Thursday, September 29, 2011

Connemara, Galway City


A half day's drive through Connemara started with a trip to the coral beach outside Carraroe, Co. Galway, where we hunted for shells and studied tidal pools. It's a magical place, one I always imagine as a spot where a selkie might come ashore.

Found a perfect, intact scallop shell that opened just like a mermaid's compact. The beach itself is not sand, but bits of coral that feel and sound like crushed bone beneath your feet. A great spot for beachcombing and just communing with nature. You can hear the sound of the water at this beach in a short video I shot in April 2011. I think everyone loved this place.

The landscape of Connemara is one of my favorite places on earth, probably because I spent a bit of time there in my youth, going to Irish school for a few weeks in Carraroe. The blue and purple colors of the stone, the blooming heather, the dark green bracken ferns bring it all back. We saw some beautiful Connemara ponies about, and whenever you're in Connemara, there's usually an opportunity for a great shot of a white cow in a stony field. On that score, our trip did not disappoint!

We made our way to Roundstone (a bad English translation; the place is actually 'Cloch na Rón,' or 'Seal Rock' in Irish). There we visited Malachy Kearns, Ireland's preeminent maker of bodhráns, the traditional Irish goatskin drums. We had a bite to eat and visited with Malachy and his wife Gifty, and then had a look around at the workshop, where goatskins were being dried and stretched before being nailed to round wooden frames.

On the way back into Galway, we stopped off at the grounds of the Ballinahinch Castle Hotel, to walk the labyrinth made out of stones from the sea. It's a peaceful, meditative exercise, walking the concentric circles of the labyrinth until you reach the center. The site is open to the public, just part of the parklands around the hotel. Fly fishing seems to be the real ticket there. A lovely spot.

After our day trip, we had a little time off, so we walked around Store Street in Galway City, looking at all the marvelous medieval buildings. After perusing some great shops and pubs, and we ended up having dinner at the King's Head, built in 1612, and so called because the place was supposed to have been granted in payment to the Galway man who beheaded Charles I of England in 1649. Mussels, fish and chips, Irish coffee, beer, and a bit of bloody history. What more could a body want?

We had a little time to visit the statue of Oscar Wilde in the city centre, and poke our noses into a few pubs just as the music was starting. Galway is a great town for traditional music, but the sessions usually don't begin until 9:30 or 10 pm.

Mayo and Galway


We started the day with a look at a lovely crannóg (fortified man-made island) and a few swans in the middle of the lake, and tried to visit the Knockranny court tomb in the woodland across the lake from the castle. Unfortunately the wet summer had done a number on the path up to the tomb, so it was closed for construction. Undaunted by signage, we tried heading into the woods, but ankle-deep mud sent us back to the carpark after about 100 yards. Even wellingtons were no match for it.

You can see a photo and a short video of the court tomb (with fantastic birdsong and bluebells in the woods) from my April 2011 trip here.

Our second stop was Ceide Fields, a Neolithic field system on the north coast of County Mayo that lay buried under bog for thousands of years, only discovered in the 1930s. The site is the most extensive Stone Age monument in the world, including fields, dwellings, and megalithic tombs. The stone-walled fields, extend over thousands of acres, and are almost 6,000 years old, making Ceide Fields the oldest known agricultural site in the world.

Turning south towards Castlebar in Mayo, we spent some time at the Museum of Country Life (part of the National Museum of Ireland), which has great exhibits of folkways and folklife, including seasonal celebrations, traditional crafts and foodways and trades like thatching and barrel-making, along with clothing and decorative arts of the countryside. There are cradles and hen houses and mattresses all made from hay rope; lobster pots made from heather. The ingenuity of it all, just using natural materials at hand, really quite astounding. There are also examples of the various types of houses, including wattle and daub, dry stone construction, various thatched roofs. I love this place! 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Stone Age to Iron Age in One Day

On Sunday morning we headed north to visit Brú na Bóinne (The Boyne Valley), the home of Newgrange and Knowth, a couple of very fine Neolithic temples/passage tombs. Last year's group visited Knowth, which is a group of 18 (1 large and 17 smaller passage tombs). This year we got to see Newgrange, built around 3200 BCE, and known for the lightbox that allows a beam of light to enter the very center of the tomb on the shortest days of the year. I had heard that visitors weren't allowed inside the tomb any more, but I was wrong! Each small group goes through the narrow passage into the central chamber. Once everyone is inside, the guide switches off the lights, showing what happens in the chamber at sunrise on December 21. It's amazing and quite moving, being cast back 5,000 years into the past.

