29 … TwentyNINE

Ireland

Belfast-Recovered

“Nearly two per cent of the population of Northern Ireland have been killed or injured though political violence […] If the equivalent ratio of victims to population had been produced in Great Britain in the same period some 100 000 people would have died, and if a similar level of political violence had taken place, the number of fatalities in the USA would have been over 500 000“…

Brendan O’Leary and John McGarry from the “The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland”

They began building walls in the early 1990’s.   Snaking their way through Belfast splitting neighborhoods with their bodies of recycled bricks and twisted wire fangs -the British government called them “Peace Lines”.   The “Lines” were intended as an emergency response to the intensifying violence which had begun to incinerate entire street blocks.  Officially the riots are explained as a clash beginning in 1969 between the Catholic Nationalists demanding Northern Ireland unite with the rest of Ireland and the Protestant Unionists fiercely protecting their connection with the United Kingdom.

18 “Lines” were originally constructed but due to their relative success maintaining control over volatile areas, an additional 40 walls were built – 25 ft high and traversing over 21 miles of the city the walls typically have a gate patrolled by police  in the middle where citizens can move between sides during the day.  After reading testimony of individuals living near the “Peace Lines” it becomes clear that the walls have abstracted , transforming into a potent identifiers.

I had planned to continue my journey north from Glencolumbkile to Belfast in Northern Ireland by public transportation, but this quickly proved impossible because of the date I had planned to travel.  It was the beginning of the second week in July and Belfast was a tense place to be heading.  In 1921 there was what has been called a three-way struggle between the IRA, the Unionists and the British Crown.  The conflict was so violent that it has since been called “Belfast’s Bloody Sunday”.  I stopped in Letterkenny to reevaluate my plan, the time I had planned to stay in Northern Ireland had already been reduced to a single day in Belfast and I was feeling anxious.  My flight was leaving in two days so I needed to make a decision and skip Northern Ireland or to somehow get there more creatively.  

Letterkenny was not a place I wanted to stay regardless, so I asked around until the hotel groundskeeper agreed to drive me to the edge if the highway.  I was biting my nails again, this would be my first time hitch-hiking alone, much less attempting to pull one of the Big Rigs headed for Belfast off the road and then convince them to take me aboard.  The complete transparency of my anxiety prompted the groundskeeper into taking the lead.  Within five minutes he had a driver pulling his fluorescent monster of a truck off the highway in front of us, assaulting us with cloud of dirt and gravel as it did so.  Sauntering up to the truck he launched my pack up and into the gaping mouth of a cabin.  I stood half gaping at the enormity of the machine in front of me.  Once separated from my all of my belongings I snapped back to the situation at hand.  Reaching on tip-toe I grabbed ahold of the handle  and pulled myself precariously into the unknown truck driver’s world.

For the next several hours I rode, swaying in the passenger seat as if I were adrift at sea.  The driver, lacking any sustained conversation for what seemed to be a very long time, talked almost continuously.  He had a drug problem, loved driving trucks, just started again after being jailed for killing several people on the road…and then finally that he could not take me all the way into the city but that I should be able to get there walking through the industrial area where we had stopped, opened the door and signaled that it was time to disembark.  The absurdity of my expectations became shamefully obvious when I tried to imagine the 18 wheeler driving through the downtown streets of Belfast to find me a hotel for the night. So I started walking.  Not sure exactly where I was or if I was in any danger I tried to keep my eyes open and maintain a strong sense of composure.  A few laps around the same factory block and a quick glance at the tiny city map in my Europe travel guide and I could see the buildings start to change and the streets begin to populate.

Coming upon a “black taxi” stand I hired the driver and was happy to sit down.  Belfast taxi drivers have started giving tours of the “Peace Lines” from the safety of their back seats.   In addition to the tour of walls I was shown many of the murals which have become emotional touchstones for entire communities.  My driver was Catholic but he also admired the word of Protestant artists and we had a lively conversation about each mural we passed.  Where it was safe he stopped the taxi so I could get closer to the paintings, standing in front of them respectfully. Finally I asked my driver to drop me off at the train station so that I could return to Dublin that evening.  Unsure about the transportation in the morning I decided to sleep in the airport to ensure I wouldn’t miss my flight.

