“And it’s over the fields with my pack on my back…”

I’m up on my feet, walking again—yesterday I even ran to catch a bus! The last few months have been full of travel and activity, and I’ve had lots of opportunities to dispel the restlessness that built up during my convalescence. In February I took advantage of a sunny weekend to journey into Connemara, with a backpack, hiking boots, and my cane. I stepped into a fairy tale.

After entrusting my heavier belongings to a friendly innkeeper at Buttermilk Lodge, I followed twisty roads into the quiet village of Clifden and struck up an acquaintance with a jovial dealer of intricate, mysterious objects. We spoke of the beauty we had seen in our travels the world over, and he drew me a map to my destination: the nearest castle. Upon parting, he predicted that I would be home before dark, but just in case, he lent me a light for the darkness, small enough to slip into my pocket. After fortifying myself with a pastry, I set out, past the taverns and shops, down the hill and past the harbor. Water to my left and rugged terrain to my right, I trampled happily but slowly, testing the ground with my cane, and occasionally perching on stone walls built, without mortar, by the careful hands of master craftspeople of years past. The sun began to dip, and the road became a trail became a cow path.

I met with a series of forbidding gates of stout wood; and, unable to open them, I climbed over the tops of each, wondering if I was being a perfect fool, if my actions might exacerbate my still-healing injury. Placid cows and their unsteady calves gazed at me. I realized that I might be trespassing on the land of some family of these hills. Who could they be? Were they peaceful or warlike, tolerant or fond of suspicion and fierce dogs? To turn back would be to admit defeat, but just as I resolved to end my journey while the sun still shone, I crested a final hill, and there, in the distance, loomed the castle, grey and solemn.

I could almost imagine bright candles shining through windows, loyal retainers at the door to bid me welcome, minstrels playing a merry tune in the gallery. But—no, this castle was broken and defeated, the ruined whisper of ancient bellows, still lovely, if floorless. And still another fence separated me from my goal—and a sign on the other side of that fence read “Beware of Bull.” Which meant—dear me!—that the bull resided here in this field, on my side of the fence. I felt panic and chagrin, and fought with the twisted metal holding the gate shut. I wondered if I could manage to climb over the wire and avoid the barbs. As I searched for a firm foothold in the mud, an elderly farmer suddenly appeared. I had missed his approach, and feared his reproach, but he chuckled and held up the fence at its weakest point, so that I might slip under. My rescuer showed me the castle—this was all his land—and told me tales of its ill-fated dynasty. He led me up to the main road and pointed the way back to town.

As I walked between road and houses, good humor restored, night came all at once, darker than night can be in the city. I tried to summon a lift, but my power to do so had run out. The cottages, which in daylight had seemed charming, now made me wary. The road lacked signs and landmarks, but I pressed on, grateful for the art dealer’s torch and the constellations sprawled across the sky.

I did eventually make it back to the B&B, and returned the borrowed flashlight. As always when I’ve found myself in difficulties in Ireland, I knew I could depend on the kindness of strangers.

February also hosted another amazing Mitchell Scholar gathering, this time in Belfast and Derry. We enjoyed tours, concerts, plays, and many fascinating conversations with scholars, ministers, politicians, ex-combatants, fashion designers, and filmmakers! In March I assisted Macnas, Galway’s puppet-and-spectacle company, in their St. Patrick’s Day parade show. I traveled with a production of “The Clean House” to represent my university at the student drama competition in Dublin. And at the end of the month, the staff of the Irish delegation to the European Union organized an intense introduction to the political scene in Brussels, and kindly offered us the hospitality of their own homes. From Brussels I traveled on to Amsterdam with fellow Mitchell Betsy Katz and her partner, Rachel. I loved both cities—wide avenues, frites, and Magritte; canals, raw herring with pickles and onions, and van Gogh. Many thanks to those who took time to host and speak with us in Belfast, Derry, and Brussels.

At the beginning of April, my younger sister, Tina, arrived for a month-long visit.  We saw everything, so we feel comfortable giving recommendations: Giants Causeway and the Books of Kells you know about already. But also—take the bell-tower tour at Christchurch Cathedral. Ringmaster Leslie Taylor may be looking for an apprentice! Don’t trust those disdainful hipster guidebooks: Bunratty Castle & Folk Park is utterly delightful. If you go to Killarney, you can’t miss the ruins of the abbey near Muckross House—an ancient yew tree in the courtyard, endless steps and hidden nooks.

I look forward to more visitors, more travel, Galway’s festival season, and at least two more volunteer experiences: with Theatre of Witness in Derry, and with the pre-Olympics show “Land of Giants” in Belfast. Classes are over! Summer sunshine can’t be far behind. (Right?)


Katie Van Winkle

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