There and Back Again (or, Ireland is More Considerate than Pennsic)

Help!  The Vikings are coming!

I’m back!  I can’t cover the month I just spent in Ireland in one post, so I’ll offer you bits and pieces over the next several blog posts.  For the time being, I’ll say that I had brilliant conversations with people from all over the world, tons of tea, gorgeous walks through breathtaking land (sprinkled with historic and prehistoric sites, not to mention an astounding variety of wildflowers – many medicinal), and a generally rockin’ time.

I’ve become spoiled:  I seem to have these sorts of experiences every time I go to Ireland.  When I’m not there, I enjoy knowing that Ireland is going about its business – experiencing challenges for sure, but going on being an extraordinary place year in and year out.

I’m going to miss Pennsic* this year, but (since I just spent a month traveling) I’m determined not to feel sorry for myself.  I still can’t help but watch the calendar to see when Pennsic starts, and I’m debating whether I could get away with wearing some garb each day in solidarity.  (No debate, really.  Vermont’s a safe haven for hippie skirts and peasant shirts.)  Because Pennsic, unlike Ireland, only exists in the real world for two weeks every year.  Something I’m finding bleeding inconsiderate this summer.

When you’re there, though, that’s part of Pennsic’s charm.  Come July 30th, my consolation will be knowing that Pennsic is going about its business, and that the combined imaginations of all the people there are making it an extraordinary, if ephemeral, place.

*a.k.a. the strange festival where I met my boyfriend.

Porridge, my Ugly Duckling

On February 1, 2005, I arrived in Ireland with a work permit in hand and a single connection who was gracious enough to meet me in Galway city and show me around. Soon I was situated in a house ten minute’s walk from the City Centre, my connection went home to Limerick, and I set about trying to find a job. But first, I must have breakfast!

I had bought a package of Flahavan’s oats, eager to ‘do as the Romans do’ – plus, I knew porridge is nourishing and hot, and my housemates seemed to think nothing of going a few days without heating oil. Alas, when I heated up the flaked oats and water as the package directed, I created a bland sort of paste. Unappealing as it was, I choked down about two thirds of the bowl.

Next day, I approached breakfast much less eagerly. But my housemate, a student at NUI Galway, opened up her cupboard and recommended I stir in some cinnamon, honey, and sunflower seeds; that made all the difference.

These days, I eat porridge in all weather and for any meal, not just for the sustained energy it gives me, but also because it’s so adaptable. Some days, my porridge is practically a binding agent for fruits and nuts, and some days, it’s a breakfast sundae with yogurt and honey – which goes to show that even a homey sort of breakfast can be a creative endeavor.

(Click here for recipes and ideas.)


I am obviously suffering from inadequate exposure to ocean air, which would explain why I’m watching tourism vids about places I’ve already been to and/or lived in.


Every year on St. John’s Eve each village on Inis Mor has a bonfire. Many villages along the west coast of mainland Ireland also celebrate this holiday, and if it’s a clear night you can see the bonfires of Connemara and County Clare across the water. Everyone in the village comes to the bonfire, and celebrations might last the whole night through. Refreshments are passed around, songs sung, and tunes played. These festivities take place within a few nights of midsummer, and are in actuality part of a pre-christian tradition that has survived remarkably well in western Ireland.

Blending into the Landscape

The first fort I visited on my last trip to Inis Mor was Dun Eochla, an almost cozy sort of hilltop fort that is isolated enough that you might not see another visitor during your stay there.

If you look closely along the left side of the photo below (a view from the Dun’s walls), you’ll see another round, apparently stone structure. It’s actually a concrete water reservoir that has been camouflaged with local stones so as to blend into the landscape. Genius!


The other day I walked out of the restaurant a few minutes before it opened to fetch my forgotten water bottle from the car. The clouds were all fish scales and mare’s tails across the sky, back lit and painted by the setting sun. I wished I could lie down on the grass and just stare up until darkness fell. I even contemplated, on a whim, putting the keys in the ignition to see if I drove off.

But instead I walked back inside. As I took a last glance up at the sky I noticed the pink, sunset light coloring the building’s usual hue. It reminded me of this shot, taken at sunset at Dun Aengus on Inis Mor last June. So glad I was there!

Teaglach Éinne (Saint Enda’s Church)

The cemetery on Inis Mor is practically on the beach, because this sand is the only place deep enough the bury the dead. Near the back of the cemetery, hidden from the road, are the stone ruins of a medieval church, half-buried in the sand.

When I first walked in the door, I saw a búllan stone, a sort of one-piece stone basin, filled with coins and rainwater. There were lots of five cent pieces, but also larger denominations, and even some of the old pre-euro Irish coins. I had a twenty cent and a two cent coin. I deposited the latter and continued walking round the church, examining the carvings – spirals, knots, even a knight – around the alter.

Seeing this art, I felt stingy for having chosen the smaller coin. I argued with myself about whether it mattered, and even contemplated going back to the búllan with my twenty cent coin. But it seemed an odd, half-hearted gesture.

Then I turned back toward the door and realized that there were two búllans! A second lay tucked just inside the door. I left my second coin there, with a smile, and dubbed the place the Church of Second Chances.

Dallying in Doolin

One of my favorite walks is to go up the road past the old church (see yesterday’s post), then keep going straight to the coast and walk along the rocks and beside the fields to the town pier. Doolin can get quite busy in the tourist season, but it’s possible to do this walk without seeing anyone but cows.
The first photo looks back along the coast where I’ve been walking. If you look closely, you can see some cows and a bull. Their field runs right down to the rocky beach, with no fence needed. That means there was nothing but bad footing between me and the bull! That bad footing dissuaded him from checking me out too closely, but I was very aware that my progress was being watched.
The second photo was taken further along the coast. In the distance, on the horizon, you can just make out the Cliffs of Moher.

The Rainbow Hostel in Doolin

When in Doolin, I have almost always stayed at the Rainbow Hostel, just a couple of doors up from McDermott’s Pub. In addition to having an ideal location, it’s a really comfortable, friendly place that seems to attract great conversationalists and just plain cool people. I’ve never had a lonely evening there.

The first picture shows the front of the Rainbow Hostel itself, while the second is the view from the common room window: the ruins of an old church on a hill and the accompanying cemetery. The church is within walking distance from the hostel, and locals keep the site in good condition: clean and mown, etc.

Settling in to the Landscape

As a New Englander, I was raised in a fairly pristine environment. We have plenty of forests left wild, and fields full of brush and wildflowers. Parts of Ireland, on the other hand, have been divided over generations into small, fenced-off pastures. When I first saw Co. Clare from above, flying into Shannon Airport, I thought it would make me feel claustrophobic. I discovered anything but. The stone walls, constructed with stones from the fields they enclose, are beautiful, and vary in style from region to region. They seem so much more in tune with the landscape than wire or chain link fencing. Also, it’s common practice to hop the fences and walk right through the fields (assuming there’s no bull inside!)

Most older structures are also built of stone. I have a friend in Doolin who likes to point out his house from a distance, because it matches its environment so well. Unfortunately many of the newer houses are much like suburban American dwellings: larger than needed, built with little craftsmanship. They stick out like a sore thumb.

The roads in Ireland, also, seem to impose less on the landscape. The one pictured here is, in effect, one of Ireland’s major highways. Many roads are hardly wider than a bike path. And people drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars to fit them.