Mám Éan in the Maumturk Mountains
View of Kylemore Abbey
To the top of Diamond Hill
A hike to Mám Éan and Diamond Hill on a particularly sunny day in Connemara, Ireland.
I come from a rainy country, where we for the large part survive the rainy days with stories of how it rains even more on the British Isles. You might imagine my surprise when I arrived in Galway and Connemara – the wettest place in Ireland – and found it warm, sunny and with a clear blue sky.
However, it didn’t take me long to realise that the local population was just as surprised with the clear blue sky. Quite a few have commented on my luck in coming to Galway, at a time when the weather is so amazing and far from the rainy grey that normally clouds Connemara and the Burren.
There have been two reasons for my visit to Galway. Firstly, it has been my dream to explore Western Ireland for some years now and to investigate whether the island truly is as green as everyone says.
Secondly, Donál is born and bred in Galway and while he himself was on a meeting in London, I couldn’t resist his sweet-talking me into discovering the cosy atmosphere of Galway.
Unlike in Dublin where I have had quite some magnificent company, I decided to check into a youth hostel in Galway and to spend my days here going on tourist trips with the large groups of young and middle-aged white Americans who had come to the region to rediscover their ‘true’ homeland.
To be honest I will never be able to understand the way Americans relate to the place from where their forefathers originated – calling it their own. But then again, on all sides my family has been Danish since forever and in general Danes just never emigrated in the numbers as the Irish or our Swedish brothers. So the idea of being part of a diaspora through generations is only something I can academically study.
Perhaps that is why I found it a very interesting study to see Ireland in the company of Americans. The Irish national identity though in itself a powerful force is closely linked to the millions of emigrants who left starvation and disaster for the promise of a better life in the West. These have become the so-called Irish-Americans, and even today on both sides of the Atlantic they play a powerful role in shaping the identity of both countries.
Between the Republic of Ireland and the Irish-Americans there is a very strong bond of sameness. The Irish-Americans like to talk about themselves as Irish and of Ireland as their country, while the Irish accept the Americans as part of the Irish historical nation – though removed from the issues of modern day Ireland.
In Denmark, you would not receive the same feeling of sameness should you as an American claim your Danish ancestry. This surely relates to the fact that not many Danes emigrated.
But I believe there is a deeper and more significant reason behind the strong relationship that Ireland has to the Irish-American.
The emigration of the Irish to mainly America happened as a consequence of mass-hunger and starvation – an experience which even today is deeply rooted in the Irish mentality and history. Danish emigrants were never to that extent a part of something which so crucially shaped Danish history and mentality.
In Ireland few historic events are as crucial as the Great Famine which took place between 1845 and 1852 during which more than 1 million Irish starved to death while more than 1 million emigrated in a desperate attempt to stay alive.
While it is difficult to understand the enormity of the Great Famine from afar, being in Connemara and the Burren certainly makes you feel as part of the terrible history. The events seem as if to be alive in hills, where ruins from small farmhouses are strewn across the countryside while the British attempt to create work for the Irish is seen in the stone walls criss-crossing the hills for no apparent reason.
As a historian, Ireland strikes you right at the heart. The green hills move you in a way that a few places can do. Not only because they truly are as lush and green as I imagined, but also because of its connectedness to history and Irish mentality. From both sides of the Atlantic the memories live on and have established a very special relationship between modern Ireland and Irish descendants in the US.
But what did we learn, the Irish-Americans and I, as we toured through the green hills of Connemara taking in the breath-taking views. While I won’t bore you anymore with the overarching events that made the Great Famine such a devastating trauma and how it could have been avoided by proper aid from Britain, I’d like to add a few of those anecdotes which the guide loves to fire off.
Staying within the realms of Irish-American relations, what really stuck to me was the story of how a small tribe of Native Americans aided the Irish during the famine, beginning an unlikely relationship between very different peoples, with very similar histories of colonisation. One of many gruesome stories from Connemara tells how 400 Irish died in a last desperate attempt to get food from their landlord, walking for miles up to the manor only to be dismissed at the door. the story which crossed the Atlantic caught the attention of the Choctaws, a Native American-tribe which not many years prior had experienced a similar fate as they amongst many other Native Americans were forcefully removed from their homes. By history it has been named the trail of tears, and more than anyone the Choctaws must have understood the cruelty of the story from Ireland. Thus, the tribe gathered $170 which they sent to the Irish in 1847. Despite the difference of origin and culture, colour and ethnicity and despite the impoverished state of the Choctaws who themselves were struggling, they decided to help others in need – human beings as themselves. I like that story – the light in the middle of the dark.
