Stephen felt, as he had done before at moments of extreme tension, a dislocation in his sense of time. It seemed to stutter, then freeze.
Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
The mind truly is a fascinating bit of machinery – I’m sure I’ve mentioned that before.
When the mind is at peace, bathing in a sense of calm, moments somehow fly by and before we know it, the peace is gone and we have encountered a new problem to solve or responsibility to take care of.
I know this from the little meditation I have done in my life. When I am truly able to calm my mind and focus on my breath, 5-10-15 minutes go by in a snap and suddenly the meditation is over and it’s time to get going on my To-Do list again.
And yet, in moments of stress or tension, time seems to slow down or even freeze completely. It’s almost as if our mind wants us to savour every single second of intense anguish so as to ensure that we keep ourselves as far away as possible from similar situations in the future.
Wouldn’t it make more sense for the opposite to be true? For happiness and peace to drag on forever while sadness and strife are over in the blink of an eye?
If you know a trick to make the mind’s mechanics flip like this, please let me know. Because in today’s blog, I’m going to talk about a painful experience which seemed to last for ages. An experience which cemented my firm belief that all life is immensely precious – a belief I hold sacred especially in today’s day and age with the Covid-19 pandemic still ravaging the world and mass graves of Indigenous children being found throughout the country.
This one has been on my to read list for an embarrassingly long time. I’m talking a decade or so…I’m very pleased to have finally checked it off as read!
This is another book I read quickly (for me) – it brought me right back to my African Lit classes in University.
I am a huge advocate for expanding one’s shelf and reading works by authors from different cultures, countries, mother-tongues, etc… even if it means some of these reads will be more difficult to fully grasp. I definitely caught myself frowning at some of the villager’s practices as a white-middle-class-Canadian and I tried to take these moments to delve deeper into why these practices were in place instead of judging these people as backwards or “un-civilized” as the colonizers described them.
Regardless of bias, however, there are certainly some very disturbing scenes in the book – for those who have been relatively safe from witnessing violence first-hand – so be warned.
My one criticism is that the ending seemed to be rushed, with the coming of the colonizing forces only happening in the last quarter of the book or so but perhaps this was intentional in that it left the majority of the book free to devote itself to the people central to the novel. Perhaps I am just not used to reading books that don’t drive relentlessly towards some kind of climax. Looks like I need to read yet more widely!
Overall, would recommend approaching this book with an open mind and an understanding that some of the cultural practices may shock or upset you. Don’t give up on it, I think the message is worth it.
have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any similar books to recommend? Let me know in the comments below!
He laid his hand on the cover of the book, gently, as though reluctant to disturb the rest of the sleeping lives interred there.
Diana Gabaldon, Voyager
I have a complicated relationship with reading these days. It used to be that I would spend hours curled up on the couch with a good read, often finishing several books a week without even sparing a thought for how much I could have accomplished in that time I devoted to losing myself in the written word.
Lately, however, this seems to be a harder practice to justify. Whether this is because I’m now a mother with a very busy and curious little one to raise or simply because adulthood comes with a million tiny yet important responsibilities that seem to need attention with alarming consistency, I’m not entirely sure.
The result, regardless of the reason, is that I spend so much of my time gazing longingly at my to be read pile without picking a single one up, or feverishly adding tantalizing new books to my Goodreads “Want To Read” designation at a pace that defies the possibility of ever getting through them all.
While an interesting premise, the writing was not great.
I should have heeded my gut-feeling when the very beginning of the book started with an unlikely tale of the author being surrounded by adoring teenagers removing their headphones to listen to him wax poetically about the history of the brewery nearby.
And yet, I kept on reading.
The back cover describes it as “frothy and delicious, intoxicating and nutritious” and though I would agree that these words are accurate to describe Guinness as a beer (I’m a fan!) I’m not sure they apply to the book they ostensibly describe. The writing was certainly frothy, sure, but there was not much that was either intoxicating or nutritious in this book.
As someone who has studied history for over a decade, I realize I have a certain preference when it comes to non-fiction books about history. I recognize that there are many different ways to weave history in prose, and not everyone likes to wade through thousands of footnotes, but I found that in this book, the treatment of history was overly superficial.
It seemed to be that a lot of presumptions were declared as “likely” facts, and much of what was written seemed to be a re-hashing of what has already been explored in the books Mansfield praises glowingly in his bibliography.
