Day 9 ~ Slán to Ireland

A quiet thread of melancholy hovered over me as I made my way to breakfast on the last morning of my Clare-Conemara-Galway tour. And even though I’m glad to be home and see my family again, I’ve left a large piece of me behind in Ireland.

I’ll have to return some day to visit it.

This eight-day tour by Wild West Irish Tours has been a great experience for me. Not only did it afford me a chance to return to the home of my heart, it also offered me an opportunity to share the experience with everyone, which was such fun! I learned so much about history, about the myths and legends of this magical land. I’ve taken pages of notes on all sorts of different aspects of Ireland. And I’ve been greatly inspired.

Beautiful landscapes along the Wild Atlantic Way. The Wild Atlantic Way is a tourism trail on the west coast, and on parts of the north and south coasts, of the Republic of Ireland.

“What was your favorite part of the trip?” I know, once I’m home, that someone is bound to ask me that question. I also know I won’t be able to give them any real answer.

Because all of the trip was my favorite! The bed-and-breakfasts where we stayed were warm and charming, with friendly hosts and great food. Our guide, Derek, was the personification of Irish hospitality, always good-natured, always willing to answer any of the questions with which I constantly plagued him. (Thanks, Derek!)

Each day of the trip offered something that I could classify as “favorite.” My trip to Cragganowen was fascinating, and gave me lots of background on the Ireland of the Bronze Age. I loved Bunratty Castle, and walking through the magnificent rooms offered much research for my Medieval/Fantasy series. Viewing Ashford Castle from the waters of Lough Corrib was a delight to the eyes, and being able to travel the locations of The Quiet Man and The Field was like a little piece of Hollywood glam. And seeing swans gliding over the Cong River was icing on the cake.

Maureen O`Hara and John Wayne. A bronze statue commemorates the making of the film “The Quiet Man” in Cong, County Mayo.

We did so many other amazing things—the ferry ride to Inis Oirr, the turf cutting demonstration, seeing the Cliffs of Moher from O’Brien’s Tower. Too many delights to count! But it truly wasn’t just the big things that made an impression. For me, the little things counted for just as much.

Cruising the Lough Corrib in County Galway.

On a long, incredibly beautiful drive back to the B&B one afternoon, we passed a sign for Lisdoonvarna, home of a matchmaking festival each September. Since my novels are romances, naturally I began speculating about the fate of the couples the matchmaker had paired up over the years. That led to lots of speculation and the germ of an idea formed: an anthology of love stories centered around a matchmaking festival! Everyone seemed almost as enthusiastic about the idea as I was, and I’m seriously considering pitching it to my editor. And yes, Derek, I did promise you’d be the matchmaker!

On another such drive, fellow Wild Westie Tom pointed out the hemlock blooming along the roadside. Hemlock, of course, is a deadly poison, and that led to a lively discussion of poisons and how they might be used. There was some speculation here, too, as to why I was so interested in the subject, but I assured them that my Medieval/Fantasy series needed a witch who would, of course, know all about these things. (I’m really not planning on killing anyone off myself!)

As one spectacular view melted into another, I found myself dreaming aloud about that cottage I’d love to build somewhere in Ireland. It became somewhat of a joke, with Derek suggesting I could create a construction boom across Ireland with all of them!

I don’t believe this would have happened on a big bus tour. From what I’ve heard from friends and family who’ve taken them, they keep to a strict schedule, rarely deviating from it to let some shutterbug stop along a road to snap a few shots of a breathtaking landscape or an exquisite seascape. Instead, Wild West Irish Tours, which take a maximum of eight travellers in a comfortable van, offers a chance for everyone to get to know everyone else and become friends (I’m still Facebook friends with two of the three Wild Westies from my Heart of the Wild West Signature Tour last year). Intimacy at its best!

Each tours offers a chance for everyone to get to know everyone else and become friends. Intimacy at its best!

My Wild West Irish Tour offered me friendship, fun, myths and legends; history, spirituality, music, unforgettable scenery, and most of all, inspiration. Everything I could have asked for in one nine-day package.

And as I leave Ireland with memories that will last a lifetime, I do it in the knowledge that, when I return, it will be with Wild West Irish Tours, the best tours on the planet!

Farewell, my beloved Ireland, until we meet again.

From the Wild West of Ireland,

Wild Westie Cynthia Owens

 

Day 8 ~ A Day of History and Reflection

The final day of my Wild West Clare-Connemara-Galway Tour was a quiet wrap-up to a week of history, myth, legend, song and breathtaking sights.

But quiet doesn’t mean dull! Far from it, in fact. It was a perfect day for anyone who, like myself, enjoys history and just a little bit of imagination.

Derek, our WWIT guide, took us first to a quiet, serene spot that was once a place of worship—a mass rock. During Penal times, these rocks—often taken from a church or other place of worship—were carried into the woods in secret, and it was there that Catholic priests held Mass for their followers. For at that time, the laws forbade Catholics to worship their religion, on pain of death. There are mass rocks scattered all over Ireland, and it’s a testament to the will of the people.

The spot where the mass rock lies has been cleared now, but the heather-scented woods around it remain, and I found myself casting an eye into the past. I looked around and saw dense shrubs and towering trees, a narrow, overgrown pathway leading to the small clearing where once sacred words were spoken in secret. The sun shone bright, and birds sang their merry songs. And in my mind I saw a line of people making their way toward it, the young and fit holding aside branches so the elderly or infirm could walk unimpeded. I saw the priest in his robes, perhaps looking over his shoulder, wondering if at any moment an English soldier might spring from behind the bushes and drag him off to prison and certain death.

During Penal times, these rocks, often taken from a church or other place of worship, were carried into the woods in secret, and it was there that Catholic priests held Mass for their followers.

I was both sobered and exhilarated, and I found myself silently cheering on these people who refused to be crushed.

