Farewell to Ireland


On our first arrival in Dublin, we had told a waitress that we would be spending a month in Ireland.  She laughed, “A month!  You can drive across the entire country in not much more than two hours time.  You don’t need a month to visit Ireland.”  She was wrong.  A month was not nearly enough.  We had only explored the southern half of Ireland, and there was still so much more for us to see and to know about this place and about how it figured into my own ancestral history. 

I had made more progress on the question of my Irish ancestry, although some of the answers were unexpected, even unwanted.  I learned that in two different official documents my grandmother had listed her place of birth as England, not Ireland.  Although I find the English to be perfectly delightful people, I have to admit that I did not want to be English.  Still, I was seeking the truth as it actually happened and not as I wished it to be, and as it turned out this new piece of information opened some doors.  Examining English records, I was able to find an Annie Downy (her last name spelled the way my father had remembered it).  She had been born in England…..Haltwhistle, Northumberland.  Her birth year matched the information we’d gotten from two official documents, and I realized that this was very probably my grandmother.   Little had I known that as we were traveling through the Lake District in England a month earlier, we were actually much closer to the birthplace of my grandmother than in Ireland.  I learned that Annie Downy’s mother Jane had been born in Ireland in 1848 at the very height of the potato famine, making me Irish after all.  My guess is that my great-grandmother emigrated to England in the aftermath of the potato famine, and then met Jack Downy, my great grandfather, who, as I learned, had been born in Scotland.   Apparently in my family tree England was but a generation’s layover.  The one piece that did not fit was that the only record of an Annie Downy emigrating from England to America near the turn of the century overstates her age by five or six years.  My suspicion is that this was, in fact, my grandmother, and that she had intentionally given the wrong age…for reasons that aren’t hard to imagine.  I knew it would take months more research to verify this information and to fill in details, but I had run out of time.  We were now approaching the end of our stay in Ireland.

Although as the Dublin waitress had said, it is possible to drive on freeways from the west coast of Ireland at Galway to the east coast at Dublin in two hours time, it took us quite a bit longer than this.  It had to do with a mysterious glitch in our GPS navigator, whom we call Carmen.  She speaks to us.  Although we’d instructed her to guide us to the Dublin Airport,  she was actually directing us to a location some 40 miles southeast of Dublin a few miles out into the Irish Channel.  By the time we realized this, we were well off our trajectory to the airport and completely baffled as to how to get back on track.  Irish fairies were at work.  

My mother had also had Irish ancestry, and even though she’d given lip service to the idea that the Irish spirit beings were mythical, she was clearly wary of their powers.  Although by the time I was in my mid-teens, her Catholicism had dissipated to virtual non-existence, my mother never lost her convictions about Irish folkways.  I remember chasing her through the house on one occasion with an open umbrella (an Irish taboo) while she screamed about the misfortune I was bringing down upon the household.  When Lois and I had visited the Butter Museum in Cork, we’d learned that the reason why milk sometimes did not actually congeal into butter during the churning process was that the fairies were working their mischief.  This was why women, who knew more about these things than men, were assigned to do the churning. Since Lois did virtually all the driving in Ireland, on our drive back to Dublin I’d been operating the navigational device…. clumsily, but without any obvious wrongdoing.  Since we were now hopelessly lost, Lois stopped the car and commandeered Carmen because….she knows more about these sorts of things than I do.  After a few minutes of conjuring, Lois turned milk into butter, and Carmen revealed the secret of the way to the airport. 

We spent our last night in Ireland at a hotel near the Dublin Airport.  Apparently an entire planeload of German tourists had found the same low-cost hotel deal we’d found, and the hotel lobby was mobbed with Germans watching their national team play Italy in the semi-finals of the Euro Cup (European soccer championships).  We’d been following the Euro Cup since our arrival in Ireland, but now we were in some conflict over whom to root for.  Lois generally tries to be supportive of whatever cultural group she is mixed in with at the time, and so part of her was inclined to root for the German squad.  Her true loyalties were revealed, however, when Balotelli scored the first goal for Italia.  Hers was the solitary voice in the room squealing irrepressibly in delight, followed belatedly by her clamping her hand over her mouth.  Immediately, a hundred pairs of angry German eyes fastened upon her.  Apparently her anthropological predilections are no match for her love of Italy (and her admiration for the hunky Balotelli as well – who, after scoring a goal, has a tendency to remove his shirt and preen, revealing an abundance of rippling muscles on his gleaming torso).  I’ve now taken up jogging again.  Germany went down in a truly humiliating defeat, and by halftime Lois and I pretty much had the hotel lobby and bar to ourselves. 

