This post is part of a series detailing my trip to Ireland. You can view the whole series here.
The group convened early for a walking tour of Derry. Our tour guide, Garvin, was fabulous.
Not only was he incredibly knowledgeable, funny, and gifted with impressions, but he had also lived through much of the history he was telling us about. As we stood at the Bloody Sunday memorial in the Bogside, he told us about his cousin who had been killed that day, and about the reactions of his family when they heard the news. Garvin was 14 when it happened, and his cousin who was killed was only 17. If Garvin himself had been only a few years older, who knows if he still would have been here to tell us the story.
Garvin began the tour by walking us through the events depicted on the many murals around Free Derry corner (the Bogside was also known as “Free Derry” because during The Troubles, the police wouldn’t go there).
While all of the murals have fraught histories, one story stood out as more tragic than the others.
The mural depicts 14-year-old Annette McGavigan, the first child casualty of The Troubles in Derry. In 1971, she was walking home from school when she bent down to pick up a rubber bullet in the street. Caught in the crossfire between the British Army and the IRA, she never stood back up. Her death was never investigated and no one was ever charged with her murder. The mural commemorating her was painted in 1999, although it looked different then than it does now. The rifle to her left was originally black and unbroken, and the butterfly over her right shoulder was black and white. In 2006, the mural was re-painted with a colored butterfly and a broken rifle, representing progress in the peace process. Garvin told us that after the mural was painted, Annette’s father would come every day and sit on the low wall across the road to talk to his little girl. He continued to do this until he died.
In addition to walking us through the heartbreaking history of The Troubles in the Bogside, Garvin took us up to walk to the old city walls of Derry.
His love for his city – despite its troubles – was both evident and infectious, and he truly brought all of the stories he told to life. His was one of the best tours I have ever been on.
The tour ended in a little tea shop, where we stayed for a pot of tea and a scone. Then it was time to get back on the bus and leave Derry for Drumcliff.
At Drumcliff, we stopped under the shadow of Ben Bulben (a table mountain in Sligo) to visit W.B. Yeats’ grave.
The location and epitaph of the grave are drawn from Yeats’ own poem, “Under Ben Bulben”, in which he considered his own mortality. Here is the final verse of the long poem:
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
After paying our respects to Yeats (and eating a spot of lunch), we continued on to Mohill, in County Leitrim, where we would be spending the night in Lough Rynn Castle.
The castle was, predictably, amazing. It looked more like a manor house than a bona fide medieval castle, which makes sense since it was built in the early 19th century. While there were no ghosts haunting the castle itself, its history was a haunted one. The 3rd Earl of Leitrim, William Sydney Clements, was a ruthless landlord and pitiless evictor who had a reputation for abusing the wives and daughters of his tenants. After several assassination attempts, he was ultimately ambushed at killed by 3 of his tenants in County Donegal in 1878. Hatred of the man was so intense that his funeral in Dublin was marked by riots, and none of the 3 murderers were ever convicted of his death. His murder was widely publicized in Ireland and beyond, with proponents of land reform using it to argue that tenants needed to be better protected from the abuses of tyrannical landlords.
Now, however, Lough Rynn Castle is better known as one of the best wedding venues in Ireland, topping the Castle division. That, I could certainly believe. Cigi’s and my room was spacious and beautiful, with a jacuzzi we never got a chance to use and towels folded into the shape of swans on each of our beds.
As beautiful as our room was though, Cigi and I quickly abandoned it to explore the rest of the castle. Our explorations quickly brought us to the bar, where the bartender offered to give us a tour. After walking through the blue sitting room, the reading room, and the library, and walking down to see the formal ballroom, we saw the honeymoon suite and the secret private balcony outside it.
Eventually we returned to the bar, where Dean Killen made good on his offer to buy me a wonderful whiskey (Midleton!) as a thank you for rescuing us all from a passport disaster.
We stayed in the bar chatting until right before dinner – Cigi and I practically had to run to change and round up the freshmen.
After dinner, it was finally time for me to lead a discussion of Claire Keegan’s novella, Foster (you can read the original short story, which was published in The New Yorker in 2010, here). All of the freshmen crowded into a corner of the main room, tucked away behind the piano, and we began. Everything went smoothly, everyone participated, and the time flew by. Finishing up the discussion left me giddy and triumphant, and after hearing from the students how much they enjoyed it, I was practically jumping up and down.