Next stop was St. Cronan’s 10th Century Church, where we literally walked in the footsteps of Brian Ború, the Ard Rí (High King) of Ireland who defeated the Vikings but lost his own life in the Battle of Clontarf. Ború worshipped at St. Cronan’s, and we walked through the stone doorway the High King once did. I sensed the power of a great king there, and the timelessness of this ancient church. St. Cronan’s is the oldest church in Ireland and the U.K.—and possibly in Europe—that is still in use today.

There were so many sights to see in and around Tuamgraney, where our lovely B&B was located. There was the park dedicated to the women of Cumann na mBan, who fought for Irish independence in the Easter Rising of 1916, as well as a monument commemorating the centenary of the Rising. There was a memorial to long-ago evictions that eventually led to the formation of the Land League.

But two site affected me more deeply than the others. The first was a simple place with a terrible history, a little wood with a large black soup pot at its entrance. When we stepped into the wood, the shade was a welcome oasis of cool. Birds sang overhead, and I heard the occasional hum of bees and other insects.

I had to step carefully, though, for the ground was uneven. For this was the site of a mass grave from Famine times. Beneath my cautious feet were hundreds of bodies, victims of hunger and disease, who’d been hastily buried and covered over with earth.

Who lay in these graves? Whole families who had lived and loved in Ireland for generations? Mothers and fathers, children, sisters and brothers, cousins, friends? People who had once stopped in their daily activities to pass the time of day with their neighbors, who might have quarrelled over silly things and made it up again? A young woman who danced with a boy from another village, and wondered if she’d ever see him again? People with dreams of a better life in America, or those whose only wish was to live out their days on Irish soil? I shed a tear for those people, and for all the people of Ireland who’d had their dreams cut short during this terrible time.

The second site is known simply as the Famine Quay. It was the departure point for many as they made their way to Limerick and eventually to Cobh Harbor (then Queenstown), where they boarded ships to the New World. Once again my mind slipped into the past. Instead of the neatly paved road that leads to the water, I saw a narrow, dusty track. The road was empty, but I saw hundreds of skeletal people dressed in little more than rags (for they’d sold everything in order to raise money for the passage). A father carried his young son on his shoulders, and the boy’s sunken eyes widened at the sight of the ship. His wife, her shoulders slumped with fatigue and hunger, carried an infant in her arms. A tiny girl clung to her skirts, and two other children skipped on ahead, their pitifully thin faces alight with the excitement of new adventure. But the mother’s eyes were desolate, her heart burdened by the sorrow of leaving her beloved home. Beside the family, a young man walked alone, his heart rejoicing at the chance America might hold, but afraid of what the journey might bring. Would he ever reach America, or would he perish on the high seas?

A sobering moment indeed, and I felt my own heart aching for these proud, determined people, and I shed a silent tear.

The Famine Quay was the departure point for many as they made their way to the New World.

But my sadness didn’t last long, for soon I was whisked away to an evening of fabulous food, heart-touching music and spectacular dance. I felt I was living the life of a Medieval princess.

My carriage: Derek’s van. The destination: Knappogue, a 15th Century castle. My dinner companions: High King, Brian Ború and the kings of the four provinces of Ireland. I enjoyed a sumptuous four-course meal, eaten to the strains of the harp and the fiddle, and I was entertained by the harp and the fiddle, madrigals and reels and a little bit of céilí dancing. A night to remember, and when the clock struck midnight—well, actually, it was around 9:30 that my pumpkin coach—er, Derek’s van—came to collect me, I felt a little bit like one of the heroines of my Medieval/fantasy series.

Knappogue Castle is a beautifully restored 15th century castle in the rolling hills of County Clare.

Truly a night to remember, and the perfect cap to a perfect tour of the Wild West of Ireland!

From the Wild West of Ireland,

Wild Westie Cynthia Owens

Day 7 ~ A Place to Call Home

I have discovered Heaven.

Another beautiful, sunny day on the Clare-Galway-Connemara tour that began with a ferry from a Doolin to the Aran Island of Inis Oíirr (Inisheer), the smallest of the three Aran Islands whose name means “Eastern Island.”

It started off with amazing views of the Cliffs of Moher, so different from what we saw of the cliffs from land. Though the day was clear, there was just the suggestion of mist shrouding the mighty cliffs—just enough to give them an air of magic and mystery.

The ferry skimmed through the water with ease, a foamy wake pursuing us, and the sea-tanged air blew in our faces and kept us cool and comfortable. An occasional seabird soared overhead, but our guide, Pius, informed me that most of the more exotic birds would be found on the cliffs. Still, it was thrilling to watch them riding the air currents and soaring overhead. And during the short ferry ride, Pius kept us spellbound with stories of Finn MacCool and Diarmud and Grainne, and fascinating little facts about the island.

Cliffs of Moher by sea.

We stepped off the boat and into another time.

The first thing we saw was a burial tomb dating back to the Bronze Age, with a Christian burial ground atop it. History at the doorstep. And just the sort of thing that gets my imagination buzzing! The second thing we saw was a crowd of jarveys and their jaunting-cars (pony-carts), waiting to take visitors on a tour of the island. Exactly the way my “fictionals” (characters) would have traveled! Eagerly, I hopped up on the jaunting-car and settled back for a trip back in time.

Trotting back through time.

And time has, indeed, stood still on Inis Oíirr. The landscape in 2018 is the same as in the tie of my stories. Thatched cottages exist among fields of tumbled stone. Great rock walls spread over stony green fields. The roads may be paved, but many are as narrow as they were when they were covered with the sand that was once thrown up by towering storm waves centuries ago.

On a side note, because Inis Oíirr is a very sandy island, the inhabitants are called “Sandies.” Those who live on Inis Mórare called “Stonies” because their island is so rocky.

Inis Oíirr has a fascinating history, and Pius was happy to share some of that history with us. He took us to the church of Saint Caomhán, the island’s patron saint, a church that was found buried in the island sand and which had to be uncovered annually.

The island was ruled by the O’Briens in the Middle Ages (seems I can’t get away from my beloved O’Brien clan!). The 14thCentury O’Brien’s Castle was partially destroyed by a massive bombardment from Cromwell’s forces and fell into disuse. The remains can still be found on the island.

