Vacation 2019: Galway to Derry

Monday August 12 took in Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Donegal, and Derry. We visited a holy site in Knock, a sheep farm in northern Sligo, and took a tour of a small part of Derry.

At the start of the day our driver/guide talked about the Republic of Ireland and “the North of Ireland” as he called what I’d learned to name “Northern Ireland.” He said when we crossed the border we would see three things different: the road signs would be in English only (no Irish), the speed limits would change from kilometres per hour to miles per hour, and the name Derry would change to Londonderry. He didn’t say a lot about the Troubles – he left that to our guide in Londonderry – but he did talk a little about history. He described the penal laws that suppressed the Irish for 700 years: they couldn’t own land, vote, practice their religion, or speak their language. At independence in the 1920s, six of the thirty-two counties stayed under British rule. After the peace treaty, Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland, the first English monarch in over 100 years to do so, and laid wreaths at the memorials to those who fought and died for independence, which greatly endeared her to many Irish. But then at her first state dinner she stood up and the first words she spoke were in Irish, which had an incredible emotional a lot of Irish, including our driver, who said that endeared her to the Irish forever. But they’re worried about Brexit, since most of Ireland’s trade is with Great Britain.

In County Mayo we stopped at the shrine in Knock (Cnoc Mhuire, “Hill of Mary”), celebrating the apparition of St. Mary, St. Joseph, and St. John the Baptist in 1879.

Protestants like me have a little trouble with veneration of the saints, but I can appreciate it as a beautiful site. Behind this display it had reliefs of the stations of the cross, with titles in Irish.
There are five churches on the site, including the parish church

and the basilica.

Pope John Paul II celebrated mass on this site.

We then drove to the northern part of County Sligo to a sheep farm. At one point I realized we were on a somewhat smoother version of the narrow roads we’d been on previously – two narrow lanes, one each way – but that the speed limit was 100km/hr. In Canada I’ve never seen anything over 90 that wasn’t a divided highway, and I think always two lanes each way. One lane was closed for construction; instead of flagmen, there was a temporary traffic light. The road slowed for villages, and the occasional roundabout.

A farmer named Martin Feeny demonstrated how his border collie, Joe, herded sheep. He told us that the basic movements of sheep-herding are instinctive to border collies, and that what you train them on is commands to do specific things: move (or rather, run at top speed) left or right, slow down, move the sheep, return to the shepherd, and “turn” which means look around to see if the dog has missed a few sheep. Moving the sheep involved a low-to-the-ground stalking walk, staring at the sheep; Martin said the stalk and the dog’s stare are what cause the sheep to move away from the dog. When Joe was herding the sheep directly towards us, it came to me that a dog would be a menacing presence to sheep in that pose.

For long distances Martin uses a whistle, which the dog can hear from up to two miles away. Each dog is trained to a different set of commands, so one farmer can direct two or more for a larger herd. The nearby Benbulben , Ireland’s only flat-topped mountain, is grazing land.

It can take a full day to bring the sheep down, which is why “turn” is so important; it tells the dog to see if other sheep are nearby and pick them up too, so the farmer doesn’t need to send the dog back up the mountain.

The natural behaviour of the dog is to herd the sheep towards the farmer, if it doesn’t get any commands for a while, but it’s not choosy about which sheep. Each farm has its own mark it paints on the sheep, in a particular colour; a red F on the left flank was the mark for the Feeny farm. When young, Martin used a metal F his grandfather made, dipped in paint; now he uses spray paint.

A dog herds sheep from a young age, but one day decided to stop. Martin had one dog retire at 5, another still working at 11. He joked that the active dogs are the only workaholics in Ireland.

There is little market for wool any more, since people don’t buy wool clothing much anymore.Martin’s farm breeds sheep for other farms, which raise them for meat. He showed us several breeds of endangered sheep, once bred for various purposes such as surviving on steep slopes. He demonstrated very clearly why black sheep were a bad thing: black wool pulls apart easily, where white is so strongly held together that Martin, couldn’t pull out a handful from a fleece he showed us. The chemistry of black wool is completely different from that of white, and spreads to adjacent wool, so a small bit of black in a shipment can ruin the whole load.

Martin also told us a lot about the history of the area. Four years ago cannonballs started washing up on shore; three Spanish ships had sunk there in the time of the Armada, and with recent fierce storms the wrecks have been stirred up. Storms used to come from the Atlantic, west and north, but in the last few years fiercer storms have come off the land, from the south and east.
We then drove through County Leitrim, which has a very short coastline, into Dhun na nGall (Donegal) for lunch, and then across the unmarked, unguarded border into County Derry in Northern Ireland. In Londonderry we took on a local guide who showed us some key sites from the Troubles. He told us that in those times we couldn’t take a bus through the area he showed us; any large vehicle would have been hijacked and burned. Here is a view of the Bogside district, where much of the violence in Derry took place, from the top of the ancient wall of the city. The colourful wall mural in the lower right is a peace dove on an oak leaf, after Doire, the Irish name of Derry, which means “oak.”
We stayed overnight in Derry, resting up for our last long day back to Dublin.

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