Tag Archives: Ireland

Seeking Nirvana in the Heart of Ireland

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Location map of the Lough Erne in Ireland

Lough Erne

We drive through the thickening snow in the streets of Belturbet, following the signs for the ferry as best we can, though they are often partially obscured by overgrown branches, and in some cases facing away from the road. Finally, at the end of a long, dark path we find a gravelly area on the banks of Lough Erne that we take to be the car park and call our friends who are already on the island to let them know that we have arrived. The wait is long (apparently the man who drives the ferry is trying to settle his baby daughter) and we watch our breath steaming, and the glitter of unfeasibly thick clusters of stars, thinking of dinner.

Finally Tim arrives in the ferry and we half-climb, half-wade aboard (the levels of the lake are especially high due to the extreme weather conditions). Tim is a Hare Krishna devotee. He worships and works on Inisrath with his Panaman wife Champa and their daughter Janaki. In fact Tim lived and studied on the island for eight years as a brahmacari (student monk) before he married Champa. Tim turns the light off as we drift across the black water so that we can look for shooting stars, switching it back on in time for our approach to the improvised back-up jetty. Disembarking involves a similar squelchy-hop manoeuvre but soon we are stomping up the steep drive to a large, brightly-lit Victorian house.

The house seen from the lake

The house on Inisrath was built in the nineteenth century by Sir Henry Cavendish Butler, who owned the island then, and it served in those days as a summer pleasure retreat. In 1984, the island was bought by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the house was turned into an ashram with a temple downstairs. It is now the centre of a thriving Hare Krishna community with arati ceremonies (rituals in which light from wicks soaked in ghee or camphor is offered to one or more deities) being performed seven times a day, and many other community events hosted.

Inside it is lovely and warm (despite our apprehensions) and they have saved us some of the dinner cooked by Champa – dahl, spiced vegetable subji, samosas, freshly-made chapattis and rice. During the autumn months, the vegetables used in the cooking are those grown on the island. After we have eaten we join the rest of our group upstairs, where they are discussing our timetable for the weekend. We have come with our own yoga teacher and have planned our schedule ourselves, but the island also caters to people wishing to experience a retreat, to come and study yoga independently, or even those wanting to take a vegetarian cookery course.

Snowy view

The next morning, we start our day with an early yoga session in the temple room downstairs, straight after the first arati. The room is large, and cold sunshine filters through big windows. The shrine to Krishna and Radha at one end of the room is concealed behind its curtains where it will remain until the next arati. As we open our eyes after the final relaxation, we see that it is snowing again and a couple of the peacocks that are the island’s other permanent residents are huddled against the glass for warmth.

Peacock pose

After we have cleared away our mats, we all stream into the kitchen and pile our plates with delicious food. Tim carries Janaki smilingly among our tables – it is hard to tell if he is more proud of his beautiful daughter or of our evident appreciation of his wife’s cooking.

Later in our ‘meditative walk’ I manage to completely circumnavigate the island in an hour. Along the main path
are little scenes from the Krishna Book which summarises the aspects of the Srimad Bhagavatam (one of the major texts of Hindu literature) that deal with the life of Krishna. I get a fright when I happen upon the numerous cardboard monkeys representing one scene. I follow all the wooden signs to the jetties – some are actual concrete slopes, most are swampy banks – somewhat defeating the purpose of my walk as I force a path through brambles and sprawling roots. Reputedly there are also deer on the island, but I can’t imagine where they are.

Back at the house, we thaw out and dry off in time for our next yoga class. After this is dinner, then we make a group mandala illustrating the different chakras, and have a rousing kirtan (chanting and singing) session upstairs.

A few of us get up early the next morning for the 7 o’ clock arati. When we arrive, the monks are already pacing about the room, chanting quietly. At seven the curtains spring open and George Harrison’s ‘Govindam Prayers’ blares out, instantly rousing us from our drowsy state. The monks sing and play their instruments energetically and afterwards the head monk gives a sermon, which he adapts especially for us visitors.

View of Lower Lough Erne from Cliffs of Magho

Lough Erne

Immediately after arati we have our last yoga class, as through the window the grey clouds gather. At breakfast Tim announces that Champa has made us all some biscuits to take with us, and that the head monk wants us each to help ourselves to a book. We are all reluctant to leave, but for some of us there is a flight to catch back in Dublin and a long drive ahead. We pile onto the ferry and sing all the way to the far shore. Here a group of devotees is gathered, waiting to take the ferry back to the island, and they help us back onto semi-dry land. The ‘real world’ beckons, but not before a last song to send us on our way.

Wintry walk

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To Sea in a Sieve: By boat to Ireland

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Having lived in Dublin for four years, as well as having often visited family in Ireland as a child, I have had ample opportunity to experience the Holyhead to Dublin ferry . . . and ample opportunity to decide that it was definitely not for me.

