Goodbai Dubai!

A 24 hour stopover in Dubai is a very strange way to end a holiday spent entirely in Ireland. The very fancy hotel for starters is such a contrast with the shoebox sized bedrooms I’ve stayed in at times along the way. I booked a room here mainly to break the journey and get some sleep. No one told me that the nearby mosque would have its loudspeaker call to prayer bellowing at 4am! And then 5am and so on….

You can have a sauna here, but really all you have to do is walk out the door. It was 43c today and so humid that my glasses misted up. I didn’t get far but it was interesting to see the old quarter of town. Narrow alleyways and colourful souks. I’d seen a doco about Dubai before I left Australia that I never should have watched because its total focus was on the sexual assault of women and made me quite fearful. I was very brave to walk down those narrow pathways where of course I was totally ignored and was happy to return to the safety and cool of the hotel.

Thanks to all who kept me company in my blogging adventures. To Rosalie especially who had the forebearance to teach me from scratch and to encourage my naive questions regardless! Thanks! It has meant a lot to know that many miles from home I am only a tap away.

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The four winds

Back in Dublin: our stressed-out driver was very glad to get rid of us at the fancy hotel. He has a lot on his mind apparently. So, just like that, the tour is over! We had a final dinner together last night at which Claudia got very drunk. She kept telling me how cute I was on the way home! Dubious compliment. The famous four now scatter to the four winds. Dubai at 40c beckons.

A last photo of the terrific BnB. The owner Geraldine was always on for a chat. She smokes an e-cigarette, something I’d never seen before: shaped like a pen, flavoured fluid and nicotine in one end and a battery-operated lighter in the other. She says she started using it in order to give up smoking but I think it’s been so cleverly marketed to make people feel sophisticated, that she is totally attached.

Walking around near the hotel I came across ample evidence of Dublin’s Catholic past in the shape of All Hallows College, a seminary soon to close for lack of funds; a convent now used as a school for the vision impaired; another convent with the antiquated title “Fraternity of Mary, Immaculate Queen”, which is the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation no less.

Mary Jane’s jitters

Seeing things through to the end: the psychological ending always comes before time is really up which makes the final stage hard to fully embrace. In my mind I am already on the plane home, while the tour rattles on around me. adventures we missed out on earlier are crammed into the last day.

Horse riding, one of the optional extras, is Mary Jane’s excited focus. Claudia and I, having opted out, are very happy to watch and take photos. In her early seventies, overweight, stiff of joint and arthritic of knee, Mary Jane decks herself out in riding boots and hat, this effort alone causing her to huff and puff. But we all know that this adventure has been determinedly on top of her list since she read about this tour years ago. Moreover, she is a strong-minded woman. She bites back if slighted and has a vocal, voluble opinion on most things, laughs loudly when so moved and deals with her limited mobility in a self-deprecating but full frontal style. We are not at all surprised to see her big grin as the stable manager shows her the Clydesdale she’ll be riding.

Mary Jane is assisted to climb the platform from where she is to mount. I have her camera ready to shoot . However as she begins to mount, it is immediately obvious that the leg swing over the saddle is beyond her capacity and many hands quickly grab hold to launch her clumsily into position . It is at this point that her confidence evaporates like a puff of smoke. With only a hint of panic in her voice, she announces that she will unfortunately be unable to go on. No one encourages her to change her mind. The challenge now is how to help her dismount. A decision is made to lead the horse ever so slowly over to a higher platform. Mary Jane betrays no fear. She continues to smile and talk, obviously very practised at saving face.

The higher platform, although an easier dismount, still necessitates Michael to more or less catch her as she slides off. As we make our way to the car, she is still all grins and chat (she never stops talking) but I am sure Mary Jane will privately suffer the ignominy of her ageing body on such public display.

Later in the day she and Claudia opt for a seaweed bath, an idea totally distasteful to me. I am glad to know that not only will she be able to manage this, but that she allows her body some pampering.

Towards the end of this eventful day, we walked through a forest with yet another Michael as our guide, this one an expert in nature, who showed us many insects, fungi, trees and birds. His latest passion is moths and hoverflies. When I asked him what he liked to photograph, he said “birds and in sex”….(really??) …which of course was Irish for insects.

The final stop before dinner was Strandhill Beach, a sweeping surf beach flanked on either side by the mountains we’ve come to know so well. The sunshine which we’d been promised all week, finally shone supremely as though defying us to take home any rain- soaked memories.

Cliffs for which the word “awesome” really means awesome

Slieve League is a mountain range on the west coast of Sligo county overlooking the Atlantic from the highest point on Ireland’s coastline. A moderately challenging climb from the car park to the top reveals astonishing views of sheer rugged sandstone cliffs, a mesmerizing lake, wine coloured heather slopes and an ocean so vast that it surely must be the end of the world.

