Cosmology — fragments

say the world is filled
mainly with emptiness

gaps
between trees

space
between stars and planets
atoms and particles

tiny fragments
of presence
surrounded by absence

sounds break up silence
into song, measured and measurable
ordered on mathematical principles
numbered and arranged
in defiance of zero
of nothing
of space

vain desire that there be
something rather than nothing

lonely beauty of a dying star
on the remote edge
of a galaxy
a billion light years away
spinning and whirling
on the edge of annihilation
dancing and singing
its brief being
into the void

is it just a habit of mind
this conflict between something and nothing?
Manichaean tendency to believe
that everything requires an opposite?
polarizing instinct to divide
rather than blend?

say
we are atoms thrown defiantly together
we are particles cast out from stars
we are energy
time and motion

and when our time is done
cast off again
thrown together again
reused and recycled

old notes for new songs
new arrangements of old harmonies

in the end there is silence

that music had a dying fall
but does nothing follow?

the musicians put away their instruments
the audience departs, the hall is empty

say there will be other songs, other performances
other musicians and audiences

say each performance will be something new
or a remembrance of something that never was
and never will be again

maybe it’s a failure of imagination
that I don’t believe

in angels or gods, or
feel a connection to something beyond

that I don’t fill emptiness with purpose
suppose that planets have plans for me
or that they rest on spheres moved by celestial harmonies

that the inert remembers
the briefly living, that there is justice
more satisfying than dissolution

although I sometimes hope for a thread of memory
stitched into a corner of the fabric of time

I do not know how things begin
or end, or even if

or say
beginning and end are one and the same
seen from different angles

a lone whale sings her grief
to an almost empty ocean

in the middle of Ireland
stones still hold the shape
of an old church
carved and carefully stacked
into walls defying entropy
which has already claimed the roof
ruined the choir
where now even birds are not singing

other stones remember
lives no one recalls
history does not remark

only a fugitive cow grazes in the long grass
honeybees stir the pestles of wildflowers in the shade of a stone wall

and I have stopped to capture a moment in a photograph

how much longer will these stones cling to each other?
to the idea of order that placed them here?
how long can names and dates resist the wind and rain?

one year and eight hours away
I sat on the bench near my father’s stone
having cleared away the encroaching grass
and dirt that filled in the letters
of his name

and I spoke to him as if he were alive
spoke in a way I never did
while he was alive

I spoke as if he could hear me
as if it were a prayer

the wind stirred the leaves in the trees
and brought the rainclouds closer

somewhere a bird sang
a melody I couldn’t follow
and a hare stopped briefly
to consider my presence
then carried on with his day

 

© Mark Milner, Burnaby, BC, July 2019

Postscript

I’ve been home for about 40 hours now, and little by little my body is readjusting to the eight-hour time lag between Ireland and the west coast of Canada. Before my thoughts on my trip recede too much into the distorting waters of memory and forgetting, I thought I’d dash off a few observations in postscript, and post a few more pictures from some of the places I visited.

The bike

Whe I first started planning my trip, I had intended to ship my own motorcycle across to Europe. The more I looked into this, though, the more I realized that it made more sense to hire a bike that was already there. This was mainly about cost-benefit. The relatively short length of my time overseas meant the total cost of renting a brand new bike wasn’t much greater than the cost of shipping my own. When I included the various fees and taxes, insurance costs, and what I would need to do with my bike to get it ready for the trip, it was more or less a wash. My wife pointed out that I was less likely to have  expensive and frustrating mechanical issues with a brand new bike than with my ageing warhorse, and since the chances of finding a qualified BMW mechanic in remote areas of the Highlands didn’t seem good, and since the hire bike included roadside assistance in the cost of the rental, I decided she was right (as is often the case).

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My hire bike: a 2018 Triumph Tiger 800 XRT.

I’m glad I made that choice. The Triumph Tiger 800 is a fantastic bike, and while I don’t like it better than my old R1150GS, certain features definitely came in handy. I’m quite sure that cruise control, for example, helped save me from speeding tickets, especially in Scotland, where speed cameras are ubiquitous. Over time I got used to working with – and more often around – the ridiculous number of controls on the left handlebar, although I’d still suggest Triumph take a look at how this is all arranged. I suspect that something like BMW’s thumb wheel would be easier to use, and help prevent unwanted selections (like inadvertently switching on the heated seats when turning on the fog lamps).

