An Irish Odyssey, part 2: Bruce bloody Springsteen again!

Saturday 13th July, 2013, dawned grey and overcast and stayed that way. After a late breakfast and a last mooch about in Mullaghmore we set off north, this time heading for Port Rush. Again, we hadn’t booked accommodation, we were just winging it, oh yes, living on the edge, eh?

We followed the N15 all the way to the border where it crosses the River Foyle and suddenly becomes the A38 at Strabane. Apart from the river there is no obvious sign of the border between the Republic of Ireland and the Kingdom of United; no sign saying: ‘YOU ARE NOW LEAVING IRELAND’, certainly no “SLÁN ABHAILE” and no sign saying: ‘WELCOME TO NORN IRON SO YOU ARE’, but a slightly funny thing did happen; suddenly all the kerb stones were painted red, white and blue and every other building seemed to be sporting the Union Flag. Yes, almost slap bang in the middle of the Ulster marching season we were and although we didn’t see any marching, we did see an awful lot of red, white and blue.

Just backtracking a bit, “SLÁN ABHAILE”, it’s a lovely thing. On the back of town name signs in the Republic of Ireland is the slogan “SLÁN ABHAILE” which you see as you are leaving whichever town you have just passed through. Read literally it’s “goodbye home” but it never does to read a foreign language literally. The accepted translation is “SAFE HOME” and it’s used as a colloquial way of saying goodbye and wishing the traveller a safe journey home. The pronunciation is a little tricky, the first word is SLAWN and the second word is a bit like AWHIL-YEH.

We drove on along the A5, up through the city of Derry (some people call it Londonderry) onto the A2 and on to Coleraine and then up to Port Rush. We pulled into a carpark, and I rang around to find somewhere to sleep for a couple of nights.
On the second time I was lucky; Bruce wasn’t playing in N.I. it seems.
Parked-up and hoteld (is that a word? Maybe hotel’d?), we went for a walk along the sea front and then down to the beach just because it was there and stood on the sand. It wasn’t nearly as enticing as the previous day, the sky had remained resolutely overcast but at least it wasn’t cold. I stood on the sand in Port Rush with my Rush t-shirt on, it had to be done. Later that evening, sitting snugly in a pub a local introduced himself to us and sat with us, telling tall stories – well, that’s how it seemed. Drink was consumed and a good time was had by all.

Sunday 14th turned into a sunny day, hooray!
We’re on the road again; Willie Nelson, Canned Heat, take your pick… We’re going a few miles up the coast to see The Giant’s Causeway and it’s a lovely day for it. There is a visitor’s centre, there is parking – for a certain fee, but we just want to get out and walk down to the causeway and see what all the fuss is about, see what Fionn Mac Cumhaill was getting up to all those years ago building a causeway so that he could walk to Scotland. Exactly why he was building the causeway is open to debate. Some say he was off to see his latest squeeze who lived on the island of Staffa, some say he was off to pick a fight with the Scottish Giant, Benandonner.

I’m sure some even say that whatever the reason it’s far more interesting than the real reason that the many thousands of hexagonal basalt columns exist, and I’d have to disagree with them there. A lava flow from 50 to 60 odd million years ago cooled and as the basalt solidified it cracked producing the characteristic hexagonal shapes. Why hexagonal? One again I’d direct you to your search engine of choice, but you could start here:

The pathway from the visitor centre wends along the clifftop and then down towards the sea and the scenery is lovely. Sea, sky, cliffs, wheeling gulls. Before long you arrive at the basalt and there it is, just like the pictures you’ve seen so many times but it’s real, under your feet. There are people out there clambering over the outcrops, no fences, no keep off signs, just get out there and clamber, so that’s what we did. As breath-taking as the scenery may be though, my gaze at least, was constantly drawn to what was under my feet. The columns aren’t exactly regular hexagons, but the general sizes of the cross-sections are remarkably similar. Most appear to be flat-topped; some are slightly convex, and some display a slight concavity. I have to say that they fascinated me to the point that I had to remind myself to look up and take in the vistas surrounding me.

After a good clamber we followed the clifftop walk for a bit then retraced our steps to return to the visitor’s centre for a cup of tea and a slice of cake, these things also have to be done. On our way back to Port Rush we visited Dunluce Castle which we had passed on the way out and then took a detour into Bushmills, the town, not the distillery, just to have a mooch around. It was very red, white and blue.

Monday 15th and the weather was overcast. We drove to Galway.
Easy to write. It’s a little over 200 miles, Kath drove, I passengered and navigated.
Out of the UK, back into the Republic. We were in no great hurry the only pressing matter to arrive in Galway early enough to find accommodation for a couple of nights.

On the way we stopped at Knock for a comfort break. There are at least two villages in Ireland called Knock, and two more in Northern Ireland. Knock or An Cnoc in Irish, simply means The Hill but on this particular hill in Co, Mayo on 21st of August 1879, something happened.

Now, I’ve not come here to make fun of other people’s beliefs, however far-fetched they may appear to me, and I’ve made my thoughts about religion known elsewhere in this blog so I’ll just get on with the ‘facts’ shall I?

