The Silent Songs of the Burrens and the Rebel Songs of Galway

Moher1I stood at the edge of the famous Cliffs of Moher.  Just a short drive from Shannon Airport, this site is one of the first stops for tourists.  The last time I stood at this edge of Ireland where the Atlantic Ocean pounds silently far below us, at the base of rock faces that can cause you to miss a breath, I couldn’t see anything.  It was misty  and a wet wind nearly blew me over.

Not today.  We had just picked up my son, Brian, and the weather was clear enough so when you looked out to the ocean, you could see the curvature of the earth.  A harpist played New Age Celtic melodies for the crowds that were trudging up the steps for the best view.  A fiddler played.  A man on a penny whistle played.  The music blended nicely with the quiet view.  We were too far above the waves to hear any crashing surf.  The music was the soft lilts and airs of this land of music and dance.

I watched my son.  He leaned against the great stone slabs that protected oblivious tourists from getting too close to the edge.  I saw him close his eyes briefly.  He heard the music of the sea without hearing the sound of the water, so far below.

Our destination for the night was Galway.  Another few hours of driving would put us at a B & B in Salthill, just a short walk to the famous Latin Quarter.  We were going in search of pubs that played traditional Irish music.

But first, we had to drive through the Burren.  This is a strange place indeed.  Lunar-like in its landscape, it is where many people get their first real look at the wild and isolated regions of Ireland.  Unless you’re mentally prepared, there came be something unsettling and odd in this land of flat limestone.  In the full sunlight, the stone can be nearly blinding with its white-gray surface…a surface that give you the sense that you can just turn your car to one side and just drive over the pavement.

But that would be a bad idea.  It was rolling and full of boulders and fissures in the rock that are a foot wide.  I parked the car to stretch and I walked away from the road.  It was silent, save for the wind in my hair and blowing through the heather patches and wildflowers that found a home in the cracks.

I heard something.  I heard music.  I looked around and I was too far from any car for a radio to be heard.  My wife and son had found a nice place to sit and wait for me.

There it was again.  I heard music…it was an ancient air…a mournful tune…a lament that came from the very rocks I was standing on.  I heard familiar melodies like Molly Malone and .  I heard the music of an older time when life was simpler and more gentle.  A time when God may have been present among the lives of men.  A time when nature herself ruled the earth as the Mother Goddess in the times of the Mist. I heard the songs of the fossils that were older than time itself.  The shells and the oolites of the limestone was alive with something I couldn’t understand or touch.

Just listen.

I walked slowly back to the car, afraid to confront reality.  That’s when I saw my son standing and looking out over Galway Bay.  I wondered if he heard the music as I did.  I walked up and stood beside him.

“This is insane,” he said.

I knew what he meant.  I think it was his Gen X way of saying: “I get this place right now.  I really do.”

We drove on.  Cottages, bonded to the solitary sheep, began to appear as if to announce that humans still used this land.

BurrensCottage

Then, the flatness returned.  The rocks stretched toward the Bay and then, with a ninety degree drop, met the water.

BurrensSlabs1

We stopped a few more times before we left the Burren.  Brian got out of the car once more and walked to the edge once again.  He looked out at the water.

I tried to read his mind, but couldn’t.  And, that’s the way it should be.

BrainAtGalwayBay

That night we went to the Latin Quarter in Galway, not very far from the Spanish Arch.  We heard music again.  Finnegan’s Wake, Raglan Road, The Wild Rover.  Songs of the people.  Songs of the struggles.  Songs of unrequited love.  Songs exile and songs of executions.

Songs that define this ancient and complex island.

Songs that were sung for a hundred years…perhaps by people who had my blood in their veins.

GalwayAtNight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May The Sun Rise To Meet Him

 IrishStuff

On Wednesday, my son, Brian will step off the red-eye flight from JFK and the sun will rise to meet him.  I will have my son, my boy, my only boy with me while we tour our ancestral island with my wife (on her first visit, too).

