Ireland seems a world away from where we’ve just arrived, a little town called Chefchaouen in the Rife Mountains of northern Morocco, so it seems a little odd to still be writing about it. But I did want to make one thing clear about my last post on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland did gain its independence from Great Britain in 1922, just after World War I. In my post, I alluded to Ireland’s full independence coming after World War II, in 1949, I believe. Between 1922 and 1949, Ireland was a part of the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom, but pulled out of that all together as the 5th decade of the 20th century was ending. That’s the independence to which I was referring.
I think I’ve got this right, though I don’t have any reference materials to check my facts at the moment. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email if there’s something that needs further corrections or clarification.
A recurring theme on our trip has been the genuine enthusiasm of nearly everyone we’ve met to share their countries with us. We carry around a notebook, and at some point during most of our conversations with the people we’ve met, we end up passing it to them so they can write down a hike we should do, a restaurant we should eat at, a town we should spend a few days in. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that they’re fond of their homes or that they know the best of what they have to offer. It’s because of people sharing their favorite parts of their countries that we climbed Croagh Patrick and drove through Connemara National Park. And thanks to another encounter with a woman from Agadir, we hope to check out a few choice spots in Morocco soon.
What has struck me has been the honesty of those we’ve met in talking about the darker side of their countries, and this was never more apparent than in Ireland. They’ve just recently shed the yoke of 40-some-odd years of what they dryly refer to as ‘The Troubles,’ which cost more than 3,000 lives. I have neither the nuanced understanding of the conflict’s complexity nor the space here to give this subject the explanation it deserves. In short, the Troubles were the period of violence as the Catholic minority in the six counties that make up Northern Ireland (and remained part of the United Kingdom when the Republic of Ireland gained its independence) fought to overcome what they saw as oppression at the hands of the Protestant minority in the North. Catholics are usually associated with the movement to unify all of Ireland (sometimes called ‘Republicans’), and Protestants are typically associated with the idea of remaining part of the United Kingdom (sometimes referred to as ‘Unionists’). This is a gross oversimplification, so feel free to discuss this with me and other readers in the comments. If need be, I’ll post additional information or make corrections.
But I’m coming to realize that just blaming the Troubles on events of the past 40 years, or the past century for that matter, is oversimplifying the conflict. As I already mentioned, thanks to our hosts in Derry, we had a terrific personal tour of the Tower Museum, which sits just inside the walled city. Our guide, Gerry, took us through the lead up to the Troubles, beginning with what’s known about the time before recorded history in Ireland, through the constantly shifting balance of power between the Catholics and the Protestants, back and forth through the centuries.
Things came to a head after Ireland gained its full independence from Britain following World War II, just as a wave of civil rights struggles led by Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King as sweeping the world. From one point of view, that’s how the troubles began, as the Catholics rose up to fight what the perceived oppression by the Protestants and the British. After ‘Bloody Sunday’ in the early 1970s (when armed troops had fired on unarmed demonstrators and for which the British government just recently admitted responsibility), the struggle deteriorated into violence. At the forefront was the Irish Republican Army, called terrorists by some and freedom fighters by others.
Our hosts talked about growing up with the constant threat of bombings and the weird sort of normalcy that set in, as that was all they knew. When things would get bad, they said, they’d be pulled out of school to go to safer places in the North or in the Republic of Ireland until things quieted down. Talking to Irish living in the south, we learned just how focused the violence was and how detached the rest of the island felt. Our stellar guide at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, where leaders of the 1916 Rebellion were housed and executed, leading ultimately to a national uprising, said that living outside the North, he might have been in Canada or the United States for how far away the Troubles felt.
Stranger still was how our hosts in Derry seemed almost unsettled with the tentative peace that’s recently settled in. Though bombings still occur, the violence is much less than it once was. I’m not too familiar with the political deal that’s been struck, but they said that while stone-faced politicians publicly trumpet the resolution, feelings on both sides haven’t changed much. The IRA has given up its weapons, but holdouts are still out there. It sounds like the split in the North is about 55% in favor of remaining with the UK and 45% in favor of becoming part of Ireland, with the trend favoring the latter.
