Thursday, June 10, 2010

running with cows

What’s the population of Ireland? Ed asks.
I don’t know... less than that of Poland.
Which is?
Poland is at 38 million.

The Internet tells me Ireland’s at 4.5 million.

Yes, it feels much much less crowded here. Cities are few and far between. Dublin, the largest, is half the size of Warsaw and mind you, at 2 million, Warsaw could be considered rather small. Sort of like six Madisons, side by side.

Breakfast at the Cairbre House. Brian fusses and the results are exceptional: locally smoked salmon on brown bread, scrambled free range eggs with a salad and herbs from the Cairbre garden, fruits, yogurts, a local cheese.


I ask about the weather for the day.
It looks like we'll be getting more stable air.
I'm guessing we’re safe from the big rains, even as an occasional sprinkle may still surprise us (and it does, late in the afternoon, as we scramble for shelter under a bush).

Of course, it is the mild and rainy temperament of this country that allows for such beautiful gardens. Filled with moisture loving roses.


We have several suggestions of trails for hiking. Ireland, like Great Britain, is at home with this sport. Detailed maps show you how to put together a decent trek, with information on elevations, paths, and roads.

But it’s always a challenge to find a trailhead and we drive in circles for a good hour looking for the one we pick for the day.

Where’s the Two Mile bridge? I ask.
Can’t say that I know. There’s a region called Two Miles – might you mean that?
No, we need the bridge. One of many here, all seemingly nameless.

The lovely thing about this part of Waterford County is that you can pause in your search for one hike and pick up another.

So long as we’re near the coastal village of Ardomore, we may as well do the Cliff Walk. An hour and a half along the coast of this pretty little town.

Ed tells me – take a photo of that house, with the painted windows.
I stop the car and get out.


A local gentleman ambles over and suggests that he take a picture of me by the gate. He’s holding tight to a brown bottle that looks to me well sampled and I have the idea that he’s probably not the best candidate to keep a camera focused.
No, thank you, I just want the house.
It’s for sale now. A republican owns it, you know.
I ponder the meaning of this comment: is the former presence of Great Britain here still on the minds of some? Ireland is a young republic (becoming formally an independent republic after World War II). An older man may still have feelings about the division between the north and south.


The Cliff Walk is on a well-marked path along a rugged coastline. The sign warns of precipitous drops, but I quickly (and blissfully) realize that the dangers are exaggerated. It's a gentle walk among ferns and rock formations. The danger is to those out on the sea.


We pass an older man who looks  like he's done this stroll a good many times – what is that rusted rig that rests by the cliff up ahead? (There is a massive multi-story iron structure that leans against one of the rocky shores.)
Aye, that was washed ashore from the seas twenty years ago. The story goes that a local chap set up camp on it for several months and now claims it’s his.
The story goes...
Do you know what it was used for originally?
No, I’m not from these parts. I’m from Cork. (Note: Cork can't be more than 50 miles from here.) And where are you from?
Oh, such a familiar question for us. We’re always asked and we muster up the same answer -- the United States, hoping it will suffice. It never does.
Lovely! Where in the U.S.?
Wisconsin...(and then, quickly, before the look of puzzlement settles in...) just north of Chicago.

We pass a stone structure shielding a natural spring. Ed reads that it has curative powers. Go ahead, drink it! He says. It’s artesian water.
I’m sure it’s polluted.
With what? You’ll be fine. You’ll be cured of all disease!
He’s laughing at me, but I do dab a finger in it and wet my lips. We were totally negligent in bringing water for the hike and a drop of curative waters is a delicious little decadence.

We are now back at the old tower and cemetery at the edge of the village.

What is it for?
Monks hid their works there, protecting themselves from invaders - Ed reads.
Always that. Where there is a tower, there is a threat.


In the village we pause for a cup of tea and a slice of carrot cake. Ed tells me that we need to try a local bakery before we leave. He's right: much can be learned about a population from its bakeries. Tomorrow.


The tea moment softens me a bit. Not in a hurry now, I walk along the town beach, watching a family take their stroll on the wet sand.


Three sons, one hovering mom, one proud dad. The picture could have been taken decades earlier. You don't even have to change the clothing much.

In the late afternoon, we at last find the Two Mile bridge. This is our big hike for the day – along the River Brickey and then up to the peak of Kilnafarna Hill (rising to a mere 1000 feet, but still a presence here by the coast).

The meadows at the side of the river are enchanting – fields of buttercups, bordered by stone walls overgrown now with nettle and bramble.

We climb over one gate to find ourselves in a meadow of wild iris.


Gold on gold. It could not be more beautiful


Up the hill now, along a rarely used road. Except in one spot were tractors are digging ditches and putting in pipes.
Why? I ask a local farmer.
We’re draining the field. Too wet.
For building?
Noooo... for pasture. It’ll be planted with grass.

The cows of Ireland. There are so many in this region and they all are happy cows – pasture fed, in fields of buttercups and tall grasses.

The views here are lovely – of the hills and mountains to the north, of the estuary and sea to the south.



And still, my eyes follow the pasturelands and the animals that graze there.

As I approach one fence, I see maybe some thirty cows staring at me. I get closer. They all take a step in my direction. As I near a gate, they trot over, the whole herd of them.


I look at their lovely lashed eyes.


They’re bulls, and they hold my gaze.

I move away. Sorry guys, I’m not your keeper.
She’ll eat you – Ed tells them. He never misses an opportunity to tell a cow I am a fan of a good piece of beef every few months.

I move on. They move on with me. I break out into a trot. So do they.


You got yourself a herd of cows to play with!

I’ve seen sheep act in packs, but I’ve not seen cows do this and especially not in this Simon Says way. I stop. They stop and come over closer. No, I have nothing for you! I’m sorry!

And finally they turn away. Up the hill, to the top, where they take on a leisurely pace in their fields of green and gold.


We walk down the hill, past the ubiquitous shrubs of fuchsia...


...on quiet roads and lanes, where a man will walk his dog...


...and sounds of a tractor and the warble of one bird after another will disturb the quiet around us.

It’s evening. We drive down to the coast one last time, to the village of An Rinn, the smallest Gaeltacht coastal area where children still study the old Irish language and all directions, ads, postings are completely devoid of English. I watch three girls stroll along the coastal road. Tradition for them will have a real daily meaning. I am reminded of the family that rented us a room last year on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The dad taught at a traditional language school there. I still regard the CD we took home, of traditional Scottish music, as one of my top five favorites to listen to on a Sunday morning. I am a borrower of other people's traditions.


It is late now, though here, in June, it hardly gets dark before 11. We’re back at Dungarvan and Ed suggests we take in a pint at a waterfront pub. He reads the local paper, I people watch.

But I’m hungry and the bag of peanuts we buy is hardly food. We walk over to the nearby Quealy's  – another pub-like eatery, where I order the local hake (cod-like and delicious, it was transplanted to the American waters; but it’s from this region – indeed, Hake Head is a coastal village just east of Cork), with the now available on every roadside stand -- Irish new potatoes.


Brian, our host at the b&b greets us as we toddle in late.
Been a bit worried about you. People go out on long hikes, you never know...
I smile. A protective people. Looking after the strangers who walk their paths and run with their cows.