"I am sorry to wake you up,” she said. "There are two prowlers in the yard between our houses." Luckily for us her big black Labrador dog had scared them off, and she had phoned the police. I listened to her as I stared out at the River Finn moving placidly by my hotel window. I thanked her and told her that I was over in Ireland and assured her that I was well awake as I was six hours ahead of Chicago.
Hearing such news while looking over such beautiful scenery seemed disconnecting for me. But disconnecting is what you really want to do when you get to Ireland. I was grateful for having such a vigilant neighbor. And I made a mental note that I'm going to have to get a lock for the front gate to our yard. And maybe install one of those motion sensor lights, perhaps one that has a siren that you can hear 15 miles away.
The warm sunlight spreading over the Donegal countryside helped me forget the woes of inner-city life back in Illinois. Our drivers Mick and David decided to have our coaches split up today. Our coach was off to visit Glenveagh National Park, one of the most beautiful places in all of Ireland. As we drove along I asked David about the results of the election to abolish the Irish Senate. He told us that there was no decision made yet.
"You see," David explained, "Our elections have voting that is all hand counted." He went on to explain that once Ireland did attempt electronic voting, like the United States, but "immediate results shocked the population." David went on to explain further, "We like the idea of slowly hand counting the votes, and relish having a recount or two." He then asked if we would like to hear how the Irish government works. "Sure," I said. David then went on for the next 25 minutes explaining in explicit detail every nuance of government in Ireland. About 10 minutes into the conversation I saw the heads of several on our coach turn and give me a look that is usually reserved for someone who is about to be stoned to death. Luckily for me, David had to interrupt his discourse on the history of Irish politics and the running of the government by the arrival of our coach in the town of Letterkenny.
About 20 minutes outside of town, we took a turn onto a scenic drive that brought us to the majestic Glenveagh National Park. If anyone reading this is a fan of the PBS series "Downton Abbey,” this would be a visit of a lifetime. Even though its days as a private manor house are over, this Scottish-styled castle sits like a jewel set in a band of the deep blue of Lough Gartan and still evokes memories of an age when famous people and glamorous actresses and actors visited this remote outpost of culture and comfort. Around the lake and the castle are thousands of acres of rolling mountains and uninhabited valleys. A brief history shows that this was not always the case, for local tenants were forced off the land by the Anglo – Irish landowner Lord Adair, who also had holdings throughout other parts of Ireland and, along with Charles Goodnight, a huge ranch outside the Palo Duro Canyon in Texas. Ironically I just finished reading a great book called "Empire of the Summer Moon,” which talks about this land in Texas belonging to the Comanche Indians. Like the Comanche, the Irish were looked upon as expendable and removable.
Adair had married an American and along with his new bride, proceeded to build a brand-new castle on the recently "cleansed" land. Adair died in St. Louis, Missouri in 1885, only 15 years after the last stone was set in his newly created castle. It was his American wife who slowly endeared herself to the people and transformed the castle sitting there on the shores of the lake into a jeweled garden. Two more owners would to take over the castle, both of them American. Mr. Henry McIlhenny, son of an Irish immigrant, who lived in Philadelphia bought the estate in 1937. It was he who continued to restore and improve the gardens, finally signing the estate over to the Irish government in 1975. In 1981, the castle and surrounding gardens were given to the Irish government which transformed it into the National Park it is today. The lands along Lough Gartan came full circle, having been taken from the people and finally restored to the people.
Beauty immediately captures you. As we were walking into the visitor center, a young Irish girl of about two or three looked up at her mom and said, "Look Mommy, a toadstool!" And there it was, a beautiful Amanita or red toadstool. I took a picture of it, because it is wrapped in a great deal of mythology and mystery. If you were curious you can check out this link: here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_muscaria.
