Thirty-five thousand feet over a dark and choppy Atlantic Ocean, turbulent weather awakens my wife and I in our congested coach seats. Cruising along at 500 miles per hour, Delta Flight 122 makes easy work of the 3,000 miles between New York and Ireland, across the North Atlantic. During the 19th century, fleeing famine and English oppression, the crossing took our ancestors five to ten weeks aboard over-crowded “coffin ships”. Their coach fares did not include reclining cushioned seats and regular beverage service, instead they shared a 6’x6’ bunk with 3 other people, often strangers. Seasickness and dysentery was common and passengers often lay in their neighbor’s vomit and excrement. The bunks were tiered with little more than a few wooden slats and a thin layer of straw between them. Those on the lower tier had to suffer the drippings from the bunk above. Their sole provision from the ship-owners was two pints of water a day. Illness, especial Typhus, was endemic. On some ships the passenger death rate exceeded 30%.
As we begin our descent to Shannon Airport, frothing white seawater breaks relentlessly against Ireland's rocky west coast underscoring a seemingly endless grid of green pasture partitioned by rock walls. Almost every limestone rock has been employed within a wall, home, church, bridge, castle, fort, or pagan monument. The biota has had a similar fate. Ireland was historically a relatively wooded country of oak, pine and birch. In the 16th century England’s Queen Elizabeth, tragically, ordered Ireland’s native oak forest felled to build ships for England and deprive Irish rebels of places to hide. With no refuge, Ireland’s remaining wolves also vanished. Today, little of Ireland’s landscape has been left untrammeled.
We depart Galway on a soggy Sunday morning. At 9:00 am the city is quiet and still sleeping. Finding an open café for a coffee or even a cup of tea proves challenging. Pubs dominate the city center along High Street. In the back alleys empty kegs of Guinness are stacked into small pyramids. Later that day, near the shores of Lough Mask, we cycle past a local church. Cars line the street and the atrium is even full, standing room only. England may have lost its death grip on Ireland, but Catholicism and Guinness, both under foreign control, maintain a strong hold.
The sturdy steel frames and 1¼ inch tires of the hybrid 24-speed bicycles we rented prove worthy for the back roads that crisscross the rural farmlands of County Mayo. Old carriage roads interconnect traditional Irish cottages sparsely placed across the countryside. County Mayo contains some of the oldest relics of human habitation on the island. Neolithic archeological sites date back over 5,000 years. Along its coast generations of desperate farmers hauled seaweed to barren plots of land. The resulting soils supported potatoes and families; that is, until the potato blight.
Before the first great famine of 1845, Ireland’s population was estimated to be well over 8 million. By the end of the 19th century Ireland’s population had dropped to just over 4 million, half the Irish had died or fled. County Mayo experienced the greatest emigration and has never fully recovered. Today, County Mayo is the least populated region in Ireland.
With sheep as our only companions, Amy and I cross the Sheeffry Hills over a medieval-like pass where the road is partially suspended by mortar-less stone masonry. On the far side we descend along the Delphi River to Ireland’s only fjord —Killary Harbor. The Norwegian-like landscape was sculpted over 2 million years ago when massive glaciers held most of the world in an icy grip. And, the landscape is not the only reminder of Ireland ‘s proximity to Scandinavia. A local child’s red hair reminds us that the English were not the only invaders.
Connemara is a mountainous region in western Galway County. The mountains, including the impressive Twelve Bens, are often the first landmass that moisture-laden Atlantic cyclones collide with as they spin off the Gulf Stream. The result is Ireland’s legendary green fields and equally legendary rain. Over centuries, flat bogs of decaying plant matter have decomposed into peat — a premature coal-like substance that for millennia has kept the Irish warm and dry.
Wet and cold, after cycling 50 miles in the rain, Amy and I enter J. Conneely’s, a pub in the small coastal village of Clifden, and warm ourselves next to a stone fireplace filled with glowing coals of peat. While we fill our empty stomachs with fresh seafood and fried potatoes a young couple armed with uilleann pipes and a fiddle fill the room with Celtic folk music. An old Irishman at the bar sets aside his pint of Guinness and performs an Irish jig. Everyone is warm and happy.
Further south we explore the Dingle Peninsula. Starting in Killarney, we cross two high passes, including Conor Pass (1,496ft), Ireland’s highest. Exposed to fierce winds and harsh winters, landcover in Ireland’s western mountains is mostly open tundra and feels familiar to two mountaineers. As we descend, however, the tundra gives way rapidly to native deciduous trees. Lacking native conifers, the transition feels otherworldly. Coasting into Dingle, an autumn sunset illuminates the bay and an assortment of colorful fishing boats and shops in an amber glow.
The following morning we cycle along the coast to the small fishing and farming village of Anascaul. Not long after our ancestor’s fled to America, a 15-year-old boy from this village lied about his age so he could join the British Navy. Eight years later a chance encounter with famed polar explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Earnest Shackelton provided him the opportunity to join the Discovery Expedition to Antarctica. While the harsh southern continent crushes most men, this hardy Celtic farm boy thrived. After surviving Scott’s attempt to reach the South Pole, the Irishman, by the name of Tom Crean, returned to Antarctica twice more. Crean’s heroic feats of strength and endurance are legendary. After the epic Endurance Expedition, Crean returned to his hometown of Anascaul, married, raised three children, and opened the South Pole Inn. Amy and I stop at the Inn for coffee, photographs and admiration.
