Humble Contributions to the Peoples' History

Trekking Through Western Ireland with the Sierra Club, 2005

March 12: Prologue

The trip started the day I decided to sign up for the Sierra Club walking tour on the western coast of Ireland.  I’m not sure what transpired that brought it into my head that I should take such a trip at this time.  Today, March 12, is my Mother’s birthday and her mother’s family immigrated from Ireland to Scotland in the mid-1800s. Jean always wanted to do a walking trip of Scotland, Ireland or England, so she was on board with the idea from the beginning. Phillip, Jean’s son, will also be coming along, as he was the one among all of our children who was most interested and had the time to travel.

Since signing up, I’ve been busy cruising all the web sites on Ireland, making reservations along the way, arranging to stay in a B&B in the town of Westport at the beginning of the trip and at the Frederick Hostel in Dublin at the end.  In viewing the web sites, I have not been disappointed in the breath-taking views of the coast.  And reports of Irish hospitality and friendly pubs have also added possible serendipities. We might have constant rain (that’s why Ireland is green!), but Jean reminded me that we can handle pretty much any mini-disaster that might come along after our kayak trip down the Suwannee River, which was another Sierra Club adventure we signed up for several years back.  Richard had spent time and money helping me get organized for that trip, buying me all the special things I’d need for camping out in the wilderness for seven days. Due to a snafu, my bag didn’t get packed in the car, and I was left with only the clothes on my back! Jean and I had to share a sleeping bag and just about everything else.

I came across a coincidence in doing a check of our Irish ancestors.   I had decided that we would stay a few days in Westport before joining the Sierra Club group. Westport is one of the prettiest towns in Mayo County, and a few days rest in Westport before beginning our mountain climbing seemed like a good idea.  Turns out that when I checked our family tree, one of our relatives was born in Westport in the early 1800s–William Kerr was the son of David Alexander Kerr and Mary Goss. According to family history, D. A. Kerr owned a confectionary store in Westport. One of their other sons, John Kerr, our direct descendent, was born in Paisley, Scotland. Another son was born in Cork, Ireland.  (More on that family history on the Journey through Time webpage.) So the trip certainly will have added meaning.  We can tell Phillip he will be walking down the streets that his ancestors once trod.

It seems ironic that we’re returning to the birthplace of our ancestors as we were fortunate that they left Ireland  before the Great Famine, which began is 1845.  However, a number of mini-famines struck the countryside starting from the early 1700s. The family left Ireland in 1833 after several major crop failures.

The funny thing about our Irish ancestors is that I remember my Mother telling me we didn’t have any Irish roots, which seems odd given that her mother’s maiden name was Kelly!  I remember Mom specifically saying, “We don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.” I’m not sure but perhaps the reason was the prejudice against the Irish in Scotland. It just surprises me that within a generation, the children began to deny their Irish identity.

Map: Dublin, then Westport to Sligo

June 16, Thursday: Anticipations

Only a few hours left before leaving.  Don’t like flying but I see that as part of the adventure . . .  a little risk always seem to sharpen the reflexes and thinking . . . no coasting along on routine patterns.

Getting away from the everyday problems and concerns seems to have the effect of seeing a wider view of the world.  Being in another space places life in a different sphere, and it’s easier to disengaged from the minutia that occupies much of the brain’s energy.

I’ve pushed myself physically over the last few months preparing for this trip.  I’ve lost some weight and have become stronger even though I don’t look forward to exercising every day.  However, I know that exercise is good for me, so I’ll continue. We’ll see how the mountain climbing goes, especially our most ambitious climb, totaling nine miles.

June 17, Friday: Train to Westport

We landed at the Dublin airport and immediately made our way to the train station for our journey across Ireland to Westport. The train had large windows, and we relaxed as the scenery whizzed by us. Arrived at McCarthy’s Lodge B&B and crashed for a few hours before venturing out on the town.

June 18, Saturday: Westport

Westport was as picturesque as all the travel brochures had promised, a town center with a clock tower and paved sidewalks lined with pubs and restaurants.  An arched stone bridge stretched over a canal.

