Friday, March 6, 2015

County Galway: Spiddal

Among the places Niamh O’Leary mentioned when we asked her to recommend things to do in Ireland that might not be on the average tourist’s radar was the Ceardlann Craft Center in Spiddal, a coastal village about twenty kilometers west of Galway. “It’s never crowded, so you can have great conversations with the artisans themselves,” Niamh had explained. “And it’s a good spot for some less-chintzy souvenirs.” Realizing that this would be her last opportunity to go to the craft center because we were leaving Galway for good this evening, Nancy decided to go to Spiddal this morning. 

Last night, she had made sure that Ceardlann (pronounced CARED-lan) would be open at this time of year, while Michael checked the bus schedules. He determined that the regular Bus Éireann service going to Spiddal wouldn’t leave Eyre Square until 11:30, but there was a Lally Tours bus going through Spiddal that was supposed to leave Jurys Inn (a hotel near the Spanish Arch) at 9:16. The only two return options were the Lally bus at 13:20, and the Bus Éireann at 14:10. Since the trip to Spiddal would take about forty minutes, Nancy decided that in order to make the journey worthwhile, she’d better try to catch the 9:16 Lally bus. This meant no lingering over the breakfast buffet this morning, because she also had to pack everything, check out of the hotel, and leave all the luggage with the porter before she headed out.

Since she wasn’t sure exactly where at Jurys Inn the bus would stop or where she should buy a ticket, she arrived at the hotel about 8:45 and went inside to inquire. The clerk at the reception desk said she didn’t really know anything about the Lally Tours bus, but assumed it would stop at the bus shelter across the street and that Nancy could buy a ticket when she boarded. Signs at the shelter didn’t mention Lally Tours, so all Nancy could do was plan to be at the stop by about 9:10 and hope the bus came.

Rather than spend twenty minutes standing in a cold bus shelter, Nancy chose to walk around and look in shop windows. Up a narrow alley she had not explored before, she discovered what appeared to be an archaeological dig within a glass enclosure underneath a modern building. The site turned out to be the foundation of the Hall of the Red Earl, Galway’s oldest surviving medieval structure. Nancy wanted to read more about the history of the site and examine the artifacts on display around it, but that would have to wait until later because she needed to get back to the bus stop.

Right on time, a bright yellow double-decker bus emblazoned with “Lally Tours” appeared on Quay Street. Nancy waved her arm at the driver and he stopped. “Does this bus go to Spiddal?” she asked.

“Yes,” replied the driver, “but this bus is only for tourists, so you can’t get on.”

The bus was three-quarters empty, so Nancy persisted. “But I am a tourist,” she said. “How much is a ticket to Spiddal?”

“What I mean,” said the driver, “is that you can’t just get on and buy a ticket. This is a Connemara tour bus. You have to book ahead. If you want to get to Spiddal, you have to take Bus Éireann.”

“But the next Bus Éireann to Spiddal doesn’t leave for two more hours, and I need to get there this morning. I didn’t know I was supposed to book ahead.”

The driver rolled his eyes, obviously anxious to keep to his schedule. “All right. I shouldn’t do this, but I’ll take you. Four euro. Now just go sit down. You can give me the money later.”

So Nancy took a seat, feeling very pleased.
This was one of those days when the wind kept blowing cloud curtains across the sun and whipping the sea into froth. Nancy was glad that the seat she had chosen was on the left side of the bus, with nothing but window glass between her and the Wild Atlantic shore. She tried to watch the road signs carefully so she would know when she got to Spiddal, and hoped she wouldn’t have any trouble finding the Ceardlann Craft Center once she got off the bus.
Low tide on the beach in Spiddal

She needn’t have worried: a large sign encouraging travelers to visit the Ceardlann Craft Center in 500 meters appeared on the left, just before a stone marker engraved with An Spidéal (the Irish spelling of Spiddal). Ceardlann, located just opposite the sandy beach, literally could not be missed. Nancy stood up and moved toward the door. Dropping €4 into the bus driver’s hand, she profusely thanked him for his kindness and got off.

The dozen or so brightly painted little cottages that comprise the Ceardlann Craft Center looked completely deserted on this blustery morning, and at first Nancy was afraid that the website had given her misinformation about its operating hours, but then a couple of men walked out of one of the cottages and she noticed a sign that said Open hanging on the door of another, so even though she also saw several Closed signs, her fear dissipated.

Ceardlann Craft Center

Each cottage in the Ceardlann complex is the workshop of a different artisan. The first one Nancy found open displayed stained glass ornaments, jewelry and lamps in its windows, and behind the counter two women were busy at a workbench, fusing pieces of colored glass. Sue Donnellan and her assistant assured Nancy that most of Ceardlann’s shops would open during the course of the day. “A few of the artists go somewhere else during the cold months, and some teach classes, so they may not open until this afternoon,” Sue explained, “but we’re here almost every day. We have to work year-round to produce enough pieces to meet demand during the summer.”

