Dispatches from Ireland: Days 10 through 16

Posted By Mike Padgett

Aug. 28, 2008

The pungent scent of peat is in the air today. The brisk wind off Galway Bay is filled with waves of mist.

But the cool, windy and thoroughly gray day has little impact on tourists and shoppers in downtown Galway. Umbrellas and hooded jackets are everywhere. Rainproof covers are on the backpacks as large as their owners. Even baby buggies of the locals are fitted with clear plastic coverings.

The city center’s street musicians ignore the wind and mist. Today’s performers include two solo guitar players. One sings about Australia. Outside a bookstore, another musician has his lips pursed on his saxophone. He plays mellow jazz nonstop, leaning back on a metal post, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

Down the block, an elderly man with a bent body and a gentle voice seeks donations. He leans on his cane with one hand. In his other is his soft drink cup raised as high as his stooped body. His hand and cup remind me of a baby bird in a nest, with its outstretched neck and hungry mouth wide open.

“Thank you, thank you,” the man says softly to a woman who stops her errands to drop a coin in his cup.

On another day, the street musicians coaxing magic from their instruments included a woman with a guitar next to a man playing his uilleann pipes. His instrument is similar to bagpipes but the air is supplied by bellows strapped under his right arm, instead of a mouthpiece through which he could blow into the pipes. Spread before them is a jacket spotted with several coins tossed by listeners.

The duo played two doors down from a bakery giving off aromas of fresh breads, cakes and sandwich buns – called baps – filled with turkey and cranberry, tuna, or Cajun chicken. The bakery’s aroma alternates with that of peat, the brick-shaped fuel shoveled from the countryside’s bogs.

On Sunday, Aug. 24, our bus tour stopped at Cashel for lunch and a tour of the Rock of Cashel, a medieval abbey that has been a seat of religious or royal power since the 5th Century. The stone cathedral and other structures tower over the village and the surrounding Tipperary plain because they were built on a limestone outcropping.

A few days later, we boarded a smaller bus and traveled from Galway to Kylemore Abbey in the Connemara region. It was a two-hour trip, including several stops for photos of the countryside. Timewasters, I thought. A bus ride is an excellent way to see the countryside, but the day was overcast and misty with low-hanging clouds. Hardly the day for decent photos. Others on the bus were from China, France, Dublin, Italy, Alabama, Arizona, Illinois and Washington state.

Eventually, we arrived at Kylemore Abbey, a historic neo-Gothic castle that made up for the bus trip. Set next to Lough Pollacappul, at the foot of Duchruach Mountain, the abbey has been the Monastic home of the Benedictine Nuns since 1920, when the nuns relocated from war-torn Belgium. The property dates to the 1860s when English industrialist Mitchell Henry and his wife Margaret built their Kylemore Castle and its 13,000 acres with the fortune he inherited from his father, a successful cotton merchant.

Henry later served 14 years in the House of Commons, representing County Galway. In 1903, Henry sold his castle to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. Later, a London banker became the owner, and he sold the property and 10,000 acres in 1920 to the nuns.

For many years, the nuns have operated Kylemore Abbey as an international boarding secondary school and a day school for local girls. According to Wikipedia, the nuns plan to close the school in 2010. Kylemore’s name originates from the Irish words for “great wood” – Coill Mor. And great wood is an appropriate name. The short walk from the castle to the Gothic church Henry erected nearby as a memorial for his wife is along the lake and next to woods as dense and lush as those on the coasts of Oregon and Washington state. Small streams run down the mountain and into the lake under the trail between the abbey and the church.

On the way back to our hotel, at about 5 p.m., our bus drove the highway along Galway Bay. Banners and hair flew horizontally in the wind. Pedestrians in jackets and joggers in shorts and T-shirts were on the promenade along the bay. And in the bay, about 50 feet offshore, we saw a woman in a red swimsuit bobbing alone between the white caps of the cold Atlantic. Watching her on the shore was a spectator. Or a potential rescuer.

One night this past week, we braved the wind and mist to attend an evening presentation of “Trad on the Prom” at the Salthill Hotel in west Galway. The name refers to traditional Irish music on the promenade. Of the five musicians, several had appeared in the “Riverdance” tours.

The performance included several Irish step dances. The dancers’ feet and legs were blurs. Their faces were intense and their shirts were stained with sweat. The lead guitar player’s talk between performances was from memory, not teleprompters. The group sang about Ireland and its history and loves and hopes. The live summer performance is memorable because it lacked commercials and the superficial six-pack flash of American television.

Aug 28th, 2008

One Comment to 'Dispatches from Ireland: Days 10 through 16'

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  1. Lynn Castiglione said,

    Mike, thanks for sharing- everything sounds wonderful and the photos bring it to life! Safe travels.

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