My Clare-Connemara-Galway tour started out with a bang, filled with history, fascinating details that only locals would know, and just a wee bit o’ Irish mist.
First stop: The charming market town of Ennis, in Clare. Toured the Clare Museum, a wonderful, hands-on place that features 6000 years of Irish history. I could have spent a few days there, learning about castles and other symbols of power, viewing stunning displays of weaponry and gold. The most exciting feature for me was the recordings of folktales and traditions of the area. I never knew that hanging a piece of linen on a rose bush the day before St. Brigid’s day might become a cure for the headaches, or that the giblets and other inedible parts of a cock killed on St. Martin’s Day was a cure for yellow jaundice. Or—and this one will appear in the Christmas novella I’m currently writing—that a person from the Aran Islands is called an Arannach.
Following my tour of the museum, I met up with Jane O’Brien for a fascinating tour of the town on the River Fergus. The name Ennis comes from the Irish for island, she explained to us, and so began our lovely tour.
It began near one of the town’s sculptures, the Celtic love knot, which of course, stands for love, and we learned about Daniel O’Connell’s peaceful struggle for Catholic emancipation in the Nineteenth Century. Jane also told us of the dangers of voting against a landlord. You could be evicted if you voted against the Master. Hard, fought-for rights with high risk.
As Jane continued to lead us around the town, we could hear music filtering through the mist that drifted around us. I personally identified several of my favorite tunes, including "Whiskey in the Jar," "Danny Boy," and "The Fields of Athenry."
We viewed the Old Franciscan Abbey, the 13th century monastery, which once housed 350 monks and 600 students, heard the tale of the “Mad Monk,” and learned about the Bull Club, a men’s-only club for the landed gentry.
A people are defined by the music of their homeland, and next to the statue commemorating the Easter Rising of 1916 was the statue that was most fascinating to me, devoted to the music and songs of Clare. We also discovered why all Irish post-boxes are painted green. After Ireland won her independence, the red boxes were painted in Ireland’s national color.
There were many other such fascinating little details that Jane shared with us—too many to name here. I’m so glad I had such a knowledgeable guide, only to be expected from Wild West Irish Tours.
After the tour, I walked down to CraftWorks, a co-op craft shop, all of whose sixty artists hail from Clare. Many of them are able to support themselves on the profits they earn from the co-op. Naturally, I couldn’t resist picking up a few things to take back to Canada with me!
A small side-note: When I told Martin, who runs CraftWorks, I’m from Montreal, it turned out we had a connection. He’d worked at both Mirabel Airport and Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport! Nice to find a bit of home away from home!
After lunch (and a quick stop in the Ennis Book Shop), Derek picked me up again and we headed for Cragganowen, where many aspects of Ireland’s past have been recreated. Many of Ireland’s earliest dwellings have been reconstructed here to create a wonderful exhibition.
My personal favorite spots were the Crannog and the Ring Fort. The Crannog, a lake dwelling that dates back to the Iron Age, is an artificial island where people built houses, kept livestock, and lived in relative security. As always happens when I visit such a place, I found myself wondering who might have lived there, and what their lives were like.
There are about 40,000 ringforts across Ireland, and today, I was able to visit one of these Early Christian farmsteads (C5-C12 AD). People lived their lives within these forts, cooking over open fires, grinding corn, making pottery, and turning wooden bowls on a lathe. As I wandered around the fort, I breathed in the heady scent of the low-burning turf fire in the middle.
I have slightly mixed feelings about Cragganowen Castle. Although I found it fascinating (and imagined my heroes and heroines moving about the various rooms and the Great Hall) and going up to the top on the narrow, winding stairs was a challenge to my nerve, coming down was an even greater test of my courage. Those stone stairs are very narrow, and as I cautiously descended them, clinging tenaciously to the thin iron rail, I couldn’t help imagine a hero plunging to his death with a single misstep!
As we left Cragganowen, I saw a heard of what looked like goats, with long, straggly woolen coats. Turns out I was wrong, but it was the best “wrong” of the day! They weren’t goats, but Soay sheep, a rare breed of domestic sheep raised in ancient times. I’d never heard of these sheep. They are much smaller than the sheep I’ve seen, and their piquant faces are endearing.
I have a feeling the King and Queen of my Medieval/Fantasy series will raise herds of Soay sheep.
I had an absolutely wonderful day! From learning tiny details I’d never known—did you know that the word poitin means “little still”? Or that the word “Market” is Margadh in Gaelic?—to plotting ideas for my new series, the first day of my Clare-Connemara-Galway tour has been a dream!
I can’t wait until tomorrow’s expeditions!
From The Wild West of Ireland,
Wild Westie Cynthia Owens
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