In the spring of 1960, the cargo ship, the Plassey ran aground on the shores of Inis Oíirr. A group of islanders managed to rescue the entire ship’s crew using a breeches buoy. When I walked down the beach to view the Plassey, Pius explained that, after the crew was rescued and bedded down for the night, the ship was thrown above the high tide line, as if by a giant’s hand. Logic tells me it was probably a huge storm wave that did it, but no one is sure, as no one actually saw it happen. In the land of the giant, Finn MacCool, who knows what the true story may be? The ship appears in the opening of the TV show, Father Ted.

shipwreck plassey
On 8 March 1960, while sailing through Galway Bay carrying a cargo of whiskey, stained glass, and yarn, Plassey was caught in a severe storm and ran onto Finnis Rock, Inisheer, Aran Islands.

Since Inis Oíirris an island, it’s natural there are many boats associated with it, most strongly the currach. Currachs feature heavily in my novel, Coming Home, and today I was thrilled to finally see one of these lightweight little vessels. After studying every mention of them I could find, and countless re-watchings of the movie, Man of Aran, I didn’t think the reality could possibly measure up. But it did, and then some! Although I only saw the boat on land, and from a distance, it was both gratifying and exciting, and I pictured Tom Flynn ferrying Ashleen O’Brien over to Chapel Island.

The Aran islanders were assiduous users of the currach.

After a lovely lunch, the time came to bid farewell to Inis Oíirr, and I found myself doing so with a kind of wistful regret. There was such peace on that island in the middle of the Atlantic, such serenity. I found myself longing to stay, to build a small cottage there with a view of the crashing surf and rocky beach. In such a place, I thought, would be solitude, but not of a distasteful sort. As I’ve said many a time these past seven days, as long as I have Internet access, and Amazon can find me to deliver a steady stream of books, I could be happy!

Inis Oirr (Inisheer) is the smallest of the Aran Islands
Inis Oirr (Inisheer), the smallest of the Aran Islands, is characterized by its distinctive charm.

The words of one of Cromwell’s generals, when speaking of the Burren, came back to me then. “Not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, or earth enough to bury him.” Now I’m in reasonably good health, and I have no reason to believe I won’t live a good long life (please God and all the fairies!), but at that moment I began to consider what people euphemistically call my “final arrangements.” I thought of spending eternity in the cradle of this wild, gentle island.

And I believe I’ll tell my children to scatter my ashes on Inis Oíirr.

From the Wild West of Ireland,

Wild Westie Cynthia Owens

 

Day 6 ~ On Top of the World

A heat wave has hit Ireland this week, and I’ve managed to acquire a bit of a sunburn…and I’m having the time of my life on the Clare-Galway-Connemara Tour!

Today I realized a long-held dream. I took a journey to the top of the world, the edge of the earth, with the hot sun beating down and a soft breeze wafting around me. The wonderful, briny smell of the sea was everywhere, and the cries of a thousand seabirds and the crash of surf against rock shivered on the air.

The Cliffs of Moher is Ireland’s most visited natural attraction. Up to one million people make the pilgrimage there every year. The cliffs tower 214 meters/702 feet over the pounding sea and offer views of the Aran Islands, Galway Bay, The Twelve Pins, the Maum Turk Mountains and Loop Head. An amazing array of seabirds soar high above them, including puffins, guillemots, and razorbills. I’m told a pair of Peregrine Falcons nest there. A herd of wild goats roam the length of the cliffs, and you can find Cat’s Ear and Sea Pinks in the summer.

It’s quite a trek to get to the cliff tops, but, oh, it was definitely one I’m glad I embarked upon! The views—even those from the walk up—were absolutely spectacular! The sun shimmered over the water, which appeared calm and blue in the middle. But the froth of lacy foam at the base of the cliffs told us that calm was deceptive.

There’s something about looking out to sea that stirs my heart with excitement and wonder. Perhaps it’s the timeless ebb and flow of the tide, or maybe the vastness of it. Whatever it is, it never fails to bring peace and tranquility to my soul. And standing at the very top gave me a sensation of flying to the top of the world!

The Cliffs of Moher stand 214 meters/702 feet and offer views of the Aran Islands and Galway Bay.

A second dream came true for me today, though a more recent one. If you’ve read any of my Claddagh Series books, you might remember that the principal family in the series is named O’Brien (Rory O’Brien was the hero of the first book, In Sunshine or in Shadow). Well, taking all that into consideration, how could I resist walking up to O’Brien’s Tower?

MP Sir Cornellius O'Brien observation tower in Ireland
The tower was built on the cliffs in 1835 by local landlord and MP Sir Cornelius O’Brien as an observation tower.

The tower was built for tourists in 1835 by Cornelius O’Brien. The rooftop offers the best photo opportunities, and certainly, visitors to the cliffs must be aware of that, for the place was crowded! In one way, I wasn’t surprised—how could anyone resist such a spectacular view? On the other hand, the narrow spiral staircase is not for the faint of heart! I battled my fear of heights as I climbed shakily to the top, silently chanting my mantra. “You won’t fall, you won’t fall.” Or perhaps not so silently. I did notice a few fellow tourists casting odd glances my way every so often.

But when I finally stood at the top of the tower and looked out over the rest of the world, I felt as Rory O’Brien might have felt gazing down at his people from the top of Ballycashel House. A sense of pride in accomplishment (though my accomplishment seems only to be slowly overcoming my fear of heights!), and a sense of wonder and awe at the vastness of the world around me.

O'Brien's Tower
O’Brien’s Tower marks the highest point of the Cliffs of Moher.

Coming back down to earth, we proceeded to Kilfenora and the Burren Centre. We’d walked over the Burren yesterday, and I found the audio-visual presentation tracing the history of the Burren, as well as its unique environment, gave me a solid background of that magical place and made me feel as if I were really taking a “Walk Through Time.” And the Kilfenora Céilí Band Parlor was a little taste of some wonderful music by the internationally renowned band, all of whom hail from Kilfenora.

