Dr. J and Twin Doctors TV tour Ireland’s countryside visiting The Burren, Limerick, Doolin, Galway and the Cliffs of Moher; while examining the connection between the 19th century Irish potato famine and the country’s at times tortured history with mental illness.
After spending day two of The Twin Doctors Travel Bag’s Ancestry.com inspired Heritage Tour exploring Ireland’s Boyne Valley, the Newgrange megalith and the crypts and burial vaults of Dublin’s St. Michan’s church, I hit the sac early. Like they say, early to bed early to rise. And so I rose early, up at 5:30AM the next day. By 6:15AM, I was in a taxi heading towards Dublin’s Heuston train station. My plan was to spend my third in Ireland traveling south of Dublin. Arriving at Heuston station a little after 6:30AM, I located my tour group, checked-in for my journey and was then in no time seated comfortably on an Irish Rail train. We were due to depart Dublin for Limerick at 7AM. The tour, which was being operated by Rail Tours Ireland, would be using a combination of both train and bus travel to take us to the otherworldly Burren region as well as to the cities of Limerick, Doolin, Galway and the Cliffs of Moher.
After checking in with Rail Tours Ireland, I grabbed a quick coffee, shot a few selfies of myself drinking that coffee (what can I say, I’m new to the whole selfie thing and I know that I need to raise my selfie game big time, but at least I’m taking selfies now, so that’s a start), and at 6:50AM I boarded the train for Limerick. After a short maintenance related delay, our journey to Limerick got underway. Not long after leaving Dublin, a train attendant came through the aisles with a small refreshment cart. A sign on that cart indicated that there was juice, water, coffee, tea, muffins and breakfast bars for sale. Now if you tell a bunch of sleepy folks early in the morning that you have coffee available, well then you better have coffee available. Unfortunately, while the sign on the cart said that coffee and tea were available, the sign was a LIAR!! The portable hot water dispenser on the cart was not working and so coffee and tea were not an option. Now, I had already had my coffee (witness my selfie above), so I wasn’t the least bit bothered by this fact. But many of my elderly tour companions, the majority of whom I think were traveling together as part of a large group, well I don’t think that they had had their morning coffee yet. And they weren’t going to be getting it. At least not on that train. So you know that somebody was about to hear about it!!!
By the time that the feisty, coffee deprived, globetrotting geriatricians had gotten done throwing their verbal barbs at the poor train attendant who’s portable hot water dispenser had let her down in a most welcoming way; the poor girl looked as if she had been through 12 rounds in the ring with the Heavy Weight Champion of the world. The beleaguered look in her eyes said “Calgon take me away”, and I think that had the train even slowed down just a little bit, she would have pried open the nearest door and jumped right off of that choo choo with little hesitation or concern for life or limb. I guess I never realized just how vicious globetrotting retirees could get when they are thrown off of their normal routines and deprived of coffee. After a little over 2 hours in transit, we reached Limerick’s central train station and our waiting Rail Tours Ireland bus. Next stop, central Limerick.
Limerick, Ireland’s third most populous city is located in the country’s Midwestern region; halfway between the cities of Cork and Galway. Together with Limerick; Cork, the country’s second most populous city and Galway, the country’s fourth most populous city make up the “Cork-Limerick-Galway Corridor”. Limerick, which sits on the River Shannon, is a city in transition. Currently, a full 24% of it’s close to 103,000 citizens are unemployed.
One of Limerick’s most hauntingly beautiful, unique and historically relevant structures is a place that not many “tourists” know about or would consider taking the time to visit. The Independent Traveler on the other hand, well that’s another story. The structure I’m speaking of is the old Limerick District Lunatic Asylum. While our itinerary did not officially include a stop at the asylum, I did ask the bus driver if we could at least quickly drive past the old building on the way to our first official stop.