We walked down to the Quay with Croagh Patrick, one of our destinations, standing majestically in the distance. Wild rose and other flowers lined the path as we passed by gates, cottages and ivy-covered stone walls.

June 19, Sunday: Newport

Returned to the train station to join up with our companions and guides to begin the Sierra Club tour. We boarded a van for our first stop at Newport, where Joe McDermott, our guide, escorted us through the town where we became acquainted with our fellow travelers and learned a bit of Irish history.  Back on the bus, we toured through the countryside to Rockfleet Castle, the home of the 15th Century pirate queen, Grace Malloy. Because Joe had a key, we were able to enter the tower and climb to the top by narrow, twisting, and steep steps. Light filtered through a few places along the way, but mostly we were climbing in darkness.

Jean at the top

Phillip at the bottom

We headed to a local pub for dinner, then to our B&B, The Anchor, in Newport, on the banks of a river. Light lingers well into the evening so it’s hard to think about sleep when we could be out and about.  This is a hiking trip, but what I’ve had to get used to is walking everywhere. After our bus is in for the night, we have to walk to all our destinations.

June 20, Monday: Achill Island

After a hearty breakfast, we headed to Achill Island at Keem Bay.  We hiked up 800 feet and then to 1,100 feet, a fairly steep trail but with spectacular views of the coastline. Sheep with their lambs dotted the hills. As windy as it was at the top of hills, it was the 50 mile-an-hour wind that tunneled through the valley on our way back that gave us a hard time.

We walked about four miles or more so we were really hungry by the time we arrived at the restaurant for dinner.  We started with a homemade vegetable soup and stuffed mushrooms and finished off with “Bakewell” for dessert, which is a spongy cake with layers of fruit. Our meals in Ireland have been outstanding, cooked with fresh ingredients.

Organizational Challenges

One of the challenges of this trip was the time necessary to organize our belongings: just one suitcase and one knapsack. Items go in and out of the knapsack depending on what we are doing, but we must always carry our wallet, passport, rain pants and coat, fleece jacket, gloves, lotion, extra socks, band aids and meds. On some days we make our own lunches requiring a trip to the grocery store then finding a space in the sack.  We’d fill our water bottles have every day; they advised us that we should not use water from the bathroom faucets.  Bringing along an extra pair of shoes was always wise as boots became soaked walking through the bogs. Camera and case were also necessary.  We carry a rain or sun hat and a walking stick.  So managing these miscellaneous items is quite a trick.

June 21, Tuesday:   Croagh Patrick

As the view of the Croagh Patrick came into sight, I could hardly believe we’re going to climb on what looked like a very steep, narrow ridge. At the base of the mountain stood a famine memorial, an iron work in the form of a ghost ship with sails of human skeletons.

This memorial was just one of many in Ireland commemorating the famines that ran rampant through the land. The tragic stories that unfolded during our trip haunted us as we tried to grasp the extent of the genocide. Historians debate where the blame falls, most agreeing that the British government failed to respond. Views that many held that the Irish were racially inferior played a signficant role in the outcome. Given my own Mother’s denial of her Irish heritage just seventy-five years later, it is not hard for me to believe that prejudices of race and social class played into this injustice.

Since starting this trip, I’ve gained a new appreciation and understanding of elevations.  Elevation was just a number on a map with no context.  Yesterday our climb was 1,000, today, 2,700! I also noted that the weather changes drastically at different elevations even in the summer time. We started the day with dry conditions, but I could see that mist and clouds covered the summit.

Loose stones of different sizes littered the gullied trail. After a short time walking, every step became a challenge to find secure footings. Some of our group turned back with the warning that the trail would become increasingly more difficult and precariously steep. We tightened our hoods and jackets against the wind, and we had to stop to become fully geared up for the rain to come. As I continued upward, I stopped frequently to catch my breath. The treacherous climb made me question, “Why am I doing this?” I could be sitting warm and comfortable in the coffee shop below. Yet, the spirit of the mountain kept me going–I would remain on the path that perhaps my ancestors once climbed.

