As I flew to Washington D.C. for my Mitchell Scholar finalist interview, I daydreamed about the possibility of traveling the Irish countryside, absorbing the breath-taking scenery and chatting with local residents about their rural communities. I wanted to witness firsthand how Irish rural communities are handling the side-effects of rural decline and urbanization. Given the Covid-19 restrictions that have been commonplace throughout our year on the island, turning that daydream into a reality has been difficult.
Feeling a bit anxious and rebellious last fall, I started a tradition I coined “Friday Frolics.” On Fridays, I would hop on a train or bus and go see a new site. Public transportation routes made it a bit difficult to reach rural places, but one particular Friday Frolic took me to Westport in Co. Mayo. As I hopped off the bus, I realized that I might have found the small rural community that was featured in my daydreams.
The city has several incredible features. First, a river that flows through the heart of the city that served as the perfect setting drive my morning coffee and read the Irish Farmers Journal. Second, the Great Western Greenway wraps around the city on an abandoned railroad track that was built on a raised elevation above the city’s streets and rooftops. It was full of walkers taking in the incredible view of the city and surrounding countryside. Third, The Westport House is a stunning 18th-century home located on a large piece of property on the outskirts of the city.
My favorite Westport site, however, wasn’t on Google’s list of must-see sites. After leaving the Westport House property, I grabbed some ice cream at a local shop. As I walked out of the shop, I noticed a rather large hill a few blocks away surrounded by a pasture of sheep. I was not disappointed when I finally reached the top, although the thick grass that blanketed the hill was wet enough to soak my socks. From this vantage point, I could see the entire city and surrounding countryside. I sat in a large rock in awe of the view for nearly an hour.
While my Friday Frolics haven’t taken me to the number of rural communities that I had envisioned, that trip to Westport will certainly stand out as learning moment about why rural communities in Ireland continue to survive despite the odds. Rural Ireland has a distinct advantage over the rural communities that I am accustomed to in Indiana – beauty. With each turn that I made in Westport, I was impressed. From the orange glow of the bridge spanning the river through the heart of the city, to the sheep munching on grass below my perch at the top of the hill, Westport had so much beauty to offer. One day, when its hotels are open to visitors, I will frolic back to Westport and take in its beauty again.