Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Connemara Jig

Irish Pub of the Week #5 - Mannion's Bar, Clifden, Co. Galway

Jump! The Atlantic Ocean hits the cliffs of County Mayo

Clare feeds the Connemara ponies
(please click on any of these photos for a larger version)

Micky Martin & Marie Walsh playing some great Irish trad music
at Mannions Bar, Clifden (YouTube video)
Photo Link: <Connemara photos>
This past bank holiday weekend, we went for another motoring jaunt across Ireland – to Connemara and County Mayo, on the Atlantic coast. Lots of rugged hills, peat bogs, rocks, loughs (pronounced like Scottish "lochs”), and loads of “famine ruins” (abandoned rock houses) as this was one of the worst affected areas of Ireland. I guess you could say Connemara is quintessential Ireland, although Ireland has so many really different regions. It’s certainly one of the major "tourist” areas of the country, as we saw coach loads of Americans that we don’t see in County Louth (where we live). We also caught 2 nights of really great trad music at Mannion’s Bar in Clifden – the best so far in Ireland.
We started our journey with some dinner at The Cock Tavern in Swords (right near DHL, before we even hit the road), then along the wonderful M50 (not!) and the M4 to the Galway ring road in about 4 hours. Stayed at the Ibis Galway (€87) - we always seem to start our weekend at the Ibis! Definitely don’t drink the water, as the Galway water supply is currently rendered undrinkable due to cryptosporidium contamination. Mmm, tasty. Despite all the rainfall in this country, maintaining a clean water supply to towns still seems to be rather a challenge.
The next day started with low rain and cloud. We took the coast road (R336) via Spiddal towards Clifden. The country beyond Galway soon turns very rocky & boggy, then the mountains of Connemarra start to rise up. We drove north straight through the middle of the Maumturk Mountains past a number of mist covered lakes, peat bog diggings and small stone walled fields full of sheep. Some sheep did manage to escape the fields onto the roads, especially the black faced lambs! We had a seafood lunch in Leenane where Killary Harbour starts - this is Ireland's only true fjord. The road rises from here with views of Mussel farms (floating ropes in the water) that are strung along the fjord and flowering trees -Rhododendrons? We stopped at the very gothic pile of Kylemore Abbey. At this point, after 2 fine weeks, it started to rain again. The abbey is now a girls boarding school run by the Benedictine Nuns. The stately home was built for an American couple in 1848, saving huge numbers of locals from potato famine starvation, and now is partially open to the public. The extensive restored kitchen gardens and family chapel are also open. It's very interesting to see what vegetables were grown and how, as most stately homes around the world show off the formal flower gardens but very few show what the residents really grew and ate. The only other one Clare can remember seeing was George and Martha Washington’s place at Mount Vernon, USA. The Nuns grew produce for the school in the garden until the 1970’s (I think) then it all ran wild until an EU grant came to the rescue in the 1990’s.
Stopped at lots of country crossroads to check for directions - that’s quite a common thing in Ireland, especially in Connemara, and most drivers are pretty tolerant to people just stopping in the road! Eventually got to Clifden, where we stayed at the Ben View House B&B for 2 nights (€65/nt) which was quite pleasant and you got a nice pot of tea served on silver each morning! Clifden is a small town and eveything is within easy walking distance. So we had some dinner, then went on a "trad" music pub crawl. The first place, EJ Kings, was just a bit too crowded. At the second, Lowrys, we had a drink and listened to 2 old blokes playing the accordian and keyboard. Then we went to Mannions Bar (our favourite!) - here we settled in and listened to Marie Walsh (All-Ireland accordion champion) & Micky Martin. This is our YouTube video of Irish trad music (you'll need a good broadband connection to view this). Apart from the well sozzled locals propped up at the bar, I think we were the only English first language patrons, so lots of the Europeans didn’t always catch Micky’s jokes. One of them them was aimed at us - Clare requested "Bound for South Australia," so Micky says "this song is for the South Australians in the corner"... "well, actually Micky, we're not from South Australia"... "OK, this song is for the people in the corner who might have once been to South Australia"... We bought 2 CD's that night, so supported the local musos!
After a "full Irish" breakfast, we headed off in the rain to drive the rest of the coast road (R341) around to Ballyconneely & Roundstone. This part of Ireland is very, very Irish and most, if not all, people will speak Irish. These areas are called Gaeltacht. Most of the road signs are in Irish too, and not often in English. To buy a house here you must first pass an exam in written and oral Irish. Not quite sure how the Americans manage to get holiday houses here then. The place is full of side lanes that usually lead to a wharfs and salmon/mussel processing/smoking plants. Clare has been to these parts before with her job. We passed the site of the Marconi Telegraph Station, which is interesting because Clare has seen sites marked with the same title in Cape Cod, USA and just north of Perth, WA. Did Marconi get around or what?!
