Thursday was my first full day at home without any commitments since returning from Ireland. I planned to garden and open the memoir file on my computer and start to sort out my next steps in the revision process.
Instead, I got up and made a list for the day, starting with four people I wanted to call. Then I did a lot of puttering — folded our Ireland hiking maps and put them in a cupboard with all the foreign country maps I’ve collected over the years, rearranged files on my desk, filled out medical forms for an upcoming appointment, made a big pot of black beans.
Finally I opened the memoir file and fiddled with it for a few minutes. Then closed it. Looked out the window. I went out to the garden to pick flowers and make bouquets for the house, hoping that might dislodge the heavy funkiness and floating dislocation I’d felt all day.
Arranging hydrangeas in vases to dry for the winter, I thought about Chris. Two summers ago when I spent so much time with her as she was dying, the first thing I’d do when I got home was pick flowers for the house. And here it is just about two years since she died. Tomorrow is the deathaversary.
Then I got the “ball to the head,” the term Adrienne uses to describe the sudden smacks of grief you don’t see coming.
The four people I’d put on my list first thing that morning to be sure to call are all friends who’ve lost a spouse. Of course I wanted to talk to them, check in. I know how hard it is to figure out your way through the loss of a life partner. But I wanted to talk about grief for myself too, and access the rare benefit that comes from deep loss — being able to talk to others about it.
Having people to talk to who’d gone through a loss like mine was such a comfort for me after Eric died. It comforts me still.
David and I love open air swimming, so we had it on our list of must-do’s in Ireland to get into the northern Atlantic at least once. Our second day at Dolphin Beach Guest House in Clifden we took our first dip. Nestled into the side of a steep ridge of rock, heather and gorse poking out the end of Connemara, the guest house has a small beach that is sometimes visited by dolphins and always tricky to walk on, as it’s all small rocks. There were no dolphins the day we went in, but I’d been running and was hot and the day was warm enough (in spite of mist), and the tide was high, so we went for it. Well, not exactly a swim. More like a dunk after hobbling over rocks.
There were many other aspects of our visit to Connemara that were equally thrilling, Just getting to the Dolphin Beach was exhilarating. It’s on a loop of road that climbs over and around the ridge, giving views in every direction. And those views are stunning. Sea, mountains, surf, wildflowers and the ever-changing show of clouds forming, racing, floating, opening, raining, and misting. The exhilarating part? That road is one lane with sheer cliffs on one side, so driving in and out from the guest house required total attention and occasional pulling over into small spots to let another car coming from the other direction go by.
But we managed the drive, and all the other one lane roads around the peninsula that makes up Connemara. There are areas full of small loughs, or lakes — ponds, really — where there is nothing but peaty bog and pockets of water. Driving across it was like driving on a different planet. Lough Inagh sits in a fold between two mountain ranges and the road along its shore is dramatic, with mountain slopes falling to the water on every side.
From Clifden we drove to Donegal in northwestern Ireland. When we drove up the steep pitch leading to the Rossmore Manor B&B David and I were smitten. The view across the tidal inlet to rolling hills of green pasture outlined with the darker green of hedgerows is the perfect of image of Ireland.
But Donegal County is more than rolling green hills. Again, there are vast patches of boggy land where we could see peat harvesting in progress. Slieve League, perhaps the highest sea cliffs in Europe (hard to say for sure because everyone gives you a different answer here) is on the southern shore and the day we climbed up beside and then over the top of the cliffs we were often walking through mist and then heavy rain showers.
But we could see that out at the end of the point there was sunshine holding on, in spite of the clouds stuck on the top of the Slieve League ridge. We headed for the sun. In Glencolumbcille, where we’d planned to do a small loop hike, we were stunned by more cliffs — only 200 meters, not the 600 meter cliffs we’d just seen, but still incredible.
But we still weren’t in sun so we kept going until the road ended. Stunned again. We found ourselves at Malin Beg which we’d had no idea was a scenic spot. Below the parking lot was a long scallop of white sand in the curve of 100 foot cliffs, falling away from green fields. The water looked turquoise over the white sand. We climbed the many many stairs down to the beach to get a better look.
The sand and rolling waves were beautiful and the sun was out, warming us up after our chilly couple of hours on Slieve League. When we got to the end of the beach, where no one could see us because we were so far away, we talked about going in the water again. We had no bathing suits or towels, but here was the perfect spot. Sand under our feet instead of rocks, sunshine instead of mist, and the most beautiful beach either of us have ever seen.
We took off our clothes, left them in a pile under out boots so they wouldn’t blow away, and ran for the water. It was warm enough to be bearable, and cold enough to make us feel brave. We came out laughing and ran back up to our clothes so we could dry off and put all our layers back on.
