Travel # 18 -- April 7, 2005
Move over John Wayne, we’re coming to Cong

By Bob Corbett

I can’t count the number of times I have watched the movie, The Quiet Man. I don’t even LIKE the movie much. I do enjoy the incredible character that Barry Fitzgerald plays with his horse and trap and acting as taxi-chaperone for Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, and I enjoyed the parson who was constantly fly fishing in the village river. Finally, I loved the scenery of Ireland and the scenes of everyday life in the village and mainly the pub.

A few times before I INTENDED to get to Cong, the location of the film, but it just never worked out.

So, after a filling full Irish breakfast with Mary we took off for Cong thinking we would not be back to Ennis again on this trip. Well, we will return there in a few days, but that’s for later.

We took a bus up north from Ennis to Galway, hopped off that bus and almost immediately onto another headed to tiny Cong. And away we went. Now I did know that getting to Cong was not too easy, especially in off season, but I didn’t quite understand why there were two stops listed: Ashford Castle and Ryan’s. No matter this bus was stopping at the castle but not at Ryan’s. So be it.

The ride was just a bit over an hour, and it was a rainy day. As we were coming in near Cong the bus had to stop. There was a truck coming the other way, and the two couldn’t pass one another, so they sort of stopped, looked at the situation, like Robin Hood and Friar Tuck on that log, trying to figure who would back down, or in this case, back up.

The bus driver decided he would, so he backed up, and this was the second time this day that this had happened. The earlier time was a bit more nervous, since there was a very steep drop off on our side of the road. In that case the driver backed up, his wheels on the right side of the bus, where we happened to be sitting, just inches from the edge, and he had to go 20-40 yards in that case to let a construction vehicle through. This time the road was flat, but stone walls lined the road and he had to go back even farther to get to a driveway where he could pull over far enough to let the truck pass.

Of course the Irish narrow roads are legendary, and very dangerous. They are actually being widened all over the place right now. There is a significant prosperity in Ireland right now, and a huge amount of money is being poured into Ireland by the European Union to widen roads. I’m not sure if that’s for safety or just for tourism, but no matter, the days of the very very narrow Irish roads are limited. This will increase safety, no doubt, but some charm will be dug up as well as the new wider roads are laid.

We came to a crossroads and a large set of gates on the left, the entrance to the castle grounds. The road had a sharp right turn, and the driver called out our stop. I asked where the town was, and he pointed straight ahead on the tiny road we had come in on and said, “Not too far that way.” That was encouraging. He hadn’t a clue!!!! And, of course, it was raining.

We got off, he drove off and it got very quiet, the soft raining coming down, and we adjusted our rain gear. We crossed over to the right side of the road, there was actually a sidewalk. We headed off up the road. Immediately we realized were we in a simply STUNNING scene. The road was very narrow, lined on both sides by stone walls, but these stone walls were highly maintained and decorative. Behind them was the lushest vegetation, greenery and flowers we’d yet seen in Ireland. It was gorgeous. We walked a while, me hoping we’d come to something soon, I had had several cups of tea for breakfast and there had been no toilet on the bus, nor time to use the toilet in Galway. I was a bit uncomfortable shall we say.

But the road went on and on, and the rain kept coming, albeit, a very light and soft rain.

The road turned sharply to the left, then back right and we crossed a very old large stone bridge and there it was, or at least it seemed to be IT – the wonderful brook used in the 1952 movie where the parson was fly fishing all the time. Despite the discomfort of my kidneys, we stopped on the bridge to admire the gorgeous rushing stream and we could feel the chill coming off the water. It was marvelous.

Across the bridge we came to the town which turns out to be shaped like a triangle and there are EXACTLY three streets in Cong. At the first street, which seemed to be and was “main street” we turned up and a few yards away was Ryan’s Hotel, and also the bus stop at Ryan’s, the OTHER bus stop. Sally’s birth name is Ryan, so, even though this was a hotel and we had been staying only in B&Bs (which are much cheaper, and generally nicer) we went in to check. Happily they did have a bathroom that I was able to use. We checked the price and it SEEMED to be more than the B&B’s so I told the follow that even though we wanted to stay there because it was Ryan’s place and Sally was a Ryan (hoping he would give us a break in price), he told us where some B&Bs were and said we were most welcome to leave our bags there. So blasted nice. We did leave the bags and off we went, back to the base of the triangle we had come in on. There was a tourist office. But it was closed for lunch. There were a very few B&Bs Again, Cong is one tiny tiny place, exactly three streets, each a block long, so we decided, heck with it, we’d take the more expensive room at Ryan’s and back we went. It turned out that when we left the price we thought was PER PERSON was the PER ROOM price, so it was much less than any other room we had the whole trip. But, we were never really sure if that’s the case of it they actually made a mistake and only charged us for one person….. No matter. He, he, maybe Sally Ryan got a free room after all.

