Bernard’s “Big Five-Oh” gives the Doyle family something to celebrate, and we head to Connemara for a holiday. Red Sails, our home for the week, is in the centre of Carna village, deep in the heart of Connemara and right on the water’s edge. We arrive in convoy with fishing rods, welly boots, cameras, rain jackets, a dog called Beauty and enough food and wine to feed a small army.
We quickly find our way around: Carna village is just big enough for us. The church is about a hundred paces from our hall door, and we stroll down there on Sunday morning to join the local parishioners at Mass, conducted of course in Irish. We are in the heart of the Gaeltacht here. The local Parish Priest is leaving and his sermon is brief but heartfelt. Although we are strangers to the village, we are moved by his tears as he thanks the people of the parish he has served for seven years. Mum and I are delighted that we manage to understand about three-quarters of the Irish spoken by both priest and parishioners.
The gossip flows outside Geraghty’s supermarket across the road after Mass. Don’t let the supermarket description fool you: this is no bigger than your local corner shop really, but it does a good line in fresh deli foods and baked goods, and it is close enough to send the kids down every morning for fresh milk and bread. Over the road, Tigh Mhóráin is a classical grocery/pub, with a front door leading to a mini-market and the back door to what appears to be the regular haunt for most of the village’s blokes. One more pub, another small shop, a post office and a locally-owned hotel completes the village circuit.
Somebody is always up early to start breakfast. With eight people in the house, the youngest a thirteen year old boy, we get through a lot of sausages.
Connemara chic is de rigeur: green welly boots to protect against puddles, rock pools, the odd wave and the forever-threatening rain; shorts or leggings; a few layers to be ready for anything the Atlantic throws at us; local féile hoodie bought from Tigh Mhóráin’s; hair tied back against the wind; sunglasses just to be optimistic. Plenty of sunscreen and no makeup. I haven’t seen a full-length mirror since Dublin and it is probably just as well.
A five-minute drive in any direction brings you to an isolated, stunning beach, a tiny village harbour (céibh) to fish from, a vast pond-still lake surrounded by ancient bog and dry-stone walls, or another dramatic vista of the Twelve Bens. The changeable weather – clouds and sun, the occasional rainshower – just heightens the beauty of the place as the light changes and the landscape changes colour.
At Roundstone on a sunny summer Sunday, the world and his wife are out. There is a hooker race (traditional Irish sailing boats, not women of dodgy repute), a pony show and a craft fair on. People sit outside the many seafood restaurants and bars, putting the world to rights as only the Irish can. I fill up with petrol outside an old-fashioned grocery store with two ancient petrol pumps outside. We buy a round in McDowd’s pub and stroll across the road to sit on the harbour wall and watch the boats assemble. None of your plastic glasses here: you are expected to take good care of your pint if you wander outside.
On Gurteen Strand nearby we find a sheltered spot and the hardier specimens in the family chance a dip in the sea. I hold their towels.
Later in the week down at “Doyle Beach” (it’s actually called Moyrus Beach but we adopted it) there is a newly constructed céibh, a handful of moored currachs, an expanse of beach to let the dog run around, a marvellous view of Errisbeg Mountain beyond Roundstone, and very cold water. On a blustery, chilly evening, I stand in full “Connemara chic” regalia, topped off by a Gore-Tex rainjacket, hood up, hat on, with a full body of goosepimples, as the onshore wind drops the temperature from a balmy 14C to something closer to single digits. I watch as Ashling and Connor frolic in the waves wearing nothing more than this season’s Billabong beachwear. Days earlier, I almost got hypothermia diving nearby in a semi-dry and shortie. These children, I conclude, are mad.
The cemetery standing alongside the beach – all the dead of Connemara enjoy stunning views – has graves going back to before famine times. Plenty of people had eighty years or more before they turned up their toes: must be the sea air. A poignant headstone tucked at the back of the old chapel ruins commemorates Nora and Mathias McDonagh and their three young sons aged eight, five and four, all of whom died in June 1909. The headstone was erected by the children of their only remaining child, a daughter, Mary McDonagh McGagh, who died in Boston in 1990 aged ninety-nine. Another grave at the very edge of the cemetery had the headstones all facing the wall: very odd until you climb around to read the inscriptions and find two of the three buried there had died in America. The headstones are facing west across the Atlantic.
On Mweenish Island, just ten minutes’ drive in the other direction, a random turning off the boreen brings us down a barely-paved track to a gem of a little beach overlooking Mweenish Bay. Facing east on a breezy day, there is hardly a breath of wind as the family diverges to poke around rock pools, scramble on rocks or simply drink in the view. The sun comes out and we sit contentedly on boulders of Connemara stone, faces upturned to the summer warmth. Across the water on Finish Island, the ruins of an old village rise up against the sky. Seven or eight houses, abandoned presumably during or after the famine year.