The Limerick District Lunatic Asylum was built in 1827; 10 years after legislation in the country made Ireland the first nation in the world to establish a publically funded system of asylums for the mentally ill. Originally built to care for 150 “lunatics”, “imbeciles” and “idiots”, the asylum’s population quickly grew; and by the year 1848 the facility was caring for more than 1000 patients. In fact between 1845, the first year of Ireland’s infamous potato blight and famine, and the year 1900; the number of “lunatics”, “imbeciles” and “idiots” housed in Irish asylums nationwide increased 10-fold. And this increase occurred in-spite of the fact that Ireland’s overall population decreased by 50% over the same time frame as people sought to flee the worsening famine.
While the potato blight was responsible for Ireland’s overall population plummeting, was it also responsible for the concurrent increase in the country’s robust asylum population? Epigeneticists now say that the blight may very well have been responsible for Ireland’s large asylum population. Epigenetics is the study of our genes, their structure and function; and of how changes in diet and environment can affect our genes. Recent epigenetic research has suggested that with the onset of the potato blight, and with the famine that followed; Irish diets changed so severely and so abruptly that a significant nutritional deprivation resulted. With this nutritional deprivation, the structure and the function of genes that help to regulate normal brain function may have been altered. With these genetic alterations, it is theorized that the incidence of mental illness among Irish citizens grew. With this growth, the number of people deemed to be “lunatics”, “imbeciles” and “idiots” also grew. We’ve all heard about scores and scores of children going “cuckoo for Coco Puffs”, but who would have ever thought that thousands and thousands of Irish people could have gone cuckoo for Irish taters? Or to be more specific, could have gone cuckoo from a lack of Irish taters?
Bunratty Castle and Folk Village
After driving past the Limerick District Lunatic Asylum, we reached our first official stop of the day. The Bunratty Castle and Folk Village. Bunratty Castle in its current iteration was built in the year 1425. I say “in its current iteration” because Bunratty Castle has been built during times of prosperity, destroyed during times of aggression and then rebuilt again, a total of four times. Control of the castle has also changed hands numerous times. The fourth and final iteration of Bunratty Castle was built by the powerful MacNamara family. They then controlled the castle for 75 years from 1425 to 1500. After the MacNamaras, the castle then came under the control of the O’ Brien family. The O’Briens were the largest and the most powerful clan in the area of Bunratty at the time that they acquired the castle. They maintained control of the castle from about 1500 until the year 1712 when they then sold it to a gentleman named Thomas Amory. Amory bought the castle ffrom the O’ Briens for what was then the grand sum of 225 Pounds or about $350. After Mr. Amory purchased Bunratty it changed hands quite a few more times before eventually falling into a state of disrepair. Ultimately in 1960, with assistance from the Office of Public Works, Bunratty Castle was restored and opened to the public. Today visitors can tour Bunratty Castle and enjoy it’s many authentic 15th and 16th century furnishings, tapestries and works of art. Visitors to the castle can also walk the adjoining 26 acre Bunratty Folk Park. Bunratty Folk Park is a modern day recreation of what a typical 19th century Irish village would look like. It comes complete with a farmhouse, a church, a walled garden and an old time village street that is home to a post office, a general shops and an old style pub.
The first thing that I noticed upon entering Bunratty Castle was just how narrow the building’s entry way door was. Our tour guide informed us that Bunratty Castle was built with only one doorway, and that this doorway was meant to be used both for entering and exiting the castle. This entry/exit doorway was purposely created to be narrow. Making it narrow served as a crude medieval home defense technique of sorts, as it prevented more than one person at a time from being able to enter the castle. By limiting the number of people that could enter the castle at any one time, it was felt that it would be difficult for an aggressive hoard of people to enter the building en mass. In addition to the narrow doorway, above the doorway there was a small hidden space created that was built to accommodate one person. A small hole leading from this space could (and in the past was) used by someone hiding in this space to pour hot oil down upon anyone entering Bunratty Castle with bad intentions.
