Have Bag, Will Travel
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Westport Quay was busy today in the sunshine so we stopped for a while and walked around the harbour and the souvenir shops but it seemed rather modern and we didn’t find it especially thrilling so we didn’t stop long and carried on to the town instead.
Westport was a different place completely today in the sunshine and the grey clouds of yesterday had been replaced by a canvas of blue. What a lovely place, flower beds in full bloom, drinkers spilling out of pubs onto the pavements, courteous motorists who always stop to let you cross the roads, free parking and friendly people everywhere. We spent an hour or so in the town, found somewhere that we rather liked for evening meal and made a reservation and then had a Guinness in the street before returning to the B&B.
We had a good night, an excellent meal and then an hour or so in a pub with more traditional Irish music and an overdose of Guinness and walked home later under a clear sky that surely meant good weather again for the next day.
In twenty-four hours our situation had improved one hundred percent and we looked forward to another good day ahead.
In the morning it was gloriously sunny, this was going to be a very good day indeed and then encouraged by Richard I made a decision that spoiled it.
Instead of taking the direct route to our next stop in the town of Sligo we thought it might be a good idea to head west for a while and visit Achill Island which everyone seemed to be recommending as an especially scenic experience so after breakfast and settling up our accounts we took the coast road into trouble.
At first things went well enough and we stopped regularly to admire wide sandy beaches, look out over Newport Bay across the water to Croagh Patrick and to examine sites where ships of the Spanish Armarda were wrecked on the rocks in 1588 and it was about at this point that Kim’s mood started to change and as usual I failed to spot the warning signs of rapidly emptying patience reserves.
We carried on now to Achill Island and after about twenty minutes of boring countryside and nothing in particular to see Richard made the fatal mistake of asking Kim if everything was alright? I was beginning to detect simmering discontent in the back seat and thought “oh dear Richard, wrong question”. “Do you want the honest answer?” she said and then the penny dropped straight through – the patience tank was empty and Kim was not enjoying this particular stretch of The Wild Atlantic Way as much as I had thought she might so after a brief debate we turned the car around and looked for a more direct route to Sligo.
This wasn’t very successful at all because we were some distance out of our way and I knew deep down that it was probably going to take a couple of hours or so, maybe even three, to reach our destination and Kim’s temper was rapidly reaching boiled lobster point.
From Achill to Sligo there is no alternative but to take a slow circuitous route around the Nephin Mountains because this is an especially remote part of West Ireland and no roads cross the peat bogs and the conifer forests that are a principle feature of the area. We stopped for a coffee and a visit to a National Park information centre but this didn’t especially help so the only thing to do was to drive as quickly as possible now to see how quickly I could get to Sligo.
I was driving like a rally driver but with stops the journey took almost six hours and Kim was keen to keep reminding me that she had earlier consulted Multimap and the direct route was estimated to take just an hour and a half! It didn’t help when I took another unnecessary coastal detour which proved especially pointless as it wasn’t particularly close to the sea and all of the pubs were closed for the afternoon.
To my relief we eventually arrived in Sligo at about four o’clock and luckily the hotel was a good one with pavement tables in the sun so we bagged an empty one and sat and calmed down (this was a process that took longer for some than for others) and later we made a first visit to the town centre to identify somewhere suitable for evening meal.
It had been a mixed sort of day, good start, bad in the early middle, very bad in the late middle and good again at the end and I was forced to agree with Kim however that on an exceptionally fine weather day it was a shame that we had spent so much of it in the car.
We agreed that on the next day we would do a few less miles!
On account of the previous day rain and fearing the worst I was somewhat reluctant to draw back the curtains to reveal the weather but as promised the sky was blue with just a smattering of cloud and just a few miles away I could see the top of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain and major Pilgrim magnet.
I was pleased about that because that is where we were planning to go today.
The tradition of pilgrimage to this holy mountain stretches back over five thousand years from the Stone Age to the present day. Its religious significance dates back to Pagan times when people are thought to have gathered here to celebrate the beginning of the harvest season. Today, when there aren’t so many Pagan visitors, Croagh Patrick is best known as a Pilgrimage site in honour of Saint Patrick for it was on the summit of the mountain that he fasted for forty days in 441 AD and the custom has been faithfully handed down ever since over the generations.
Each year, The Reek, as it is colloquially known, attracts about one million pilgrims. So many in fact that the pathway is becoming loose underfoot, unstable and dangerous. On ‘Reek Sunday’, the last Sunday in July, over twenty-five thousand pilgrims visit the mountain which makes it rather congested. At the top, there is a modern chapel where mass is celebrated and confessions are heard.
We set off immediately after breakfast and at mid-morning found the visitor centre car park which was already quite full and we could see ahead of us a line of people tackling the arduous climb. A lava stream of kagools and backpacks making steady progress up and careful progress back down.
The first part is quite straight-forward, a set of steps that ends at the first stopping point where Pilgrims stop to photograph a statue of St. Patrick statue erected in 1928 and paid for by funding from Irish ex-pats in the USA.
Here he is, St. Patrick, the original Fidget Spinner…
After that the going quickly began to get really tough because let me tell you this is not an easy climb up a steep glacial valley littered with boulders and sharp stones which makes it difficult to keep safe footings. It is hard enough in a stout pair of shoes but on pilgrimage days some people prefer to climb in the traditional way – bare-footed. Nothing on earth would persuade me to do that I can tell you!
The climb has two stages. The first ascends up a rocky foothill covered in heather and moss with a narrow stream running next to the well-trodden path. It took us about forty-five minutes to complete. Apparently it gets even more difficult after that so rapidly running out of enthusiasm for the project, we collectively agreed that we were not sufficiently adventurous to try and find out so after a short debate we took our photographs and made our tentative way back to the car park and going down is harder than going up believe me!
I decided that if anyone ever asked me if I have climbed Croagh Patrick I could genuinely say yes just so long as they didn’t specifically enquire if I got all the way to the top.
Back at sea level we visited the ruins of a medieval abbey and walked for a while on a long sandy beach and then visited the National Famine Monument which is a powerful piece of sculpture which depicts a Coffin Ship with skeleton bodies and commemorates the anniversary of the Irish Famine.
In terms of human tragedy, the famine was probably the single most important event in modern Irish history but to a certain extent they brought it upon themselves. It seems that at that time Irish people lived almost entirely on a diet of potatoes and that a working man would eat as much as fourteen pounds a day, that’s almost two tons a year or about an average sized hippopotamus, about sixty golf ball sized tubors every day – that is a lot of potatoes, to put that into perspective that is roughly equivalent to about two hundred and fifty standard size bags of potato crisps and that is a lot of crisps (chips if you prefer).
Now, I know potatoes are versatile – boiled, roasted, baked, mashed, chips (fries if you prefer), dauphinoise, gnocchi etc. but I imagine this sort of diet can become awfully monotonous! The Irish however were so fond of potatoes that they ate it to the exclusion of anything else; they didn’t grow vegetables, keep chickens for eggs or catch fish from the rivers or the sea. They just grew potatoes!
Unfortunately not only did they rely completely on the potato they specialised in just one variety. It was rather unflatteringly called the ‘Irish Lumper’ which was a heavy cropper even in poor soil and wet conditions but by all accounts didn’t even taste very nice and was described as a “wet, nasty, knobbly old potato.” It was also particularly susceptible to the potato blight virus and a succession of harvest failures in the late 1840s led to starvation, death, farm failure, cruel and vexatious evictions by English absentee landlords and eventually mass emigration to the United States.
Interestingly it is most likely that the virus came from the United States in the first place (just like the phylloxera virus that infected French vine crops at about the same time) but regardless of this they blamed the English and five million Irish (80% of the total population at the time) chose to go there anyway. Today nearly sixty million people in the USA, almost 20% of the population, claim Irish heritage and twenty-two out of forty-five of US Presidents have claimed Irish ancestry. Not Donald Trump by-the-way, who has a German heritage.
In complete contrast to the previous day the weather was glorious now so we stayed for a while and had a Guinness and then made our way back into Westport.
“The official Pilgrimage Season at Knock Shrine begins on Sunday 30th April.The 12 noon & 3pm Sunday Masses in the Basilica can be viewed live on the Watch page and can also be viewed afterwards on the Knock Shrine YouTube Channel”. – Knock Shrine Official Web Page.
Knock (or West Ireland Airport) is built in the middle of almost nowhere, the nearest cities are Galway to the south and Sligo to the north, both over forty miles away. It was built here following a campaign by Monsignor James Horan who had a sort of evangelical business plan to bring pilgrims to the nearby religious site of the Knock Shrine.
The Shrine is probably the most religious place in all of Ireland and as we were close by we thought that perhaps we should pay a visit ourselves.
The most religious country in Europe is Malta where in a survey in 2010 95% of the population said that they were practicing Catholics. Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only managed 74%. Ireland registered 54%. The least religious countries are all in the north where over 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t very important at all.
Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where I imagine the response would surely have been 100%.
The remarkable story of Knock began on the 21st August, 1879 when, at approximately eight o’clock in the evening, fifteen people from the village claimed that they witnessed a Marian Apparition* on an altar at the gable wall of the Parish Church. An Apparition of The Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist, a choir of angels, the Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) and a cross.
The witnesses watched the Apparition in the pouring rain for two hours whilst reciting the Rosary. Although they themselves were saturated not a single drop of rain fell on the gable or vision. Each of the witnesses gave testimonies to a Commission of Enquiry in October 1879 and the findings of the Commission were that the testimonies were both trustworthy and satisfactory. Hmmm!
As a consequence of this the site is now an important Pilgrimage centre with a four thousand seat Basilica, a Museum, a Research centre, the original Parish Church and the Holy Shrine itself. With an estimated million and a half visitors a year this makes it the most visited place in Ireland just ahead of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin.
Most of these visitors are genuine Pilgrims, not just nosey parkers like us, who come to celebrate Mass, make Confession, seek spiritual guidance or simply to lay hands on the wall where the Apparition took place. Actually there is only a small portion of the wall these days because so many people were chipping bits off for a souvenir that it had to be taken down and kept somewhere secret for safety.