Don’t get me wrong – normally I love travel by boat. And I’m usually pretty hardy when it comes to any kind of motion sickness, too (except when faced with a special set of circumstances involving an empty tummy, a hot car and winding Italian mountain roads, but that’s a different story). It’s just that something about crossing the stormy Irish Sea cooped up indoors in a bustling ferry café seemed guaranteed to bring out the nauseous in me.

But since moving back to London, I’ve noticed a steady increase in airfares to the Fair City (particularly since I would rather swim the 460-odd kilometres than give Mike O’Leary so much as a penny of my money). And of course there are environmental implications to all those fifty-minute hops across the water. Finally, when icy conditions grounded most flights in and out of London airports last Christmas and it suddenly looked as though all my Irish friends were going to be stuck joining my family’s festive cracker-pulling and charades around the dinner table, sailing appeared again as a viable option.

So when I needed to book a last-minute trip over recently, and flight prices were cruising at an altitude of around £200 minimum, I decided to give the boat another chance.

And it must be said, there are many immediate and obvious benefits to not travelling by plane. Arriving at Euston a mere hour before my train was scheduled to depart, I found that I was actually excessively early and had more than enough time to buy a cup of tea and a paper. I was already in good spirits, having been able to avoid the nerve-testing torture of decanting all my toiletries into tiny overpriced Boots bottles for fear of the extortionate rates for checking in a bag.

On the train, I had booked a seat with a table and a power socket, and could have worked away on my laptop (or caught up on episodes of Camelot) the whole way to Holyhead, had I wanted. As it was, I found myself more than adequately enterained by people-and-view-watching.

Holyhead station

Holyhead train station

And that’s another thing about not travelling from A to B in a sealed, air-conditioned tin can – you have a much greater sense of your journey, and of the towns, cities, villages and countryside you are passing through. Would I have ever known that Crewe Heritage Centre, with its lovely old vintage trains (I’m not a trainspotter, honest!), is right by the station otherwise? Or that the track passes alongside the castle walls at Conwy? I certainly wouldn’t have been able to watch the air ambulance practise emergency lifts out on the water; or to idly admire the shadows of seagulls on its foamy surface.

There’s also something rather romantic about the land-and-sea journey, which seems to connect in a much more tangible way with the generations of people travelling to, but more often from, Ireland. To mark my profound comprehension of a long and tragic history of forced emigration through poverty, occupation, famine, or simple lack of employment – the latter linking to my own maternal grandparents who emigrated to Yorkshire in the 1940s – I began to hum the theme tune to the Titanic, and couldn’t dislodge it from my brain for the rest of the weekend.

My fellow rail-and-sailors were an interesting crowd. The train was packed and a lot of people seemed to be planning rather longer trips than me – the aisles soon filled with oversized suitcases. Aussies and Americans abounded, to my surprise. There were also a lot of mongrel accents. I found myself particularly riveted by the soap opera that was my neighbours on the table across the aisle. She was a glamorous fifty-something, with long, straight, blonde hair and a leather jacket. Accompanying her were four children between the ages of about six and twelve. She had an accent that sounded 100% cockney . . . until we were about forty minutes out of Euston, at which point three of the children started vomiting into their paper bags/laps (depending on their reflexes) and she turned pure Dub.

“Sorry!” she exclaimed to the poor soul who was sitting next to her. “Dey don’ normally get loike dis til we gerr on de boa’!”

Still, with that piece of information in mind, at least I had the option of choosing a different part of the huge ferry to base myself in for that leg of the journey.

In fact, I was so taken with the spontaneous nature of the journey once you decide not to go by plane that my boyfriend and I booked another boat trip back for the end of the month – on this occasion travelling by car rather than train.

Since we were heading for a party in Waterford, this time we drove to Pembroke and got the boat from there to Rosslare. Tiny Pembroke is a huge improvement on Holyhead (but, then, it wouldn’t be hard), though you have to drive down some seriously remote-feeling country lanes to get to the port. Ours was an overnight boat so we decided that, after a week of work, and with a weekend of hardcore socialising ahead, we could more than justify a cabin. You don’t get much for your money in terms of size or luxury, but when compared with the prospect of squeezing into an upright chair in a brightly-lit bar, surrounded by squawking children – which could just as easily refer to an airport as the communal areas on a ferry – it was worth every penny.

And arriving into Rosslare before 7 a.m. was a rather lovely experience. The tiny part of me that doesn’t consider itself a Londoner is definitely a Dubliner, and too much countryside brings on claustrophobia attacks after a day or two. But even I had to admit that in the soft early more morning light, the quiet roads, hazy hills and lush fields of County Wexford were a sight more scenic than Dublin’s North Wall.

I don’t imagine I’ve seen the last of the Aer Lingus and BMI departure gates at Heathrow. It cannot be denied that there are times when flying is really the only practical choice. But it is nice to feel that there are options. And I’m already gleefully considering the possibilities of Christmas gifts that don’t have to be liquid-free and squeezable into a carry-on bag!