We returned to our room and did some final packing for our early morning flight.  Although I’ve heard that only the foolish attempt to divine the motives of fairies, I suspect that the fairies had bewitched our navigational device because they did not want us to leave Ireland.  Nor did I.  Still, like my ancestors before me, I bade farewell to the country of my great grandmother…with a very heavy heart.  The song that was playing in my head was my favorite of all the Irish laments.  These are the final lines:

So, fill to me the parting glass.

Good night and joy be with you all.

Good night…and joy be with you all.



It was raining as the ferry left the dock east of Galway for Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands.  We’d planned a trip to the islands because a brave meteorologist had predicted several moments of sun during the day.  After a half hour on the ferry, the rain was clearly behind us, and a truly glorious day was spreading out ahead.

Leaving the rain behind (notice the rain showers under the clouds to the right)

After checking into our bed and breakfast inn on Inishmore, we headed toward the east side of the island away from the tide of the tourists.  We rented bicycles in the ferry port town of Kilronan, rode them a few kilometers east and then turned inland and pedaled up an incline until the road petered out.  We left the bikes under the watchful eyes of two gigantic bovines and scrambled up a rocky hillside to St. Benan’s Church on top of a ridge overlooking the straights between Inishmore and mainland Ireland.  St. Benan was a 4th Century Irish disciple of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.  This oratory was built in St. Benan’s honor in the 10th Century.  Most Irish monks, before coming under the influence of those brotherhoods from the mainland who regarded the physical world as evil, actually considered nature something to celebrate, as the locations of their churches and monasteries made clear.

In the country that is the birthplace of Guinness (and the Book of World Records), I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this church is believed to hold its own world record….as the smallest church in all of the world.  I’m dubious, but to help the reader to make up his/her own mind, I asked a passing devotee to pose next to it to provide some perspective.

In Ireland when you are alone on a high ridge looking through a rare brilliant blue, cumulus-studded sky down rich green hillsides to a deep blue eternity of ocean, you linger.   It was later…. much later… that we returned to our bikes, and pedaled to the eastern tip of the island.  Ditching our bikes again, we walked through fields of wildflowers bordered by dry-stone walls (rock walls built without mortar or cement) and populated by rabbits darting in and out of the holes of their extensive warren. 

The fields gave way to massive blocks of black limestone, and the limestone gave way to sea.

Here we encountered another hiker, one of only a handful we saw all day.  He was a pilot for a company that runs small airplane trips to the Aran Islands from the Irish mainland.  We discussed the weather in some detail.  Almost any conversation in Ireland opens with an observation about the weather, especially when it is unexpectedly sunny.  He went on to explain that there was a long layover for pilots between the morning flight into the islands and the afternoon flight back to the mainland.  While most of his colleagues passed the time reading in the small airport east of Kilronan, he used the time to walk the coast. He recommended that we continue to walk along the coast up some coastal bluffs that lay ahead and suggested that we look for some large puffing holes (blow-holes) that created salt-water sprays when the waves struck the bluffs.

We followed his suggestion and scrambled higher until the beach gave way to a long stretch of high coastal bluffs.  Although the tide was too low for the water to spray through the blow holes, the cliffs were absolutely breath-taking on all sides.

After exploring the cliffs, we looped around cross country through meadows full of waist-high ferns

until we found the way back to our bikes, which we then rode up a steep gravel road toward the south side of the island as far as we could.  The road emptied out into a broad coastal bluff with stones strewn and piled everywhere.  If you travel to Ireland, it helps if you really like rocks.  They are everywhere  — in the landscape, in fences, in homes, in castles, in churches, in forts….some with mortar, some dry-stone.  Nowhere in Ireland did we see more rocks than Inishmore.  The landscape is criss-crossed with fantastic dry-stone walls.



Over many generations these walls had been constructed as enclosures for livestock, we were told.   No mortar or concrete was used, allowing the walls to be quickly rebuilt in order to create new enclosures.  The amount of toil that would have been required to create such an extensive maze of rock walls is absolutely beyond belief, and the fact that these walls remained standing even after having been exposed to centuries of winds and storms raging across the open ridges of Inishmore was even more incredible.

Solitary, round boulders perch improbably on a landscape otherwise dominated by limestone blocks, having been deposited in odd locations by melting glaciers in the last ice age.

This island is virtually treeless and is therefore generally described as desolate, but the term doesn’t really fit a land that gets this much moisture.  Wildflowers and grass protrude profusely from every crack in the rock, and there is simply no bare earth to be found.