A quick turn after lunch took us to St. Fachtnan’s 12thCentury cathedral, where we were spellbound by magnificent stone high crosses. The feeling of antiquity was almost overwhelming.

high cross ireland
The cathedral, which was built in the transitional style, features many fine carvings and the remains of three high crosses, including the Doorty Cross.

We drove home over some of Ireland’s lovely narrow, winding roads—almost, but not quite as intimidating as those tower steps!—to relax and recharge before going out for dinner.

But the day didn’t stop there…

Not far from Tuamgraney is the small village of Feakle. When Derek told us we’d be going for dinner and a trad session, I was thrilled to find out that the pub was Pepper’s, in Feakle. It was nine years—and a lifetime—ago, that my family and I stayed in a thatched cottage in Feakle, and on our first night there, we had dinner at Pepper’s!

Peppers bar, pub, and restaurant with traditional music in Feakle, County Clare Ireland.

It hadn’t changed a bit. It still looked the same as I remembered it—and I snapped a photo just to compare! The only difference was that this time, there was live music, a wonderful band that played merry jigs and reels, haunting ballads, and those wonderful sing-along songs. Wild Mountain Thyme, The Wild Rover, and so many others. I could have stayed a couple hours longer, only we have an early morning tomorrow.

It was the perfect cap to a wonderful day! The Clare-Galway-Connemara Tour has been a dream.

 

From the Wild West of Ireland,

A Still Tapper Her Toes Wild Westie Cynthia Owens

Day 5 ~ A Spiritual Journey

A scorcher in the Wild West of Ireland today, as the country enters a heat wave and I headed out upon a journey of spirituality and self-discovery.

Stony outcrop of the Burren, stones in every fertile place.~ John Betjeman

The Burren (Boireann) means “great rock,” and that’s exactly what I found in this incredible spot. Giant slabs of rock tossed onto the land at the end of the Ice Age. Great boulders. Flat plates of rock and smaller, unstable bits of rock. All of it limestone, and all of it incredibly beautiful.

I found stone, and I found so much more during a more than four-hour walk in this amazing place.

The Burren
The Burren (Boireann) means “great rock”.

Our guide, Pius Murray, took us to Saint Colman’s Holy Well. It was a lovely long walk under sparkling sunshine, and Pius made it all the more special by pointing out some of the most exotic plants and flowers I’ve ever seen. Did you know there are 27 species of orchid in Ireland, and 24 of them grow in the Burren? In fact, Mediterranean and Alpine flowers grow side by side in the magical, mystical Burren. I doubt I’ll remember even half the flower names, but Pius pointed out the Mountain Aven, several purple orchids, and a bloody cranesbill. We saw several butterflies, including one species with red wings that Pius explained was poisonous to birds.

St. Colman's Well County Clare
St. Colman’s Well is well worth a pause and a prayer.

And our walk was interspersed with poetry, myths, and legends about the Burren that made the journey to the well seem to last only a short time.

Once at the well, Pius explained that the water there held healing powers for eyes ailments and that splashing a bit of it into your eyes was supposed to bring about a cure. Now I don’t know if that’s true, but anyone who knows me, knows I’ve had vision problems since I was a child. So, I thought, why not? I tried it, and though I haven’t yet noticed any improvement, I can always hope. I don’t suppose it would happen that quickly anyway!

Following several lovely rituals and a touching prayer circle at the well, we went up a rather precarious, rocky path St. Colman’s Bed, where he sought solitude, and which has remained perfectly preserved for more than fourteen hundred years. The cave was much larger than I expected, but I don’t think I’d want to spend years there, as he did—certainly not without Wi-Fi!

And again Pius regaled us with poetry and stories of Saint Colman, including a rather amusing one about a blackbird and her nest. I won’t reveal the story, though. You’ll have to visit Clare, Connemara, and Galway with the Wild Westies to hear that!

After a few more rituals and some meditation (which I confess I’ve never done before), we made our way down to the Road of the Dishes. I don’t think I’m revealing any Wild Westie secrets here, because the story of the Hospitable King Guaire and the Road of the Dishes is quite well-known.

It seems King Guaire was a very generous man who lived in Dunguaire Castle which is located in Kinvara, very close to the Burren. On Easter morning in the 6thCentury, Saint Colman found himself with a very meager Easter feast. At the same time, King Guaire was sitting down to enjoy a specially-prepared Easter banquet. But before beginning the meal, the Hospitable King Guaire spoke:

“Oh, would it pleased Heaven that this banquet were set before some true servants of God who require it; as for us, we might easily be provided with another.”

At the very moment he spoke, the dishes rose from the table and flew from the room. King Guaire immediately instructed his guards to follow the dishes and discover their ultimate destination. It’s said the dishes were carried by angels, who deposited in an open space before Saint Colman in his Burren Hermitage.

The route the dishes traveled has been known ever since as the Road of the Dishes.

The Flight of the Dishes legend is set in Dunguaire, Kinvara. Co. Galway.

After such a story, you might imagine that the day couldn’t get better. Well, you’d be wrong, because after leaving the Burren, we proceeded on to Poulnabrone Dolmen, the iconic portal tomb that’s older than the Pyramids.

Poulnabrone Dolmen is located in the Burren, County Clare, Ireland. The structure dates back to the Neolithic period (4200 BC and 2900 BC).

Just being close to the magnificent stone structure, walking around it and looking up at it, gave me a feeling of being in a timeless time, a time before time began, a time that will continue, unchanged, for centuries.

Our drive back to East Clare included a quick stop at Leamaneh Castle and the story of Máire Rua, Red Mary, an interesting take on romance involving Oliver Cromwell.

People have been asking me which of my experiences on this Clare-Connemara-Galway tour I’ve enjoyed most. I usually say, “All of them,” and that’s true in many ways. Each place I’ve visited over the last few days has been new and different, historically enlightening and great research for my various projects.

But today’s was extra-special.

We all have times when we get stressed over our own problems and worries. Maybe we’re worried about having enough money to live on after retirement. Maybe we’re worried about a family member’s health, or our children’s future. We can get so wrapped up in our problems it becomes a huge burden on our life.

