Mick had a spare driver today, a quiet man by the name of Tony, who drove us toward a place famous for another "Quiet Man," the little village of Cong where John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara made cinematic history. A mandatory day off from driving enabled Mick to work as tour guide and, as we headed along the road, Mick explained that "Conga" was not a long snaking dance, but Irish that roughly translates to "neck" or narrow opening, which the village does between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib. The town also straddles the County Mayo and the County Galway. And finally, the town is right next to the famous Ashford Castle, which sits in the ruins of an old Norman keep built by the Burkes and much later by the Guinness family, which created the castle with its amazing elegant gardens.
Today was a day of many firsts, including the expansion of our knowledge of the English language, specifically words and phrases that we utter, but have no understanding of their meaning. For example, as we drove towards the market town of Ballinrobe, Mick gave us a crash course on Irish history, starting with the original chieftains of Ireland and through the invasion of the Anglo-Normans, who married into the clans and became more Irish than the Irish. Depressingly onward we moved to the ruthless rule of Henry the Eighth, who destroyed monasteries and Catholic Churches that defied his new Anglican order. And finally to Oliver Cromwell, whose barbarity made Henry look like the Pillsbury Doughboy. It was Cromwell whose puritanical decision in the 1600's was to rid all the arable lands of the Irish and push them to the province of Connaught. He also created the tenant system by which the Irish were eventually allowed to "rent" their ancestral lands back from their English overlords for absurd prices. Fast forward to the 1800's and finally the downtrodden Irish had a champion in Charles Parnell who created a sort of union called the Land League. It was understood that all tenants would band together and collectively resist the high rents. The ultimate test came in the town of Ballinrobe, where the landlord's agent kicked the tenants off the land for not paying full rent. The League held firm despite his best efforts to break it through attempts to re-rent the land or hire workers to work the lands. Ultimately the agent was forced to acquiesce to the lower rent to keep the estate from going under. His name became synonymous with a successful strike---Boycott.
We arrived at Ashford Castle and took a walk down a long path past gardens, huge towering pines and finally through a thick, vine covered forest to arrive at a series of enclosures that held various squawking raptors. Each enclosure had several raptors, which we were surprised to learn were mostly Brown tailed hawks from North America, as well as some Peregrine falcons and one big eyed European owl. The raptor handler greeted us and in typical Irish humor told us how raptors are all into free meals and energy conservation, and that the female hawks are larger than males and that they do not like to be petted. "Imagine you are sitting on the train and some stranger starts stroking your head," he said. "Well that is how a hawk feels."
Once again, our English lesson continued with the phrase "under my thumb" referencing a hawk being restrained by the foot leash that would be held firmly by a hawkers thumb, thus having control of the bird. And who would have known that "being fed up" originally was a hawk who refused to hunt because she had a crop-full of meat and didn't care to do her master’s bidding?
We hunted the hawks through the woods, continuing to take turns, marveling at how "unflappable" they seemed and how lightweight they felt. They would buzz right over our heads and even brush our coats as they whirled in out of nowhere at the command to return for a chicken reward. Our assistant told us that these hawks were scared only of any four legged animal with a long nose, such as a dog or horse, which to them were "coyotes,” that in the wild would kill them. Pugs, however, were considered delicious fair game to the hawks as one freaked out hotel guest found out walking hers one day. Somehow that seemed kind of alright to me, though I kept that thought to myself.
We left the raptor center for a quick lunch back in the village of Cong. The Crow’s Nest restaurant has the most delicious seafood chowder that in true Irish style is generously portioned with thick slabs of salmon meat and hearty sweet prawns, all swimming in a rich clam sauce. One bowlful staved off the hunger and soon we we're back at the castle to head off on the next adventure.
Waiting for us, moored up at a small harbor outside the castle gate, stood a boat that would take us out onto Lough Corrib. We climbed on board and soon we were on our way across the gorgeous lake, the waters dappled in sunlight with a cool breeze blowing that made us all zip up our hoodies and jackets. Any chill was quickly alleviated by a hot mug of Irish coffee, with a thick dollop of cream and an Irish pour of whiskey. We were treated to the music of Martin, who at 84 was playing the accordion with the zeal of a man half his age. He was a local that as a young man of twenty was hired to be an extra on the movie "The Quiet Man." Martin sang for us "Galway Bay" and we were overwhelmed by the fantastic combination of whiskey, scenery and song.
The boat docked on Inchagoill Island, which in Irish means "the island of the foreigner.” The foreigner was none other than Saint Patrick himself who, banished to the island by the then powerful Druids, established a church with the assistance of his nephew, Lugnad. This lad served as Patrick's navigator as well and died during the construction. There near the still standing 1500 year old church was his 5th century grave with the headstone miraculously still standing and carved in the shape of a ships rudder. Inscribed on it in Latin letters, but in the old Irish language (which was written from top to bottom instead of the left to right), was the second oldest inscription in Europe outside of the catacombs in Rome. It read, "The standing stone of Lugnad, son of Limanin." It’s interesting to note that Limanin was Patrick’s sister. Ireland at that time was a matriarchal society and lineage passed through the mother.
It was other worldly to touch such an ancient stone and feel the walls of the church built by the hands of Saint Patrick himself. It also brought home The Hibernian Mass that Brian and I have written and just recorded. The album is based on the theme of Patrick bringing the faith to the pagan Irish, and we were now standing at the very spot where that had occurred. It was a realization that was not lost on either of us and we both expressed a desire to have the Mass presented in the future at the church, for every year a Mass is still said there.
We paused at a church that was built not far from Patrick's church. In 1180 AD, the Augustinian monks built the "Church of the Saints.” It combined several styles of architecture, from Byzantine to Romanesque, and has saint’s heads over the doorway. One nod to the pagan faith was that the altar was in the east of the church. The worship of the sun was common and so the effort to replace the sun with the Son was a deliberate move. Here was another coincidence since in our Mass we wrote in the song "Simple Benediction" that "we believe we shall see the rising of the Son." We did not know that our play on words was the very deliberate practice of the early Celtic Church!
Reluctantly we left the church and headed back for the castle and admired the afternoon sunlight playing on the mountains across the lake. Far off in the distance the ocean mist wrapped each mountain in a smoky haze that gave the vista an even deeper sense of drama. We bid Martin the musician goodbye and thanked the captain and his mate. Quickly we gathered for a group shot in front of the majestic castle.
"Did you hear the racket in the hotel last night?" Mick asked. "A woman pounded on my door for over 20 minutes! I finally had to let her out."
We relaxed over dinner at a restaurant where I could not resist trying more of the delicious Irish salmon with potatoes and fresh vegetables. After the meal, we walked slowly to the hotel where there was an Irish seisun playing. On our way we heard the strains of salsa music and saw a most delightful sight of couples dancing the salsa. They were on the second floor of an old building and the windows were wide open as the smiling people gracefully moved in unison, bathed in a warm yellow lamplight. The full moon was out, the sky clearing, and every corner had the sound of various bands playing in a myriad of pubs and listening rooms. It was a magical night to end a very satisfying day.
Click here to read Day 1
Click here to read Day 2
Click here to read Day 4