In theory I would find a waiting lounge and try to get some rest draped across the plastic seats and on top of my pack.  Arriving at the actual airport I found that it did not correspond with the imagined version I had decided would be tolerable.  The only lounge like area I had access to was full of like-minded travelers and I was turned away to face the wasteland of cold linoleum and push carts….  wait and push carts.  Commandeering a pair of flat-bottomed push carts I oriented them next to each other and facing into a corner of the airport lobby.  For a few blissful hours I slept spooning my pack against the wall alone.  At around 6 in the morning a young airport steward woke me angrily reclaimed the push carts and returned me to the linoleum. The airport was quiet and my mind wandered to the imagery I had seen during the day, of walls  and the thought of murderous neighbors.  

28…. TwentyEIGHT

Ireland

Sunday-28

It is estimated that by the year 2100 50-90% of the world’s current languages will be considered “extinct”- no longer being spoken by a single human being. Currently there are between 6000-7000 languages in use across the planet today. This number seems immense until considering that many of these languages are spoken by less than 10,000 people. The top twenty most prevalent languages are utilized by nearly half of the world and as more and more children learn the ‘dominant’ language as their first, the scale continues to tip, gaining momentum every year.

These statistics neatly describe, in an ideal world, results of increasing exposure and access to one another, although more likely they are results of cultural repression, homogenization and the annihilation of entire human legacies. Following logic down its unfortunate path, accompanying the loss of a language is also the loss of all that it uniquely described and documented.   Lost is the irreplaceable firsthand information about the natural world, about the history and traditions of a people, lost is their addition to the expansive human landscape.

Definitive empirical proof about when and why humans first began using language has floated just out of reach at the surface of linguistic sciences for centuries rarely moving beyond speculation and theory.  Noam Chomsky, visionary modern linguist, claims (basically) that humans learned speech via an evolutionary jump directly following our ability to comprehend numbers.

“The picture then, by loose analogy, is that the formation of the language faculty in humans is akin to the formation of a crystal; discrete infinity was the seed crystal in a super-saturated primate brain, on the verge of blossoming into the human mind, by physical law, once a single small, but crucial, key stone was added by evolution”.

(quoted from Wikipedia)

 Perfectly complementing its original purpose of describing information about the external materialistic world, language has long ago become a way for us to share abstract inner experiences as well. Dr. Amit Goswami Ph.D a theoretical physicist, focuses on detailing this harmony between the inner and outer versions of reality. Growing up with an Indian guru father, a houseful of disciples studying and praying resulted in an adult life filled with the examination of the material, outer world and the universal language of mathematics. Many years into a successful career Dr. Goswami realized that the world he was describing in lectures and texts was incomplete. That’s when he began focusing on the complimentary aspects of inner and outer, drawing from his intimate knowledge of Indian religious experience. Being able to share a complex perspective, thickened by both the tangible and ethereal understanding of a unique human history is perhaps the most valuable skill our species has developed thus far.

It was raining when I arrived in Galway.  The hallway should have tipped me off that this was not going to be an enjoyable experience. Its mountains of discarded belongings left only narrow footholds on some stairs and their visible disintegration attested to the age the present condition (I will not mention the smell in an effort to further engage your attention). Regardless, I continued on almost defending the pile of objects that had also slowly multiplied and now hung from every possible strap of my heavy pack. Stepping around the mountainous refuse acting nearly as trail markers I located my bed on the third floor down a dark passage in the corner of a tiny room among many packed full of wooden bunks. I relieved myself of my pack and looked around as I stretched my arms skyward. The beds were more alike to personal shrines than they were to places for sleeping a few nights. My suspicion confirmed as an occupant of a neighboring bunk, quickly into our brief conversation proudly explained she had been living in her particular bed for the past 6 months. With 75,000 inhabitants Galway attracts a constant influx of live musicians looking to perform in one of its many pubs and along with them the required bohemian audience. I saw a traditional group perform that night in a nearby pub and after surviving the sparking electrical wires in the shower, the next morning I headed for the northern coastline.

