December 19, 2014

Something’s Afoot in Ireland

I had a dream that I rambled for miles and miles along the western coast of Ireland, knee deep in purple heather and ankle deep in spongy green peat bogs. On the landscape of my dream were vast moors that stretched forever, dotted with an occasional whitewashed thatch-roof farmhouse. There were movie-set villages and storybook cottages with lace curtains and window boxes spilling over with wildflowers.

In my dream of this place that Oscar Wilde called a savage beauty, long-haired sheep with leathery black faces and spiraledhorns brazenly stared me down on narrow cliff-top paths, and ghostly white ponies materialized out of the mist to inspect the stranger in their land.

I did not want to wake from this dream, in which I feasted on great quantities of Clew Bay mussels and Galway oysters, and listened to heartbreaking Celtic ballads in village pubs. I did not want to leave the Victorian bathtub, where I soaked up to my chin in seawater thick with clumps of seaweed harvested at the base of a glacial fjord.

Luckily, I didn’t have to wake up because it wasn’t a dream at all. Well, actually, it started as the dream of Lynn Webb, founder and CEO of Hoofbeats International. This accomplished horsewoman organizes equestrian vacations of a lifetime around the world. She was brainstorming one day with Gerry Greensmyth, owner of Croagh Patrick Walking Tours on Ireland’s wild western side, and soon after, a new facet of her company was born. That’s how it happened that last July, Lynn temporarily took off her riding boots and laced up a pair of hiking boots. And, like Forrest Gump, she started walking. She invited me to tag along and give Gulfshore Life readers an exclusive first peek at Hoofbeats International’s inaugural walking vacation.  

 

July in ireland means plenty of layers you can peel off as the cool, misty mornings give way to the Emerald Isle’s brief “spells” of sunshine. Today, while Gerry’s wife and partner, Bernie, tends to their sprawling County Mayo cottage, which also serves as a bed and breakfast inn, he’s out guiding a group of Danish hikers who appear to have stepped off the cover of some fashionable adventure catalog. We’ll be joining them later for some of the walks that Lynn has in mind for 2011. Today, the Danes climbed the country’s most famous mountain, where lore says St. Patrick banished the venomous snakes from Ireland.

Croagh Patrick, the mountain for which Gerry and Bernie named their company, has been a holy site for 5,000 years. A million pilgrims each year trek its rugged terrain dating back to the Stone Age, including worshippers of the pagan god Lugh. In fact, on Reek Sunday—the annual national pilgrimage the last Sunday in July—more than 20,000 are expected. Some will make the treacherous, rocky climb in bare feet.

According to tradition, a flock of blackbirds tormented St. Patrick on his 40-day pilgrimage to the peak. Believing them to be demons in disguise, he banished them by hurling his iron bell at them. Over the centuries, the translation got a little muddled and the blackbirds became venomous snakes. Thus, the legend goes that St. Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland. Today, Gerry says, there are no snakes in Ireland because, well, actually, there never were in the first place. But it’s true that St. Patrick did bring Christianity to pagans throughout Ireland.

But enough about St. Patrick. This dream is all about me, about my amazing cliff-top trek along the potato famine road, where ruins of stone cottages and miles of raised furrows called “lazy beds” are poignant reminders of the families who starved to death during the 1845 potato famine. It’s about the gothic Kylemore Abbey with its terraced Victorian gardens, now home to Benedictine nuns. It’s about adorable, medieval-style Westport, “Ireland’s Tidiest Town.” About morning tea at the Clew Bay Hotel; seafood and conversation with the locals in the cozy, thatch-roofed Shebeen Pub on the quay. About the rousing Irish songs at McCarthy’s Pub, where the blind singer’s haunting a cappella version of Tennessee Waltz makes me forget to breathe.

A great thing about Hoofbeats International’s walking vacations is that you can choose when to join a walk. You also get a free day to hang out in the seaweed baths and the pubs, or even take a side trip—as Lynn and I did—to wind our way from pretty town to pretty town along narrow country lanes, and see the famous Cliffs of Moher. 

