Welcome back to the Land of Heart’s Desire!
If you recall from last time, we approached the topics of Carrowmore; brushed shoulders with Queen Maeve, and listened to the wise old stories of Dr. Michael Roberts. Today, we follow Maeve’s path to a different place – one sadly without a gentle narrator, save for the one that’s hopefully in your hearts.
Off the beaten path and so small you might just miss it is the rustic township of Strandhill.
Strandhill, occasionally an Leathros (Larass), is a beatific piece of landscape. Buffeted by the ocean and the mountains on either side, it sits on a crescent of time-worn stone and shifting sands. Thunderous cerulean seawater continuously grapples with the shore, throwing foam as it seethes and froths. The sea here is an animal; prowling between the stones, and signs advise against swimming – though, not surprisingly, waves of this capacity attract a great deal many surfers. It’s argued that Strandhill is one of the best, if not the best place to go surfing in Europe. Races and a guitar festival occasionally take place there, including an infamous 15k that takes participants all the way up Knocknarea – to Maeve – during its journey. Down the way (as they say), there is a thatched cottage; still operational, 200 years old and counting that is open to the public.
In terms of less modern and commercial things, we take you back to the sea. During a Wild West Irish Tour of any kind, it’s vital to check your surroundings. Not because you’re in any imminent danger, mind, but because if you don’t, you’re likely to miss something extraordinary. Upon exiting our distinguished chariot; one might take a moment to breathe in the salty air and hear the rush and thrash of wild waves. Indulge in the spray of the sea and drink in the sight of its endless passions. The coastline is a crumbling scene of silvery stones and soft white sands with a thousand and one different types of tinier rock littering the neck of the beach like jewels. Everything is anointed in a fine amount of salt – save the people; somehow, who remain warm, pleasant, and welcoming despite their stormy neighbor; the Atlantic.
A cannon is offset to face the sea; a tribute to times long ago. A rock wall barricades the beach from the rest of the town, and, strolling to the right, there is a plaque dedicated to Queen Maeve, fearsome warrior and infamous lady of legend. A Yeats poem greets the viewer in marble, etched to reflect the silvery cover of the sky:
The wind has bundled up the clouds
High over Knocknarea,
And thrown the thunder on the stones
For all that Maeve can say.
Angers that are like noisy clouds
Have set hearts abeat;
But we have all bent low and low
And kissed the quiet feet of
Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.
This is the perfect time to start on a whole new journey.
Beware the saw-toothed grass as you pace toward the distant horizon. The winding beach trails offer all kinds of variety; opportunities to commune with nature both reflective and interactive. In the waving fronds, one can find nests of stones laid there by the ocean or passersby. Remnants of small campfires or travelers (the regular kind, we’ll get to the other sort at a later date) lay whispering their stories to the ether. Gulls circle soundless overhead and chase the leaping sea still heaving itself against the coast.
Taking the high or low road seems not to matter – each offers unique choices of landscape. Cresting the dunes and looking back over the remnants of jetties and the occasional stone house left to seed the landscape with questions of yesteryear or walking along the more enclosed places toward the spotted tree line is open for debate. Friendly folks fleck the dune trails; so a more solitary jaunt is likely found closer to the ocean.
This is Maeve’s territory; all of it. Knocknarea is close; watchful and distinct despite descending clouds. One can think of her legends; the mountain and the madam, overlooking this beautiful place of self-reflection and focus.
Maeve’s name comes from Meabh, or Meadhbh, which is said to mean “she who enchants”. Occasionally, “enchants” is swapped for “intoxicates” – and, given the stories of this powerful figure and her surrounding territories, it’s easy to see why. Some of her stories include the possession of a mighty bull who outdid her enemy-friend’s bull in a spar. She was the daughter of the king of Connacht; she had many lovers and five husbands – all of whom became kings and were “married to the land” more than they were married to her. And who wouldn’t want to be? The region is bountiful in beauty and seemingly bottomless in hidden wonders. Whether the folklore of Maeve is true or not (she would’ve existed around 50 BCE – 50 CE), she is a prominent figure whose cairn atop Knocknarea casts a shadow – less ominous than night: more a cool and shady reminder on a hot day. Or a long, but meaningful jaunt.
