Thursday, 8 March 2012

Travel: Ireland ~ Great gasps of green air

The green green greenness of Killarney

IRELAND MAKES me want to invent new words for blue and green. Lapis Lazuli. Aqua. Azure. Sky.  Can these spell blue? Emerald. Olive. Moss. Viridian. Pine. Synonyms for green? Stopping to breathe of its green-scented air in pristine national parks at Connemara and Killarney, stilled by the generous sweep of its coast from Donegal Bay into the Atlantic under turquoise skies, scaling the bare limestone grandeur of the waterless Burren lands, I begin to wonder if Ireland is a nation or a notion.

My notions of Ireland were based on the timeless texts of W B Yeats and J. M. Synge, Samuel Beckett and Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Brendan Behan. Could it have an identity beyond these word worlds? After six summer days on a Mercedes-Benz mini-coach with the London-based Stray Travel Network, Ireland came alive through verbal jousts in smoke-flavoured pubs, through facts tossed casually at us during the tour.


The tosser was 28-year-old Andy, Australian by birth, a wanderer by choice. He’s a friend and guide to the 22 global adventurers entrusted to his care during the all-Ireland tour, including a buxom Canadian mother with her teen son of Inuit descent, a Spanish chef, and assorted youth from Down Under. “I play the guitar, I play the mandolin, and I play the fool,” Andy says, coaxing us to join in the chorus of that evergreen Irish folk song, “The Black Velvet Band.” Gazing out of the window, he adds, “It rains in Ireland 260 days of the year.” No wonder it’s green beyond imagining.

“Dublin has a population of 1.4 million, 50 per cent of them under 25 years of age,” Andy reveals, as we steer out of Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland. “It’s best known for the 3.5 million pints of Guinness beer it produces.” 

The stately buildings of Dublin
With Andy, who studs his rendition of Irish history and folklore with offbeat humour, we find our way through a maze of Protestant-Catholic troubles, and the Great Potato Famine of 1845-49 that decimated the population by 2.5 million through starvation, disease and emigration.  “Ireland today has a population of 3.8 million, but attracts 5.5 million tourists a year,” Andy tells us, cueing us in to today’s resurgent Celtic Tiger economy.

Along the scenic route, we learn that the Connemara is not originally a five-star hotel in Chennai, but 5,000 sq. kms. of untamed wilderness in western Ireland. “Long ago, 70 per cent of Ireland was covered by bogland,” Andy stresses. “But little remains today. It can take upto 9,000 years for a bogland to build up. Whole families once spent days bog-cutting; the dried peat served as next year’s fuel.” We long to try our hand at it, but lashing rain renders our dream impossible.

Tiny Connemara ponies

Amidst the decaying moss of the spongy ground, we spot tiny Connemara ponies that first came to Ireland with the Spanish armada. To beat the drizzle, we wander around ornate 19th century Kylemore Abbey (originally Coill Mor, that’s Gaelic for ‘Big Wood’), with its tussocky grass and wild mountains, known for its tracery windows, stained glass and lavish plaster ceilings. The Benedictine nuns who run an international school at the 70-room abbey planted 10,000 native oak and ash trees all around.

A return to green adventures. To the southwest, Killarney National Park proves to be more than great gasps of fresh air. The natural habitat of red deer, foxes, badgers, and otters, it embraces 10,121 hectares of lake-studded  flowerland, where the play of light over the hill-fringed moorland, with access to beaches and waterfalls, promises this side of paradise. Too timid to try mountain-biking or a horse ride, I choose to walk through arched boughs as traditional jaunting cars ~ a first cousin to our jutkas ~ drawn by shaggy ponies, trot by. Six hours later, I’m still on my well-shod feet, while the Dingle Peninsula beckons in the distance.

Every time I come out of the shadows, I chance upon a rain-sprinkled or sun-patched lake, as tanned cyclists pedal furiously along. Suddenly, I find a change of scene ~ Ross Castle. It’s a 14th century Norman castle, which gained fame as the last Irish stronghold to submit to Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads.  Walking back to our low budget hostel in Killarney town, I meet a ruddy-cheeked local fisherman with the quintessential Irish name of Paddy O’Connor. “I hope future generations will enjoy this park as we do,” Paddy confides, offering me his injured left arm in friendship.

