The Gauntlet: 13.1 in County Kerry

This weekend I ran the Gauntlet, the pilgrimmage/race/torture device of a half marathon. A winding road led up into the white mist of a sunny morning. I passed 5 deep blue lakes, the winding River Loe connecting them, and went over the Wishing Bridge which I forgot to wish on. I slipped between 2 of the tallest mountains in the country, 1 Gap of Dunloe, and descended and ascended the 8 miles of the Black Valley.

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“My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.” ― James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
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Heading Into the Black Valley. “When I’m running I don’t have to talk to anybody and don’t have to listen to anybody. This is a part of my day I can’t do without.” ― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
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The 150 people crazy enough to run the Gauntlet standing at the starting line. I had no idea what I was in for!

 

When I stood at the top of the Gap of Dunloe, I wanted to yell out to my sister or my mountain-loving friends and family about the clarity of a blue sky and green valley after emerging from the depths of the Black Valley. But my only option for conveying my thrill of the moment was the hot water stop guy. So I threw my runner’s high with him in a stream of consciousness, ecstatic exclamation while gulping down warm water from a plastic cup.

photo courtesy of The Gauntlet
The site of the water stop encounter at the top of the Gap. Photo courtesy of The Gauntlet

 

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“Don´t hesitate or allow yourself to make excuses. Just get out and do it. Just get out and do it. You will be very, very glad that you did.” ― Christopher McCandless
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Ni Thuigum! – Oireachtas na Samhna Halloweekend

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When my German friend and I decided to sign up for Cumann Gaelach’s (the Irish language and culture club at our university) trip to Oireachtas na Samhna, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. What we did know was that we would be in the minority for not speaking Irish. I’ve been taking a beginner’s Irish class, progress has been slow. The language has proved extremely hard, especially in pronunciation and spelling! Nonetheless, I packed up my Irish book, my Eircom worker Halloween ensemble, and a raincoat for the trip down to Killarney, about a 4 hour bus ride from Galway.

By the time we got on the bus, we knew exactly what we were getting into. Cans popped open and I learned that the reason most people carried so much luggage was to accommodate huge amounts of alcohol. The bus stopped twice for people to run into off license liquor stores to bolster the stocks. Welp. I at least had a bottle of Cork gin. Everyone else wondered how I would survive on such a small portion of the “water of life”.

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When we arrived at the hostel, it was 7:30pm and most people were pretty smashed, or as they would say here, “on the pisser.” Craic continued as everyone got into costumes, drinks were mixed in giant liter bottles, cans were emptied and cruched on the floor. Then it was off to the festival. Through the night, we walked on the side of the highway for a mile to the Gleneagle Hotel where Oireachtas competitions had taken place for the past 3 days. The festival is an annual gathering of Irish speakers from across Ireland and includes massive competitions in sean nos singing, dancing, and traditional music from the country’s top performers.

We nearly didn’t get in to the festival because our leader had taken off for a pub with all of the wristbands, but my friend and I  told the woman at the information deskabout the mix up and she took pity on us, perhaps because we were the only two internationals at the festival. The rest of the night went down with dancing and singing, hopping between different parties in each of the hotel’s massive ballrooms. One darker and smaller room was filled with the younger crowd in garish costume grooving to a band called Seo Linn (mandolin included! Here’s their performance on RTE’s Late Late Show. Bascially, they play a lot of popular pop songs in Irish. Dominated by a huge dance floor, the biggest room sported a fancy seating area and stage where a 5-piece band played trad for a swirl of spontaneous step dancers.

We cruised back to the hostel around 5am and slept until noon. I woke up with an Irish guy in my bed, and he was boasting to everyone about how he’d “given the shift” to the “American.” I didn’t talk to him after that.

Most people slept until noon. I got up at 10am, cursed by a body that obeys the sun. When my friend got up we tromped through another Irish downpour to the sean nos dance competition finals. We were wearing cardboard signs she’d made for us which said “Ni thuigum” which is Irish for “I don’t understand.” The signs were a good excuse to ask unlimited amounts of questions. I sat next to an older couple from Connemara who knew a lot of the dancers from their area, and who also knew two of the winners who turned out to be brothers. This really is a small island.

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There were two hours between the end of the dancing competition and the next competition which was sean nos singing. We spent the time listening to spontaneous trad sessions which occured in the small hotel parlor rooms. I sat in a comfortable chair and tried not to fall asleep. We ended up talking to a bodhrán player who taught us the basic jig and reel beats. I played them at a snail’s pace, but now I know the difference between the tune styles which I can only pray will help me in my mandolin playing. Here’s a performance of Farewell to Eirann featuring Aimee Farrell Courtney, one of the few really famous female bodhrán players I’ve come across.

By the time sean nos singing came around, we found seats next to a practicing singer who dilligently took notes on each song that was performed. If you haven’t heard sean nos singing before, you should listen to it! The songs are in Irish and the style is highly ornamental but the types of ornamentation vary widely depending on the area the song and singer hail from. Sung a capella, the songs often tell stories, and because the stories are Irish, they’re very long. The women beside us said that if we could survive the 3 hour competition, we could survive anything! We made it through until the end, and I was lulled into a very peaceful state which was great, but not great for me staying awake. The competition was being broadcasted on national TV and they kept sweeping shots over the audience, so there might be some evidence of my less than perfect attention span. The winner was Nell Ní Chroinin, one of my favorites as her voice seemed so effortless and clear. She was also one of the youngest to compete.

