Many of this blog’s readers are interested in the holy wells of Ireland. There are many in varying states of repair and disarray. Only this past weekend some friends on a Bards in the Woods walk near Knockvicar in County Roscommon cleaned out a holy well that had silted up. Anyone preparing a trip to Ireland needs to make sure that these indigenous relics of Celtic spirituality are on their itinerary.
If a holy well runs dry for reasons that can vary between changes of water course or engineering works, the healing spirit that holds the well’s cure moves to the nearest tree.
The folk belief that the cure of a dry well is transferred to the nearest tree harkens back to the seven sacred chieftain trees of Ireland. These are oak, pine, yew, hazel, ash, holly and apple. However, the tree most often seen near holy wells and used as the clootie tree is the hawthorn. Along with oak, hawthorn is considered the preferred tree of the fairies. Since holy wells spring from deep inside the earth, the homeland of the faerie, they are also places where you may be lucky enough to contact these earth spirits.
It’s also usual to see offerings at holy wells. The bits of fabric, ribbons, rosary beads are known as clooties and it is a familiar site to see these at some holy wells. However, in some localities the local priest has banned this practice even though the ‘pattern’ of prayers for a cure is still alive and well and usually done either the last Sunday in July or near the feast of Mary, Jesus’ mother’s ascension.
If you see the word ‘Tobar’ on a map then you will know that there is a holy well there. This is the Irish word for well. This sign translates as ‘Mary’s Well.’ My 100 year old neighbour tells me that there was a very old story that Our Lady appeared here many, many years ago.
St. Brigit is associated with holy wells and many are dedicated to her. However, any spring with a ‘cure for the eye’ or inspiring visions is under her matronage.
If you are preparing for a trip to Ireland then you need to include a visit to a holy well – or indeed many holy wells for they are so varied and individual in each locality – that you may want to do a bit of research in advance. I’ve chosen a few of the best as well as some favourites on the Celtic beliefs surrounding trees.
A reader of my blog is interested in traveling around Ireland but will only really be able to use public transport. She also wants to be able to access some of the fairy places and ancient sites. My short answer was, “Not impossible, but tricky.” It is doable with discipline, good organization, timekeeping and timetable literacy. To get to the more remote places you will probably meet amenable locals who will offer lifts and every assistance you could hope for, which is part of rural hospitality.
So Yes, you can really earn your Light Carbon Footprint badge using public transport. Using public transport in Ireland is also a way of seeing Ireland as an ecotourism destination.
You do need to wear waterproof outerwear and footwear because there will be times when you can only access some of the really interesting places by foot. If you are happy on a bike then also look into bike hire in places that you will visit. Also pack light as you will probably be wheeling, lugging or backpacking over a fair amount of distance. So consider your back’s health. I took a Redmond 40 litre rucksack for a one week trip. Allow for the inevitable books, gifts, CDs you will accumulate enroute. Leave some empty space in other words.
For instance, my enquirer would like to visit the Cavan Burren, which has many megalithic monuments. Now there is a wonderful opportunity to get guided bus tours during the Cathal Buí Festival week, in 2012 from 27th June to 2nd July. But outside of that festival you can still get a bus to Blacklion. While the Burren is a good six kilometres uphill and away someone who is happy to bicycle could enquire about bike hire in the Tourist information office. Otherwise it is a hike, but a taxi could fetch you home. Or your B&B proprietor would most likely see your right.
As I said, not impossible, but tricky. You cannot be shy about asking questions. Be clear where you would like to visit and then ask locals to help you figure out those logistics.
I do not have a full driver’s license and just over ten years ago when we were contemplating a move to rural Ireland I did a solo trip to see if it was possible to get around using just public transport. With the generous assistance of some B&B owners who gave me lifts to bus stops to make connections that didn’t work to plan, it did work out.
I did it by bus because there was an absolute steal of deal through Eurolines from England(where we were living at that time) to Dublin. All roads and transport links lead to Dublin so, bleary eyed from the over night ferry, I traveled onwards to Limerick where I fell comatose into my hostel bed and slept thirteen hours.