But first there’s Cromwell to contend with. This arch-villain to Irish eyes crops up at regular intervals during our sojourn.  He devastated towns like Galway, desecrated a castle in Sligo (that’s Yeats’ country), and earned himself enough Irish demerits to last generations. “In medieval times, a road was classified as something two cows could pass by on. Later, it was one on which Cromwell’s army could pass over on their way to wrecking Catholic areas,” Andy quips, as our van waits for a herd of fleecy sheep to shift gear.

Beyond landscapes, Ireland proves to be history caught in a time warp. Across a border without barbed wire, in Northern Ireland, we watch helicopter gunships fly over Derry from the 17th century fortified walls, take in the latent violence of the huge murals over the simmering Bogside buildings, and hear of the re-opened enquiry into the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings. Besieged, befogged, we don’t dare to voice the simmering question: ‘When will it ever end?’ Two days earlier, we visited the grave of the assassinated Irish leader Michael Collins, who came alive through Liam Neeson’s title role in the Hollywood reconstruction of the political truth.

As we drive, the near-symmetrical pyramid of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain, shadows County Mayo. After spending 40 days and nights fasting at its summit, St. Patrick is said to have banished all snakes from Ireland in 441! Even today, thousands of pilgrims wind their way to the top to touch base with their inner selves. Yet, it was at the hill of Tara that St. Patrick lit the first Paschal fire in 433, which local high king Laoighire regarded as defiance against his pagan gods. But he did allow his subjects to convert to Christianity, spawning generations of Irish boys named Paddy. “That’s when the Irish troubles began,” says a grizzled wag in a Glandore pub, as we sample potent Irish coffee, laced with cream and whisky.

One evening, after making little headway into a steaming bowl of Irish stew with mashed potatoes, we sail into the choppy waters of Donegal Bay towards the grey-green Atlantic, past the Bunglass or Green Cliffs, as seagulls pirouette at eye-level. Burly Paddy, who’s at the helm, suddenly thrusts a fishing rod into my hand. “What do I do with this?” I ask, startled. “Catch a fish!” he grins. Before I know it, Andy helps me to reel in my first catch ever ~ four frisky mackerel at the end of the line.

The Drombegh Stone Circle

As we lose and gain fellow travellers on this hop-on hop-off tour that allows for individual itineraries with a four-month pass, we realize that the stones of Ireland speak in local tongues. The Drombegh Stone Circle at Glandore dates back to 1124-794 AD, probably relating to megalithic tombs. Perhaps the ancients here told the time by the shadows cast by the stones. Untamed magnificence incarnate, the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare hug the coast for about four miles, soaring 700 feet above the Atlantic. Atop O’Brien’s Tower close by, we scan the Aran islands, glimpsing nesting fulmars and puffins along cliff ledges.

Another grey day, another pilgrimage. To the resting place of Nobel laureate Yeats at the Drumcliff cemetery in his beloved Sligo, mulling over the words carved on his gravestone: “Cast a cold eye/ On Life, on Death/ Horseman pass by!”  Fronted by bold limestone hills to the north, with the picturesque Lough Gill to the east, the wild scenery is the very stuff of poetry. 

Kissing the Blarney Stone
 If these Irish tales sound like fiction, you should check them out. After all, I did recently visit the 18th century Blarney Castle in Cork. Lying backwards on a tattered blanket, clinging to parallel iron bars, I kissed the legendary Blarney Stone about a metre away over a steep drop in the ancient wall. In that moment, I gained for myself the privilege of glib talk for seven years. Where goes its legend stem from? From the story of Cormac Teige MacCarthy, Lord of Blarney under Queen Elizabeth I, who enraged her by flattering her constantly instead of pledging fealty.

Dazzled by their blue-green country, should I believe the twinkle-tongued Irish? I’d like to. Especially the signs that greet us at frequent bends in the road: “Cead Mile Failte.” That’s Gaelic for a hundred million welcomes.

(Originally published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine in October 2001)

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