Going 'home': Connemara Dreaming part 4

Maddy Harland
Friday, 19th August 2011

When Maddy went back to the place she visited as a child with her family, some things had inevitably changed. But the beauty of the area and her childhood friend were still there waiting for her.

My father was born in India two years after WW1. His father was a doctor and, having survived Gallipoli, went on to serve in the Indian Army. His mother had witnessed the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. They were both Irish and had romantically eloped. Grandfather, as the legend went, had played rugby for Ireland but he wasn't good enough for my grandmother's once grand, but bankrupt, family (they lost it on the geegees), so they took flight. 

My father had blue eyes, brown hair and fair skin. Somewhere in the depths of his voice was the tiniest hint of the Celtic fringes. I grew up in 1960s north London where my three older brothers introduced me to The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Fats Waller, BB King and Levi jeans. We had that typical sense of cultural superiority that a capital city can engender.

Irish family holiday activities

But my family had a redeeming side. We all loved water, boats, the wilderness and fishing. My parents therefore used to cram my three brothers and me into a car, drive to Holyhead in Anglesey, Wales in one long hit and catch the ferry to Dublin. We would then drive on tiny roads to Loch Corrib in Connemara with my brothers fighting in the back for most of the way. There we spent three weeks drifting in boats, fishing for trout, pike and perch, making fires for tea on the Loch's archipelago of tiny islands and I played with pals from the farm where we stayed. It was a pristine, wild landscape and I fell in love with the place. It entered my blood.

Backpacking around Ireland

Years later, on leaving school, I packed up a backpack and hitched around Limerick, Cork and Kerry with a friend in search of adventure and Irish music. In those days, Christie Moore still played the bars. It was a great time but I didn't make it back to Connemara. I didn't want to break the spell of my childhood memories.

These days we also hear stories of the post-Tiger economy, the rash of ugly new bungalows all over the countryside and of half built houses, so I wondered whether it would make me sad and yearn for a long lost past. Nevertheless, now older and more resilient, I felt Connemara calling. So Tim and I did some research and found a wonderful campsite right on the Atlantic (Acton's Eco-Caravan and Campsite Park reviewed in my first 'Connemara Dreaming' blog) ­– a beautiful, biodiverse location full of orchids and other wildflowers, empty beaches, a view of mountains and kind people. But Loch Corrib still called me.

Returning to Connemara

One rainy day in July Tim and I decide to return to my childhood idyll and drive to the village of Cornamona at the north end of Loch Corrib. I think I remember the pub on the corner. It used to be called O'Maleys, but the name on the sign has changed. So we tentatively enter for a Guinness, wondering if I had found the right place after nearly 40 years... The vast pike is still there in a glass case mounted on the wall. It is a monster 47 pounder, caught in 1963 by Mr Geo. O'Sullivan using a live perch as bait. In all its menacing glory, it had haunted my dreams and curtailed my swimming in the loch – after all, in those days it was bigger than me! We are definitely in the right place.

I ask the landlord about the family we had stayed with all those decades ago. They still own the farm and the house but it had been closed as a guest house for some years. We finish our drinks and decide to follow the road down the Dooros peninsula to the house with its marshy fields by the loch. I knew I'd recognise the place, etched as it is on my own heart.

Drawing up to the drive of the house I see a man standing outside. Tim asks me, "Are you going to speak to him?" "Hell, yes," I reply, "...after coming all this way." I feel tentative but I get out of the van and approach him. "I used to come here for holidays nearly 40 years ago," I tell him.

Old friendsHe looks at me and says, "Maddy!". He is my childhood friend, the boy I had played with. By pure coincidence he is visiting his elderly mother for the day from Galway, and doing a few jobs on the family farm. We go inside to meet his mother and sit in her kitchen, unchanged after all these years, with the Aga still taking pride of place.

I learn that the five boys had all managed to stay in Co Galway and had variously become engineers, a factory manager, a college lecturer... but no one ran the farm full time now. Apparently, agricultural college is booming in the recession with kids wanting to get back on the land, the Irish economy having turned its cycle from boom to bust helped by cheap money lent by European banks.

Old fishing techniques

I also learn that the fishing had changed. We used to 'dap', an old method using 18 feet long rods with fly reels. We'd drift along the shallows around the islands with a daddy longlegs and a grasshopper as bait floating on top of the water. The trout would take the bait down to the bottom of the loch and then we would strike and play the fish in. The very large fish were wily and distained our bait to survive and produce more fry. The trout used to be abundant. And in our drifting we learnt to meditate on the beauty of the place, to dream, and we came to intimately know the islands and areas of hidden rocks below the surface of the loch where you risked shearing a split pin on the outboard motor.

Over fishing and invasive species

Now, I hear visiting fishermen use sonar to fish the depths of the loch for these clever, venerable trout with other methods I don't care to learn about. Trout populations have plummeted. How stupid we humans can be with our technology and our selfish desire for short-term gain. There have been other problems too... An outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in early 2007 originating in the loch contaminated the public water supply in Galway city. Another unwelcome visitor is the highly invasive species Lagarosiphon major (also known as 'Curly Waterweed') which is destroying fish habitat. Meanwhile, fouled boats bring in the Zebra Mussel that hails from Russia and predates on the native species and jams up pipes. The modern world makes it impact even here in an otherwise apparently pristine environment.

Fishing in the loch: A place of pilgrimage

We walk down to the loch, still exquisite and mirror calm but for the gentle but persistent rain. My heart fills again with a fierce love of the place as we reminisce about the perch pond, of one particularly spectacular catch we made one warm evening, and of the ancient Celtic churches, one dating back to the 5th century overgrown on Inchagoil, a large island that we 'discovered'. On that island is St Patrick's helmsman's grave, its inscription reputed to be the oldest Christian inscription in Europe apart from one found in the Catacombs of Rome. Now the island has tourist boat trips and the churches are being preserved and cared for, but I loved the adventure of finding them in the undergrowth, my very own Indiana Jones moment.

We also remember old Pat who had lived in a tumbledown one room cottage on the peninsula, and used just a thorn bush to keep the sheep out, having no door. My friend laughs and tells me how he could never drink the tea proffered by the old fella, so grubby was his accommodation. The cottage is now derelict. I wonder to myself if Tim and I might go and stay there one day, a perfect retreat by the water.

My friend generously offers me the use of his last remaining wooden fishing boat. I am touched by this man's generosity that spans the years. The other boats are all fibreglass now, much easier to maintain, but there is beauty in this one remaining clinker boat. It feels like another old friend. The rain forces me from the water but I vow I will return.

So there it is. The dream is alive and what rests in my soul still exists externally, altered yet enduring. I even have the rare connection (for me) of a childhood friend. And the loch with its clear water, its empty islands and the ancient graves of early Christian mariners side by side with more recent local families, resting by Celtic churches older than a millennia, still calls me. We return to camp and that night I am unable to speak. The past crowds into my mind and Tim, sensitive to the poignancy of the day, leaves me be with my thoughts.