Yet another crude but very effective home defense measure that was built into the castle was its narrow and winding staircases. By creating all of the castle’s staircases to be both narrow and winding, the castle’s designers ensured that a large number of people could not get up and down the stairs at any one time. Again, this design served to thwart aggressive hoards. Additionally, by building the staircases to be narrow and winding, the builders ensured that anyone using the staircases would be unable to unsheathe and swing a sword in aggression while; as any attempts to swing a sword would most likely result in that sword hitting the walls that wrapped around the staircase. Lastly when climbing the staircases, they were all built to wind counterclockwise. This was done so that any right handed person swinging a sword in the manner than most right handed swing a sword, from left to right, would almost immediately hit the staircase’s inner walls. For lefthanders, while they would still be able to theoretically swing their swords from right to left and avoid hitting the staircase’s inner walls in the process, they would also be forced to climb the staircases with their swords down to their right sides ready to swing from right to left. This would mean that while their swords were down at their right sides, their heads and necks would be the first things to round the staircases. This would of course make marauding lefthanders especially vulnerable to having their heads cut off by any defender waiting around the next winding corner. So no matter whether an aggressor was right handed or left handed, the narrow and winding counterclockwise staircases made life very difficult and potentially very dangerous for them.
Two unusual sights greet visitors to Bunratty Castle’s Great Hall. The first are Elk antlers, a number of which hang from the walls of the great hall. Elk antlers are an unusual sight in present day Ireland because Elk have been extinct in Ireland for centuries. Nevertheless these Elk antlers were discovered on the grounds of Bunratty Castle in nearly perfect condition. Preserved as it turns by the bog land that surrounds the castle. Bogs are largely devoid of oxygen. Without oxygen, bacteria that normally play a role in the decomposition process cannot thrive, and so anything buried in bog land, including elk antlers; tends to remain fairly well preserved. So there’s a lesson for all of my nefarious little readers out there. Firstly, don’t kill anyone. Murder is not cool. But if you do kill someone, DO NOT bury their body in a bog. It will not decompose and you’ll get caught for sure.
A second unusual sight that greets visitors to Bunratty Castle’s Great Room can be found carved into one of the room’s walls. It is an image of a women squatting while giving birth. The carving is that of “Sheila”, or “Sheila-Na-Gig” as she is properly know. “Sheila” is the Celtic fertility goddess. Legend has it that by rubbing an image of “Sheila”, people suffering from infertility will promptly be cured and able to procreate. With nearly 20% of all people in Ireland suffering from some degree of infertility, I briefly gave some thought to breaking Ms. Sheila-Na-Gig out of Castle Bunratty and like a returning champion, carrying her amongst the people when I returned to Dublin later that day. But then I remembered that the way in and out of Bunratty was constructed to prevent more than one person from leaving the building. And I thought that that might make it tough for me to leave the building with Ms. Sheila. And then I also remembered that little space built above the castle door. You know, that space from which hot oil could be poured upon anyone entering or exiting the castle with ill intentions. Not fancying the idea of being forced to wonder around the streets of Limerick in a disheveled, bewildered and disoriented fashion, racked with pain from newly inflicted oil-induced third degree burns, skin still smoldering as I carried the Sheila that I had recently clawed out of the walls of Bunratty Castle in my arms; I decided against stealing her and instead resolved just to tell people who may benefit from her gift that she is at the Castle Bunratty in the Great Room. So anyone suffering from infertility, especially if you find yourself on the Emerald Isle, please consider taking a trip over to Limerick and stopping just beyond the Shannon Estuary at the Castle Bunratty.
