Monday, April 30, 2012

Galway, Part 2: Lots of Stones

The inspiring experience with Al and Sinead over, we trekked up the hill to Aillwee Cave, a quirky (and much more heavily promoted than the bird walk) attraction in the Burren.

I'll admit right up front that childhood visits to Carlsbad Caverns has ruined both Jenny and me for other caves; the tour guide for this one didn't help the case, either. He was not happy to be working, and led us and a group of a dozen or so others through the cave at a rapid clip, flipping on lights in each new section and going through the limestone formations by rote. (You could call it the bare-bones tour, especially because in the cave are real bear bones! Of course, Jenny and I didn't get to see them... because we walked right past them before the guide bothered to say anything -- and no going back for us!)

These biases aside, Aillwee Cave is still a fascinating bit of geology. It's carved right through the solid limestone that comprises nearly all of the Burren; an ancient underground river carved a perfectly semicircular roof through the whole cave, and then went bonkers eking out other crevasses and chambers. The limestone is particularly suited to little stalactites and stalagmites, as the calcium components in it will practically leak out. Very lovely, if brief -- but don't worry, Carlsbad!

We must have been feeling pretty confident in my driving abilities, because rather than head straight back to Galway, we opted to continue several kilometers into the Burren to find the Poulnabrone portal tomb. Think one of the Stonehenge structures with a deeper entryway. We lucked out completely -- for a chunk of time, we were the only tourists there! In this karst land of melted tombstones (for so Jenny decided the limestone looked, and she's right), filled with clints and grikes (what are those? Look at our pictures and learn!), we felt transported back 5000 or 6000 years... and could not imagine who would have managed to live in this barren and windswept rock shelf!

Yet live people do... and cows, too. Never underestimate the cattle of the Burren. Real men eat stone-fed beef.

If we thought life in the Burren would be difficult, we were in for a real treat the next day when we took a ferry out to Inis Mor (pronounced IN-ish more), the largest of the three Aran Islands. We took a bus from Galway to the ferry docks and sailed out to the islands visible in the distance. The sea was calm, and surprisingly the air out on the open was warmer than on windy land! On the island, we met our pre-arranged tour guide at his van. Oliver was his name; Patrick Oliver, but he said that everybody on the island was named Patrick, so he went by his middle name. His family has lived on Inis Mor for seven generations! He drove us around, stopping at every scenic place to point out the landscape and the features of the island. (The island, I should say, is not by any means large; seeing it all by car in 2 hours was more than doable, and that includes our little stops!)

Our favorite stop by far was at Dun Aengus, the ancient circle fort atop the hill. What we didn't know was that the fort loomed atop a sharp cliff that slices into the ocean some 300 feet below! We could have laid there for hours, peering down over the edge, lulled by the distant sounds of crashing surf and seagulls far below. (Once again, I say: to the pictures!)

The next day we had the e-book launch of A Thoroughly Good Blue, so we decided to take it somewhat easy. We walked further out of the Galway city center than we had yet ventured, and we had a lovely (if windswept) walk along the beach, discovering different seashells than we find "back home" on the east coast. When the sun would come out, the water looked nearly Caribbean in its clearness, with white (limestone) sand and tropical hues of rich light blue and sea green. What a treat!

We enjoyed a great square meal in one of the city center pubs before getting ready for The Launch. The event could have gone wrong in so many ways, but thanks to some last-minute organizing it went off nearly hitch-less! Nuala Ni Chonchuir, an Irish writer, said some lovely things about our writing, and the readings all went wonderfully well! We celebrated with my classmates until a respectable hour (I'm definitely one of the "old farts" in my class), and then crashed back at the B&B. (For the final night, we were put in a properly-placed room upstairs. Oh, to wake without the sounds of the morning kitchen staff!)

The next morning we took the train back to D-town: tired, exhilarated, and educated. Which means that a wonderful time was had by all.

Galway, Part 1: Two Birds

[Note: I'm writing this post in June; we were in Galway at the end of April. We thought and talked so much about our time out there that I thought I had written a post. Nope, turns out there's just pictures. We're posting it with an April date just to keep things chronological.]