In retrospect, I should have inquired more carefully about luggage capacity. I packed an appropriate amount for the cases I have on my bike, which are admittedly enormous. The aftermarket bags on my GS – Happy Trails side cases (35 and 40 litres), and a Givi top box (52 litres) – can comfortably hold more than enough for a three to four week trip. The much smaller OEM bags on the Triumph are better suited to one week. It’s my own fault for not enquiring. If I ever hire a bike again, I’ll do so.

I would also strongly recommend bringing your own riding gear, or at the very least, your own helmet. The gear I was provided with was mostly high enough quality (I’d even consider buying some RST gear if I could find it here), but it took nearly the full length of the trip for me to remember to put motorcycle pants (or ‘jeans’ as they call them over there, since ‘pants’ means underwear to them) first, then boots. My own gear has nearly full-length side zips, so I can (and usually do) put my boots on first.

The helmet was more of an issue. It fit a little snugger than my helmet, didn’t have a flip up chin bar (which meant I had to remove my glasses every time I wanted to put the helmet on or take it off) or a sun shade (so that I had to decide whether to wear my sunglasses or my regular glasses, something that can’t be changed on the fly). It also didn’t come with internal speakers, so I couldn’t get audio instructions from the GPS and had to look away from the road more often than I would have liked.

The GPS (or sat nav, over there) was an excellent thing to have, and worked well when using Google Maps (or other apps) on my phone wouldn’t have. Even though I had to look at it more than I would have liked, it was much easier to do so quickly than would have been the case on a paper map.

SIM cards

One of the best decisions I made was getting an Irish SIM card, rather than using a ‘travel plan’ from my Canadian provider. The travel plan would have cost me $150, and not even provided me with the meagre amount of data I normally have access to at home. The SIM card (which I got from 3 mobile) gave me “all you can eat” data (60GB!) in Ireland, and 6GB of roaming data for the UK, for €30 (less than a third of the cost of the Canadian travel plan). I ended up using about 17GB total, including 4.5GB in the UK. If you’re a Canadian travelling abroad for any length time, you should seriously consider getting a local SIM card when you arrive. The only downside is how ripped off you’re going to feel you are when you’re at home and paying more than twice the rate for about a tenth of the data you get in Europe.

Ireland

Ireland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s ridiculous how pretty it is, nearly everywhere.

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A typical view in the Irish countryside. This was near the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The Irish people, especially in the Republic, are friendly and welcoming. Dublin is an incredibly cosmopolitan place, with people from all over Europe – and around the world – working and attending university and visiting there. The whole of Ireland is an incredible blend of the new and old. History is on display everywhere, and yet it’s very forward looking as well, especially in cities like Galway and Dublin.

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Thoor Ballylee, near Gort in Co. Galway, is the tower that Yeats lived in with his family. Irish literary history is rightly celebrated throughout Ireland.

Ireland has punched well above its weight in literature for more than a century, producing such important writers as Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Casey, Louis MacNeice, and Seamus Heaney, to name just a few.

Musically, too, Ireland has provided the world with more than its fair share of artists, especially in rock and pop music. Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore, The Boomtown Rats, U2, Sinnead O’Connor, The Pogues, Rory Gallagher, and many others have made a huge impact on popular music over the past 50 years.

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A statue of Phil Lynott, the bassist and lead singer of Thin Lizzy, stands near Grafton Street in the centre of Dublin. In the 1970s, Thin Lizzy paved the way for many other Irish bands, like the Boomtown Rats and U2.

Scotland

Scotland has a different kind of beauty than Ireland. More rugged, less lush, but equally stunning. It’s astonishing just how much the landscape changes as you travel through Scotland. There is as much variation in geology and flora as there is in the many styles of whisky produced there.

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The road from Applecross to Shieldaig in the Scottish Highlands.

I would like to have spent more than the week I had in Scotland. It is too vast to really see much of it. What I did see, I loved. From Loch Lomond to Inverness, Moffat to Shieldaig, Elgin to Edinburgh. The beers are different from those in Ireland, and of course single malt whisky is very different from Irish whiskey (which is almost always blended). As was the case in Ireland, many of the road signs, at least in the Highlands, are in both English and Gaelic (although Scots Gaelic isn’t exactly the same as Irish).

In fact, a person could easily spend a week or more just in the Highlands. Or just in Edinburgh. And, I’m sure, the same would go for Glasgow, which I sadly didn’t get to this time around. I hope Adele and I will visit Scotland in the future, so I can see more of it.