The whole village is a religious enclave where every shop sells spiritual gifts, grave memorials, plastic bottles to collect Holy Water and Votive Candles. If you want to stay overnight in Knock then you are probably going to book in at The Shrine View Guest House, The Lamb of God B&B or the Divine Mercy Hotel.
The village and the Holy Site reminded me of the Greek Island of Tinos where there is a similar story of a divine miracle and a Basilica and a Pilgrim Trail to go with it.
As we walked around the Basilica not everyone was absolutely delighted by the experience and I overheard two Nuns in conversation – “So how do you like the place Sister, said the first, “Well, I am a bit disappointed” replied the second “ I have to say, I tort there would be more Priests and tings!”
The modern Basilica is quite magnificent and the best thing about is the Apparition Mosaic which depicts the scene as described in the testimony of the witnesses and donated by an individual donor in memory of his family and friends. That is quite some gift let me tell you, it is one of the largest mosaics in Europe consisting of over one and a half million pieces of hand cut marble and glass and crafted in Spilimbergo in Italy by Travisanutto Mosaics who are said to be the best in the World and also have mosaics in Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC.
I am really glad that I visited the Knock Shrine, I didn’t get any sort of Divine thrill I have to say, I am not a religious person at all, I only go to Church for weddings, christenings and funerals and remain sceptical about things such as this but if so many people believe in it then I feel obliged to keep an open mind.
* A Marian Apparition is a reported supernatural appearance by the Blessed Virgin Mary. The miracle is often named after the town where it is reported.
There is a simple pub quiz question that comes up regularly and which I always get wrong. The question is ‘what is the nearest country to the United Kingdom’ and the answer of course is Southern Ireland or Eire but I always forget about the border with Northern Ireland and blurt out ‘France, it must be France’.
If the Scottish Nationalists ever get their way then there will be two correct answers to the question which is likely to cause a lot of bar-room arguments!
I suppose I have always been a bit hesitant about travelling in the British Isles because being English I have always been rather conscious that we are not going to win many popularity contests with our nearest neighbours.
A lot of Scottish people seem to hate us and the Scottish First Minister, the Anglophobe, Nicola Sturgeon, desperately wants a vote in favour of independence. Until quite recently the Welsh used to burn down our holiday homes and the last time I went there I got a speeding ticket which I am convinced was issued only on the basis that I had an English registered car. So I was a little concerned about visiting a country who apparently regard the English responsible for all their recent disasters from the Irish Famine to the failure to qualify for the Football World Cup!
On a more positive note, although it is a thousand miles away or so, Gibraltar seems to like to retain its British connections even if this is motivated by indecent self-interest!
The British Isles are a group of islands off the north-western coast of continental Europe that consist of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland and over six thousand smaller islands. The term British Isles however is controversial in Ireland where there are objections to its usage due to the association of the word British which in terms of Irish history continues to be considered colonialist. The Government of Ireland does not recognise or use the term and it prefers the term Britain and Ireland as an alternative description. Even the British Lions Rugby team is now rebranded as the British and Irish Lions.
The England Cricket Team has an Irish Captain who refuses to sing the National Anthem which to me means he is simply not eligible! Previously there has been a Scottish captain, Mike Denness and a Welsh Captain, Tony Lewis who didn’t have the same problem. I would say to Eoin Morgan sing or you don’t play and get the appearance money!
In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting. Most impressive is that Ireland is placed eighth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top ten of the most highly developed countries in the World and before the recent economic crisis it used to be in the top five. The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.
The economic crisis has had a negative effect on Ireland’s position in the European Happiness Index however and it is rated at only fourteenth out of thirty which is a very long way behind the United Kingdom but I was interested to see that in a recent poll in the Irish Times that Galway was voted the happiest place to be in Ireland and I was glad about that because that was where we were planning to go first.
Ireland has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which, let’s be honest, is a rather poor performance and I would suggest that someone in Dublin needs to start travelling around and making some applications – Australia has got nineteen for goodness sake! The country also needs to do something about its Blue Flag Beaches because it now only has seventy when a few years ago it had one hundred and forty-two!
But some statistics continue to be impressive and Ireland remains the most successful nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, which with seven wins is higher than all other competitors so who really cares about the economic crisis anyway?
We arrived in Ireland (an hour late thanks to unannouced Ryanair flight rescheduling) at Knock Airport, or Ireland West Airport as it is now known and as we descended the aircraft steps the wind tugged at the buttons of our shirts and the rain stung our cheeks as though we were walking through a swarm of bees.
It turns out that this is a most unlikely airport. The site, on a hill in boggy terrain that is often shrouded in dense fog, was thought by airport planning experts to be hopelessly unrealistic but was built following a long and controversial campaign by Monsignor James Horan who had a sort of evangelical business plan to bring pilgrims to the nearby religious site of the Knock Shrine (more about that later) and who convinced both the Irish Government and the European Union to fund the project.
Perhaps due to Devine Intervention it is now the fourth busiest airport in Ireland after Dublin, Shannon and Cork and we were happy about that because on our quest to visit all of Ireland this provided us with a gateway to the North West.