We'd figured long ago that we would get out to Galway and the rest of the central west coast during our Irish year. Then my class scheduled a launch of our writing anthology (the e-book version, at least) at the Cúirt literary festival in Galway, and we thought we might as well extend the visit to see more of the area. Kill two birds with one stone, as it were.

Actually, there were two birds, and there were lots of stones. I'm proud to say that the one did not slay the other.

We arrived Wednesday afternoon and got checked in to our B&B. (I swear the location of the room was meant for a broom closet, which they expanded before putting in windows and a bathroom!) Jenny, who after ten months around Dublin still doesn't know which way the ground is, took immediately to the layout of Galway as if she had ancestral instincts or some such knack. I, on the other hand, felt like Winnie the Pooh going in circles and always returning to the sand pit. So suffice it to say that Jenny was the official navigator.

Jenny had booked our next day's excitement ahead of time, in a magical place called The Burren, so we went about figuring out our transport. The promises buses weren't running in the month of April (don't ask), so we ended up renting a car.

Now, neither of us had ever driven a right-hand-drive automobile on the wrong side of the road. Suffice it to say that Jenny continued her excellent navigating, I only Mario-Karted off the curb once, and we were both assured by our possession of an Invincibility Star. (Read: full-coverage insurance. The Avis guy said, "You could bring back the car in a different shape altogether, if you wanted to. [Beat.] Please don't.")

The Burren was as amazing as promised. No -- more so. We arrived in plenty of time to the Burren Bird of Prey Centre, where the kindliest of men, a guy named Jim, took us falconing. (!!!!!!) While our Harris hawks were being brought out, we got to walk around and visit the other birds (see pictures), including a cat-like raven and a barn owl who flirted incessantly with us. Then Jim introduced us to Al and Sinead, two siblings just over a year old, and incredibly beautiful birds.

I can pretty well guarantee that I can't now do the experience justice. For me, the most thrilling part of the falconry lesson was the interaction with these two birds. Harris hawks are wonderfully social, which is why they're good for one-timers and novices; they don't require the same building of trust that other hawks and falcons do. Even so, one bad move and the trust is forever broken. We donned our thick leather gloves on our left hands, and the hawks perched there, eyeing us up and getting familiar with us. (They're not as heavy as I expected. About two pounds each.)

Then Jim led us into the light forest surrounding the Centre, and he taught us how best to let the birds loose, how to call them back (answer: with raw meat), and how much to feed them (it's a balance between keeping them interested in coming back, and not feeding them so much that they can't/won't fly); what sort of conditions were suitable (it was a windy day, so we stayed in the tree cover lest the birds get blown away from us) and how they navigate (surprisingly close to the ground, using the trees -- and us -- for cover); how to ensure a safe landing for both bird and person (arm straight out to the side) and what to do when both birds go for the same piece of meat (try to retract the arm so neither gets it; otherwise, you'll get a hawk-fight on your arm -- which we sure did).

Jenny and I were both shocked at how the birds swooped over the forest floor, and how they landed on our arms -- always swooping upward, never landing downward. We both had expected the pouncing bird of prey image that you'll see in drawings and bad tattoos. Yet we've been watching birds ever since, and almost all of them will try to land by flying up. Pretty cool! We also never expected hawks to be ground-hunters; apparently, bugs constitute a fair bit of their diet, and these birds (particularly Sinead) would tear at the turf with their talons, pulling up clumps of dirt and smashing them apart by stomping on them.

Al was the smaller of the two birds, which is typical with males, and therefore lower down in the pecking order. Yet he would constantly pick on Sinead, try to steal her food and land on her perch and torment her when he didn't get his way. A couple times, his sister had to re-establish her dominance. One of these times ended up with a wrestling match on the ground. When the birds were still, sitting back on their tailfeathers with their wings spread out around them, they almost looked like two figures lounging in facing armchairs. Then they would resume fighting -- primarily by planting their talons squarely on the other's chest and kicking. Jim let them duke it out for a while, then when Sinead appeared to have asserted herself, he stepped in and separated them. They were like two dogs in the same pack fighting, though -- neither was injured. They knew just how hard to peck and kick without actually inflicting damage!