Today, I learned to let go, to release my personal worries, and allow myself to exist freely in the world. I touched something inside myself, my soul, my spirit. Whatever it was, I reached deep within myself and found peace, serenity, and joy.

 

From the Wild West of Ireland,

Wild Westie Cynthia Owens

 

Day 4 ~ From Sweeping Romance to Gritty Reality and back again

Another fabulous day with Wild West Irish Tours that brought out the romantic in me!

Our first stop was the “Quiet Man Bridge,” where John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara played out the loves scenes in the movie. What an incredibly lovely place, full of sparkling water, sunshine, and of course, a tribute to John Wayne. As I stood on the bridge and gazed over the merry stream, I found myself thinking about Deirdre and Colin, the hero and heroine of one of my Claddagh Series stories, which is in the plotting stages. I pictured them wandering along the riverbank, hand in hand, getting to know each other and falling in love. (Of course, no good love story is without conflict, but that, too, is still in the plotting stages!) So naturally, a bridge that might look very similar to the “Quiet Man Bridge,” will appear in this story (tentatively entitled “My Lady, My Love”).

Amazing inspiration and it wasn’t even noon yet! And it got even better!

Our second stop was the Glengowla Silver and Lead Mine, a commemorative mine abandoned in 1865 and reopened as Ireland’s first show mine and museum. Guided tours take visitors on an underground tour of the winding tunnels where once determined me chiseled away at thick, stubborn rock in search of ore.

I’d never been in a mine before, and I must confess I was a little intimidated at the thought, as I’m a bit claustrophobic. But last year, after my Wild West Irish Signature Tour, I visited Newgrange, and thought if I didn’t have a panic attack in that small space, a mine should be a piece of cake. Besides, every experience is fodder for an author—who knows when I might decide to write a miner hero? So I donned hairnet and helmet, sucked in a deep—a very deep– breath, and proceeded into the dark recesses of the earth.

It turned out to be an absolutely fascinating journey! Did you know that these miners—mostly survivors of an Gorta Mor—the Great Hunger—weren’t paid unless they found lead, the desired ore? No matter what else they found, if it wasn’t lead, they weren’t paid. Or that the timbers that shored up the mine were from American trees. This was because of the coffin ships that took desperate Famine refugees to America, and rather than return with empty holds, the ships brought back American timber instead.

When I came up from the mine, I felt a surge of pity for those long-ago miners. I looked up at the blue sky, felt the sunshine hot on my face, inhaled a breath of fresh air, and I wondered. If the light and air felt this good to me after being down in that dark, dank mine, what must it have felt like to them? How could they bear to spend so much time in the bowels of the earth? Such sweet serenity must have seemed like a little bit of heaven to them.

I was soon glad to shake off such sober thoughts as we were given a highly entertaining demonstration of cutting the turf. I’d never seen it done before, except in a few YouTube videos, and I was eager to see this fast-dying art performed. I can’t reveal all the secrets of properly cutting this wonderfully aromatic fuel, but I will say it’s hard work. And I was able to record the entire process. Now, when I need one of my heroes to venture into the bog, I’ll know exactly what he does and how! More fodder for my already-bulging-after-my-tour research files!

The Bog

Lunch was taken at the lovely Brigit’s Garden, a unique garden nature and heritage trail that celebrates the four Celtic seasons: Samhain (Halloween and the beginning of winter), Imbolc (Spring), Bealtaine (Summer) and Lughnasa (the harvest, and the coming of autumn). The gardens are absolutely spectacular, and even more so is the Calendar Sundial, the largest sundial in Ireland, which tells not only the time of day, but also the month of the year. Again, excellent research for my Medieval/Fantasy series.

Cynthia Owens in Brigit’s Garden

I took a little time for a peek at the Fairy Fort. I didn’t take any pictures there—I wasn’t sure if it might be bad luck to try to photograph the fairies—but I’m almost sure I saw a quick, darting movement from the corner of my eye, and a tiny sparkle of light. Someone less fanciful than myself might say it was just a trick of the bright summer sunshine, but I’m not sure about that…

Derek took us home by yet another scenic route (is there any other kind in Ireland?), and as we drove along breathtaking coastal views and through fields filled with ancient, timeless stones, I found at least a dozen locations where I’d build my dream cottage. Just a small one, mind, by a merrily spluttering stream, built of some ancient stone, with a tidy thatched roof and a turf fire glowing red and orange on the hearth. Oh, and Internet access, and access to Amazon for a monthly book delivery.

Ah, well, an author can but dream…

Until next time…

From the Wild West of Ireland,

Wild Westie Cynthia Owens

 

Day 3 ~ History and Old Hollywood

A lovely day for a cruise…and that’s exactly what we did!

We left our B&B early and drove through gently-rolling, sheep-dotted hills, while the clouds chased the sun and the sun chased back in a wind-blown game of “Catch me if you can.” There is no sky quite like an Irish sky!

And as we drove through the Maam-Turk Mountains, I couldn’t help but picture a rebel hero, fleeing a band of British soldiers, escaping just before capture. I don’t yet know exactly who he is, or what he did to cause the soldiers to pursue him so avidly, but in time, I’ll learn his name and eventually, he’ll tell me his story to share with my readers.

We had a little time before the boat came for us, so we indulged in a little walk about lovely, serene Lough Corrib before the Isle of Innisfree glided to the quay and we hopped aboard. A brisk wind sent shivers through us, but for me, it brought back memories of my summer holidays in the Gaspé, and the boat rides I took in that small fishing village in Eastern Quebec.

At 68 square meters, Lough Corrib is the biggest lake in Ireland. Legend has it that there are 365 islands in it, but the truth of that seems a little unclear. But all of them were absolutely lovely. Ten of them are still sparsely populated, some having only one or two homes. The most famous of the islands in Inchagoill, and it’s also the most-visited.

Lough Corrib, the Republic of Ireland's largest lake
Cruising the beautiful Lough Corrib, the Republic of Ireland’s largest lake.

