Connemara and My Future

Trip Start Sep 06, 2004
Trip End Nov 23, 2004

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Flag of Ireland  ,
Tuesday, September 21, 2004


"The bus crosses the River Corrib and drives along the oceanfront suburbs of Galway. Smaller crowded houses with tiny lawns give way to larger ones with big lawns--where rich people live. The roofs are tiled with half-cylinder tiles overlapping, and with the white blocky fences this gives a Spanish or Mexican effect except for the tall chimneys. Many houses have palm trees (thin triangular leaves), which adds to the effect. These areas still just look like suburbs, though.

Having seen so little of the suburbs lately (instead of living in one as always before), I realize that I don't like them much. They're a 50's dream. Today we realize the price--the long commute, the poor public transit, the large ecological footprint. But we're still programmed to want this life for our children. The greenery, the yard to play in unseen, the sense of space from one's neighbour (notwithstanding today's crowded neighbourhoods where houses are scant metres apart because they fill the lots). We haven't yet come up with an alternative that feels as satisfying. Maybe living in Ireland will help. A lot of their housing is attached townhouses, and all of their buildings adjoin. Stay tuned for the solution to suburbia!

Our bus driver is a Connemara man. His accent is funny, as if he is chewing on his words. He speaks with a dry humour and no emotion, even when discussing the Famine or a recent Aran Islands tragedy, the death of several fishermen he knew well. He also tends to repeat his phrases. Lots of facts, few numbers. One of them is that Ireland has 11 million sheep, 3 million of which are in Connemara--and only 4 million people.

The landscape of Connemara is not the bright emerald green of central Ireland, more of a multi-toned olive shading to rust brown, with an occasional bright field standing out in the middle of it. It's dominated by sheep with dye on their wool marking their flock, and stone fences that once marked off potato fields. Someone once said something to the effect that the farmers here had to do something with all the stones in their fields, so they made fences--otherwise they wouldn't have any fields. Some areas, though, are bedrock, and I'm sure this lurks just below the surface elsewhere too. The effect is alpine, especially since the fields lead up to the mountain ranges--the Maumturk Mountains and the Twelve Bens. They're made of rounded rock, not jagged and in-your-face mighty like the Rockies. I'm learning that Ireland's beauty is quieter. You have to actually look before you see it. But these muted earth tones and ubiquitous stone walls are growing on me. And then there are Killary Fjord (Ireland's only one) and all the lakes with mountains lounging behind. The part of me that is Norwegian feels a special kinship with these.

And the human part of the landscape? We pass through Maam Cross, Spiddal, Leenane (as in The Beauty Queen of), and Oughterard, which bills itself as the Gateway to Connemara, chiefly by catering to anglers. We see a few Travellers (gypsies) camped by the roadside in a camper--like trailer trash, I have to say it. We see ridges in the land that show where potato fields used to be, before the Famine. Killary Fjord is full of oyster farms, visible from afar as dotted lines (I get the impression of underwater cages in long strings)--Galway is famous for its September oyster festival, which we will skip.

Some of the stone walls lead right up mountainsides, built during the Famine and relief work (i.e. make-work work--there's no purpose for walling off mountainsides--though other, luckier people got to build roads instead). Our driver says, without emotion, that each stone in those walls can be counted as a person that died in the Famine. Underscoring the hardships of an Ireland past are the turf-cutting operations that we see. Whoever though of burning dirt must have been desperate. Turf is stacked up in little heaps like hay-stooks (look it up!), I suppose to dry. Our driver warns us that Irish bogs are 95% water and we must not go out on them unless we want to be dug up in a few thousand years and put on display in a museum. They've been through a lot, these Irish. Though I notice that history according to our driver goes back only as far as the Famine.

