Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Late April, 2008

The Coast of Clare
We finally bought a bicycle carrier for our car, which opens a lot more possibilities for cycling trips. On a crystal clear day we drove 40 minutes to the sea and left the car at the resort town of Kilkee. From there we cycled on a stunning cliffside road winding down to Loop Head, the southwest tip of County Clare.

This is one of the sea stacks near the cliffs - a piece of land that was once attached to the mainland. The sea batters at the base of the cliffs until an arch is formed, and eventually the bridge between the two parts erodes and a sea stack left. On this stack you can see stone foundations of buildings, which date back to when this was part of the mainland.

Guard Sheep

Loop Head is a high spit of land where the mighty Shannon runs into the Atlantic ocean. If you look at a map of Ireland, A bit of County Clare kicks out to the western ocean like a dancer's leg. Loop Head is like the toe dipping into the Atlantic ocean. It's a dangerous and rocky point and so there is a lighthouse to warn ships. We could just see the distant mountains of County Kerry on the peninsula to the south.

From Loop Head we cycled along the Shannon, passing deeply curved bays and inlets, to the little town of Carrigaholt where we had a medicinal pint to help us complete the last few miles of the 35 mile loop.

The Dingle Peninsula
The following weekend, inspired by our sighting of the Kerry mountains, we headed south to the Dingle peninsula for a few days of sightseeing. There's a handy ferry that crosses the Shannon just south of us and takes us directly to Kerry without having to pass through Limerick City so we are just a few hours from Dingle.

The southwestern coast of Ireland looks a bit like 4 fingers stretching out into the sea. These fingers of land are relatively narrow yet quite mountainous, which makes for very dramatic scenery. The second highest mountains in Ireland are on the Dingle peninsula, and at just one mile from sea level the highest of these, Mount Brandon, rises up to over 3,000 feet. We were hoping for decent weather to make the steep ascent up Mt. Brandon.

The first day Mt. Brandon was completely wreathed in fog, so we drove around Slea Head, the tip of the peninsula. This is a gorgeous road that hugs the sea with great views of the nearby Blasket Islands.

The Blaskets were inhabited until the 1940's, when the dwindling population, in particular a lack of marriageable young women, spelled the extinction of the island people. They could be cut off from the mainland for weeks during stormy seas, and one time ran so short of food supplies they had to send a telegram directly to the leader of the country asking for emergency relief. The abandoned houses are still standing and visible from the coast road.

On a billy goat trail 300 feet above the sea, overlooking the Blasket Islands

We stopped at an interpretive center about the Blasket Islands and it was here that Bill finally had a chance to use one of the extremely useful Irish phrases he learned from a book on Irish conversational phrases. We were in the interpretive center looking at old photos of life on the Blasket Islands, when I suddenly spotted a golden opportunity for Bill: it was a photo of a donkey standing outside the door of a thatched cottage. I pointed to the photo while sputtering "Bill, say it! Say it!!" And standing tall and with great pride Bill says "Ta an tasal ag an doras." The donkey is at the door. And here I thought he would never in a million years have a chance to use that phrase. The phrase book was published in the 1960's when there must have been a lot of donkeys roaming around the countryside and walking up to doorways.

Standing Stone

Besides the great views and exciting walking trails high above the sea, there are innumerable ancient sites on the lower slopes of the mountains at the tip of Dingle. This was a popular area for early Christian monks looking to establish monastic settlements, and apparently they spent a lot of their time building cool things with an infinite supply of rocks. There are remains of about 400 "beehive huts", cone-shaped stone buildings just big enough for one person to get out of the rain or do some meditating.. They were built of dry laid stone and even though they are about 1,000 years old some are still intact. The only residents of these huts now are sheep.

We visited a couple of large monastic settlements that contained foundations of churches and numerous larger circular dwellings within a defensive wall.

One of them also had a nice souterain, an escape tunnel lined with rocks. (Souterain is actually a French word meaning underground, similar to the english word subterranean.) The souterain was on the opposite side of the entrance to the walled enclosure and allowed the monks to scoot out the back way if they were getting raided by the Vikings, who were sailing around the west coast of Ireland looting holy sites for gold and treasures.

The coolest old stone thing that we saw that day was the Gallarus Oratory, a really rare type of stone church shaped somewhat like an upturned boat. The oratory is 1500 years old and built completely of dry stonework with no mortar, yet is sound and still totally dry inside on rainy days. The stones on the outside and inside were perfectly beveled to make a smooth angled wall.

Climbing Mount Brandon
Our second morning on Dingle dawned cloudy and foggy. We had been staying in a hostel at the base of Mt. Brandon for two days and still hadn't even had so much as a glimpse of the mountain. We had to catch a ferry that evening to go back to Clare, so we decided to start climbing up in the morning and see if the fog cleared at some point. About two thirds of the way up the fog started to break up, and we caught some atmospheric and moody glimpses of the mountain peak ahead through shifting curtains of mist and fog.

Below us was the mountain corrie, a cup-shaped valley filled with a series of lakes linked together by a small stream, like beads on a chain.

We were close to the top of Mt. Brandon when the fog cleared briefly to give us a view of the Dingle peninsula below, with our route from the previous day around Slea Head laid out before us.

