I decided to head southbound, rather than east, the morning of “the gentleman with the hat.”
Roll for serendipity.
Roll for serendipity check.
Uh, sure. [Rolls dice.]
20 again?!? How the hell do you keep doing that?
I don’t know, but the Northern Ireland excursion notwithstanding, this is more how things usually work. Evening found me in Athlone, a midlands town that isn’t even on the tourist maps, sipping a Guinness in a pub that Google and the other Guinness (the Book of World Records) say is the oldest bar in Europe, possibly the world. Oh, and tomorrow morning I’m going to have a go at storming the castle before I have to head on to Dublin.
Somehow the foray into Northern Ireland had thrown off my travel mojo, so I decided I’d make my way to Dublin by backtracking a bit before heading east. South, into County Sligo, and wait – is that a castle out on the horizon? I wonder what’s up with that. Oh, and a roadside sign for a waterfall. And. And and and.
Aside from its stunning mountains, seascapes, quaint towns and waterfalls, County Sligo seems to be best known for the graves of two people who may or may not actually be buried in them. High atop the rounded, breast-like Mount Knocknarea (Cnoc na Ri) lies the massive, indisputably nipple-shaped cairn that is reputed to be the grave of Queen Maeve of Connacht, legendary nemesis of Ulster.
The legends are, well, legendary, and quirky enough to make you wonder what grains of truth gave rise to them. For example, legend says that she was eventually killed by getting hit in the head with a piece of cheese. But the legend also says that she is buried here, atop Knocknarea, standing, and facing her eternal foes in Ulster to ensure that they can never truly rest. Makes you wonder. (We all know that the story behind the legend is usually as interesting as the legend itself.)
The hike up to where Maeve may or may not be buried is steep – what here in Ireland isn’t? – but well worth the effort. I pay my respects in what I’ve read is the traditional way, walking three times around, and leave a little offering of granola at the single, incongruous bunch of primrose which grows alone on the summit at the base of the cairn.
Sligo’s other famous might-not-be-buried-there is WB Yeats, in the graveyard at Drumcliff, in the shadow of Benbulben. I mean, someone is buried there, but Yeats died in Paris, and there is some question on the chain of custody of his remains. I’d stopped to pay my respects on the way north, but couldn’t help veering off on my way back south at a roadside sign indicating “Benbulben Forest Walk.” I’ll be frank: the Irish forests I’ve seen are depressingly unhealthy monocultures with unhappy trees and absolutely no understory to speak of. Still, Benbulben on a blustery day, with sheep grazing up as far as the green goes, could not fail to impress.
Then southbound! Glencar waterfall – another roadside sign – was positively Arcadian, though I skipped the hike up to the Devil’s Chimney.
By this point I figured I’d aim for the Midlands tonight, somewhere around Roscommon or Westmeath. Westmeath is where the Hill of Uisneach is, and hey – I’d been interested in seeing it when it wasn’t serving as the portal to the fifth, ethereal realm amid a fire-based ritual marriage and bacchanalia. The gates were going to close before I arrived, so…Athlone. On the way, and about 45 minutes short of Uisneach. And I’d get there just in time for dinner.
But wait – isn’t that a partially-restored 13th century abbey along the way? Ponder, ponder. No, best not overdo it. On to Athlone.
I pull into town, and a parking spot opens up around the corner from the castle. Nice castle, by the way, dude. I check Google Maps, and the second place I dial has a small room for one a couple of blocks away. Two hours later, I’m sipping Guinness in Sean’s, teaching the clapping patterns for “Wild Rover” to a vivacious young Angelino and her Irish beau. The session isn’t great, honestly, but the musicians are cheerful and earnest. I put in a request for “Star of the County Down,” and find.myself kind of shocked that they don’t know it.
It’s midnight, and the musicians are playing Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” (again – how do trad sessions always seem to spiral down to “The Gambler”?) when I make my excuses and reach for my hat. My companions press me to have another pint, but I’ve got to be up tomorrow morning to storm\h\h\h\h\h check out the castle.