Further down the way, the world begins to bend around a bay – a small inlet in which locals fish beyond the rock walls and cast themselves along the more tempered waters. During this time, the sojourner might find themselves approaching a certain silhouette of ruins – different from those of the houses left behind in the tall grasses closer to the trees.
Looking back at the township of Strandhill, the platinum ocean seems stiller than before. Night is beginning to fall and the senses are stirred by the gentler scene; one uninterrupted by lights or sounds other than what nature has to offer. This is another moment, one which requires utmost attention in only that one should fully immerse oneself in it: breathe deeply and enter the ruins when you are ready.
Ben Bulben and Knocknarea flank its remnants in the distance – a graveyard both in the literal and figurative sense greets you upon entry, as the uneven ground is filled with markers, stones, and crosses, each reflecting one who’s passed on, but also, in regards to the remains of the church, which still stand, but only just.
Killaspugbrone (points to you if you can say it correctly the first time) rests in pieces on the edge of the Coolera peninsula – a very Christian offset to the surrounding pre-Christian elements that come from Queen Maeve’s legends. There is a haunted resonance that comes from standing in a place as old as the church ruins – sometime around the 12th century; supposedly yet another place St. Patrick made it to. Not all of him made it out, however – as legend says, Patrick tripped on a stone (easy to do, coincidentally) and lost a tooth on the grounds. It was encased in gold and enshrined, then given to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin – after a great game of historical “hot potato” occurred, wherein said relic was tossed around and mistreated by various parties.
In the present, one can try to read the fading stones to uncover their stories. People old as 102 are buried there; and the peace that comes from this final resting place is unparalleled. It feels safe; to walk around the toothy turf of jutting markers and sweeping grasses. There are fresh flowers laid at some of the graves, and the last person to be buried there is from the 1960’s. All in all, the experience is spiritual and fulfilling – there is a soulful triumph in walking this far to see this “reward” at the end. A walk is a fine and good thing, but seeing Something Special at the end of it just makes the whole adventure seem that much more worthwhile.
And it’s a funny thing as you start the journey back: reluctant to leave; sure, but taking this piece of magic with you. This feeling of blessedness that comes from a solitary excursion is one that is encouraged and cherished. To be alone and to walk alone is something inherently necessary: that in solitude, one can talk to oneself or simply immerse oneself in the near-silence with an important realization:
Not everyone has to be “on” all the time. This is a walk that endeavors to teach you to appreciate the “aloneness” of existence: not in the negative, but as a positive to better understand yourself and your place in the world. To be fully present and to not be giving pieces of yourself away.
This is a walk meant to bring you back to yourself.
And, feeling whole and content, the walk back to civilization is almost one wherein you want to drag your feet:
But waiting for you at the end is another chance to reflect amidst the gifts of the sea; seaweed baths steaming with natural minerals and oils waft out of a spa center, oddly modern yet strangely archaic in the best possible way. The good people of Voya await like so many maids of the sea, permitting warmth and luxury that is good for bones chilled that have gone unnoticed on the glory of a solitary stroll. Altogether, the experience is one fully good for the body and the soul.
Whether it be the wildness of the waves or the wonders of a wander, the experience is vital to all. To be yourself; by yourself, is a truly remarkable thing – rare, in this day and age, to be entirely alone. Lay back in the hot bath and feel yourself slip into the abyss of bliss that comes from a cracked window through which the song of the sea prevails; and let the ocean embrace you in its own way – be present, and accept that everything has a purpose, even if that purpose is to simply be. It comes back to what Michael Roberts suggested regarding how people lead linear lives: the water and the walk should remind one to embrace cyclical replenishment again, to move differently and experiencing life more fully. To refresh oneself; one must recycle and renew. Here at Strandhill, standing in Maeve’s shadow; her strength in legends prevailing, it actually seems possible.
Let all troubles be soaked away in seaweed; salt, or sand. Let the wind whisk your worries away. Be free in the knowledge that you are present, and let yourself be truly wild.
It’s what Queen Maeve would’ve recommended.
Until next time,
– Sam Fishkind