and a replica of a ship like that my ancestors would have traveled on, then America!  It was fun to see the Irish stone walls and thatched cottages change to split rail fences and log cabins in America.

In a funny way, it felt like going home.  I knew much more about the American side of immigration history, and the demonstration houses in “America” reminded me of those I’ve seen in Colonial Wiliamsburg and Historic Brattonsville, so “America” was very familiar to me.  I’m sad to be leaving Belfast, but you know what?  I like my home, and I’m glad John White and his family chose to leave Ulster for South Carolina.  All the same, I’m equally glad that I’ll have the chance to return to Ulster on holiday, which my ancestors likely weren’t able to do.

This evening, Martin and I went to Fibber Magee’s, a city centre pub, for my last Belfast pint and some wonderful live music!  The band played a combination of pop music and some of my favorite traditional Irish tunes, so it was truly a perfect last night in the city.  Tomorrow I have some time in the morning to pack before I go to stay the night with family friends in Antrim.  They’ll take me to the airport in the wee hours of Saturday morning, and I’ll be on my way from Ulster to America!

If I have a chance to blog before I leave, I certainly will.  If not, I’ll share some more reflections once I’m back in the USA.

NI 2012

The Olympic torch came through Belfast today on its way to London.  This was the second time in my life I’ve gotten to see the torch.  My grandmother took my sister, cousins and me to see the torch come down Main Street in my hometown on its way to Atlanta in 1996.  I remember sitting on the sign in front of the University of South Carolina-Union to stay out of the sun and wait for the torch to pass.

This year, I didn’t have my organized grandmother to lead me to the torch route with plenty of time to spare, so I started walking from my dorm a little late and arrived at Dublin Road in city centre just in time to see the torch go past!  I followed the torch route for a short way and got to watch the torch change hands from one bearer to the next.  A lot of other people were chasing the torch as well, many of them families with young children.

2012 is a big year for Northern Ireland.  In addition to celebrating the Olympics, Belfast has celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Titanic (opening a new museum in the harbour where the ship was built), the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens and the 60th year of the Queen’s reign.

Naturally, the last one on the list hasn’t been actively celebrated by all.  Northern Irish folks with Nationalist or Republican leanings would tend not to care too much for the Queen, though plenty of folks on both sides seem perfectly indifferent or content enough with the royal hoopla.

Either way, the Diamond Jubilee was officially celebrated with a four day weekend and a huge international market at City Hall, and the point is that exciting things are happening in Belfast in 2012.  The Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s slogan for this year is “NI 2012: Our Time, Our Place.” “Come to Northern Ireland” sorts of ads appear frequently on TV here and several Americans have told me they’ve heard the “Our Time, Our Place” ad on American radio.  The ads send a clear message:  It is safe to come to Northern Ireland now.  Northern Ireland’s future is big, bright, and shiny brand new.  Please come celebrate with us!

I’ve heard a few people say that the Troubles are not over, that tensions are merely simmering under the surface.  Nerd that I am, I’m reminded of Hagrid’s early Voldemort theories (“Some say ‘e died. Codswallop in my opinion), and I’m certainly in no position to say definitively if “the Troubles” are “over” or not. The economy isn’t good, and that always has the potential for stress and conflict.

But I hope the “Our Time, Our Place” message does what it seems to be aiming to do: pump tourist income into the economy while restoring Belfast pride and solidarity.

The fact that children can run freely through the city centre after that great symbol of solidarity, the Olympic torch, shows Belfast has come a long way in a short time.  There was a time, more recent than the time I saw the torch in my own hometown, when that would have been impossible here.  I’m glad Belfast is celebrating.

I’ll be leaving Belfast early Saturday morning, but I’ll keep posting about my experiences before and after I go home.  Start planning your own Northern Irish adventure at http://www.discovernorthernireland.com/

The Magic of Aran

In the pictures below, you will find several candidates for cutest baby cow in the world, an example of a dolmen, or portal tomb, a seal doing tricks, an Iron Age Celtic fort, a Tennessee white and orange cottage, and an oddly specific problem involving pigeons at Galway’s St. Nicholas church.