The wind and rain became increasingly intense as we headed up the rocky slope. We couldn’t see anything beyond 20 yards as the summit was completely shrouded in clouds. Maneuvering on the rocks became increasingly painful as feet would slip on the uneven terrain. The walking stick proved indispensable, helping with balance. I concentrated on the trail searching for secure footing–now only the brown rocks before me were important. A feeling of relief came over me as the faint outline of the little white chapel at the summit came into view, and I stepped up the pace to secure the protection its walls might offer only to find the building locked tight. Food and rest, however, offered comfort against the relentless rain, and we ate our sandwiches and talked about the adventure of getting to the top. Frank, an archeologist friend of Joe’s, presented a brief lecture on the chapel and walls, which the Celts constructed. We then packed up for our trip down the other side of the mountain. When I turned the corner away from the church, the wind hit me with such power, it almost knocked me over. The rain and wind tore at my coat as I headed down.  Craggy outcroppings of rock distracted me from the storm, as again I focused on my footing. The clouds embraced our group and my fellow hikers disappeared from sight.

Magical Music

Now I’d heard that Ireland is a magical place, and on this trip a number of coincidences and unusual experiences came our way–and this was one of those times. As I walked in the fog, I heard an Irish flute–a whistling melody.  I scanned the landscape looking for clues to the question: where was the music coming from? Did such a clear melody arise from the rocks­–those crevices of torment serving as apertures for the wind or was it a leprechaun? With music filtering from the clouds, Irish mythology became reality as the sacred mountain shared its magic with another pilgrim.

Joe, Our Guide

Falling down the Mountain 

The trail began to change, a few grassy patches and then a few more and the rocks became more like stepping stones. But the treachery of the trail did not relent as the rain-soaked grass and stones became slippery. Several times I fell with no guarantee of a safe step ahead. We were almost to the moor when our trip leader, Aurora, fell and something in her leg snapped. We were uncertain of the extent of her injury, but she tried to move down the trail as the group reorganized to help her–some supporting her, carrying her pack and taking care of several of the unsteady hikers. We called for help on the cell phone, and the rest of us headed down. The clouds had lifted and the bay was sparkling with a few rays of the sun.  The moor, characterized by dark, bushy underscrub, was peaceful now and low baying sounds floated through the air from the grazing sheep nearby. An all-terrain vehicle served as the ambulance and rescuing Aurora from the mountain. She finished the trip on crutches. Any one of us could have been in her place.

Upon reflection on our climb, the entire experience transcended into another realm, power without force, music without a musician, self without ego and perception without seeing.

June 22, Wednesday, Irish Country Life Museum, Castlebar, Countryside Walk

Quite sore from the climb yesterday and so very glad to have a change of pace, we visited the Irish Country Life Museum, surrounded by beautiful gardens and a lake. The museum featured artifacts from domestic life, agriculture, fishing, clothing, furniture and crafts. We spent several hours touring the houses and grounds. The emphasis was on “reality” rather than romanticizing Irish peasant life. Saying that these peasants had a difficult life would be an understatement. We stopped in the nearby town of Castlebar, which Joe described as English in character.  Wonderfully different shops lined the streets. Sheik clothing stores offered a variety of choices, and the first store I went into, I bought two sweaters. Managed to find an internet café and sent messages home; grabbed a quick lunch then headed back to the van.  Joe guided us on a six-mile walk in the countryside with views of lakes, fields and streams. Encountered a black cow determined to hold his ground.

Joe introduced us to a word in Gaelic for when an object becomes more than its useful purpose, acquiring a mystical property and respect because it holds the history of the person who owned or made it.  The record of that effort is held in honored esteem. Unfortunately, I forgot to write the word down so I’ll have to do some research to recover it.  I have many things that family members hand-made: quilts, afghans, doilies, toys, paintings and letters.