We continued on to the peak and were once again enveloped in fog. At the top we met an older guy, mid 60's or so, who lives in the area so he climbs the mountain on a regular basi (he had climbed to the top the previous day). He said that last year he only had 4 days where it was clear enough to see for a long distance, so I didn't feel so bad about the dense fog after that. At least it wasn't raining. We'll try to go back to Brandon sometime and see if we can hit some clear weather.

After the peak of Brandon we continued along the ridge to climb three smaller peaks before looping back to the car, via a little-used road.

Dog Dilemma
When we moved here in February, we left our two dogs Ori and Sonya in the care of our good friends Eileen and Heather, who are renting our house while we're away. When we made plans to return to Ireland both dogs were in good health, and the plan was to move here in late winter and find jobs and a place to live, and bring the dogs over in spring when both we and the weather were more settled. Things have a way of mucking up those best-laid plans, and about 6 weeks before our departure date Sonya, who is only 9, started experiencing health problems.

Soon after we left Eileen started noticing that Sonya seemed to be having trouble seeing, and was walking into things. The vet confirmed that Sonya was rapidly losing her eyesight and thought it was likely to be SARDS - Sudden Acute Retinal Degeneration Syndrome. Since then Eileen and Heather have been taking excellent care of our pets and helping Sonya adjust to the loss of her sight. In the meantime Sonya has become overweight and weak since her blindness makes it difficult for her to get the regular exercise she needs.

It's been a struggle to figure out what to do. On the one hand, our dogs are in good hands and the plane journey will be stressful for them. Also, Sonya will have to adjust to new surroundings. On the other hand, we miss our beloved dogs terribly and life does not feel complete here without them. We want to be with them for their last years, and not have to make decisions regarding their health from afar. We've read up on SARDS and blindness in dogs and have found some good tips for helping blind dogs adjust to new settings.

Bill is going to fly back to the States within a few weeks and assess the health of the dogs. One of the last bits of paperwork needed to import them to Ireland is a health check by a vet, and we will find out then if the vet thinks it's OK to bring them. All you dog lovers out there, you must understand how we feel, so wish us luck in having us reunited with our pets.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Early April 2008

Spring continues to unfold ever so slowly here, not like the sudden and explosive springs in the northeast US. The earliest wild trees, the blackthorn, are starting to bloom and soon they'll be joined by the whitethorn to create a white lacework in the woods and hedgerows. Meanwhile lots of exotic plants are flowering in the gardens where we work and at our own cottage garden.

One Sunday we drove to the sea at Spanish Point. I told the story of how the rocky shoreline got its name in our 2005 blog, but it bears retelling. In 1588 the Spanish armada attempted to land on the coast of west Ireland. Spain was a Catholic country and they were coming to help the Irish rebel against the Protestant government. The ships were smashed to bits on the rugged coastline of the west Clare in a terrible storm. When the survivors swam to shore the English were waiting there to arrest them, but a few Spaniards escaped and were taken in and hidden by the Irish. Soon the Spanish men had babies with Irish women (I 'll bet the Irish women found the dark exotic sailors irresistible), and the line of "black Irish" was started.

These Spanish-Irish stand out with their dark hair, brown eyes and ability to tan in summer. My mom is a dark eyed brunette and as she is 100% Irish (her parent emigrated from Ireland in the 1930's) she was always told that she had the Spanish blood. My ancestors originally lived near Spanish Point before moving to Limerick after the Famine. My grandparents stayed at the Armada Hotel at Spanish Point for their honeymoon in the early '30's.

On another day off we walked around a giant triple ring fort called Mooghan Hill. Ringforts were circular enclosures of stone, usually surrounded by a ditch, that predate castles as fortified homesteads. They were built by the Celts starting around the 5th century BC and continued to be used even into the Middle Ages. Ancient ring forts dot the landscape, and typically they are a stone wall about 30-50 feet across and usually located on a hilltop or hillside with good views. Most ring forts (or fairy forts as they are also called) would have 2 or 3 small yurt-like buildings inside where the extended family and their animals lived. Often several ring forts will be located within sight of each other, like a little neighborhood. The stone wall was protection against predators as well as human raiders.

The ring fort at Mooghan is unusual. Three concentric stone walls enclose a large hill, with the largest circular wall at the base of the hill and the smallest at the top. This would have been more like a town with hundreds of inhabitants, including the tribal king of the fort and his family, traders and craftspeople. The top of the hill has a great 360 view and a viewing platform with circular map of the region. The hill is now covered with woods so it's not possible to see all the walls at once, but nice walking trails and interpretive signage help bring the ancient city to life.

We continued walking on the mid-Clare walking trail and encountered a castle in the woods. We crept around the base hoping to explore further but were stopped by voices inside - whether living or ghosts we didn't wait around to find out.

Our social life is picking up. We've had people over for dinner and have gone to other folks houses. Aiden, our landlord, had us over to his farm, which is wonderfully idyllic. We walked over through his fields and encountered his sheep and horses. Aiden lived in this house until he was 6, then his family moved to a house right on the main road to Ennis. For years the house was used as a cattle barn, but when Aiden was 20 he moved in and fixed it up. It's gorgeous inside - renovated in a traditional style and full of antiques. There's a lovely river that runs alongside one border, and Aiden keeps spotted Jacob sheep, a very ancient breed, in a pasture next to the river.

Our landlord Aiden and Bill by the Ballycorick Creek, which runs through Aiden's land.

Aiden's cottage

Spotted Jacob sheep