Blonde and Brunette weren’t exactly chipper when we received our morning wake-up call to go to a family-owned homestead to learn about authentic Gaelic experiences. We would have preferred some authentic sleeping in and we are usually loathe to learn actual information when we travel. However, this proved to be a case of the educational aspect being interesting (and some more sleeping being available on the bus ride).
Cnoc Suain is about half an hour from Galway and is owned and run by a very charming couple. Dearbhaill Stadun is the female half of the husband and wife duo. She’s a musician, teacher, native Gaelic speaker and graduate of the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Her husband, Charlie Troy, has extremely authentic Irish eyebrows, is also a teacher, a natural scientist, herb grower and Gaelic speaker.
They purchased this 200 acre landscape and created it as a place to share and ensure the continued knowledge and history of the Gaelic culture. They’ve won numerous awards, including one from Travel and Leisure and their accommodations have received glowing reviews on TripAdvisor.
Dearbhaill explained that in the early days when someone wanted to build a new cottage they didn’t go to a bank, get a general contractor and meet with the Zoning Board. Instead they chose a spot and put 4 mounds of stones where the corners of the potential cottage would be. If the stones all remained intact after 24 hours that meant they were not in the path of “the good people”. Contrary to what you may think “the good people” are actually spirits who may be charming or quite spiteful and it isn’t a good idea to build where the spiteful ones hang out. If only there were still such a simple system for securing suitable property for a home as well as avoiding spiteful neighbors.
The cottage we were in was small – maybe 1,200 square feet – and in it would generally be a family with 8 to 20 children! How anyone could find the energy, time or privacy to continue to produce so many children astounded us. When the oldest girl would get to be 16 or 17 she would be sent to America to a job, often as a maid. She was then expected to send back money, food, clothing and musical instruments (presumably not grand pianos) to help the family. The girl didn’t have any say in this matter and perhaps the spiteful ones sent back drum sets but that was not discussed.
The focal point for these families was one large room on the ground floor which was basically the only place they could all gather. According to Dearbhaill (whom we have no reason to mistrust) Irish stew probably developed because the cottages generally only had one cooking pot so they just tossed everything into it. (Might have been a good time to hide the baby during dinner preparations.)
Dearbhaill also said that for years it was illegal for children to speak Irish. At school they would have a rope tied around their necks and any time they spoke Irish it was tightened! Certainly a good way to make them keen on learning English! Now English and Irish are taught in the schools and the students have to pass exams in both languages to go on to university.
After Dearbhaill sang us a lovely Irish song and taught us more things than we could absorb, she turned us over to Charlie who had been itching to get a word in edgewise. Charlie moved us to his man cave which was really another cottage where he explained some agricultural things that normally would have sent Blonde into a deep snooze but which were actually quite interesting.
Cnoc Suain has a lot of bog land and Charlie is keen on explaining its history and value. He demonstrated how in the past men would dig peat from the bogs with tools known as splanes (basically spades on long poles). The peat would be spread out and dried over the summer and then brought back to the household in September for heating and cooking throughout the winter. (Undoubtedly having a lot of kids made this easier, especially before they were all on their iPhones engaging in vital teenage correspondence.) Now there are machines that can very efficiently remove peat and produce denser move effective blocks of it for heating.
But when it sounds too good to be true it usually is and this case is no different. The old fashioned splane method of cutting actually created CO2 (which is good). The new fangled method releases CO2 (which is bad). As you might imagine, there are strong debates and emotions over this issue.
Bogs have all kinds of good properties beyond peat. Their sphagnum moss absorbs 20 times its own weight in water (kind of like Blonde’s Spanx but in a different way).
During WW11 children scraped the moss, dried it out and ladies groups collected it and made bandages for the soldiers out of it. It has strong anti-micorbial properties that helped wounds heal.
Bogs are basically land were there’s more rainfall than evaporation and based on the weather we had in western Ireland it made a lot of sense that the area has plenty of them! The land is so wet that it can’t develop roots – it’s a sort of giant self-made compost heap. About 20% of the land in Ireland is bogs which is worth remembering when wondering whether or not to pack waterproof clothing and shoes when going to visit the area.
One of Charlie’s other interesting stories about peat was that it has tannins that preserve things very well (wonder if Joan Rivers has her one bog?). There’s a term “bog bodies” for bodies buried in bogs and dug up years later. The tannin pushes out the oxygen and mummifies the skin and nails and preserves them with keratin. Many of the bog bodies have appeared to be the victims of torture so all has not been merry over the years in the bogs. Charlie showed us what he called the “organic part” of a human bone from a bog and it was bizarrely flexible and seemed to have formerly belonged to Mr. Gumby. Weird but fascinating.
Because you can only do so much to try to educate a group of travel bloggers, Dearbhaill woke us up a bit with some music from a man you would expect to get if you called Central Casting and said “Send me a convincing congenial bloke to play some Irish music). He did that and did it well.
Then to our slacker horror Dearbhaill asked 8 people to get up and do an Irish dance. Blonde will do anything where someone might take her picture so she jumped up and forced the hungover blogger to join her. Dearbhaill played the fiddle while Tim played the accordion and we all performed an extremely inept céilí which is an Irish step dance thingy.
Before we left Cnoc Suain we got a quick tour of the cottages they rent out for those who want more of an “immersion” experience (not in a bog). We also learned that they have a Michelin starred chef who will be creating a tasting menu for them next season and they are planning a series of Gaelic literary and musical events.
Although the famed Irish writer Irish Wilde once said “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing , and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal” it would appear that he was wrong when it comes to the sincerity of Dearbhaill and Charlie in keeping their heritage alive.
It also seems quite unlikely that they have much in common with Oscar Wilde. Although possibly The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s way of hoping for those preservative powers available from the bogs. We’ll never know.