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Linda Cookson sends us a document about the little village where she lives in Oughterard, Ireland.

I'd like to tell you about the journey to my house in the village of Oughterard in County Galway, Ireland.

If you land in Dublin, either by plane or by ferry from the UK, you head due west along Ireland's N4/N6, the main road to the west. It's not always a big modern highway, but mostly a single lane road winding through the villages and fields, with lots of traffic at times. Heaven help you if you get stuck behind a tractor! Or a big container truck.

About four hours after leaving Dublin, you reach the eight traffic roundabouts which lead you in and past Galway City. Following the N59 signs in the direction of Clifden, you drive 25 kms out of Galway, along a twisting, busy, country road, until you reach Oughterard, my home village at the Gateway to Connemara.

We live at the western edge of our village, in a two storey, bright yellow house with deep sea-blue window outlines. We're not far from the two local schools, in a complex of six similar houses. Our garden is small, just enough for Tessie, our German Shepherd, to enjoy a good run and a bark at the school pupils passing by.

From our top back windows, we look out over a field of cows a little to the left, and a small hotel directly in behind of us. The front windows have a view of the other five houses in the complex, and from upstairs you can see over the wall at the end of the road to the fields beyond. We only moved in here a month ago, so we don't know our neighbours yet. I've invited them all to my art exhibition opening night next week, but none of them have replied to my invitation. We've greeted and chatted to a couple of them, and they all seem very nice, so we look forward to perhaps getting to know some of them in the future.

The young couple at the end of the street, an Italian chap married to an Irish girl, have a delightful little boy of about eighteen month's old and they make a really happy family scene every day. They're a pleasure to watch as they "air the kid" and let him play in the autumn leaves.

Tonight it is Halloween and Tessie and I are hiding together from the big bangs going off outside. We're cocooned in a closed and curtained room with loud classical music playing, to shield us. Even so, the big bangs are enough to send Tessie, shivering and shaking, into her bomb shelter under my desk. The smell of peat fires, warming the homes of our neighbours, is managing to filter in and make us feel that winter is here a little early. It's probably that lovely chilly breeze out there that is pushing in the smells of the fires.

Tessie and I will take a walk into our village of Oughterard in the morning, to buy stamps at the local post office, called An Post. As we walk out of our front door and into the little road that takes us to the river edge, we're saddened by the litter which the school pupils have dropped by the roadside. The newly filled river will cheer us up though. It's been very low in water these past few weeks as the rains have stayed away a little too long this year. It's good to hear a decent amount of water flowing over the rocks for a change.

The bridge over the river and into the village is old and quaint, made from local rocks, and lit up each Christmas. We always stop to enjoy the view of the overhanging rocks on the other side of the bridge, and marvel at the trees which manage to grow right at the edge of the overhang, without falling off! Many, many years ago, our river, the Owenriff, was an underground river, which is why there are still those stunning rock overhangs. In time, they too will fall into the river. But for now, they are proud to hold the trees bearing the beautiful leaves of autumn.

A little upstream, is the small park where tourists often picnic in summer. At the moment, it is breathtakingly beautiful, shining with the colours of autumn.

As we reach the other side of the bridge, we follow the bend in the road to the left, and start to walk on the pavement beside the shops and houses. We pass the French restaurant opposite the library, and move on up past one of the two village churches, past the hardware store and the wine shop, past the Chinese restaurant and the local chippy, to the village square. Not much of a square though. Simply a three-way crossroads where the Glann Road branches off the main road and winds down towards Lough Corrib and the Hill of Doon.

The Boat Inn Pub and Restaurant, prominent on Oughterard town square, and a favourite with the summer tourists, displayed my art for nearly three months this year. Nothing sold. Someone quite rightly pointed out to me that people go to a restaurant to eat, not to buy art! When I collected the paintings, one of them had been damaged by mould from a damp patch on the wall. The owners, Joe and Annette, very kindly purchased the painting from me. It would have been nicer to have sold a painting which someone liked, and not because it was damaged. Oh well. After passing The Thatch Pub which is also owned by Joe and Annette, we reach An Post and join the queue. My friend Linda is also in the queue. I can recognise her by her wild black hair, which is usually in her eyes too! We greet and chat, and then it's time for me to buy my stamps from Margaret behind the counter.