After a very informative movie about the park, we boarded a small bus that took us to the castle itself. We were introduced to a wonderful docent, Vincent, who in a very gentle and melodious brogue proceeded to give us a deeply detailed and informative history of the castle. We stepped back several centuries as we admired the furniture crafted in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. We also were able to see wonderful collections of oil paintings, many of them that underscored a scene about hunting the elusive red deer that inhabits the park. I asked the docent, "Have you ever seen the red deer in the park?" He smiled and looked at me and said "no, I haven't. I live just outside the park and I see the red deer every day. They come down from the mountain and my wife has to chase them away with the broom from our garden!" The islands in a group had a good chuckle with that one, as they evolve pretty much experienced chasing deer out of the garden with a broom.
We were able to take a stool around the garden since around the castle. The gardens themselves truly represent the wonderful collection of plants from around the world. It reminded me a little bit of Hawaii and the botanical garden that exists on the island of Kauai. It too was part of an estate, and it too has many species of plants that would work brought in from around the world. The joy that these wonderful treasures I made available to the public, cannot be emphasized enough. I was grateful to Mr. McIlhenny for having the generosity of heart to share this castle with future generations of Irish and non-– Irish alike.
I must admit that after the visit to the park, I managed to fall asleep as we gently rocked along the road that brought us to the town of Ardara. This small town nestled in the Donegal Mountains was home to one of the last remaining weaving families in the country. The Mulherns named the business after their daughter, Triona. Once upon a time many families in this part of Ireland had weaving businesses. Clothiers from Dublin and Belfast would come out and purchase the intricate weavings and herringbone tweeds that these craftsman and craftswomen created from the wool of flocks of local sheep. Mrs. Mulhern gave a wonderful talk, describing how these families struggled to make ends meet and how a purchase of a piece of clothing (purchased, I might add for a trifling price by the clothiers from the city) was something to be celebrated by these families. Click here to see the Triona Design website.
Around 6:45 in the evening we gathered both coaches and headed off to Donegal town and Dom's Pier 1 restaurant. I was surprised to learn that there were some folks on our tour who would hear us for the first time at this private concert. The meal was fantastic and I had salmon which was as fresh and tasty as anything I have ever eaten in my entire life.
The program for the evening touched on a lot of songs that had connections to Ulster. For example back at the castle, Vincent, had talked about one of the mantle pieces of the fireplace being made of Kilkenny marble. That reminded me of the traditional song "Carrickfergus" in which there is a verse:
But in Kilkenny, it is reported, there are Marble stone's there as black as ink.
Another song that is quite popular with Switchback fans is the song "Star of the County Down.” This song mentions several landmarks that we traversed over the day before:
He smiled at me
And he says, says he,
"That's the gem of Ireland's crown.
Young Rosie McCann from the banks of the Bann,
She's the Star of the County Down."
From Bantry Bay up to Derry quay,
From Galway to Dublin town,
No maid I've seen, like the brown Colleen,
The Star of the County Down.
One of the highlights of the evening, was when Maggie FitzGerald got up and sang the song "Here's to the Evening." It is a song that was written by her father, James Cronin, who was himself an extraordinary Irishman.
I loved how at the part of the song when Maggie sings "lift up your glass,” everyone in the room raised their glasses and toasted each other. It was a very unifying moment for a tour that was already finding new friends and a closeness that only traveling in Ireland will bring.
At one point, there were some Irish girls sitting over at a table. And doing what young Irish girls do, they were talking up a storm during one of our quieter songs. Brian's mother, Margaret FitzGerald, walked over to them and in the kindest most grandmotherly way said, "I don't mean to interrupt you girls, and each one of you looks more gorgeous than the next, but those two young men are from Chicago and they brought all these people over to Ireland to sing, and they would like to sing for you too." The young girls told Mom FitzGerald that they were part of the basketball team celebrating a win that night, apologized for talking loudly and each proceeded to give her a big hug, which was also so very Irish.
The evening ended with a nice rendition of "The Galway Shawl.” This song has become one of the hallmarks of our Irish show.
It was early, early,
The next morning,
I hit the road for Donegal,
She cried and kissed me,
And then she left me,
All I can think of, is the Galway Shawl.
As we headed back from a wonderful evening, all I could think of is how blessed I am to be able to perform music for people who truly enjoy hearing what I do.
Click here to read Day 4