June 23, Thursday: Belmullet, Letterkeen Wood Loop

Packed up this morning for our move to the next B&B in Bellmullet. The hike today had varying degrees of difficulty.  Most of the walk was on rocks, which I have discovered, I do not like. For one thing it’s very hard on the ankles as feet twist and turn on each edge.  I had to keep my eyes glues on the trail, and our group moved along rather quickly.  We did have stops for pictures and rest, but sometimes along the way I would see a good photographic opportunity but balancing the camera, walking stick and rushing into to catch up were problematic. Some hikers minded walking on the bogs; however, I thought the bogs were a picnic compared with those rocks.  Ireland is like a giant sponge with ridges, rivers and running water.  My boot would sink into the squishy earth and after 15 minutes my boots were soaked through. We also hiked through mud, which unlike our clay at home, would not cake on the boots. Mostly the boot came out clean from the mud considering how far into the dirt we sank.  Slippery mud was responsible for our many falls along the way.  But falling into the mud only would get us dirty–rarely injured, as walking on the rocks.

After an ambitious climb to the top of the mountain’s summit, we headed back down. Although many scenic views greeted us along the trail, my favorite place was a pastoral scene with large curving stream, sheep grazing on a grass carpeted area. Wild flowers bloomed in abundance especially the purple foxglove, clover and buttercups. Back on the bus, I couldn’t wait to take off the boots and put on dry socks! Nothing feels as good! My feet were quite soar with blisters and a sprain. Stopped in a local pub for dinner and had delicious sea bass on a bed of spinach. The waitresses brought in serving bowls of mashed potatoes, cauliflower in a light cheese sauce, and carrots along with the Irish multi-grain dark bread.  Quantities were generous, and we helped ourselves to seconds and thirds.

Bon fire on distant hill

By the time we finished our meal it was still light so Jean and I decided to walk into town. Joe told us that today was St. John’s Day, celebrated by lighting bon fires. The smell of peat hung in the air as we spotted the fires on the far away hills surrounding the village. The local neighborhood had a fire on the beach so we walked toward the flames. The bon fire was burning furiously and children threw seaweed into the fire to hear the “pops”.

Then came one of those moments of reflection as I remembered that our Father’s birthday was today and his name was John. We thought what were the chances that we would be in Ireland where our relatives once lived, on my Father’s birthday, which also coincided with their celebration of St. John.  It seems, however, that the Christians appropriated the celebration of the summer solstice from ancient cultures; the holiday is celebrated in many European countries.

June 24, Friday: Inishkea Islands

After a good dose of seasick medications, we were ferried out to the most remote of the Mayo Islands, Inishkea. The swells rose up to six feet as our boat swayed up and down on the waves. Dramatic scenery followed us along the way with rugged mountains jutting into the soft clouds.  Buttercups and daisies smothered the island. Welcomed by the sheep, we stood in front of the rows of abandoned cottages. Standing without their roofs, the gray rock walls of the houses stood in defiance of the wrath of the weather that these islands endure. The haunting silhouettes of the church and school stood against the sky. The deserted village was occupied at two different times, maybe three if counting the early Celts. One a colony was established in the 1850s and people were living on the Island until the 1930s. Joe said what stole the soul from the Island was a storm that drowned twelve of their men and boys. Eeking out a living was difficult to imagine yet Joe said when they left they still wanted to settle on the mainland where they could see their island home.

The second island looked much the same at the first with a ghost town of a former thriving village. Walking up the beach, we found pieces of pottery and bleached white bones scattered among the sea shells and stones. “What is the message,” I though. “What insight can I acquire from forgotten houses that still convey the hopes of those long gone. The labor of moving and carving the stones into forms is now part of the stone walls and transfers the history of the Irish. Joe walked us through the village and up a mound that may have been formed by the Celts. The Christians built their church there and left a standing stone dating 1,200 years ago. Seeing artifacts in a museum cannot replace the drama and context of coming across such an artifact in its own place or origin.

We had some time then to wander about the island on our own. I came back to the deserted village to peer through the doorways and windows trying to imagine what life was like living on this island. I made my way to the beach to see the tidal pools full of seaweeds, shells and even scarlet sea urchins. The ride back was on rough seas. The ride was short and the seasick meds did their job.