After leaving Bunratty Castle we next made our way to the small seaside town of Doolin. On the way to Doolin, our bus passed through the city of Ennis. Ennis our guide told us was frequently referred to by locals as “Little Havana”. The moniker “Little Havana” was given to Ennis because oddly enough, this little Irish town has a large Cuban Ex-pat population. It turns out that Cubans escaping Castro’s communist regimen in the late 1950’s and 1960’s would frequently flee to Europe. In those days, many flights from the U.S., the Caribbean and Central and South America that were heading for continental Europe stopped in Shannon after completing their transatlantic crossing to refuel. During these refueling stops, many newly minted Cuban exiles would deplane and immediately claim asylum in Ireland. After being granted asylum in Ireland, many of these exiles choosing not to wander far would settle in Ennis.
After reaching Doolin, we stopped for a quick bite to eat at Gus O’ Conner’s Pub. The operation at Gus O’ Conner’s was really quite efficient and impressive. Upon entering the pub, you can immediately claim any of a number of open tables. The tables at Gus O’ Conner’s are numbered, and after you’ve claimed your table and reviewed your menu, you can quickly walk over to the pub’s bar and place your order. When ordering, the bartender will ask you your table number. He or she will then give you your drink to take back to your table with you, and once back at your table, that’s when the magic begins! Literally within a minute or two of returning to your table, come hell or high water, you will find that a waiter or a waitress is hot on your heels with your lunch in tow. Hot, fresh and ready to eat. Get in my belly!!! Now when I say hot, fresh and ready to eat, I mean just that. Any doubts that I may have had about the freshness of my meal given how quickly it was served up were dispelled when I noticed that the batter used to cook my fish (I ordered the Fish and Chips) was nice and crisp. The chips (aka the fries) were also piping hot; and they were covered in that fresh coat of cooking oil that only comes from fries having been newly removed from the deep fryer. Bravo Gus O’ Conner’s, bravo!
I washed my fish and chips down with an ice cold Coke. You know, I find the Coke served in any country other than the United States to taste so much better than the Coke does in the U.S. That’s in large part because “International” Coke is made with “real” sugar in the form of Sucrose, while “Domestic” Coke is made using High Fructose Corn Syrup; a sweetener derived from corn. Coke in the US has been made using High Fructose Corn Syrup since the mid-1980’s when the U.S. government began to provide subsidies to corn producers that encouraged them to grow more corn. Around the same time, coincidentally I sure, the U.S. government imposed an import tariff on foreign sugar being imported into the U.S. while it simultaneously enacting production quotas on domestic sugar production. These three things together conspired to artificially raise the price of sugar in the U.S. while simultaneously lowering the price of High Fructose Corn Syrup. This led Coca Cola to start using the cheaper High Fructose Corn Syrup to make Coke in the U.S. while still using sugar to make Coke everywhere else. So readers in the U.S., you have the ” 2 C’s” to thank for our lousy “domestic” Coke. Corn Growers along with their powerful lobby and an easily bought Congress.
After finishing my lunch I left a few Euros on the table, exited the Pub and walked up and down the narrow streets of Doolin. Doolin is a sleepy little seaside town that boosts a number of small bed and breakfasts and independent little merchant shops. During my short stay in Doolin, the busiest of these independent shops was the “Wilde Irish”. Locally, the Wilde Irish is known as “The Doolin Chocolate Shop”. The Wilde Irish sells homemade chocolate and fudge, and the various aromatic scents wafting from this little shop’s doorway are nothing short of out of this world. In fact, as you approach the Wilde Irish, these savory little aromatic calling cards take you by the nostrils and lead you befuddled, in a stupor and under their spell, across the shop’s threshold. Once across the threshold, like a zombie, you are led to the glass display case that separates you from what it is you’ve come there for. A wide variety of sweet and gooey goodies. Goodies that will not only satisfy your sweet tooth, but that are also reasonably priced, prepared fresh daily, and packaged for you with a typical kind Irish word and a smile.