The highlight of the day's trip is an extended stop at Kylemore Abbey. Built by a rich English couple who fell in love with Connemara in the nineteenth century, it became an abbey for Benedictine nuns (fleeing the First World War in France, I think) and then an exclusive international girls' boarding school run by the nuns. Katherine and I immediately fall in love with the castle-like building, the lake it overlooks, and the mountains that surround it. We enter through the Gothic archway reverentially and tiptoe through the few rooms open to the public, craning our necks to peer up staircases and into corridors where we are not allowed to set foot. The setting reminds us both of Hogwarts, the school of magic from Harry Potter, with all the accompanying mystique. We long to be among the exalted ones who are so lucky as to go to school here, even if it means being overseen by nuns. A glimpse of uniformed girls in a bay window room on an upper floor only exacerbates our longing and jealousy. Even the thought of having tourists run rampant on the grounds (as they do) does not dampen our zealousness. I try to console myself by imagining that the girls are rich and spoilt (an idea later reinforced by class photos--one of which includes two princess from India, and the other a granddaughter of one of them), but this only emphasizes the unfairness of letting rich kids live in a setting that surely we would appreciate more.

We wander down a path past enormous trees, trying to peek into the garden and claiming a mossy clearing as our own, to reach a neo-Gothic chapel. It's built in unobtrusive grey stone, blending into the surrounding forest (a rarity in Ireland--I read somewhere that the Romans were the ones who deforested the sacred groves, though I don't know if this is true). Highlights are in green Connemara marble, and a few stained-glass windows.

Next to the chapel is a little cemetery for the nuns, mostly small markers and plain gravel, no grass. Katherine and I circumnavigate the church and discover steps in several places leading down to locked doors. Peering through windows, we discover that these lead to a crypt for a basement, full of empty shelves. All the staircases are narrow, though; we can't figure out how one would get a body inside (in a coffin or out of one). The answer must lie in the locked door to one side of the altar inside, which leads at least to the bell tower.

Farther down the path, we pass a mausoleum, which holds the bodies of the couple who built Kylemore Abbey (or at least employed lots of lucky Irishmen to build it), as well as their son, who hasn't been dead that long, only a few decades. The lady of the house died young in Egypt, where she had gone with her ailing daughter. We do not linger, but go on hastily. The path narrows and runs between bushes for a long time until it meets a barbed-wire fence at the side of the road leading to Kylemore Abbey. And thus ends our private adventure.

We're out of time now, since we started out with lunch at the cafe. We regretfully miss the Victorian gardens. Something else we miss out of necessity--a white statue of a saint high on the mountainside. The path to the statue is treacherous and people are no longer allowed to climb it.

After all our walking, we're tired. The bus's last stop is a cottage at Maam Cross where a movie called The Quiet Man was filmed. Inside the cottage are life-sized figures of the stars, who include John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Since we haven't seen or even heard of the movie, we opt to nap instead. Well, Katherine naps. I just zone out.

As the bus heads back to Galway, we have a rare glimpse of sunshine. And it's more than a glimpse--it stays for most of the way back, making the landscape luminescent. I wake Katherine, and she smiles and goes back to sleep.

And then it's over, and we're back in Galway."

The adventure was over, but the day wasn't. Back in the city, my depression returned and I had yet another evening nap. Then I talked to Arvin via MSN. He was lonely too. This is when I said that since we're both struggling, maybe what we need is to be together (not Sept. 20 as previously reported). He said that seemed sound. Then we discussed options for me here. I think I've decided to spend a week on one of the Aran Islands in a B&B, walking around the cliffs and forts, and thinking and writing. "Being" a writer, and acting like one. This should also involve calling newspapers. In other words, doing what I really came to Ireland to do (i.e., finding inspiration). Then I think I'll go town-hopping for a while, also looking for work. May end up in Cork (via County Kerry?) or even Dublin. If that doesn't work, I'll re-evaluate staying here. No point in trying the UK and repeating an unsuccessful pattern.

I also phoned Cathy (close friend from home) in search of a second opinion, but because she hasn't been privy to my struggle, she was not understanding. ("But you're in Ireland!") Contrary to popular opinion, people, just being in Ireland doesn't mean that my every moment is luminous and amazing.

The lack of privacy in the hostel was getting to me too. A lot. On Sept. 20 I wanted to cry, but there was nowhere to go. I hid behind a corner and sat on the floor for a while. A girl stuck her head round and asked if I was okay. I said I was just thinking, but I probably should have taken the opportunity. Everybody I've met so far has been really nice. What I was thinking was this: I'm struggling now--but wouldn't it be worse if I go back, knowing I've lost my chance? At least I should see more of Europe while I'm here, including a visit to my relatives in Norway again. But as usual, no answers were forthcoming. Eventually I just went to bed. And thus ended a very long and eventful day.
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