The famous four by now have found their rhythm as a group. Each has their own seat in the car, each their predictable habits of eating, smoking, chewing gum, happy snapping, commenting, exclaiming and complaining. Irritations are not worth any investment with one day left and appreciation has grown as more is known of each other.

We visited Kathleen, an avid knitter who sells her thick jumpers, beanies, scarves and socks from a couch in her cramped and cluttered lounge room. Our tour guide Michael regularly brings groups to her tiny cottage by the sea, so she knew we were coming and had tea with bread and jelly ready for us. Mary Jane bought a blue beanie. The Michelin man- style jumpers did not tempt me, but I enjoyed meeting Kathleen who is a gifted raconteur and bright spirit. Her life looks tough.

Michael Quirke the wood carver

The highlight of the day was meeting Michael Quirke, who has been a wood carver since he realised as a very young man that he was a hopeless butcher, unlike his father who passed the business onto him and who thought he was a fool for leaving it.

Here is Michael’s father when the butchery was in its hey day.

Here is Michael in his early days of sculpting.

Michael is an amazing character who makes money mostly through his entertaining gift of the gab. He loves to tell people about Irish history and has a standard trick of drawing you in to listen by asking what your favorite animal is, which he then proceeds to carve for you on a small piece of beech wood. While he is carving, an intriguing process in itself, he regales you with an amusing and cheeky story. He carves in your name and of course there is a donation box handy.

Here is his card:

My animal was a possum, surprisingly enough.

It was hard to watch him using the band saw as all I could think of was Grandpa sawing off his two fingers.

I have a couple of highly entertaining voice recordings of Michael telling some stories which I can email you if you like.

On the home run!

Ben Bulben, the closest mountain, rears up towards a clear blue sky behind the B &B this morning, promising us a better day. Martin, our guide with the torrential speech, seems a wee bit more relaxed this morning, maybe due to his late night playing violin at the pub till 2am. By the time I left the pub, which was early, there were already 10 players in the circle. By the end of the night there were 22! Someone starts a tune and others join in at various times, playing fiddle, tin whistle, various types of squeeze box, banjo, violin…. Wonderful improvisation!

Morning coffee and the excitement of another megalithic site was enough to kick Martin into full gear again. Being in the back seat was some protection for me and we knew from yesterday which strategies work to interrupt him. He is an admirable character, demonstrating an incurable curiosity about the world around him and what it tells him of the past and is full of self-irony and chuckles. Here he is insisting on another tale.

My back seat companion was very hung over but with Martin’s story-telling dominance, she didn’t get the mileage out of this that she was hoping for.

We visited a chidren’s famine cemetery which was in the grounds of where the workhouse used to be. The sculptures commemorating their short lives are very moving.

I am on the home run now, with only four days left in Ireland. It’s strange to me that I have parallel memories of this place: those which I formed ahead of time by studying the maps, researching online and imagining the journey; and those that have formed on the actual trip. The imagined collections sometimes seem more real than the lived ones! Even now, after nearly five weeks, I often cannot believe that I am really here and have to tell myself: “You are actually standing on this part of the map here!”

Many people, tourists especially, wax on solely about the spirituality and magic of Ireland, but there is so much here that needs mending: racism, poverty, unemployment, emigration, pollution …. Alongside all of this, many parts of the country retain an awesome beauty and a sense of timelessness that exist in powerful counterpoint. All of it has held fascination for me.

How long is a piece of Irish string?

Martin is a self-styled tour guide whose stories are like the longest piece of string imaginable; one story effortlessly if divergently threads itself into another, all told equally passionately and with detailed knowledge. If you saw that piece of string you could not decipher where one story stops and the next one begins. At the beginning of the day, our fresh neurotransmitters are thrilled with the complexity of these insights, whether they are about a myth, the civil war, his mother-in-law who has dementia, the sub stratum of the cliff face, the type of megalithic tomb stone or the impact of the Celtic Tiger on his village. By the afternoon, the stories begin to attack your neurotransmitters, shutting them down like in a power outage. If he wasn’t such a generous, intelligent and devoted guide, someone in a tour long ago would have turned him to stone.

So, far from being bored, treated badly or flippantly, we are instead full to bursting with what would still amount to be only a miniscule portion of this man’s erudite offerings, but turned almost numb in the process! With only three of us as audience, the intensity is probably felt more keenly. It feels ungrateful to complain of overload of good stuff, but I am steeling myself for tomorrow’s deluge.

Martin is a man of many talents. A musician, gardener, artist…he took us through his house which used to be the police station. You may notice a type of marijuana plant growing in his green house which he boils with other ingredients to make a mild tea for his mother in law who has dementia. She loves it and he says she is much easier to manage.