June 25, Saturday: Belmullet, a Day Off

Not Home Depot

Decided not to follow the Sierra Club hiking plan for today for many reasons. My boots were giving me a hard time in every way: soaking through and too tight causing many blisters. So I bought new waterproof boots in one of the little shops in Belmullet.  I also needed some down-time for reflection and writing. We are somewhat rushed on this trip, getting up early and not returning until ten at night. Time must be set aside for planning for the day, which I haven’t been able to do. I actually have to get up an hour earlier in order to be ready for the day. Not having that time was the reason for my forgetting the camera and walking stick yesterday.

I was happy with my outing into town, exploring the side streets, browsing in the shops, having tea in a bakery and taking pictures.  I also enjoyed being on my own for a while. I’m glad that I feel free to step aside although I must say I do feel the pull of group bonding, which almost persuaded me to go. I like to see other things besides scenery, which is beautiful and almost impossible to describe. I thought that perhaps “I should” feel the scenery can’t be missed, but I really did want to do other things. Behind in my diary, I was able to finally write today and organize for tomorrow. Sometimes on the long difficult hikes I wondered if I was really enjoying the walk or just getting through it, although that feeling presents itself in other activities that I like.

That evening after dinner we strolled into town as one of the pubs was featuring Irish music. A guitarist began with a rousing IRA folk tune. Some of the older gents became a bit tipsy, but the pub had good energy with some of the fellows offering to buy drinks. Jean and I slipped out and walked home, the aromatic smokey incense of peat lingering in the air.

June 26, Sunday, Glencolmkille, West Donegal and Queen Meave’s Mountain

Left Belmullet and covered territory up to Sligo by back-country roads. Abandoned stone houses scattered in the field as well as monolithic grave cairns. Joe pointed out an abandoned lodge, which he said no one in the county would touch it because it was haunted. Joe thought it would make a great restoration project. Joe is a teacher and historian who had broken with the Catholic Church and now is an Unitarian. Joe said if he purchased the lodge, he’d hire an exorcist.

We drove through Sligo and to the grave of William Butler Yates, poet laureate of Ireland. We loaded ourselves back on the bus for a climb up Meave’s Mountain, where Meave is supposedly buried some 1,800 years ago. We then headed out to another remote outpost, Glencolmkille in West Donegal. Hills and sea and sky met against each other in the most picturesque way–a typical Irish post card.

June 27, Monday: Slieve League

Joe offered hikers a choice of either to go shopping in Donegal or climb Slieve League, now covered in thick clouds, obliterating the beautiful views. I wanted to climb “one man’s pass” which was supposed to be a cliff hanger of a walk. So I chose the hike, which started at 1,000 feet, the trail reaching to over 2,000 feet. Unfortunately, as we started the hike, the weather continued to deteriorate. By the time we reached the top, we could only see about 20 feet in front of us, our hiking companions resembled ghost-like figures completely disappearing into the fog. Joe used a compass to get our bearings as the rocks were uniformly distributed so the landscape offered no clues to where we were. These are the highest sea cliffs in Europe, but we couldn’t tell. We ate lunch in the rain, and started down the trail.

After dinner we had a poetry reading with an emphasis on Yates, of course. I read a poem from an unconventional source, A Twist of Lennon, a book written by John Lennon’s first wife.  Wendy, one of our fellow hikers, lent me the book to read as we found common ground on our admiration of the Beatles.

June 28, Tuesday: Glencolmkille to Meena, Crossing Ulster Way Coastal Walk

Scree is the word for rock which has frozen and thawed over the years and runs up and down many of the trails, including this hike.  Hated walking on scree as feet twist and turn on every rock.  The boggy soil was also difficult to negotiate as was walking through a gullied landscape. Also in the mix: “meadow muffins” left indiscriminately over the trails.  We saw first-hand the cutting and drying of peat in the fields; burning peat of fills the air every evening with a smoky aromatic aroma.  The Irish have burned their peat since the first people stepped on the island. Piles of peat, propped up against each other in a cone, were a frequent sight. Unfortunately, when the peat is cut out of the land, erosion sets in and creates deep gullies. Joe estimated that in a hundred years all the peat will be gone if used up at the current rate.