I wanted to like this book much more than I did. Still, I did learn a few things!
Looks like I’ll have to pick up all the books he mentioned for a deeper dive into the history of Guinness and the family that created it.
“Would history be there for her to see, or would it all have been tidied away? Was it fair to expect that sixty years after an event – on the whim of someone who had shown no previous interest – a country would dutifully reveal its past to her amateur inspection?” – Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
The quote above from my book of words spoke to me after I had read through my journal entry from November 4th, 2015. Though the places we visited that day were much older than 60, and had far longer memories, much of their history was indeed tidied away…and showed no interest in revealing their secrets to me. A bit of research all these years later has shined some lights on a few things but I have so many questions! Regardless, though I do not have all the information to fill the glaring holes in this post, the show, er, blog must go on.
“In town, there was silence bled into by whispered talk”– Elizabeth Hay, Alone in the Classroom
Today is the day I finally return to my retelling of the trip I took to France with my Dad back in 2015. Fingers crossed I can actually finish this story in a timely fashion! The last travelogue took me, what, a few years? In an attempt to get this done in a timely manner…this post is a long one. Fair warning.
Recommitting to writing for what feels like the 1000th time isn’t easy but, hey, it’s bound to stick sometime. At least that’s what I keep telling myself every time I miss a day of writing for whatever reason. One of my resolutions this year was to try to put less pressure on myself when it comes to achieving non-essential goals. My husband will tell you I consistently keep a daily to-do list of more than 10 things I want to achieve, which would be fine if I didn’t get anxious, stressed and incredibly emotional when I don’t achieve each and every one of these goals. Since these negative feelings are often accompanied with a whole heck of a lot of self-criticism, I’m trying to make it easier for me to achieve my goals as a way to feel more accomplished and less self-critical. And if I don’t achieve one or more of the things on my list one day, or even several days in a row, so be it! I mean, I am a new mom and only human, for goodness sake.
All this to say, this is me attempting to return to a weekly post on here at a minimum. I can’t promise I’ll achieve this every week, but you better believe I’m going to try. And if it doesn’t happen? I’m not going to beat myself up. I hope you, dear reader, won’t be too disappointed either.
“Overall, the library held a hushed exultation, as though the cherished volumes were all singing soundlessly within their covers.” – Diana Gabaldon, Outlander
I feel the need to start off this post with an admission that despite the quote chosen above, I am not writing about a library, per say. That is not to say the location described never held any tomes of the written word within – in fact I can safely say that it once contained mountains and mountains of books – but rather this quote seemed to help me recall the feeling of walking around its hallowed grounds in a way I found both evocative and inspiring.
For, this was the day I finally got to walk up the steep paths of the legendary Mont Saint-Michel. And let me tell you, it truly did not disappoint.
We started the morning off bright and early, having gone to bed at an overly decent hour, with a lovely breakfast consisting of fresh baguettes, homemade white cheese, butter, jams, raisin buns, cake and – of course – coffee. I must say, for the entirety of our sojourn in France, I was both confused and enamoured by their style of breakfast. See, in North America at least, the preference tends to be towards savoury-style breakfasts (definitely the kind of breakfast my husband prefers). I know what you’re thinking, “But, Erin, Canada is famous for it’s maple syrup-drowned pancakes”. Well, yes, you’re totally right. But in most peoples’ experience, I would wager, this was a treat for a Saturday or Sunday morning complete with cartoons and pajama time that stretched luxuriously until noon or later. On most mornings, some eggs and toast will suffice (and bacon! If you have the time).
However, I digress.
The breakfast, however sweet for my taste, was scrumptious. A treat I was able to enjoy largely in silence as Dad did most of the talking every time Bernard popped his head in while I proceeded to stuff my face. You’d be surprised at how much food I could consume back then – certainly not the case anymore! I have slowed down considerably in my, er, older age.
Right after breakfast, we headed out on our short journey to Mont Saint-Michel and, honestly, I was shaking with anticipation (or from the abundance of strong coffee — we’ll never know, will we?). This place had been on my bucket list forever so the chance to finally see it in person was just unreal.
Due to my sheer excitement, when we were still a fair distance away I made Dad stop on the side of some random road beside a field because there it was…already!
In the far distance, across goodness knows how many kilometers of flat ground, Mont Saint-Michel rose up our of the mists like a mirage. I can think of nothing I have seen before or since which can compare with this view. It was like reality’s best imitation of the most elaborate fairytale location imaginable.
