The city of Galway grew from a fishing village near the Spanish Arch in an area known as “The Claddagh.” Situated where the Corrib River flows into Galway Bay, the so-called “City of Tribes” lies within the county of Galway on the West Coast of Ireland in an area that also includes the towns of Athenry, Ballinasloe, Loughrea, and Tuam. When visiting the West Coast, you will find lots of farmland, animals, windy roads, and beautiful landscapes that will take your breath away. Music, art festivals, traditional Irish dancing, and nature are the four terms that come to mind when describing Galway. While Dublin is a city with much more to do, Galway is where the real history lies. It is also home to the ‘Claddagh,’ Ireland’s finest Jeweler.
On July 20th, I take the two-hour train ride from Dublin to Galway. It was calming to watch the transition from city life to rural life. I notice that the trains are not nearly as smooth as I had expected; smoother than taking the Amtrak from DC to New York, but not nearly as smooth as in Switzerland or Germany. As the train advances its way along the tracks, herds of sheep, goat, and horses eat grass and hay, going about their business like nobody is watching. As I take in my whereabouts, I think about how whenever I would drive through the country roads in Poolesville Maryland, near my hometown, I would shriek with excitement because of the rarity of this type of scene. In Ireland, this scene is unavoidable and presents itself with regularity. In this setting, the grass is very saturated in color and looks to me like a famous painting. It seems like all landscaping in Ireland is beautifully displayed on a pedestal, as if it’s laid out for me to admire. Once I arrive, I hop in a taxi that precedes to my Airbnb. My itinerary for the week includes the “Aran Islands Tour” and the “Falconry School of Ireland.” Besides those two activities, I was going to have to dig a little deeper to find things to do. To me, this only meant one thing – GO OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE!! It was already late in the afternoon when I dropped off my bags. Although I was tired and didn’t want to go into town, I forced myself to. I took the short bus ride into town and explored a little. The quaint town consisted of mainly cafes, restaurants, pubs, antique shops, banks and pharmacies. Due to my tired state, I decide to walk around mindfully and take mental notes for the following days. While I wanted to engage with some locals the first day, I decided to save that for when my energy returned. A good nights’ rest is exactly what I needed.
The next morning, I felt fully energized and ready to take on the town. I head to the bus stop, just outside of where I am staying. The schedule that my host gave me said the bus would arrive every half hour. I look at the schedule and notice that the bus is five minutes late. “Okay, I’ll give it another five minutes,” I say. Ten minutes later…still no bus. I pull a move that only my mother would make and just walk into town. During my forty-minute stroll, I pass by soccer fields, which of course remind me of my soccer days. I also pass by houses that are situated on steep inclines that look as if they could fall down with just a small gust of wind. As I come closer to my destination, I can hear music in the distance. I follow the sounds. When I turn the corner, I see there is a flea market in the center of town with tents lined up and live music. The song Hungry Eyes, from the well-known movie “Dirty Dancing”, was playing. I speed-walk to catch the last glimpse of the song, as this is one of my all-time favorites. I spot an adorable little girl dancing to the music. I observe her dancing moves and revert back to my days of being a child. Eventually, our eyes lock. I raise my eyebrows and smile, thinking she’ll smile back. She looks at me and frowns, and then she runs away. Brilliant move, Maddie!
After my flea market excursion, I find myself outside a cafe that reads “Merchants Cafe.” Once inside, I notice its elegant decor. The cafe reminds me of something I would see in the lobby of a 5-star hotel in London. The vibe wasn’t necessarily a “cozy & warm Ireland” vibe, but rather, a “fancy countertop & strong perfume” vibe. My mind returned to the days when my parents would schlep me into the lobby of fancy hotels while they took care of business. All I remember from those days was getting a lollypop for being a “good girl.” I think that is when my love for hospitality began. This was surely a refreshing state of consciousness to return to. As I am looking around, I notice there is an upstairs section of the cafe. Once there, I see cute lounge chairs and small coffee tables, as well as whimsical paintings. I sit down and sink deeply into a leather chair next to a burning fireplace. There is a man sitting across from me, reading the Irish Times and drinking what I assume is a strong cup of coffee. Once he hears me rattling my teacup around, he takes down the newspaper from in front of his face and says, “You look a little lost, my dear. Are you a tourist?” “Haha, how’d you know?” I reply. He tells me that he is originally from Scotland. His name is Paul and he’s on a business trip. Our conversation trails into our fields of occupation and then leads into a personal discussion regarding travel, family, fears, dreams, and aspirations. Paul had the look of an old wise man. The scene reminded me of the conversations I would have with my grandfather who lived in Florida years ago. It was certainly refreshing to hear wisdom from someone I had just met. I cherish these heart-to-heart conversations and wish I could have them more often with the people I love. I don’t remember the details of our dialog, but I do, however, remember feeling as if someone had just hugged me for ten minutes straight. Yes, words of wisdom will always have that effect on me. After he leaves, I continue to drink my beverage in silence and fall into a sort of meditative state, clinging onto whatever scraps of intelligence he has left behind for me to carry on. This became my pattern for the remainder of my time exploring Galway, checking out cafes and pubs, conversing with locals while learning about their lives, walking around the lake, and eating a variety of delicious foods. In short, heaven.