At least today I don't have big, bulky parcels to send off to America or England. We've just closed down our gift distribution business because it became uneconomical for us to import items from South Africa to sell in Ireland. So no more big parcels to send off from An Post. Just paintings every now and then.

An Post is a lovely place to queue. Irish people, especially out in the country here, are so friendly and chatty. They will take any opportunity that comes their way to indulge in comments about the weather, or just anything, as long as it get's them talking to each other! As we leave An Post, we see Laura who owns Sophie's Super Saver, the discount gift and toy shop across from the post office. Last time we ordered pottery items for Laura from South Africa, she refused to accept the order when it arrived. I think business had been bad for her. So now she seems to feel uncomfortable and averts her eyes from mine every time we pass. One day I'll get her to start greeting me again. We begin our return trip home.

Maybe it's a good idea to quickly pop in to the Oughterard Tourist Office and see what they can tell us about the history of Oughterard. This is what I find:

"The very first people to set foot upon the land surrounding Oughterard were most likely hunter gatherers of the middle stone or Mesolithic age around 4,000 - 3,000 BC. Little is known about these early people's way of life but there are some megalithic tombs still surviving just north of Oughterard.

The O'Fflahertie (O'Flaherty) tribe, one of the first groups to settle and thrive in the area, was very powerful and owned a sizeable area of from Galway City to Clifden on the west coast of ireland. During the Norman invasion, their stronghold was taken over by Walter de Burgo who built the original castle in the Oughterard area. The O'Fflaherties re-conquered their land by the end of the 13th century and in the 16th century, on the same site as de Burgo, built their castle or tower house. The castle has been well restored and is located within two miles of the village in a townland named Aughnanure.

With the English conquest came forced suppression of all Norman and Gaelic culture and the destruction of many of the mansions and castles. Over this time the prevalence of the native Irish (Gaelic) language had declined. There were then several landlord dwellings built and the locals began the first settlement of modern Oughterard as a few thatched cottages, many of which still exist today.

The 1845 Famine brought about the collapse of the landlord system and tenants regained possession of their land. To find Irish being spoken across the country by this time was rare but it survived in Oughterard and the surrounding Connemara area and is still an integral part of life.

Oughterard exists today as a thriving village of 2,000 people, many whose families have lived in the area for over a century. Farming is still a large part of the culture with its prevalent sheep and cattle. "At the last minute, we make a quick detour a couple of hundred metres down the Glann Road where the best butcher in town has his shop. We have three butchers (and eight pubs!) in Oughterard. This one is bright and clean and evidently makes the best sausages for miles around. I don't really like sausages, so I'll have to take "their" word for it! I do think the rest of their meat is very good quality though, and I usually buy there when we're feeling flush and in need of a good, hearty beef stew.

Once the butcher claimed he could make "boerewors" which is a traditional South African sausage, usually barbecued (a "braai" is the South African word for barbecue). I think I forgot to mention that I am South African, and have only been in Ireland for just over two years now.
Opposite the butcher, in the narrowest house in town, lives Peter the master framer, who frames my art. His wife, Kathleen, is also an artist who goes away on residencies periodically, leaving him to flap about getting the kids fed and to school. Although their blue house is only one door and one window wide, it stretches quite far back to his framing studio at the bottom of the garden, which I usually reach by driving around to the back. If I didn't have to cart pictures to and fro from his workshop in the car, I'd probably walk there, taking the short cut route along the path next to the river, from our house to his.

The walk back along the main road is pleasant, with a lovely view of the big Catholic Church at the end of the road, just before it turns right to go over the bridge. Not too much traffic today.

You should see it on Saturdays! Every tractor for miles around seems to come to town with it's relevant farmer, and the sheep dog perched somewhere behind the seat. The French restaurant, owned by Daniel and Marie-Helene, is starting to smell delicious.

My husband, Alan, and I have spent a few hours with Daniel and Marie-Helene, chatting over red wine, and enjoying his tales of when he was an engineer working in central Africa. A rotund, bearded little chap, with a merry smile and twinkling eyes, he loves to talk and it's hard to get a word in edgewise! I can't actually remember if I've ever heard the sound of his wife's voice!