We stopped at a few places on the way: patted the Connemarra ponies; stopped at some white sandy (but windswept) Atlantic beaches (Tra Mhoir on Mannion Bay and Gurteen & Dogs Bays); checked out some fishing boats, just back into port; checked out a huge dead crab on the beach. On the R340 past Kilkerrin, we stopped at a windswept (yes, a pattern of the day) cemetery full of spectacular Celtic crosses, some with sheep grazing on them! Clare has been to some wonderful cemeteries in my time - Bonaventure Cemetery down by the river in Savannah Georgia stands out, but this one was really bleak with mist sweeping down (well it was in the bogs of Connemara) and at the same time had the most wonderfully inviting moss lined stream running through it. We headed back to Cliftden via the N59 straight through the middle of Connemara past abandoned "famine" villages, cleared bright green fields edged by dry stone walls, yellow gorse "hedges", and flat bog lands below rocky hillsides and mountains - 100% Ireland! After a late lunch at the Blackberry Café Leenane (in the Irish good food guides), we did some scenic detours through an area that had a number of villages with the name Tully in them. We have a good friend (Tully!) from Joe's DHL Brisbane days, so we took pictures of the Tully Mountains, Tully village, Tully Cross village, etc. Suzynne, we think this must have been your ancestral home! Being the fair weather "walkers" we are, we gave the Connemara National Park a big miss due to continuing downpours.
The sun finally came out as we headed up the famed "Sky Road" near Clifden. Yes, well worth a look. Clare's work colleague Dave insisted that we really should walk or ride a bike along the 12km road - needless to say we drove it. This is a small hilltop road (lane?) that runs off the N59 just at the northern edge of Clifden town, and loops around rugged, stunning Atlantic coastal scenery. From up here, you can see clearly how local people have worked so hard over the centuries just to eke out a basic living from the fields below. They start with a rock strewn patch of grass; collect all the rocks of every size; build a dry stone wall around everything, right down to the sea; collect seaweed to fertilise it; then put the sheep in it. We guess in the past they grow endless crops of potatoes, until the blight got to them in 1845. And so started the greatest migration I think the world has ever seen - before or since. There were 8 million Irish in Ireland in 1844. Even now there are only 4 million people in Ireland, and 250,000 of those are Polish. So 1 million people died in the famine, and another 1.25 million people emigrated. Looking at the harsh scenery in Connemara, it takes no imagination at all to see how & why this happened.
Mannions Bar had another session that night with Micky Martin, Marie Walsh, a bloke on the Irish bagpipes and another bloke on the "spoons" (yep, spoons). Then there was another bloke who sang. Then a girl popped in for a while (looked like she was clubbing with her 10 mates), and she sang a couple of songs. Things were generally a bit more rowdy as the locals hit the Guinness before the Monday bank holiday. A busload of Americans had taken the best tables, but not to be outdone, the locals took the tables back, seat by seat, until the Americans eventually gave up and left! The same sozzled locals from the night before were at the bar again, proclaiming us to be long lost friends to the Americans, and the barman knew our drink order by then and had the bottle of rum at the ready. The night before he'd said they had no rum, whilst standing in front of a bottle of Havana Gold. Mmm. Clare went back to Mannions in early July (had more salmon factories to look at). The local boys were still at the bar and the bottle of Havana Gold still wasn't finished. Micky was playing next door at Lowrys - that was the only difference!
On the Monday the sun had really come out (always happens on the day you go home) - we headed north on the N59 again, passing Killary Harbour and through Westport in County Mayo (very smart little town). We headed out to Ballycastle and the nearby Ceide Fields, sitting on the edge of spectacular Atlantic cliffs near Downpatrick Head. Ceide Fields is the worlds most extensive stone age monument. It's not like Stonehenge or Newgrange, but is a complete community of houses, fields & tombs completely buried under the peat bog fields from 5500 years ago. The visitor centre is well worth a look. Joe called this a "bunch of buried rocks" and to a large extent, it is, but Clare found the history of the bogs fascinating. Even more fascinating the fact that when the bogs came and they couldn't farm anymore, the people who were farming here just moved down the road, 8km or so, to the area of Ballycastle. The tour guide said that Ceide Fields would have looked physically almost the same as the farms in Ballycastle today, using more or less the SAME FARMING METHODS. So it's not a tall order to say that there are still some people in Ballycastle who may be direct descendants of the farmers from 5500 years ago. Stopped for some service station junk food on the way home. So that's a wrap-up on another great long weekend in Ireland...

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