After trying to find an alternative I give up, accept some amount of self-loathing, and book myself onto a day bus tour of Connemarra. It’s a good deal really: same cost as a public bus return, seeing more than one interesting site and less chance of getting stranded in the middle of nowhere if a connection doesn’t work out. But it still feels like a defeat, like I’m being nannied on a school trip.
I don’t enjoy being squeezed into a bus of fellow tourists, lack of legroom aside, mostly because they hold a very candid mirror up to my own cluelessness and remind me that tourism is mostly gawping at things that are different and remarking how different they are. You can, and I normally do, dress it up as higher minded; exploring and understanding the world, expanding your horizons etc, all of which are things I believe to be true. It’s very hard to feel that high brow about it when everyone’s holding their camera up against the plate glass of a site-seeing coach while clutching their counties of Ireland souvenir tea-towels.
Our first stop is the remains of Ross Errily Friary, which was abandoned for the first time around the sixtieth century by the Franciscan monks who were driven out by an English Cromwell of some description. Which Cromwell it was isn’t clear from the combination bus driver and tour guide sat behind the wheel, and some of the facts he tells us over his hands free PA system are a bit muddled, but his ability to repeat the same information in five different sentences while driving are world class.
(For the record it was Thomas Cromwell in 1538 during the reign of Henry VIII and as part of the English Reformation, followed in 1656 by Oliver Cromwell, then Lord Protector. To be fair if you’re Irish and someone called Cromwell turns up from England something unpleasant is very likely to happen next, regardless of first name.)
Strangely the remains of the Friary are still used as a graveyard, and while the walls are old, there are new graves, some as recent as 2009. This seems a very odd combination of current use and a historically protected site. Protected either by fairies or the Office of Public Works, our guide says both at different times, one with the power of planning permission laws and the other with the power of magic, the latter of which, suggests the driver, has a far greater effect on the average local’s mind. Why supernatural fairies would protect a Christian site is not clear either; perhaps a result of departmental rationalisation in the spiritual world?
After a drive by photographing of a distant, tree obscured, stone circle near Glebe we stop in Cong; the site of an apparently popular 1951 film called The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. Having never heard of the film before, which kick-started the post war American love of Ireland and accompanying tourist trade, the town is of little interest to me. It’s very small, consisting of a pub that had a starring role in the aforementioned film and various other businesses that work on the basis that people are going to come and see the famous pub. There is a very nice short walk along the along the river and the mostly intact remains of a stone fishing hut on an outcrop in the river. Under a nearby tree that overhangs the water I discover a wet collection of lace-less trainers, t-shirts and towels lying across the tree’s exposed root system. To my relief I don’t stumble onto any drowned bodies or skinny dippers at the site, the only possible explanations that my mind can give me at the time based on these damp clues, and quickly return to the waiting coach before I do spot any.
We drive onwards, stopping occasionally to take in a particularly nice vista across loughs and green hills. A comparison to parts of the Scottish highlands seems lazy, but has truth to it. Regularly we see rows of brown peat ingots lying in long rows on top of the moor, apparently drying out, but with all the rain I don’t really believe that. A lot of people still burn peat as a substantial part of their heating, even if the EU believes that it’s destroying the ancient peat bogs, but it’s hard to sell conservation to people when they’re cold and the alternate heating costs are very high. The bus tour map has a site ‘8 - Killer Sheep’ marked on it that sadly isn’t mentioned during the day and I forget to ask until it’s too late. I didn’t see any killer sheep, but perhaps they look like any other sheep from a distance or it was just a ploy to keep passengers from straying too far from the bus.
The main attraction of the day is a stop at Kylemore Abbey and gardens, a very large country manor built in 1867 in a picturesque setting. We arrive in glorious sunshine and get to see the huge house and Gothic church sat perfectly behind a millpond flat lake. The Gothic church was built as a miniature cathedral in honour of the Margaret Henry, the wife of Kylemore estate builder Marshall Henry. From a distance it does look like a cathedral with an strangely large door, inside this optical illusion continues, with a huge vaulted ceiling similar to Bristol Catherdral, but only one column of pews stretching wall to wall.
