Saturday, May 6, 2017

Ireland Day 5: Unexpected amazing old stuff, the Burren, and friends.

 Day 5, May 6, 2017.

On day 5 we would say goodbye to Jim and Shelly and hello to Tracey and David. We would also see a kick ass graveyard and monestary, visit The Burren national park, and one of the most famous dolmens in the land.

Kilmacduagh Abbey
David mentioned a couple of things in County Clare close to his house that would be worth a stop. Kilmacduagh Monetery had not been on my list, but I’m so glad we took his advice to stop for a while to wander around the cemetery and check out what is left of an old monestary.  The monestary was founded in the 7th century but had a tough time of it, being subjected to many raids, which put it in ruins by the 13th century.

There are several well preserved churches and smaller stone structures that served as lodging for the monks.

The most spectacular structure at the site though is the 112 feet tall leaning round tower. The tower has no doors or openings at the base because it was used as a refuge when mauraders attacked. The monks would climb into the tower and pull up whatever rope or ladder they had used to get in and wait out the carnage.

I looked around for at many of the headstones, but saw not one with the sir names of my great great grandparents on it. There is still time though; new graves are still being added to this cemetery.  The cows don’t seem to mind the dead people.

The Burren
A hike at The Burren National Park would be our last adventure with Jim and Shelly, or so was the plan. Upon locating a trailhead, getting gear on, and walking a short distance over wide open limestone terrain in windy, cold sprinkles, Shelly remarked “is this what we came here to see?”  Some people just don’t appreciate the raw beauty of nature! Ha ha. So we bid adeaui to our friends so they could see another part of the country and Drew and I carried on for a nice hike up a big low mountain.

This is the sizeof some of the fossils!

Jean Luc examining coral fossils.

OK, I can see why this landscape is not to everyone’s liking, but I found the hike envigorating and unique.  The Burren is part of the Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark. I love the idea of a Geopark! The Burren is a large (100 square miles) area of exposed limestone created when glaciers eroded overlying sedimentary rocks, exposing the 325 million year old limestone.  Early inhabitants of this area denuded the landscape of trees. And bcause of climate change after the last ice age, new trees cannot establish. The limestone is porous, so although the area gets 60 inches of rain per year (double what eastern Ireland gets) there are few rivers.  Instead, there are numerous poljes, or depressions filled with water where the water table intersects the land surface. Trees have a difficult time to establish on the bare limestone, and those that do are grazed by cattle adn goats or pulled by the farmers to maintain grazing. But a large variety of smaller plants do well in the weathered joints (called grikes). Fossils are easily spotted on the flat slabs between the grikes, called clints.

We hiked a couple of miles up a pretty big hill to get a look around. A tour group was getting a guided hike, but we were satisfied to just get out and stretch the legs.  

We got a quick bit to eat and sampled some authentic Irish soda bread, which was hearty, slightly sweet, and a touch salty all at the same time. After lunch we watched an unusual Rugby-like game being played, which David later told us is a the very popular game of hurling.

Then on to reunite with our Irish friends who welcomed us into their beautiful, non-traditional home for the evening


We had first met David and Tracey when Drew and David were both racing La Ruta in Costa Rica back in 2007ish.  Tracey and I got to know each other as their support teams. We did it again in 2010 when Drew and David paired up to race TransAlps and Tracey and David got married.  Even though it had been 7 years since we last saw the pair, we immeditely felt like old friends.

Poulnabrone dolmen
Since their house is close, a quick drive to one of the most spectacular megalithic sites in County Clare was a must.  Poulnabrone dolmen is a wedge tomb probably constructed between 4200 and 2900 BC. It’s really large and impressive as it sits on the grikes and clints of the Burren.  Excavations discovered the remains of 33 people at this site, but the bodies were not buried there. Instead, the bones were brought to the site after the bidies had decomposed somewhere else. The tomb was probably a center for ceremony and ritual well into the Bronze age.

