The Book of Kells is simply stunningly beautiful. It dates from around the year 800 and comprises four gospels of the Bible. Hand-written on vellum it survived the vicissitudes of over a millennium of tough times to make it to today as a lasting tribute to the amazing skills and imagination of the obscure monks who created it. If you like books at any level you can’t help but be inspired by such a beautiful work.
The level of detail in the work is completely amazing. There continues to be debate about how the monks could possibly have created decorations with up to thirty lines to a centimetre – the sort of detail you see on a banknote engraving today. Did they have a primitive magnifying glass before they were otherwise known? Did they train their eyes to go cross-eyed and so provide up to thirty-times magnification? This last theory seems to have currency, although no matter how many times I read about it I fail to see how it works – perhaps a failing of having only one eye myself.
The Book is kept in Trinity College Library which is worth a visit in itself. The Long Room contains thousands of ancient volumes in a long, vaulted and wood-paneled room. The centre of the room is lined with display cases of particularly interested manuscripts and curios from times past – from skeletal remains to Yeats’ notes. But even without the curios, the Long Room is just great. With the sort of mezzanine level which all great libraries should have, the display of thousands of leather-bound books makes my hands itch with the unfulfilled desire to investigate them.
I can only love a country that has a book as its greatest national treasure, even if it has a harp on its coins and beer. And the Long Room? It has the original harp too.
I love it when parts of our travel path story connect up. And given we’re flying to New York the day after tomorrow, our visit today put an interesting perspective on what was to come.
We were originally going to spend today in Dublin, but we love the house and the area we’re in so much we’ve arranged to spend an extra day here. In a moment of Irish hospitality, absolutely unheard of in the mercenary world of holiday-rentals, the owner not only happily let us stay an extra day but insisted on us not paying any extra. Lovely place Ireland.
Anyway, we’ll be flying to New York on Saturday on a regular flight that’ll take about seven hours and is as everyday as catching a bus. Ninety-two years ago in very different circumstances two young gentlemen named Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight and landed in a bog just South of here. They didn’t mean to land in a bog, they thought it was a field, but that mistake meant that their record-setting flight came to a nose-down end in a sea of mud.
It wasn’t completely by chance that they landed only 500m away from another trans-Atlantic first – the Marconi radio station that sent the first messages from Europe to North America. This was no little amateur operation – at its height about 400 people worked at the station at any one time. One of those people, in another nice connection with one of our interests, was the radio operator on the Titanic.
Today the site of these two fairly significant events is marked by some concrete ruins, a peculiar egg-shaped cairn and a herd of sheep. It’s only accessible down a tiny, poorly marked road full of potholes which you venture down praying that you won’t find another visitor coming the other way. It’s a windswept, desolate place that seems to sadly underrate a significant part of history. The level of bravery involved in flying a flimsy, open-cockpit, bi-plane plane across the Atlantic is hard to comprehend in this age of quotidian plane-travel. And the cleverness of trans-Atlantic telegraph seems so trivial when compared to our ubiquitous mobile-phone connection. But these ground-breaking things should not be so easily forgotten or neglected.
I did wonder whether I was over-rating the significance of a bog where a plane crashed and some ruins of a telegraph station. But it’s not just that. A little bit of research reveals that one of the propellers from Alcock and Brown’s plane ended up in a museum; the other acts as the ceiling fan in an Italian restaurant in Cork…
It’s not every day you get to walk out to an island; but then Omey is only sometimes an island.
Omey lies just off the Connemara coast and is accessible via a sand bar which is revealed only at low tide. The rest of the time it’s just like any other island.
We walked over to Omey, following the road signs in the sand, largely because we weren’t sure how our hire car agreement would go if we had a problem. Of course, if we had had a problem explaining that we were two hundred meters offshore would have been fun.
Omey was once home to a couple of thousand people, but now there are only twenty residents. We didn’t see a soul on the island although we passed a couple of cars driving over the sandbar road. There’s a pretty walk around the perimeter of the island with great views over the Atlantic. Today the water was like a millpond all the way to the horizon. It was really quite eerie.
The island is dotted with middens filled with small sea-shells demonstrating both how long it has been inhabited and the tough existence the inhabitants had. We had lunch in nearby Cleggan where the pub had a newspaper front page from 1927 detailing the tragedy that struck the area when a huge storm sprung up and sank the entire local fishing fleet with 31 lives lost. The paper describes the hand-to-mouth lives of the local farmer-fishermen and the devastation wrought when that many bread-winners disappeared from the small communities. They died because they simply could not afford to abandon their nets which represented an extraordinary investment for them. It wasn’t long ago that this was one of the poorest areas in Europe.