As we approached the Atlantic, a dark formation appeared on the bluff.

Dun Duchathair (Black Fort)

It was our destination — Dun Duchathair —  an ancient stone fort constructed nearly three millenia ago.   We had already seen dozens of ancient stone forts in Ireland, but none like this.  The wall in the photo is 20 feet high and 15 feet thick.  It blocks off a high bluff that juts into the Atlantic, so that in order to wage an attack, an enemy would have to scale these cliffs

or climb a 20 foot wall and scramble over chevaux de fris stones — large vertical shards of rock intended to impede attackers, not to mention hikers.  A small passageway had been created between the edge of the wall and the cliff, allowing entry inside the fort.  We slipped inside and had the fort to ourselves.  The foundations of ancient buildings curved in serpentine fashion inside the fort.

In the guidebooks the Dark Fort is mentioned as an afterthought.  Dún Aonghasa, a fort on the opposite side of the island, is the one that attracts all the tourists… and the travel guidebooks, but Lois and I suspected that the writers of these guidebooks had never actually made the effort to get to Dun Duchathair.

In order to beat the throngs to Dun Aonghasa the next morning, we pedaled out early and once again found ourselves alone inside an ancient Irish fort — this one perhaps the most famous in all of Ireland.  Like the Dark Fort, it is from the late Bronze Age and its wall cuts off a high ocean bluff, but this bluff is over 300 feet above the ocean below.

Cliffs below Dun Aongasa

Dún Aonghasa

Like Dun Duchathair, the walls have held together for 3000 years simply by virtue of the manner in which the stones were placed and balanced.  Although some speculate that these structures had purely ceremonial functions, their placement so close to ocean cliffs and the presence of chevaux de fris stones positioned over the approach make it more likely that they are forts.

Ireland is filled with defensive structures. Stone forts can be found throughout Ireland;

Ring Fort – County Kerry

Irish monastic communities were built on jagged, steep rock islands like Skelig to make them more difficult to attack; stone towers in Glendalough were built with doors that could only be accessed by ladders.

Stone castles were constructed with high ramparts for battle and secret tunnels for escape.

Blarney Castle

Even Irish stone churches were built with an eye toward withstanding violent attacks. Stone was one of the few ways to create some sense of security in lives and times that were defined largely by fear.

In many ways the story of Ireland and of the heart and soul of its people has been written in stone.

Stones created home;

Ancient Irish stone homes (Beehive huts)

stones sustained life;

Stone livestock pen

stones marked the end of life;

Poulnabrone Portal – Prehistoric Burial Site in the Burren

stones symbolized the hope of immortality (combined in this case with a touch of sun-worship);

Irish cross on the Rock of Cashel

Ancient cemetery in Glendalough

stones were used to create places of worship….

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

even sacred geometry;

Contemporary stone circle — Brigit’s Garden in the Connemara

and stones created astonishing natural beauty….. in mountains

Mountains in the Connemara

and in seascapes.

Dingle Penninsula

When Danny had taken us onto the bluff at Toe Head, he had shown us the rock formation in the above photo and asked us to try to identify it.  I had thought it was the foundation of a rather oddly shaped building.  Lois realized that the stones formed letters, and those letters spelled out the word EIRE — the traditional Irish name for their homeland.  During World War II Ireland had written its name large on its coastline so that it could be identified from the air.   Naturally, it had written its name in stone.

The Gaeltacht


Although Ireland (at least the Republic of Ireland) officially gained its independence from England in 1949 after seven centuries of English domination, cultural independence has been slower in coming, particularly given the prominence of the English language in Ireland.  Before the Great Famine most Irish spoke traditional Irish Gaelic (here they simply call it Irish).  In the second half of the 19th Century, English was recommended as the language that would enable people to escape hunger and poverty to a life of opportunity in North America or Australia.  Now only about five percent of Irish people speak Irish Gaelic fluently, and they live primarily in the Gaeltacht, which is located mainly in coastal regions in western Ireland like the Dingle Peninsula, Galway, the Connemara and the Aran Islands.  Ireland is putting tremendous effort into reviving the Irish language.  It’s compulsory for Irish students, who are required to take as many as eight years of instruction in their native Irish tongue.   All over Ireland, the highway signs are in both Irish and English (Irish coming first).

This actually wasn’t the photograph I wanted to place in this spot. Going through security at Dublin Airport, I took a cool photograph of the incredibly long Irish Gaelic phrase for “No photographs,” but I was forced to delete it from my camera.  Airport security agents apparently have no appreciation of paradox.