After passing out of the Marshall Henry’s hands and through various less successful owners Kylemore became home to a Benedictine order of nuns in 1920 after their abbey in Belgium was destroyed in the first world war. Until 2010 the nuns had operated a girls boarding school here, but it closed due to a lack of students and nuns. A dwindling number of nuns still live at Kylemore and help out with the tourist trade producing various items such as soaps and sweets. The result was probably the strangest complaint I’ve heard in a long time coming from another visitor, whom I overheard complaining to his girlfriend that “I only saw one nun, and she wasn’t even making any chocolate”.
If nuns are naturally gifted chocolate makers is not clear to me, is it blessed? a solid, calorific version of holy water that melts in the mouth and has a communion wine flavoured liquid centre? Sadly economic necessity drives strange trades and leaves little room for dignity, like adverts for online dating and poker paying for the vital news websites we all use to try and understand what’s happening in the world around us.
I enjoy afternoon cream tea, an affectation I’m getting used to, next to the walled Victorian garden. Looking south towards the hills on the other side of the valley light and dark patches under the clouds work their way over the sloping ground, adding a pleasant motion to the idyllic scene. Kylemore Abbey, like Herst Castle or Cardiff Castle while the Bute family lived there are amazing symbols of the inequality between rich and poor we’ve seen in the past. While people were very thankful for the work that Marshall Henry created in building and tending Kylemore in a remote and historically poor part of the world, building mansions for the super rich is a patronising form of trickle-down economics.
Strolling through the renovated walled gardens I’m impressed by the technology that was employed in keeping exotic glass houses warm in the winter so that bananas and other exotic plants could be grown here. On the way back to the coach park an inevitable heavy shower reaches Kylemore and soon drenches everything, I work to avoid the worst of it by walking under the trees, where there are fewer, but heavier, raindrops that splatter on my raincoat. While bananas needed artificial help to stay alive, the purple-pink rhododendron bushes imported from Malaysia are in full bloom and have adapted to Ireland with ease. I can only assume it’s the frequent tropical grade heavy downpours more than the heat that makes them feel at home.
We arrive back in Galway after a drowsy ninety minutes in the bus, during which time the driver philosophises about the difference between the British and the Irish, which seems to come down to ‘we agree on everything, except in sport, where we agree on nothing’. The peat bogs, stands of farmed fast growing pines and small lakes don’t have a strong opinion, they just lie a look pretty in the afternoon light, a landscape of millions of subtly different greens and browns in more shades than I thought possible.
I eat dinner at the Quay Street Kitchen, the best reviewed restaurant on Trip Advisor in this city, but here my opinion differs with the internet hive mind and I don’t think it’s a patch on Ard Bia. The food and beer is good, but something doesn’t quite click. The decor is inoffensive, the service swift, perhaps disturbingly so, the 60’s hits soundtrack maybe a little loud, but nothing to put you off. The one thing I do find strange is that no-one seems to linger, by the time I’ve finished eating almost all the tables have changed diners. I never felt under an pressure to leave, and I’m sure no-one else did either, but there’s little that makes me want to stay longer.
On my last day in Galway I have breakfast in the cafe in the bottom of the small Galway museum, sampling a variety of black puddings. The most interesting exhibit is the Galway Hooker boat, its black hull and red sales hang hanging between the floors. The name comes from its use for hooking fish from long line fishing, but the build served as a multi-purpose craft suited for the strong seas found off the west coast of Ireland, while being able to navigate shallow waters as well. Recently there has been a revival in building and sailing this type of traditional boat, but later in the harbour I can’t see any.