Ah ... there's Mary Cahill who I visited yesterday to give her an invitation to the art exhibition opening night. Mary lives on the farm at the end of the road we used to live on. Yesterday I sludged through all the goose and chicken doo doo, shooing the birds away, and before I could even knock on the door, there was old Mary pressing 4 very fresh eggs, still covered in feathers and that same chicken doo doo, into the palm of my hand.

She was tickled with her invitation but rather miffed that everyone else in the road already knew about it because she wanted to tell them! Half an hour later, feeling cross-eyed from trying to understand her broad Irish accent, and rather dizzy from the strong farm smells, I gently put the eggs in my handbag and said a little prayer that we wouldn't be eating scrambled eggs from my handbag for supper that evening.

Before visiting Mary, I had popped in to see Jim Maguire who works in the Connemara Cottages on the hill above Mary's farm. There is a man called Joe Dolan, whose address I couldn't find, and who I wanted to invite to my art exhibition opening night. Joe is a well-known artist and musician in the area Not the Joe Dolan of almost Tom Jones sound-a-like, who those of you in my era may remember, but his namesake Joe Dolan. He's a true Connemara character who, I believe, has a beard as long as the tie he doesn't wear. I knew Jim knows Joe, so I wanted to ask him where Joe lives.

Instead of plain, boring directions to Joe's house, I got this lovely, Irish, sing-song reply : "Ah, to be sure, I just don't know where he drinks these days." Finally, I got the directions: "A few miles past Maam Cross, and just before the pink church, there are some trees. Turn up there and follow the road for a mile or two. To be sure his house is there on the corner." In true Connemara style, not a street name, a sign or a number, just trees, rocks and old buildings as landmarks.

I had been to the horse fair at Maam Cross before visiting Mary and Jim yesterday. The horse fair takes place literally at the four-way intersection of Maam Cross which is a major intersection on the N59 road, about eighteen kilometres from Oughterard, deep into Connemara. I really mean it when I say right in the middle of the intersection. A little way down each road too! And this is not just a little back road - it is the main road from Galway which takes you to Clifden straight on, to Rosmuc on your left, and to Maam on your right.

Typical Connemara farmers

I had to park 2 km down the road and wish now that I'd taken some photographs of how the farmers park their cars, with absolutely no regard for ditches and bog. Horse trailers, 4X4's and what is left of their farm-damaged sedan cars, were parked at angles even the imagination is too tame to picture.

Walking the two kilometres to the main intersection was a gymnastic feat of horses and donkeys with their proud new owners first, other pedestrians second, and any poor driver having made the incredible mistake of deciding to go from Clifden to Galway that day, last. The Garda Siochana, which is the Irish name for policeman and which means "Guard of the Peace", trying to keep traffic moving through the intersection, looked themselves like farmers, they were so covered in horse hair and mud. Anyway, I think they were there more for the "craic" than for moving people and horses out of the way. "Craic" is the Irish word for a happy and cheerful atmosphere.

I was happy with the photographs I took of both farmers and horses at the fair, and one of the photographs will probably appear in our local newspaper, the "Oughterard News". That'll be the one of the horse with the "No Parking" sign between his back hooves! I was, at times, more interested in the faces of the Connemara locals, than the horses (and donkeys and sheep and chickens and ducks and geese and puppies!).

Some farmers had scrubbed up especially for the fair, while most had only donned their everyday jacket and pants, which I find it incredible that they farm in!!! Never before have I seen people who farm in jacket and pants - albeit filty and tattered, but a suit nevertheless!!!

To my delight, there was also an absolute "smoothy", spit and polished clean, with a moustache, a neat little hat and a small green feather in it! He kept himself apart from the crowd and had me itching to follow him for a day to see what his "type" get up to. I guess he was a Traveller. And so, back to our walk home. Before we know it, we've chatted to old Mr Healy who owns the corner shop opposite the bridge, and we're around the corner and home. Mr Healy, as nice as he is, is the one who sells the sweets and cool drinks to the school kids, who, in turn, drop the wrappings in our street and in the river! Now we've reached our front door again, with pleasant thoughts of the cup of tea which is about to be made and enjoyed.

It's a grand town we live in, to be sure!



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