June 29, Tuesday: Tory Island

We departed early in the morning to catch the ferry to Tory Island. Our ride to the departure point consisted of a number of switch backs, and some on the bus became woozy. Speaking of woozy, Jean and I took our seasick meds in good time for the sea was rough with large swells and white caps. To avoid any chance of sickness, I stood at the bow of the boat for the entire hour.

From the time we stepped off the boat, the charming character of the island revealed itself. Most of the houses were constructed of cement and painted with bright-colored doors and trim. The cottages along the main road each had their own unique charm with plantings, courtyards, and artifacts strewn about.

After a light lunch of scones and tea, Joe escorted us on a walk on  one side of the island where field flowers lined the pathway to the light house. People have lived on this island for over 4,000 years, with evidence from the stone and iron ages. The government constructed the stone road about a hundred years ago. Along the way we came across a small house, which turned out to be a signal station left from World War II. A pool of water turned out to be a part of a cooling process for the batteries that powered the station.  Down from the station rocky cliffs jutted out from the land.  Soft grass grew along the ledges and pink wild flowers covered the cliffs.  I was tempted to climb down further, but the steepness of the cliffs and the waves crashing below suggested that I stay where I was. We finished our walk back in the village.

We enjoyed fish and chips for dinner. Like the locals, we hung out on the corner for a bit then headed to the pub for refreshments. Later in the evening, the “King of Tory”, Patsy Dan Mac Ruaidhri, played energetic Irish tunes for almost two hours. His antique accordion filled the room with music. Phillip enjoyed his first Guinness. When we left the pub, torrential rains met us at the door, the street lights cast soft lights on the village.

June 30, Wednesday: Tory and back to the mainland, Falcarragh

Weetabix–a new breakfast discovery for me, made in the UK–was just delicious, especially with whole milk. Weetabix resembles shredded wheat but is nuttier and darker. We gathered for a walk to the other side of the island. Tory Island is the most remote of the inhabited islands and only about 200 live on the island year around. Gaelic is spoken here and even when speaking English, we sometimes could not understand every word.

“Toraigh” has ancient connections although it’s origins are unsure. The possible meaning is from “tower of the king” or “rock of the king” referring to the forts built by the king. A stone tower, first built around the 6th Century, stood near the entrance to the harbor.  Once a monastery, the tower was destroyed in 1595 by English troops waging wars against local chieftains. We continued our walk to the cliffs, and we built a small Sierra Club cairn to commemorate our visit, then headed back to the village to catch our ferry.

We returned to the mainland and settled into our B&B, which faced the water with a view of Tory Island. The sky was ablaze with pinks and oranges so we grabbed our cameras and headed down the street. We paused as a young man approached us from his driveway. We remarked that we had just come from Tory, and he said, “Never been myself.”

July 1, Thursday: Glenveagh National Park

Our bus drove through a remote valley in Donegal to the Glenveagh National Park. The valley was uninhabited during pre-historic times because the soil was so poor. The valley, forged by a glacier, was lush and green. The visitor center featured a video and exhibits and a tour of the castle. An estate was established by John George Adair, who incurred infamy for evicting 244 tenants in April of 1861. The guide related a story about one widow with seven children who were part of the eviction. The widow put a curse on all who lived on the estate: they would never have any heirs–and that’s exactly what happened! When landlords evicted their tenants, they leveled their homes. No matter how grand the house and how lovely the gardens, I didn’t really like the place after that. I kept thinking about possible reparations for the families those poor farmers driven from their homes.

Our hike began at the castle and followed the shoreline of the lake, a pleasant walk including a sighting of a wild boar.  We can across a pen of sheep being readied for shearing. We planted ourselves on the large rocks in the creek for a rest. Something drew me back to the sheep pen. The Irish are easy to talk with so I began a conversation with the shearer. He asked where in the US I came from and replied, Philadelphia. He asked how close to Philly.  “The western suburbs,” I replied.  And so where did he live for 14 years–the western suburbs in the neighboring town of Upper Darby! Hard to believe that out in the middle of this lonely valley the only person we would meet was from our area. He said he and his wife returned to Ireland as they were afraid their children would become Americanized. He then began cutting the wool away from one of sheep by turning the animal upside down. The sheep ceased all struggling and the process continued while his border collie watched intently from the outside gate.