That afternoon we cycle down the center of the Iveragh peninsula to Portmagee. Preferring the narrow and windy back roads to the busy highway along the coast, we weave our way through the Kerry Highlands. At a high pass near the mountain village of Glencar we traverse the base of the Carrauntoohil (3,414 ft.). While tempted to detour to the summit of Ireland’s high point, swirling storm clouds convince us otherwise. We continue west across the highlands hoping for a sighting of Ireland’s only remaining herd of native red deer. That afternoon we pass through Ballaghisheen Forest, cross the River Inny, and descend to Valencia Harbor. Having completed our longest day (80 miles), we look forward to the next day’s planned boat trip to the fabled island of Skellig Michael.
In the 5th century, not long after Saint Patrick convinced native Celtic pagans that human sacrifice was no longer necessary, as God had sacrificed his son Christ for everyone, Christian monks arrived on the Iveragh peninsula. Seeking isolation, the monks built a primitive stone monastery on a steep jagged rock off the most westerly point of Europe. Living in stone igloos and sustaining themselves on a meager subsistence diet of fish, mussels and bird eggs, the monks inhabited Skellig Michael for over 400 years. After the Visogoths sacked Rome, the scholarly monks of Ireland, safe from raiding barbarians, became the final repository for many historic Christian texts.
Next we pedal our way over Coomanaspig Pass to Ballinskelligs Bay. On a nearby beach are the remnants of a 16th-century castle, strong hold of the McCarthy Clan. Built on an isthmus, the McCarthy Castle was established for protection from marauding pirates. Nearby are the remains of the Ballinskelligs Priory. Its courtyards are filled with graves marked by Celtic cross’s cut from local limestone, several engraved with the McCarthy name.
Further along the coast we stop in Waterville and rent a room for the night at the Silver Sands Hostel. Waterville, like Portmagee and Ballinskellins, retains a healthy mix of old and new Ireland. While many local residents offer bed and breakfast accommodations and pubs advertise traditional Irish music, there remains an equal subsistence directly from land and sea. Locally sheep outnumber people, and fishermen return each evening with the day’s catch.
Amy and I head out for an evening scramble to the high point of the nearby Hog’s Head. From the craggy limestone summit we can see Skellig Michael and its equally jagged sister isle – Little Skellig, home to Ireland’s largest colony of gannets. The large black and white sea birds have already headed south for the winter.
On the way back we visit Loher Fort. The recently restored circular stone structure was the defended farmstead of a 9th-century local chieftain. Nearby stands Eightercua, a row of four large standing stones. This Megalithic tomb provides testimony to the intelligence and ingenuity of some of Ireland’s earliest inhabitants. Like the many prehistoric stone monuments throughout Ireland, the spiritual meaning and utility of these structures has been lost to time. Regardless, the sites feel sacred and worthy of reverence.
Back in Waterville we are invited to a local cultural festival: the first annual “Norish” Fest. Hosted by the local tourism board, forty-four Norwegians have arrived in this tiny Irish village to share stories, music and ideas. Brazen Norwegian men and women take the stage equipped with a harp, flute, violin and lyre to perform exotic ballads. Sung in their own Norse language, the songs of love, conquest, and tragedy allude to medieval times. Next, local Irish folk musicians, accompanied by a fiddle and accordion, sing in their own native Celtic language. Artists and musicians are not the only participants; local businesses owners and community leaders are there. Folk music is punctuated by discussion regarding common challenges faced by their small and remote communities. Culture is identified as critical to community pride, and as an important source of income in an experience-based economy —where experience is an export and tourism a financial savior.
Culture, experience, and tourism may some day surpass wool and Guinness in their relative importance to Ireland’s economy. However, history may show Ireland’s greatest export is the Irish themselves. The millions of emigrants that left Ireland to settle America, Australia, Argentina, Canada, and New Zealand have been invaluable to the development and prosperity of those countries.
The following afternoon we cross Coomakesta Pass and descend to Derrynane National Park and the opulent Derrynane House, the ancestral family home of Daniel O’Connell. Known as ‘The Liberator’, O’Connell is a revered politician who early in the 19th century championed the cause of the Irish in the British Parliament and succeeded in achieving Catholic emancipation, which he believed was the first step in achieving freedom for Ireland. Unimpressed with the bloody American and French Revolutions, O’Connell detested violence and championed peaceful methods of political agitation. His approach contrasts with that of Michael Collins and the Irish Republican Army, who in 1919 initiated a ruthless two-year guerilla war that brought an end to 800 years of English control, for most of Ireland. Northern Ireland, remaining under British rule, continued to be a place of conflict, and too often violence, until in 1998 the Good Friday Peace Agreement generated a level of conciliation. As we leave the Park and return to Highway N70 along the Kenmare River we pass a campaign poster for Martin McGuinness, former leader of the Irish Republican Army and a front-runner in the upcoming Presidential election.
After 10 days and 500 miles, Amy and I return our rental bikes and head back to Shannon Airport. On the flight home I look out at the rugged and open landscape and feel deep pride for a people forged from this harsh yet regal and verdant land.