My first full day here is a Sunday, and my host offers a tour he offers many, but with thoughts to my professional interests too. His battered, blackened, little van hurtles Irishly along Irish roads, by Irish loughs, through Irish mountains, and its passionate driver rants and laughs and pores all the wounds of Irish history. He laments Irish subjugation by the British, and Irish dependency on the British, but thanks us for our bridges, castles, railways (being granddaughter of a civil engineer, I graciously accept), landscaping and the general confident sophistication and infrastructure of imperialists, damn us.
We somehow charm free entry into the Leenane Sheep and Wool Centre’s museum on Killary Fjord and talk national character, unions and divisions, elections and referenda. The curator, voluble, good-humoured and generous-spirited, is a great advocate for the museum’s drive to inspire interest in rural crafts.
My host curses the average Irishman’s obstinate lack of regard for heritage, which he attributes to a deliberate disassociation with past poverty and strife, and from the vantage point of his tiny, pretty, lovingly restored crofthouse we complain about the plague of bungalows that spoils much of the land. I dislike them aesthetically, but after my first dismay some years ago on seeing one built every mile, I now look upon them as a sign of better land distribution and wealth equality than we have in Britain, where the countryside is painfully exclusive. Here in the mountains there is still plenty of wilderness, and in a total population of only about 4 million, this little community is underpopulated, crying out for more residents and, especially, children, as the locals age and die.
There is a funeral soon after I arrive, and I wish I could pay my respects to my new neighbours, but not even having even seen them yet, I avoid intruding.
I make my first weaving here, and though the colours are far more muted than the ones I’m living among, and though in my altered state and with its particular challenges it causes me much frustration, it is a good, Irish start.
Tucked back in the hill and nestled in a divet with mountains, woods and loughs all around and no-one in sight, I only have to walk five mnutes down the humpty, bendy lane to the little wiggly main road to get to the post office. So far from ‘civilisation’ and yet surrounded by everything I need, easily.
My host’s sister sells diesel and gas bottles there, and eggs that are free range. One of her staff is also a weaver, and, expecting me, we chatter for an hour and make plans for excursions and reciprocal workshop visits. A man comes in for some shopping and amid the craic we exchange a verse of an Irish song each and agree to gather a few folk for a musical evening. Later I’m told that he is known to be a great singer.
The following weekend we go to see my childhood hero, Christy Moore, who is utterly on form and who plays almost all of my favourite songs, and I remember a little bit more about why I am who I am.
The next day I head to another nearby castle to meet one of the new backpacking friends I made on the boat. It is another bright, sunny, jewel of a day. The van rocks and rolls its way to Galway City and I teach him a song all the way. The way into town is reassuringly easy; I find a suitable car park immediately, and the familiarity of a place I’ve loved before is like a hug. The streets and pubs are full of music and dance; I find a wholefood shop; we sit by one of the canals and natter long.
Back home, Murphy and I walk up the hill every day, and I worry on finding a dead sheep that he will be blamed. I have taken care to introduce him to the neighbouring farmer, who warms to him as everyone does. I can see that the ewe has died of natural causes, and my host is reassuring.
I weave snugs as the autumn colours intensify. Connemara is good for my weaving, and though I do not capture the colours as such, some spirit of the place brings the weavings alive, and two out of three are snapped up as soon as I list them.
Truer to the colours of the place and the tangles of my thoughts, I make a square for a Sussex project called ‘Blanket without borders’ that addresses questions about migration, home, settlement and inclusivity sparked by the Brexit upheaval and the Calais refugee crisis. I ponder my own relocation to Ireland, which feels as big as emigration, and likely will be.
Then comes Samhain bank holiday weekend, and though my weeks have been under-productive and my nights troubled with huge life questions, I cannot refuse a few great invitations: hiking to the very top of a deep gorge; paddling the full 5 mile circuit of the nearest lough; taking in some trad at Chieftains flute player Matt Malloy’s pub. (The man himself is there, though does not play, but we get a friendly nod, and we sing along to Christy songs and tap along to some tight tunes, and there is a young player too.)
I go also to the famous Maam Cross horse fair, and could bring home a dozen Connemara ponies. (My host says I can bring back one, and chickens, but I keep my head.) I guess the Spanish Armada stragglers here account for why the Connemara is so similar to the Spanish horse – see my Spaniard in the last picture below.
I have some ideas for a Connemara in Autumn shawl and blanket, and leftover inspiration for a Dartmoor in Summer batch too. I am commissioned to make a Snowdonia in Summer one, and have nearly secured the Shetland wool I will use.
I drop my host in Galway as he heads for Knoydart to climb mountains that must surely be twinned with these ones, and we eat good hake and chips. I end my blog post here as I go out into the dusk to mind his cows.