There is always a sense of disbelief when I wake up in Ireland. Looking out the hotel window, I see a store that has baskets of beautiful flowers hanging from each of its second story windows. And it is October! Rush hour traffic is non-existent and no fire engine sirens are wailing in the background. I realize that I have come to not a slower, but perhaps a more deliberately paced place. And it is that pace, which is held in common by the community, that is absent in the varied and harried world I have back home. Perhaps I would tire of such a life, but for now I welcome and enjoy it.
Today we headed off to one of the more Switchback song-celebrated parts of Ireland, the Connemara. Situated in the counties of Mayo and Galway, the Connemara is to Ireland what Wyoming, Colorado and Montana are to the U.S. It is the "big wide open" of Ireland with mountains, waterfalls and deep lakes. Wind swept vistas greet the eye, and if it wasn't for the presence of the Atlantic, a casual glance could easily mistake it for the American West.
However, there are some major differences and the Connemara is unique in that it holds bogland, a fjord that cuts some 13 miles into it and is daily soaked by showers that sweep in from the ocean. It is lonely, wet and wild. And it is a land of melancholy as well. For here the land itself has the past etched into its very hills.
That changed in 1844 when the potato blight swept into Europe. By 1846, the Irish potato crop had failed twice. Starvation ruled and several million Irish men, women and children died from hunger, dysentery and disease. The hillsides, which once held the small farms and families, were soon abandoned or were now graves. By 1847, the inept British government levied a tax on the Irish landlords in a bizarre attempt to raise monies to alleviate the hunger and death of their tenants. The tax, based on how many tenants each landlord had, backfired as the landlords found it cheaper to pay for passage of these people on the "coffin ships" that sailed for America. Or worse yet, they dispossessed the people of their homes, tore the roofs off and left them to wander and die.
Ireland was at least 8 million at the time of the famine and today the population is only 6 million. The famine had long lasting effects on the psyche of the people that are still here today. And these weed strewn "lazy beds" for the potatoes that once supported the people are now the only testament to their existence. As we drove along and looked at the miles and miles of these furrows, I could picture in my mind those families, standing there and looking back at us. What an impact that would have for a traveler if they could see such a display.
Mick drove us to Galway Bay and we stopped at Standuns, which is another great shopping experience. Some local knits of Aran sweaters and Irish-made goods can be bought at great prices here as well, and our tour made good use of the time to find special gifts for those back home. Scarves, suit jackets, hats, rugby shirts and Claddagh rings were just some of the items purchased.
As we were walking back from the beach, we noticed a man gathering seaweed in buckets. Curiosity got the better of our group and we asked what he was up to. He explained that the high tide had brought in some fine seaweed and that he was collecting it to mix into his garden beds to create a rich soil for his potatoes and carrots! It would have been the same practice that the families living on those steep hillsides would have done to improve the soil of the Connemara all those years ago. It takes a hard working person to live in this place as well.
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