That evening we celebrated our last night together as a group, with speeches and poems and presented Joe and Cecil, our driver, with a gifts of appreciation. Jean read her poem, on the occasion of our last mile of our Ireland adventure.

Ode to My Boots

My boots they took me up the mount.
My boots they took me down.
They carried me ‘cross the mucky bog,
Through many a thick and dangerous fog.

Sure footed as an Irish sheep
On rock path my balance could keep
With walking stick in tight hand held
We stayed upright where many were felled.

Within their chamber, dark and snug,
My feel they did stay dry
No water leaked inside to socks
No matter how hard it tried.

With hanging tongues and loose lace
The other boots faced disgrace,
Were banished to the drying room
To serve time with the pail and broom.

The hikers, anxious through the night,
Would boots be dry by day’s light?
In the morn when boots retrieved
In woe stood hikers greatly grieved.

Thus my boots and I marched out the door.
No worries of soaking, bruise or sore.
Over bridges, boulders, boggy ground
My boots, they never let me down.

So hikers heed this tale of sole,
For wet, sore fee can take a toll.
For if you think you can take the heat
Remember, the price is paid in de’feat.

Musicians began arriving in the pub for a night of Irish music. Instruments such as the Irish bagpipe, flutes, violin, drum, guitars made up the ensemble. Different ones would sing, and one young man sang about, “not thinking about George Bush,” which caused us to burst into applause as “W” is undoubtedly the worst president in our lifetime. I was amazed how well they played together, every song filled with unending energy. We were truly mesmerized by their quick fingers, harmony and improvisation. Officially, the pub closed at 11PM but went into “lockdown mode” with blinds drawn, lights dimmed and doors locked so that the music could continue.  We stayed until 1:30am when the last song ended.  We had experienced a truly wonderful musical night. I knew for me I’d always remember the cozy inn, Ostan an Bian Mor Pub in Gorlahark, County Donegal.

July 2, Friday: Sligo to Dublin

This morning we were all abuzz about last night’s musical session. We left our B&B for Sligo to catch the train to Dublin.  We said our goodbyes to those heading in different directions and with little time to spare, boarded the train.

When we arrived in Dublin, we had some difficulty locating our hostel, The Frederick, but finally reached our destination after wandering the city while lugging our suitcases. A Scotsman greeted us at the door, and we enjoyed a funny repartee. We settled into a six-bunk mega-room due to some mix-up. In no time our stuff spilled out all over the place.

Pub Crawl

With not much time to spare, we left our room for the “Pub Crawl,” which is an entertainment venue where musicians escort tourists to several pubs featuring Irish music. Our guides explained the use of the drum, or baron, which resembles a round disk and hit with a stick called a kidney. Placing the hand on back of the drum creates different tones. The musicians also explained the difference tween “miked” and “acoustic” playing. Mikes is more formal whereby someone is hired to play in the pub. Acoustic is when musicians come together just to play together, very informal, improvising and joining in, coming and going. I noticed that the musicians closed their eyes frequently–easy to see how they were able to be one with the music–doing music for themselves mostly and sharing that experience with the audience rather than “entertaining.” The audience becomes part of the experience by singing and clapping.

July 3, Saturday: Dublin

Jonathan Swift’s Birthplace

After a solid night’s sleep in our bunks, we took off to look at the shops and sites of Dublin. We walked through Temple Bar and side streets, then to St. Patrick’s and Jonathan Swift’s birthplace. Swift is one of my favorite satirists; I’ve done a number of papers on his writings.