While a study into the Irish-Americans meeting with their true homeland was interesting, driving around a bus unable to take pictures except through the window can be tiresome. Thus, I decided to join a walking party through Connemara.
In the brilliant sunshine we walked through Mám Éan in the Maumturk Mountains to a pilgrimage site which dates back to the 5th century and relates to the stories of Saint Patrick. The place was stunning and so unearthly peaceful with a blue sky, rugged hills of green grass and only the local sheep there to keep us company. In planning to go to Ireland, this was the kind of place I dreamt of visiting.
Afterwards, we drove to a view of Kylemore Abbey soaking up the beautiful vista of the castle reflecting in a clear lake.
Finally, we ended up climbing Diamond Hill, taking in the amazing panoramic view at the top. I still cant believe that I survived being in such a terrible shape, but I might just have hated myself had I not made it to the stunning view of the top. I’ve added a separate gallery for this trip hoping it will do the place justice.
My days in Connemara and the Burren were everything I hoped for in a trip to the lush green Ireland. However, I most definitely will return. With Dónal in Dublin and loads of new places to discover on the island, I don’t think I could stay away.
In my mind, Dublin has always been connected to The Commitments and U2. I have this idea of working class brick houses and old men and pale ginger women in pubs discussing over a pint of Guinness. Dublin, in my imagination, is, as Liverpool and Manchester, the ultimate working class city, with a rough look of the 80s and dirty side-streets.
As someone who seeks the charm in what many people call ordinary and boring, I have had Dublin on the top of my list for quite some time. Therefore, when I met Dónal in Brussels in 2011, I knew I had to use him as my gateway to the green island.
Dónal is an Irish European. His heart – as mine – beats for Europe and we seem inclined to share a lot of hopes for the future on a continent which at present is experiencing a most devastating crisis, loosing generations of young people to unemployment and despair. We also disagree in many respects, but what I like about Dónal – and what I realised was very much an Irish thing – is that the passion lies in the discussion. We might disagree on some issues, but rather than stop our acquaintance from evolving into friendship, it becomes the very basis of it.
I am sure it is also mostly thanks to Dónal and his roommates that I left the island with a feeling that my vacation had been perfect. Well them and the fact that I was so lucky to be one of the few people to experience days of sunshine in the Connemara, where the sun is only seen 20 days each summer while the rain makes its presence known 250 days a year. But for now I’ll focus on Dublin and how completely I fell in love with that city.
I think it is safe to say that I have fallen in love with quite a few places during my travels through Europe. But never have I felt so much at home. To stay in the relationship metaphor, I met the guy I want to marry. All the others have been flings, lovers that I miss, memories of amazing times, but Dublin is more than that. It is the knight in shining armour, promising me to live happily ever after. While I will attempt to explain what it is about Dublin that makes my heart beat faster, I am aware how difficult it is to explain that feeling of just knowing that this is the one.
I arrived in Dublin after a prolonged journey. I had left work early to get to the airport directly, but while waiting in line it became apparent that I wouldn’t have needed to leave so early. Apparently, one of the cabin crew members at least had not felt inclined to come at the scheduled time, leaving all of the passengers trapped in the small gate, since for safety reasons all cabin crew has to be on board when boarding.
An hour later and no crew member, the airline company decided to steal another crew member from a later departure, thus placing the problem on someone else. At this time the very “charming” group of Swedish guys in their 30s and 40s who had spent the hour laughing and singing had become so irreparably drunk and smelling so much of stale liquor that I, who was unfortunate enough to sit in front of them, couldn’t breath without the sour smell overpowering me throughout the duration of the flight.
Thank God, the destination was Dublin, because exiting that plane all I could think about was fresh air and a pint of cold beer. Readying myself for my first pint on the green island, I spent the 25 minute ride by coach into the centre expectantly looking out the window trying to spot an actual Irish pub. However, I had no luck spotting any Guinness signs and began to ponder that the rumours of Irish pubs in Ireland were a hoax.
Thankfully it wasn’t. From getting off the bus near the College Green, it took no longer than a few seconds to notice that Ireland sure enough has Irish pubs. And as soon as Dónal and I had greeted each other, we were heading for my first taste of Dublin. My first evening in Dublin ended with visits to three of Dónal’s favourite pubs as well as a first introduction to his room-mate Micheal – and yes that is the right spelling.
