After leaving Dorothy’s I headed down the west coast of Ireland. I spent a night in the town of Westport in County Mayo and got back in the swing of traveling solo again. The town was lovely and I simply took pictures and enjoyed a meal at a pub.
Then I headed to Galway. I completely loved this city. There are street performers everywhere and most of the pubs have live performers or local jam sessions nightly. My stay was filled with music and it was amazing. I took a free walking tour and learned about the history of the city. We went to see parts of the old medieval walls, which are strangely preserved in a modern shopping center. I walked through the Claddagh, now a neighborhood of Galway. It was once a separate town across the river where the local population of Irish lived, while the ruling English lived in the walled city, and it is where the Claddagh ring originated. I wear a Claddagh ring that my parents got for me, so it was wonderful to get to see it’s historical roots. I had fish and chips, and one night I went out dancing; everything was a blast. Mostly though, I spent my time in Galway wandering and doing street photography. In such a vibrant, bustling town it was the perfect place for it.
Westport, County Mayo
The best part about my stay in Ballymena was forming lasting connections with the people I met there. I cannot say enough how much this place came to feel like home because of the wonderful group of supportive people that became a part of my life.
Dorothy is a force of nature, sharp as a tack, and so much fun. She can do anything, from felling trees with her several chainsaws, to whipping up a batch of jammy dodger cookies in 10 minutes flat, to analyzing interpersonal communication skills. The day trips she took both Lea and I on were spent talking for hours, and often extended to more conversation over dinner and wine. We became very close and I will always consider her family and friend. I loved getting to know her daughters Cora and Neve, and getting the chance to see Neve play for the Ulster Women’s Rugby team.
Just down the street from Dorothy lives her father, John. He is such a good natured man, always with a smile on his face. He would join us for dinner or afternoon tea on occasion, and was eager to lend a hand around the house or garden any way he could. I loved hearing is stories of growing up in Wales during World War II, or about how his mother was a great painter and his father was a published mathematician. John himself is a painter, and he uses it as a sort of meditation. When he paints everything else recedes into the background. He also keeps bees, and Dorothy lovingly says that he looks like an astronaut Winnie the Pooh in his bee suit.
There were some of Dorothy’s friends that became my own as well. I never got a picture of Alex, but she is a spunky Northern Irish woman who I enjoyed very much. Then there was Jo and her whole family. Jo is a kind, smart and welcoming person. She persistently asked after my photography and ended up coordinated me doing a little presentation of my different photo projects to their friend group in Ballymena. She let me document her beekeeping, which is so cool. I learned so much. My day of shadowing Jo and her bees also included lunch with, and made by, her mother Judy, who I got to know at several of the friend gatherings and who is a delight. She recently moved to Ballymena from the Lake District in England, and is loving living in Northern Ireland. We bonded over both being left handed.
I also become close with Jo’s son, Gus, who is a documentary filmmaker. We had a lot to bond over with movies and documentary subjects, not to mention that he is a funny guy and just great human. He showed me around Belfast and we also caught a couple of movies in Ballymena, followed of course, by analyzing them like the good film geeks we are.
Dorothy hosted another traveler while I was there, Lea from Switzerland who is so sweet. We made a good team, and made also sorts of tasty dinners and treats. Lea was the instigator of the glamor shoot and the rugby lesson that I went to, and my time there would not have been the same without her. We left Ballymena on the same day, and there were more than a few tears shed.
The whole gang was just the greatest and I am so thankful to have found my adopted Northern Irish family.
Back at Dorothy’s we decided to have a photoshoot. Another traveler, Lea from Switzerland, was staying with Dorothy as well and she suggested that we take advantage of Dorothy’s beautiful house and gardens, and the fact that I’m a photographer. We pulled dresses from the collections of Dorothy and her two daughters Neve and Cora, both of who joined us throughout the day. Then we played dress up all day and took pictures. It was just the best time.
