We took hundreds of pictures during our trip to Ireland, but I didn’t notice that the camera settings were wrong for the first few days, and the pictures I took in Glendalough disappoint me deeply in their low quality. This is perhaps the most first-world problem I’ve ever admitted to having in this space— my photos from a vacation some people dream about taking all their lives are too low-res— but there you have it.
Maybe it’s to be expected. The lush green that sweeps up the Wicklow Mountains, carpeting ancient ridges and tangling over itself, and the earthen tones of the rock and the trunks of the trees— how can any camera adequately capture the darkness of the embrace the woods offer, the softness of the greenery, the mystery of the tangle? Is it only words, in the end, that offer the depth of vision I want?
Somewhere along what is now called the Wild Atlantic Way, between Galway and Westport, my ancestors Ellan Moran and Ulick Walsh were born and later lit out for America. Like so many millions of others who have left their homes and crossed seas and oceans in search of different lives, they never returned to the shallow, rocky shores of the west of Ireland, to the shadow of Croagh Patrick rising through the fog over Clew Bay. So at first, standing on the shore of that bay with that same mountain rising behind me, felt like closing a historical and genealogical loop in a way I’d never experienced before. They left, and I, their descendant, college-educated and then some, with enough time and disposable income to be overseas, stood where they might have stood.
When we were diverted in the pouring rain on our way to County Mayo, exactly halfway through our road trip around Ireland, we wound up on a twisting, narrow, and nameless road through a boggy stretch of Connemara. I remembered our trip the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin a few days before, where we saw the bog bodies— human remains found, eerily intact after hundreds and hundreds of years, in Ireland’s many peat bogs. One of them, known as Old Croghan Man, is believed to have been over six feet tall and was found with a braided leather armband around his left bicep, which, along with his manicured hands and his varied diet, suggest a person of high status. Cuts to his body, including the removal of his nipples, may evince a ritualized, tortured rejection of Old Croghan Man’s kingship, as suckling the king’s nipples was a sign of submission. The old kings were symbolically wedded to goddesses of the land and harvest; famines were signs of displeasure with the kings’ leadership, and the kings were therefore murdered, their bodies buried in the bogs that would later fuel the fires needed to cook the fruits of later harvests and keep the people warm, the same bogs that also hid gold and illuminated manuscripts, animal bones and broken pots. I thought of all this as I ate Frosted Shreddies, bought from a Tesco outside Wicklow on the other side of the country, straight from the box in the passenger’s seat of the car, as we listened to Van Morrison. I tugged on my polka dot raincoat to leave the car and take pictures of the landscape both lush with green and desolate with cloud and exposed turf.