On Friday morning the village of Carna is awake with activity. It is the feast day of the local saint, Mac Dara, who brought Christianity to Connemara over fifteen hundred years ago. He is buried just offshore on Saint MacDara’s Island, and each year on the sixteenth of July the entire parish and many others make the pilgrimage by boat to the island where Mass is said. We have no lifejackets so we can’t travel with them, but I follow the crowds to Mace pier (céibh) to see them off. The céibh is already buzzing before ten in the morning. I am the only English speaker. A “Takeaway Chonamara” van is set up and doing a roaring trade in “tóg abhaile” (take-away) teas and coffees: later we will enjoy a few trays of traditional Irish chips with curry sauce.
Two men emerge from the back of a white van and start to assemble a new wooden altar with an electric screwdriver. The altar is made from freshly-varnished pine, the images of the féile on the front: a Galway hooker in full sail and three men rowing a currach. In between, in place of the usual image of Saint MacDara’s island chapel, is a simple wooden cross. Mass is usually said on the island from a table precariously placed atop a huge rock under which it is said the saint himself is buried. These local men have built this new flat-pack altar as an alternative, to be taken out year after year then disassembled and stored away. It is beautiful.
I interrupt a priest chatting in excellent French to two tourists. He tells me there will be no mass on the island today as the winds are too strong to sail safely across. Originally from Dublin’s North Wall, Séamus Ó Dúill (James Doyle) is the priest from nearby Cill Chiaráin and has served as a priest is the Connemara Gaeltacht for years. Delighted, I race home to tell the others that Mass will be held on the céibh at noon, so we can all attend.
An hour later, we stand in a throng of three or four hundred people facing the newly-hewn altar now atop a Joyces of Recess curtain-sided truck at the base of the céibh. A heavy shower gives way to sunshine as the Cill Chiaráin priest gets Mass underway. It is conducted in Irish, of course, with a few welcoming words in French and English at the beginning for the small number of tourists from the local hotel. Before Mass is ended, two local babies are christened on the quayside as part of the féile celebrations. We stand together, taking in the scene, and are grateful to be given the opportunity to be part of this old parish tradition.
When Mass is over we mill around the céibh and the rocks, as a flotilla of Galway hookers magically appear in the bay. There will be sea racing and live traditional music all day. We sit on the edge of the céibh, gazing seawards as the traditional brown-red sails unfurl above the pitch-black craft. And they’re off! Round the holy island and back: we watch their ballet all afternoon as currach races happen closer to shore.
Meanwhile four gleaming currachs, newly painted black, their gunwales and oars picked out in vibrant red, green, yellow and blow, get ready for the off. The sea is choppy and the tide is coming in as they head out to the island. We are cosy under three or four layers of warm clothes whilst these modern-day gladiators battle against the waves of the Atlantic bare-chested except for their flotation devices. They row so far out that we can no longer tell them apart. As they make the return journey, a roar goes up from the crowd as we can see who is in the lead. It is not the young bucks in the yellow currach who win, but four much older – much more experienced – men in the blue currach who coast over the line first. All four crews are cheered in equally as they return, after continuing a centuries-old tradition which has not lost its excitement or popularity in the twenty-first century.
Later, in the local hotel we dine on seafood chowder and Connemara lamb as the evening’s entertainment begins. Danny O’Flaherty, a local musician now based in New Orleans, leads a night of traditional music and song to the delight of the American tourists, the substantial local crowd and the Doyle clan. I recognise the melodian player as one of the young musicians from the céibh this morning. We start with a few ballads in both Irish and English from Danny, then the dancing begins. A young fellow, not more than nine or ten, dressed nicely in a yellow pullover and green Nike trainers, takes to the floor as an energetic reel commences. He dances in the more casual local style, arms outstretched at times to balance himself. A few minutes in he is replaced by an older girl, perhaps in her twenties, with hornpipe shoes, sweater and leggings. None of your Riverdance costumes here: she is dressed for a night out in the pub. Her long hair flies as her shoes beat out a rhythm on the wooden floor. As she retreats back to her seat, a bloke who looked like he was coming back from the gents wanders onto the floor: obviously related to the young dancers, his black and white tap shoes are at odds with his ordinary shirt-and-trousers attire as his feet fly. His brother joins him after a time, a heavier-built chap in matching shoes; the brothers duel with their feet and lead the family members in a final flourish as the crowd jump to their feet. Brilliant.
As the wine and Guinness flows, two older local men take the floor to sing a sean-nós song or two. Connor, ever the young gentleman, asks the ladies of his family up for a waltz. Bernard, Annette, Connor and Ashling join the locals in a set of the Walls of Limerick. We dance and sing until midnight, and as we leave for the night there are still crowds in the bar. All Irish: the Americans have long since hit the hay.