Today we drive back south and tomorrow we fly home. The trip has been terrific in so many ways — scenery, being outdoors for most of every day, walking, walking, walking, meeting lovely people everywhere, eating local fish, meats and vegetables, and best of all, boiled new potatoes with butter and mint.
Ireland is constantly in and out of clouds, so it only makes sense that David and I have been walking in and out of clouds.
On Saturday we crossed a ridge from Ardgroom to Lauragh, climbing a steep pitch off the road into a bowl of valley with a green field on the opposite slope where we could see sheep dogs rounding up sheep in a cluster that kept moving over the bright pasture. Mist threaded around us as we followed the boggy trail and heard water roaring in streams criss-crossing the pass. The inch and a half of rain the day before was rushing off the hills and everything was wet.
Everything is always wet in Ireland. I’ve come to think of it as the land of perpetual dampness.
We passed the Cashelkeelty standing stones, one of the many circles or lines of stones we’ve seen. The stones are aligned to mark solar occasions like the solstice or equinox and the fields and high passes on the Beara peninsular have many of these ancient remains — 3,000 years old or older. It’s impossible to fully understand what it means to see such ancient constructions.
Meanwhile, more modern stones stacked in walls covered with moss, fuchsia, ivy, brambles, and all the other green growth that makes Ireland seem like a jungle are everywhere, and often mind-boggling beautiful.
Once we got to Lauragh we visited the Derreen Gardens, an estate transformed in the 19th century into a sub-tropical garden at the head of Kilmakilloge Harbor. The tree ferns and tree-size rhododendron made it seem we were walking some place much further south than Ireland.
Yesterday we crossed a ridge of mountains from Lauragh to Kenmare, starting out in mist and walking into sheeting rain. We passed the Uragh stone circle, with a ten foot entrance stone, set on a hillock between two lakes. We felt particularly isolated and lost in time, as we stood in a pocket of rain and fog.
Climbing our second ridge, the fog got thicker and soon all we could see was each other and the boggy path a hundred feet ahead. Thankfully the Beara Way is very well marked, and just as I would feel uncomfortable about whether we were still on the path, I’d see another sign post ahead with the familiar, bright yellow image of a walker and an arrow pointing us on.
Nearly at the top of the ridge David and I talked about the views we were missing, wondering what mountains and hillsides we’d be seeing if the mist cleared. I looked across the open land to the top of the ridge on our right and realized it was clearer. Then I turned around and the mist was gone, revealing the last mountain we’d climbed, bright in the distance. I could even make out the gray of the Uragh stone circle far below.
When we finally cleared the top of the ridge, there were the mountains of Kerry, patched with bright green fields ahead. It’s become clear that worrying about poor weather here isn’t productive and makes no difference. Days are sunny then cloudy then rainy then clear then misty then back to clouds breaking open to blue skies again.
In the moments of hiking, there is only what I see ahead of me, the sound of water finding its way downhill, and planning my next footstep to avoid as many muddy sink holes as possible.And then there are all the flowers.
The Irish have certainly figured out exuberant and charming paint color for houses. The villages we’re walking through on the Beara Peninsula have houses painted in over-the-top colors, but it works.
What doesn’t work is the craft beer. In Cork, and here in these tiny villages, people talk about the new craft beers from local breweries. I’ve been trying them all and have yet to find one that comes any where close to what I can get in the U.S. There’s a hollowness in the middle of the taste, with no complexity and or layering of flavors.
But then, houses are usually painted boring colors in the U.S. I think we need a cultural exchange. Brew masters and house painters from each country should travel to the other and exchange ideas and recipes and tips. Then we could all have flavorful beer and cheery villages.
Meanwhile, heavy rain is whipping past the window of our B&B, blown horizontal by 40 mph winds. We left Eyeries early this morning, knowing a storm was coming. We got about halfway to Ardgroom before the rain started, and at first it didn’t seem that bad. Then we traversed a ridge to come into the village and by then the wind was fierce. I got blown off my feet a couple of times, staying upright only by planting my hiking pole downwind and leaning into it. It was wild and exciting and a bit scary, then very satisfying to get to the B&B with a friendly hostess who put our wet gear in her dryer.
Today is the exact opposite of yesterday. We had bright, warm sunshine and gentle breezes as we crossed the Slieve Mishkish Mountains with Coulagh Bay below us. We sat in the sun for the second night in a row and watched the sun set over the ocean to the northwest, green green green everywhere we looked.
That’s what all this rain does.
Heather and gorse, walking from Allihies to Eyeries
Veggie Capped Ruin
House being eaten by brambles and wildflowers
Walking into Ardgroom with sheets of rain in our faces