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A lane in Edinburgh’s Dean Park neighbourhood.

England and Wales

I didn’t spend much time in England or Wales. A couple of nights each. The highlight of that was the time I was in the tiny village of Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas lived and is buried. For such a small place, it packs a lot of beauty and history into it. It would be worth a second visit, if I’m ever down that way again.

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The ruins of the castle at Laugharne, on the south coast of Wales.

Midlife non-crisis

All in all, it was a fantastic journey, and an excellent, adventurous way to celebrate being 50. If I were doing it again, I’m not sure what I’d change. Add more time, maybe, if I could, and have Adele accompany me for at least part of it. Traveling alone for that length of time was a very different experience for me. I’m glad I did it, but I think I prefer having someone to share the experience with.

I don’t really have a lot more to say. I do, though, have many more pictures. Here is a sampling from them.

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Farms in the Dingle peninsula.
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Cliffs of Moher
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Connemara
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Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
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Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
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The road to Applecross, or Bealach na Ba, Scottish Highlands
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Highland cattle
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Sculpture near the National Gallery in Edinburgh
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Washback stills (the tall ones) and spirit stills at the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Scotland
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Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
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Scarborough Castle, Scarborough, England
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Waiting for the tide to come in. Laugharne, Wales.
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Lake District, England.
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Sandycove, Dublin, Ireland.

A tower and a pint

One last day. Tomorrow morning I’ll board the plane for home, but I had a couple of things to do first.

After breakfast I took a DART train out to Sandycove, where the tower that figures at the start of Ulysses still stands. There’s now a James Joyce museum there, run by volunteers, and free to the public to visit, although I was the only one there. It’s pretty interesting if you like Joyce, which I do.

I had originally planned to visit Clontarf Castle, but I learned that the current iteration is only about 200 years old, and is now home to a hotel. It bears little, if any, resemblance to the original Twelfth century version, which at any rate was built more than a hundred years after the famous battles with Viking invaders took place. So I decided to to skip it. The Joyce museum was a more than adequate substitute.

Sandycove itself is a nice neighbourhood, reminiscent of Kitsilano in Vancouver, but a little more reserved. The beaches are beautiful, but were sparsely populated in spite of the unusually warm weather.

The view from the top of the tower. I imagined I could make out a plume of smoke from a mail boat.

I left Sandycove and made my way back to Grafton Street, where I had a quick lunch, and then on to St. James’s Gate to tour the Guinness Storehouse. It’s interesting how similar the processes are for making beer & whisky – up to a point. Beer makers put hops into the wort, for example, and they don’t distill their product.

At any rate, i (and several hundred others today) learned the secret to pouring a perfect pint, and I picked up some souvenirs and gifts in the gift shop. I can’t imagine a similar tour involving a Canadian brewer. Who would want to learn how your a Molson or Labbatt’s beer just so?

My perfect pour, if I do say so.

Now I’m back at the hotel, and thinking about where to wander for dinner. No place too far, I think. I’ve walked nearly 17 km today already, and I’m burnt out on tourist stuff. Then I’ll come back here, and maybe have a pint or two in the pub downstairs before saying goodnight to Dublin for the last time.

This holiday has been a blast. Thanks to everyone who’s been following along. I’ll be back in a couple of days.

South

It never rains in Dublin. That’s been my experience, anyway. It’s almost always sunny and warm, and as such I’ve sought refuge from big hard sun in Grogan’s pub. I am seated at the bar, with a pint of Smithwick’s red, listening to the publican talk about the World Cup, and other tourists ordering drinks, while the regulars sit quietly off to the side.

I think yesterday I had understated just how much I prefer Dublin to Belfast. The city exudes confidence and hospitality, whereas its northern cousin seems anxious and almost hostile to those who don’t belong. At any rate, that is neither here nor there now. Here is Dublin, and now is a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Since arriving – I’m going to skip over this morning – I’ve had an excellent sandwich, coffee and cannoli at a great little Italian bakery about 10 minutes walk from my hotel; I’ve walked around Trinity University, and peaked at the Book of Kells through the heads and shoulders of German, American and Chinese tour groups, and strolled around St. Stephen’s Green (appropriately on my brother Stephen’s birthday). I am having a relaxing penultimate night in Ireland.

