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Sunday 4 December 2016

Enjoying the last of fading light on trip to Connemara

Joe Barry

Published 12/10/2016 | 02:30

View from the Sky Road, near Clifden in County Galway, Ireland.
View from the Sky Road, near Clifden in County Galway, Ireland.

As I write this, it is early October and the annual leaf fall has just begun. With the shortening of the days, glorious colour changes in the trees and hedgerows are slowly altering the landscape.

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The best is yet to come but in the meantime, on sunny days, a few of the beech trees and small sections of hedges have already taken on a golden hue.

The maples and others however, are still holding back until a touch of frost will hasten their turning from green into shades of red, gold and daffodil yellow before finally drifting to the woodland floor.

With relatively kind weather promised, I decided to treat myself to another short break in Connemara before winter closes in and was fortunate to enjoy a few dry and relatively sunny days.

The sight of sun and shadow flying across the mountainsides is something totally absent in Meath and that, plus the proximity of the frequently stormy sea and the numerous islands is perhaps what makes the West of Ireland so special.

"What about Kerry?" I hear you cry and yes, Kerry is indeed special but there is something unique about the Connemara landscape and the subtle tones of light that seem to be just that bit more vivid there.

This is what has over the years drawn great painters such as Paul Henry to the area and inspired them to create their now famous works of art.

It is the absence of sunlight that I miss most from November on and it is this, more perhaps than anything else, that makes me long for the passing of the winter solstice and the promise of gradually lengthening daylight.

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No wonder our ancestors marked the solstice with such fervour, for while there were hungry months ahead, if properly honoured, the gods would ensure that the sun rose again, restoring life and nourishing the crops.

This time I brought with me a copy of Connemara - The Last Pool of Darkness by Tim Robinson. Robinson was born in 1935 and following a career abroad in Istanbul, Vienna and Cambridge as an artist and cartographer, he settled in the Aran Islands and from there began a detailed study of the landscape of the West of Ireland.

It is one of a trilogy of books that he has written during his time spent mapping the countryside and gathering details of the local history.

It was especially appropriate for holiday reading as it dealt with places I was well familiar with, covering the area from Killary harbour to Slyne Head and included much about the Renvyle peninsula where I was based.

The title refers to the writings of the world renowned philosopher, Louis Wittgenstein, who abandoned a career as head of the Philosophy department in Cambridge University to live in an isolated cottage in Rosroe near the mouth of Killary harbour. "I can only think clearly in the dark," he said, "and in Connemara I have found one of the last pools of darkness in Europe."

This was in 1948 and he was referring, of course, to the then almost total absence of artificial light.

Nearby, what is now Renvyle House hotel was formerly the home of Oliver St John Gogarty, who was appointed a senator by the Free State Government in the first Dáil - and for his efforts suffered his house being burnt to the ground by the then IRA.

He is perhaps best remembered nowadays for having shared quarters in a Martello tower with James Joyce and figuring in Ulysses as "stately, plump, Buck Mulligan". He was a close friend of both Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins and came to loathe Eamon De Valera whom he referred to as "a half breed, who looked like something uncoiled from the Book of Kells".

Strong stuff, but then he had narrowly escaped assassination and having his beloved home burnt was perhaps the final straw.

The book is full of wonderful anecdotes and almost forgotten facts of our history and I especially liked Robinson's reference to the corn crake which was plentiful in his early days on the Aran Islands and his appreciation of the efforts being made to try to prevent its extinction.

In my own childhood I used to lie awake at night in Mulranny listening to the constant "crake, crake" that echoed across the little fields. Much has changed since then but one can still find many places in Connemara that, at night, are blessed with natural darkness, unpolluted by artificial light.

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder

One day, while walking on Renvyle beach I was struck by the extraordinary quality of the light.

It was an unusual mix of sun and shower and I stopped and stood in a brief sprinkle of large raindrops while bathed in sunshine and marvelled at the way the rain was illuminated as the drops reflected the sun like glittering diamonds.

In weather like this, rainbows appear and disappear in a manner that makes it easy to believe the folklore associated with them and the myths of the crock of gold. Sun and shadow passed over the hillsides and a man who was walking his dog paused to say hello and asked me what I was looking at. He was a hardy outdoor type who later said he had just moved to live in retirement in the area. I told him I was gazing at the differences in light.

Rather than immediately thinking he was in the presence of a madman and fleeing down the beach, he began to talk on how he too had been struck by the remarkable reflections and glitter of the raindrops. I found this somehow reassuring. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.

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