The bus services in Ireland are remarkably prompt. I encountered only one delay on my trip when some prankster had let a goat into the bus in Scariff overnight. The driver’s seat had been eaten. But even this amounted only to about a half hour delay while we waited for the replacement bus to arrive. You do need to be aware though that on Sundays and Bank Holidays (public holidays) the buses are fewer and farther between.
Since I am older now and not so lithe and limber of limb, I’d choose to take the train as my first preference. Whenever I return from transatlantic flights I take the early train to Sligo to get me to my bed in the shortest time. However, my outgoing journey to the airport is usually by bus. Bus Éireann is cheaper than Iaonród Éireann but if you combine the best of both you should be able to get around. Buses will take you deeper into the rural areas. Once in the very rural areas you may need to resort to kindly B&B proprietors, bicycle hire or shoe leather.
Irish Rail has a few options to suit the tourist. Check the prices, which will alter but there are three tickets for travelers around Ireland.The 4 Day Trekker Ticket is valid for 4 consecutive days and can be used on all Irish Rail Services.Useful for a short stay with brief hops between towns outlying Dublin.
The Irish Rover Rail ticket seems a better deal for transatlantic visitors who would like to see a number of destinations or sites over a two week period. This ticket is valid for 5 days of travel out of 15 consecutive days. It can be used on all Irish Rail Services including all Northern Ireland Railways services, which could allow you to take in Belfast, the Antrim coastal towns and Derry. With this option plus local bus you could conceivably see the Giant’s Causeway. Be aware that the timetables for the North of Ireland will be through Translink rather than on the Bus Éireann timetables.
If you are seriously wanting to get out into the countryside then you may want to spring for the Irish Explorer Rail and Bus ticket. This option is valid 8 days of travel out of 15 consecutive days and includes all Irish Rail Services and all Bus Éireann services.
If you have a bit of time you may get more bang for your buck by just using the tourist bus tickets available from Bus Éireann. They have an Open Road Ticket which is completely flexible in terms of length of time it will be valid. You choose your first and last travel dates. This is valid in the Republic only. If you want to include Northern Ireland on your itinerary then you probably should opt for the Irish Rover Ticket.
Depending on how long you will be touring, bear in mind that trains allow more leg room and opportunities to stretch your legs and wander around. But the buses will allow you to see more of the countryside on their routes.
On my trek those many years ago I was able to bus from Dublin to Limerick, Limerick to Mountshannon. My kind B&B proprietor, Mr. Waterstone, gave me a lift to Scariff on the morning that I went to Liscannor, via Limerick and some tourist time out in Ennis en route. I did a fair amount of walking that week in the Mountshannon area and it was a few miles hike to the Cliffs of Moher from my Liscannor B&B but I was prepared for wet weather and had good hiking boots. I was offered lifts and those that I accepted proved completely harmless but hitching lifts on your own in unknown territory is never a good idea.
You may want to have a smart phone and buy an Irish pay as you go SIM card while traveling so you can access the internet and check bus and train timetables. Depending on the area where you travel you will have to gauge which provider to use. Vodaphone is strong in rural areas. O2 seems to be popular in built up areas. Meteor is getting better in rural coverage. Ask at the shop, tell them where you intend to tour and enquire about the coverage in the areas you will visit.
So, once you know where you want to go and what you want to see, start perusing the online bus and train timetables to figure how you can pack it all in to one very eco-friendly itinerary. Traveling by public transport is slower, but you will meet people, chat, see a great deal of the countryside from your window. You can be independent but also secure as a lone woman traveler. And that lone woman trekker can walk lightly leaving less of a carbon footprint if she uses public transport.
Lovely Leitrim they call it on the welcome signs into the county and this small county promises some of the most unspoilt scenery in Ireland. For lovers of the beautiful Irish countryside Leitrim will never disappoint. For those of you who love Irish mythology you cannot miss visiting Slieve Anieran, or Iron Mountain, where the legendary Tuatha de Danaan first arrived in Ireland with their four gifts- Nuada’s sword, Lugh’s spear, Dagda’s cauldron and the stone of destiny.
So here are my top seven suggestions for things to see and do in Ireland.
