Enjoying Bulfin’s Ireland from the comfort of a car

An Irishman’s Diary: A roadtrip west in rainy June

Patrick and Daniel McNally at the Alcock and Brown memorial in Connemara. Photograph. Frank McNally

Patrick and Daniel McNally at the Alcock and Brown memorial in Connemara. Photograph. Frank McNally

 

With the wisdom of hindsight, probably, I should have taken a leaf out of a 1907 travel book, by William Bulfin. When Bulfin set out on the road trip that became his classic Rambles in Eirinn, “it was the last day of June, and the weather was perfect”. People along the road “said it was ‘shocking warm’ and ‘scorching’ and ‘terrible hot, glory be to God’,” he wrote, “but after seventeen sweltering years of the sunny South [Argentina, where he had been an emigrant] I found it just charming.”

Bulfin was on a bicycle, of course. Whereas when my sons and I headed off on a less leisurely road trip around Ireland last week, we were in a car, something for which we became increasingly grateful. The forecast light rain was announcing itself even as we passed through Bulfin’s native Offaly. By the time we crossed the Shannon, it had abandoned any pretence of being light.

Rain fell on Rambles in Eirinn too, occasionally, although not in a form that would be recognised by meteorologists. “Irish rain of the summer and autumn is a kind of damp poem,” Bulfin eulogised. “It is a humid fragrance, and it has a way of stealing into your life which disarms anger. It is a soft apologetic kind of rain, as a rule; and even in its wildest moods, it gives you the impression that it is treating you as well as it can under the circumstances.”

It’s as if a century of Atlantic storm had flattened everything that was more than a few centimetres off the ground and then left the remains lying there

When we stopped for food at a roadside service station in Galway, by contrast, the rain was not apologising, either for itself or the fact that we had to eat outside. There was nothing poetic about it either. It was car-park rain, the kind that neither rhymes nor scans.

But at least the service station was treating us as well as it could, under the circumstances. The seating area was covered, which was something. And in a circumstance Bulfin could hardly have imagined even at his most romantic, the plastic benches were electrified, heating our bottoms to about 25 degrees.

Low mist

In fairness to the west, it had stopped raining by the time we reached Clifden. The sun even started to put in occasional appearances, however half-hearted. When we did the walking loop of Derrygimlagh Bog, where Marconi built a wireless station and Alcock and Brown’s history-making flight landed, it was merely cool and windy. 

Surveying the ruins of the many buildings that used to dot the radio site there, housing 40 staff, I was struck by the uniformity with which time and events had destroyed them. The foundations of all the houses remain, usually with a scattering of brick and tiles inside the vanished walls. It’s as if a century of Atlantic storm had flattened everything that was more than a few centimetres off the ground and then left the remains lying there.

Alcock and Brown, as we were reminded, did not plan to touch down here. They joked about hanging their hats on the station masts as they passed and they still had enough fuel to reach London. Then a sudden low mist stole into their lives, as Bulfin would have put it, forcing them to land on what looked like flat ground but which, a crash landing in a bog-hole later, rendered further flight impossible.

Unusual landmark

After a fleeting tour of Connemara, we headed for Yeats country, where hope and meteorology were promising to rhyme. It was closer to the last day of June now and Rosses Point was shaping up for a beautiful sunset when we arrived, although while walking the promenade I stopped admiring the scenery long enough to notice an unusual landmark at my feet.

We were reduced instead to a Chinese takeaway and consoled ourselves that at least the setting was magnificent

It was a special-edition manhole cover, marking the 1916 centenary and featuring another Bulfin – Eamonn, son of William – raising the green “Irish Republic” flag on the roof of the GPO in Easter week. The manhole was a recent addition, but between weathering and the Soviet-heroic style of the artwork, it could have been from the 1930s. Either way, by a circuitous route, it set me reading Rambles in Eirinn, albeit too late to benefit from the hint about starting journeys at the end of June.

In the meantime, after failing to secure an outdoor table at the few restaurants open in Rosses Point, we were reduced instead to a Chinese takeaway and consoled ourselves that at least the setting was magnificent.

Our first plan was to eat on a hill-top bench overlooking the sea, where the sun had just slipped below the horizon. For about three minutes, conditions were indeed borderline poetic. Then we all started to turn blue from the cold and decided to eat in the car.

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