A misty day among the Twelve Bens in County Galway
A misty day among the Twelve Bens in County Galway
Before departing Kylemore Abbey, Bob discovered that we were in need of some cash and videotapes for his camera. Our route was chosen for us. We had to drive along the coast towards Letterfrack and Clifden in search of a banking machine and some shops that might sell camera gear. Supplies in hand, all that was left to do was get to Rossaveal and hop on the ferry to the Aran Islands where we would spend the next couple of days. En route, a serendipitous decision by Bob had us veering off into the lonesome countryside towards several of the Twelve Bens Mountains.
Before that, our route had followed the contours of the coastline where County Galway meets the Atlantic Ocean. The damp weather persisted into the afternoon, so the coast was shrouded in mist and fog as we motored along. It was at about that time that Bob and I became uneasy about making the ferry in time. A quick phone call revealed that a reservation was necessary to guarantee our passage on the last scheduled voyage that day, at 6:30 p.m.
With two seats booked, we were free to relax and continue our explorations of the sprawling green countryside. Highway N59, with its endless twists and turns, took us past Connemara National Park, but countless minor roads could be seen disappearing into the hills if one chose to branch off the main road.
The intrigue of a narrow winding lane that conducts willing travelers towards the distant mountain range was too tempting to resist. Bob is always one to get off of the beaten track, so, on a whim, he struck up a thin ribbon of gravel towards the alluring green slopes that seemed to dominate the horizon every which way we looked. Bencullagh Mountain, or in Irish an Chailleach, which means “the hag”, lay dead ahead. Its peak, at 632 metres (2,073 ft.), lay hidden by low-slung clouds adding to the mystery of this, the ninth highest of the Twelve Bens or Twelve Pins Mountain Range.
The further away from the main highway that Bob and I drove, the more remote and isolated the land became. We saw nary a soul nor another vehicle over the course of a couple of hours. The landscape had changed from coastal vistas to broad expanses of unfenced and uncultivated heath. From our car window, it was obvious that the land was wet and boggy. Muckanaght Mountain lay centered in the near distance. Its Irish name, Meacanacht, refers to its ridge line that resembles a pig’s back. A light veil of fog preserved the secrecy of the beast that day.
It was a rare delight for Bob and me when we happened upon a stretch of the heath where bricks of peat had been stacked to dry. We had become familiar with the acrid yet earthy smell of burning peat as we traversed the countryside, so it was really interesting to see the source of the fuel firsthand. Evidence of the recent harvest was evident in the cleanly sliced trenches that lay filled with water.
In Ireland, peat is, and has been for centuries, routinely burned on home hearths as a source of fuel for cooking and domestic heating. Because of a scarcity of forests and the proliferation of peat bogs, turf provided an alternate and handy source of fuel. Bob and I could not believe that we had stumbled upon this site that was such a good example of how locally-dug peat is extracted from the peatlands. What’s more is that the turf, sliced into bricks called turves, was so carefully arranged to dry in the occasional bit of sun.
Specialized tools called peat spades are utilized to cut nicely-shaped bricks from the darker layers of peat a few inches below the surface of the heath. The design of these tools resembles a long thin shovel, and with the proper technique, they are capable of removing a log of heavy, wet peat from the bog. Often, the logs of peat are stacked into cone-shaped piles so the water in the bricks will evaporate, but the formations also help to shed rainwater. The logs will remain this way for a week or two, when they are then moved into storage. Bob and I were fascinated with the endless procession of teepee-shaped stacks.
Keen to see where else our explorations might lead, Bob continued to guide the car along the dirt road towards Benfree Mountain, or Binn Fraoigh. If the season and light were just right, the heather that gives this mountain its name, “peak of heather”, could be seen spilling up the slopes and lending a purple tinge to the shadows.
Along about the time that Bob and I thought maybe we should turn around and go back the way we had come, some unexpected visitors came out to greet us at the side of the road. The presence of Blackface Sheep and the sudden appearance of bleached fence posts staking a claim on the verge suggested that we might be nearing a community or, at the bare minimum, a farm. We had to press on a little further to see what lay around the next bend in the road.
Our best guess was that we were somewhere in the vicinity of Emlaghdauroe, but the lack of road signs or distance markers had us scratching our heads. In any case, the Blackface Sheep, more correctly known as Scottish Blackface or Scottish Highland Sheep, seemed to know who was boss for several rams commandeered the tarmac and defied us to pass on by. This species of sheep has taken ownership of their domain since being introduced to Ireland during the Great Famine, in the late 1850s. Originally from Scotland, they were imported by landlords who owned vast estates in the mountains along the west coast. It is thought that the Blackface Sheep populating the Connemara/Mayo area today are descended from the thousands brought over at that time.
The landlords of the 19th century made a wise decision to raise Blackface Sheep because they are the only breed sufficiently resilient to thrive in the rugged and challenging terrain of Connemara. It is their long, coarse wool that shields them from the damp Irish weather and biting winds that gives them the advantage. The quality of their wool makes it suitable primarily for the manufacture of household goods like carpets, mattresses and upholstery, but their meat is prized throughout Ireland for its sweet and lean qualities arising from their mountain habitat and diet.
As we wended our way through a series of turns in the road, we came up short at a proper gate demarking private property, but nowhere was any sign of habitation detectable. Standing guard at the open gate were two stalwart specimens of sheep curiously eying the interlopers.
As if to emphasize their opinion of the uninvited “guests”, one very brave ram came right up to the car window and stared me down. It was time to get out of there. We are adventurous but not bold enough to invite ourselves onto private land. The time had come to retrace our route back to the main highway.
It is interesting how a feature of the landscape can take on a totally different aspect when viewed from the opposite direction. Benglenisky Mountain, whose Irish name Binn Ghleann Uisce means “peak of the glen of water”, took on more prominence at the edge of the wide-bottomed valley than it had when looking at it from a different point of view. As with all twelve Bens, it is a dominant feature of the Connemara countryside.
The steep-sided mountains together with frequent rainfall result in a profusion of small trickles and gurgling streams that snake their way to the floor of the valleys below. It is this abundance of moisture that contributed to the formation of the peat bogs over many centuries. Along the southern edge of the Twelve Bens Mountain Range, a concerted effort is being made to revert forested areas back to the bog lands that once existed over vast areas of the heath before it was drained and planted for commercial purposes. As Bob and I contemplated the success of that restoration effort, a brief lapse in the pervasive cloud cover revealed Benglenisky as a fine mountain that stands proud at the southwest end of the mountain range.
With our minds set on a mission, Bob and I duly drove the most direct route towards our destination in Rossaveal. It was still a couple of hours further along the coast, and we did not want to risk missing our ride aboard the walk-on ferry.
It gave us great comfort to arrive half an hour before boarding time as it allowed us time to ensure that our names were on the manifest. A considerable lineup of people had amassed even by that time, so we promptly acquired our tickets, unloaded minimal luggage from the car, and joined the queue. Bright sunny skies accompanied us on the one- hour ride to Innishmore Island.
The host of our bed-and-breakfast arrived to pick us up at the harbour after allowing a relaxing two hours for us to enjoy dining with a view of the ocean. A jaunty ride to our accommodations revealed the stunningly fierce and brooding beauty of an island set back in time. To make up for a rather sedentary-sort of day, Bob and I took a late-evening stroll beneath the fading rays of the setting sun. Much to our dismay, even late into the evening, bright light emanated from the firmament. As we extinguished the lights for the night, it was as if a full moon was shining intensely upon our very cottage. We could hardly wait to cycle around the island in the morning.
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