This is probably one of the hardest entries I’m going to write for the blog, there’s just so many memories wrapped up here, it’s hard to find a proper balance of being personable and not ‘me-breathing-down-your-neck’. Here it goes:
Driving east towards Dublin, I see green pastures, healthy farm animals, and quiet warm villages grouped around Churches. It’s probably the image most people have of Ireland– that and a smoky rowdy pub here and there. But it’s an Ireland I’ve never known, this is the first time I’ve seen it. The Ireland I know lies on the western coast, past the mountains or the farmable pastures. It gives you a very different picture of the Emerald Isle.
“That there is the last British Manor,” my Dad pointed out to us as we went west of Ballina a couple days ago. “It’s only bog from here on out.”
County Mayo is beautiful, but in a very austere sort of way. The rolling hills are probably closer to jagged peaks, while that emerald is probably more a yellow. There’s an openness and an emptiness to the lands– there’s villages all over the place but there’s four maybe five families left in each of them; going into pubs you’d see at most seven people at a time. Hotels, pubs and even houses: foreclosed and abandoned. (But, as my Dad points out, at least they have real roads now.) I went five days without seeing a McDonalds, Mall or the internet.
But I wasn’t surprised, because nothing had changed, not really. I hadn’t been in nine years, so I had been expecting a huge kind of, I guess you could call it an “awakening”: a discovery of where I come from, a new appreciation of Canada and everything I have. But everything was exactly as I remembered it. I was here, and it felt like just another place I’d been to. Maybe a little nostalgia, that’s about it.
I guess part of it comes from the fact that I had always been affected by Mayo without realizing it. I have my Grandma to thank for that. She ran a pub in western England, and one Christmas when we were staying with them she told me a story of how, growing up in Ireland, the most she ever got for Christmas was an orange, except the one year her uncle brought her back a little straw doll, how it was the best gift she’s ever been given. Maybe it’s just because I was a selfish brat that only cared about presents, but that story’s always affected me. I always knew where my grandparents came from; going there could never be as powerful as still hearing her voice swell talking about that straw doll.
Over the five days, however, County Mayo began to take hold of me. Time seems to stop while there– I’d step outside and all I could hear was the distant crash of the waves, the mooing of mountain cows, and my own heartbeat (honestly, it really started to creep me out after a while…). It would have been neat to have gone directly from the hustle and bustle of my Vancouver life to the solitude here, but it was still arresting coming from Winnipeg. At first that quiet made me irritated: we’d spend hours in the day just driving from one ‘significant rock’ to another, and while it was really great to visit family, the only people in the same age decade were my brothers (which became harder to accept when I had no internet the whole time I was there, so I couldn’t even exchange some messages with friends). Worst of all: the Irish aren’t coffee drinkers, so all anyone ever had was instant (yeah I won’t miss that part in Paris).
Over time it began to settle into me, get under my skin, like it had always been there.
The first great day we had was in climbing Crouch Patrick Mountain.
Crouch (pronounced “crow”, like “you’re a crow John Snow”) Patrick is a significant site in Irish history: St. Patrick fasted on the summit for forty days and forty nights, after which he was able to banish the snakes out of Ireland. Since then it’s become a central site for pilgrims, some who choose to do it in bare bleeding feet. Today, there are far more tourists that visit the mountain; trade in frocks for backpacks and rosaries for water bottles. The mountain sits across from the Ocean, where the water feeds the rivers so as you go up the water grows to fill the whole glistening countryside. As far as climbing it goes, well, it’s no Grouse Grind (for my Vancouver friends), being fifteen hundred feet less– twenty five hundred feet? no problem. At least that’s what I thought most of the way up. Then the rocks started. After a certain point the mountain levels out and there’s only one way up from there: a nearly vertical ascent, made harder by the fact that other tourists are raining rocks down on you as they huff and puff above. After a certain point I just had to keep moving, until I reached the monastery at the top and effectively collapsed on the doorsteps. So it was a day of struggle up the mountain (“it’s not supposed to be fun!” as my Dad says); up a mountain where three times’ll get you into heaven; up to a monastery dedicated to St Patrick of all people. Oh and we had a couple Guinness at the local pub at the bottom after. Can’t get much more Irish, eh?
It was on the fourth day there I really started to feel the land take hold. We went to a rocky cliff that could have been the edge of the world– crashing tides limestone cliffs and a misty sea looking out on nothing but the arctic. With the wind battering and the holes the British threw Irish revolutionaries down, it looked like a scene out of Wuthering Heights.
Around that time I started to really get into Yeats’ poetry. Most poets have a streak of misery in their verse, but with Yeats it’s always struck me less as a “poor me” attitude (even though there’s a lot of that in there) and more a sadness of the ages– ageing and death and being forgotten. It seemed to have been made for these lands, where stone ruins of houses only fifty years old are eaten by the grass and torn by the wind (incidentally, his home province was Sligo, just north of Mayo). It gave me a totally different feel for the land; for the people, for the culture, and for God. Crosses on the hills, looking down at you, everywhere you go. It ended with me sitting on the beach the morning we had to leave and not wanting to; this land is a part of me, and I still had so much discovering to do.
Oh and the language politics here is fascinating: Gaelic, the Celtic language, is their only official language, even though probably about ten percent of the population can actually speak it. It’s symbolic for them, since the British forced them to lose the language as a means of controlling them. It’s amazing that they can take their language back, and although some of the politics with it today (signs, what’s acceptable where) is similar to what goes on in Quebec, I feel it’s more like languages such as Cree almost lost because of similar colonial techniques in Canada. Perhaps Native Americans in Canada could do something similar in preserving the language of their culture.
So Mayo is amazing. Go there and you’ll meet some of the greatest people in the world. Everyone waves to you, will strike up a conversation anywhere (including the urinal, a favorite place to chat in pubs, apparently), and will make you feel at home after a couple days. The people– my family– are so so smart, wise in such a way that seems to answer for everything, makes you wonder what all this university scholasticism is for. And the pubs may be mostly empty these days, but it’s still so much warmer than any bars you’ll find in Canada. I’ve left Mayo. Mayo won’t leave me.