We had had a really full day, so a quiet, delicious home-cooked dinner at Tracey and Davidls watching the sunset was perfect.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Ireland Day 4: add another country to the "biked there" list

(May 5 2017)
Day 3 had been about old stuff. Day 4 would be about the bike.
Shelly is pretty easy to travel with and goes with the Jordan flow.
Her two requests for the trip were to bike in Ireland and do
some shopping.  We were all happy to fulfill #1 wish on Day 4

We rented decent hybrid bikes from a shop whose owner
had been an archaeologist, but the recession had hit archaeology
hard so he decided to reinvent his career in Westport renting
bikes to tourists. Bonus tour guide to the archaeology of the
area when he picked us up after the ride!  

But first, the ride.
We are all cyclists, so we thought maybe we would do the
full round trip from Westport to Achil  Island, about 26 miles;
however, the wind was ferocious and the disclaimers at the
shop basically said if you chose to do the full round trip,
they are not responsible for your safety. Ok then, let's ride
with the wind TO Achil Island and get the shuttle back!  

Off we went pedaling through town, then residential areas, then small farms,
and finally the countryside. The path was a mixture of asphalt and packed gravel,
which was perfect for the hybrid bikes we were on.

We saw Some cool old stone buildings
that made me wonder if the inhabitants had lost their land to the
Protestants and fled to America,

, a lovely river,

a really cool rock wall
that the locals were in the process of rebuilding

and by far the
coolest thing was harvesting turf from the bog.

The Bog
An unexpectedly cool thing to to see up close was the bog.  When Utahns talk about bogs, they generally mean a little squishy bit of ground with some short grasses and mosses growing near a water souce.  The bog os Ireland was a lot bigger, like a quarter of the country bigger. Well, actually , I don’t know how much area the bog covers, but the bog we rode by was big.

According to Wikipedia the bog is a wetland that accumulates peat. Peat is a deposit of dead plant material, often sphagnum moss. Bogs occur where the water at the ground suface is acidic and low in nutrients.  The bog in Ireland is a blanket bog that covers vast areas of rolling hills. It forms a blanket on the ground because formed because the ground is saturated much of the time.

Coming from Utah, where there is not enough water to grow anything but rocks over much of the low elevations, I found the bog to be more foriegn than Mars. Walking on the bog felt like walking on a thick fleece blanket. It wasn’t wet when we were there, but somewhat spongy. n

What I found so interesting is the harvesting process. The bog has been harvested for fuel for centuries.  The harvesting process consists of cutting the “turf” as they call it, into stripsa nd squares using a big tractor, and stacking it next to the excavation so it can drain and dry out. Out in town we saw bags of peat being sold as fuel for home heating

The practice is not without controversy in Ireland. The bog has been harvested faster than it can accumulate, so now, harvesting is restricted to only those families with traditional rights.  There are loopholes though, so some say there needs to be tighter restrictions. The other controversy is using it for fuel. I imagine burning turf would be hugely smokey, but apparently it is quite clean. Not clean enough for cities though so only “smokeless” turf is allowed.  

Piles of turf laid out to dry.

The weather really was very windy, which tires a biker out. I was happy
to wait for our shuttle at a pub at the end of the mainland before the bridge to
Achil Island. Great little glasses of beer, one of the more delicious lunches,
and some more friendly locals made this a perfect reward for our hard pedalling.

Goodies at every gas station.

Our mid-afternoon departure to our next B and B at Galway left us time
to take the longer route to see a bit of the beautiful Connemara region.

If I have to be buried, I would like it to be here. What a view!

but unfortunately,  we arrived just a few minutes after a castle that we thought looked cool was closed for the day. Oh well, on to Galway for Saturday night pub crawl.

Lodging at Galway was a purpose-built B&B called Lynburgh run by a sweet old lady. The parlors at most of our places were heavy on the old-lady style and this place was no exception.  We were eager to get to downtown Galway for a little shopping, dinner and Irish music. Galway was a lively town. Lots of tourists, shops, street music and entertainment.

Our dinner took forever on a busy Saturday night,  but Jim and Drew
were not getting out of pubbing this time. Traditional Irish music could
be heard from lots of doors, so we popped into one particularly crowded
pub called Taaffes that was pumping with all ages of people dancing and
singing along to the music. It was wonderful and infectious and made me
wish my ancestors had stayed in Ireland so I would know the words to the
traditional songs like all the Irish in the pub.  

A picture of John F Kennedy hung on the wall and I made some
a joke to the handsome group of men that were flirting with Shelly
that our recently elected president Donald Trump might have to be
added to the wall, and I swear if I had been a man, I would have
started a brawl. The guys did NOT think JFK and Trump should
be on the same wall!