I did, finally, get back into the car and allow Dad to drive us there but it was hard not to just stand there forever and stare. It was only the promise of seeing it up-close-and-personal that made me move.
After parking the car, we opted for the 40 minute walk to the Mont as opposed to the 5 minute shuttle service – and I’m damn glad we did. This way, we got to savour 40 minutes of that view. Totally worth the exertion (I’m not sure pregnant me would be in agreement but, she was not present at the time). I think I took a million photos – if I could only find them all!
The walled city/abbey crossbreed was no less spectacular once we entered it. A winding, narrow cobblestone street made its way languorously to the pinnacle where the abbey sat. It was a wonderful, picturesque climb.
We also stumbled, rather unexpectedly, on a plaque proclaiming that it was on that very spot in the 16th century where Jacques Cartier was given his orders to explore Canada. How cool is that? A little piece of Canadian history in my new favourite place in all the world (do I give that title out a lot? I feel as if I do…)
We explored a little chapel which seemed to appear out of nowhere, and yet another memorial to the local war dead, perhaps all the more stark for being surrounded by so much peaceful beauty. Finally, having appeased our curiosity by exploring as much of the lower levels as possible, we made our way up to the Abbey itself.
The tour of the Abbey was very well laid out, though much of it was blocked off at the time unfortunately (including the stairs to the bell tower – so much for my tradition of climbing the tallest tower available!). Despite these closures, however, it was no less awe-inspiring. So many cavernous rooms containing long rows of pillars reminiscent of Moria (though it was, in fact, Peter Jackson’s inspiration for Minas Tirith instead), and a breathtaking view of the coast of Normandy. With the fog still hanging heavily in the air throughout the countryside, the view was unforgettable.
The cloister also featured one wall which had a huge floor-to-ceiling “window” of modern glass being the only thing stopping us from tumbling to the ground below. If that had simply been precariously-thin stained-glass once-upon-a-time, as Dad suggested, it can’t have been very safe. I’m curious as to how many accidents were narrowly avoided… Not a place to walk around with your head in the clouds…or your nose in a book!
We also came across the top of a chute we had jokingly called the “toboggan run” looking up at it from below. It was, in reality, far too steep for even the bravest of Canadians to attempt a run. At any rate, as Dad and I stood there, we both experienced shaking ankles and calves as well as a pain in our legs. We chalked it up to our incredible fear of heights (we were both looking straight down) but I read over lunch that day the following story:
Random Historical Fact #17
Though intended to be a place of quiet religious contemplation, during the French Revolution and the numbered days of the Napoleonic Empire the Abbey was actually converted into a prison to house people deemed to be enemies of whatever regime they had managed to anger (remember – power changed hands swiftly during these trying years). At one point during the Abbey’s tenure as a daunting dungeon, one such political prisoner decided he would rather take his fate into his own hands and choose to leap to his death rather than face an unknown length of time rotting in an isolated cell. Though the exact location he lept from does not seem to be agreed upon publically (at least from the research I have done thus far), while Dad and I were there it was suggested that the top of this chute was where it happened. I can’t imagine being so desperate to avoid a situation that you decide to cease living instead but, then, this man wouldn’t be the first or the last to make this heart wrenching choice.
Though I may not have any proof that this is where Gautier leapt to his doom, I’ve spoken before about sensing pain or suffering in a location, even if no evidence persists. Believe what you will, but I know what we both felt standing there…and it still gives me shivers.
Our time at the Abbey did eventually come to a close as we enjoyed some fresh crepes and local cider (both specialties of the region) and a bit more rambling to walk off the food, as well as a Croque Monsieur for me because…France.
After a disappointing walk through a fake “Village Mont Saint-Michel”, which basically consisted of luxury hotels and huge restaurants to cater to the thousands of tourists who flock, unsurprisingly, to the Mont every year, we jumped in the car and headed on to our next stop – St. Malo.
As we drove through countless coastal villages, my heart was again broken by the sheer amount of memorials to lost soldiers on the side of the road. At one point, we went through two villages in the span of a minute or so, both of which had their own memorial dedicated to 40-odd combat dead…the villages today couldn’t have had more than a couple hundred inhabitants total; in either. How many men even came back? The mind (and the stomach) reels.
