Today, I had the chance to see Ireland as it is meant to be experienced.
We had our optional excursion to Kylemore Abbey to experience the beauty of Connemara, a region of Ireland that continues to grow exponentially each year and is considered a national park.
I got up fairly early today, as we were expected to meet at the Galway Hooker fountain in Eyre Square (which I didn’t realize was a fountain seeing as it’s never on… whoops) close to nine. I desperately wanted coffee, so I stopped in this little place on the square called Cafe Express. They have a dark chocolate mocha that is absolutely to die for, and they were fairly quick with the takeaway line.
We met the ISA Service Learning group at the fountain with Kayte and went to the bus station from there. I had never seen that part of town behind Kennedy Park before, so it was an opportunity to discover some new spots around town. It started to rain while we were walking, a bummer for sure. How exactly were we supposed to enjoy a mainly outdoor excursion if it was pouring? But hey, that’s Ireland for you.
We were the last group to board the tour bus, and our guide and driver sped off as soon as we were all seated. He told stories the whole way there in his thick accent, talking about everything from the Pirate Queen of Ireland (which intrigued me immensely–I may have to write a novel or film about that one) to St. Patrick. He had a captivating way of speaking that kept me engaged the whole ride through Connemara.
Our first stop was Kylemore Abbey, and its story was absolutely heart-wrenching. As the story goes, the castle was built by a man named Henry. Henry loved his wife, and the pair of them adored the area of Ireland known as Connemara. His wife died tragically at a young age, falling ill, and Henry could not bear to bury her in the ground. So instead, he created a mausoleum to place her body in and built a castle around it for his love’s eternal rest. Instead of gargoyles on the front, as is customary for a Gothic structure like Kylemore, he placed angels at the front. The building is highly romantic and beautiful. Eventually, it was used as an abbey, and after that, a school (which only recently closed) for girls. Next to the castle, there is a traditional Gothic church.
We started in the walled Victorian garden, exploring the rows of flower beds, trees, and foliage in the rain. Then, we moved on to tour Kylemore Abbey itself, getting to see some of the rooms. In one, there is a painting hanging up on the wall of the woman the castle was built in memory of. She was absolutely stunning, and looking at her was like looking at a piece of history.
I got to write a special intention in the prayer book for the nuns who still use the abbey and pray before the statue of Mary there. I also got to look around the small museum set up in memory of the girl’s school.
From there, I grabbed a quick lunch in the cafeteria and ran back to the bus to continue on our way.
Our driver took us up mountains and past glittering waters. The sky cleared up on our journey and the views were absolutely dazzling. The photographs simply cannot do it justice.
One of the structures and stories that stuck with me most was the story of the famine wall. The driver showed us a long, short stone wall that went nowhere, walled nothing, and served no purpose at the top of the mountain. During the Great Famine, people were desperate for food and desperate for money with which to buy it. So the landlords would hire the starving Irish to work for them in exchange for slave wages. Instead of providing them meaningful labor, however, the landlords had these people go and build walls up and down the mountains, walls that went nowhere and served no purpose. Then, at the end of the day, they would be paid enough money to buy a tiny sack of flour to make a little bread to feed their families. And that’s how life was.
That story affected me and even inspired the following poem for my Creative Writing class:
I awaken before dawn
Silent scream on my lips
The nightmare fading from my mind
I sit in the dark
Too afraid to face another endless day
But too afraid to fade away myself.
Emptiness gnaws my gut
Threatening to swallow me
From the inside out.
I trudge up the mountainside at daybreak
Trowel, hammer, chisel in hand
The line extends another meter
Cold stone slab, scoop of mortar, repeat
A jigsaw puzzle, never running out of pieces
A scar on the face of history.
Metal strikes stone, stone strikes stone
The valley ringing with grotesque chimes
The death knells of innocence.
Living skeletons drag through the day
Constructing without skill, without artistry
Dead eyes stare forward, mouths utter no sound.
Til dusk we fight off
The sweet release of oblivion
Collect slave wages, purchase what little they allow
Survive to see another sunrise
And trudge back up the mountain
To toil another day.
Another meter longer,
Another day closer.
There was also an absolutely breathtaking view our guide showed us at the peak of a hill. We got to get off and stand in the tiny rural Ireland road for photos. It was such a beautiful moment and reminded me why I wanted to come to Ireland in the first place.
We stopped in the tiny village of Cong, the location where they filmed The Quiet Man, and had a chance to explore and get coffee. I walked all the way around the village and got some great pictures and a few souvenirs. I also had a chance to buy a few gifts for people including magnets, pins, and heraldic coasters.
The last place we stopped was a massive monastery. From the outside, it didn’t look like a big ruin, but that was highly deceptive. The building was a labyrinth, and it was easy to get lost climbing through corridors and standing on landings.
The trip was perfect and fulfilled every little dream I’ve had about Ireland. It rivals the field trip for my favorite Ireland experience so far!