Glencolumbkille is a tiny coastal town near some of the most bracing seascapes in the country- the union of rock and sea exploding with each wave and sending the resulting white foam high above the cliff’s edge. It is also one of the last areas in Ireland that maintains daily use of Irish Gaelic, the native language of the island. After centuries of clashing and mixing with the British and with official policy instated by the monarchy during its occupation, the overwhelming majority of Irish now speak English. But it wasn’t always so and there still exist populations scattered around the country that work to continue to teach their children and grandchildren the original mother tongue. In welcome contrast to Galway, the accommodation I sought out in Glencolumbkille was perched on a lonely cliff embraced by fog and with the forceful ocean air splattering mists against its windows as they faced defiantly out to sea.

The hotel offered simple private rooms nestled into hallways crawling with all kinds of plants. As one of the only guests I was afforded an exceptionally long hot shower and slept deeply, dreaming of swimming in whirlpools of Prussian blue and cerulean arcs leaping from the silent depths. I consulted local maps over a steaming breakfast which I ate slowly in between long daydreams gazing out toward the horizon. The edge of the world must have felt like this to early explorers I concluded and with this spirit began my day hiking around the neighboring cliffs and hillside. I followed unmarked gravel paths, passing small country homes, a school where I could hear students learning Irish Gaelic and the ruins of generations of builders. The wind was strong, it was the kind that quieted everything else – my thoughts only noise that I quickly dispensed with. In this way the landscape demanded wholeness – outer awareness of balance and direction coupled with a deep inner resonance of energy and presence. I spent several days of ecstatic solitude, enjoying the unusual feeling of completeness. In places and at times amid the lush and lonely hillsides giving way to the rocky cliffs at their edge and with the sunlight spiraling earthward through the dense layers of clouds, the importance of an indigenous set of adjectives was inescapable.

27 ….. TwentySEVEN

Ireland

27 Saturday

The Burren in Western Ireland is covered by an expansive, eroding limestone carpet.  The limestone, formed by compressed sediment 350 million years old, was once the bottom of a tropical sea.   A fact that is very difficult to easily comprehend when one looks out across the empty horizon filled only by wind.  Incredibly scientists have found fossilized samples of corals, sea urchin and ammonite- an extinct spiral shelled organism.  Ammonoidea, as they are scientifically titled, get their name from a man in Pompeii around 79 A.D who proclaimed them the “Horn of Ammon” for the Egyptian god typically painted wearing rams horns.  Fossils of all kinds, and especially this last type incited the medieval European imagination which saw petrified snakes and their sale quickly developed into an industry.  The beloved Hindu text the Mahabharata decrees they are the materialized appearance of the god Vishnu  and believers fortunate enough to collect specimens from the Gandaki river in Nepal, worship them experiencing what they describe as a reciprocal sense of love.  Fossils are the talisman of another world existing on a concurrent plane, a world with a very different sense of time.  They belong to the world of Bristlecone Pine and Giant Sequoia; twisting and bending over thousands of years, to the millennial battles of rain and stone slowly blending into each other,  to a world for which we must ourselves be only a blink of their eye.

On my fifth or sixth morning in Doolin I sat sipping black tea with the Englishman who lived in a small trailer behind the farm-house.  Thinking about the night before,  I asked if there was a trail connecting the town with the Cliffs of Moher.  He knew the area very well as he had been living in that trailer behind the farm-house for several years and mostly spent his time exploring the Burren and building fiddles.   After confirming that there was indeed a path he next asked how I had heard about it an I explained.  Long after the music had ended, a group of us had remained sipping on pints at the old picnic table late into the night.   Rumors of a Local’s Path were passed around and two members of a German heavy metal band traveling strictly in their Lederhosen swore that they had seen where the trail began.

