Dispatch: County Mayo, Ireland

Though the challenges are modern, the traditions of Ireland are still going strong.


From time to time, The Times will feature dispatches from Islanders around the globe. This week, Elaine Cawley Weintraub writes from County Mayo, Ireland. She is at her family home for a few weeks of rest and recreation after a very busy summer season. 

The history of Ireland is written in her landscape. While walking through the fields here in County Mayo, you are likely to find the ruins of a monastery destroyed by King Henry VIII of England during what was known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a ruined castle used to store hay or converted to a hotel, an abandoned, roofless house that tells a story of famine and emigration, the three-roomed houses that characterized the distribution of land to the Irish people during and after the War of Independence through to today’s large modern houses. It is a story of invasion, desperation, and today’s confident, well-educated community.

There are issues facing Ireland, as the battle against COVID is still being fought, and though the schools have been open for some time, the pubs and nightclubs only opened a few days ago after a hiatus of 540 days. Compromise is hard to find when the demands of public health conflict with the urgent need to reopen and generate income. After much discussion, it was resolved that the nightclubs could reopen, but patrons could only dance while masked, and tickets must be booked in advance to enter the club. Though there is great sympathy for the young people who have missed out on so much of their normal lives, there is a very high degree of compliance with government restrictions. Ninety percent of the population are vaccinated, and masks are worn inside every shop.

The protection of the environment is of huge importance here, and the country is engaged in a very earnest debate about the necessity to reduce the size of the national herd. Concern about intensive farming and greenhouse gases has to be balanced against the passionate concerns of small farmers who love the land they struggled for so long to acquire. Discussion and consensus are valued here, so it will be a lengthy process to reach agreement. It’s interesting that in discussions about people returning to the workplace, great emphasis is placed on letting people continue to work at home, but allow two days a week for them to come in to meet together to collaborate and share ideas.

Ireland is a beautiful country, and whatever the COVID restrictions are, it is still possible to explore its fields, hills, lakes — and wherever you are in Ireland, you are never more than 40 miles from the sea. The sparkling waters of Loch Conn provide solace for all of the generations, and the hills and lakes at Tawnakeel Townland here in County Mayo that are shared with the sheep flocks on the mountain are an unbreakable link with the past and a promise for the future. Rainbows can be seen nearly every day as the sun shines through the soft rain. They too are a promise that the sun returns and shines on the fields, though the leprechauns have not made any appearances.

The old religious practices have left their mark on the landscape too, with the roadside shrines and the holy wells. The Celtic belief in the power of water to heal and console is very evident at the wells, where people have prayed for generations. Knock Shrine immortalizes the apparition of the Virgin Mary, accompanied by St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, and a lamb, which appeared to a group of children in 1879 on the gable end of the old church. It now houses a grandiose basilica, and attracts thousands of visitors every year. At the shrine there is a row of water fountains, where pilgrims fill their water bottles to bring home the blessed water believed to have curative powers.

It is exciting to see that traditions continue but are constantly renewed. Our neighbors Sinead Walshe and Patrick Conwell recently bought an old house, and great care has been taken to restore it. With its high timbered ceilings and its stables with half-doors, it is an architectural treasure, and the addition of modern conveniences such as central heating and a fully equipped kitchen do nothing to take away from the stories it tells. Surrounded by eight acres of fields, it will be a home for Sinead’s sheep flock and Patrick’s dream of owning some cows. Everywhere on the property it is evident that this was a loved and valued place: steps made from concrete blocks leading up to the fields from the stables, a ring on the stable wall to tether the cows, and an old turnip-pulping machine. Mashed turnips were used to feed the cattle during the winter months. That machine will be restored and placed on display outside the house, reminding us of all of the generations that went before us. There is reverence here for the old ways while embracing everything new with enthusiasm. A sense of history permeates everything.

Ireland’s extraordinary beauty is evident everywhere, and can be taken for granted, but there are times when the sun is setting on the hills and on the lakes, creating golden, sparkling lights on the water and fire in the sky, that can remind us how fortunate we are to be here and to be part of this environment. To be here is to be close to the earth as much as the wild birds and the sheep stepping delicately with their skinny legs up the mountain. This is a place to treasure, but its greatest asset is the people of Ireland, and their joy in living, talking, and sharing stories. There is joy here in conversation, and the topics are substantial. The music is everywhere, and it too is a source of storytelling. We all learned our history through the songs of oppression and resistance, and our values through the sadness of songs embracing lost love, forced emigration, and heartbreak. We learned our humor too, and it’s rare to find an Irish person who will not be gently mocking. That acceptance of life in all its aspects is a defining characteristic. It is a joy to be here.