There a great, funny story about Inchagoill Island involving a football game, a wireless (radio) and a man named Tommy Nevin. But I’ll let you discover that story for yourselves—don’t’ want to spoil the punch line you can hear on you Wild West Clare-Connemara-Galway Tour!

As we glided over the gray-blue waters, the brisk wind sent chills through me, but the combination of incredible views and the history-filled live commentary from the boat’s captain warmed me.

But nothing prepared me for the sight of Ashford Castle!

I’d heard of the great castle, of course. It’s now a private hotel, and I’d read of the famous people who’d stayed there. And I’d seen pictures. So maybe I should have expected what I saw.

But I didn’t. Its sweeping grandeur, tall turrets, and weathered stone stole my breath. I had to blink a few times to make sure I was really seeing this 13thCentury magnificence. I felt a little dart of envy for all the celebrities who’d made this castle/hotel a temporary home, among them the cast and crew of The Quiet Man, Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Brad Pitt, and Pierce Brosnan.

Ashford Castle Song Mayo Galway Lough Corrib Ireland
Ashford Castle is a medieval and Victorian castle that has been expanded over the centuries and turned into a five-star luxury hotel near Cong on the Mayo-Galway border, on the shore of Lough Corrib in Ireland.

After so many glamorous thoughts, it seemed only right that our tour took a turn to Old Hollywood. Part I: the quiet village of Cong, where The Quiet Man was filmed. We took a tour of the village, where we learned all sorts of fascinating facts about the stars, the movie, and Cong itself. I never knew that John Wayne frequented the pubs and drank with the locals. Or that Maureen O’Hara was just 18 years old when she left Ireland for America to play Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Our guide really knew her stuff, not only showing us the various movie settings, but also explaining when they featured in the movie, and synopsizing those scenes for us.

Pat Cohans Bar The Quiet Man
Pat Cohan Bar as featured in the 1952 classic movie The Quiet Man.

Old Hollywood, Part II: The village of Leenaun, where much of the action in the movie, The Field, took place. I’ve been a fan of John B. Keane for quite a while now (my favorite of his plays is Sive), so naturally I was excited to learn that Leenaun was on the itinerary. Our guide, Derek, was kind enough to stop by Gaynor’s Pub so I could snap a few photos. But when he offered to take a photo of me by the pub, I got photo-bombed! Perhaps this man was the ghost of The Bull McCabe? This was the first time I’d ever been photo-bombed, and I must admit it felt a little strange! Just this side of intimidating.

Photo-bombed by The Bull McCabe himself outside Gaynor’s pub in Leenaun- scene of the famous 1990 film “The Field” starring Richard Harris.

We took the scenic route home to Oughterard, which included spectacular views of rock-like mountains and glistening lakes. The bright, late-afternoon sun shone over the mountains, making lovely shadows and picking out the glittering stone. Some of the lakes were so blue I was tempted to hop from the van and scoop up a sip to see if it tasted as refreshing as it looked!

And all along the roads were meandering sheep, come down from the mountain to graze. It amazed me to see them only inches from the roadside, and I wondered how they survived their day of grazing. Derek assured me that the local drivers know they might be out and about, and to be cautious of them, but I couldn’t help wondering about nervous tourists driving on the “wrong” side of the road.

Just another reason to take a Wild West Irish tour. All of their drivers are excellent, and their knowledge of the local areas and their history is top-notch.

Until tomorrow’s journey…

From the Wild West of Ireland,

Wild Westie Cynthia Owens

Day 2 ~ A Feast of History and Inspiration

The sun shone brightly on the second day of my Clare-Connemara-Galway tour.

We got an early start and headed to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, and it turned out to be a treasure trove of history of the best kind—the way people really lived in both the 15th Century and the 19th Century! And it stirred up a lot of ideas—particularly for my Medieval/Fantasy series, which I’ve begun actively plotting.

 

Bunratty Castle Clare county ireland
In the historically rich Bunratty Castle, my imagination runs wild with Medieval fantasy.

We visited such diverse rooms as the Main Guard, a vaulted hall with a Minstrels’ Gallery, the Captain’s Quarters, with its decorated ceiling, and the Great Hall, where judgment was rendered and grand banquets held.

It was at this point, as so often happens when I visit such a historically-rich place, that my imagination took flight. I pictured the grand betrothal feast King Dermot will hold for one of his adored daughters, the joyous wedding banquet for another. Huge platters of food sat on the tables, bejeweled goblets filled with mead, while minstrels and pipers played a merry jig or a poignant air. On the other hand, the king’s black brows would crash together as he pointed an aristocratic finger at a wrong-doer and sentenced him to his punishment.

However…

I must confess that, had I lived in this castle, I’d have preferred an elevator to get to the top floor! Not that I mind climbing steps, but these narrow, winding stairs were quite terrifying. As I descended to the main floor of the castle, my active (some would say overly-active) imagination picture my warrior plunging to his death. Or maybe it was me. I can’t be sure, as I was busy clinging to the seemingly-insubstantial railing and muttering under my breath, “You’re okay; you’re not going to fall; everything’s fine.”

(Anyone who knows me knows I’m terrified of heights!)

Our tour guide, Derek, has a theory about those stone stairs, a well-kept secret known only to Wild Westies.

Having survived the staircase to emerge from the castle unscathed, I proceeded to the next phase of the morning’s adventure: the Folk Park, a living reconstruction of the homes and environment of the Ireland of a century ago. From rural farmhouses to a busy village street, the park offered real insights into what life was like for the inhabitants. Another treasure trove!

The folk park was filled with those tiny historical details that I love so much. For instance, Loop Head House, the home of a fishing and farming family from West Clare, had a roped-down thatch to keep it from blowing away in an Atlantic gale. And in the Byre Dwelling, an example of a poor family’s dwelling in County Mayo, the family shared their home with their milk cows.

Loop Head House fishing and farming in West Clare County Ireland
Loop Head House, the home of a fishing and farming family from West Clare.

After I entered the Byre Dwelling, I realized it made a lot of sense. In the Ireland of the 19th Century, putting up a shelter for livestock might bring about an increase in a tenant’s rent, which most could never afford.