I was born in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and grew up hiking and camping –  traveling across the rough but relatively flat Burren did not seem like much of a challenge.  Late the following morning I began down a trail the Englishman had identified as the Local’s Path with a light pack and my camera.  The burren is an extremely beautiful place to walk through.  Graphite colored stone covers the ground in panels split by violent tectonic forces and  soaked for thousands of years by a deeply melancholic fog.  It is at once lonely and commanding.  After a time the green began to take over with moss and grasses and a universe of miniature wild flowers.  The grasses grew thicker and the planst less miniature when the trail began in earnest.  Just wide enough for a single traveler, the path began creeping towards the ocean and the steadily rising cliffs and I followed.  So close to the edge of the cliff was the path that at times it gave way completely, releasing solid chunks of earth to crash 700 feet into the sea below.  Several times I was faced with a gap and after taking a moment to appreciate the total calm of a cow or horse safely on the other side of the fence before leaping across, my heart racing.  The Cliffs of Moher is a favorite nesting site for many bird species and I stopped a number of times to crawl onto my belly enabling me a secure view over the edge where I could watch the busy traffic below.  When I finally reached the Hags Head and jumped over a small fence to join the other tourists shuttled to the tower by the bus load, I had already seen everything I wanted to see along the way, so I turned around and walked back to Doolin.

Leaving Doolin was somewhat difficult, I had settled in, grown attached to the nightly music and days filled by nature.  I understood how one could simply buy a trailer and move in.  Ensuring I would maintain momentum before setting out and still in Italy, I had sworn myself and oath – never to stay more than one week in any one location.  It was approaching fast on my week in Doolin and so I pressed on, reluctantly.  Just up the coastline are the Aran islands.  Interested in viewing the remains of an ancient fortress I boarded a ferry which motored me out to Inishmore. Built on a cliff over 100 meters high and named after a Celtic King, Aengus  has been worn down to the remains of four concentric semicircular walls.   At the entrance to the sloping hills of the fortress sat a grinning old man.  He sang and rocked to the music he played on his accordion all the while perched atop a stool in the grass.  His song diffused through the wind and seemed to carry me right to the edge of the ruin.  Along the way I had serendipitously fallen into step with a middle-aged woman crowned with a blaze of vermillion hair.  She and I started talking as we walked through the ruins and she explained the importance of the area for her.  She was a photographer but more importantly she emphasized, she burned with Celtic soul.  She identified herself as a pagan and she believed that the fortress was once used for ceremony and ritual.   Side by side we stretched out on the ancient ground to face down the cliff face and watch in silence as the swelling waves shattered against the rocks growing out of the deep below.  Across the ocean from where I now sit, they are still doing so and will do so long after I die.  I cannot help but feel a hue of envy as I imagine that other world, the one that blinks.

26… TwentySIX

Ireland

twentySIX-reeditSheep were first domesticated by early Mesopotamian humans around 10 thousand years ago, the practice spread quickly throughout Europe and into Ireland.  The sheep provide wool and meat and milk for their human counterparts.  The humans provide protection and ensure that the sheep in their care have sufficient plant life to graze on.  This symbiosis is often forgotten when we think of the term domestication.  Unless we have a more personal experience of the process we imagine domestication as a system of humans dominating animals.  There is a family run Spanish farm; “La Pateria de Sousa” which produces award winning foie gras by practicing domestication as symbiosis.  They carefully cultivate their lands with intentionally selected plants that the geese love to eat and which in turn after filtering through their happy bodies provide a complex and beautiful flavor in the goose liver.  This is a rare example in the foie gras industry where the standard and relatively brutal forced feeding techniques typically engage domestication as a method of fulfilling the one-sided goal of the farmer.  Travel is much like making a fantastic tasting foie gras from delighted geese or enjoying the benefit generated when caring for domesticated sheep- it is symbiotic.