In my dream-that-is-not-a-dream, everyone I meet is a friend with stories, advice and encouragement. 

Like the farmer, dropping off a truckload of sheep for shearing at the wool factory. After posing for a picture, he invites me to “meet the family” in the cab of his truck—which turns out to be a good-sized pack of herding dogs.

Like local sculptor Eugene Finnegan, who tries to reassure me about the steep precipice I’m about to climb. “It’s this pairt yer on now that’ll breek yer spirit. Tha’ next pairt,” he says, pointing at the distant peak, “is easy.”

He’s lying out of kindness, of course. And my host, Gerry, is worse. Most of our walks have ranged from eight to 12 miles and are reasonably moderate. Diamond Hill is more challenging but, Gerry points out, it’s barely five miles and just a 1,600-foot ascent.  

Only as soon as we cross the moors and start our climb, the glittery point of the quartzite mountain disappears under heavy black clouds. The air is so dense I can almost take a slushy bite.

And it begins to drizzle. But this is Ireland, and nobody turns back for a little rain, especially Gerry or the Danes. The wind starts to howl like a banshee, and stinging sheets of rain soak me through three layers. I’m keeping my eyes on my feet as I navigate between the loose, slippery rocks and running streams in the crevices. The Danes just bounce along, chatting, getting farther and farther ahead. My pride won’t let me turn back.

“We have a long way to go,” I whine to Gerry.

“No,” he says, “you see those people just ahead? They’re there. Just a few more yards.”

He’s lying, too, of course. When
I reach that spot, there’s a switchback, and I see another peak several yards ahead.

“Is that the top?” I ask.

“Sure is,” says Gerry. But it’s not, and neither is the next one, or the next one, and my pack weighs 1,000 pounds, and the wind wants to wipe me off the face of Diamond Hill. Who named this a hill, anyway? By now, Gerry is behind me, literally pushing my sodden dead weight up the rest of the mountain. One step at a time. A final push, we round the bend and we really are at the peak. The rain miraculously stops. The rest of the group are packing away the lunches they just finished eating.

“Okay, time to head back,” says Gerry.

Sadly, I pat the soggy bulge in my pack that was supposed to be lunch and turn around for the trip home. The good news is that the sun came out for the return, and it is easy. And best of all, I learned that one of the Danish couples had actually followed their good instincts and turned around midway up. But I had made it all the way!

Oscar Wilde was right. The western coast of Ireland is a savage beauty. Its blankets of summertime flowers make up for lost time during the long chilly winters. Sheep and cows graze free on green hillsides and even greener pasturelands, the way it’s been for centuries. Bernie Greensmyth is the kind of hostess we hope to find when we travel, with her bountiful breakfasts and hiking lunches, and Gerry’s the guy with tales to tell and who has your back, literally, if you’re about to get blown sideways off Diamond Hill.

Good choice, Lynn Webb, for the first-ever Hoofbeats International Walking Tour. Till we meet again, on some faraway trail, thanks for the memories.

 

 

If You’re Going ...

Hoofbeats International

Check out Hoofbeats International's introductory seven-night Ireland walking special for May 2011.  The first person pays $1175, the second person pays just $587. Includes accommodations, breakfasts, bag lunches on tour days and local transfers. For the full details and itinerary, call   978-631-0440 or click on this link: Walking in Ireland Details
 

The Seaweed Cure

Ireland’s western coast once boasted more than 300 seaweed bathhouses. At the sensuous Connemara Seaweed Baths in the shadow of Ireland’s only fjord, you get your own personal bucket of freshly harvested seaweed, which has been steeped in boiling water from Killary Harbor. When the temperature is just right, you step into the seaweed bath with a one-way glass wall overlooking the Killary Fjord. Pull the overhead cord to release a chilled seawater rinse. www.leenanehotel.com

Cliffs of Moher

www.cliffsofmoher.ie

And Everything Else

Research ahead at www.discoverireland.ie/west, and be sure to drop by the visitor’s center in Westport.