Sunday, August 21, 2022

Running Late to Connemara Sheep Dogs & Kylemore Abbey

Ready for another jam-packed itinerary touring the Republic of Ireland? Get some Irish breakfast tea down your neck, because we are on a tight schedule. First stop is the Connemara Celtic Crystal Factory in Moycullen where we learned about the detail-heavy work of glass cutting, and the Celtic and Gaelic influences in the designs of fine crystal products made here. We watched a demonstration of the glass cutting by an actual Irish artisan. He had impressive skills and steady hands after many years of study and practice. Our tour group elders bought a lot of crystal vases, bowls and whiskey glasses at Connemara Celtic Crystal Factory. Chad and I met the shop cat. She was cute, but only wanted to be pet for about thirty seconds, thanks, and bye now. 

Irish shop cat about to say, "that's enough now."

Hurry, hurry, back on the bus. We're behind schedule, and the day has only just started. Our bus carried us through the verdant, rolling hills of Connemara, dodging many sheep and a few lazy cows to Glen Keen Farm. The main building of Glen Keen Farm is a cute lilac-pink color, and houses the restaurant and gift shop. Before heading inside, we met Jan, a sweet young sheep dog. Jan let me scratch her back while her caretaker teased me that she would probably hop on the bus with me after a good back scratching. Once our group all assembled, we watched Jan demonstrate her excellent sheep herding skills. It's quite impressive to witness.

Jan, the goodest dog in Ireland

The lunch at Glen Keen Farm was the best meal I had during my nine days in the Republic of Ireland. We were treated to veggie quiche, a small green salad, a carrot with swede salad, strong Irish tea, and fresh baked scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. The entertainment during lunch consisted of Irish songs and singalong, Irish musical instruments with explanation and demonstration, and old-style Irish dance. For the singalongs, it seemed that everyone in our group except Chad and me knew all the words and notes. Did Chad and I miss a tutorial on popular Irish songs? Was it a generational thing? Are we buzzkills who don't spend enough time in pubs? Probably all of the aforementioned. And I'm honestly fine with that.

Paul from our group on drum, actual Irish guy on Irish flute

Our group ran behind schedule nearly from the start on this day, so we jumped back on the bus very shortly after lunch. Our bus wound its way back through the rolling hills, meandering sheep, occasional scenic lakes (or loughs as they are called locally), and out to a bigger road. Soon enough, an imposing mansion appeared on the horizon with a dramatic backdrop of green hills and a lake in the foreground to provide an admirable reflection. Kylemore Abbey looks like a Victorian take on a royal castle. The mansion was built from 1863 to 1868 by Mitchell Henry, a wealthy politician and former doctor from Manchester England. Henry and his family lived there until 1903, when it was bought by the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. Since 1920, the former private estate has been owned and run by the Benedictine community. The grounds, gardens and exterior view of the mansion are breathtaking with so much to explore! Only a portion of the mansion interior is staged with period furniture and historic informational displays. I was slightly disappointed that more of the mansion was not open for guests, but there are still nuns living and working at Kylemore Abbey. I guess it can't all be open for gawping at? Like Sister Mary Annette needs for her humble quarters to be closed to tourists? 

Chad and I walked as fast as we could to see the two massive gardens, the lake path, the Neo-Gothic church, and the partial interior of the house. Despite our speedy efforts, we didn't have time for a visit to the gift shop with award winning chocolate made by the nuns. We didn't have time for the Tea House or the Kylemore Kitchen. I wish our group had another hour at Kylemore Abbey. Back on the bus, I heard some of our tour elders saying that they only made it to the gardens, or only made it through the house exhibit area. 

Kylemore Abbey exterior

Kylemore Abbey imposing wall

Kylemore Abbey bookshelf, complete with fancy tophat

On the way back to the hotel, our bus got caught behind a tourist in a rental car driving well below the speed limit, refusing to let our bus pass. Since our group ran behind schedule all day, this made us late for dinner. Our tour manager, Richard, called ahead to the hotel restaurant to let them know of our tardy arrival.

Cute view from a quick stop in Cong

At dinner Chad and I sat with our bus driver, Conor. We all bonded over Irish authors we like and our respective pets adopted from pet rescues. Conor's wife works with a local pet rescue group in their hometown of Donegal. Near the end of dinner, Conor asked, "Why'd you come with this group? There's tour groups from America." I explained that I booked the tour through an American company, not realizing that our group would be a majority of British (mostly English, a few Welsh) people. I also explained that I had no clues and no hints about the tours being so heavily favored by retired people, but that we were having fun with our group, and at times struggling to match their fast pace. I also confided to him in a hushed voice, "The other people in our tour group can outdrink us, outsing us, and don't need nearly as much sleep as we do. They are in it to win it!"

Technically our tour manager for this trip was Richard from Great Rail Journeys, but this was also Richard's first trip to Ireland. Richard did a good job of ensuring we mostly stuck to our schedule, and that logistics ran smoothly. Richard had prepared notes that he read about different landscapes and historical facts for locations, but it was bus driver Conor who told Richard how to pronounce Irish words and names. It was Conor who told Richard about the best local places to stop for lunch, restroom breaks, and scenic photo opportunities. It was Conor who told us all the local lore and local points of interest. So hail to the bus driver, an unsung hero, who not only delivered us safely to each location, but who also guided our tour to a large extent. 

Hail to the bus driver, Conor! Photo by Valerie from our group.

There's even more Ireland trip to recount. Drop by next week for more Irish sightseeing!