Dublin surprised me a lot. One of the reasons was that though the city is full of beautiful red brick houses and some of them have an almost unnatural crimson colour, the city can also boast quite a collection of magnificent Georgian houses adorning both the north and the south side of the river Liffey.
While the houses are beautiful as they stand row after row, it is the doors which have become a well-known trademark for Dublin, as they are painted in all the bright colours of the rainbow. As always I couldn’t help wonder how this tradition began, and thought I’d share it with you.
Many of the tales relating to the custom of colouring your door stems from the fact that there were strict architectural rules regarding the building of Georgian houses, leaving only a few options for those who wanted or needed their house to stand out.
One of these was the colouring of doors, while other options could be the addition of ornate door-knockers and wrought iron boot scrapers as well as the creation of elegant fanlights above.
One of the more popular stories tells that the women of Dublin were sick and tired of their men mistaking the house when they returned late at night as it often also meant that they mistook the bed. It was thus the women of Dublin who decided to paint their doors as beacons for their drunken husbands as they walked home from the pub.
Another story claims that it was Dublin writer George Moore, who was tired of his neighbour and fellow writer Oliver St. John Gogarty always banging on the wrong door when he returned drunk at night. He thus painted his door a screaming green whereafter Gogarty retaliated by painting his a blazing red. No matter who initiated it, there is a lot to suggest that the colouring of the doors relate to the uniformity of Georgian houses.
According to another story the colourful doors of Dublin came about as a protest against British rule – as all other things Irish. When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria demanded that all doors throughout the empire should be coloured black as a sign of mourning for her late husband. In Ireland this resulted in doors turning all the colours of the rainbow – all except black.
With my camera and a bit of a hangover, Dónal and I walked through the streets of Dublin, eating brunch and enjoying the hustle and bustle. While he, unlike me, is not a historian, Dónal did know a surprising amount of tales relating to the names of pubs and who frequents them.
For instance, The Bleeding Horse on Upper Camden Street, which is one of Dublin’s eldest pubs is named such because it is told that a horse fleeing the Battle of Rathmines in 1649 was bleeding as it ran all the way to the spot where the pub is now standing.
He could tell me what types of people frequented what pubs and clubs and in general had a strong understanding of the ups and downs of Dublin. Should I return, I will know where the wanna-be famous go, where the prime minister hangs out and in which little coffee-shop a group of elders spend all Saturday reading from and discussing the works of James Joyce. At the same time his roommate Micheal could inform me why it was called Merrion Square or Grattan St. or how there apparently are more taxies in Dublin than New York City. Amongst the two of them and their third roommate Gilly, I was in good hands.
Perhaps my love for Dublin is rooted in the warmth of the people I have met here. Unlike Danes who are often a tad withdrawn and can seem cold and closed off to the foreign eye, the Irish are a very chatty people. Both in Dublin and on the West coast it seems that you are forced into happy chatter everywhere you go. To a Dane it can be overwhelming as it pulls us out of our little box and away from our own issues and into the enjoyment of the busy life around us.
Often I find myself walking around in my own thoughts, not prone to notice things around me. I might be tired from travelling or working, I might have issues to think endlessly about, I might just want to get home to see the next episode of The Killing or Borgen.
In Ireland, stopping on the way for a coffee, wherever my thoughts might be I will be dragged out of it and into pleasant conversations loaded with a tint of Irish humour and laughter.
It is very difficult to just feel on the low side in Ireland, because at any moment some friendly person will come along and make you laugh or smile or blush or throw you into an interesting discussion. I like it.
I began by describing how I have always connected Dublin to an image of the 80’s and working class life with The Commitments and U2 as my main reference points. And sure the feeling lingers. The red brick buildings, the working class passages which run parallel to the main walk fares. The fact that 30 metres from the busy Temple Bar street, you can encounter heroin addicts shooting themselves in the knee, indifferent to the people walking past.
But Dublin has evolved in the last 30 years and several people I met underlined how even during the most severe economic crisis in Europe since the 30’s, the feeling in Dublin is one of optimism and comparably much better than it was in the 80’s.
While corruption and incompetence is still an issue, things are looking brighter than they have for a long time and for the Irish who have gone through famine and war, colonialism and civil war, an economic crisis is not enough to darken the general feeling of progress as they are stepping out of the Dark Ages.