In spite of the deep-running divisions, it’s hard to deny that people here have a certain pride (though perhaps tentative as well) in seeing their city and once-broken country begin to heal itself and move forward. A particularly telling photograph shows one of the gates to the walled city during the Troubles – barbed wire and armed guards seem to stifle any happiness in the scene. Next to it, a recent photograph shows the gate, unimpeded by the ancient struggle, opening up into a beautiful and historic city.
‘Cautiously optimistic’ is a term you hear a lot. I think it’s more a people so used to violence and loss and divisiveness that they proceed warily down a path that seems too easy, safe and unimpeded to be real. There is hope, but for those who have known only violence, hope can so easily be jaded. Here’s hoping the cautious optimism these changes have spurred continues.
A lot of travel experiences can feel like facsimiles of the adventures of earlier, bolder pioneers. Sure, China’s Great Wall is an impressive feat of engineering no matter what century you’re in, but it feels decidedly less authentic when you’re fleeced at the bottom with a $20 bowl of noodles or you’re offered a luge ride back down. And hostelling, while great for saving a few pennies, can be a jolting reminder of why you’re happy to be done with dorm life.
It would be cynical to say there are no authentic experiences to be found traveling anymore. As I said in one of my first posts on this blog, as much as any trip I’ve ever taken, this one is about meeting people and seeing different cultures through the lenses of the people who live it every day. And therein lies a key to finding authentic experiences on the road.
That’s a big reason I’m so happy we stumbled on couch surfing, and Ireland turned out to be an ideal place to start. It may have been different in a country with people who aren’t as warm and friendly, but I feel like we left Ireland with a handful of friends who we genuinely want to see again at some point and hopefully can host in our home in the future.
Our initial motivation to couch surf was budgetary. All over Ireland, and especially in Dublin, you’re lucky to find a bed at a hostel for less than $30 a night. And couch surfing did save us quite a bit. But staying in homes opened up the country in a way I haven’t experienced since Peace Corps.
Take our first hosts. A couple of bachelors living in a suburb south of Dublin, they figure they’ve had around 70 couch surfers. On our first night, we were two of four surfers staying with them. Our second night, we spent 3-4 hours with them poring over road atlases and Google maps, trying to work out the best 10-day bucket list for seeing the country. Take a drive through Connemara National Park, they said, and see the spectacular land dotted with lakes and wild horses in northwestern Ireland. And they convinced us to stay in Westport and climb the Reek – two awesome tips.
Our second stay was with an English couple in Mallow, about an hour outside of Cork. From the moment we arrived, it felt like we were visiting people we’d known for years. Being far from home, Jennie and Aaron have made their master bedroom into a guest room to accommodate frequent visitors, so Anne-Claire and I were treated to a posh night in what felt like a suite at a bed and breakfast. If that wasn’t enough, they invited us to join them for dinner. Four hours later, we finally headed off to bed, having discussed the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the Irish and the English and our respective (and sometimes-terrifying experiences) driving on the opposite side of the road, as well as emptying a few bottles of wine.
From there, we spent a few nights in hostels before finding a hilarious couple in Derry, Northern Ireland. Welcomed into their home with a cocktail and dinner, we once again didn’t get to bed until after midnight, after sharing travel stories and catching a glimpse into what it was like to grow up in one of the flashpoint cities for the ‘Troubles.’ More on that in a later post…
As luck would have it, one of our hosts, Colum, works at the Tower Museum in Derry, and accordingly, he brings together his own experiences and a wealth of knowledge of the history that brought about the “Troubles,” leading up to the tenuous peace that exists today. So instead of just passing through Derry as we’d originally planned, we stopped to take in a town with a fascinating and tragic history.
Colum showed us the still-completely walled portion of the city, dating back to the 1600s, and the set of murals memorializing events that took place in the Bogside area of the town. We also dropped into the Tower Museum, and though Colum wasn’t working there that day, all we had to do was mention his name and we were whisked off for a private tour through the brilliant and comprehensive museum with one of the most knowledgeable guides we’d ever met.
I’m not sure if everyone always has such fabulous couch surfing experiences right off the bat, or again, whether our luck has more to do with the country that we were in. At every turn on our trip through Ireland, we met people eager to share a laugh, a drink and a bit (or more) about themselves and their country. Even in Dingle, which felt pretty touristy for the most part, we ended up sitting and talking for several hours with a group of adventure athletes in town for a bike-hike-run-kayak race that had taken place earlier in the day. Conversation comes pretty easily when you share a big booth with gregarious people (and especially when one sits down right next to you and right away says, with a big smile, ‘Where you from?’ A short time later, he said, “It’s a pity yous (sic) are moving on. Otherwise, we’d adopt you.”)