As I had set out that morning for a day of hiking in the surrounding hillside which crowned the Dingle peninsula the friendly couple running my hotel offered local insight on the surrounding area. I had no map and the area where I had chosen to get off the bus was not in my guide book, so their information was very useful as I followed a one lane road into the wilderness.  About two hours down the road I approached a small cottage and an elderly man stopped what he was doing in the front garden as I drew near.   As he returned my smile I saw that he was missing several of his front teeth and noticed that he must smile often as the wrinkles around his eyes were as well worn as the faded denim overalls he was wearing.  I stopped when he asked me where I was headed to and explained that I had no real destination in mind, only out for a walk in the sunshine.  Taking the opportunity to show off the beauty of his homeland he insisted that I take a trail running alongside his property which lead to a hillside of local renown, bearing a name which I could not understand.

The trail was lined with towering foxgloves swirling with butterflies and I was immediately happy to have been directed to such and enchanting landscape.  The flowers and trees began thinning out and an emerald sea of hills stretched gently upwards, carrying the trail along with it.  So I climbed, scrambling over the fences which crossed the path in order to keep herds of sheep seperated, each group distinguished from one another using brightly colored spray painted marks on their fat woolly bodies.  After spending several hours following the path I found a soft patch of grass surrounding a sunny bolder against which I could lean and take in the view.  Apart from the wind, the only sound was that of the sheep occasionally bleating our their salutations and of the waterfall which I now faced across the valley.  I stayed late into the afternoon, eyes closed listening and enjoying the solitude.

From Dingle I headed north to a small town called Doolin.  I had read that this was one of the most authentic places to hear transitional Irish music and I was very curious about taking it in.  Doolin has three pubs, several bed and breakfasts, and a growing number of hostels.  I chose one along the river just outside of town where I was installed in a bed below a skylight just like the one I had in my childhood.  The hostel itself was converted old farm house and after a bit of exploring I discovered the back door.  Several young people were congregating at the picnic table perched above the river.  One of them cradled a bagpipe in their arms and another an Irish fiddle as they casually played their instruments I lifted myself up onto the stone wall nearby to listen.  I love music, all kinds of music and especially live music.  As a visual-centric person being able to watch the musician experience making their music enriches the way I perceive the sound they produce.  Framed by the river, the old farmhouse and the sweetly melancholic landscape the afternoon turned to the deep glow of twilight and we all went in to make our dinners in the communal kitchen.  After dinner there was some discussion about what pub had the group playing that evening and the table divided with everyone heading in smaller groups to their preferred establishments.  Without any real knowledge of the differences, I opted for the pub that was the oldest in town figuring I would start at the beginning.  There were several Bodhran Irish drummers and a couple of fiddle players along with a dreadlocked didgeridoo player and silver flute player all in full momentum when I ordered a pint at the bar.  Everyone talked with everyone, and I was quickly absorbed into the communal spirit of the small pub. Suddenly the young woman drinking and clapping next to me set her glass down and launched into a fury of Irish dance which only got more passionate as the crowds encouraged her which in turn caused the musicians to play with more and more enthusiasm as she danced until performer and audience transformed completely in a kind of symbiotic alchemy.

As I was swept up with back slapping and hearty laughs and carried to the next pub an equally raucous group passed us headed to the pub behind us and I could see another leaving the one were about to enter, as if great tidal forces were moving the whole town between three moons.  Many hours later as I was leaving the third pub and heading for bed,  I reunited with a group walking back to the farmhouse singing their way to the front door.

Enjoying the blues change to oranges and then soft yellows in the sky above my bed, I drifted off to sleep with the sounds of fiddles and song still echoing in my mind.

25……TwentyFIVE

Ireland

Monday 25.3FINAL

 Nearly two an a half centuries were required to complete The Book of Kells, one of the finest examples of illuminated manuscripts in Western Europe.  Intended to transform darkness into light, the skins of 150 calves were used to create its high quality vellum pages and the expert craftsmanship of monks dedicating entire lifetimes towards its completion.  Of the four volumes two are on permanent display at Trinity College in Dublin.  So ferocious is the security that only after  seven years spent developing a new method utilizing suction techniques for copying the pages was the preeminent Swiss publishing house, Faksimile-Verlag Luzern, permitted access to the volumes.  Much as a family guards the graves of its ancestors, The Book of Kells is likewise protected and venerated by the Irish.