Tomorrow I plan to tour the Jameson distillery and visit Clontarf Castle (where the High King Brian Boru fought the Vikings, or something). I’m not sure what else. I’m sure a pub or two will be involved. An early night, aince I have a morning flight on Tuesday.

Home is very much on my mind. I’ll save reflecting back the past few weeks till I’m back.

Winding down

I don’t know if Belfast has an inferiority complex about Dublin, but it probably should. From what I have seen of the city, it lacks it’s southern neighbour’s charm, confidence and vibrancy. In fairness, I’m sure I have not seen the city’s best.

I am just back from dinner, in a restaurant housed in the basement of an old prison, or ‘gaol’, which is now a sort of museum. I thought a couple of the other buildings nearby were jails, but it turned out they were all part of a hospital. It seems strange to see a hospital with all that fencing and security around it. But that is part of my spoiled North American privilege, probably. Car bombs have never really been a thing in Canada. They haven’t been here for a long time, either, but you wouldn’t know it looking around. The police still drive around in armoured cars, and prominent buildings (i.e., churches) have crash guards in front of them. It’s been 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, but the place feels on tenterhooks.

It was fitting that I had dinner in a disused jail, since my room at the most regrettable B&B I’ve encountered is about the size of a cell. I’d be surprised if it were much more than 2 m wide. I can stand beside the single bed (occupies the length of the room on the wall with the window), and stretch my arms to either side, and nearly touch both walls at once.

Worse, when I arrived, there was no one to greet me or check me in. The proprietor was ‘in town’ shopping with her gran. She’d be back when she could. She had sent an email with the front door code, and told me where I could find the key for my room. Only it wasn’t there. I called to say there was no key, and she said it must be in the door to the room, no worries. I checked, and it wasn’t. She said she’d be by within the hour. She wasn’t.

I spent about an hour working to get the blinds shut. I finally did, and used my things to block the door, so I could have a shower. Eventually she arrived, young, blonde, and I think Australian, and tried every key should could find to no avail. At last she said, ‘I’m going to give you the skeleton key. Please don’t rob us.’ What would I steal? Some people shouldn’t try to run a business.

If it weren’t all but impossible to find another place on a Saturday night, I would have done so.

But before all this, I had risen early back in Moffat, and packed my things on the bike, and had breakfast before taking off on the two hour ride to Cairnryan to catch the ferry. I had to arrive no later than 11 for the 11:30 sailing. Luckily, I made good time.

The ferry ride was pleasant an uneventful. When we docked, I made my way down to Lisburn, got briefly lost trying to find the bike shop again. (The GPS really doesn’t like Lisburn, and who can blame it, really?) I brought the bike back. They had a quick look, decided everything was in order, and drove me to the train station once I’d transferred everything over from the panniers to my duffle bag. (Note to self: in the future, either bring a suitcase with wheels or a backpack.) I caught an express train to Belfast, and grabbed a cab to the B&B, where I now sit. And wait. Wait for morning and the return to Dublin.

Dublin will be more relaxed (I hope and expect), and I’ll have part of Sunday and a full day on Monday to explore at my leisure. And then it will be time to return home.

One of the great things about traveling is how it makes you more appreciative of what you’ve left behind, what you get to return to. I’m looking forward to being with Adele again, to having her presence bring so much warmth and meaning to my days. I’m looking forward to being in our place. To cooking for us. To our everyday lives. And to the next time we step out of those lives for a short time. Next time, together.

You take the high road

I don’t know if the A77 qualifies as ‘the low road’, but I’m in Scotland right now, on the bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond. Well, across the street, anyway. I can see it out my hotel room window. What the hell do you want?

This trip has been amazing so far. Ireland (all of it) gave me more than I had hoped for, and I wished I never had to leave. I felt so at home there. I’d have been even sadder to leave, though, if I hadn’t been looking forward to Scotland so much. Scotland, after all, was really the beginning of this trip – or, at least, the premeditation of it.

Originally, Adele suggested I tag along for the start of my friend Scott’s trip (he’s going for much longer – six months!). Scott, in turn, suggested I might want to meet him part way through, since he was going to be spending the first week or so visiting his ex’s family in England. I thought about it, and it occurred to me that I could, instead, spend that time riding around Scotland, and we could meet up when it was convenient to both of us. That was the start of the idea. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and thought, I might as well add Ireland, if I’m over there. And I’ve never been to Wales, either. Or to England, outside of London and a day trip to Cambridge. Gradually, the whole thing began to take on a shape very different from tagging along for part of someone else’s adventure.

