Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thurs 15th- A Rag Tree & the Megalithic Tombs

After another lovely breakfast and with the car packed we were on the road again heading north out of County Galway across County Mayo and into County Sligo. It was another brilliantly sunny day and we were greeted by this beautiful view of the 12 Bens, a hazy morning and the twin spires of Clifden as we drove out of town.

I hadn’t booked the next two night’s accommodation as I wasn’t sure how far we would get each day and I’m pleased I didn’t as the roads we had come across so far were pretty hard going. I was hoping to get a far as the town of Sligo at least today and take the longer, narrower coast road in doing so.

But it soon became apparent that we wouldn’t be doing that, there were too many places to stop. Within a few miles we took the first of many short detours and stops of the day to the Connemara National Park Visitors Centre. We had a quick look around, it was pretty well deserted at this time of the day but we took a few photos, used the loo and made our way back to the car park. There wasn’t too much information about the park itself, which was a shame. I’ve noticed that the visitor centres in Ireland and the UK in general, don’t have nearly the amount of information you can find at NZ visitors centres.

This rock would have been stolen at home because of it's potty humour!

Next stop was Kylemore Abbey, I hadn’t realised that it was right on the side of the “main” highway and it made an impressive sight as we came around the corner. Usually you would pay to enter the car park but being the off season they had moved the ticket booth to the other end and you paid as you entered the gardens. I just wanted some pictures so I was able to walk up onto the bridge and take them from there. If we had of had the time I would have taken a tour, the gardens looked lovely.

Kylemore Abbey is the oldest Benedictine Abbey in Ireland. The nuns that live in the Abbey have a long history stretching back 350 years. The Abbey is nowadays used as an international boarding school and a day school for local girls. A section of the Abbey is still strictly for the nun’s use and is not open to the public.

We made our way through the bush clad valleys and hills in the area, past another couple of "mill pond" loughs and out onto a plateau where the road reminded me of our own Desert Road in the Tongariro National Park.

And it was here that I finally got to see how the turf was harvested. Unfortunately no one was there cutting it but you could clearly see how the turf spades cut into the bank of the bog. Apparently it is etiquette and expected that the tuft cutter leaves a “straight face” in the cutting bank for the next cutter. It also takes a very long time to dry the heavy sods, a wet summer means a cold winter, at least 50 days of clear weather are needed to dry the turf harvest.

Unfortunately the peat bog is now threatened, in the last 40 years over 200,000 acres of bogland have been drained away. A bog takes 10,000 years to create and yet with mechanical harvesting it’s thought that the Midlands bogs will be just about gone within a decade. Only 5% of the original 3 million acres of bogland in Ireland survive in their natural state. In a few short years turf may only live on in song and story only. We found that the further north we went the more people frowned on turf fires.

After this brief stop we were back on the road when I suddenly spied a sheep caught in a fence right on the side of the road. Because of the narrow roads, no entrance ways and fences just a foot or two off the road edge it took about a mile travelling before we could find somewhere to turn around. By then I was beginning to doubt I had seen what I’d seen. Maybe he was just enjoying a sneaky feed from the road verge. But sure enough when we finally found him again, he was caught good and proper.

Irish sheep have a good set of spiral horns and the fence was a wire netting one with big squares. He had been able to push his head through the square but of course when he tried to pull it out the horns had caught him good. Poor thing, I wonder how long he was there with his face just a few inches from the road and the traffic whizzing by at 100kph. Anyway we pulled up, put the hazard lights on(and hoped a truck didn’t come roaring around the corner anytime soon) and David tugged and manoeuvred, squashed and twisted Mr Sheep’s head and horns and finally managed to get him free. Good deed done for the day! What is it with rescuing sheep, this must be the 4th or 5th one we’ve helped over the years(and that’s not counting the injured birds and critters we find on the side of the road either) At least David wasn’t wearing his suit this time.

Irish judder bar!

A little further on down the road we came across a sign saying “Bikes for Hire” David thought he’d go take a look at what they had available. As we drove down the long winding drive we kept getting peeps of some very calm water. Finally the trees disappeared and we found ourselves taking in this beautiful view.

This is Killary Harbour and is infact Ireland’s one and only fjord, It’s 16 kilometers long and is full of salmon farms and mussel rafts. We stopped to take a look at the catamaran that was doing tours further on down towards the head of the fjord. It would have been a fantastic day to take a trip, the water was glass smooth although it must be like that most of the time being so far inland. They offer a money back guarantee for anyone that is sea-sick!

At the end of the drive we found that the bikes were being hired out by an outdoor education centre. The instructor we got talking to had just returned from NZ and had spent the winter in Queenstown and was a mountain bike enthusiast and knew all our tracks.

As we left we came across these guys having a whale of a time in a bog, rather them than me. We stopped to take photos and then a group of girls arrived and the boys started firing mud off at them. They took shelter behind our car and you can guess what happened next…..splat! Time to move on.

Mussel rafts

Another stop further along the harbour to take photos of the mussel rafts and we came across one of my “hope to see in Ireland” sights. A Rag Tree. It is believed that if you tie a strip of clothing from someone who is ill to a tree a saint or local spirit will help in making the person well again, the illness will disappear as the rag rots away. You can also tie a piece of rag to the tree and make a wish. Occasionally the trees are so loaded with rags that the leaves are pretty much invisible. Usually the sacred trees are Whitethorn, Hawthorn, Apple or Ash trees. We only saw one other Rag Tree on our travels but it wasn’t as impressive as this one, it had mostly plastic pieces tied to it.

Rag Tree at Killary Harbour

By now it was becoming apparent that we’d not make it around the coast road AND to Sligo by night fall. I also wanted to visit some megalithic tombs closer to Sligo so we made the decision to stay on the N59 and head straight across the middle to Westport where we’d stop for a late lunch. Westport was a pretty little town and we found a lovely restaurant to eat at. We still had a way to travel so after a short break and wander around the town square we were back on the road. The weather slowly deteriorated and the tiny towns we continued to pass through became one big blur. We pushed on; I was hoping the rain stayed away so we could take the detour to the Carrowkeel Megalithic Tombs which were about 30 minutes south of Sligo. It was getting very dark and overcast but we decided we had come so far and come so close to the tombs that we might as well take a trip up to see them.

Carrowkeel is a megalithic hill top passage tomb cemetery consisting of 14 passage cairns(manmade pile of stones) and believed to be 5400 and 5100 years old which predate the Pyramids. Cairn G (they are all lettered) is a classic Irish passage tomb with a short passage leading to a central chamber with three equally spaced side chambers. But the most interesting feature of this cairn is the roofbox situated above the entrance(the small rectangle). The only other known roofbox is at Newgrange (a more famous tomb and one we will visit later in the trip) Unlike Newgrange where the roofbox is aligned for the winter solstice this one is aligned to the midsummer sunset. The roof boxes allow a stream of light to enter the dark chamber only for a few short days at these times of the year.

The tombs were opened up (blasted with dynamite!) in 1911 by a Mr R McAllister who wrote;

“'I lit three candles and stood awhile, to let my eyes accustom themselves to the dim light. There was everything, just as the last Bronze Age man (sic) had left it, three to four thousand years before. A light brownish dust covered all... There beads of stone, bone implements made from Red Deer antlers, and many fragments of much decayed pottery. On little raised recesses in the wall were flat stones, on which reposed the calcinated bones of young children”
We could see the cairns dotted like tiny moles atop the “mountains” as we approached from the main road. We had to follow a few deserted tiny lanes that twisted and turned through farmland until we got to a gate that directed us to open and drive on to the carpark. We came across a lone donkey who was wandering up the road. he wasn't moving for anybody nor stopping for photos. There is a donkey refuge in the area and I suspect he had escaped or in fact was allowed to wander at will. At the carpark there was a sign saying it was another 1km walk to get to the tombs. There was no way I was doing that and David thought the track didn’t look too bad. The sign said you could drive but at your own risk. We took the risk. And now I know why Irish rental cars have a lot of dents and scrapes!

         At the bottom of the track.............and near the top

After a bumpy ride, a couple of steep drop offs and a few deep puddles we made our way to just below the tombs. We were the only people in the area and it was kind of spooky with the low cloud and mist settling in around the cairns.

The mist closes in on three of the cairns- click the picture to get a better view.

I wanted to see inside Cairn G with the roofbox but was too scared get down and crawl through into the chamber which I have heard that people do. So I just held my camera at the entrance and clicked. It looks a little green and I'm sure a few foxes would have taken refuge in there over the years.

Cairn G looking out over Lough Arrow

We were very pleased we made the effort to visit the tombs, it really is incredible to think of how old they are and how much effort has gone into sighting them where they are.

Back down and on our way again we had to make good time as we had to locate a B&B for the night. We had seen so many back in the Connemara but they were few and far between up here. I had noted down a couple to call, one was closed and the other was full. We drove out towards Rosses Point just north of Sligo and called in at another couple of B&Bs that had signs up. One was closed(well take your sign down or put a “no vacancy” sign up!) and the other wasn’t suitable. There was also a Raddisson Hotel which looked a little out of place in this country area but in the end we decided it looked pretty darn good afterall. And it was the same price as a B&B with breakfast included.

It was actually quite nice just to do our own thing and blob in our room without the worry of interacting with a B&B host. Sometimes you just want your own space. And it was a HUGE bed, I felt a good nights sleep coming on!

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