- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

CLIFDEN, County Galway, Ireland — Her name was Granuaile (Grace) O’Malley, but she is better remembered as “the pirate queen of Ireland,” a 16th-century sea captain and political power whose exploits on land and sea are legendary.

She was the commander of her own fleet of ships and a private army of 200 men, and she traded and plundered from Scotland to Spain, bedeviling all who crossed her, whether from a rival clan or from England. When the British governor finally defeated her, impounding her fleet and confiscating her land, she took her grievances directly to Queen Elizabeth I, initially in written exchanges (preserved in Elizabethan state papers) and then in person, requesting and receiving an audience.

The appearance of this rough warrior woman as she strode up to the elegantly dressed queen in the splendor of Greenwich Castle must have been startling. By the time their encounter ended, though, Grace not only had negotiated the release of an imprisoned son (some accounts say two sons and a brother), but had received royal protection to continue her operations on land and sea under the pretense of protecting England’s interests against Spain’s growing power.

She is believed to have died around 1600, in her early 70s, and to have been buried in a wall tomb in a tiny chapel on Clare Island, off the west coast of Ireland.

That is where I made her acquaintance, inside the 12th-century chapel of the Cistercian abbey, where her benchlike tomb with a carved stone arch above it and the O’Malley family crest to the side brought ahs of recognition and respect from the Irish in my traveling group.

I was the only American and one of just three non-Irish (the other two being German and French) in the cluster of 10 gathered there. We had been trekking together for four days, first on the Irish mainland along the British Isles’ only fjord and then across three islands, including Clare, on a vacation adventure called Connemara Safari, led by Irish archaeologist Gerry MacCloskey.

During that time, walking, talking, laughing and dining together, we had come across many traces of Grace’s predecessors, from Neolithic times forward, and those who had followed her, from the Cromwellian era to the present.

We had found the remains of tombs, forts, a beehive-shaped hut and a clan cooking pit; seen the ruins of an abandoned “famine village”; and walked along a trail built in exchange for food during that desperate time. We also had been surrounded by the intermingling of tradition and change in contemporary island life.

My participation in the trek, as the guest of Connemara Safari and Tourism Ireland, begins with my arrival at the luxurious Abbeyglen Castle Hotel in County Galway, where co-owner and manager Brian Hughes started informally taking hotel guests on island excursions in 1992. With Mr. MacCloskey’s help, he developed them into the fully supported five- and seven-day vacations offered today.

The Abbeyglen is a former manor house built in the style of a castle in 1832 by Sir John d’Arcy, founder of the surrounding town of Clifden, a growing tourist destination. With welcoming fires in many of the public rooms; gas fireplaces in some of the guest rooms, including mine; and 12 acres of lawn, gardens, a stream and even a helipad just off Clifden’s small harbor, it is the perfect resting place at the beginning and end of the safari.

Our first day’s walk takes us about five miles along the 1846 “famine track” partway up the hills bordering the fjord that forms Killary Harbor. A leveled path kept in place by rocky retaining walls, it was a “relief work” project to let starving families exchange their labor for food, Mr. MacCloskey says.

“The women and children put all these rocks in place,” he explains. “The men were up in the hills, breaking the rocks and carrying them down” to their families. They burned more calories each day than they earned in their rations.

We also pass the ruins of a “famine village,” a cluster of abandoned, roofless stone cottages. For us, though, the setting is tranquil, with unseen mussel nets hanging from lines of buoys strung out on the placid fjord and with headlands offering expansive views of water and hills.

The route we are following, Mr. MacCloskey advises us, will require us to keep our eyes down, watching our feet all the way. First comes “the rocky part,” then “the wet part.” Even with my eyes down, I step into a boggy patch covered by grass, and my right foot sinks to my ankle in watery muck. I’m glad I paid attention to advice to wear waterproof hiking boots with good grips. My feet are dry as I proceed toward the small waterfall where we will picnic.

After lunch of smoked salmon sprinkled with fresh lime juice, plus sandwiches and at least six bottles of wine and soft drinks that Mr. MacCloskey has carried in his backpack, we begin “the easy part,” a gravel path to the end of the fjord, where we board a bus to Cleggan Harbor and the ferry that will take us to our first island, Inishbofin. Translate inish as island, and Inishbofin as white cow island, after a mythical animal that is said to arise periodically from Lough (Lake) Bofin.

From the deck of the ferry, a utilitarian vessel with several dozen seats inside and standing room on deck, Mr. MacCloskey points out a Neolithic court tomb and, soon after, what is left of a 1652 Cromwellian star fort, so called because it was laid out in a star pattern to increase the angles of fire. The tomb, a circle of rocks interrupted by an entry passageway and, in the center, a capstone held up by standing stones, is the oldest type of tomb in Ireland. Fifteen to 20 people would have been buried there, and religious ceremonies would have been held in the inner “court” area.

We return quickly to the 21st century as we disembark onto a pier where supplies have been unloaded and huge bags of garbage wait to be ferried off the island. A young woman hoists a canister, labeled “foam wash,” that looks to be about 18 inches tall and 12 inches across into her hatchback. “The joys of living on an island,” she says with a laugh.