I was still trying to process these thoughts when we rolled into St. Malo and the finding of the Old City, thankfully, acted as a welcome distraction. We found parking underground at the port and headed a few paces through the gates of the medieval city.
The sight that greeted us was already familiar though no less striking. A curving network of cobblestone streets and surrounded by a grandiose stone wall complete with a network of defense towers.
Before the fun could begin, however, it appeared the heartbreak was not yet over.
We stumbled suddenly upon the city’s Jardin de Resistance which memorialized not only war-combat-dead but also the civilian casualties from the German siege of the city (so many) and the French Resistance fighters either executed en-place, or deported to Dachau or other concentration camps and killed there. Their ashes, or the ashes of far too many victims of Nazi cruelty in general, were eventually brought from the camps and spread on the ground around a horrible stature of an arm-less soldier crying out in agony. This time, I couldn’t stop the tears. Luckily, Dad knew me well enough to let me be. I’m not sure that I am terribly upset that I cannot find my photo of this statue but please do feel free to look it up if you want an idea of how horrifying it was.
After this incredibly somber note, Dad and did our best to enjoy an afternoon of rampart walks and a stroll along the coast, barefoot no less, to one of the adjoining islands which held the tomb of some famous writer that he knew though I was, embarrassingly, clueless.
While on the ramparts, we were overjoyed to find an hysterical statue of a flamboyantly famous Corsair as well as a statue of Jacques Cartier himself (right near the Maison du Quebec, appropriately).
After the glories of Mont St-Michel, one would think little could please Dad and I but I will say that St. Malo was a pleasant surprise. The day was then topped off by a fantastic dinner in some small town – the first place we could find as everything seems to shut there after 2pm not to re-open until closer to 9 in the evening. The owner of this place, however, made up for it by being the consummate host, serving up the best seafood pasta and Stella a physically and emotionally tired girl could ask for.
Finally, we rounded it all out with a view of the spectacularly lit-up Mont St. Michel after dark. I may be unable to find my photos of this (though I guarantee you would have no problem finding some with a quick Google search) but I’ll never forget the sight.
It may not have been a library, per say, but that view certainly held a hushed exaltation, as if the stones themselves were singing soundlessly within their mortared homes.
I told you the quote fit.
More in two-weeks! And, remember, Life is beautiful.
“I had thought I could not sleep, but the pull of exhaustion was too much, and I slipped beneath the surface, with scarcely a ripple.” – Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber
I promise the quote above will make sense by the end of this post. I also promise, simultaneously, that this post will not put you to sleep. I hope.
Writing about this particular trip is a completely different exercise from the last one because I actually kept a nightly-ish journal at the time which helps to throw me right back into the action of 2015’s French Adventure. Though I am not planning on reproducing the journal word-by-word, rest assured that the most thoughtful and evocative descriptions will be kept to bring this journey to life as vividly as possible.
It seems that the first journal entry begins the day after we arrived as, in my own words, I had no pretense of energy the night before with which to write. I do recall it being an extremely long day with no sleep whatsoever and I remember telling myself I really needed to learn how to sleep on a plane (spoiler alert: I only learnt this skill once I got pregnant and by this point it wasn’t so much learned as necessitated).
But, I digress. Back to France.
After an uneventful flight, my Dad and I got in our rental car immediately after making it through security and began our trek to our first B&B just outside of Avranches in Normandy, some 300km south-west of Paris where we had landed.
I had a horribly splitting headache that morning from the initial stress of our travel the day before compounded with the complete lack of sleep overnight on the plane. Anyone who suffers from migraines or tension headaches can probably tell you how near-impossible it is to function at all depending on the severity of each attack. I tried to stay cheery and alert for Dad’s sake, I knew he was exhausted too having only gotten some 3 hours of sleep himself. And he needed to (exclusively) do the driving as we had rented a standard! Definitely the cheaper option but I wonder to this day if Dad doesn’t regret undertaking 2 weeks of driving on his own…
We ended up having to pull off the highway about halfway as he could barely keep his eyes open and we slept an hour or so in the parking lot of one of their versions of an “On Route”. I would have been embarrassed at the public snoozing but there were several truck and van drivers doing the same thing – so I ended up more jealous of their curtains than anything!
