I'd ask myself, before I left on my trip, which part I was looking forward to most. My answer would change from day to day but as often as not, the answer would be Ireland, home of my forefathers.
And, Ireland, you did not disappoint.
It didn't start out that way though. I left England on a Sunday with some sort of allergy, I daresay to one of the crops that were being harvested around my brother's home. By Monday morning when I joined the tour I'd chosen after many hours of deliberation, I was feeling totally miserable. The countryside outside Dublin I found to be most uninspiring, it looked like an abandoned wasteland to me, not worth farming and I thought to myself no wonder so many Irish had left for greener pastures over the years, they would never be able to grow a potato in that ground. I didn't particularly enjoy the first stop of the day in Kilbeggan to a whiskey distillery. Told you I wasn't feeling well! I didn't even bother to taste the whiskey.
My mood didn't improve when I realized my camera battery was flat. I'd been so tired the night before from all the sneezing and coughing, all I could think about was getting my head down and sleeping, the camera was the last thing on my mind.
I brightened when I realized our lunch time stop would be in Galway. I could see and hear my dad when he arrived home from work in the evening scoop up the baby of the family and waltz with them around the lounge room singing one of his Irish favourites. "If you ever go across the sea to Ireland"... And here I was!
I thought a walk would do me good and set out to find St. Nicholas', the largest medieval parish church in Ireland in continuous use as a place of worship. I did find a Catholic church where mass was being celebrated (in the middle of the day on a Monday) but not the one I was looking for. I had a lovely chat with an elderly couple waiting at the bus stop outside the church who offered to take me with them on the bus to see their cathedral. When I laughed and said if I got on a bus, goodness knows where I'd end up, they conferred and announced no need to worry, they'd go with me to the cathedral and put me on the right bus back to town. That's when I started to fall in love with the Irish.
I dread to think what a misery I must have seemed to the others on the tour those first few days. It took me a couple of days to shake the coughs and sneezes. Erica, half of the lovely Australian couple on the bus offered to share her photos of the day with me. I am so thankful.
Spanish arch in Galway
We visited Aughnanure Castle, one of over 200 tower houses in the County Galway. Our tour guide, Sean knew how to tell a good story and knew his history. It was probably here that we first heard about the O'Flahertys we would all come to fear. One of the fearsome O'Flahertys had built this tower house in the 16th century, it fell into other hands (they did fight a lot those early Irish), played a part in the Cromwellian invasion and was later reclaimed by the O'Flahertys. It is now managed by Dúchas, the Irish State body responsible for national monuments and historic properties. The young woman who was our guide had grown up on the farm that surrounds it and this was her childhood playground.
Towards the end of the day we came to the beautiful Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, built to be a hunting lodge, then used by the Benedictine nuns as an exclusive girls school. No longer a school, it is now home to the Benedictines, a monastic community. It is much admired for it's beautiful walled garden and picturesque situation. We saw it just as the evening mist was descending.
Staying here had been a real treat, not just for the majestic surroundings but the warm and welcoming Irish spirit of the owners, a rather eccentric father and son. We were welcomed with warm hand shakes as we stepped out of the bus, our bags were whisked away and found waiting for us in our rooms when we reached them. Guests gathered around the peat fire before dinner for drinks as we were told the history of the castle. The food was outstanding, served in the dining room overlooking the glen. Our host was never far from sight, like his staff he was constantly attentive. In addition he was highly entertaining. A truly lovey hotel in an amazing setting.
As well as the Australians, Erica and Trevor and Sofie a Belgian, there was a family group of eight Americans in our small tour group. One of them, Doug, was also outside the next morning taking photos and enjoying the fresh air. I'm pretty sure Doug took even more photos than I did.