Heading west to Longford, we visited the Corlea Trackway Centre, a road constructed from more than 300 oak trees felled and split during one season in 148 BCE. The excavation of the roadway was carried out by a team headed by the late Barry Raftery, professor of archaeology at UCD in Dublin, and the person who related the true story of the red-haired girl from the bog that became the basis for my novel HAUNTED GROUND. It's a fascinating site, with an 18-meter stretch of the roadway preserved in the visitor center and museum (and the rest still out under the bog!), and home to a wonderful display about the excavation and scientific investigation, and what those things can tell us about life in Iron Age Ireland.

We stayed overnight at the Kilronan Castle Hotel (a 19th-century estate, formerly known as Castle Tennison), a lovely place on the shores of Lough Meelagh, near Ballyfarnon in Roscommon.

Monday was our day trip to Donegal. After stopping at Drumcliff Churchyard to see the grave of poet W.B. Yeats, we headed north through Sligo into Donegal, and visited the cliffs at Bunglas, also known more widely as Slieve League—the highest sea cliffs in Europe, almost 2,000 feet. It's also the seal-breeding area that Cormac Maguire visits several times in FALSE MERMAID. On the way back from the cliffs, we passed the house of Kitty Sean Cunningham, a local singer and all-around great character who makes a cameo appearance in the novel...

We continued to the Glencolmcille Folk Village, a sort of outdoor museum with replicas of typical Donegal cottages, a shop, school, and traditional fishermen's homes. Very like the place I imaged as home to the Heaney family from FALSE MERMAID, even down to the cast iron bed. Had a great time chatting with the Margaret Cunningham, a singer with the traditional group Na Dorsa, who works in the shop/office at the Folk Village. One reviewer said of Margaret that she "has the voice of a mermaid." Have a listen and see if you agree.

After a quick stop to take pictures of turf-cutting (as if one can ever have enough pictures of turf), we ended up at Triona Designs in Ardara, a traditional handweaving studio run by the family of Dennis Mulhern, a sixth-generation weaver. Dennis and his wife Ann had prepared some Irish coffee for us, which was welcome on this rather blustery Donegal day. I asked Dennis what runs through his mind when he's at the loom, and he said, "You can be miles away." Then he told about hearing his father lilting tunes as he worked. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Holy Ground Once More...

Posting from just outside Ballyfarnon, County Roscommon. This year's tour group couldn't be a nicer bunch of people, and we are having excellent adventures so far!

Our first day in Dublin (despite a bit of jet lag), we took in a city tour, the Book of Kells exhibit at Trinity College (where you can see two open folios from the Book of Kells, along with one each from the Book of Armagh and the Book of Durrow). Once again, the beauty and exquisite detail of the ancient manuscripts astonishes. Such life and texture in the words and creatures, even after all these many centuries.

After all that, a short rest, dinner at the hotel, and a few of us even managed to stay awake for An Góilín, the traditional singers' session held every Friday night in the Teachers Club at Parnell Square. We heard a huge variety of singers and songs, everything from beautiful sad love songs in Irish, to rowdy sing-alongs and American ballads about the banks of the Rio Grande, and even a recently-composed comic song of praise about the Dubs' great victory in the All-Ireland football championship!

A visit to the National Museum of Ireland started with the KINGSHIP AND SACRIFICE exhibit about the bog people found in Ireland, and how they got there. Visiting Oldcroghan Man (who was discovered by Paddy's cousin, Kevin Barry), always seems rather like a family obligation. We learned a lot about the possible reasons an Iron Age person might have been sunk into a bog. Some people believe it had to do with kingship rituals that sought to marry the leader of a people to the great goddess of the earth, and perhaps the bargain had to be sealed in blood. Of course, no one knows for certain, because the Celts of Ireland left no written record of their rituals and beliefs. Fascinating and chilling.

A visit to the Guinness brewery was next, something I'd never had a chance to do before, and great craic. An excellent exhibit about the history of the black stuff, and all the work that went into brewing, storing, transporting, advertising, and drinking it. Oh, and they give you a wee taste as you go, and pint at the end as well! Paddy's father used to work the canal boats that transported the wooden barrels of Guinness down the Grand Canal from Dublin to the Shannon, and he had great tales of drilling undetectable holes and (ahem) perhaps siphoning off a few pints along the way.

A smaller group of us headed back to the Museum in the afternoon (after a stout lunch!) to see the Broighter Collar and the Faddan More Psalter, the 9th-century book of psalms found in a Tipperary bog about five years ago. Some pages were still readable; others were fairly badly damaged. I've been waiting ever since it was discovered to get a gander at it, and finally got my chance. No photos allowed in the exhibit, but here's one from the National Museum.