Al might have been a pesky little brat. Sinead was an equally pesky, slightly larger brat. She would get her mind set on some object -- usually a piece of branch, or a small log -- and refuse to let it go. Watching Jim try to coax one piece of wood in particular from her was hysterical. He would get it from her grasp, and quicker than quick she would have it back again! He finally distracted her with food while simultaneously taking and hiding the stick... and even then, I wasn't convinced she wouldn't show up with it again later!

I could talk about these birds for hours. Believe it or not, there were many other parts of the trip, too. I'll get to those in another post very soon. (Do go look at the pictures here, if you want the visuals!)

UPDATE: Part 2 is here for your reading pleasure.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Karsks, Hawks, and the Land of (melted) Tombstones

We will have a full post on this soon, but just for visual delight, we wanted to upload our pictures from:
Falconry 101 (Zach and Jenny learn to handle Harris Hawks)
Ailwee Cave (spelunking in under 15 minutes)
Poulnabrone (a portal tomb dating back 5,000 years)
Galway (the most adorable and quintessential of Irish far)
Inis Mor (the largest of the Aran Islands) a.k.a. The Land of Melted Tombstones

Enjoy the pictures!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Bloomin' Sun is Out

With campus looking oh-so beautiful, there was nothing for it, but to sit outside and read. Well, Zach got to enjoy that. I had a meeting with my dissertation advisor, but I did manage to take these pictures on my way inside!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Awesome Auspices

Just a heads up about the awesome events appearing on our calendar for next week: Zach's program is putting out an anthologized collection of their writing and the ebook version is being launched in Galway late next week.

We'll be traveling out to Galway and seeing some sights in the days just before the launch. Exciting stops on our itinerary include:
  • The city of Galway itself, a sort of literary capital in Ireland 
  • Coole Park, once the home of Lady Augusta Gregory, now a 405-hectare nature reserve! 
  • The Burren, a natural wonder showcasing some of the most amazing mixtures of Ireland's topography. From limestone mountains to megalithic tombs, this stop is sure stun! 
  • Ailwee Cave, a fascinating underworld of chasms, tunnels, and honeycomb chambers (think Carlsbad Caverns, without the bats) 
We're also making arrangements to participate in a beginner falconry event, whereby we go into the hazel wood forests of the Burren and learn to summon a trained hawk to perch on our arm, fly away, retrieve things, and return.

With all this excitement on the horizon, be sure to check back for pictures and posts-aplenty.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A "Wilde" Visitor

The day after Zach's happy-travelin' family departed for America, Zach and I played host to another visitor: Gianna May! I met Gianna when she came to work for me in the front office of the Honors Program at UNM. Now, if ever a manager wants proof that she was not a tyrannical jerk, an overseas visit from a former employee surely qualifies.

Gianna has spent the opening months of 2012 attending the University of Leeds in England on a semester-abroad trip. She added Ireland to her list of places to see during her month-long spring break (American students reading this are no doubt bellowing that they want/deserve/need a month-long spring break)!

She arrived in Sandycove bright and early on a Monday. Zach was stuck in class, but I was free to take Gianna south to walk the legendary Bray head, a pathway meandering along the steep cliffs between Bray and Greystones. Before hopping on the DART, we checked the online tourist maps, which assured us the path ended in or near Greystones city center, which seemed the perfect place for us to have lunch and then head back for dinner back home. What is that saying about the best of plans...?

The day could not have been more lusciously sunny! We strolled along the pebbly beach of Bray and then made our way up the steep hillside to the cliffs. At one point, I spotted a trail leading into an irresistibly mysterious and Byronically romantic thicket of gorse (the yellow-blossomed scrub brush you see all over the island). Gianna made for an all-too willing adventure accomplice! I was once her fearless leader in the work place, after all. What could be the harm in following me now, right? (If my mother is reading this right now, she's already sighing and remembering the time I got myself lost in the Apache National Forest in Arizona...)