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After that, it was into the fray of the after party! We learned various important Irish terminology which I will never be able to use in class. I don’t think “I’m drunk” would go over well on my oral exam. Over the course of the night I talked with many people I would have formerly termed strangers and could now count as acquaintences. The part that bugs me is that I can never talk to any of them again because I have no idea who they were or where they were really going in life after the night ended. I’m finding that in traveling these really intense conversations are always happening which is exciting. But once they’re over, the both people just disappear from each other’s lives. I’m learning to get less hung up about this brevity, but there is still a part of me that wants to take all the best people I meet with me!

The next day, Sunday, really was a struggle to survive as we all staggered on to the bus and slept back to Galway. Arriving home to the flat, I ate oatmeal, tea, and chocolate (the first food I’d had all day), and fell into bed. Next I knew it was 5am and the light was still on. I had forgotten to turn it off.

If I had to sum up the weekend I would say it was strange and new and sometimes very confusing. I felt like I’d lived the University Halloween I’d never had at a small liberal arts school and this led me to some craziness. I was happy to go, but I will be happy to never do it again. Sometimes in life you just have to accept the wisdom of “Ni Thuigum!” and move on.

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The Eircom worker and the “Irish” citizen

Drunk Advice

My Friends and I Meant to Have a Quiet Night

But for some reason Kieran liked my reticence,

my refusal to smile or make eye contact an invitation

for advice delivered by booming baritone,

his sounds peppered with spit bits of saliva and scotch breath

which barreled straight for my ear’s delicate tympanic membrane.

“Buy a house in Connemara,

drink so much whiskey

you fly crying off your rocker

neglect all your family and whatever

friends you’ve got, sing manic tunes

for long walks alone through bogs

flaming peat moss fires sending still-damp cinders

up into a swirling sky

which threatens to swallow you in deep gray mist.”

“That sounds lonely,” I replied.

“Oh it’s terrible lonely. You need to be

near suicidal to write! Off yer fuckin head!”

Hiking Connemara

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I may be the only person in Ireland who gets excited about sheep.

The latest NUIG Mountaineering Club adventure was to Connemara, hands down the most beautiful place I’ve been in the past three weeks. The hills roll on carpeted by deep green and furry grasses and dotted with brown and purple heather plants. The mountain summits are rocky outcroppings which rise steeply from the farmland below.

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With a clear 70 degree day (something much lower in celsius….) we could see all the way to the sea

Frequently, while hiking in the grasses, hikers would fall into deep pits of bog where mud would eat up your shoes.

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We decided to take a break on the descent. What I would give to live in this grass forever! **Thanks to a friend who took this picture 🙂
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The apporach to the third and final summit…nearing the edge of the world!
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A friend and I agreed that we were wandering through the landscape of an epic fantasy novel.
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Over the edge!
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Kylemore Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery founded in 1920 on the grounds of Kylemore Castle

Our hike ended at Kylemore Abbey where we were allowed to dip our sore feet in the pond, but go no further. The historic landmark was recently restored and there’s a decent entry fee for those who are willing to pay. We were happy to admire the architecture from the outside, although I read up a bit about the history since leaving and discovered it’s pretty interesting. Nuns fleeing Belgium in World War I founded the monastery as a safe haven for their ministry. Far up on the hill on the edge of a steep cliff, a statue of Jesus presides over the creatures roaming the hills.

Hiking the Burren

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The Burren

This past weekend I went hiking with NUIG’s mountaineering club which buses out about 40 students and staff every Sunday to hike around the countryside. None of Ireland’s mountains are particlarly high, but they are steep and because they’re small, you can bag multiple peaks in a day. This time (my first outing with the club) we went down to the Burren which is about an hour South of Galway along the coast. After a sleepy morning bus ride, what looked like 2,000 foot flat-topped shelves rose out of the slowly rising mist.

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First Peak…almost there!

I hiked with the middle-paced group summiting three peaks. The hiking was like nothing I’d done before as we ascended up steeply through farmer’s fields which we ran through quickly to avoid disgruntled owners. Then it was up and over a series of rolling limestone steps until we reached the summit. I have no idea where the actual high elevation point was located, but there was an increadibly smooth and gray limestone arena to play in. Pieces of softer rock had eroded so that deep cracks ran through the surfaces at regular intervals, cutting the mountain into a chess board. Our hike leader told me Ireland used to be at the bottom of a sea and that we were standing on what was the bottom of an ancient ocean. Go geology!

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On the bed of an ancient ocean

One of Ireland’s greatest villains, General Cromwell, sent out his lieutenant-general Edmund Lunlow to Ireland for the Seige of Limerick in 1650. Ludlow nearly completed the conquest of the entire island by 1652, wiping out the Irish guerilla’s crops and families. During counter-guerilla operations in the Burren, he’s known for saying “It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him.” To me he seems nothing short of blind, but that’s probably to be expected from a man who directed the killing of thousands of people.

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Inflated by the wind…it never stops!
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This field is deceptively innocent looking.

After rolling over the next two peaks which were very similar to the first and taking a singing/pb and j break, we began the descent over shrubby fields pocked with holes. The scrub was so thick with heather and grasses that it felt like walking through deep snow drifts. I would go bouncing down the soft footing only to suddenly feel my leg drop down a foot into the earth. Definitely kept me on my toes.

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After rolling over the next two peaks which were very similar to the first and taking a singing/pb and j break, we began the descent over shrubby fields pocked with holes. The scrub was so thick with heather and grasses that it felt like walking through deep snow drifts. I would go bouncing down the soft footing only to suddenly feel my leg drop down a foot into the earth. Definitely kept me on my toes.

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We came out on a road abundant with blackberries which are in season until October. YUM. Accordingly, we snacked all the way into town until we reached the pub.