Ireland’s School of Falconry
Ireland’s School of Falconry is the oldest established Falconry School in Ireland. The school sits stoically on the grounds of Ashford Castle in Cong, Mayo, just an hour north of Galway. Originally, I had heard about this once-in-a-lifetime experience through a family friend who highly recommended it. The only way one can get to Cong is by bus or car. Getting to Ashford Castle soon became an adventure I will never forget.
I caught the first leg charter bus located in front of the Galway train station. The bus was old and the seats were smelly. Sorry if I sound like an entitled tourist, but it was a nauseating hour-long endurance test to say the least. The bus dropped me off at a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, I was able to get a drink and a snack during my thirty-minute wait. By then, my nausea had cleared and the second bus was a step up from the first one. The bus arrived at a booth located at an entranceway that would lead to the castle. I step out onto a grassy patch with a man standing outside his booth, waiting to greet me. “And you must be Madeline,” he said. Pointing in the direction he wanted me to go, he adds, “Just follow the path for twenty minutes and you’ll be there.” Those directions weren’t exactly what I had envisioned them to be. I smile and thank him. As I make my way into the dark forest, the sky decides she’s held out for too long and thick raindrops begin to bounce off my nose and forehead. To add to the eerie ambiance, a couple of wild horses cross my path and I can’t help but think, “wow!” Once I emerge out of the forest, Ashford Castle comes into view. I continue to follow the path, and within minutes, I come across a gated zone. An attendant stops me and says, “Madam, may I ask you where you are going?” I told the lady that I was here for my 1:30 pm Hawk Walk appointment. She opens the gate and I meander my way through. At this point, I could already hear the Hawks yakking in the distance, which set off my nerves. As a 27-year-old woman, I have jumped off cliffs and buildings before, but wildlife still seemed to terrify me. Now, I was going to be flying a Hawk that would swoop down on me at nearly 100 miles per hour. To get to where the Hawks were located, all I had to do was follow a long gravel pathway that led me to a dead end. Once there, I hear a lady say, “Madeline!” It became very clear to me that each employee who worked at this establishment was exceptionally kind and treated anyone and everyone who crossed their path like royalty.
Before I wander into the forest, my instructor, Chris, introduces me to all the Hawks, including the Hawk I was going to fly, Hansel. Handsome Hansel. He was the newest and youngest member of the family. Chris lets me spend some alone time with Hansel so we can get to know each other. Yes, this just means staring at each other longingly through a cage until my nerves vanished. Once I am ready, Chris brings him out.
Chris: Do you want to hold him?
Me: Uh, perhaps not yet.
Chris laughs. As we make our way into the dark forest, Hansel suddenly decides he has already had enough. He starts yakking away, as they like to do. Chris explains to me that Hansel is still getting used to his new home and that he will loosen up soon enough. “I can see that Hansel likes you, Maddie,” Chris says. I’m sorry, but I have to chuckle at this. I believe all the instructors are obligated to say this in order for their guests to feel safe. We venture further away from the campsite and deeper into the forest, and as we approach the midway point, it finally becomes time to unleash this wild beast. We stop in our tracks for just a brief moment so Chris can instruct me on what to do next. I take a final sigh. “All you have to do is position your arm at a 90-degree angle. Easy enough, right?” Chris says. I nod and unleash Hansel. Before I call Hansel back, he puts on a little show for me, running circles around the tall trees that seem never-ending. I look up and once again, I feel like I am in a scene from “Game of Thrones.” When I call Hansel back, he flies from the tree and lands on my arm. Hansel’s repetitive recital continues for about an hour. It was certainly peaceful watching him perform in all his glory. When we arrive back at the campsite, Hansel and I pose for photos together. I must say, Hansel is quite the model. Perhaps we’ll meet again soon, my friend.