So, this morning, I woke up in Northern Ireland. Looked at the time on my phone. And went back to sleep. Seriously, who gets up before six on a holiday? Eventually, I got up and set about packing up my things and loading the bike back up. I’m becoming gradually more efficient with how I load the Triumph bags, which are quite a bit smaller than the Happy Trails cases on my GS. Still, squeezing them closed is always a bit tricky.

I shaved, ate some cereal for breakfast, made some coffee, and cleaned up after myself. At a little after ten I was on my way to the Belfast ferry terminal to catch the Stena Line to Cairnryan. I stopped off for coffee on the way, and a few other bikers pulled up and we chatted. I asked if they were taking the ferry across, or just stopping for breakfast. It was the latter. They asked where I was off to, and where I was from. Essentially, they were politely sussing out whether or not I was an American. This happens a lot, and it always seems to relieve people to hear I’m Canadian, after which they mutter something about the ridiculous orange catastrophe in the White House. One of them mentioned he had relatives in Toronto. I told them I lived as far away from that as they do from Berlin, which is a pretty big understatement, actually, but still impressed them.

Anyway, they told me about journeys they’d done – the tallest bridge in the world, somewhere in the south of France – and told me I had to go to the Glenfiddich distillery. I often ignore these kinds of suggestions, but I may take this one, since it was my father’s favourite whisky.

Soon it was time for me to get to the ferry, so I said goodbye to them, put my helmet back on, and fired up the tiger. It’s an excellent bike, and I’ve largely gotten over most of my minor dislikes. I’ve learned to deal with the clusterfuck of controls operated by the left thumb, for example. I still think, given the choice, I’d pick a GS over a Tiger, but it would be a close decision, and the trade offs are real. The Tiger is just so much more zippy. Thank god for the cruise control, or I’d likely rack up a lot of fines.

The ferry ride was efficient, comfortable and pleasant, and there really isn’t much more to say about it than that. The food was far better than on the ferries back home.

Riding up the A77 toward Glasgow, I was impressed by how different the landscape and flora in Scotland are from Ireland. Scotland is just as beautiful as Ireland, certainly, but it feels more fierce about it. By turns lush and austere, there is little middle ground (in my extremely limited experience) where things are merely pretty. There were stretches that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in southwestern Alberta, if not for their proximity to a very large body of water. Others were more like my home province of British Columbia. Perhaps this is why western Canada is so full of Scottish place names. The rest of Canada, too, for that matter.

A little more than two and half hours after docking, I was here. In a hotel facing Loch Lomond. As I write, I’m watching the sunset colour the clouds in the east and cast shadows over the loch. Once again, the threat of weather hasn’t come to be. I’ve had sunshine pretty much the whole day.

A little while ago, I had dinner in the hotel bar. The most enormous piece of battered cod I’ve ever seen with excellent chips, a couple of pints of bitter, and for dessert, a dram of 18 year old Glenfiddich. Tomorrow I’ll be off to Inverness, which I’m going to use as a base from which to launch excursions into the Highlands over the next few days: to Bealach na Ba, John o’ Groats, Fort William, probably Dufftown and Tain (for distilleries) and wherever else I get a notion to go. As the signs at the edge of towns here say, Haste ye back!

****

P.s. – I want to thank all the readers who are following along, clicking like, commenting, or just reading. I know many of you, but there are obviously strangers in the mix – from Japan, Mexico, India, and Cameroon (!), among other places. I’m happy to get your feedback, if you feel like giving it. If you’d rather just read anonymously, that’s cool, too.

North

We Canadians like to think of ourselves as northern. Our national anthem even tells us we live in “the true north strong and free.” Well, I’m about five degrees further north than I would be at home, and I’m planning to go further north over the next several days.

I’m currently sitting in a suburb of Belfast called Newtownabbey. It’s a pleasant, tidy, ordinary place, and I expect most of the people here are pleasant and ordinary. They go to work, come home and eat dinner, tend their gardens, and some nights go down to a local pub for a few pints with their friends. They watch movies that make lives like theirs look like a crime. They laugh at the dumb suburbanites, who are very much like them, when they are the butt of the film’s jokes, and then they continue on as before. Wash, rinse, repeat. I know. My own neighbourhood, my own life, is not so different. And it’s not so bad, either.