Near bar fights aside, the pub experience was one of my favorite
things we did in Ireland. I'm sad we could stay another night in
Galway for another round, but we were looking forward to
seeing our Irish friends the next day so we moved on.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ireland day 3: the ancients

One of the reasons I wanted to travel in Ireland was to see evidence of old people. Really old people.  Day 3, May 4, 2017, would be all about megalithic. We would spend the day in Counties Donegal and Sligo, in the northwest part of Ireland.

Our breakfast at the Mount Royd Country Home in Carrigans near Derry set us up for disappointment later in the trip because this morning's feast was superb.  There was fresh scrambled egg with smoked salmon, toasts, homemade sweet bread, yogurt and fresh fruit, fresh orange juice – the works!  All served to us in the lovely dining room by the lovely couple.  Recommend!

A Full Irish Breakfast!

The farm animals enjoyed the pasture behind the house. 
photo credit Drew
 Our host encouraged us to go check out a nearby ring fort that wasn't even on my radar. I was hesitant, because I had a lot on the agenda today, but it was close and we needed to walk off that big breakfast.
The roads are so narrow! Following Jim and Shelly's car to the ring fort high on the hill dead ahead.

The ring fort looked huge even from far away.

We were headed to Grianan of Aileach, which is a hillfort built in the sixth or seventh century. It is thought that the hillfort may have been less for defense than as symbol of royal power.   It is thought to be the seat of the Kingdom of Ailech.  This site probably was the king's principal dwelling and it's high, multilevel walls and the location on a high hill commanding great views show the status of the inhabitants.
I can see why the King of Ailech wanted to build his home hillfort here.
Great views from the top of the wall.

The fort has three terraces connected by narrow steps. There would have been buildings inside.

Down the hill a little ways is a spring dedicated to St. Patrick. 
I'm so glad our host suggested we go see this amazing site. Looking down over the impossibly green farms checker-boarding the countryside, with easy access inlets from the North Atlantic, I can see why a 9th century king would chose this spot to prevail over his subjects.

But back to the program. We had more old sites to see. Unfortunately, I was not able to get us back on track very quickly. Less than a mile from the hillfort, we stopped at The Old Church Visitor Center. 

This church was not on the agenda either

There was some weird figurines in costume and I think they do some shows that are supposed to highlight the history and culture of the area.  Shelly liked it but I wanted to get going. We had shopping to do.
Next stop Donegal Craft Village.  I had read it was an artisan craft village.  We did certainly find artisans there, but it wasn't quite what I expected.  The shops were individual stores in a very nice, square-shaped strip mall of sorts. Each artist had a store to sell his or her wares.  I think most of the shops were also studios. But maybe becuase it was a weekday, the place wasn't very busy.  We looked around and I bought some woven goods from this weaver.

She made my hat and some gifts.
To get to the real old sites, we had some driving to do.  Road food needed.

Almost every gas station we stopped at amazing pastries. Heavenly.

Throwing this pic in for my family, who are candyholics. I love Aero bars. We don't have them in the U.S. but I had them growing up when we would visit Canada.

This was my favorite mountain in all of Ireland. It's called Benbulbin.  It just looked cool to me. A nice landmark.


One of the two megalithic places I really wanted to see was Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery.  This is one of the oldest and largest sites in Ireland. There were probably 60 tombs and monuments thought to be used from 3700 to 3000 year ago.

Tomb 51 at Carrowmore, the large center tomb around which many of the other sites seem to be oriented.

Tomb 51 is a large Passage Tomb.  There would have been a roof over the top of the center passage. 

The passage leads to a space inside where the dolmen is. This is where the people would have been buried after cremation.

One of the boulder circles with a dolmen in the center.  Knocknarea hill in the background. The little nub on top of Knocknarea is a huge cairn 33 feet high and 150 feet wide called Medb's Cairn that might be 3000 years old. The cairn has not been excavated but is probably one of the largest passage tombs in Ireland. 
Carrowmore was a pretty amazing site. Just the number of stone circles, dolmens, and tombs was astounding and I wonder how and why ancient people made these structures.


