Mass with the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in the magnificent St Patrick’s Chapel at Maynooth was the start of a 5 night trip that would take me across Ireland, up a holy mountain, and finishing with a fundraising walk with two Gaelic footballers and a bishop, among others.
The mass at Maynooth was very moving, thanks in part to the beautiful singing in harmonies of the male/female choir, including a soloist with the voice of an angel; and as always on such occasions there was a sumptuous meal laid on afterwards in the grand dining-room: which was one of the contenders, I was told, for the Hogwarts film set. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin gave thanks in his speech for those who had made the recent World Meeting of Families such a success and spoke of his hope that much fruit could come from that.
After spending the night with friends in Kildare I drove the following day up to Northern Ireland to my mum’s hometown of Newry, where we had often gone on family holidays. Going along the M1 from the South into the North it is possible to not notice that you’ve crossed any kind of border, save for a sign informing people that distances are now measured in miles, not kilometres. Army checkpoints are a long distant childhood memory, and I pray that Brexit will not undo any of the incredible work that has been done to achieve such a ‘soft’ border. I had a lovely visit in Newry with aunties, one uncle and even, by chance, with a cousin I’d last seen when she was 13 (she’s now 46). A lot of tea was drunk and a lot of food was consumed. I learnt a long time ago that saying no is futile! (“ah, go on, have another cup/slice/plate…”).
From Newry I drove back towards Dublin and then headed West, where I ended up in Galway City. Going out there in the evening I got caught between live music and football (it was a Champions League night!) and ended up doing neither very satisfactorily. But I did enjoy a group of seven street musicians doing an eclectic mix of songs on a variety of instruments. When out for my walk the following morning I chanced upon a 7.20 AM mass in the Dominican church by the Harbour, after which I was ready in body and spirit for my full Irish breakfast. I was on the road, then, North from the City towards Glenamaddy, near to which my dad was born and raised. I was visiting my aunty who is the last surviving member of the family there. It was only the second time we had met and the first time we had actually spoken to each other: a long story, but one with a happy and a healing ending. It was a lovely visit, with bountiful tea and cake, and then a walk across a couple of fields to see the old croft house where dad was born. It’s a single-story dwelling (now used for storage) with a central kitchen area and two small rooms either side, and that was home to a family of seven. It was very touching for me to finally see the house, so too the graveyard where my paternal grandparents are buried (both of whom died before I was born).
Leaving my aunty I just about managed to find my way back along the tiny country lanes to Glenamaddy for a quick look at the town and at the pub on the crossroads where I’d been present some years ago for a truly unforgettable auction of some land that I’d ended up with a small stake in (and to this day, I own a tenth share in a strip of bogland in County Galway that nobody wanted to buy!). My destination was Clifden over on the coast, and just as I had done on my previous trip to Galway I stopped off at Cong, the ‘Quiet Man’ village. It was raining so I just took a quick photo of the statue of John Wayne carrying Maureen O’Hara and then carried on around the stunning shoreline of Lough Corrib. Clifden is especially known for its music and on my last visit every one of the many pubs was packed and even the pavements outside. The village was eerily quiet with it being ‘off season’ but I still managed to find a good three-piece in Griffins Bar, where I was one of the few people present who was not American! The next day I was driving through the vast, rugged, beautiful wilderness of Connemara, at times being the only car for miles around. I was going to Croagh Patrick, the Holy mountain, at the top of which (Ireland’s highest point) St Patrick is said to have fasted for 40 days and from where he banished the snakes from Ireland. It was my second ascent and as with the first I was lucky with the weather and had incredible views down over the estuary going out into the Atlantic, and the little islets dotted about. I met a lot of interesting people on the way: a couple of Irish guys who were walking up ‘the Reek’ for the 35th time, an Australian woman whose family had come from Mayo, a young French couple who shared their coffee with me at the top. Many people who walk Croagh Patrick do so in a spirit of penitence (and some even walk it barefoot). I would say that I was doing it more in a spirit of thanksgiving.
I met up in Westport with some of the guys from the Irish Chaplaincy who were also taking part in the Sponsored Emigrants’ Walk, to raise money for our Seniors’ Project. We gathered the following day at Mulranny in Mayo at the start of the Great Western Greenway, with several people having made the long drive over from Dublin. There was Alan Brogan together with his father Bernard Snr, both of whom had won All-Ireland titles with Dublin; there was Bishop John Kirby who chairs the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants; there were friends from Maynooth, including a very welcome car with food supplies, driven by Harry; and there was a group of us from the Chaplaincy. Again, we were blessed with the weather for the 17Km walk to Newport and it was a wonderful occasion, for which we are grateful to everybody who helped make it happen and to everyone who has given their support.
For our final evening in Westport we went to Matt Molloys (he of Chieftans fame), which is a quite remarkable labyrinth of a place: a series of rooms, all packed with people, ending in a courtyard space at the back where there was a fantastic four-piece in full flow. From trad. Irish they went very eclectic in the series of encores (“ah go on, just one more…”), which included a great version of the Undertones classis ‘Teenage Kicks’, with the fiddle player doing the guitar solo bit. As I was telling people all around me afterwards, I had sung that song at my wedding wearing a pink suit! Let me explain…my wife and I had changed into traditional Korean dress for the reception, and the colour in fashion that year was pink (it’s different every year), so there’s a wonderful picture in our wedding album of me in pink baggy trousers and a pink jacket playing guitar with the wedding band, and belting out ‘Teenage kicks’.
It was the cherry on the icing of the cake of a very special and blessed few days in Ireland.