It’s been thirty years since I’ve been to Ireland.  I can hardly wait to see how it’s changed, fear how it’s changed and hope that some things are not changed at all.

I will take Brian to see some Irish Egans.  I will meet a distant cousin I haven’t seen since 1984.  Together   we will visit the graves of my other relatives who have passed on in those past three decades.  As homework, I asked him to watch The Quiet Man, something I’m sure he didn’t have the time to do.  That’s okay.  He has me as his guide.

I will be the Seanchai, and tell him stories of Irish history…the glorious tales of heroic myths like Cúchulainn and Tir Na Nog and Brian Boru.

I will also tell him of the days of the famine, when the British landowners shipped beef and potatoes back to England, leaving the Irish to eat dirt.

He will hear of the Uprisings.  He will hear of Kevin Barry, a man younger than my son, who was executed by the English in 1920.  He will know of Bobby Sands and the hunger strike that took his life six years before my son was born.

[I love England, as my readers know, but I also understand what some English did to my people.]

I will show him the Cliffs of Moher, and the towns of Galway and Sligo.

I will read Yeats to him under bare Ben Bulben.  I will make every attempt to get him a sip of Potcheen.  Like a true Irishman, I will talk his ear off while he is cornered in a pub in Culleens.

Cashel

We will walk among the ruins of Cashel and rub our hands against the ancient rock.  The lichen and the moss will scratch our palms.  It’s likely to rain Irish water from Irish clouds on his shoulders.  The fog may slow our driving through the narrow lanes.  But, in the few days he has to be with us, I will touch the highlights that will dirty his fingers with the soil of his homeland.

 

Dance Like A Wave Of The Sea

IrishCliffs

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…

–W. B. Yeats

Three decades have passed since I last walked the streets of Dublin, Galway and Sligo.  A great many things have changed in those years.  And, a great many haven’t.  The smell of peat-fires in Dublin on a December night, the blasts of wind from the North Atlantic that sting your face when you look out to the west from Donegal and the foamy black pint of Guiness…these things never change.

I will be in good company.  My wife and my son will be on their first visit.  Where does one begin to plan such a trip?  What to see?  What to gaze upon?

We shall avoid the touristy places like Blarney Castle.  But, we will stand above the sea on the Cliffs of Mohair and look up at the keep that is the Egan ancestral castle..Castle Redwood.  It was once said to be haunted.  I, myself, heard Michael Egan (who restored the structure) tell of being awakened by something dark that was choking him.  He called in the local priest the next day.  He slept soundly ever since.

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[Castle Redwood, Headquarters for the Egan Clan]

We will stand amid the ruins of Cashel and contemplate the glories of the past.  We will drink alongside unshaven farmers in pubs with names like Egan’s, O’Malley’s and Fitzgibbon’s.

Egan PUB

As I sit on the right in the driver’s seat and drive on the left, we’ll wait for the herd of sheep as they muddle pass us on a narrow lane.

IrishCasteNearCashel

[Near Cashel]

My wife and I will walk up Grafton Street (my son won’t join us until we reach Shannon Airport) and perhaps see a woman with black hair…and she will weave a snare…that someday, I might rue.

My wife and I may sit at the 19th hole and wait for my son to do 9 holes with an old duffer in tweeds.

All this, and more will happen.  And I will, yes I will, yes…sit them both on a stone wall under bare Ben Bulben’s Head, at the edge of the grave of the greatest of Irish poets, William B. Yeats, and read to them from the dark marble of his headstone:

Cast a cold eye

on life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

dad ireland  copy

[To my knowledge, this was my father on his last visit to Ireland]

When we come at the end of time

To Peter sitting in state,

He will smile on the three old spirits, 

But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,

Save by an evil chance,

And the merry love the fiddle

And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,

They will all come up to me,

With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’

And dance like a wave of the sea.

–W.B.Yeats

Watch for my blogs from across the sea.