Wednesday, 3 October 2001

Our walk of yesterday has really hit me today. My legs are sore. I took Daniel to the start of the Burren Walk (one reason he’d come to Ireland), and we “breakfasted” at the only open business—a pub. The kitchen didn’t open until 12, but a woman there said she’d make us up a couple sandwiches. We ate them in front of a peat fire, which I have to admit felt better than it should have. It’s certainly not cold here, but we’ve been drenched by the periodic rainstorms, and, gosh, a fire can really hit the spot sometimes.

A note on the Burren (I made two Irish lads pronounce this, but only one of them got it right—that is, with the thick rolled ‘r’ I wanted to hear). It’s a geologic phenomenon that characterizes the part of Ireland known as County Clare. For our purposes, we can just think of it as meaning ‘rock’. A pub patron confirmed that no one tries farming around here, but there are many cattle, both beef and dairy. Lots of signs about looking out for hoof and mouth, but these cattle escaped the slaughter we heard so much about in England.

I can’t get used to the scale of things here. When loosely preparing this trip, I’d say that it looked as if it would take me a day to go from such-and-such a place to some other place. It takes about an hour. At 35 mph.

I was talking with a museum guide in Ennis yesterday, and when I asked about some aspect of life in that area, she replied that she couldn’t know, because she came from up the road a piece. Seven miles up the road. And speaking of roads, they’re so narrow that I spend half my driving time tucked into a hedge, waiting for a tour bus to pass. And so far, it hasn’t been much different in the cities.

I’m in Galway now. Arrived in early afternoon, and blindly maneuvered through countless roundabouts (I know, I’d been warned, but you have to experience them to understand) parked in the first car park I could see around city center. I then asked a passer-by where I might find a hotel, and he pointed ten feet in front of my nose and asked, what about that one? So I took it. Nice to have a bathroom and electricity, but also nice to know you don’t really need those things.

There isn’t a lot to see here in Galway. I’ll try again in the morning (hoping the rain goes away), but it’s pretty much just a real working city where normal people somehow make a living. Where I’m staying, there’s a Shop Street, where cars have been routed away, and lots of shops that might cater to tourists compete for our attention. But Galwayans like to frequent the place, too, evidently. I hear a lot of American accents, and some from parts of the British empire, but plenty of natives. It’s fascinating to hear the kids talk in the same way as their American counterparts: “You know, like, we could just go over t’ Jimmy’s...”

At least in this commercial area, life is so much like American life that it’s scary. One bookstore I went into has more Bill Bryson books than any store I’ve seen in the States. And the Irish seem much more connected to the US than the average American feels to Ireland. But of course anyone of Irish-American blood who gets excited about his roots or who still has relatives here is going to be interested in Irish culture. Some version of it, anyway. From what I see, you can pursue an interest in Irish culture (old or contemporary) if you like, but the culture of the average person is simply the steadily spreading international culture that has so many American elements. I took a photograph of a huge poster in a bookstore advertising a book about Eva Cassidy (for the two or three of you who don’t know, she’s a singer from my current hometown—Washington, DC—who died before she became well-known; someone in her family or circle of friends has worked very hard to spread her recordings around, and now she’s a massive popular hit), and as I ate dinner in a local restaurant, her Songbird album started playing on the music system. The crowd hushed noticeably, and someone started singing along with “Fields of Gold.”

The countryside (from my current city perspective) appears to keep many of its old ways, and I suppose it’s there where we most feel we’re visiting a foreign country. With the marvelous fortune that we visit here and speak our normal language, which makes this a common choice for Americans looking to take a foreign vacation. Only in the country, I’m beginning to think, will they feel they’ve actually gone far from home.

My photography plans have been affected by some unexpected factors. First, it takes a lot of attention to drive here. You’re fighting your instincts just to stay on the ‘proper’ (Irish word for ‘wrong’) side of the road, so much of the scenery is passing you by unnoticed. Taking a bus would be a far wiser way to travel here, except that because I want to be photographing what I see, it wouldn’t have been an option. Just somehow getting to the major tourist attractions would be too limiting, I think, as with anywhere else. Just stopping where you feel like is quite unlikely, because the narrow roads and ubiquitous stone fences hemming in said roads make turn-outs quite rare in the Irish countryside I’ve seen. And then there’s the rain. Just pours, every now and again. There can be brilliant sunshine between those “little” storms.

OK. Time for a bath and more reading of Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors, a recommendation in response to my request for contemporary Irish fiction.

County Clare (continued)

We made one more stop—in Doolin, before I dropped Daniel off for his attempt at the Burren Walk.
The rainbow can be called ubiquitous in Ireland. At least during my stay, I don’t think a day passed without seeing one.

On the way out of Doolin, along the coast and up into Galway, the terrain gets—if possible—more rocky. How did these folks ever grow any food?

County Galway

Galway (the city) seemed a nice second day goal, so that’s what I did. Found a neat little hotel right downtown (the Brendan Arms), and settled in for a while. I’d run into pretty constant rain as I entered County Galway, and that would hold through my stay there. So, I tucked my 35mm under my jacket, and sneaked a shot or two through the rain drops.
Note the store display for the latest Bill Bryson book. More attention than here in his own country.