Anyway, back to Omey which in addition to its 20 residents is home to a donkey, a herd of cows, innumerable birds and rabbits. The boys were thrilled to see a rabbit and try to stalk it. I reckon the bunny was on its last legs considering how close it let Declan get.
The rabbit disappeared down a hole, and we headed back over the sandbar before the tide made Omey an island again.
We’re increasingly aware than in a couple of week’s time we’ll be walking the Inca Trail and so we decided today was a good day to walk up a hill for practice.
The hill in question was also, by chance, particularly appropriate because it turned out to be a hill climbed by one of our favourite bloggers and her family a couple of years ago. It was this same blogger, WanderMom, who we turned to for advice on walking the Inca Trail with children. So climbing the hill in Connemara National Park gave us a bit of check on her standards as a walker!
It was a lovely walk up to the top of Binn Ghuaire. The first section is relatively flat and on an easy wide path, but as you ascend the path deteriorates and gets steeper with each step. The final section is basically clambering on the crags to the very summit.
The view from the summit is amazing with clear views to the horizon all the way around. Looking out across the bays to the islands on the Atlantic coast is particularly beautiful. We had our lunch at the very top of the hill while clouds of local insects lunched on us. Which may have been fair, but was somewhat irritating.
Of course as Inca Trail training goes our hill was small stuff. We went up about 400m and we’ll be doing about double that on the third day of our walk; twice, and at a starting point 2500m further up. Then again, with a bit of luck we wont have the insects to contend with.
There’s hardly a movement on the water. It is so still that faint ripples seem to follow the beating wings of a sole bird as it flaps heavily down the length of the lough. The black currach’s don’t move, but their reflections seems to shimmer slightly as the bird passes.
Two old men in thick yellow oilskins pass empty boxes down into a currach pulled up against the little breakwater. They don’t say anything and the only sound anywhere is the sound of the boxes landing. Otherwise the entire valley is silent.
Over on the hillside to the East a horse stands perfectly silhouetted against the skyline. I watch for a good few minutes and it doesn’t move an inch. Anywhere more urban and you might question whether it was a statue. Eventually it dips its head to eat a few mouthfuls of grass before resuming its pose. You don’t get the sense it’s watching anything. It’s just standing.
The sky is grey with textured cloud. There’s just a hint of pink on the edges of some of them as the hidden sun comes up from wherever it has spent the night. Suddenly the fishermen start up the currach’s outboard and head round the corner for the open sea. The sound is shockingly loud and a couple of small black birds wheel into action like little fighter planes warning off the enemy. But almost the moment the fishermen pass the headland the sound disappears and everything returns to silence and, once the ripples fade, stillness.
Now if only I could get the camera without waking everyone else up…
We joined everyone else in heading for the local market-town this morning. Clifden has a population of around 1300 and is home to three supermarkets and numerous pubs. It has a history tied to being on the opposite side of the Atlantic to the USA – the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight landed down the road and Marconi built the first trans-Atlantic telegraph station here. We, in a far more prosaic fashion, did our grocery shopping and browsed the local bookshop.
After lunch it was a walk around the house, down the road to the headland of our little inlet from the Atlantic. Looking out to sea there are many, many islands in view with little boats wending their way between them. Crab fishing is a major traditional industry around here and we found quite a lot of crab bits along the shore.
We were accompanied by a variety of local dogs and met up with several horses and cows along the way.
Upon returning home, the boys found some locals of the same age and a game of football ensued in a local field. That was followed by a water-balloon fight and hide and seek. Cal added to his countryside experience by finding out why barbed wire came by its name and ending the useful life of yet another shirt.
Ireland is another country. I mean I know Ireland is not the same country we were just in. After a long day of traveling I’m only too aware of the fact we’ve moved. But Ireland is place unlike other places. It is just different.
We’ve come all the way to the far West coast of Ireland in Connemara. In fact we’re about as far West as you get in Ireland; Alcock and Brown landed their record-breaking trans-Atlantic flight just up the road. And here the light is unique. There’s a golden tinge, a hazy glow to everything that is quite other-worldly and unlike anywhere else.
We’re staying in a house above a rocky inlet with curraghs moored below. There are cottages dotted around and a little wharf directly beneath us. Behind us is a field with two cute little donkeys in it, one of which is so young it is still stumbling about uncertainly.
The house is owned by Paddy who also owns the hardware store in the local town. He’s a lovely Irishman with a mop of grey hair and an old-world charm which matches the braces he wears. After showing us around the house, Paddy proceeded to don his oilskins and life jacket, pulled his curragh in from its mooring and then set off for the three-mile trip to the island on which he lives.
When I asked Paddy which island it was, his response in a perfect Irish brogue was “Ahh, ’tis the one on the left.” While that left us none the wiser as there were no islands in sight, he did offer to take us out there one day.