The Cliffs of Moher
After I re-boarded the bus with a bag of fudge and chocolate, we made a brief 20 minute journey from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher. Stretching 5 miles in length and standing over 700 feet high at their tallest point, the Cliffs of Moher are Ireland’s most frequently visited natural attraction. Every year, 1,000,000+ people visit the Cliffs. The Cliffs take their name from Moher Tower, an old watchtower that was built on Hag’s Head in 1806. Hag’s Head is the southernmost point along the seaside Cliffs. Moher Tower, which still stands on Hag’s Head today, was built to serve as a lookout tower during the Napoleonic Wars. During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon and his French armies sought to conquer much of Europe. This was of particular concern to the British crown as Napoleon and his armies enjoyed a great deal of clandestine support from many Irish sympathizers. Sympathizers like Napoleon’s own Irish Doctor Barry Edward O’ Meara and the mutinous Sheares Brothers, who’s mutilated remains still lie today in the underground burial vaults of Dublin’s St. Michen’s Church.
It was because Doctor Edward O’ Meara refused to disavow his allegiance to Napoleon that his qualifications to practice medicine in Ireland were striped from him by the English government. Unable to practice medicine, O’ Meara then turned to the practice of dentistry. As the new Dentist on the block however, O’ Meara needed to set himself apart from his competition. He did this cleverly by displaying teeth that he had once removed from the great Napoleon’s mouth during a bout with Scurvy in the window of his new dental practice. The message in displaying the teeth publically for the Irish people to see, Irish people who largely respected Napoleon for his shared contempt of the British crown simply was that, “if Dr. O’ Meara was good enough to care for the teeth of the great Napoleon, then surely he is good enough to care for your teeth”. And in doing this, Dr. O’ Meara used his association with Napoleon, the same association that led the British crown to rob him of the ability to practice medicine in Ireland, to become a successful Dentist in Ireland.
Today the Cliffs of Moher have three viewing platforms. From these viewing platforms visitors to the cliffs can enjoy natural beauty and iconic vistas like those featured in the movies Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Hear My Song and The Princess Bride. While Hag’s Head and the 200+ year old Moher Tower sit to the far south of the cliffs, Knockardakin sits to the north. Knockardakin is the highest point along the cliffs and it hosts O’ Brien Tower. From the top of O’ Brien Tower you can enjoy the best views the Cliffs of Moher have to offer. In 1835, as part of an effort to promote tourism to the Cliffs of Moher, O’ Brien Tower was built by former land owner and visionary Cornelius O’ Brien. Today, for just 2 Euros, you can make your way up the winding staircase of O’ Brien Tower and out onto the tower’s roof. From the roof, you can not only take in some world class 360-degree views of the cliffs, you can also enjoy views of the surrounding countryside and of the Atlantic Ocean. But while enjoying these world class views be advised, hold on to your hat. Or at least turn your hat around backwards, as the winds whipping up off of the north Atlantic Ocean beat the top of Ole Cornelius’ tower with consistency and with little if any regard for the rooftop visitors or their improperly secured belongings.
After leaving O’ Brien’s Tower with my authentic Irish Donegal touring hat still on my head thank you very much, I walked for a while along a trail that leads from Knockardakin to Hag’s Head. Along this trail I came across a sign that read “In memory of those who have lost their lives at The Cliffs of Moher”. I wondered for a moment who this sign may have been referring to? Was it referring to Irish people of a bygone era who had lost their lives while defending Ireland’s borders against aggressors? Or was it referring to people who had come to the Cliffs of Moher to commit suicide, possibly having been drawn to the cliffs by the surrounding natural beauty? Maybe it was referring to people who had accidentally lost their lives after falling over the cliffs while possibly engaging in some ill-advised and risky behavior? Or possibly the sign placed there in memoriam to all of the above? I was never able to get an “official” answer to those questions. Unofficially though, I can say that some visitors drawn to the cliffs seem to be a little overtaken by the surrounding natural beauty. And in their exuberance, they sometimes engage in behaviors that are far too risky for my liking.