We schlepped uphill, bent in half to traverse the trail through the low-hanging gorse boughs, and eventually emerged in a clearing. To our relief, we saw other humans on the trails up ahead. Those trails wound ever-upward until we arrived at the craggy bald top of the cliffs. We took some stunning photos, saw open pastures where wild horses roamed, and looked out on a seascape that took away what little breath we had left. Getting down to the main trail was a challenge. Our feet were tired. Our bellies were empty, but for the paltry snacks I had packed. And our water supply was half-consumed.

At last Gianna and I found what looked like a prominent and frequently traveled path that we believed would take us back to the cliff-walk and then on to Greystones. It didn't. It did take us through farms and fields. We had to climb a few fences and ignore a few "no trespassing" signs, until we arrived at an actual cluster of houses and a genuine (paved) road. Making a random guess, I chose to turn left. Turns out I was right to do so. I think. After a half-mile, we did pass the endpoint of the cliff-walk (where we would have emerged had I not diverted us through the gorse). But this was not in Greystones city center, as the maps suggested. We walked and walked until we found a grocery store where one of the employees pointed us to the bus route that would get us to Greystones proper (some 20 minutes away!!!).

We boarded the bus and told the driver to please let us off near the DART station in the city center. He kindly agreed to and then unkindly forgot. It wasn't until we were in Kilcoole that discovered us, like stowaways. So, long story short, we DID make it back to Sandycove. Gianna seemed very forgiving of the fact that I nearly got us lost and/or starved/dehydrated to death!

The next day of her visit, Zach and I both had class, so Gianna boarded a tour bus bound for the Hill of Tara and Newgrange. We recommended this trip, having done it already for Zach's birthday back in September. We reconnected with Gianna later that evening and got to hear about what a great time she had over dinner.

Wednesday was finally a time for all three of us to check out Dublin. We took Gianna to see the secret wonders and horrors of St. Michen's Church. You should have seen this budding historian's eyes light up when they took us underground to see...(but wait, I can't spoil the surprise for my parents...). Then we wandered the scenic quays, enjoyed the Winding Staircase bookshop, saw the sites along O'Connell, then on to Trinity to see the Long Room library and Book of Kells.

We were then bound for seeing Oscar Wilde's House, which Gianna was looking forward to (Wilde being one of her favorite authors). Sadly, we found that they no longer do tours of the house. To make up for it, we stopped off at the park across the street which as a statue of Wilde sprawled in what can only be described as pimp-style on a huge boulder. Gianna scaled this boulder like it was a jungle-gym in order to pose for pictures beside her idol. We also read aloud many of Wilde's famous quotes collected on nearby sculpture installations. (Of particular delight was the one about how it becomes increasingly impossible to live up to the standards of one's blue China tea set.)

With the four and five o'clock hours swiftly approaching (threatening to shut down all the other points of interest on our itinerary), we scuttled off to the National Museums to see the bog bodies on display. Besides those macabre marvels, we saw the stunning collections of weapons, artifacts, and gold jewelry taken from various hordes from around the island. We then stopped in some shops for a bit of souvenir shopping, wandered through the famous Temple Bar district, stopping in at the best, new candy shop in Dublin (Aunt Nellie's) before circling back to the Porterhouse where a few of Zach's classmates joined us just after dinner for the traditional "last night in Dublin" celebration!

Eventually, we made it home so that Gianna would catch a few winks before taking a very early cab to the port where a ferry awaited to shepherd her to the next portion of her traveling adventures (which I believe was Wales and London)! It was so wonderful to have her visit and we so very glad I did not get her killed somewhere between Bray, Greystones, and Kilcoole.    