Did manage to get a few good snaps of some of my favorite Iron Age artifacts though, including this one, the Loughnashade Trumpet, an ancient instrument found sunk in a lake near Navan Fort (aka Eamhain Macha). Here's a link to a video about the horn, including information about how and where it was found, and how John Creed of Glasgow made a replica of it in 1998. You can even hear the replica played by Irish musician and scholar Simon O'Dwyer. Simon's got a whole website devoted to his obsession with ancient instruments:

After a nice Italian dinner (con gelato) in Temple Bar, we wandered down to M. Hughes in Chancery Street (home to wonderful traditional sessions every night). Had a few after-dinner drinks and listened to  fine tunes (and a couple of extra fine songs) from Dermie Diamond, Helen Diamond, Vincent Doherty and company. Fiddles, pipes, flute, guitar—food for the soul.

All right, children, time for the leaba (bed) now. Much more (and many more snaps) later... 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Packing for Ireland

I'm so excited to be traveling to Ireland once again with my friends from New Departures. We leave Thursday, September 22, and return October 2. We've got a smashing custom-built itinerary this year, visiting many of the places that feature in my books. And the group this time around looks to be just as interesting and as much fun as the last.

One of our travelers, Pat Wellingham-Jones, is a fellow writer, and did an interview with Betty Dobson, who writes a blog called InkSpotting. You can read the interview here.

This trip will include some familiar places (the National Museum, and the Book of Kells, Newgrange/Brú na Bóinne complex, Ceide Fields, the Burren) and a few new stops as well: the Corlea Bog Trackway Centre (home to a 2,000-year-old wooden road), a day trip to Slieve League and the villages of Port and Ardara in Donegal, the ancient monastic sites of Clonfert Cathedral, Clonmacnoise, and the Rock of Cashel, and the Lough Boora boglands, Saint Kieran's Bush and Leap Castle (the most haunted place in Ireland), among others. We'll also visit a distillery museum, and sit in on a few traditional music sessions as well.

Full itinerary at the New Departures website.

I know that many people were interested, but unable to go this year, so I'm hoping that this will be an annual trip. I can see changing things up or adding different sites as the Nora Gavin/Cormac Maguire series develops!

I'll be posting snaps from the trip here...

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Meet Me in Saint Louis

I'm bound for Bouchercon in the morning! It's the international mystery convention held every year in a different city. I haven't been in a while (didn't have a new book, broken arm, etc.), so I'm thrilled to be able to go this year.

Adding to my excitement will be the two stellar panels I'm on this year. Practically beside myself with giddiness to be in such august company:

Thursday, September 15, 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM
Landmark 5,6,7
These gals are doing it for themselves.
Robin Agnew (M), Jan Burke, Deborah Crombie, Erin Hart, Hank Phillippi Ryan

Saturday, September 18,  4:00 PM – 5:00 PM
Landmark 1,2,3
Down These Green Streets-Irish crime fiction
Erin Mitchell (M), Eoin Colfer, John Connolly, Erin Hart, Stuart Neville

If things go as they have in the past, authors will be signing right after their panel appearances. Hope to see many fellow mystery-lovers in the halls (and bars!) at Bouchercon.

Friday, September 2, 2011

My pal Declan Burke has a new book out. Well, two new books, counting the one he edited. And you'll want to read the pair of them, honest.

Dec's new novel is ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL. Those who've taken my Compleat Scholar course ('Bleeding Green: Contemporary Irish Crime Fiction') will of course be familiar with Mr. Burke and his previous caper, THE BIG O, the story of a kidnapping gone wrong in all the right ways. He's got two other books as well, CRIME ALWAYS PAYS, and EIGHTBALL BOOGIE.

He gets some exceptional blurbs for the new one as well:
“A genuinely original take on noir, inventive and funny. Imagine, if you can, a cross between Flann O’Brien and Raymond Chandler.”   — John Banville, author of THE SEA
“A fascinating hybrid of MISERY, AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS, THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN, and who knows what else … ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL isn’t quite like anything else you’ve read, in any genre. It’s clever, intimate, passionate, and funny: altogether a wonderful achievement.”   — Irish Times
Find out more about ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL here.

The second book you'll want to pick up without delay is DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS: IRISH CRIME WRITING IN THE 21st CENTURY. Published by Liberties Press, this is a smashing collection of essays, articles, short stories and interviews by Irish crime writers on the subject of the phenomenal rise of Irish crime fiction. Contributors include John Connolly, John Banville, Tana French, Eoin McNamee, Stuart Neville, Arlene Hunt, Alan Glynn, Adrian McKinty, Ken Bruen, Jane Casey, Gene Kerrigan, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Brian McGilloway, Declan Hughes, Cora Harrison, Paul Charles, Colin Bateman, Alex Barclay, and many more. Michael Connelly provides the foreword.
“A thoroughly entertaining miscellany of essays, interviews, short stories, memoir and first-hand perspectives that offers intriguing insights into the genre … [a] wonderful collection.” — David Park, Irish Times
Find out more about DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS here.

To purchase a copy at the Liberties Press website, please click here.

And if you haven't yet sampled this amazing crop of Irish crime writers, don't delay.