I woke up early this morning, and got myself ready for my last full day in Ireland for the next couple of weeks. Tomorrow I’m off to Scotland (and hopefully not to hail storms like they had today!), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today is what we need to deal with now. Tomorrow can wait.

After getting the bike mostly packed, I went down for breakfast in the hotel. If you find yourself in Bundoran (god knows why you would – but if you do) you could do worse than to stay at Fitzgerald’s Hotel. The barman/proprietor is friendly and gregarious. He remembers something about everyone, and makes it seem like he’s talking to an old friend, even when it’s just a guest he met less than an hour ago. The staff, generally, are helpful and pleasant, if not quite as affable as their employer. The rooms are spacious, the price is pretty good. The one downside is their proximity to a country & western bar, down at the end of the block. But you can’t choose your neighbours. Thankfully, as a motorcyclist, I travel with earplugs. Even better, last orders came relatively early – around one, I think, but I fell asleep with my earplugs in, so don’t hold me to that.

Anyway, breakfast. Which didn’t come with – or didn’t have to, anyway – beans, various “puddings” (really sausages), fried tomatoes, and so on. I ordered two eggs, scrambled, and bacon. They were puzzled that I didn’t want cereal to start. As it was, they brought me a basket of toasted breads (dry, as is the fashion here), a croissant, and a small dish of butter, along with my coffee and orange juice, prior to my order. That’s more than I normally eat in the morning as it is. I can’t imagine adding cereal and yogurt to that.

Once breakfast and the hotel bill were sorted, I set out through the north of Ireland, not to be confused with Northern Ireland, although that was my destination today. The GPS led me along the northern coast, past Letterkenney and Derry, across the international border on my way to the Giant’s Causeway. The morning was grey and cool and damp, like the day before, only this time it didn’t burn off until I was in Co. Antrim, and even then, it kept the temperature to 17C.

Along the way, I noticed that sheep had come to outnumber cows, as they had in Connemara the day before. In most of Ireland, cows are the dominant livestock. Dairy, I expect, is one of Ireland’s top exports, the others being Guinness, whiskey and Irishness (a.k.a., “charm”). From the sheer number of B&Bs, I’d say their main import is tourists.

I arrived at the Giant’s Causeway a little after noon. This is no €8 tourist attraction, let me tell you. It’s an £11.50 tourist attraction. When you work out the exchange… But why? It’s a holiday. We’ll count the cost later.

Anyway, it’s a spectacular site, the result of ancient volcanic activity creating the interlocking basalt pillars that seem to form enormous stepping stones. Of course, the less prosaic explanation is that an ancient Irish giant named Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn MacCool) was challenged to a fight by an ancient Scottish giant named Benandonner. Fionn builds the causeway so the two giants can meet. There are similar columns from the same lava flow on the Isle of Staffa, and that may be how the myths originated. There are variations on how this turned out. No spoilers here, you can look it up for yourself. (I’d start with Wikipedia, and then look at the source materials.)

The causeway itself is a short distance from the village of Bushmill’s, where they make, of all things, Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey. The parking lot of the distillery was at least as full as the parking lot for the causeway, so I rode on past. As I did, I remembered being told that Bushmill’s was ‘Protestant whiskey’, while Jameson’s (and I assume this goes for all the others made in the Republic) is ‘Catholic whiskey’. I’ve never thought of whiskey as being associated with a religion, myself; although, it could arguably be a religion in its own right. I did notice in some of the pubs I’ve been in over the past few days that Bushmill’s, if they had any at all, was kept behind the other whiskeys. I haven’t noticed any similar religious or political tendencies with beer here. Guinness is just Irish.

There was a street festival of some kind in a village I had to pass through that required the GPS to do some recalculation of my route to Newtownabbey, where I’m staying for the night. Again, it sent me careening along narrow country roads, between overgrown hedgerows and beneath the verdant canopies of arching tree limbs, the motorcycle whirring happily along beneath me.

Tonight I sat for a while in a pub near the water and wrote postcards home. I had some ecumenical beer, and bangers and mash. It’s hard to believe this is my last night in Ireland for the next couple of weeks. I’m sad to leave it behind, but also looking forward to new roads and adventures.

The thunderstorms threatened by the weather forecast this never materialized. I hear they did in Scotland. With hail. In the Highlands. Where I will be heading tomorrow. I hope my Irish luck with the weather follows me!