My good friend and former DC roommate, Sarah, has been getting her Masters in London, so we planned a weekend together in Belfast while I was staying with Dorothy. It was so wonderful to be able to see Sarah and hang out in a fantastic city together. Our first stop was one of my favorite places in the city, the Crown, a gorgeous Victorian pub. Dark rich wood, intricate ceiling designs, and booths with doors. It feels straight out of a movie and I absolutely love it. What’s great is that if you’re lucky enough to snag a seat in a booth you are likely going to be sharing it with at least one other group of strangers. We made friends with the group of women that were in ours and it was great fun.
Both Sarah and I love Game of Thrones, and since so much of it was shot in Northern Ireland we couldn’t pass up the chance to take a tour to different filming locations. So one day we spent on a tour bus geeking out over the show and taking in the stunning landscapes of the country. The tour also included a stop a Giant’s Causeway, because why not, so I got to see that again. I absolutely loved the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. It is suspended high above the rocky coast and leads you to an island. Workers alternate allowing people to cross one way and then the other, which means a bit of a wait going either direction. And also meant that we did not allow enough time for the wait going back and nearly missed our bus! We waved it down just as it was getting to the end of the parking lot. Much too close for comfort, haha, but we were happy to get back to Belfast without any other excitement.
During our time in Belfast we walked through different neighborhoods, both Protestant and Catholic, and sought out the murals the city is known for. I always love street art and Belfast did not disappoint. We spent the evening in the Cathedral District bar hopping and having the best time. Then Sarah headed back to London. I will visit her again in London right before going back to the states, and I am really looking forward to getting to hang out with her more in her adopted city.
Dorothy took me to visit several towns around Northern Ireland. First on the list was Derry, known for its intact medieval city walls and as the location of the start of the Troubles. The city walls were so cool to see and walk along, but I was most interested in the street art in the Catholic neighborhood of Bogside. The history of the Troubles was never something we learned in school. I only started learning modern Irish history after college when I picked up books on historical topics I was personally curious about. Spending time in Northern Ireland let me learn even more, and see where history happened. I heard from people who had actually been there during the Troubles, and how, like any country, Northern Ireland is so much more than a single part of their history.
As a whiskey lover I couldn’t miss Ireland’s oldest licensed distillery, so one day we visited the Bushmills. We took a tour, which included a delicious tasting in a beautiful setting. Other days we passed through lovely little towns like Glenarm and Killyleagh. I loved the charm of these places, and their timelessness.
On several occasions I went in to Belfast. I did some genealogy research there, which didn’t turn anything up but I was glad I had the opportunity to do. Dorothy’s daughter Neve plays rugby, and one day I took an intro to rugby class through one of her teams. It was really fun, and I even made a try. Other times I just got to wander the city and take it all in. By the end I really felt like I knew a bit of the city.
During my stay with Dorothy we took many day trips around Northern Ireland, and even some into Ireland as well. She was a wonderful host and I got to see so much of the country thanks to her. Because we did so much I’m splitting up my sightseeing posts into countryside and towns.
First off is the countryside. The rolling hills with a hundred shades of green, and stunning rocky coastlines. Many of the places that we visited had been used as Game of Thrones filming locations, which as a fan, was fun for me to see. It’s such a beautiful country, and I hope you enjoy the photos!
Next I moved on to Ballymena, Northern Ireland, where I would be staying with host Dorothy. I helped out around her house and garden, and in return got to live like one of the family. Turns out that Dorothy is one of the best people I’ve ever met and we became as close as family. This was my home away from home. I stayed there for 7 weeks, and will definitely be back at some point to visit.
Dorothy lives in a big old farmhouse with extensive gardens. It is the house that she grew up in, and her father, John, now lives just down the road. She works amazingly hard in her garden, having sculpted them out of the woodlands that John planted. They are wild and playful with a hint of Alice in Wonderland. People can pay to have events on the grounds or in the Potting Shed, which has been turned into a lovely tea room. The whole place is magical, and I miss it.