For the residents of Dingle, the Connemara, and the Aran Islands English seems to be an afterthought. They don’t even bother to put English on the signs, despite the fact that on any given day from May through September there are far more English-speaking tourists in these places than residents.  Although I love languages, I think the three that I’ve struggled to gain a bit of competency in will not allow any others in, so that when we see a road sign that says “kill” (actually spelled “cill), Lois always has to remind me that it refers to a place of worship rather than a strategy being recommended to Irish motorists.  There are only two Irish words I seem to have retained.  One is “craic” pronounced ‘crack.’  It means ‘good times.’  The other is slainte (pronounced ‘slawncha’).  It pretty much means the same thing, except that you say it when you raise your pint in a pub.

On the way from Toehead to our next Irish destination, we stopped at Kilarney National Park.  We once asked an Irish tour guide whether it was supposed to rain that afternoon.  She responded that, in Ireland it’s always either raining or about to rain.  On our travel day to Kilarney it was not about to rain; it was raining.  They tell us this is the rainiest June they’ve had in Ireland in several decades.  When Lois and I travel, this sort of thing is always happening. This past winter was the coldest winter they’d had in Florence since the Arno River froze in the Little Ice Age.  When we lived in Florence in 2009, old timers were saying they hadn’t seen such a rainy winter since the Arno flooded in 1333.  I think if we traveled to Antarctica temperatures would hit the 90’s and palm trees would start sprouting.  As far as Ireland is concerned, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s always the rainiest month they’ve ever had.

As we drove over Moll’s Gap through the green, treeless mountain terrain and started descending toward Kilarney, we stopped at Ladies View, a turnout that one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting had called ‘the finest view in the land’ over a century ago.

Even in the rain, it was beautiful.

Ladies View.

We lingered for an afternoon in Kilarney National Park, hiking to waterfalls

and lakes.

We visited Muckross House, built by a wealthy man from the big island to the east (of course).  It was later donated to the park, along with thousands of acres of land, by one of his descendants.  The house has a stunning view of Lough Leane.




Front yard, Muckross House

Our destination for the evening was the town of Dingle, a delightful town, small by any measure, yet still the largest on the Dingle Peninsula.  We spent the night in a lovely bed and breakfast a few miles west of Dingle Town with a beautiful view of  Coventry  Bay.

View of the front lawn and pond.

The Dingle Peninsula is the westernmost point in Ireland.  Locals say the next parish over is Boston.  Dingle is one of a trio of west-facing Irish peninsulas that tourists flock to.  Even more than most towns in the Gaeltacht, Dingle is famous for Irish music (the Irish Gaelic word for this is ‘trad’), unamplified traditional Irish tunes played on instruments like the melodeon (an Irish version of an accordion), Irish flutes, fiddles, guitars, banjos and uilleann pipes (a sort of bag pipe inflated by elbow action rather than by the lungs). The instrumentalists typically sit in a booth reserved for musicians surrounding a table covered with pints of Guinness (if the pub is closer to Dublin) or Murphy’s (if the pub is closer to Cork).  The Irish have tremendous loyalty both to their stout and to their city hurling team.  Not to be confused with what Americans do in Ireland after a night of stout at the pub, hurling is actually a sport… in which team members sling hard balls with long boomerang-shaped sticks in the direction of an understandably terrified goalie.   In Ireland hurling is at least as big as soccer (yes, the Irish do call it soccer in order to distinguish it from Gaelic football, another charmingly violent recreational activity).

You’ve got to pick your pub carefully.  We’ve been to one in Galway that resembled a teeming mosh-pit of youths, each one trying to bump and jostle past all of the others on the way to the only toilet in the establishment while holding a glass filled with sloshing, foaming brown liquid.   We chose one in Dingle that was recommended in the Rick Steves Guide to Ireland.  It’s called Moriarty’s, just down the road from a place called the Craic House (see above for pronunciation of ‘craic’).  Rick Steves’ only reservation about the place was that there are quite a few German and American tourists that frequent Moriarty’s.  The place looked inviting; we went in and found a table.   On one side of us was a pair of Germans, on the other a family from Wisconsin.  That’s why Rick Steves gets the big bucks.  Like Lois and I, the Germans were traveling the world, although they were working – as travel photo journalists – a job I’m planning to put in an application for in my next life.  We talked about the places we had been.  In their case it was pretty much everywhere.  When we asked them about their favorite places on Earth, two topped their list.  Bali was one.  We’d already planned to go there in October.  The Slovenian Alps were another.  We’re revising our summer itinerary to add a stop there.   After the Germans left the pub, we chatted with the Wisconsonians (one of whom was a delightful and adventurous young woman who had just finished a year studying ethnomusicology in Cork), and we listened to live Irish trad music.  A ‘trad’ music session always gives the impression that a group of buddies just decided on the spur of the moment to grab instruments and start playing tunes in someone’s kitchen around a breakfast nook.  Whenever the musicians would pause for a break, a short man with mischievous eyes would move to the center of the circle to tell an Irish tale with an outrageous and sometimes offensive punch-line.  It was totally craic.




