Distance cycled: 51km
Number of times I saw a wall being kicked: 32
Pieces of peanut butter toast consumed: 4
Time I've been called 'June' in the last 24 hours: 5
Total length of stone walls in Ireland: More than 250,000 miles
Highlight: Watching my first match of canoe polo in Galway Bay
Lowlight: Having to dry my underwear by attaching it to the bike and having it flapping in the wind on view to passing motorists.
My task in Galway was to walk Ireland's longest seafront promenade and at the end of it, to kick the wall. I'd been told this was an unusual quirk of Galwegian walkers so on Saturday afternoon I walked the prom and found the stone wall in question. I waited patiently, like a train spotter without a trenchcoat as a young couple approached the wall. They got within kicking distance but then turned on their heels and walked back towards the city. Maybe this was a waste of time? Then a couple of older women neared the wall so again I watched and waited. They were powerwalking and powertalking and just before turning they both extended a leg, gave the wall a kick and carried on without pausing for a breath in their conversation. Over the next 10 minutes I saw a dozen different people kick the same wall. I asked a few of the kickers why they did it and nobody seemed to know, it was just what they did. Perhaps they were shaking off excess sand? Unlikely. Maybe they were letting off a bit of steam? Doubt it.
I cycled away from Galway still pondering the wall-kicking when a theory presented itself to me. Ireland is full of stone walls - they are absolutely EVERYWHERE, creating a crisscrossed patchwork effect in every farmland photograph I take. The walls were built by hand, stone-by-stone, in the freezing cold and probably on an empty stomach so no wonder Irish people want to kick them. Those walls represent oppression, famine, crappy weather… so I got off my bike right then and there and kicked a stone wall on the side of the road. It felt good so I did it again but then I just felt a bit stupid so I got back on the bike and kept pedalling.
Next stop was Cong, made famous by the 1960 movie The Quiet Man starring John Wayne. I missed the 60 year celebration of it's release by one day, oh well maybe I'll come back for the centenary. I had a delicious lunch at the Hungry Monk café, kicked another wall and got back on the bike heading towards Clonbur where the lovely folks at Fairhill House Hotel put me up for the night. The staff, the vibe and the décor were friendly and familiar, like a favourite pair of jeans that fit just right. The hotel restaurant is renowned for its seafood caught from the local lakes and the chowder is the best I've eaten - so good I had to go back two nights in a row.
The next day I'd arranged to meet John Joe Holleran, local storyteller, construction worker and chairman of the Galway County Gaelic football team. (He gave me one of these jerseys as a souvenir.) We drove up to Lake Coolin and he told me three hours worth of stories about the history of his family in Clonbur. We stopped at an abandoned famine village and I saw the potato crop ditches on the side of the mountain, where people literally scratched an existince from not so long ago. I recorded the entire conversation which I'll transcribe at a later date but for now I'd like to share a story relevant to today's blog post because it's about a wall. Here's an excerpt from our conversation:
"I remember my father used to come down to the house and my wife Mary would say, "Will you have a cup of tea Grandad?" and he would say, "Yes", and she would make a cup of tea and put a drop of whiskey in it. Then he would say a word, like "Coolin" and Coolin is the name of this lake. Then he'd say, 'That reminds me of a story', and next thing he'd tell a story that would last an hour.
Now one day I was in the kitchen, Mary said put on the kettle, your dad will have a cup a tea. So I had my back to them and he started telling the story of his three brothers going to America and how he stood with his mother at the door as they left and he saw them go off down the street. They got to the end of the driveway and went around the corner, they were gone out of sight very quickly so she couldn't see them any more. About a minute after they went around the corner one of them turned back and she was still standing there and I was standing by her side, only six years old and he came back, just to see her once more and he waved to her, and she waved to him.
Now my father wasn't an emotional kind of person and the next thing he burst out crying, he was 80 years of age at this stage, sitting in the kitchen, sobbing, crying. That was the pain of separation. One of them came home but the other two he never saw again. That's a real death."
Standing there with John Joe on the land that his family have lived and died on for generations and hearing that story made me feel incredibly connected to Clonbur. He then drove me to the house his father grew up in and showed me the spot where his father and grandmother stood and waved goodbye to the three boys.
As I walked around that same corner, along that same path I let my fingertips brush against the stone wall. The people come and the people go but the stone walls of Ireland remain, holding onto centuries of stories - and if you take the time and listen hard enough, you can hear the walls talk.
(I've just had a change of computer so will post photos in the next couple of days when I work out what I'm doing!)