Here is laid the Body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology, Dean of this Cathedral Church, where fierce Indignation can no longer injure the Heart. Go forth, Voyager, and copy, if you can, this vigorous (to the best of his ability) Champion of Liberty

We then took a tour on the Viking Splash vehicle, a bus-boat trip through the town and on the canal.  Jean experienced one of our many coincidents while in Ireland. Our driver had vacationed in the Outer Banks in Duck, the location of Jean’s beach house.

July 4, Sunday: Dublin

We hopped on the city tour bus, getting on and off at the various attractions around Dublin. Our first stop was at the Trinity College Books of Kells. In the museum historical descriptions lined the walls and in the last room the books were on display. Each day they turn the page so we really only saw that one. Still, it was quite beautiful especially the gold leaf. The lines of text were perfectly straight, all in alignment on both sides.

The exhibit ended in the Old Library, three stories of books with long ladders in each section as the shelves were so high.  Spent some time in the gift shop and then back on the bus for our next stop, Gilmainham Gaul (jail) truly a miserable place for those sent there, some for stealing food during the famine with the hope they would be thrown in prison where at least they would get something to eat. Back at our hostel, a for-sale sign appeared on the doorway, so the building may not stay as a youth hostel. We debated what to do for our last night. Jean wanted to see a play by Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan. Phillip and I favored another pub musical experience. So Phillip and I headed out only to be stopped at the door to explain our plans to the young man at the desk.  He said, “You’ve got to see that play, and the theater is small and beautifully ornate.” So we changed our minds and decided to attend the play.  We rushed over to the theater, bought our tickets, and headed to a pizza place for a quick snack.

The play was great. Victorian rooms decorated in the era provided the backdrops for the play. The women wore beautiful long dress accenting their tiny waists. The play was humorous and profound, and Jean and I decided we had to read the play to catch so many of the quotes worth remembering. After the play, we strolled through Temple Bar one last time and returned to the Frederick to try to shoehorn everything back into our suitcases.

Muscles, anyone?

July 5, Tuesday: Dublin and Home

From my top bunk I can look out the huge corner window and can scan down O’Connell Street, one of the busiest in Dublin. We’re above the main thoroughfare, but I can see people headed for downtown, bicyclists, women in dark suits, students with backpacks, tourists. Six double-decker buses lined the street waiting for the light to change.  A grey day, only the pink petunias in the flower box outside the window added a splash of pastel color. Georgian style four-story row houses lined the street. Further down the grey stone façade of a cathedral rose into the grey clouds. Somehow we managed to get all our souvenirs into the suitcases and bags. By the time we were ready to leave, it was pouring rain, one of the few times we experienced heavy rain.  Most days were combinations of brief sun, heavy clouds and drizzel.

We boarded the bus to the airport and wound our way through he doors, gates and security. Even though we left at 10 am for a 1:45 flight, we didn’t have to wait long before boarding the plane.


Like my holiday in Scotland six years ago, I was struck again with the hardship people experienced throughout history. Constant invasions, whether the Vikings, the Christians, the English–I wondered how my ancestors escaped the fate that fell on so many of the Celts. With every invasion came the inevitable brutality and subjugation including slavery. Eventually, the Irish won one half of the island escaping from the control of the English; bans on Catholic practics were lifted.

Our trip was full of ironies starting with Kerr family settling in Westport, music on the mountain, St. John’s Eve, and meeting people whose paths crossed with ours, had incredible relevance to this pilgrimage. The music, a co-regulation of creativity, innovation, passion and devotion spilled out from the pubs almost nightly. Embedded in that freedom of expression, our souls live–the memory of those who played and sang for us–rests there.

So my purple journal pen began to dry up, telling me my writing would come to an end just as I was leaving Ireland.  Although the memories would fade, they would not be entirely forgotten.

Video: Scenes from Ireland

Featuring music recorded in the pubs.

In Celebration of St. Patrick’s Day

Click to play this Smilebox postcard: St. Patricks Day

Comments on: "Trekking Through Western Ireland with the Sierra Club, 2005" (1)

  1. […] ago I happened to be in Ireland during the celebration of the Summer Solstice, which was truly a magical experience as folks lit bonfires on beaches and hillsides in every town […]


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