The final day of my Wild West Clare-Connemara-Galway Tour was a quiet wrap-up to a week of history, myth, legend, song and breathtaking sights.
But quiet doesn’t mean dull! Far from it, in fact. It was a perfect day for anyone who, like myself, enjoys history and just a little bit of imagination.
Derek, our WWIT guide, took us first to a quiet, serene spot that was once a place of worship—a Mass rock. During Penal times, these rocks—often taken from a church or other place of worship—were carried into the woods in secret, and it was there that Catholic priests held Mass for their followers. For at that time, the laws forbade Catholics to worship their religion, on pain of death. There are Mass rocks scattered all over Ireland, and it’s a testament to the will of the people.
The spot where the Mass rock lies has been cleared now, but the heather-scented woods around it remain, and I found myself casting an eye into the past. I looked around and saw dense shrubs and towering trees, a narrow, overgrown pathway leading to the small clearing where once sacred words were spoken in secret. The sun shone bright, and birds sang their merry songs. And in my mind I saw a line of people making their way toward it, the young and fit holding aside branches so the elderly or infirm could walk unimpeded. I saw the priest in his robes, perhaps looking over his shoulder, wondering if at any moment an English soldier might spring from behind the bushes and drag him off to prison and certain death.
I was both sobered and exhilarated, and I found myself silently cheering on these people who refused to be crushed.
Next stop was St. Cronan’s Church, where we literally walked in the footsteps of Brian Ború, the Ard Rí (High King) of Ireland who defeated the Vikings but lost his own life in the Battle of Clontarf. Ború worshipped at St. Cronan’s, and we walked through the stone doorway the High King once entered. I sensed the power of a great king there, and the timelessness of this 10th century edifice. St. Cronan’s is the oldest church in Ireland and the United Kingdom—and possibly in Europe—that is still in use today.
There were so many sights to see in and around Tuamgraney, where our lovely bed-and-breakfast was located. There was the park dedicated to the women of Cumann na mBan, who fought for Irish independence in Easter Rising of 1916, as well as a monument commemorating the centenary of the Rising. There was a memorial to long-ago evictions that eventually led to the formation of the Land League.
But two sites affected me more deeply than the others. The first was a simple place with a terrible history, a little wood with a large black soup pot at its entrance. When we stepped into the wood, the shade was a welcome oasis of cool. Birds sang overhead, and I heard the occasional hum of bees and other insects.
I had to step carefully, though, for the ground was uneven. For this was the site of a mass grave from Famine times. Beneath my cautious feet were hundreds of bodies, victims of hunger and disease, who’d been hastily buried and covered over with earth.
Who lay in these graves? Whole families who had lived and loved in Ireland for generations? Mothers and fathers, children, sisters and brothers, cousins, friends? People who had once stopped in their daily activities to pass the time of day with their neighbors, who might have quarrelled over silly things and made it up again? A young woman who danced with a boy from another village, and wondered if she’d ever see him again? People with dreams of a better life in America, or those whose only wish was to live out their days on Irish soil? I shed a tear for those people, and for all the people of Ireland who’d had their dreams cut short during this terrible time.
The second site is known simply as the Famine Quay. It was the departure point for many as they made their way to Limerick and eventually to Cobh Harbor (then Queenstown), where they boarded ships to the New World. Once again my mind slipped into the past. Instead of the neatly paved road that leads to the water, I saw a narrow, dusty track. The road was empty, but I saw hundreds of skeletal people dressed in little more than rags (for they’d sold everything in order to raise money for the passage). A father carried his young son on his shoulders, and the boy’s sunken eyes widened at the sight of the ship. His wife, her shoulders slumped with fatigue and hunger, carried an infant in her arms. A tiny girl clung to her skirts, and two other children skipped on ahead, their pitifully thin faces alight with the excitement of new adventure. But the mother’s eyes were desolate, her heart burdened by the sorrow of leaving her beloved home. Beside the family, a young man walked alone, his heart rejoicing at the chance America might hold, but afraid of what the journey might bring. Would he ever reach America, or would he perish on the high seas?
A sobering moment indeed, and I felt my own heart aching for these proud, determined people, and I shed a silent tear.
But my sadness didn’t last long, for soon I was whisked away to an evening of fabulous food, heart-touching music and spectacular dance. I felt I was living the life of a medieval princess.
My carriage: Derek’s van. The destination: Knappogue, a 15th century castle. My dinner companions: High King, Brian Ború and the kings of the four provinces of Ireland. I enjoyed a sumptuous four-course meal, eaten to the strains of the harp and the fiddle, and I was entertained by the harp and the fiddle, madrigals and reels and a little bit of céilí dancing. A night to remember, and when the clock struck midnight—well, actually, it was around 9:30 that my pumpkin coach—er, Derek’s van—came to collect me, I felt a little bit like one of the heroines of my medieval / fantasy series.
Truly a night to remember, and the perfect cap to a perfect tour of the Wild West of Ireland!
From the Wild West of Ireland,
Wild Westie Cynthia Owens
DISPATCHES FROM THE WILD WEST: