Fergus Finlay: Four decades since my first visit, I still have lots to discover here in Connemara

Due to the character of its people, this beautiful Irish jewel is a different, better place than when I first came to visit
Fergus Finlay: Four decades since my first visit, I still have lots to discover here in Connemara

The islands are joined by a string of little bridges, where you have to pull in and let the car coming against you pass. It’s part of the necessary slowing down which is an essential element of a week’s holiday in the West. File picture

I remember still the first time I came to Connemara, although it’s more than 40 years ago. It was a sad experience, and I remember thinking it wouldn’t bother me if I never came back. The weather didn’t help back then — never stopped raining for the week we were there.

But apart from that, there was a sullenness about the place. The local people, I thought, were resentful, with more than a touch of victim complex about them. If you were from what they saw as prosperous Dublin (although Dublin was anything but in the 1970s and 1980s) you were made to feel like an unwelcome interloper.

The towns were dark and dreary in those days, the streets full of empty shops. The landscape, although achingly beautiful in parts, had a scarred feel about it. I never saw the charm in all those endless fields surrounded by small rocky walls.

Ethnic cleansing and forced migrations

I was ignorant and stupid then. I didn’t know enough about the painful history of the West of Ireland, and the struggle that farmers of previous generations had to clear those rocks in the first place in order to scratch a living from the land. Even still, when you look at those fields, the phrase ‘to hell or to Connacht’ — our first experience of ethnic cleansing — immediately comes to mind.

Perhaps too I didn’t appreciate the devastating effects of the Famine in Connacht and in Connemara. In a piece on the History Ireland website, Connemara is described as having the topographical features of a refuge — or a trap.

The extent and the savagery of the ethnic cleansing and forced migration wrought by Oliver Cromwell in Ireland has naturally echoed through the centuries since. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The extent and the savagery of the ethnic cleansing and forced migration wrought by Oliver Cromwell in Ireland has naturally echoed through the centuries since. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“The veil of romance was torn away by the Great Famine,” the website says, “revealing a death’s head landscape.”

Bound as it is by the wild Atlantic on most sides and by the mighty Lough Corrib to the east, there was no escape when the hunger came.

The history of Connacht is a history of forced migration. The forced emigration into the region in the 17th century, to make way for Cromwell’s plantation, and the forced emigration out of Connacht in the 19th century — a tide that began with famine ships and was still going on a hundred years or more later — had to leave deep scars of resentment and bitterness. In some ways, it’s surprising that there is a population left, let alone one where local culture matters so much.

Discovering Connemara's resilience

As an outsider looking in, it does seem to me that it has taken generations for the population of Connemara to recover. But its spirit, its character, and its welcome are alive. It is a different place now.

It’s as if a hidden resilience was there all along, determined to see the people through the worst. Connemara has survived a terrible history — Cromwell and the Famine — and in the last few decades has lived through a series of recessions that have affected this part of the country more than anywhere else. But you can see everywhere how lively it is now, how much it has recovered, how proud and confident are the people you meet.

So at least it seems to me. Now I wonder why I don’t come here more often.

We’ve rented a beautiful house in Lettermore. A couple of miles from here, you can look out at the ocean and see the end of civilisation. That’s another way of saying next stop America. And we’re on an island. It doesn’t feel like it because all the little islands here are joined by a string of little bridges, where you have to pull in and let the car coming against you pass.

It’s part of the necessary slowing down process which is an essential element of a week’s holiday in the West.

I don’t know Lettermore. All I remember of it is Peigín. You remember her, don’t you? ‘Peigín Lettermore’ was a Dubliners song, at least in my memory. Much more beautiful she was than Bríd or Kate, but when her suitor offered to buy her a big boat, she replied that a medium-sized one would do. A jewel all right, as the song says.

One of Ireland's jewels 

This bit of landscape is a jewel too. You can see the scars of the past here, and still be captivated by the simple beauty of the place.

Mind you, I am spending most of my time a bit mortified. It’s my complete inadequacy with my native tongue that bothers me.

I’ve always been a clumsy traveller abroad (it’s the reason I prefer to holiday at home). When I land in France or Italy, where they drive on the other side of the road, I instantly lose the ability to tell my left from my right. It takes me days to get my bearings, to figure out the currency and to make change (even though it’s all euro nowadays). There’s a TV series I’ve never watched called An Idiot Abroad, and I sometimes wonder if it’s about me.

Tongue-tied but totally at home

I’m at home now, but I’m in the Gaeltacht, and when I pull up at the local shop and the proprietor greets me with something as simple as a cheery “Dia dhuit”, I’m instantly tongue-tied.

I told the girl at the counter when I was paying for my groceries that I was embarrassed at my failure to recapture the Irish I used to have at will (Honours Leaving Cert, I’ll have you know).

“Don’t worry about it,” she smiled. “Practice a phrase a day and it will come back before you know it.”

However, a mystery remains...

So I’m trying. But now I’ve come across a mystery that I haven’t yet been able to get to the bottom of. I’ve managed (thanks Google!) to translate the words involved, but if anything, the mystery has deepened.

If I explain, maybe some of my readers can shed light. 

There’s a holy well nearby. It’s in the grounds of a church which is locked and empty (Covid perhaps). According to a sign at the gate, it’s called the Well of the Seven Shadows. No other explanation, and none on the internet that I can find.

It’s basically a hole in the ground, a little stone wall around it, and a grille over the hole, presumably to stop you plunging into its murky depths. Standing around the well are seven large boulders, each with a single word engraved on them in Irish. One or two I dredged from the recesses of memory, but most of them meant nothing to me.

Seven shadows — or sins?

So I wrote them down — drúis, craos, leisce, and the rest — and asked Google to translate. To my astonishment, each boulder represents one of the old seven deadly sins — pride, greed, envy, wrath, gluttony, sloth, and lust (which Google translated from the Irish as lasciviousness). So the well should actually be called the Well of the Seven Deadly Sins. I’m no wiser, but at least I know a few Irish words I didn’t know before.

And I’ve also realised that Connemara may have more mysteries to unveil. That haunting phrase about the “death’s head landscape” which captured a devastating history not all that long ago, a place of hunger and workhouses and death, has been replaced by a countryside of hope and fascination.

Now if only the weather holds up!

 

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