Recycling is important, and outside our unimposing but comfortable hotel, the Doonmore, cases of empty bottles are stacked next to four recycling bins about 5 feet tall and just as wide.

I learn more about life on Inishbofin the next morning from Xandra Pienaar Mpumalanga of South Africa, our waitress in the Doonmore’s small restaurant. She and her husband came to the island for a one-year stay in a vacation cottage owned by a friend who rarely uses it, “and here we are, five years later,” she says.

“It’s a magical place, really,” she adds, undeterred by the acknowledgement that inclement weather and rough seas can strand islanders at home — or on the mainland if they’ve gone there to work or shop.

“We can be five days without transport,” she says cheerily, although helicopters available to airlift people in emergencies will bring in supplies, if necessary.

Even on this remote-seeming island of fewer than 200 full-time residents, time refuses to stand still. An airstrip, debated for about 10 years as a mixed blessing, is nearing the building stage, and a new luxury hotel under construction is the talk of the island.

Our circle of the western part of the island takes us way back into the past. Our first stop is a Neolithic kitchen (or shell) midden, where remains of long-ago shellfish dinners protrude from an exposed embankment. Later we stroll to near the edge of a promontory fort, used in intertribal wars from about 400 B.C. to A.D. 400. Set at the top of sheer rock cliffs very difficult for enemies to scale, such forts made it easy to pick off would-be conquerors with slinging stones and iron-tipped wooden arrows. In times of danger, everyone on the island would move into the fort, where there was room even to pasture sheep.

As we walk, Mr. MacCloskey points out the “ripple erosion”caused by “unstable soil” folding over on itself until it resembles ripples in a pond in its undetected creep down the hillside. Sheep use the space between “ripples” as pathways, and so do we.

My photographs when I return home will have water spots from the raindrops I can’t keep off the lens, and after six miles of rain and wind, we are happy to sit by the fire in the Doonmore’s cozy pub, lunching on delicious, thick vegetable soup and sandwiches before catching the ferry to our next island, my favorite, Inishturk.

A visit to Inishturk — wild boar island — with a fisherman friend inspired Abbeyglen Castle’s Mr. Hughes to begin the island excursions that grew into Connemara Safari, and Inishturk, for me, is the most memorable of our destinations. Everything comes together there.

We luck into mild, rain-free weather; see a variety of interesting sights; experience, for me, the most enjoyable and diverse hiking conditions, even if I do have to walk briefly sideways to get up some of the steeper parts; and stay two nights. That gives us more opportunities to meet the people of the island and get a feel for this County Mayo community of about 70 residents.

We even gain a new hiking partner, a short-haired Jack Russell terrier name Precious, who belongs to Anne O’Toole, owner with her husband, Paddy, of one of the handful of bed-and-breakfast inns on Inishturk. We are not staying with Mrs. O’Toole this trip, but Precious knows Mr. MacCloskey and P.J. Lydon, a trombone player in the army band who lives in Logstown Kilcullen, County Kildare, and is making his fifth safari trek. Precious is an entertaining and tireless companion.

We are staying at the Ocean View B&B;, owned by Mary and Bill Heanu, parents of six and grandparents of three youngsters who also live on the island. Two spirited grandsons become familiar presences, as they obviously enjoy spending time with their grandparents.

Mrs. Heanu greets us with freshly baked scones, tea and coffee when we arrive from the ferry and invites us to make ourselves comfortable in the family room anytime. To read there in a comfortable love seat under the window before dinner or to watch the news on TV while Nathan, 4 at the time of our visit, snuggles up next to his grandfather or amuses everyone by walking around in boots and carrying a fishing pole like his granddad’s is to feel as welcome as a longtime friend come for a visit.

When we head out the next day, I’m more impressed than ever by the rocky terrain and can’t resist taking a few pictures at the start of our eight-mile hike that I later label “very rocky hills” and “very, very rocky hills.”

We see the remains of earlier uses of the rocks in a communal Bronze Age wedge tomb (narrowing toward to the back); a beehive-shaped hut made without mortar by a stacking process called corbeling; and a D-shaped enclosure in which a semicircular rock wall butts against both ends of a steep rock face and fences out grazing sheep to protect the grain growing inside.

The ruins are mere outlines of the foundations, and without Mr. MacCloskey, we would not guess their significance. He laughs when I think I detect a pattern in several other clusters of rocks. “Just kids playing, most likely,” he says of those formations.

At a fulacht fia, a Bronze Age cooking site where we stop, heated rocks were used to boil water and cook meat in a depression in the ground. After feasting, participants would release the water into a deeper depression and wash their clothes and bodies in it. That may sound gross, Mr. MacCloskey says, but not if we remember that ash and fat make soap.

Of more contemporary importance, he points out the commonage wall that marches unbroken up and down the hilly island as far as we can see, separating the western two-thirds of the island, available to all for pasturing animals or taking walks, from the more sheltered eastern third, where the islanders live. Other walls, marking residents’ private property, meet the commonage wall at right angles.