Under Ben Bulben

I left David & Lin’s place this morning filled with gratitude, and just a hint of sadness that I won’t see them (or Davey) again for… who knows how long? The sky was grey with low clouds, and the air was cool and damp. The forecast said rain, but less than it had threatened when I looked yesterday. I loaded the bike and said my goodbyes, and then I was off.

David suggested going to Roundstone, on the south coast of Connemara, and I was happy to take his advice. The ride was brilliant, and it wasn’t long before the low cloud burned off and the air warmed itself in the sunshine yet again. With the exception of about a quarter hour on the bus ride to Lisburn, I’ve had exceptional weather so far on this trip. Knock on wood.

The N59 was a brilliant ride, and could, in different stretches, be renamed The Ram Road, given the number of horned sheep grazing along the verge. (In fairness, there were likely some ewes, and definitely some lambs, but those don’t alliterate.) At one point there was a ram standing on the centre line of the road staring in my direction, as if to say, “Go on, I feckin dare ye.” But I slid past without incident.

The landscape in much of Connemara is, as Oscar Wilde said of, savagely beautiful. Reminiscent of parts of the Rocky Mountains back home, and yet different enough to have a wonderful strangeness mixed with that familiarity. So different from what I’d experienced elsewhere in Co. Galway, or anywhere else in Ireland for that matter. In place of the lush vegetation I’d grown used to, here everything was rock and scrub, with only the occasional gnarled tree jutting up above the level of the ubiquitous stone walls. No hedgerows here. I have a notion the Highlands will be similarly austere and beautiful, but I’ll find that out soon enough.

After stopping for coffee and a scone (with clotted cream and raspberry jam!) at the Bogbean Cafe, I rode through Cliffden to Westport, watching the landscape transform itself back to lushness, while still retaining a certain wildness.

After a quick lunch (Irish Toasty with salad), I was back on the road and heading steadily northward, through Co. Mayo to Sligo. The N5 has wide lanes with broad shoulders, and the optimism of Irish speed limits finally felt well placed. That wasn’t encouragement enough for some drivers, though, who insisted on keeping to 80 kmh in a hundred zone. I passed them happily, and they seemed happy enough to be passed, pulling a little to the left as I zipped past.

I passed through Sligo all too quickly. I should have stuck to my plan about not booking accommodations until I arrive in a place lesson learned, which I’ll apply in Scotland (or try to).

Just outside the city, I found the churchyard in Drumcliff, where Yeats is buried. I studied Yeats in university, of course, but I had already introduced myself to his poetry in the summer before I began my undergrad in Calgary. I looked at the inscription on the stone, which he composed in his famous poem “Under Ben Bulben”:

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by.

A motorcyclist, I thought, is as close as we come now to a horseman.

Riding past Ben Bulben, I think I understand why Yeats was so impressed. It stands out from the landscape with conspicuous enormity, much as his poetry stands out. No photograph could hope to convey the feeling – at least, not one I’m capable of taking – so I didn’t stop for it.

Tonight I’m in Bundoran, a slightly sad little seaside resort on Ireland’s northwest coast, in the nicest hotel I’ve stayed in so far. Tomorrow I head eastward, and a little further north, to the Giants’ Causeway, then down to Newtown Abbey, before leaving Ireland behind for Scotland. The threatened rain still hasn’t materialized, and I’m hoping my weather luck holds for a couple more weeks. But, as I’ve said before, I’ll take things as they come. I’m not made of sugar after all.

Towers, cliffs & Celtic crows

One way to tell you’re in Ireland, rather than a particularly lush corner of North America, is the difference in birdsong. Sure, the Irish finches sound pretty much like their Canadian cousins, but Celtic crow definitely do not. They squawk instead of cawing, almost (but not quite) like a dog’s squeeze toy. They’re also smaller & less tricksterish. And at David & Lin’s place there are also cuckoos, which I’ve never heard outside of a clock.

Today I went to the Cliffs of Moher, and I was hoping to see puffins, but didn’t, which I’ll explain later. Puffins are not a bird you’re likely ever to see in Vancouver. Apparently they breed on the cliff tops. But I’m jumping ahead.

I took the coast road down to the Burren, the geographical region of which the Cliffs are a spectacular piece. The road took me through the village of Kinvarra, which is home to, among other things, Dunguaire Castle. It was built in the 16th century, although it has a decidedly medieval feel to it. I decided to stop, since I’d already passed by a bevy of ruined farmhouses, churches and towers in the few days I’ve been here. I decided I shouldn’t pass them all, and besides, today was all about sightseeing.

