So we unfortunately had to leave the lovely Ashford Castle, but not before we had a magnificent dinner and drinks (ok LOTS of drinks), Donnie played the 9 hole golf course and we all had the most wonderful breakfast. I am certain it will be a long time before any of us stay in a hotel like Ashford Castle, but we will certainly cherish the memory of a truly remarkable hotel.
We had a late start on Wednesday partly because we wanted to enjoy the Castle and partly because we were not travelling far today. Liam picked us up at 10:30, but by the time we took some final pictures and checked out, it was almost 11.
As we left our Castle through the large stone gates, we passed through the adjacent village of Cong and began our drive through Mayo County and the region of Connemara, which is in western Ireland with a large amount of the region bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Liam had suggested we take a small village road to Lough Nafoohey (Lake of the Blood) to see some of the beautiful mountainous landscape and massive sheep farms. As part of the trip, we would stop at Joyce Country Sheepdogs to meet Joe Joyce and see a demonstration of sheep herding by his award winning dogs. (Apparently Mr. Joyce and his dogs worked on the movie Marlie & Me and there was even a picture in his house with Jennifer Aniston.)
Anyway, the road to Lough Nafoohey was a small windy country lane road where we passed a number of sheep grazing. At this point, Liam suggested that we stop for a short hike up a country road to get a better view of Lough Nafoohey and to feel the land (i.e to smell and hear the sheep … baaaaaaa). So about a half hour after we left Ashford Castle, Cheryl, Donnie and I found ourselves hiking up a country road …. but there were no sheep.
We met Liam near the top of the hill and we all agreed the view was magnificent. Little streams trickled down the hillside, eventually meeting up with Lough Nafoohey and everywhere we looked there were funny little grasses and fern like plants … but zero trees and no sheep. Liam remarked to us that he could not believe there were no sheep around.
However, Liam had no sooner said this than we saw some sheep coming around a bend in the road at the base of the little hill we had just climbed. When we first saw them, the sheep were moving at a slow pace, but then suddenly the sheep were bounding up the hill. We soon saw a man on a tractor and a sheep dog bringing up the rear. Now we knew the cause of the sheep action. As we watched, the sheep would slow down and then the tractor and dog would get a little closer and then the sheep would begin their little “stampede”.
As we stood there watching and laughing at the sheep, we suddenly realized the marauding sheep were awfully close to us. In fact so close that Cheryl, Donnie, Liam and I had to turn and run to a little space near the parked van so we would not be trampled. I am certain the site of the four of us hightailing it away from the sheep would have made a hilarious video.
Anyway, after the little hike and visit with the sheep, we made our way down the hill to Jim Joyce’s home and the site of his sheepdog demonstrations. Now I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this demonstration was something else. Joe was a lovely man and incredibly proud of his farm and dogs. His sheep farm extended all the way up the hillside behind his incredible home (with a massive view of Lough Nafoohey). In addition, his sheep were grazing across the lake on the opposite hillside (between the peaks), on land which he shared with five other farmers.
The boarder collies that Jim bred and trained were in a series of pens beside his house. Before the demonstration, Joe explained to us the training methods he used to command the dogs to go left, right, backwards, forwards and to stay. Not only did he use vocal commands, but he used a series of short whistles. Joe told us that it took about four months to train a dog.
One other thing we learned is that each farmer marks his sheep with particular colours so that each farmer can distinguish his sheep from other sheep. This was necessary since the sheep in these parts simply roam the mountain areas in search of grasses to eat. Five times a year, Jim and the other five farmers get together to bring their sheep down from the mountain for sheering, baths and to select lambs for market.
Once the educational portion was out of the way, Joe brought out Spot from one of the pens (while the other dogs who were not called upon went wild, barking and jumping). Joe sent Spot up the hillside to coral the sheep and bring them down the hillside to an area right in front of where we were standing. We watched as Spot followed the verbal and whistle commands all the way up the hillside (almost to the point I could not see him) and then slowly herd the sheep down the hillside. It was absolutely amazing. Then Joe proceeded to have Spot herd the sheep back and forth in front of us, even isolating one sheep and then moving it back into the herd. The dog was brilliant and was apparently Joe’s best herder.
While we watched the demonstration, Joe’s daughter let out four puppies who have not yet been trained. Jim has already sold two of the pups and will likely keep the other two for his own training and use. Donnie of course immediately found one puppy (or the puppy found him) and began to play with him. I was actually surprised Donnie didn’t smuggle the pup into the van.
Anyway, the whole presentation was simply wonderful and by the end, we could understand why these boarder collies were championship caliber dogs. (In fact, the father of Spot was an award winning show dog.)