Heading back on the road, my headache (finally) began to subside and I was able to provide Dad with what I hoped was slightly better company. I also benefited not only from the slight lack of pain but also from the ability to enjoy the sights of the Norman countryside – which was truly spectacular. Hard to imagine what it must have looked like after the World Wars, though WWII in particular. All that beauty and natural serenity laid to waste thanks to the arrogance of humanity. (Note – I do understand that Hitler and his cronies needed to be stopped, and this is not to diminish the feats of bravery by those who set out to do so. But, I’m sorry, I will never understand the wastefulness of war – no matter the justification).
After a much longer drive than anticipated (European roads are…not the same), we finally made it to our B&B and, honestly, it took my breath away. It was called “Le Jardin Secret” … for good reason. Although off a main road, we had to drive through a tiny, hidden gate in the stone wall to enter the driveway – so tiny if we had blinked, we’d have missed it. So small that even our little mini barely squeezed through! Having successfully completed our first challenge, the reward was a dark tree-lined path overhung by branches at the end of which was the house itself. The building was a beautiful, vine-covered stone house with an English manor house look to it (sorry France!). It backed onto a lovely, expansive garden filled with an innumerable amount of plants, many of which were still flowering even though it was November!
I remember the walk through the property along twisted paths and through overgrown archways being wonderful. The entire grounds were enclosed by stone walls that truly looked like they could have been inspiration for the Secret Garden – awe-inspiring.
But it was when we arrived at our rooms that the magnitude of the difference between my usual hostel-based budget trips and the B&B style my Dad prefers was made clear. We were shown upstairs to our suite, which included a separate room for each of us and our own private bathroom! Now, remember, the most luxurious room Kristen and I stayed in on our three-week trip around the UK and Ireland was a “private room” in the attic where we still needed to share a bathroom so…This suite was sheer luxury as far as I was concerned.
The rooms themselves were gorgeous. Dad’s was multi-coloured and looked like it came out of an Easter special at the Willy Wonka chocolate factory, though it was referred to (inexplicably) as “La Plage”. Mine on the other hand was decorated in a red-and-white theme and had cursive Es embroidered on everything…fate? My window also faced east so, suffice it to say, even this non-morning-person was able to appreciate the sun’s daily greeting.
Our first night there, apart from meandering through the beautiful house and grounds, started off nicely thanks to a lovely chat with the B&B owner (side note: even in my journal from the trip I keep mistakenly referring to the accommodations as a hostel. This really was a new experience for me!). The owner was a sweet man named Bernard who immediately (and incorrectly) pegged me as someone who didn’t understand French because of my notorious aversion to speaking the language with Francophones, a fear my Francophone husband is still helping me get over almost four years into our relationship. Despite Bernard’s insistence on switching to English every time he so much as glanced in my direction during the conversation – a habit which prompted me to begrudgingly admire how fully bilingual he was – he was our inspiration for deciding to forgo an afternoon and evening off and instead head into Avranches proper for some exploration, and for this I must be forever grateful.
Thanks to his kind prompting, and encouraged no less by our desire to stay up as late as possible so as to escape the worst of the jet-lag, Dad and I were soon headed into town for some much-needed leg-stretching and adventure. I believe that even now, 4 years after we took this trip, I can safely say that Avranches is one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting, though it did remind me quite a bit of Durham in England. Perhaps this is why I loved it so much! Again…sorry France…
It is also where I experienced what I deemed “the most haunting moment of our trip” at that point, though I rightly predicted there would be many many more…
In the city center, there was a large war memorial – as there was in most of the towns we passed through – commemorating their war dead. Now, these we have here at home, though not nearly as many. What was different about this one, however, was the long list of civilian casualties listed on the one side: lives lost in the bombardment of Avranches. They didn’t have ages listed but this didn’t make the list any less heartbreaking. There were just so many names.
If that wasn’t enough to break me down (which it was), on the other side, the metal plaque listing the names of the men killed throughout the First World War was pockmarked and peeling, even bubbling in some places. A sign nearby explained that the earlier cenotaph was severely damaged in the bombings of ’44. This thought chilled me right to my core. That a monument to these men and boys who gave their lives to free their country would only stand to be almost ripped apart not a generation later by yet another devastating global conflict played out on French soil. It’s heart-wrenching.
So as not to leave this post on such a dour note, however, we did manage to check out the medieval part of the town as well as the beautiful old church while we were there – a welcome respite from all the contemplation of death and destruction.
After couple of hours of walking, and some freshly-baked bread for dinner topped off by a delectable beer, we were just about done.