It costs €8 to go up into the tower, and while the view of the village and the surrounding countryside is good, I’m not sure it’s worth handling over €8 for. I got better pictures from the outside. (At some point I’ll have to transfer some photos over to my phone/iPad from the camera.) Still, I guess they’ve got to raise the money to keep the doors open somehow.

I bought a coffee in the courtyard, and chatted a little with barista about her motorbike, which was parked behind the coffee wagon. Then I headed back to the bike and continued on to the Cliffs of Moher.

Access to the Cliffs’ visitors centre & parking also costs €8, although I don’t feel bad about it. The views are spectacular. And I even made sure I took one picture with my phone. Sadly, I’m blocking most of the view, but I’ll post better pictures later, and in the meantime, there’s loads of pictures on Google.

I walked up to the Norman-looking observation tower, thinking it might some historical relic. But in fact, it was an early attempt at tourist trapping, having been built a mere 183 years ago for Victorian tourists by the then landlord, Cornelius O’Brien. I decided to forego ascending to its battlements.

I’d read in the visitors centre that there was a place to see puffins along a path in the opposite direction from the tower, so I set off to see if I could find them. After a while, though, I started to feel more inclined to find lunch, and so headed back to the snack bar at the visitors centre, which is is called The Puffin’s Nest. Life is pretty funny sometimes.

After lunch and a quick tour through the gift shop, I headed back to the bike. It was already after 1 p.m., and I wanted to make another, less common tourist stop.

I set the GPS for Gort, and when it tried to make me backtrack, I promptly defied it. In my brief and limited experience with the Zumo, this often leads to more interesting routes. Today it resulted in a two-hour detour along wonderfully winding, terrifically twisty, brilliant Burren backroads. Narrow lanes between stone walls and hedgerows, past old stone farm buildings with roofs missing and walls caving, cattle lazing in the sun and horses seemingly posing for photographs.

I passed another castle, and stopped to take a picture since it appears still to be in use, at least as a holiday rental. A little further on I came across the ruin of the Monastery of Kilmacduagh, which was more impressive architecturally.

Eventually I reached the village of Gort, and near that Thoor Ballylee, the tower where Yeats moves with his wife and children in the midst of the Irish Cicil War. Only €7 for this, and worth every penny if you’re a fan of Yeats. (How can you not be?) Yeats wrote some of his most important poems here.

I sat through the audio-visual presentation made by the tourism board, by the look of it sometime back in the 70s, and then went up to see the inside of the tower itself. They even have a stare’s nest in one of the windows, with birds living in it. (No honeybees, though. You can’t have everything.)

I talked for a while to the volunteer who was running the place, an older (than me) woman named Toni. I asked where she was from, since her accent was clearly not local. She said she was from Florida, that she had worked for the Miami Herald, and told me how she came to be there. About Yeats, she said she couldn’t imagine what George (his wife) must have thought about being brought there, close as they were to Lady Gregory’s place at Coole. I said she likely had confidence he was no more attractive to Augusta as a married man thane had been when single.

After leaving Yeats’s tower it was time to come back here to rest up before another long day tomorrow. I’ll be sad to leave Galway behind, and David and Lin have been marvellous hosts. But tomorrow I’m heading west to Connemara, and then north to Sligo and Donegal. I’ll visit Ben Bulben, and Yeats’s grave. I’m hoping my luck with the weather holds, but I’ll deal with things as they come. There isn’t another way.

Galway for a rest

I’ve been invited to spend “as long as you like here” in Galway. That’s a dangerous offer. It’s fantastic here. I don’t want to take advantage of others’ good nature, but I’d be a fool to rush away too quickly. So, I’ve decided to stay through Thursday, and head out Friday morning for Sligo & Donegal.

Yesterday we spent the day exploring Galway’s historic centre. We stopped in a pub for a whiskey, and another place for pot pie. We visited Galway Cathedral, and walked along beach at Salthill. It was a fantastic afternoon.

The Corribh flows through The centre of Galway

After a nap & dinner, we went back into town with Davey & Lin, and stopped for a pint of bitter (and clean the birdshit off of Davey’s new hat from Canada). Davey & Lin got ice cream. It was a lovely evening, even if there weren’t the buskers David had hoped for.

Today I’m taking the bike down to The Burren and the Cliffs pod Moher, and may stop by Yeats’s tower on my way back.