We also pass roofless rock enclosures used to corral sheep for shearing or debugging.

Fishing, lobstering, farming and tourism are the island’s main fair-weather occupations, but in the winter, many make traditional crafts. John Concannon, whose wife, Delia, runs a third B&B; on the island, makes sleek racing currachs, traditional rowboats made of wood slats covered with layers of tar. Mrs. Concannon, who hosted us for dinner the night we arrived, is also our hostess for lunch after our morning hike. (We have breakfast and our second night’s dinner at Mrs. Heanu’s long table.)

I opt out of a three-mile uphill afternoon hike to a Napoleonic watchtower, preferring instead to stroll around the pier area with my camera. Thanks to that decision, I meet a young man from home: Chris Bridge, an electrical engineer who grew up in Great Falls and arrived on the island in July after single-handedly sailing a small craft from New Hampshire to Inishturk. He tells me he plans to spend the winter on the island and then decide what to do next. I can’t wait to tell everyone over dinner, but by that time, Mr. MacCloskey and Mr. Lydon already have heard the story from impressed islanders.

Our departure coincides with that of men who work on the Inishturk pier, which is being expanded, during the week and go home on weekends. Pat Molloy, using a penknife to cut his pipe tobacco the old-fashioned way from a compressed block and enjoying attention as a bit of a character, is on his way to Achill Island to the north, where his wife and 4-year-old daughter await. He was a construction worker in London for about 25 years, he says, but when his daughter was born, he decided he did not want her to go to London’s public schools. It was time to return to Ireland. “You have to be versatile,” he says.

“You realize he probably left Ireland when he was 15,” fellow hiker Anne Sheridan tells me as we try to gauge his age. Mrs. Sheridan and her husband, Gerry, own a B&B;, Louth Hall, in eastern Ireland, near Dundalk in County Louth.

We leave Mr. Molloy and his friends when the ferry stops at Clare Island, the “Holy Island,” thought to get its name from the clerics who lived there or from the old Gaelic word for church, cealtra. I am about to make the acquaintance of Grace O’Malley, but there is more to her final resting place than just her tomb in the 12th-century chapel.

The chapel’s vaulted ceiling is covered in faded Norman frescoes of knights on horses and other nonreligious images. These and some frescoes in County Tipperary are the only ones known to exist in Ireland.

Attached to the chapel is a nave probably built in the 16th century, when local people began attending Mass at the abbey. Behind it is the 20th-century church used by today’s islanders, and in front of the oldest structure, the chapel, is a standing stone from pagan times.

Our visit to the old abbey is a march through time contained in one churchyard. It’s a fitting finale to our four-day safari through the eons on Connemara.

Island-hopping trips

Connemara Safari has 13 five-day island-hopping trips scheduled this year, beginning June 5 and concluding with a trip that starts on Sept. 4. Seven-day safaris can be arranged by request. The five-day itinerary costs $720, including all food, lodging, transportation and luggage transfer, beginning with your arrival in Clifden.

The seven-day program costs $1,075 and begins in the 18th-century town of Westport in County Mayo. Participants stay in a bed-and-breakfast owned by guide Gerry Greensmyth and his wife, Bernie, for three nights before beginning the itinerary followed in the five-day excursion. A high point of the seven-day safari is a trek on Croagh Patrick, a mountain pilgrimage site where St. Patrick is believed to have fasted for 40 days but that also has yielded archaeological evidence of its pre-Christian importance.

The weather is changeable. During my early September trek, we had sun warm enough for shirt sleeves and shorts, but we also had one chilly day of wind-driven rain. “Soft” days of overcast skies and drizzle or mist are common. Rain gear, which can be borrowed from Connemara Safari if desired, is a must, and so are waterproof walking shoes with good grips. Although our guide, Gerry MacCloskey, preferred hiking sandals without socks regardless of the weather or ground conditions, few walkers would be comfortable following his example. Layering with a shirt, sweater or fleece, and windbreaker/rain jacket should cover all weather conditions. The bottom layer, and the socks, should be of a material that wicks away sweat, and the top layer needs to be breathable as well as rainproof.

I could not find direct flights from any of the three local airports to Shannon but instead connected through JFK International in New York.

The Web site for Connemara Safari (www.walkingconnemara .com) has links to two transportation companies that can provide rides from Shannon Airport or other locations (www.joycescabs. com and www.chauffeurs.ie) and links to two pre- or post-safari lodging options (www.townand countrycottages.com and www. abbeyglen.ie). It also has information on a seven-day Connemara Cycling Safari and an eight-day island-hopping sailboat trip that requires a minimum of seven persons and three months’ notice.

The mailing address is Connemara Safari, Sky Road, Clifden, County Galway, and the phone number is (095) 21071 or, toll-free, 850/777-200.

Connemara Safari belongs to Walking Cycling Ireland (www.irelandwalkingcycling.com) and Ireland West Tourism (www.irelandwest.ie). For more information on travel in Ireland, visit Tourism Ireland (www. tourismireland.com).

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