One thing I noticed in the park was the red post-box. I learned yesterday during my tour of Ennis that all the red (British) post-boxes had been painted green after Ireland achieved her independence. But of course, the Folk Village is set to look like a 19th Century village, when the post office—and most everything else—was under British rule!

Just another small detail picked up in the Wild West of Ireland.

Red British Post Office Box in Ireland
A 19th Century post office box in Folk Village. All post office boxes were painted red under British rule and later painted green when Ireland achieved independence.

After a quick lunch in the village pub, it was off to Kilmacduagh, where I was finally able to realize my dream of seeing a round tower! And not just any tower. At 112 feet high, it’s Ireland’s highest round tower. And like the famed tower in Italy, this one also has a lean of ½ meter from vertical. I felt its ancientness as I walked up to it, and when I touched the weathered gray stone, I thought my fingers must tingle from its magic.

Kilmacduagh Round Tower stands 112 feet high as Ireland’s highest round tower.
Kilmacduagh Round Tower stands 112 feet high as Ireland’s highest round tower.

The ruined Kilmacduagh Abbey, whose name means “the church of Duagh’s son,” was founded early in the 7th Century by Saint Colman, son of Duagh, who remained the Abbot until his death. He is buried on the grounds of the Abbey.

There are legends and traditions about this fantastic place of grass and stone. One says that the soil around Saint Colman’s grave has miraculous healing properties. There are others, too, but again, I’ll let you discover those for yourself—on a Wild West of Ireland tour, of course!

Walking through this aged holy site was like walking into another time.

After this lovely tour, when the sunshine played a game of tag with the clouds and the breeze blew gently over the burial grounds of the Abbey, we set off for our B&B in Galway. Although a lot of the drive was on the Motorways, a good bit of it was in more rural areas. Sheep, cows, and the occasional horse dotted the landscape along narrow roads where it seemed impossible to pass two cars.

One thing stood out against the lush, emerald landscape, caught my eye and made my throat tighten with emotion: the drystone walls that separated one field from another. I’d seen pictures of them, of course, but their true beauty has to be seen to be believed.

Tarnished silver links in an ancient queen’s chain.

Until the next adventure…

From the Wild West of Ireland,

Wild Westie Cynthia Owens

Day 1 ~ The Adventure Begins

My Clare-Connemara-Galway tour started out with a bang, filled with history, fascinating details that only locals would know, and just a wee bit o’ Irish mist.

First stop: The charming market town of Ennis, in Clare. Toured the Clare Museum, a wonderful, hands-on place that features 6000 years of Irish history. I could have spent a few days there, learning about castles and other symbols of power, viewing stunning displays of weaponry and gold. The most exciting feature for me was the recordings of folktales and traditions of the area. I never knew that hanging a piece of linen on a rose bush the day before St. Brigid’s day might become a cure for the headaches, or that the giblets and other inedible parts of a cock killed on St. Martin’s Day was a cure for yellow jaundice. Or—and this one will appear in the Christmas novella I’m currently writing—that a person from the Aran Islands is called an Arannach.

Following my tour of the museum, I met up with Jane O’Brien for a fascinating tour of the town on the River Fergus. The name Ennis comes from the Irish for island, she explained to us, and so began our lovely tour.

It began near one of the town’s sculptures, the Celtic love knot, which of course, stands for love, and we learned about Daniel O’Connell’s peaceful struggle for Catholic emancipation in the Nineteenth Century. Jane also told us of the dangers of voting against a landlord. You could be evicted if you voted against the Master. Hard, fought-for rights with high risk.

As Jane continued to lead us around the town, we could hear music filtering through the mist that drifted around us. I personally identified several of my favorite tunes, including Whiskey in the Jar, Danny Boy, and The Fields of Athenry.

We viewed the Old Franciscan Abbey, the 13th Century monastery, which once housed 350 monks and 600 students, heard the tale of the “Mad Monk,” and learned about the Bull Club, a men’s-only club for the landed gentry.

A people are defined by the music of their homeland, and next to the statue commemorating the Easter Rising of 1916 was the statue that was most fascinating to me, devoted to the music and songs of Clare. We also discovered why all Irish post-boxes are painted green. After Ireland won her independence, the red boxes were painted in Ireland’s national color.

The statue that was most fascinating to me, devoted to the music and songs of Clare.

There were many other such fascinating little details that Jane shared with us—too many to name here. I’m so glad I had such a knowledgeable guide, only to be expected from Wild West Irish Tours.

After the tour, I walked down to CraftWorks, a co-op craft shop, all of whose sixty artists hail from Clare. Many of them are able to support themselves on the profits they earn from the co-op. Naturally, I couldn’t resist picking up a few things to take back to Canada with me!

A small side-note: When I told Martin, who runs CraftWorks, I’m from Montreal, it turned out we had a connection. He’d worked at both Mirabel Airport and Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport! Nice to find a bit of home away from home!

After lunch (and a quick stop in the Ennis Book Shop), Derek picked me up again and we headed for Cragganowen, where many aspects of Ireland’s past have been recreated. Many of Ireland’s earliest dwellings have been reconstructed here to create a wonderful exhibition.

My personal favorite spots were the Crannog and the Ring Fort. The Crannog, a lake dwelling that dates back to the Iron Age, is an artificial island where people built houses, kept livestock, and lived in relative security. As always happens when I visit such a place, I found myself wondering who might have lived there, and what their lives were like.

There are about 40,000 ringforts across Ireland, and today, I was able to visit one of these Early Christian farmsteads (C5-C12 AD). People lived their lives within these forts, cooking over open fires, grinding corn, making pottery, and turning wooden bowls on a lathe. As I wandered around the fort, I breathed in the heady scent of the low-burning turf fire in the middle.

There are about 40,000 ringforts across Ireland, and today, I was able to visit one of these Early Christian farmsteads (C5-C12 AD).

