Ireland and India
“…And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.”
So wrote Irish poet William B Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium, speaking metaphorically about a place where he could study the monuments of great arts and where his soul could be happy in this endeavor. I had my first brush with W.B. Yeats in high school and have read more of his verses recently; his works ignited my desire to visit Ireland and lay my eyes upon the rugged countryside, rolling hills and the pastoral rural villages of his homeland, County Sligo – also known as “Yeats Country” in his honor.
I also discovered that India-Irish connections run deep. It was Yeats who wrote the foreword for Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel-prize winning book of poems, Gitanjali. India and Ireland not just sit alphabetically close to each other but also, their flags are locally referred to as the ‘tricolor’, bearing the same colors- green, white and saffron. India’s freedom struggle drew inspiration from the prolonged Irish struggle against the British Empire. Annie Besant, born to Irish emigrant parents, would go on to adopt India as her home country and founded Home Rule League, eventually merging it with Indian National Congress. Ireland’s current Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, is of Indian-Irish descent.
Describing Ireland’s verdant beauty and rich history, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once wrote, “…this green and beautiful land (which) dips into the Atlantic Ocean on the far west of Europe. It is a small island…but little as it is, it is full of romance…and invincible courage.”
Nature and Adventure
Ireland is, indeed, a land steeped in history, culture and music with an emerald-green landscape (of “hill heaped upon hill,” as Yeats wrote) dotted with megalithic stone monuments, medieval castles and dramatic coastlines. I found myself in the salubrious climes of Ireland in early October on a Tourism Ireland invitation, with the objective of partaking in an adventure tour, comprising hiking, biking, surfing, kayaking and more.
I landed in the capital, Dublin, and spent a day exploring the city, including the famed Trinity College campus walk, Temple Bar neighborhood, and charming riverwalk area running across Liffey. The next day, our tour group hit the roads on an adventure across counties of Meath, Louth, Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh, and eventually Sligo – traversing the east and west coasts of Ireland. I was truly stirred by County Sligo that boasts of some awe-inspiring scenery, including the famed table-top of a mountain called Ben Bulben overlooking the Atlantic coast, numerous lakes, beaches and waterfalls. No doubt, Yeats called it ‘Land of Heart’s Desire’.
My Wild Atlantic Debut
Ireland has nearly 2,000 miles of coastline with some premier surfing destinations on the west coast of the island amenable to both beginner and big wave surfers (watch this interesting documentary, Keep It A Secret, that traces the early days of surfing in Ireland). I decided to taste the waters of the Strandhill beach, located 8 km west of Sligo town and home to the recently opened National Surf Center. Its picturesque setting, along with the Ben Bulben mountain dominating the green, coastal landscape, gives it the aura of the wild outdoors.
The sky was cast gray and the wind was breaking bad, but we waded out into the Atlantic, donning out wetsuits that kept us warm. The floor beneath our feet was just smooth sand, unlike the rocky Pacific waters in the Bay Area. Once far out enough in the ocean, I steadied my surfboard, hopped on to it and paddled on to catch the rolling waves. From that moment on, it was a continuous cycle of paddling, trying to catch the waves and diving underwater as the waves came crashing over my head. For over an hour we battled the waves, winds and ocean currents, before we had to head back to the shore. I was no longer a surf virgin in the waters of the Atlantic.
Hiking in Slieve Gullion
Slieve Gullion is a volcanic hill located in County Armagh (Northern Ireland) and part of the Mourne Gullion Strangford UNESCO Global Geopark. It is considered one of the finest ring dikes of hills in Europe, with a continuous ring of low, rugged hills forming a dyke rampart around the Slieve Gullion mountain. The area has been shaped by glaciation over a millennia, offering unparalleled views of pristine, natural beauty.
We began our hike in the early afternoon, with slightly overcast sky and moderate winds. As we ascended up the hill, the gusts of wind became stronger, but the view opened up to stunning panoramic vistas, unfolding a postcard shot of Irish countryside that you might have seen in pictures – herds of sheep grazing calmly on green pastoral lands. At the summit, the wind was howling ferociously and we decided to take shelter briefly in the stone passage tomb. Our guide told us that the stone structure is the highest surviving passage tomb in Ireland, older than the Egyptian pyramids, with the radiocarbon dating putting it as 5,000 years old. I climbed up the stone passageway to the entrance and crawled inside for a better glimpse. Within a few feet, it opened up to a large chamber where we could stand upright. The pre-historic vibe of the place was all-pervasive, inspiring awe and wonder; for a moment, I felt like Indiana Jones on his quest to unearth hidden treasures. According to our guide, the entrance we used to crawl inside, aligns with the setting sun every winter solstice, lighting up the chamber.
Cycling along the Carlingford Lough Greenway
Our next adventure was cycling along the scenic fjord along the southern shore of Carlingford Lough, located almost midway between Dublin and Belfast in County Louth. As I pedaled through the narrow greenway running parallel to the shoreline, passing by various pastures of emerald green, and a breeze blowing on my face, I felt touched by the spirit of Irish wild outdoors craic.
Kayaking to Devenish Island on Lough Erne
It is a little-known fact that Ireland has more than 12,000 lakes (called “loughs” in Irish), with Enniskillen in County Fermanagh (N. Ireland) being its only island town. The town lies between the upper and lower sections of Lough Erne, famed for its over 600-years-old Enniskillen Castle standing majestically across the water. We were here not for its castle though, but to experience the adventure of kayaking in the Lower Lough to a site of monastic ruins, the island of Devenish.
Our guide was from an amazing adventure outfitter, Blue Green Yonder. We started kayaking from its primary base of Castle Island, located close to Enniskillen Castle but on the opposite shore of the Lough.
It was early afternoon with the sun and clouds playing hide and seek; the weather kept changing from one moment to another as winds, sunlight and water currents added to the variability. We paddled through the stunning scenery with blue water set against the green grass of the shore, battling wind and rain (it started raining mid-way, revealing a rainbow in the sky), and passed under the narrow bridges dotting the sections of the Lough. After an hour of kayaking, we reached Devenish Island with its round tower top beckoning us from a distance. The tower was built in the 12th century interspersed with much older remains of Augustinian monastery from the 6th century. As I drank in the landscape with my curious eyes, it seemed that time had come to a stand-still on this verdant Irish island.
Ireland beckons with its stunning natural beauty
After nearly a week of outdoor adventures, images of Irish countryside with charming farmhouses and sheep grazing along rolling hills, castles set in stunning greenery, waves of ‘the wild Atlantic and bustling Dublin – all jostled with each other in my mind, providing me a lifetime of cherished memories. Ireland is for anyone seeking rejuvenation, adventure and picturesque landscapes. It helps that Irish culture is nourished with its rich heritage of music, dance and immensely friendly people who love to talk.
Ireland can rouse the spirit of travelers, adventurers and poets alike. In Yeast’s own words-
“I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”