My hunch is that people enjoy opening their homes and countries to visitors more than they’re apt to have the opportunity to nowadays, so couch surfing provides an ideal outlet for that sort of thing. Yes, it does pay to use common sense and keep an eye out for your own safety on both sides of the exchange. And though the couch surfing Web site does put in place certain safeguards, people could take advantage of it for nefarious purposes if they wanted to. But at least at this point, it feels like it’s one of those traveling experiences that has yet to be discovered by the masses. The rule seems to be to keep expectations low, though for us, our hosts in Ireland set the bar pretty high.
We spent Tuesday night at the Old Mill Hostel in Westport. After talking with a few British cyclists who were part way through a two-week trip, we set out for a rocky peak, known as Croagh Patrick or the Reek, rising 2500 feet above Clew Bay on Ireland’s west coast. Like a lot of the country’s natural wonders, the lead up to the mountain is a staging area for trinkets and pricey vittles, as well as a cursory visitor’s center. But once we left the pavement of the first half-mile of the hike, we found the challenge we were looking for.
Just before the pavement ends is a statue of Saint Patrick. According to legend, he climbed to the summit and fasted there for 40 days. The sacrifice of its patron saint rid Ireland of its snakes. I looked, and I can say that I didn’t find any while circling the island.
Twenty-five hundred vertical feet over a one-way distance of about 3 miles isn’t much to speak of when you think of the Sierras or the Rockies or even the Appalachians, and indeed, the round-trip journey only took us about 3 hours. But what the Reek lacks in height, the local believers who have carved a trail to the top for their annual pilgrimage have made up for by taking the straightest, steepest route to the top.
Starting on one of the mountain’s smaller foothills, the sandy scree path took us straight up to a saddle that connected to the main peak. Parts were fairly steep and loose enough to force a bit of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ progress. But the rolling saddle, perhaps two-thirds of the way up the mountain, provided a nice rest before we took on the last pitch – a guileless climb up a swath of boulder that led to the very top. Going up was tough, but I honestly worried more about the descent. A misstep on the way down probably wouldn’t kill you, I thought, but gravity would probably relish thrashing you against the rock garden runway all the way back down to the saddle.
We made it to the summit and took in the vast peat bogs on the far side of the mountain. On the side we came up, Clew Bay arced to the northwest like a hand that had just let fly the dozens of tiny islands poking out from the sea. One of our hosts early on had told me that the west coast of Ireland was unique because it’s been ‘beat all to hell by the Atlantic.” Further south, I’d noticed the spiky peninsulas and multitude of bays and inlets around Kerry and Dingle, but it appears as though the ocean has pummeled this part of the rocky coastline with an especially intense vigor.
Perched just off the summit is a surprisingly stout church, built in the early twentieth century by leveraging only the brawn and sweat of donkeys, horses and local Irishmen. I tried to picture anyone hauling even one of the stones required to build the church, and couldn’t believe it was possible. But then, Ireland seems to be filled with a sturdier class of beasts (including men) than what I’m used to. On our descent, not five minutes from the top, a mother ewe and her lamb picked their way through the field of boulders beside the trail with their match-stick legs as easily as if they were mowing the lawn on a soccer pitch.
It wasn’t until about halfway down the steep approach to the summit that we started to see other hikers. Some were bona fide pilgrims, stopping at each sign-posted station to say a few Hail Marys or walk the short path around a pile of rocks a number of times. A few young guys who looked to be in their teens or early twenties were doing it barefoot, as the most devout are apt to do. When we saw them, they were just beyond the paved section, but they were already seeking out the grassy shoulder of the wide rocky path – not a good sign so early on.
As we approached the parking lot, a huffing Englishman asked us if we’d been to the top. I tried not to be too offended when, after we said we had, he replied, “Well, you must be in better shape than you look, mate.” Maybe I have had too much stew, stout and fish and chips here.
I’ll post a short video of us at the top (and clear evidence for why my career in videography hasn’t taken off) soon.