After our time in Dublin and Galway, it was time to head north to Northern Ireland with the other tour group. I knew close to nothing about this country and was both interested and nervous to visit. Mostly I was looking forward to spending an entire day on the bus, catching up on sleep after such a late night out. The sky was overcast as we pulled out of Galway as if Ireland had finally decided to demonstrate its true climate after burning us to a crisp on Inis Mor.
Our first stop of the day was a picturesque cafe nestled in a stunning fjord for the best Irish coffees in all of Ireland, or so we were told. In the early morning, the fjord was shrouded in mist like straight out of a Viking myth. Carina and I ordered regular coffees in the dark wooden pub, not quite ready for whiskey before 10am. Bleh.
Warmed by the hot coffee, we boarded the bus and settled in with our headphones for the long haul to our next stop. I closed my eyes, grateful to finally sleep, when the bus started bouncing around on the uneven road. “Well this sucks” I thought, assuming the road would smooth out eventually. It did not. We bounced around violently for a couple of hours with my seatbelt on to stop from tumbling out of my seat. Let’s just say there wasn’t much sleeping going on.
As soon as we arrived in County Mayo, I was grateful to get off the bus and back on solid ground. We were at the National Famine Memorial which marks the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine. A haunting sculpture of a coffin ship rigged with human skeletons stands in memory of the people who perished at sea while fleeing the Irish Famine.
We observed this stark memorial in silence before crossing the street for a short hike up Croagh Patrick, the holiest mountain in Ireland. We hiked a short distance to the statue of Saint Patrick before turning around to admire the view of Clew Bay. Millions of people have climbed this mountain which has been an important site of both pagan and Christian pilgrimage. It was at the summit of this mountain that Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days in the fifth century AD.
Every year, thousands of people make the pilgrimage up this mountain, sometimes even in bare feet! Can you imagine walking up these boulders without shoes?? Ouch…
I barely made it up the hill… with shoes on too.
Sunburnt but happy! We slathered more sunscreen on our poor burnt faces just in case.
We hiked back down the mountain and drove to the town of Westport for some lunch. Most of our group went to a small cafe where we ate something green for the first time in a week. Although it took forever to get our meals, it felt so good to eat vegetables. Before leaving, we also exchanged our Euros into British pounds for the few days in Northern Ireland.
Properly monetized, we boarded the bus with just one more stop before arriving in Derry, our destination for the night. As we drove further north, the morning mist burned off to reveal the magnificent Benbulben mountain in the distance.
At the base of this mountain is Drumcliffe Graveyard, where W.B. Yeats is buried. We had unknowingly arrived on Yeats’ 149th birthday and stumbled upon a small celebration in honor of one of Ireland’s most famous poets. Carina and I even ran into a reincarnation of Yeats in a small and charming young actor dressed in period clothing who recited a poem for us in the most dramatic fashion. It was absurd and endearing at the same time. The Irish sure do take their poets seriously.
By early evening we unceremoniously drove across the Ireland/Northern Ireland border and into the town of Derry. After dropping off our bags at the Travelodge (so many doors…), we headed outside into the dreary streets for some dinner. We ate quietly at a local Japanese restaurant before meeting our group at the club below the hotel. Still exhausted from the bus ride, we called it an early night and passed out in our wonderfully spacious private room.
It was going to be a long and emotional couple of days in Northern Ireland. Hopefully we would make it.