“Exploring Ireland” is Peter Sommer Travels’ first Irish itinerary, a cultural and archaeological tour of Ireland 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.
I never like the final day of any of our tours and cruises, as it is invariably the day of goodbyes and departures. Day 11 is the final day of 'Exploring Ireland'.
Having spent the last ten days with our lovely group of people both interesting and interested, having developed a rapport with them and having shared so much of Ireland with them, it is a strange moment when I find myself alone. Some of our guests are making their way home, in some cases halfway across the planet, today or tomorrow, others are embarking on further travel, and a few are staying in Ireland for further Irish adventures, including one who is participating in an archaeological excavation in County Clare!
For the time being, we hope that we have shown them some insights into this beautiful country with its remarkable history and its rich archaeology. Our tour delved into many eras, from the first Mesolithic inhabitants and then the Neolithic settlers 6,000 years ago, via the mysterious gold-workers of the Irish Bronze Age and the warlike and myth-making Celts of the centuries before and after the beginning of the Common Era, to the Early Christian missionaries and their monastic successors, on to the Vikings, the Anglo-Normans, the Anglo-Irish and the convoluted history of the last five centuries or so. Here and there, we had help from superb local experts, but Caitlin and I had the task of combining it all into a connected narrative.
The Connemara Pony shown in our image is an example of open questions. We met that beautiful creature outside the gardens of Kylemore Abbey, but is it descended from prehistoric horses brought before the dawn of history, from the trusty steeds of Celtic warriors, from Viking thoroughbreds with connections all over the continent, from the warhorses of the Anglo-Irish, from the horses stranded with the Spanish Armada in the 16th century, or from all the above? The Connemerar Pony is by now a distinct Irish breed, irrespective of its origins.
For sure, our guests, Canadian, US American and Australian on this tour, have met some of the locals, and heard the unique form of their shared language that is Irish English, or Hiberno-English. They have heard the urban accents of Dublin, rounded, mellifluous and ambitious south of the Liffey, but rougher and earthier on the other side of the river. They have also experienced the voices of a more rural Ireland, drawn-out and thoughtful in the Midlands, melodious and practical (who needs a th when a t will do?) in the West, and very special on the Aran Islands, where the first language still is Irish (or Gaelic, as foreigners like to call it, while the Irish don't).
In Irish, the Celtic language that is the third-oldest vernacular language still spoken in Europe and that is also the official language of the country, there are many well-defined ways of saying goodbye, and all include the word slán, pronounced slawn (but with a short aw, so somewhere between slawn and slon), which means health and/or safety. It harkens back to an era when danger was ever-present, both for the traveller and for those staying at home: on parting with a host or a visitor, you could never be sure in what circumstances you'd meet them again. In formal Irish, the person staying says slán leat (pronounced lyat) to a single person leaving, or slán libh (pronounced liv) to several. It means may health/safety be with you. Likewise, the person leaving replies slán agat (pronounced as it looks: ah-gat) to the person leaving, or slán agaibh (that's pronounced ah-giv) to several persons leaving, meaning health/safety at you. Another option would be slán abhaille (pronounced slawn avalya), essentially safe home (but implying we won't meet again). Imagine how thoughtful a culture was that created such careful distinctions where others just say 'bye'.
For our title today, I prefer slán go foill (pronounced slawn go foyle), meaning goodbye for now, and implying we'll meet again and that it won't be too long. And for those of you who have read this diary without being on the tour, maybe we'll see you on our expert-led tour of Ireland sometime soon?