Want ad at Moriarty’s

The next morning our bed and breakfast hosts made us a wonderful breakfast while we caught traces of Irish Gaelic conversation drifting from the kitchen.   Fortunately, our host Noirin also spoke excellent English, and she made some suggestions about places to visit on the loop we were planning to take around the peninsula.

I’ve mentioned Queen Victoria’s retinue’s claim that ‘Ladies View” has the finest view in the land.  Many places in Ireland make the same claim, and in some sense, they’re all right.  Here are a few potential candidates from the Dingle Peninsula.

Although the Beara Peninsula is the least touted of the three main peninsulas in southwest Ireland, I have no idea why.  Here are a few photos of the second runner-up.






There is a price to be paid for all of this beauty.  This is what you have to do to get across the Beara Peninsula.


The Iveragh Peninsula is rimmed by the famous roadway called the Ring of Kerry.  One of the following views was advertised as the best view in Ireland.   They charged 8 euro (about 11 bucks) per person.  Loveliness is not cheap.






At the very western tip of the Ring of Kerry, we picnicked on a beach and looked out at the Skelig Islands.  While surfers rode the waves, right behind them a half dozen gannets plummeted from the sky before our eyes like arrows into the bay.

The gannets were too fast for the camera lens, but we did manage to catch this human being.

Farther north near the Burren are the Cliffs of Moher, the most visited national park in all of Ireland, certainly in the running for “Ireland’s Loveliest View.”

Achieving a state of Moher on the Cliffs

Then, of course, there are the Aran Islands and the Connemara, the photos of which I’m reluctant to enter into this post for fear that the computer’s aesthetic wow-o-meter will overload, bursting a seam in the fragile fabric of cyberspace.

Folks fond of music may well have heard of the town of Doolin.  People from all over the world travel there to see Irish trad music of the highest quality — for the price of a Guinness or a Murphys (they seem to swing both ways in Doolin).  After getting blissed out on the Cliffs of Moher, we needed a place to hyperventilate, and Doolin was just down the road.  Doolin’ is not Nashville…or London….or Paris.   This music mecca is a village populated by just over 500 folks clustered around a tiny piece of Irish coastline.  We left our Nissan rental car where it had a spectacular view of the Atlantic and slipped into Gus O’Connor’s pub for some Euro 2012 soccer and trad music.  We ordered up some veggie pub food (chips and chips), and settled in to watch Italy play England, while Irish music drifted in from the adjacent room.  There was definitely ambivalence in my loyalties.  We’d spent a long time in both Italy and England.  The couple to our right was from Genoa — their loyalties were clear.  The guy I chatted with at the bar when I ordered another Bulmer’s (I never did get the hang of swilling beer) was an English tourist.  There was a small cohort of English tourists.  But everyone else in this pub was Irish, and as soon as the game started it was as though the contest was between the army of Gaelic commander Hugh O’Neill and the forces of Queen Elizabeth I.  When England went down in a shootout after regular (and overtime) play resulted in a scoreless tie (validating my complaints about this aspect of soccer in a previous post), there was utter pandemonium at O’Connors.  The Irish were happier about the English loss than the Italian couple was about their team’s victory.  Ireland does not have a good soccer team;  Ireland was defeated decisively by Croatia, a country that has existed as a nation for less than two decades.  Unlike America, to which so many Irish have emigrated, or the kingdom on the other side of the Irish Sea that lost its soccer game to the Italians, Ireland is not a great military or economic power.  It is so much more than this; it is a cultural and aesthetic treasure.  After the game, we listened to a trio of truly talented Irish musicians do one of the things the Irish can do like no one else — play jigs and reels that music lovers from all of the world travel to hear.





At 10:30 pm we were driving back to Galway, basking in the glow of the music and the deep twilight that framed the outlines of a coastline so spectacular that it overwhelms the capacity of the English language.  Of course, there is another language that was born in this part of the world — the Irish language.  If there’s any hope of capturing this land and these people, I think that’s where it must lie.  As they say in Irish, “Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste”  (Bad Irish is better than clever English).