So Carrowmore was cool, but Carrowkeel was rumored by our Irish friends to be the coolest. The site is huge, but undeveloped. As such, there were no signs pointing the way.   I had not wanted to research this site because i didn't want to spoil the experience, but I should have at least figured out where to go. My lack of research got me into big trouble.

We hiked up a road that was supposed to get us to the site, but at the top of the hill, there were only faint paths. I went up one, and the rest of the group went down another. Separating from the group = Mistake #1. I hoofed it to the top of the hill, but in my haste to find The Site, I overlooked The Site!  Being in a hurry = Mistake #2. Like I said, there weren't really any signs, just what looked to be piles of rocks covered with scruffy grasses. 

 I looked around and didn't see the others, so I figured they must have been correct going down the other path, so I veered off to the east to see if I could see them on the next hill over. I didn't have my cell phone with me because I didn't have international plan activated so there was no way to contact them = Mistake #3. One thing led to another and I found myself almost cliffed out. I could hear some voices, and the wind was coming from the other hill, so I decided I needed to go that way instead of doubling back from where I came =Mistake #4. Once down to the bottom, I decided they were not on the other hill, but must be down in the valley, so I head that way = Mistake #5. By this time, we had been separated for about 45 minutes. I ran all the way down the valley and did find some cool old rock buildings, but definitely not the tombs of Carrowkeel. So back up I went to the place where we separated. It was here that I saw Drew with his bright yellow jacket high on the hill looking out over the landscape. As I got closer, I could hear him calling forlornly. Up I went again as fast as my blistered feet could take me until finally, we were reunited. I think if Drew had not been so relieved that I wasn't crushed inside one of the tombs or fallen off the side of the cliff, he would have been very angry. By this time, and Shelly and Jim had gone back to the car thinking that is where I would go if separated. We managed to get a call through to them to say I was safe and we would be following along soon.   Among my feelings of relief at having not been lost and left behind, stupidity for not being able to find the site, and regret that I made my loved ones worried and angry with me, was anger with myself that I screwed up my opportunity to see one of the best megalithic sites in the world.

This little stunt of mine had cost us well over an hour and we were already way behind schedule for the day, but Drew knew how much this meant to me, so he humored me for a few minutes as I frantically ran around to some of the piles and peeked inside the passageways. Definitely not with time enough to reflect on how great a piece of history this place is or imagine how the ancient ones would have worshiped and buried their dead.

The tombs were partially excavated in 1911, but have not been restored in any way. Most are a big pile of rocks with a chamber inside that is just big enough to squat walk or shimmy into.  

The site is thought to have been constructed between 5400 and 5100 years ago, which predates the Pyramids of Egypt  by 500–800 years.

One of the first archaeologist to enter on of the chambers described it this way, ""I lit three candles and stood awhile, to let my eyes accustom themselves to the dim light. There was everything, just as the last Bronze Age man had left it, three to four thousand years before. A light brownish dust covered all... There beads of stone, bone implements made from Red Deer antlers, and many fragments of much decayed pottery. On little raised recesses in the wall were flat stones, on which reposed the calcinated bones of young children."

Inside one of the tombs. There were no artifacts left to see, but the stone construction, the smallness of the space, and the fact that humans used this space thousands of years ago for ceremony was awesome to me.


Ok, so major screw up and biggest regret of the trip behind us, it was time to head for our lodging for the night.  We still had quite a drive to get to Westport and the Woodbine Cottage B&B, which turned out to be our favorite lodging of the trip. 

 The house had once been a carriage maker's shop, and it had a wonderful sitting room where we lounged after dinner with a bottle of wine.   Photo from

The house had once been a carriage maker's shop, and it had a wonderful sitting room where we lounged after dinner with a bottle of wine. Photo from
And the breakfast room was warm and sunny. Photo from
Westport was a cool town with lots of charm. As we walked to dinner, we crossed the Catholic funeral processional of a prominent member of the community. It was the largest of its kind I had ever seen.  Dinner was at a hip Euro joint with good food. Shelly and I had wanted to go into some of the pubs from which Irish music was emanating, but Jim and Drew were not in the pubbing mood, so we retired to the Woodbine Cottage for our bottle of wine.

Day 3 had been a big day, full of cool unexpected stuff, a major mishap, and above all, big adventure.