While walking from Knockardakin to Hag’s Head, I saw multiple visitors climbing over the safety fences that have been placed along the edges of the cliffs. Once past these fences, many of them would sit with their feet dangling over the cliffs. Some while sitting there would take pictures, while others just seemed to be caught up in the moment and in search of a unique “once-in-a- lifetime” experience that they could tell people about later. I couldn’t help but think to myself that the “once-in-a-lifetime” experience that they sought might actually become a once in a lifetime experience because they might not live to experience anything else in life! Should they so much as have sneezed too hard, coughed, become dizzy or just slipped on the moist terrain of the cliffs, they would have been nothing more than an abstract puddle of human waste at the bottom of the cliffs and a distant memory. It is of note however that while the number of suicides that occur at the cliffs are not made publically available, and if they are made publically available I sure couldn’t find them; in 2014 Ireland had the highest number of suicide deaths recorded in it’s history. And we do know that Epigenetics suggests that even to this day, many people living in Ireland may be at an increased risk for depression as part of the potato blight and the resulting famine’s unfortunate genetic legacy. So I suspect that most people who have died after falling from the Cliffs of Moher were probably Irish people who leapt to their deaths.
The next stop after leaving the Cliffs of Moher was Ireland’s fourth largest city, the university town of Galway. Travelling to Galway by bus, we made two stops along the way. The first stop was at The Burren. The second stop was at the hauntingly picturesque and beautifully secluded Corcomroe Abbey. But before making these two stops, almost as if to remind us once more of its importance in Ireland’s history, we drove past another visible reminder of the country’s potato blight and famine. The same blight and famine responsible for 19th century Ireland’s population boom of “lunatics”, “imbeciles” and “idiots”. The same blight and famine responsible for the country’s push towards developing the world’s first publically funded mental health system. The same blight and famine responsible for Ireland’s mass exodus of citizens to the Americas in search of a better life. And the same blight and famine that is likely in part responsible for modern day Ireland’s record high suicide rate. Driving from the Cliffs of Moher to The Burren, we past a countryside “Famine Cemetery” This cemetery contained a large number of what our guide told us were “Famine Graves”. These graves were simply marked by nondescript, shabby little stones that served as markers for the graves of unidentified famine victims. Looking out at the cemetery, you are instantly struck by the fact that the famine graves seem to outnumber the marked graves by a ratio of at least 2 to 1. A sad testimony to the fact that over 1.2 million Irish people lost their lives between 1845 and 1852 as a result of the famine.
About 45 minutes or so after leaving The Cliffs of Moher, we came upon a vast section of The Burren. The Burren, or “The Great Rock” in Gaelic, is a vast and desolate lunar appearing expanse of rugged landscape comprised largely of limestone. In total, The Burren measures approximately 155 square miles. Close to 10 of these 155 square miles have been used to create The Burren National Park, one of Irelands 6 National Parks. Over time, The Burren’s limestone surface has developed a large network of crisscrossing and intersecting cracks and crevices that the locals refer to as “grikes”. It is within these grikes that a large number of opportunistic and hearty plants have grown. Sprouting forth from a terrain that at first glance seems largely inhospitable and alien.
While The Burren might appear inhospitable and alien, in truth, because of the large amount of moisture contained within the grikes, and because of the water that flows beneath The Burren’s limestone; while it accounts for only 1% of the country’s total land mass, Ireland’s vast and rugged Great Rock is home to 75% of Ireland’s flowering plant species. And of course, wherever you find water and a large number of plants you will also find animals that like to eat those plants and that like to drink that water. So not surprisingly, The Burren is also home to a remarkable assortment of animal species. Given this rich biodiversity, The Burren has been designated a “Special Area of Conservation” by the Irish government. This designation is part of the Irish government’s efforts to protect the extremely unique and unusual habitat that has developed within The Burren over the millennia.
