Saturday, June 8, 2013

Ireland 2013 – Day 2 - Connemara

After a Spartan breakfast of toast and cereal we departed our hostel. I was in a bit of a hurry to leave Dublin before traffic got nasty, but no need to worry. Either the Monday after Easter is a bank holiday, or the city wakes up late on its own accord.

By the time we got on the highway, to cover the 200 km to the west coast, we figured it was time for Annie to get her share of driving on the wrong side of the road. She has had plenty of experience driving a car with a manual transmission, so it was just getting used to shifting gears with your left hand, and staying on the left side of the road. Unfortunately at this time she developed a dangerous list to the left, and after getting scared to death when she climbed unto the sidewalk I decided that retreat was the best part of valor, so I closed my eyes tightly and promptly fell asleep as Mrs. Toad careened her way down the highway at full speed.

Once we reached the west coast (amazingly in one piece), we stopped at the first castle (Annie has this fascination with castles), which turned out to be Aughnanure Castle, about 15 km west of Galway. It was a mini-castle by continental Europe standards, dominated by a four-story tower from which the murderous O’Flaherty clan repelled the angry mobs.

From there we drove through the glaciated landscape of the Lake Region, where there are dozens of beautiful, long, wind swept lakes that now occupy the bottoms of the former glacial valleys. The largest extend all the way unto the sea, forming veritable fjords. It was by the shore of Killary Fjord that we stopped for lunch, at the small town of Leenane. Besides a delightful pub, with crackling fire and all, this town’s call to fame is now that it was there that Annie went absolutely gaga over their wool scarves and hats, and in one go spent most of her souvenir money. Then again she got a nice scarf and matching hat that should keep her warm for the rest of the trip (the wind is blowing something fierce!). Unfortunately nice she claims that because wool “breathes” she doesn’t have to wash any of these clothes. So, if next time you are around Annie you detect a musty “fragrance” you will now know what to expect.

We stopped briefly to take photos of Kylemore Abby, at the shores of Kylemore Lake, but I was getting anxious about ever reaching Connemara National Park, so we pushed onward to Letterfrack, where we turned uphill into the “park”. The “park” is a windswept mountain, bare of any trees, where heather, gorse, and scruffy grass have taken over, converting the slopes into vast piles of peat. And this is in fact the park’s call to fame, as one of the few places where peat is “protected” from the relentless harvesting that we could see all around us. Let me try to explain:

Sometime at the end of the last ice age, the glaciated landscape was bare of all vegetation, but in the pluvial period that followed the whole region was blanketed by coniferous forest. Enter the first humans, about 5,000 years ago, and disaster started to brew. In order to farm, the early Irish set fire to large tracts of forest, and the soot and ashes sealed the soil and reduced rainfall infiltration. That caused the soils to become water logged, and grasses and weeds to expand and go on a quick cycle of bloom and soggy death, only to be followed time and again by another layer of low vegetation. Pretty soon all the landscape had been replaced with bogs, and humans did their best to adapt to these soggy conditions (now and then somebody would drown in the bogs, just so archaeologists could discover them a 1,000 years later as a bitumen-soaked mummy), and started harvesting the peat thus formed as a source of heating fuel. They used a long, narrow spade, not unlike what we use today for digging postholes, peeling off the soil long, skinny slabs of peat, letting it dry on the surface, and then using it as fuel. To this day peat continues to be exploited, and you can buy peat at the supermarket in the same style bricks that were used 2,000 years ago!

People who live in the bogs face the problem of a lack of timber wood, but have figured an ingenious way to procure some: They have a rod, about 8 feet long, with which they poke through the thick peat until eventually they feel something hard. Most of the time is one of those trees that lived 5,000 years ago, so they just dig at the spot and voila!

To finish the day we visited the charming town of Clifden, bought the makings of dinner at the local supermarket, and came back to our hostel near Leenane for a well deserved meal. Our room is beautifully located at the shore of Killary Fjord, so tomorrow we will start with a walk along the fjord.

No comments: