Northwestern Ireland

(Proper photos to follow once I can access a zip drive.)


Race Week in Galway is one of the biggest parties in Ireland.  It was originally only a few days of races, but it became so popular that it is now known as Race Week or The Galway Races.  Because the weekend would be the most occupied, I decided to arrive earlier in the week in the hope that it is easier to keep a bed than to find a vacant one.  I had tried to make a reservation from Dingle, but Race Week falls on a Bank Holiday long weekend, making this nigh impossible.  By this point I had learned not to arrive too late in the day to discover there are no free beds.  Since I had heard so many good things about Galway, I played the game called hostel roulette...

And I got lucky.  I managed to get a bed when I arrived at the excellent Kinley Hostel.  Every morning at ten I checked at the front desk for cancellations.  During five days in Race Week I only had to change rooms twice, which is pretty good, considering.

Where did I head first?  Well by this time I was a bit hungry, plus I had worked up a bit of a thirst on my hike.  I headed to the main drag, and having researched on the bus, I stopped in to The King's Head.  As I said before, the best way to get a feel for an Irish city is to head for the pub.  Honest.  Otherwise I never would have.  But back to the King's Head; once upon a time a king was sentenced to be decapitated, but no one would volunteer for fear of retribution.  Finally one brave man came forward.  His rewarded was the house now appropriately known as The King's Head.  

The one time I used my laptop without the special surge protector I carry,  (it is a lifesaver, check out Magellan's web site) I had fried the power supply.  I discovered that something was wrong in Galway, so I spent my first day visiting computer stores only to discover that I was going to have deal directly with Sony in the U.S. for repairs.  By this time my battery was dead, so this part of the trip has no photos until I can find a USB zip drive somewhere.  To prevent my day from getting worse, I headed to the movie theatre to see Chicken Run.  It helped.  

Caitlin and Laura arrived on my second day after spending a night on the Aran Islands.  We walked around town together, down to the river where wild swans swam about, and over to St. Patrick's Cathedral.  After grabbing some fish and chips at Conlon's Seafood (some of the best I have ever eaten), we changed into our fancy clothes (as fancy as backpackers get) to go to the races.  

Were it not for the crumbling stone tower in the middle of the racetrack, we could have been back in the U.S.A.  Well, that plus the bookies standing on their podiums.  And maybe the steeplechase races too.  And perhaps the Guinness sponsored tents behind the grandstand.  But other than those things, it was much like other racetracks, with a grandstand, parade grounds, and paddocks.  Still, the crowd was having an infectiously fun time, and we did too.

The draw of Race Week is ostensibly the races, the chance to dress up and be sociable (in a special, different sociable way than pubs); however, it is the week's night-life that draws most people just as much (in much the same way as pubs do, only now with an excuse for fancy clothes).  Walking through Galway's main pedestrian road became a challenge around ten o'clock.  The street became a sea of people drinking, dancing, and having fun.  Just getting up to the bar was a supreme challenge, but walking around watching people was entertaining enough.  We enjoyed ourselves at The Dew Drop Inn and at Murphy's pub.  Murphy's was especially fun because Caitlin's surname is Murphy.  She chatted up Mr. Murphy for a while, though failed to procure a free pint.

In Dublin I had noticed a restaurant called Abrakebabra.  In Galway I saw another, which is when I realized that it is Abra-kebab-ra, pronouncing the kebab (kuh-bahb) in the middle.  The writing is stylized script, which helps explain why it took me so long.  Next I found Super Mac's, a McDonald's knock off if I ever saw one.  Still, since the McD's formula has been successful, why not copy it?  I could barely discern a difference between the two stores.  It didn't matter though, since I had fish and chips to eat back at Conlon's.  In five days I ate there three times, Mc or Mac-fish-and-chips be damned.  Not that I haven't eaten at McDonald's...  It is the one food that you can be sure will taste like it does back home.  Occasionally you crave something that reminds you of home, and for me that is McDonalds.  Try not to eat there more than once a month.

It was in Galway that I began to notice a pattern in the brands served in bars.  Guinness is justifiably popular, which helps explain why it can be found in almost every pub.  The company that brews Guinness Guinness for strength!also brews Harp, Bulmer's Cider, and Kilkenny.  It seems that every place that carries Guinness also carries those other brews.  Guinness also brews under contract for Budweiser, Heinekin, and Carlsberg too, if I remember correctly.  Having a financial interest in their success, Guinness must use its muscle to add those beers to the mix.  Perhaps Guinness even insisted to these other large breweries that success was impossible without going through them.  (Incidentally, Budweiser in Ireland is slightly better than at home.  I couldn't bring myself to order one, but I tasted another person's pint.  It is sweeter and has less of the terrible aftertaste, making me think that they use less corn and rice in Ireland.)  The parent company that owns Guinness also owns Smirnoff, Bailey's, J&B, and Johnnie Walker.  These liquors are also heavily promoted in the Guinness pubs, especially Smirnoff's lemony drink in an icy-white bottle.  Savings in distribution costs certainly come from grouping these together, however the whole system smacks of unfair trade practices to me.

The next day I said goodbye to Laura and Caitlin.  They had an itinerary to keep if they were to see all that they planned.  Since it was almost time for the Hurling match, I headed for a pub that would be showing the game.  Hurling is the other major Gaelic game.  Take lacrosse, replace the sticks with those from field hockey, cross it with rugby and you have hurling.  It is a fast, fast game.  Hurling requires tremendous coordination and has great opportunity for offense, since players have scored from beyond midfield.  At halftime the game was deadlocked.  Since there wasn't much of a crowd, I decided to head for The King's Head where it was standing room only and an excitable crowd.  Cork, defending All-Ireland Champions, were playing against Offaly.  At full time the score was even.  Finally in overtime Offaly squeaked out the upset.  

The next morning I bought myself a ticket to the Aran Islands despite Laura's disappointing review the island.  I caught a bus through rocky and rugged Connemara to the ferry terminal.  On the Ferry I met Kevin from Seattle.  He was also planning to spend the day on the largest of the Islands, Inishmoor.  We teamed up.  I would have preferred to spend at least one night on the islands, but the Bank Holiday Weekend in the middle of the busy summer season ruined my plans.

Traveling alone, you rarely have to travel alone for very long.  You will either get over any fear of meeting random people, or you will spend a lot of time by yourself, both of which have their merits.

Though we should have known better, we stopped at the first bike rental shop that we saw.  Inishmoor is known for having more bicycles than people, so we should have comparison-shopped.  Ah the virtues of hindsight.  The bikes we ended up with had trouble changing gears and the chains were slightly rusted, probably from the sea air.  

Three islands make up the Aran Islands, Inishmor, Inisheer, and Inishmaan.  Those first two names mean big and little (like "more" and "mere"), making Inishmor the big (and more populous [relatively] and more popular) island, Inisheer the small one, and Inishmaan the middle one in many ways.  All are at least an hour from land by ferry.  It was hard to believe that before the ferry links people once eked out an existence independent of the mainland.  Rocks cover the island, much like the Burren or Connemarra.  To clear the fields, the settlers collected the stones and built walls.  They built and built and built.  Sturdy gray stone walls cover the island like chainmail.  

The major site on Inishmoor is the fortress of Dun Aengus.  Perched on a cliff, it is a massive dry stone wall structure.  Concentric stonewall circles fortify the center compound, which has twenty foot thick walls of piled stone with one open end along a hundred foot high cliff.  Battlements of dry gray stone were added later; they make the fort even more massive.  No one can fit stones together like the Irish.  With wisps of fog gliding ghostlike over the walls, it is otherworldly.  Kevin and I spent the day cycling around the island, before catching the last ferry back to Connemarra for our bus to Galway.  After introducing him to Conlon's, I went back to the hostel to pack up so I could leave early in the morning.  I heard the call of the wild and felt the need to leave the city behind.

Donegal Town

The bus stopped in Sligo for an hour, so I took the time to to walk around town, looking at the abbey ruins and thinking about Irish poets.  Noticing it was almost time for my bus, I made my way back to the station.  When my bus arrived in Sligo, it had been less than half full.  When I re-boarded people were standing in the aisles.  My jacket was no longer on the seat where I had left it.  Someone had moved it further back in the bus, so I ended up in the only remaining empty seat next to Ann, a poet from Princeton who was abroad on a scholarship and hoping for inspiration in Sligo.  Not finding any, she had decided to spend the rest of her time seeing Ireland.  

We chatted all the way to Donegal Town in County Donegal.  She had chosen the hostel in town while I had reserved at the one four kilometers outside town on a remote peninsula.  We parted ways, agreeing to meet for dinner or drinks the next day.  I headed to the grocery store, knowing that my chances of finding a restaurant were slim from the description in my Lonely Planet.  I dropped my pack in the grocery cart, picked up my supplies, and headed back through town towards the hostel.  By the time I got to the center, I had already decided that a taxicab was a good investment, so I caved.

It was a good choice.  I would have been lucky to find it on my own.  When I arrived I met Kevin, who runs the hostel with his wife.  They bought the old coastguard outpost, fixed it up, and viola, a hostel.  A French mother and son were heading for a swim, which seemed crazy to me until Kevin explained that the water was almost warmer than the air.  This was not too impressive considering the poor summer weather.  Still, he insisted that it was more pleasant than it looked.  He then baited that no Americans had yet been swimming this summer (well into July by now).  This was all it took to convince me that a swim would be my first activity here.  

I changed into my swimming trunks and sandals, grabbed my towel, and climbed down to the path through the seaweed.  "Cold is a state of mind, cold is a state of my mind, visualize a warm tropical climate."  Finally I could wade no further (a euphemism for that particular male depth), so I dove in.  The shock lasted for about ten seconds before it became tolerable.  I swam around the sailboat and struck back for shore, emerging shivering but exhilarated.  

After cooking a simple meal I began to walk back into town to listen to music.  Along the access road a man stopped his car to ask the way to the hostel.  I had not progressed far when her returned and offered me a ride into town.  Would I?  Absolutely.  One of his children insisted that I take the passenger seat, and we set off for town.  He was from Boston and was on vacation with his two children.   We chatted for a while before the three Aussies from the hostel arrived and I joined them.  Later in the evening Ann arrived--only so many places to go in a small town after all.  We had a fine time, all of us.  

The next morning the Aussies Mick, Matt, and Steve were heading to hike the cliffs at Slieve League.  I had hoped to do the same, but Kevin had explained that a car was the only way to get there, suggesting I hitchhike.  When I learned that the Aussies were going there with their rental car, this simplified things, except the problem that they were continuing north toward Belfast after hiking the cliffs.  Still, hitchhiking one way was easier than two, so I joined them.  The three of them had been flying (drive with them on the poor roads and you will see how not a figure of speech that is) around Ireland, seeing as much as they could in a week.  I had already been in Ireland for two weeks, yet they had been to more sights than I had. 

After terrible signs and many wrong turns we finally arrived at Slieve League.  Having read about the terrifying "one man pass," we were ready to be frightened.  We began to hike.  We could see a peak in the distance so we set that as our goal.  After an hour and a half we arrived at a knife-edge climb for ten meters (thirty feet for you metrically challenged).  Matt and I ascended this "One Man Pass," while the others remained behind.  Once we were at the top, the peak seemed close, so I ran over to get a view while the others patiently waited.  I returned and descended, and we hiked back down together.  Later we discovered that all of us had walked through "One Man Pass" early in the hike without realizing it.  As it began to rain we also learned from another hiker that the weather had been so bad for the previous several weeks that people could not make the ascent.  We had been lucky. 

The three Aussies dropped me 45 kilometers from the hostel and headed north.  It was time to hitchhike.  I had made a sign for Donegal Town in both English and Irish (Dun-na-nGall).  Having never hitched before, I did not know what to expect.  Back home in the States people have not hitched regularly for decades, due to the many horror stories have been recounted in the press.  In Ireland you can still pick up a ride without much trouble in the more rural areas.   I stuck out my thumb along the main drag and waited.  

After ten cars had passed by I began to wonder what they didn't like about me.  I don't look like a serial killer.  I tried thinking of the drivers as my best friend and smiling at them as they passed.  I tried with the sign and without the sign.  Finally a woman driving alone stopped and offered me a ride.  "I had an honest face," she said, but she was only going to the next junction.  I told her she was the first person ever to give me a hitched ride and thanked her very much.  At the junction I did not have to wait three minutes, though when I saw a police car pass by I pretended to be walking, not knowing if hitching was frowned on by the authorities.  The car behind the policeman had seen my thumb and pulled over.  It was a compact with a husband and wife and their two daughters in the back.  They squeezed over and made room.  The halfway point to Donegal Town was their destination, but if I were still along the road at five p.m. they would give me another ride the rest of the way.  

I dutifully stuck out the thumb again.  Car after car whizzed past.  I finally began to walk, assuming that if people saw me trying to get to my destination on my own that they would be more likely to stop.  I found some tasty blackberries along one field and ate my fill.  Finally a car stopped.  She had seen me in Killybegs where I started, but hadn't been going far then.  I thanked her profusely, and for the next fifteen minutes we talked about County Donegal.  It seems everyone in Donegal is aware of every other old Irish family.

That night I went into town to meet Ann and listen to more music at the Schooner.  When had heard our fill, we headed out--to find an absolute downpour.  We huddled under her umbrella to the town square where the taxis congregate.  It must have been a busy night for none were in sight.  As we sought shelter under an awning, Kevin who runs the hostel, fortuitously walked by with Tony (some sort of cousin who had been in an accident so was sporting a neck brace and walked with a cane and living at the hostel).  Tony offered us a ride back.  We dropped off Ann at her hostel and continued on to ours.  The next morning I caught a ride from Megan and her friends into the center of town where I picked up a bus to Fintown.


When I arrived in Fintown, it was pissing down rain.  Patricia Sharkey had insisted that the town was picturesque, but all I could see was gray.  I put on my poncho and called Sharkey, whom I had met in The Stag's Head in Dublin.  She gave me directions, and I forded through the water towards her place.  Upon arrival I shed my wet things and noticed that she and Angela were burning furniture.  The coal man was late, and needing fuel they took up the hammer and began to break furniture destined for the rubbish.  I happily joined in.

I recounted my west coast adventures to Patricia, and she told me about the Vasindingles.  Ireland has a stereotype of German tourists.  Western Ireland has more than its share.  Supposedly they see it as a romantic wild frontier.  Often they will camp, bringing their supplies from home and therefore not spending their Deutchmarks, a sure way to irritate the local population.  The Irish word for German tourist, for instance one who was in Dingle?  A Vasindingle.  One who was in Doolin?  A Vasindoolin.  "I vas in Doolin."

Fintown is tiny; only 200 people live within ten miles of each other, yet the town somehow supports four pubs (you do the math).  Shortly after I arrived, we rang up the youth hostel.  To make a short story shorter, the hostel was closed.  Since no visitors stayed at the hostel the prior year, it had closed.  Since no one had stayed there, they didn't bother to tell anyone that the youth hostel was closed.  Fintown may have four pubs, but it has almost nowhere to stay.  Sharkey offered me the carpeted office floor and some blankets which suited me fine.

Since I had free accommodation, the least I could do was cook dinner.  I went down to the tiny market and found very limited ingredients.  A mostly edible spaghetti Bolognese was the result, though the next night was a more impressive salmon and tomato cheesy pasta.  We ate in front of the turf-and-chair fire (turf=peat) while sitting in the three remaining chairs, and talked and drank Guinness into the wee hours.

When I awoke the next morning the fog had lifted.  I looked out across the valley at two mystical craggy mountains with a long, sinuous loch (lake) running along the foot.  The Irish name of one of the mountains translates to Mount Fear, though the reason for the name has long been lost.  The lake itself has a tragic mythology.  Many years ago a sister jumped into the lake to help her brother under attack on the opposite shore.  The fog settled in and some trick of the spirits caused her to swim in circles until she drowned.  The lake is so narrow you might confuse it with a river, so only spirits could have caused this trouble.

In Ireland, the further I traveled from cities, the better the experience.  Fintown was the culmination of this pattern.  Around noon we headed down to the lakeshore to ride the narrow gauge train.  Someone decided to restore a portion of the ancient train line as a tourist attraction, though I expect I was the first bona fide tourist in months.  Several old men run the old train, and they seem to do it for fun (it is a life size toy after all), since no one ever tried to sell or collect a ticket.  The three old men, the three of us, and several children chugged along together in the one-car train for a mile, stopping occasionally to open the gates that keep the sheep in their pastures.  At the end of the line the "engineer" shifted into reverse, looked over his shoulder to watch back through the single passenger car, and drove in reverse all the way back to the "station", stopping again to open and close the sheep gates.  I enjoyed the surreal feeling that we were playing the tape backwards. 

Birdey, Sharkey's assistant who helps translate from English to Irish and other miscellaneous things, had informed us that the practice for the weekend's local Gaelic game was to be that evening.  While Hurling and Gaelic Football are the major Gaelic sports, Tug-of-War is a more local one.  A neighboring town was having a small festival, at which the boys from Fintown would compete.  This was sure to be the social event of the month and as exciting an event as happens here, so we planned to see the practice for ourselves down by the lakeshore.

First we grabbed a pint at the largest of the four bars, and then we wandered down to the practice ground.  A gallows-like structure with pulleys on the top and bottom had a thick rope attached to a barrel full of water at one end.  The men took their positions, received some instructions in Irish, and began to heave in unison.  The barrel slowly rose into the air until it could go no higher.  The men gave up their ground step by step and the barrel sank to the ground for another try.  They worked on their coordination, every once in a while changing the lineup.  The coach would bark out orders and the men would respond.  I wish I knew how they did in the big tug that weekend.  

By now I was regretting that I sent Kate home with my 100% DEET.  The sun was setting, and the midges were out in force.  We left before the practice took a break to build a fire to smoke them away.  I had already been driven to smoking in a vain attempt to keep them at bay.  I grew up in Maine, where the infamous Blackfly is feared and revered as the most voracious parasite.  Midges are to Blackflies as Piranhas are to Goldfish.  Midges can hold up to 200 times their body weight in human blood.  Even worse they are tiny creatures, so small that special netting has been designed specifically to keep them at bay.  Once you have feel one crawling on your skin, you begin to feel them everywhere.  I wrapped my jacket around my head to no avail.  Finally we surrendered and sought refuge in the nearest pub.

In this pub I received a pint of Guinness pulled for me by a one-armed bartender.  I did not think it polite to ask how he had lost his arm, and I wasn't sure that I wanted to know as I thought about the IRA.  He seemed a pleasant fellow and quite possibly had suffered an automobile accident.  Still, being so close to the border I wondered about his story in a different way than I would in another place. 

Soon we headed down to the "Teac-A-Choil" (suspect my spelling).  It means "music house."  It is a tiny pub, consisting of two small adjoining rooms on the first floor of a house. The pub has no taps; all the beers are in bottles.  The music was already in full swing when we arrived--a brother and sister fiddling while another sister played the keyboard.  Every three of four songs they would stop and the white-haired bartender (who looked suspiciously related to the musicians) would solicit people to sing.  Most songs were in English, but occasionally someone would sing a tune in Irish.  Many of the songs were about the North/South conflict.  (Donegal is a border county, so Fintown is fairly close to Derry).  It is well known that the Irish will not talk politics in polite company; however, they seem to welcome, even cherish a chance to sing about them. 

Eventually it became my turn.  I knew no proper Irish songs, but I did know one Scottish one so I sang Loch Lomond, doubly appropriate on the shores of this Loch.  I used my best Scottish brogue and even remembered most of the words, the crowd helping when I stumbled.  My second turn I sang, "I'm My Own Grandpa," since Patricia had heard me sing it the night before and knew that people would be amused.  (The Irish are fascinated by convoluted relationships.  They insisted to Sharkey that I leave the words to the song before departing.)  When my turn came around again, I wanted to sing a good American folk tune.  American folk music is a predecessor of country and western (not a fan), but it is also a descendent of traditional Irish music.  I though my hosts might enjoy an American version of their music, so I launched into a rendition of "Lovesick Blues," which I learned from a tape of Arlo Guthrie that I grew up with.  People in the U.S. hardly know Arlo other than "Alice's Restaurant," so I was surprised when EVERYONE in the bar joined in singing with me.  In hindsight I should have sung, "Miss the Mississippi," but again, I need another excuse to return.  Finally around one in the morning, significantly past when the bar was supposed to close, the crowd broke up and everyone went home.


The next morning I caught the bus north to Letterkenny, planning to make a connection to Milford, supposedly the home of my Irish ancestors.  I had a two-hour layover, so I headed for the public library, known for having the best genealogical records in the county.  After poring over the books available, I had found only one possible ancestral candidate, John M'Ilhenny who lived in the Raphoe Barony in Leck parish in 1665.  I thanked the librarians for their help and headed towards the bus station.  Along the way I passed a sign for VC Computing.  For some reason it looked to me like a place that had answers.  Since I had a hardware problem that couldn't be solved in Galway, I decided to stop and ask.  Traveling teaches you how to better listen to your intuition. 

George and Frank were more than happy to have a hardware challenge, especially when it was a cool piece of hardware that they had not yet put their hands on.  We all agreed that the issue was probably the power adapter/transformer.  Not being able to locate the voltage tester, they asked if I minded if they cracked open the adapter case.  "Go right ahead," I said.  I figured I would have to buy a new one anyway.  Once it was delicately (though irreparably) opened we found the tester, only to discover that the adapter itself was working properly!  Generous application of white electrician's tape held it back together in a bandaged head sort of way.  The good news was that I now knew where the problem lay.  The bad news was that this meant the laptop would have to go back to Sony for repair.  I emailed my sister Avery to return the ordered replacement part to Sony Direct, since the problem appeared more dire. 

To thank them for their free help I took the company (not as generous as it sounds, they are only three people including Maria) for a round of drinks.  Neither George nor Frank drinks alcohol so only Maria cost me a pint.  I was more than happy to have some real knowledge about my computer problem.  Over Cokes they convinced me that a trip to Milford would be a boring waste of time.  Enjoying the vibe of Letterkenny I decided instead to spend the night at the local hostel.  I spent the next day in Letterkenny before catching a bus out of Ireland to...

Northern Ireland (coming soon)