John, who became like my Northern Irish/Welsh grandfather, is a genial man, and a collector. At his house he has a shed that he keeps with all his treasures, accumulated over the years. He says they’re bits and pieces that people might overlook, but that he finds interesting. Everything was once, if not still is, practical and functional, and he puts everything out on display. John is also a painter, and so you can see where he has added flowers or bees right onto the wall or items themselves. His artwork also hangs framed among the other pieces. It’s such a cool space, and it’s wonderful to see how much John loves it.
I arrived in Dublin on July first, and was so thrilled to just be back in a city. To celebrate on the first night I got Thai takeout from around the corner and watched Netflix in bed. It was everything I needed.
In the following days I soaked up the city. At the encouragement of my Mom I went to the Trinity College Library, because she thought I would love it. She, of course, was right. Tall ceilings, rich wooden shelves, ladders, stacks of books. It’s like a little slice of Harry Potter heaven. There was a visit to the Irish Whiskey Museum, which included a delicious tasting flight. I walked through the General Post Office where you can still see bullet marks on the facade from the 1916 Easter Rising. The exhibit on the Rising in the basement of the GPO was excellent and gave a lot of context leading up to and following the Rising. I spent one morning in the National Library of Ireland seeing if I could add to any of my genealogy research. In the evening I took a dance class, the first one since I had started traveling in January. It felt so good! My last night in Dublin I went out for a decadent meal at an Indonesian restaurant named Chameleon thanks to a send-off gift card from my client in DC, Scout Bags. It was so much food and all so delicious. The following day I had lunch at the Shelbourne, the hotel on St Stephen’s Green where the English established a strategic position to assault rebels during the Rising.
Then it was time to head north. I spent a couple nights in the town of Dundalk, where some of my family had been from in the mid 1800s. It’s a nice sleepy little town right on the coast. My accommodation was a Bed and Breakfast, the only one I did on my trip, and I totally loved it. My room had a skylight and beautiful wallpaper. After lots of staying in hostels it felt wonderfully indulgent to have a room and bathroom all to myself. Last stop on this little leg was just over the boarder into Northern Ireland at the coastal town of Newcastle, where I spent a few nights and took walks in the countryside.
The month of June I spent on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, just across from the Isle of Skye. I stayed with two musicians, Sandra and Lorna, and Sandra’s mom Mary, on the family croft 5 miles outside the tiny village of Glenelg. It is far and away the most remote place I’ve ever (temporarily) called home. After a half hour bike ride into town I would hang out at the local pub for their internet and the company of the resident dog.
The scenery in the area is beautiful. Along the road to town there are two ancient brochs; Iron Age circular stone structures. They are open to the public and you can climb around in them, which I did on several occasions. In town there is a ruin of an English military barracks, built in 1725 and used during the Jacobite Rising of 1745. The Outlander lover in me found this sight fascinating.
Sandra and Lorna played at the pub a few times while I was there which was great fun. They were wonderful hosts, and we had a great time together.
While spending more time in the Highlands I got to know a family that runs a croft outside of Inverness in Knockfarrel, with organic produce and pork. Crofts are small land holdings for farming that were created as a response to the population upheaval after the Highland Clearances. Jo and Lorna bought their croft, Ian Mhor, 8 years ago from a family that had owned it for 7 generations, since the creation of the crofting system in 1886. Lorna works for the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency but loves the croft and hopes to see it become productive enough to work there full time. Jo was originally an economist who studied the viability of community supported agriculture and decided to put his money where his mouth was. He said that he couldn’t just sit there and watch everyone else have all the fun. Together the two of them are implementing sustainable practices in their farming. They sell their produce and pork products through their own subscription box service and at farmers markets.
During my stay in Knockfarrel I did some little trips around the area. I visited the town of Cromarty right on the coast, which is lovely. The old stone houses have such wonderful charm and the views of the water are relaxing. I spent time walking in the countryside. The rolling hills are stunning, and there are ruins of an Iron Age fort on the hill overlooking the croft. There was a local wool festival that I attended, complete with a bagpipe band, of course.
More from the Croft
kaitlin k walsh
Adventurer armed with a camera.