We also learned a few other facts on our visit which helped explain why sheep farmers like Joe were expanding their businesses into other areas. The bottom had fallen out for the price of wool and the price of lamb meat was equally bad. As a result, sheep farmers had to have other means to support themselves. For Joe, this meant breading and training boarder collies as well as putting on shows for tourists like us. All in all, it was a demonstration that we were certain the average tourist would never see.
After the wonderful exhibition, we drove to the other side of Lough Nafoohey for another view of the lake and countryside. We again took another little hike up the hillside and saw more sheep than we could count.
We left Lough Nafoohey behind and travelled through the mountainous, rocky hillside along incredibly narrow windy roads to Leenane Village where we stopped into a pub for a “toasted and tea” (except for Donnie who had a pint of beer). A toasted, it turns out, is a toasted ham, cheese, tomato and onion sandwich. I ordered mine without the onions and I can safely say it turned out to be a spectacular sandwich.
From Leenane Village, we drove around the only fiord in Ireland towards the Atlantic coast. Along the way, Liam stopped at a peat bog and took us for a walk on the bog. Twenty percent of Ireland is covered by peat bogs, which are used by Irish folk for fuel. The peat moss is cut in the early summer and left to dry in the sun and wind. One the peat moss dries out, the peat moss shrinks and becomes hard just like wood and is then used in winter to heat the homes. Fascinating.
Our last scheduled stop of the day was to the magnificent Kylemore Abbey, which sits on its own private lake. At one time, Kylemore Abbey was known as Kylemore Castle. The castle was built in 1868 as a private home for the family of Mitchell Henry after Mr. Henry and his bride fell in love with the area while on their honeymoon. The construction of the castle began in 1867, and took a total of one hundred men and four years to complete. The castle had over 30 bedrooms, a Turkish bath, a ballroom and on and on. Unfortunately, Mrs. Henry died at a young age after falling ill on a trip to Cairo. The castle remained in the Mitchell family until it was sold in 1909 to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. The Duke eventually lost the castle in a poker game. In 1920, the Benedictine Nuns purchased the castle after being forced to flee Ypres, Belgium during World War I. The castle remained a monastery and highly regarded school for girls of the wealthy elite until 2010. The remaining nuns are now working with the University of Notre Dame, which now offers school abroad programs for students enrolled at Notre Dame.
We arrived at Kylemore Abbey in mid afternoon and were fortunate to be able to tour the four open rooms in relative peace (i.e no tour buses). We visited the massive entry, a drawing room, the dining room and the music room. In addition, we arrived in time to be given a 15 minute historical overview of Kylemore Abbey by one of the guides. The building was really impressive.
After our visit to the house/abbey, we walked through a forested area (all planted by the Henrys) to the Gothic cathedral that Mr. Henry built to honour his late wife. And while the cathedral was build in the Gothic style, the interior retained a slightly feminine air.
The last building we visited was a family mausoleum containing the bodies of Margaret Henry, Mitchell Henry and a great grand-nephew. The mausoleum was also built in the middle of a forested area about a five minute walk from the cathedral.
We left Kylemore Abbey and began the two hour drive to Galway where we were going to spend the night. As we left Kylemore, Liam insisted on showing us the “bad” side of the Catholic Church. He told us about the Letterfrack Industrial School, where boys were sent who either misbehaved or were from families who could not afford to feed them. Apparently, the boys were mistreated by the priests and some abuse was so bad that boys died. We ended up visiting a small graveyard a few minutes from Kylemore Abbey with 88 grave markers for children who died from 1893 to 1945. It is believed that far, far more boys died at the hands of priests.
As we left the graveyard, Liam also told us about the Magdalene Laundries, Roman Catholic institutions of confinement for “fallen women” that operated from the 18th to the late 20th centuries. Once a woman gave birth, the woman remained confined where she was forced to do manual labor for the rest of her life. The incarceration of these women was enforced by locked doors, iron gates and prison guards. Liam stressed he was telling us these stories so that we could understand the good and bad of the Church. (Given what has been uncovered in Philadelphia, one has to wonder if there really was any good.)
Anyway, after the sad Catholic lessons, we moved on to happier subjects and more beautiful scenery. The last two hours of our day took us on the windy Sky Road along the Atlantic coast through more mountainous areas and lovely little villages overlooking the Atlantic. About one hour hour before Galway we passed through the lovely little village of Oughetard followed by the capital of Galway county, the village of Clifden. By now the landscape had once again changed to more rolling hills. The sheep had also given way to cows. We finally reached Galway at about 6:30, just in time to go have a few pints and enjoy some Irish music along the way.