According to my journal, I passed out at 6:30 PM that night. So much for making it a late night! Again, as this was four years ago now, I can’t fully recall how exhausted I must have been but I imagine I did indeed slip beneath the surface of sleep without so much as a ripple.
Stay tuned for one of the highlights of the whole trip: Mont St. Michel.
And, remember friends, despite its dark moments, life is beautiful.
“One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story.”
– Neil Gaiman, American Gods
I can’t believe I have finally reached this point in my tale – the end. It has been a long time coming, much longer than I had envisioned, but I am truly proud of myself that I have made it this far! I suppose it also helps that I already know what I will be writing about next: my trip to France around Remembrance Day 2015. And this time around, I actually kept a pretty devoted journal during the trip itself so I shouldn’t be relying entirely on memory. However, I must warn you, my trip to France was fraught with emotions – and not always easy ones. But for now, let’s finish the telling of this adventure up, shall we?
Though technically the trip my sister and I took ended in Dublin, the last place we spent any significant amount of time was Wicklow Town in County Wicklow. And this destination was another one which made an appearance in my travelogue entirely by accident…
Originally, Kristen and I had been hoping to make it to New Ross, not far geographically from Wicklow but certainly farther when you consider that we did not have the luxury of taking our own car around the Emerald Isle. If you have never been to Ireland (or the U.K., or Europe in general for that matter) and you happen to hail from North America, here is a free bit of gentle advice: do NOT expect the road systems to be like ours. Ever. Don’t do it. You will find yourself thinking a hundred kilometer trip is going to take an hour on a fairly straight highway and will find yourself still on some winding (though beautiful) road 3 hours later wondering if you might have taken a wrong turn somewhere, desperately moving afternoon plans around to try and still fit all your desired destinations in.
I don’t say this to imply that their roads are not as well-designed as ours, goodness knows I have my issues with the 401 (and don’t get me started on the haphazard muddle of on- and off- and a-little-bit-of-column-A-a-little-bit-of-column-B ramps we have going on in Ottawa), but they are certainly different and take some getting used to. I’ll get into this more in my posts about my trip to France – that time we did rent a car – but suffice it to say that the majority of the roads in Europe were built long after cities and towns and farmland had sprouted all over the terrain whereas those in North America were built across large swaths of as-of-then undeveloped (read: not unoccupied) lands. The result in North America is long stretches of largely well-groomed highways allowing one to travel at a pretty consistent speed and reach far destinations in a decently short span of time. And thank the stars for this because otherwise we would be an isolated people indeed – everything is far away! Don’t ask me to take you to both Halifax and Vancouver in one trip – it ain’t happening. Would you take me to Moscow and Paris in the same one-week sojourn? I didn’t think so. But, I digress.
In Europe, while there are some main highways on which you can drive rather fast from one end of the country to the other, in order to get to most of the smaller towns and villages, you are forced to skip these oft-controversial paved thoroughfares in favour of smaller and less straight-forward country roads. Often, these country roads are barely wide enough for one car, let alone two, and good luck to you if you come across a truck while passing through one of the particularly narrow channels graced by stone walls on either side. Again, this is not to disparage the roadways across the pond. This is just to warn potential North American travelers that the driving conditions over there can take some getting used to.
Now, what was the point of this diatribe you might ask? Simply that the route from Doolin to New Ross would have been decently long and confusing (though filled with stunning vistas) should we have rented a car to make the journey. As it stood, we were quickly running out of both cash and time and as such were forced with choosing between a long and multi-stop bus trip between the two villages or instead choosing a different destination for our Irish swan song.
This should have been an easy decision for us, and I do think we made the right one considering our circumstances, but it wasn’t one we were pleased to have to make. The reason New Ross had been on our list in the first place, as random as a destination as it might seem to most, was personal. You see, according to our family lore, this was where the Walsh clan (our ancestors on our maternal grandfather’s side) bid adieu to their island home in the hopes of finding prosperity in the New (read: new to Europeans) World. They left during one of the several famines that struck Ireland in the 19th century and, as far as we know, never looked back.
