Sunday – a day to rest, recuperate and ponder what we have experienced; and that somehow feels right given we finally have a day to experience the true Irish weather. Yes, after several beautiful days we now have intermittent clouds, sun, and blowing rain – and that is all within the last couple of hours! But we have little to complain about as our last two days in the countryside were perfect. I cannot wait to share more photography when I get home!
On Friday we traveled to the Burren, gaining great respect for the skills of Cormac, our driver! The narrow winding Irish roads, and I mean narrow, appeared impossible to take a small bus down, and yet he does it so calmly and politely. I know I’d be a wreak doing it day after day. And as we have been told, there is no such thing as a perpendicular meeting of roads like in the states.
Glaciation at the Burren has scrapped layers of topsoil clear of the limestone bedrock formed approximately 350 million years ago when the region was part of a tropical seabed; creating a landscape both beautiful and foreign. And yet it is rich in ancient history. As we walked the fractured limestone pavement with the weather moving through autumn toward winter we were treated to a variety of hardy flowering plants still in bloom. Our guide, Tony Kirby, walked us down the ancient pilgrimage pathways, past modern-day farms where cows and horses witnessed our passing, to the ruins of the monastery known as Temple Cronan, a simple stone structure (12th century) rebuilt from an earlier wood version dedicated to one of two St. Cronans (A.D. 637 or 640). Knowing we were standing in a structure that had been the worship place of people through the centuries, being able to touch the stones that had been touched by others over that long time, really brought home the connection we all have not only physically but across time.
After a blessing at the holy well and a silent walk back to our transport, we were all ready for a bowl of hardy soup and basket of sandwiches at a local tavern – just what we needed to recover from the cold, damp air.
Saturday had us back on the trail, this time visiting the Cong Abbey and Inchagoill Island. The Augustinian Abbey (7th to the 15th centuries) and surrounding forests had been the training grounds for hundreds if not thousands of monks each year. The ruins, praised as one of the finest examples of medieval church architecture in Ireland, are quite striking, especially moving through the grave yard, although it appeared remains are interred under every square foot of the structure itself. I must say it felt a little strange to be walking on the remains of long dead people. The grounds, set adjacent to a river and the lake provided a relaxing walk among the ruins and giant trees, including the largest yew trees I’ve ever seen, to simply think about history and what life was like during that age.
Interestingly, the village of Cong was the location for filming The Quiet Man in 1951. Starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, it is a beautiful film about a simpler era. Residents of Cong still revere the movie as evidenced by the bigger than life bronze of the stars. If you’ve not seen the movie I highly recommend it!
Leaving Cong behind we embarked on a journey into the past on Inchagoill Island; a 104 acre island in Lough Corrib, inhabited since the 5th century up through 1948 by a small group of farming families and boat builders. The island was also the home of St Patrick, who was reportedly banished to the island in the 5th century by the druids. It is an interesting story as St Patrick actually worked hard to bring the christian religion to Ireland without bloodshed by recognizing the importance of both the christian and celtic traditions and their coexistence. St Patrick’s church ruins and a small graveyard exist on the island, and a short distance away are the ruins of another church erected by the monks of Cong Abbey around A.D. 1180. To this day on the last Sunday in June, coinciding with the summer solstice, people travel to the island to celebrate mass. Walking around the island in quiet contemplation it was not hard to recognize both the isolation of the place and the deep connection to nature. Walking the same pathways that had been traveled for centuries by residents, pilgrims, and Patrick was an experience everyone needs to have at some point in their life; and I have to say it was a really beautiful spot to be banished to.
As we departed the island, thinking about how nice it would have been to spend even more time in the quiet solitude with nature, we headed back to Cong for the journey back to Galway. But along the way our boat captain made a slight detour to show off another piece of the local heritage – Ashford Castle. The castle dates to the 13th century as a Norman Fortress for the De Burgo family. Through the years the property changed hands until 1852 when it was purchased by the Guiness family, and the rest as they say is history. After spending millions to renovate the estate, it was essentially gifted to the Irish people in 1939. All but 350 acres of the 3,500 acre estate are managed by the forestry department. The remaining 350 acres and the castle are now under lease to a major hotel magnate and Ashford Castle is one of the premier hotels in the world.
So tomorrow we begin new adventures along our pilgrimage. While this journey for me is a way to get back in touch with nature and figure out what I need to do next, I hope you are finding this journal of interest and plan to stay in touch. Feel free to pass along to anyone else who may be interested.