I have slightly mixed feelings about Cragganowen Castle. Although I found it fascinating (and imagined my heroes and heroines moving about the various rooms and the Great Hall) and going up to the top on the narrow, winding stairs was a challenge to my nerve, coming down was an even greater test of my courage. Those stone stairs are very narrow, and as I cautiously descended them, clinging tenaciously to the thin iron rail, I couldn’t help imagine a hero plunging to his death with a single misstep!

As we left Cragganowen, I saw a heard of what looked like goats, with long, straggly woolen coats. Turns out I was wrong, but it was the best “wrong” of the day! They weren’t goats, but Soay sheep, a rare breed of domestic sheep raised in ancient times. I’d never heard of these sheep. They are much smaller than the sheep I’ve seen, and their piquant faces are endearing.

Soay sheep, a rare breed of domestic sheep raised in ancient times.

I have a feeling the King and Queen of my Medieval/Fantasy series will raise herds of Soay sheep.

I had an absolutely wonderful day! From learning tiny details I’d never known—did you know that the word poitin means “little still”? Or that the word “Market” is Margadh in Gaelic?—to plotting ideas for my new series, the first day of my Clare-Connemara-Galway tour has been a dream!

I can’t wait until tomorrow’s expeditions!

From the Wild West of Ireland,

Wild Westie Cynthia Owens

 

On the Eve of an Adventure

I’m about to embark on a grand adventure, and I feel almost like one of my own romance novel heroines!

Tomorrow marks the beginning of my Wild West Irish Tour of Clare, Connemara and Galway, and I am psyched.

The West of Ireland is near and dear to my heart. Its ancient beauty, incredible landscape and mysticism have always fascinated me, so much so that when I wrote my first novel, I set my fictitious Irish village of Ballycashel on its wild, wind-swept coast.

As an author, I always have several projects on the go. At the moment, I’m writing a Christmas novella, plotting two stories—one for my Claddagh Series, the other for my Wild Geese stories—and researching an entirely new series.

This trip couldn’t have come at a better time!

Micheal Lynch, the hero of my Christmas novella, must make a visit to the Aran island of Inis Oirr, coincidentally one of the places I’ll visit on this tour, though I didn’t know that when I plotted that part of the story. What better way to be able to describe the place and the people than to visit the location?

We also visit Bunratty Castle and Folk Park on this tour. Again, excellent research. My next two stories will be set in 19th Century Ireland, and the Folk Park is a traditional village of the time, with cottages, a doctor, and of course, a pub. A perfect setting for my stories, and a chance to speak to some of the people from that era. And perhaps the setting for the Cork village near Skibbereen where Fiona MacDermott searches for her family.

When I visited the castle in 2009 with my family, I was mainly interested in the Folk Park. This time, though, it’s the castle that will capture my interest. It’s a 15th Century tower house, and I think it will be a research goldmine for the new series.

This series is a bit of a departure for me. It’s a Medieval fantasy historical romance series, with a lot of magic and mythology mixed in. The setting will be a kingdom based loosely on the magical land of Tír na Nóg, the Land of the Ever Young, and the ancient kingdom of Tara (which I was lucky enough to visit after my WWIT Signature Tour last summer). The castle, as well as the other sites we visit, will no doubt appear—in one form or another—in all of the stories.

I’m actively plotting the story that will eventually become Book 8 in my Claddagh Series, and I know some of the places we visit—and maybe some of the people I meet!—will become part of that story. I’m considering sending Deirdre O’Brien and her Colin to the magical Burren.

 

The above photo was taken last year in a magical fairy glen somewhere in the Wild West of Ireland.

But it’s not just the sites I’m looking forward to. They say a people’s heart is in their music, and I’m a firm believer in that. My collection of Irish music is extensive (some would say massive) and in listening to some of the songs of Ireland’s history, I often find myself conjuring up scenarios that eventually become scenes in a story, or backstories for a character. The Fields of Athenry is a prime example. When I was writing my first novel, In Sunshine or in Shadow, I needed a backstory for Siobhán Desmond, the heroine of the story. In listening to Athenry, I came up with a similar backstory for Siobhán, which spiralled into all sorts of conflicts for her and Rory O’Brien. I look forward to the many opportunities I know this tour will offer to hear some Irish music—and they might just spawn a story or two!

When I took the WWIT tour last year, I was incredibly impressed by all of the guides that took us to so many off-the-beaten-path places. All were so very knowledgeable about their various subjects, and all of them were more than happy to answer any questions or explain anything we didn’t understand—even to identifying the local flora! With the Clare-Connemara-Galway Tour, I can’t wait to meet a whole new set of guides who will share their knowledge, their stories, and all the wonderful little details that make the places of Ireland so fascinating.

I can’t wait to share my adventures with all of you!

Turas maith!

Cynthia

~~~

About Cynthia: I believe I was destined to be interested in history. One of my distant ancestors, Thomas Aubert, reportedly sailed up the St. Lawrence River to discover Canada some 26 years before Jacques Cartier’s 1534 voyage. Another relative was a 17thCentury “King’s Girl,” one of a group of young unmarried girls sent to New France (now the province of Quebec) as brides for the habitants (settlers) there. My late father was born in a tiny Eastern-Quebec fishing village called Irishtown. I recently had an Ancestry DNA test done, and received my results just a few days before leaving on my first Wild West Irish Tour. I learned that I have 16% Irish DNA. Perhaps that accounts for my fascination with Ireland. My passion for reading made me long to write books like the ones I enjoyed, and I tried penning sequels to my favorite Nancy Drew mysteries. Later, fancying myself a female version of Andrew Lloyd Weber, I drafted a musical set in Paris during WWII. A former journalist and lifelong Celtophile, I enjoyed a previous career as a reporter/editor for a small chain of community newspapers before returning to my first love, romantic fiction. My stories usually include an Irish setting, hero or heroine, and sometimes all three. I’m the author of The Claddagh Series, historical romances set in Ireland and beyond, and The Wild Geese Series, in which five Irish heroes return from the American Civil War to find love and adventure. I’m a member of the Romance Writers of America, Hearts Through History Romance Writers, and Celtic Hearts Romance Writers. A lifelong resident of Montreal, Canada, I still live there with my own Celtic hero and our two young adult children.