In other words, here are some pictures from my trip to Galway and Inis Mór.

I rode the ferry to Inis Mór, the largest of the three Aran Islands with a population about the size of the Agnes Scott College student body (900).  Inis Mór is also the island most visited by tourists of the three, and that fact was pretty apparent.  As a tourist myself, I can’t exactly complain about the craft shops and cafes placed conveniently near the island’s sights, but I do wonder how some of the locals feel about it.  Perhaps the trade off is that tourism helps support the fairly traditional way of life that still thrives on the Aran Islands.  Residents still speak Irish daily!  I once made a very brief attempt in fifth grade to teach myself Irish out of a pocket Gaelic phrase book.  Needless to say, I failed miserably, but I enjoyed hearing the language spoken all these years later, even though I had no idea what was being said.

To get around the island, I rented a bike, which actually took some courage.  I haven’t ridden a bike much at all in the past eight years or so, and my last bike riding experience in Decatur was slightly scary.  However, I’d taken so many guided tours at this point in my time abroad that I really wanted the freedom to explore the island on my own.  So, I trusted the common wisdom that you can never really forget how to ride a bicycle and struck out, helmet fitted carefully to my head.  I bought a picnic at the local Spar supermarket, including Fanta, brown bread, crisps, an apple and Irish goat’s cheese.

It was supposed to take thirty minutes to bike from the main village of Kilronan to the Iron Age Celtic fort Dún Aonghasa, but it took me much longer as I stopped to take pictures every time I saw something charming, surprising, beautiful or romantic.  (And, okay, I walked the bike up a few hills, but those were mostly on the way back).  After a while I had to reign the photography in a bit, because I found the island to be stunning on the whole.  I stopped for a picnic on the shore where seals are often about.  I had asked the cashier in Spar if she knew the best time to see the seals.  “Probably high tide,” she said, then spoke to one of her coworkers in Irish.

“We don’t know when high tide is,” she said turning back to me, “but you’ll see them anyway.”

She was right.  At first I couldn’t tell if I was seeing bobbing bits of kelp and just imagining them to be seals (as I imagined as an eleven-year-old that I could speak Gaelic), but soon enough they came closer and revealed themselves to be seals!  Apparently, seals like to stick their heads and tails out of the water like they’re doing a trick.  See if you can spot the seal below.

There is so much that I could tell you about Inis Mór, which is definitely one of my favorite places I’ve visited so far, but I’ll focus on my interactions with animals on the island as there are a couple of good ones in addition to the seal-watching.

I met the white horse in the picture below when I was biking back to Kilronan after visiting Dún Aonghasa.  I needed an excuse to take a break from peddling, so I decided to try and make friends with this horse who leaned so curiously over the dry stone wall.  She was a very sweet horse, nuzzling my hand when I followed all the horse rules and offered a flat hand to pat her nose.  Then she tried to eat my dress, so I said goodbye.

A little further along the road, I took a detour, following a sign to Teampall Chiarain, the ruins of St. Ciaran’s monastery on the island.  The detour led me down a tiny and steep country path, where I definitely need to get off the bike and inch carefully along.  Suddenly, I heard a dog barking ferociously from someone’s backyard.  I froze.  The black dog appeared and continued to bark.”This dog is going to bite me,” I thought.  I tried following the dog rules, don’t look the strange dog in the eye, don’t make any sudden movements.  The black dog quit barking and edged towards me even as a tried to make my careful escape.

I held my hand out for the dog to sniff, palm flat, fingers closed.  He sniffed me and allowed me to pat his head.  Then he sat down next to me.

This was no ferocious attack dog!  This was a sweet old black lab mix, with a graybeard.  He was just protecting his people by barking…and he really wanted to be petted.  I named him Ciaran, as I was looking for the Teampall Chiarain when I met him, and the meaning of Ciaran is black!

Finally, of course, as many horses, donkeys, cows and sheep as live in dry stone wall paddocks on Inis Mór, I frequently stopped and squealed, saying things like, “Hi, baby cow!” and thinking, literally, “That’s the cutest baby cow I’ve ever seen.” Until I saw the next one.