1) Go fairy hunting on Slieve Anieran
This mountain ranges along the R207 between Drumshambo and Ballinagleragh with dramatic views of Lough Allen. Drive carefully over the minute track between Ballinamore and Ballinagleragh to the top of the mountain. The Leitrim Way will lead you up to a Mass Rock, where Catholics heard mass said during the days when practicing that faith was illegal.
2) Visit a Holy Well and Sweat House
Along the R207 at the foot of Slieve Anieran near the Lough Allen Adventure Centre is a sign leading to St. Aodh’s Holy Well. Holy wells are well maintained through out Ireland; holy wells are an atavism of the old Celtic spiritual reverence of nature, water in particular being regarded as sacred. Wells were venerated not just as having cures but also, coming underground, as being thin places or portals between this world and the spiritual world.
Leitrim and West Cavan are distinctive in having many examples of sweat houses. These were Irish country saunas. Turf was lit in the tiny stone structures and kept going for five house. The embers were raked and then wet rushes were put on top to create the steam. The Ballinagleragh Sweat House is interesting as there is a stream where you could plunge after your steam. Folklore says that they were used for arthritis, rheumatism and fever cures. But given Ireland’s climate why are they not wider spread throughout the island? Is this another gift that the Tuatha de Danaan brought with them and the tradition remained strong in the de Danaan homeplace?
3) The Costello Chapel in Carrick on Shannon
Reputedly the second smallest chapel in the world and certainly the smallest one in Ireland this minute place of worship was built as one Irishman’s Taj Mahal to a beloved wife. The gentleman who commissioned this chapel is laid to rest beside his wife, although outliving her by decades. A curiosity in terms of Victorian era monument making it is an interesting neo-Gothic piece of architecture.
The chapel is on the corner of Leitrim’s county town’s Main Street where it intersects Bridge Street, opposite the Market Yard where there is one of Ireland’s best Farmer’s Markets each Thursday.
4) Take to the Boats!
There is fine fishing in Lough Allen and the other lakes in the centre of the county. However, if angling is not your sport you can hire a narrowboat and putter along the Shannon Erne Waterway, exploring the stops along the network of canal locks until you enter Lough Erne in County Fermanagh. Ballinamore is a good base for narrowboat adventures.
But if you don’t have a week or even a weekend for slow travel you may fancy a shorter jaunt on the water. Carrick on Shannon’s Moon River Boat hosts many events during the high season. If you are a lover of Yeat’s poetry you may want to visit Parkes Castle and take a trip out to the Isle of Innisfree in Lough Gill, which inspired Yeats’ poem of that name.
5) Glencar Waterfalls and Lake
While on the subject of William Butler Lake’s it is worth mentioning another beauty spot that inspired his poem “The Stolen Child.” Up at the tip of North Leitrim close to the Sligo boundary is Glencar Waterfall. This peaceful spot is accessed from a turn off the N16 between Manorhamilton and Sligo. It is also a good fairy hunting spot so be sure to bring a little offering for the fairies and they may show themselves. Remember, they like chocolate! And shiny things like coins, but please do not toss coins into the the stream.
6) The Organic Centre
One comment I’ve heard about this garden is that it is always changing and evolving. A major training centre in Ireland promoting organic and sustainable living, the Organic Centre has polytunnels, orchard, willow nursery and woodland to explore. It’s distinctive grass roof and reed bed system shows that it walks its talk. Weekend courses are run year round and there is a shop where you can buy seeds, books and other useful garden equipment. A nursery provides vegetable, herb, shrub and flower plant stock, too.
7) The Séan Mac Diarmuida Memorial Cottage
Irish history lovers will not want to miss this historical monument to one of the 1916 signatories of Ireland’s Declaration of Independence. A native of Kiltyclogher, the family homeplace of Séan McDermott (or Mac Diarmuida) is now a small museum. You can find this by turning right off the N16 at the Rainbow Ballroom of Romance. There is a left hand turning posted on this road traveling through Glenfarne, one of Leitrim’s Seven Glens, towards Kiltyclogher. There is also a memorial in the centre of the village to their local hero.
There are many more things to see and do in Lovely Leitrim but these few pointers will put you on track to discover some of your own favourites no matter which part of the county you decide to explore.