And by Independence Day, I mean the Lithuanian one, of course.
The ultimate expression of Lithuania’s year-long 100th anniversary celebration happened the first week of July in Vilnius, and hardcore LT fan that I am, I was there to see it in person, along with my parents and brother — with a few side trips thrown in, including a selkie-searching mission in Galway, Ireland. So, if you’re in the mood for some vicarious bookish and historical traveling, follow me to a land of leprechaun houses, 20th-century wizards, bridge-guarding mermaids, and majestic music festivals!
Searching for selkies in Inis Mór
The first stop on the great EuroTrip 2018 was Galway — partly because it’s the setting of one of David Thomson’s seal story hunts in The People of the Sea (reviewed here), and partly because it’s going to be the setting of one of my own writing projects. Thomson stopped on the island of Inis Meain (Inishmann), the middle of the three Aran Islands, where he heard the stories of the ominous Black Ledge where no seals gather; of the legendary Coneely family turned to seals; and of the fisherman who saves himself from drowning with the help of an axe, a hook, and a knife.
This being our first trip to Galway, we decided to try out the bigger of the three islands, Inis Mór (Inishmore), because it has some of the most famous historical sites, and the tour description suggested good views of a resident seal colony.
Disembarking at the docks of Kilronan, we stopped for a quick coffee at the BayView Restaurant, where we waited for the mini bus to arrive at the nearby Aran Sweater Market. Soon enough, the bus pulled in and the tour began. We rolled by rocky fields shaped by retreating glaciers and admired the labyrinth of stone fences built over hundreds of years, the stones staying in place for centuries without mortar or cement.
We stopped first in front of a home whose inhabitants had built a miniature leprechaun house in their front yard. Apparently, leprechaun houses are an Aran Islands tradition, meant to bring good luck to the household.
Next, we walked through the ruins of the Seven Churches, once one of the biggest monastic and pilgrimage centers on Ireland’s west coast. There are actually only two churches, but the “Seven” might be a reference to a Roman pilgrimage route that included seven churches. And amazingly, the cemetery is still active, bearing not only (possibly) the bones of the ancient saints, but also contemporary residents.
But, being as weird and daydreamy as I am, the part that really struck me was the eerie, piercing sound of the cemetery gates as they swung on their rusty hinges. Definitely good inspiration for a spooky story!
And then…and then…we stopped at a look-out point where you could watch the local seal colony, and we were in luck! There was a small herd sunning themselves at low tide, chillaxing in the common “banana pose.”
Channeling David Thomson, I asked the bus driver if he knew any good local seal stories, and I was in luck once again, because he’d just heard one on the radio the other day:
A man from Connemara went out one day, set on shooting a seal that had been stealing fish from his nets. But when he finally came face to face with the animal, the man saw something in its eyes that changed his mind. He left the seal alone and went home. Several years passed with no more incident, until one day, the man was out fishing with his friends, and a sudden storm rose up. The other boats and their inhabitants were quickly lost, but the man had the good fortune to see a seal ahead of him, which led him back to shore. It was the same seal he’d spared several years ago, returning the favor.
Doesn’t that sound like just the kind of story Thomson would have heard on the islands? The tour could have ended right then and I would’ve been thrilled with the day.
Nah, just kidding… I was totally looking forward to the final stop at the most famous site, the three-thousand-year-old fort Dun Aonghasa, built at the edge of a 300-foot cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s a long climb up a winding path to the fort, a path surrounded by fields scattered with mellow cows grazing nonchalantly below the monument. And then you reach the top of the hill and you’re drawn magnetically to the edge of the cliff, where you can look down at the deadly rocks and waves where only seals and mermaids could survive. On the one hand, it’s nice that there are no fences and such ruining the view. On the other hand, holy snap that’s a long fall to your death!
Full of inspiration, I made my way back down to the Kilmurvey Craft Village for some honeycomb ice cream, and then boarded the bus for the trip back to Kilronan.
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Wizards and suffragists in Royal Tunbridge Wells
The next stop on our trip was Kent, England, where we spent a day with my cousin Paulius and his family. Together, we wandered around Royal Tunbridge Wells, whose former resident Edward Bulwer Lytton first penned the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night” in the opening of his novel, Paul Clifford. He’s also known for “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the almighty dollar.”
Tunbridge Wells was also home to writers like E. M. Forester, William Makepeace Thackeray, and late-nineteenth-century novelist and suffragist Sarah Grand, who coined the term “the New Woman” to represent herself and other women who broke from the traditional Victorian gender roles. The kind of woman satirized in cartoons featuring velocipeding maniacs bowling over poor, unsuspecting gentlemen — cartoons which Kate Beaton, in turn, satirized in Step Aside, Pops.
The Kent area is also famous for Ashdown Forest, inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood in A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories. We weren’t able to make it to Ashdown itself, but my family did take a beautiful hike through the nearby Speldhurst Wood, where I could equally well imagine Christopher Robin and his friends playing Pooh Sticks and hunting for honey.
And, of course, being in England, it was absolutely my duty to stop into a Waterstones Bookstore for a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Speaking of which, Happy 20th/21st anniversary to Sorcerer’s Stone/Philosopher’s Stone! My local library had an amazing Potterfest, complete with Quidditch games in the courtyard and magic shows in the meeting rooms, Honeydukes in the hall and wizard tournaments in the YA wing. I also attended my very first Wizard Rock concert, featuring Tonks and the Aurors. #yesallwitches
Have you attended any good Potter parties this year? Tell me all about it in the comments!
Meanwhile, onward to the main event!