When the world goes off the rails like it did this week in Las Vegas, the very human reaction is fight or flight. Fight as in help to those who were impacted. Flight as in shelter; consolation from an incomprehensible tragedy. My own flight, in extreme instances like this one, sometimes takes the form of fond memories of a journey my wife and I made five years ago, to a remote village on the west coast of Ireland called Clifden.
For those who travel to Ireland, Clifden is rarely on the itinerary. It’s a four-hour cross-country drive from Dublin, and the final ninety minutes meander along a two-lane road through the forested expanse of Connemara National Park. Clifden has a modest history for all of its two hundred years on the map. The town evolved from farmers and fishermen who lived in the region, its commerce bolstered by the heir of a nearby castle. Like most towns in Ireland, Clifden suffered the blight of the potato famine and the onslaughts of rebels from the north. Its only claim to fame is the location of Marconi’s first wireless telegraphy station to the near south, broadcasting messages across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia in 1905. Today Clifden has 2,000 inhabitants, still looking the part of “two churches, two hotels, three schools, and 23 pubs” it boasted in the early 1800’s.
As my wife and I discovered, Clifden is the very definition of “off the beaten path”. We stumbled upon its welcoming neighborhood very much by chance. Our intended stop was Galway that day, but once in the city-center (and having survived a five-lane roundabout), we yearned for something smaller and less urban. Heading north along the coast and with dusk turning to dark, we experienced the thrill of the uncertainty of locating our as-yet-unknown destination.
After a middle-of-the-road stop for a funeral procession (popular guy, judging from the dozens of people descending upon the nearby church), and then passing by the dignified Kylemore Abbey, little Clifden emerged from the coastal fog. We stopped into the first bed-and-breakfast we could find, but there were no rooms at such a late hour. Instead, we were directed to the larger/older Foyle’s Hotel a couple of streets away. What a blessing in disguise. Foyle’s was the perfect introduction to the charms of Clifden. A turn-of-the-century grand dame with wide hallways, creaking stairs, and no elevator, we felt like we’d stepped back in time a century or more. Dinner was served in an elegant main-level salon just off the reception area, soft music playing in the background. Our spacious room looked down on the center of town from one of the second-floor windows you see here.
The next morning, we took to Clifden on foot, wandering its quaint, narrow, up-and-down streets. We stopped in at Walsh’s Bakery for breakfast, walking away with a few of the more tempting choices from the case. We then stopped in at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, one of the two spires accenting Clifden’s modest skyline. We climbed to the higher part of town for a look down to the lazy harbor activity along the quay. More than any sight or sound, we simply embraced Clifden for what it was; a quiet seaside village; is inhabitants contentedly going about their business. In contrast to bright and busy Dublin, Clifden summoned a much-needed deep breath and a moment of halcyon reflection.
Perhaps our travels will bring us back to Clifden someday. But the more I consider the idea the less inclined I am to make it happen. Our idyllic experience was predicated on the chance decisions making our visit happen in the first place, the wandering road leading us to its cobblestone streets, and the saving grace of vacancy at the Foyle’s Hotel.
In Gaelic, Clifden means “stepping stones”. That’s a nice coincidence, since my fond memories seem to guide me back to a more content frame of mind. I keep the following illustration in my home office. With just a glance I can find reassuring refuge once again.
Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.