Random Historical Fact #16
New Ross is one of the key destinations in Ireland when looking to learn about the Famine Ships that carried so many out of (and, unfortunately, through) dire conditions to distant shores filled with the promise of a new life. It is the home of the Dunbrody Famine Ship, a replica of one of the “passenger” ships that actually ferried Irish emigrants away from their home shores towards North America and a fresh start. Commissioned by the Graves family, the original ship was actually built in Quebec, Canada and was first launched in 1845 – the same year that the Great Famine (though by that point it was thought to be a bad blight on that year’s potato crop) began in Ireland. When the blight continued to get worse without an end in sight, hundreds of thousands of people started to make plans to leave the Island to try and ensure their survival and that of their families. The exodus was so large, in fact, that there simply weren’t enough passenger ships to carry everyone across the Atlantic. Enter the Graves family who saw a business (and, one would hope, humanitarian) opportunity and decided to outfit their cargo ships with bunks in order to sell tickets to ferry desperate families across the water. Though ships like the Dunbrody may have been stuffed with anywhere from 160 to 300 people in one voyage, as regulations were exceptionally lax during this dire time, it still managed to carry thousands of people across the ocean – mostly to Quebec – and even to keep its fairly good reputation as far as newly-converted passenger ships were concerned. I can’t help but wonder if some of my close or distant relatives may have been passengers on this very ship – doing their best to remain calm and hopeful as they pitched about in their cramped quarters on the rough sees. It must have taken incredible courage…
Now, our ancestors not only left from those very shores but that they also hailed from the green hills of Wicklow County – we were hoping to spend some time there to try and wrap our minds around what kind of life our family must have led back then and how they found the nerve to strike out to find a new life. Perhaps it was not nerve at all but rather a leap of faith knowing that if they stayed, they likely wouldn’t see many more winters.
I am still a little heartbroken that this part of our trip did not pan out as we had hoped but I must add that Wicklow Town was more than just a consolation prize. Though not our intended destination, the town might have been just what we needed at that point in our trip – a calm respite before the exhausting whirlwind trip back home to Canada and full-time work. I can’t honestly tell you much about the history of the town or its many attractions but I can tell you this:
It is truly a wonderful place to slow your pace and enjoy leisurely walks to nowhere in particular. We spent much of our time on the coast there, rambling about and breathing in the fresh air and quiet calm of the local parks. I am sure we could have packed our day with historical and cultural fare, and I promise I will be back one day to explore its charm more thoroughly, but the long walks we took complete with a barefoot stroll (OK, 30 second toe-dip) in the frigid water was just what the doctor ordered.
It wasn’t New Ross, no, nor a town particularly tied to my family in any way that I know of; but it was a refuge from the madness of our 3-week trip and the adulting we knew we had to do once we got home. And, truthfully? I’m not sure I could have handled the inevitable emotional turmoil I would have experienced stepping on the same ground my family last felt before fleeing their home forever.
Though this last post was a bit more aimless than others, and I do hope you will forgive me for this, my one wish is that this very long travelogue has been an at least somewhat entertaining tale for you to read. At times it wasn’t easy to write, at times inspiration evaded me for months on end as life got hard or exceptionally busy, but I always knew it was a story worth telling. Maybe one day I will put all of these thoughts and stories into a book, perhaps I won’t. But at the very least, I have gotten them down on the page and shared them with at least a few souls around the planet who thought them worth their time.
So, for those who have followed me throughout this journey, or even those who dropped in now and then for a laugh or a ponder, thank you for bearing with me as I fought my way through the writing of this adventure. I can’t promise I will always be the most consistent blogger, though I am trying, but I can promise that I am not nearly out of stories yet. After all, as Neil Gaiman so wisely wrote, the best way one can describe a story, whether it is to oneself or the world (or a few hundred readers), is by telling the story.
“To be a historian is to be questioning, to have a vivid imagination and an insatiable curiosity.” – Anna Whitelock
I realize this might seem like I am trying to define who I have always been using the benefit of hindsight – you know, the way every autobiography ever written makes some kind of broad statement about how so-and-so has always been a natural leader or something of the sort? However, I believe my parents would back me up in this statement: ever since I was a very small child, I have delighted in learning about the past. I went through many phases: Egyptian Pharaohs, Celtic Druids, English Monarchy, Irish Revolutions, etc… but the bedrock of my interest was always the same – I wanted to learn everything I could about how people lived before I existed. How did they go about their days? What could have occupied their minds as much as their very existence occupied mine? Did they think about the future? Or struggle to make it to another sunrise? The study of recorded and analysed history could only take me so far – my imagination always carried me further.