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dingle Hoppers

While a delegation of my folks (Father, Sister Kaci, Sister Aja, Sister Ali, and Friend Natalie -- a regular ecclesiastical troupe) were visiting us in mid-March, we all took off for a three-night stay on one of the western fingers of Ireland. Dad had originally hoped to road-trip over most of the island during the week here, but cautionary suggestions from us and a firm smack upside the head from reality reminded him that if he wanted to see anything but the wrong side of the road, he'd be wise to pick a single mid-week destination and stick with it.

So Dingle Peninsula it was! And what a beautiful choice, too. (Check out our Dingle Photo Album) The Five Faithful Followers braved the hazards of right-hand drive, and Jenny and I took the train and bus there. (See Jenny's last post for a description of the Southwestern-esque views.) Night fell as we arrived in the town of Dingle and joined the rest of the fam at the Alpine House B&B. We did a bit of dusky wandering, discovered that much of Dingle doesn't open on Tuesday evenings unless it's tourist season (which is decidedly not mid-March), and ended up dining in an excellent jazz and pizza joint. The entire place felt like it was lit by blue and black candles, and the French proprietor started quizzing us on the artists once Jenny pegged Django. Pizza was great, music was groovin', and the Dingle Hop had begun. (I even got a compliment for pronouncing properly the French wine I ordered! But I'm really surprised Zach has not shared here the long-winded topic of dinner conversation, which had everyone reduced to tears of hilarity... Well, if he won't blow the lid off this one, I suppose I can't.)

The next morning the Clerical Quintet went horse(pony)back riding, and Jenny and I stayed behind in the hotel to do some writing (grad students are cursed that blessed. I mean blessed). That afternoon, Jenny, Natalie, and the Sisters Three went shopping (and they spoke not a word of it to me hence), and Dad and I holed up in the renowned, National-Geographic'd, half-leatherman's and shoe shop and half pub called Dick Mack's. This was such a great atmosphere for a pint -- rooms behind/within/upon rooms, wood older than Dick Mack himself, a coal fire, and Sean, the artist-in-residence. Dad and Sean got to talking about priorities in life and the very meaning of existence. It was a trip.

That night, reunited, we enjoyed dinner in a different pub (apparently Wednesday nights are better for opening than Tuesdays) before shifting down to O'Sullivan's for the only live music we could find in town. I'll be honest, the ladies playing sounded lovely, but it was far from the best trad music Jenny and I have heard here. (When the Sligo festival is the point of comparison, I suppose we're ruined.) The fam all seemed to enjoy themselves, though, and we got to try the local brew -- Tom Crean's Lager. This beer was actually as creamy as its name almost suggests, which I never expected from a lager. The combination was pleasantly enjoyable. Heck, we were tickled just to find a craft beer!

If only we knew what awaited us the next night. But first, we had to brave the Great Slea Head Drive of Fog, Frustration, and Near Doom. (The Friars Fünf thought that the drive was perilous; Jenny and I figured Grendel's descendant was just waiting behind some damp boulder to tear our arms from our bodies as reparation.) Despite the view-blocking fog, the drive around the peninsula awed and oohed us. (Pictures of several stops on this tour will be on the pics page!) That afternoon, folks were just about Dingled out. There was much napping, until high time for Dad and me to go get a pint at Foxy John's. "Who needs shoes?" Foxy John's says. "We've got beer, hardware, and all your bicycling needs!" That's right: this pub felt like half bar, half your grandpa's garage. Jenny swapped out with Dad at one point, so that Dad could go wake up the Cinco Sisters (by this point, Natalie was pretty much another sibling). We had dinner at the Canteen, highly recommended by the barkeep at Dick Mack's.

The food was ohhh so good. I've been craving pork and applesauce ever since. But this place really promoted the Irish craft beers... which we didn't even know existed. I swear they didn't. I had an Eight Degrees porter, Jenny had the richest, sweetest hard cider, and the night was beautiful.

After we peeled ourselves out of the Canteen, we went back to the jazzy pizza joint for some live tango-jazz and a glass of wine to wind down the night. Our favorite French proprietor was in absentia, but still, his establishment provided the perfect wind-down to a relaxing and adventurous Dingle getaway. (Thanks for making it happen, Dad!)