The night of Thursday 12st August 1879 was dark and rainy and yet against the outside gable wall of the parish church there appeared, bathed in a bright light, an apparition of not only The Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ but also Joseph (Saint Joseph) the divinely cuckolded husband of Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. The figures appeared floating a couple of feet above the ground and the apparition lasted for about two hours being witnessed by about fifteen of the villagers. In addition to the figures, the apparition also contained an altar surrounded by images of saints and angels and on the altar a crucifix and a statue of the Holy Lamb of God and in spite of the pouring rain, where the apparition manifested itself, ‘there was not one drop of rain near the near the images’.

Actually, the exact details of what appeared vary slightly from personal testimony to testimony, but all are agreed that something did appear, lasted for about two hours and was chock full of Christian imagery and meaning.

Not surprisingly the full weight of the Catholic Church got on board and an 1879 commission set up to investigate the apparition reported that the ‘testimony of all, taken as a whole, was trustworthy and satisfactory.’ Now there are five churches at the International Eucharistic and Marian Shrine at Knock and when we visited, holy water was freely dispensed from multiple fountains, electronic candles could be ‘lit’ in remembrance if the appropriate coinage was dispensed, and all manner of Catholic paraphernalia and knick-knacks could be purchased at the gift shop.

Somehow, I can take on board the idea of Fionn Mac Cumhaill building a causeway to Scotland far easier that I can that apparition at Knock. I can’t say that I seriously believe in either of them, but I’m outvoted, 15 to 1 at Knock, those people were convinced they’d seen something, and the Church agreed with them. The more cynical side of me will say that the Church saw an opportunity to make money.

I’m not religious as I’ve said before, I don’t believe and can’t I explain but religion fascinates me, and I do like old churches. This new shrine however, built onto the back end of the old church where the apparition appeared is something else. There did seem to be an expectant hush at the shrine, and I behaved with decorum and luckily neither of us was in violation of the dress code.

Kath lit a candle for Mary, and we continued our journey to Galway.

Tuesday 16th started cloudy, but the clouds dissipated as the day wore on and by mid-afternoon it was a beautiful day. We’d successfully got ourselves hotel accommodation in spite of it being the Galway Arts Festival and the previous evening we’d been out on the town enjoying the craic and watching various ‘arty’ parades through the streets.

On Tuesday we spent the whole day in Galway, having a look around The Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St Nicholas or in Irish: Ard-Eaglais Mhaighdean na Deastógála agus Naomh Nioclás or just Galway Cathedral if you prefer, exploring the streets and drinking the odd Guinness or two. We strolled to the end of Nimmo’s Pier, not a ‘proper’ pier, all cast iron and wooden decking but a stone breakwater where the River Corrib enters the sea, and we sat and looked out into Galway Bay. Later that evening there were more performing arts on the streets, music in the pubs and more Guinness. Galway is a place to visit again, mental note made.

Wednesday 17th, today we’re off to Cork, I’d have liked to stay one more night in Galway but as I wrote earlier, we’d booked a hotel in Cork for Wednesday night so after a walk around Galway docks, off to Cork it was.

We followed the N18 to Limerick, arriving just before mid-day, parked-up and went in search of a pub lunch. We found a very acceptable one in The Locke bar which sits on the banks of the River Abbey just before it flows in The Shannon. It had turned into a lovely sunny day and in my mind’s eye I could see The Locke Bar come evening, with lights strung between the trees and people sitting out enjoying the craic. I silently cursed myself that I’d tied us to a hotel in Cork that evening, oh well…

As we sat there my mind was also working on a Limerick, yes, a Limerick in Limerick.

There was a big river called Shannon
That ran on and ran on and ran on…

I really must finish that off one day.

To get to Cork we needed to set off south and east but we actually went south and west and we pitched-up at the coast at a little place called Fenit, which is way on the west coast in the mouth of the River Lee. We stopped for a while and enjoyed a delightful small sandy beach strewn with seashells, then set off in the right direction and that all sounds well and good until you look at a map. What on Earth were we doing way over there? At this remote I can’t remember but I’m disinclined to believe that it was due to me just reading the map wrong…

Anyway, eventually we reached Cork and found the hotel, it looked quite imposing as we drove up the hill towards it and from the carpark there was a commanding view southward across the city. With head held high I sauntered up to reception, introduced myself and told the young woman behind the counter that we had a reservation. She smiled and flicked through a book or ledger just out of my sight beneath the counter. She looked up and with the merest hint of sadness on her face told me that there was no booking in my name. I was nonplussed and told her that yes, there was, I’ve made the booking!

Obligingly she looked again but no, there was no booking.
But, I, Um… I was flustered.
I took my phone from my pocket, I remembered that I’d saved copies of the few hotel reservations that I had made in advance to my phone. I searched for the booking confirmation and triumphantly held it up for her, for all the world to see. “Can I see that please?” she asked, I handed the phone over with equal amounts of smugness and trepidation. She looked at the phone, she looked back at me and said, “This reservation is for next week…” and proffered the phone which I took.

I stared at the phone screen; yep, there it was, I’d managed to book a room for next week.
I was both angry at myself, and somehow greatly amused by this turn of events. I looked at her there behind the reception counter.
“Have you got a room for tonight?” but before I’d finished the sentence, she was telling me that they were fully booked. There was no point in actually being angry, I smiled and thanked her and said something to the effect that we’d go in search of accommodation elsewhere. We turned and made for the door and as we did, in a beautifully lilting, soft southern Irish accent she delivered the coup de grâce,
“OK but you’ll not get a bed in this town tonight, Bruce Springsteen’s playing.”

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