“Exploring Ireland” is Peter Sommer Travels’ first Irish itinerary, running only for the second time in 2019. Once again, we are offering a kind of diary of the tour, as we did for Crete and the Dodecanese in 2017 and for the Peloponnese and the Cyclades in 2018. We followed those precedents, not describing every day in detail (just check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com), but picking one image we took on each day, accompanying it with some thoughts or insights.
After the remarkably dry and sunny weather of the last few days, today graced us with somewhat more typical Irish conditions, a mixture of overcast and blue skies, but no rain as yet, as our image of Kylemore Abbey shows...
At this stage in our itinerary, we offer a day that is devoted to a series of typical western Irish landscapes and to various stories associated with these landscapes or set within them. The day is deliberately planned in a flexible manner, thus permitting us to take advantage of the prevailing conditions.
We spent it exploring some of the more rugged regions of the West: Connemara, the peninsula that forms the western portion of County Galway, and the southwest of County Mayo, separated from Connemara by Killary Harbour, Ireland's only fjord. We spoke of many things: the ecology of bogland, the prehistoric environment of Ireland, holy mountains and pilgrimages, the politics of 19th century Ireland, and the Great Famine, an event with echoes reverberating to this day. We also spoke of many characters, from Neolithic settlers via Saint Patrick and Gráinne Ní Mháille (Granuaile), the 16th century 'pirate queen' and her meeting with Elizabeth of England, to starving tenants and high-living landlords, to Guglielmo Marconi and his wireless station, Alcock and Brown, the airplane pioneers, and many others, all of them combining into a story of these lands and shores.
One of our visits today was to Kylemore Abbey (really Kylemore Castle), one of the best-known sights of Connemara, and a place where one talks not so much about a building but about its creator. Kylemore is a romantic dream, a fantasy castle placed in a wild and empty landscape by one Mitchell Henry (1826-1910). He had Irish roots, but was the scion of an industrial family from Manchester. Having spent his honeymoon in Connemara, he used the enormous wealth inherited from his father to construct his ideal castle where a hunting lodge had stood. It was built from 1863 to 1868 at enormous expense, for him and his wife and their eventually nine children to live in. Meanwhile, Henry also dabbled in schemes to improve the surrounding land and sat in the Westminster Parliament as a member for Galway. After his wife's early death and a downturn of his fortunes, he left Kylemore behind, and in 1903 it was sold. Eventually, it became a monastery of Benedictine nuns, which is why it is now generally known as Kylemore Abbey. Its most charming feature are the walled Victorian gardens, set on a mountain slope about 25 minutes' walk away from the house itself. We use the place to talk about the Anglo-Irish ascendancy and the absentee landlords of the 18th and 19th centuries (Henry not being one of them) whose lives were so different from those of the common people in Western Ireland, and who brought so much suffering to this land.
We are now in the north of County Mayo, far off the beaten tourist tracks, and tomorrow we will discover the past and present of this area.