The morning the sun shines warmly on Galway and I wander around the harbour and out along NimmO’s pier, looking back I can see the a row of colourful houses on the opposite side, behind which a massive pile of rusting scrap metal looms at the working part of the port. Here at the outflow of the Corrib slightly sad looking boats sit on the mud at low tide, the most decrepit of which have been pulled up higher onto the little gravel beach. Over the bay dark clouds loom again over the hills on the south side of the bay and seem to be heading straight for Galway. Wanting to avoid another drenching I head back into town in search of easy shelter, but later feel stupid when the clouds seem happy to stay over the hills and never reach us.
I join a free Galway Civic Society walking tour that focus on the medieval parts of its history, starting at the remains of the Hall of the Red Earl, now protected by glass walls under a council office building. The guide gives a good history of the city since its founding in Anglo-Norman times, a lot of which revolves around the doings of the twelve ‘tribes’ of Galway, the ruling families that between them owned most of the city and the business within it. Set into many of the buildings are stones baring various combinations of their crests, identifying joint ventures and businesses. One now sits above a Subway, but predates the idea of a 12” sandwich by a few hundred years.
For a late lunch I stop into the small Pie Maker shop, filled with old knickknacks and a french lady who when she’s not serving customers is happily singing to herself. Given the late hour for lunch I mostly have the shop to myself, using the quiet hours to relax and do some more reading while enjoying a nice pie. While it’s not Pieminister good, it’s still great.
To my strangely large joy I discover that Ireland also has Marks & Spencer’s, so I can buy a top-up of black socks that match the ones I already have, and in euros. Having just the one type of sock means I can always pull any two socks out of the cupboard and know I have a matching pair, a system I discovered upon reading his autobiography I share with the magician Derren Brown. I suspect that, and having lived in Bristol, are about the only things we share. For someone who must have spent years learning to pull surprises out of hats, pockets and ears it is probably comforting to know that when it comes to pulling socks out of a cupboard there aren’t going to be any surprises.
The train back to Dublin leaves the single platform Galway station on time and sooner than I think I’m back at Heuston Station arguing with a bus driver about change; which he doesn’t give, unless you count getting a paper receipt for the difference that you can claim at some obscure central office. For a system that doesn’t give any change the fair is an incomprehensible €2.35, a sum you can’t get to with less than four different coins. On the driver’s advice I go back into the station and manage to find a shop that hasn’t completely closed up to get some change. Why there aren’t change machines, or ticket vending machines isn’t clear. Istanbul has a good system of buying an easy to top-up travel card from machines around the city, I’m sure they would work here as well.
For my second stay in Dublin I’m right in the centre, staying at The Morgen Hotel on fleet street, much closer than I’d realised to the pubs of Temple Bar. What made me choose this hotel isn’t clear, all I can remember from the booking is that it happened hurriedly late one evening when I was panicked that I hadn’t booked anything yet. It’s apparently a boutique hotel, but I don’t know how hotels decide they’re boutique. The only similarity between boutique hotels I’ve noticed is the abundance of large mirrors with guilt frames and frosted glass bathroom doors that mean you can’t go to the toilet in the night without flooding the bedroom with light and waking anyone you might be sharing a room with
The hotel is fine, the only annoyances being the tiny gap between bed and desk, a window that doesn’t quite shut tight and the fact I accidentally end up walking down the open fire escape staircase which smells distinctly of piss at the bottom. There’s an apple placed on the room’s desk, I’m tempted and assume it’s free and eat it, but fear it’s part of the mini-bar. The accompanying business card with the hotel’s name that reads ‘The first commandment was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple’ does not reassure me that the consequences won’t be expensive somehow.
I head away from Temple Bar and onto William Street South, with it’s varied collection of bars and restaurants. I do one lap on this quiet evening and pick a perfectly average Chinese to eat in just off the main road. By now I’m pretty comfortable with eating by myself and reading my book, at first it seemed a strange thing to do in public places, thinking that to need time alone you also needed not to have people around, but either I’ve hardened to it, or I’ve become better at ignoring what’s happening around me. My solitude is only interrupted by a polite honeymooning couple asking how much they should tip. I tell them ten percent, not knowing any better myself, and hoping that I’ve not condemned them to ungrateful remarks from under paid staff for the rest of their holiday.