Other shops that eventually opened up during the morning included those of painters Geraldine O’Rourke (more on her later) and Andrea Rossi, a Brazilian who had met and married an Irishman while studying art in London, and then decided that she wanted to raise her children in this little village by the sea. Other artisans at work included a potter, a leather worker, a metalsmith, a paper crafter, a candle maker, a screen printer, and a seamstress who restored vintage clothing. Nancy was disappointed that the weaver and the basket maker were away, but she enjoyed admiring all the creative handiwork on display, and especially being able to talk with the artists while they worked.

The bakery-café at the back of the complex, Builín Blasta (Irish for “Tasty Loaf”), was anything but deserted when Nancy stopped in to get some lunch. Most of the tables were occupied by young mothers with babies, enjoying conversation with friends over a cup of coffee or tea and one of the bakery’s scrumptious-looking pastries. Nancy ordered a healthy beet, rocket, and goat cheese salad before succumbing to the allure of a chocolate meringue “Gerry,” which was served with fresh fruit and a mound of densely whipped cream.

After lunch, having decided which of the many beautiful handmade items she had seen she wanted to buy, she went back to a few of the shops and made her purchases. One of these was a small painting by Geraldine O’Rourke in swirling blue and green acrylic, called The Wild Atlantic.

“I just finished that one yesterday,” said the artist. “I’m so glad you like it! It’s in kind of a new style for me—I wanted to try something different to capture the constant motion of the sea.”

“That’s exactly what it does, which is why I chose it,” Nancy replied.

Nancy and Geraldine continued to chat while the artist finished taping the back of the painting’s frame and added a hanging cord. Then, with a heavier backpack but a light heart, Nancy walked back up the road toward the bus stop.
Figuring that another Lally Tours driver might not be as accommodating as the one that had picked her up this morning, she had decided to take the later Bus Éireann back into Galway—and anyway, that gave her some extra time to visit Cill Éinda (St. Enda), a pretty little Roman Catholic church on a hill above the beach.
Cill Einda

Memorial window for a lost fisherman in Cill Einda

Interior of Cill Einda
A tidy thatched cottage on the main highway in Spiddal

Downstream view of Owenboliska from the bus stop.
Galway Bay is only a few meters beyond the trees

Upstream view of Owenboliska

The Bus Éirerann stop was on a bridge overlooking the lovely Owenboliska. When the 424 pulled up and the driver told Nancy that the fare would be €7.90, she realized how truly generous the Lally driver had been--though she wondered whether he had simply pocketed her €4.

Arriving back in Galway before 3 p.m., Nancy still had about an hour and a half before she had to meet Michael at the Radisson to pick up their luggage and get on the road toward Doolin, so she went back to the ruins of the Hall of the Red Earl. She had been there only a few minutes when a woman came out of the office she could see through a nearby glass wall.

“Would you like to hear more about the history of this place,” the woman asked, “or would you rather that I just leave you to look around and read the signs on your own?”

“If you’re willing to tell me more, please do!” said Nancy.

So the woman (who was a representative of the Galway Civic Trust) told her the history, “very briefly,” of the Red Earl, Richard de Burgo, whose family controlled the river crossing at Galway and the surrounding area off and on throughout the thirteenth century. The Civic Trust lady went into quite a bit of detail about the constant battles between the Anglo-Norman de Burgos and the native O’Flaherty and O’Connor clans, but since Nancy knew there wouldn’t be a test at the end of the lecture, she didn’t worry about keeping it all straight. At any rate, the Red Earl’s hall served variously as a court house, tax office, civic meeting area, and banquet hall for over a hundred years. Later, after the de Burgos had fallen from power, the building was used as an iron forge before it eventually crumbled into ruins. In 1997, the hall’s foundation was rediscovered during excavation for a new parking garage. Recognizing its historic significance, Galway’s Office of Public Works redesigned the parking garage to incorporate the ruins in a way that would allow the site to be preserved, studied, and opened to the public. Nancy thought their plan succeeded very well.

Leaving the Hall of the Red Earl, Nancy made another serendipitous discovery: Judy Greene’s pottery shop, which occupies two narrow floors of a restored medieval building in Kirwan’s Way. In the loft above the first floor, Nancy could see the potter’s clay-spattered workshop, but the artist wasn’t there. However, as she stood at the sales desk waiting to purchase a piece decorated with a charming floral motif, she overheard another customer call the clerk “Judy.”

“Are you the potter?” Nancy asked after the other woman left.

“Yes, I am,” replied the clerk. So Nancy had the chance to meet and talk with yet another of the artisans whose work she had admired today.

Saying goodbye to the potter, Nancy hurried back to the Radisson. Michael arrived with the rental car shortly thereafter, and soon they were on their way to Doolin.

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