While walking among The Burren’s limestone you really do feel almost as if you are walking on the lunar surface. The surroundings are quiet, muted even; and the expansive horizons all around you seem almost to be limitless. I don’t think that you can visit a place like The Burren and not leave the area with a greater appreciation for this blue little marble that we call planet earth. I don’t think that you can visit a place like The Burren and not leave with a greater appreciation for earth’s random beauty and it’s many utterly unique environments. I also don’t think that you can leave a place like The Burren without a new found appreciation for the way that “life” on planet Earth always seems to not only survive, but to thrive; even under the most challenging of circumstances. And as we left The Burren, I found myself on the bus feeling encouraged by the thought that in-spite of how hard it seems that we might try to destroy this weird and wonderful little planet of ours, it just might find a way to survive and thrive in spite of us.
Before reaching Galway we made one final stop at Corcomroe Abbey. Corcomroe Abbey is located in the north of The Burren region. The abbey was once known locally as “St. Mary of the Fertile Rock”, a reference to what locals felt to be the “miracle” of The Burren’s “fertile rocks”. While we now understand a great deal of what has led to this seemingly inhospitable terrain’s apparent “fertility”, I would imagine that people of a bygone era found the idea of plants sprouting up from between stones to be nothing short of a miracle. While once an active monastery, Corcomroe Abbey today lies virtually abandoned. In fact, the chapel of the Abbey no longer has a roof covering it. This lack of a chapel roof lends to the overall impression that the Abbey has been forgotten by time. But I was surprised to learn during our visit to the abbey that it in fact has not been forgotten by time. In fact, I was told that one week before our visit to Corcomroe a wedding ceremony had been held in the roofless chapel. I was also told that luckily “the weather that day was pretty good”, so blessed with good weather and with the unique setting of the roofless old Abbey that is set among the “fertile rocks” of The Burren, I can only imagine how awesome the wedding photos from that day must have been.
After our brief stop at Corcomroe Abbey, we next made our way to Galway. Galway Ireland is a city of just under 80,000 people. It is also a university town, home to NUIG, National University of Ireland Galway. NUIG was founded in 1845 and currently, it ranks among the top 2% of all universities worldwide. With the university being located in Galway, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the city has a very vibrant and youthful feel to it. After arriving in Galway, I made my way from the main bus depot to the John F Kennedy Memorial Park. While officially named the John F Kennedy Memorial Park, many locals still refer to this park located in the city’s center by it’s former name, Eyre Square. Officially however, the park’s name was changed from Eyre Square to the John F Kennedy Memorial Park in 1965 to honor former U.S. President John F. Kennedy who gave a speech in Eyre Square on the 29th of June 1963. At the time of this speech, President Kennedy was the first sitting U.S. President to give an official address in Ireland. Just beyond the memorial park, I found a number of streets that were lined with department stores, cafes, restaurants, bars and street performers. The majority of the people walking these streets seemed to be either young university students or tourist, and this unique mix of people made for a festival or a carnival like atmosphere.
While wandering the streets of Galway, I happened upon a street performer named Paul Kelly (aka Pol O’ Ceallaigh). Paul was perched upon an old wooden stand. From his perch he played an instrument the likes of which I had never seen before. It looked kind of like a cross between a violin and an accordion. After speaking with Paul, I came to learn that this instrument was called a “Vielle”. The earliest accounts of the Vielle in Ireland date back to the 13th century; though it is believed that the instrument, which originated in central Europe, has existed for more than 1000 years. The Vielle utilizes 5 strings that vibrate when they come in contact with a spinning wheel. This wheel is turned by using a hand crank. The sound created by the instrument is similar to the sound created by the bagpipes. Unfortunately my time in Galway was short, and after walking the streets of this university town for another hour or so, I made my way back to the central bus station for a 3 hour bus ride back to Dublin. Galway however, with its up tempo and vibrant feel is a must for anyone visiting Ireland. And you can rest assured that it will be on the itinerary again when I next travel back to the Emerald Isle.