Ripping off another piece of baguette I sat staring at fishing boats oozing into the dark mud of the shoreline.  It was low tide and I had fortuitously discovered a little bench from which I could contemplate the horizon while eating my lunch.  The bus had arrived at the small French fishing village behind schedule the day before and I was delayed in my journey to Ireland.  That evening I was to board a ferry that would cross the gap between the two countries during the night.

As usual I opted for the cheapest possible fare and this landed me in a hard seat just above the engine room.  The ferry was surprisingly large, housing a live concert hall several pubs and restaurants and long hallways lined with sofa chairs where one could sit and enjoy the view.  While there was still a view to be seen, I sat in one such chair reading and listening to music.  As night fell the chair grew rigid and I returned to the belly of the boat.  I quickly discovered that most travelers were well aware of the horrible conditions presented by a room above the engine and I was nearly alone in the great dark expanse.  I carefully arranged a few of my sturdiest items and stretched out on the vibrating floor down one of the empty rows.  It was not  my deepest night of sleep.

The next morning I woke early and watched silently as the ferry floated into the Irish port.  After disembarking, I was quickly on a train to Dublin.  Relaxing into the emerald-green velvet seats, I watched the landscape roll by my window and I strangely felt like I was returning home.  Like nearly all citizens of the United States I can claim possibly a handful of generations of history in the country, before that the lineage of our ancestors are shadowy mixtures – part mythic, part lost and part hidden in the politics of their time.  Because of this I found that the small fragments of history, off-hand comments made  during my childhood and roughly stitched together using my imagination had become a deep part of my understanding of “my people”.  My father always spoke proudly of his Irish roots and even though I had no direct experience of Ireland or of my Irish relatives, looking out over the rolling green and ash blue stone, it felt sweet to imagine them.

After a shower and some real sleep, I left the hostel to find a pint of Guinness.  I love beer and was very much looking forward to an authentic experience of an Irish pub.  As I was on my own and didn’t know anyone in Dublin, I decided on a mixed approach of travel book and serendipity.  Dublin was a great city at night, the bridges gave the city a certain old world hue.  A few hours later I walked through the doors of The Boar’s Head Pub on Capel St.  Inside, a live trio was playing traditional Irish music for a moist crowd and I made my way to the bar.  Over the course  of ordering a pint I made friends with a few of the locals hanging out near the taps and when they discovered it was my very first pint of Guinness in Ireland, the pints began in earnest.  It seemed like the whole of the pub was drinking together, the musicians finished but were instantly bought pints of their own.  I went radiantly to bed that evening humming to myself.

I was mostly in Dublin for the pubs and a window into Irish urban life.  But there was one specific visit I wanted to make and that was to Trinity College where The Book of Kells was publicly displayed.  The curators have two volumes of the four on display, turning the page in each once a day.  The unusual darkness of the room has the effect of making the yellow glow of the display even more brilliant, heavenly.  When I finally peered over the display shoulder to shoulder with a crowd that seemed to represent every possible nationality, it was instantly clear why the room was silent.    The book’s pages are so densely packed with artistic focus they are almost painful to study.  Gorgeous, perfect lines follow and frame imagery inspired by the gospels and treat the very letters as if they were each a secret masterpiece.

Back on the train I was planning to spend a couple of days exploring south-western Ireland.  The most popular way to explore the idyllic landscape is Killarney and touring the Ring of Kerry, but the moment I stepped off the train I realized I wanted to go the opposite direction as quickly as possible.  Hundreds of people stuffed giant tour busses like fat sausages and then spilling themselves onto the pavement proceeded to herd like pack animals completely destroying any sense of mystic self-reflection that may have been possible in such intense surroundings.  I caught a bus to the nearby Dingle Peninsula, more and more assured of my decision as I watched  local after local board the bus and we left the chaos behind.  The scenery that followed was metaphysical, the further into the wild we went the more I could perceive my ancestors and this sensation had the most electrifying effect on my perception of myself, as if I finally discovered proof of my very real place in the collective history.