Since the tourist center was still closed, and we wanted to find out where the “movie” set things were, we decided to eat and found that this is fully Ryan’s town. There is one hotel, Ryan’s, one pub, Ryan’s, only one sandwich shop/deli, Ryan’s. There is a grocery store. But not much elsehere. The food at Ryan’s Pub was decent, but after lunch, early afternoon, it had finally stopped raining, so we hurried out to see what was up.

The tourist office was still closed. A very long lunch!!! Across the street from the tourist office was the ruin of a church or monastery. We walked over to check it out. It was really neat, many rooms and stairways and all – 100% stone. The signs saying much of it was 13th century. It was surrounded by some of the largest trees I’d seen in Ireland, and behind it, toward the opposite way we’d come into town, there seemed to be a garden.

We found a back path. There were no other people anywhere to be seen. We may have been the only two tourists in town. We walked into the back garden of the ruins and were just stunned. It was magnificent. Huge trees, neatly trimmed garden with flowers and lovely grass. Awesome. But, also freezing cold at that moment since the rain had come back and we weren’t dressed for it, having left our rain gear at the hotel. But, we decided just to explore the garden a bit more. It led down to a rushing ice cold trout stream, this was the one, not the one back at the bridge, which was used in the film. There was a very ancient stone walking bridge over the river. The rain was blowing very strong on the bridge, and Sally was suggesting we head back, but I just had to see the other side of the bridge, and we crossed. But, it was just too cold and too much rain without the rain gear.

I suggested we go back and get our full rain gear and we did. As we came back the tourist office was finally open.

It turns out that if one is going to Cong for the movie left-overs – well FORGET IT. The famous cottage which Maureen O’Hara owned was long since gone, though a completely accurate replica had been build right in the heart of town, on the THIRD street, the one we hadn’t yet been on. Later we passed by it and it was just a tourist trap charging 3 E just to go look at it and it was filled with tourist junk for sale. Nothing else was left and the stream was the one behind the monastery ruins.

However, this stop turned out to be a very important stop. Our plan was to take the bus back to Galway the next day and on to Leenane. The bus came at 10:30 AM. I asked the woman if the bus stop at Ryan’s was where that bus came. She said, yes it was, but the bus was at 7:30 AM, not 10:30 AM. She pointed out something I had missed. That 10:30 AM bus to Leenane was a SUMMER bus. The bus at 7:30 AM was the ONLY bus through Cong for the next THREE DAYS. We were so very lucky to have talked with her or we’d never have thought to be there for that bus and would have been STUCK for three days in tiny Cong..

But off we went, back to the ruins and over that bridge. Now that we were fully dressed for the very cold and windy rain, it stopped and the sun came out!!!! We crossed the river and the trail SEEMED to end almost immediately in a very dense forest. There was a sign pointing to the left on a muddy and very wet trail: Cong Nature Walk. The sun was now shinning, but it was still chilly, but even in the sun the trail off to the left was very dark and eerie, so neat looking. I asked Sally if we should walk a while and she agreed. Off we went.

Well, at this point I get totally out of my depth at describing what we saw. I can say that it was the third best walk we did (third to The Gap of Dunloe and the walk to Ballydavid on the Dingle Peninsula) but it was third mainly because it was the shortest. It might have otherwise been number one. And it was the fourth most interesting visit of our trip as I rate it, next to The Gap, Dingle and (coming soon) Doolin.

After than comparative data, I’m at a loss to describe it adequately. Without question this was the most magnificent SCENERY we saw in Ireland. The trail was muddy and watery. As we took the left turn off the bridge it followed the stream for a while, and it was loud with rushing white water. But it was the trees that awed us. These were gigantic. Thousands and thousands of them in this deep forest, and thousands of them that the two of us together, holding hands, arms spread out as wide as we could, wouldn’t even have been able to get 1/3rd the way round one of these trees. They had to be 60 to 100 foot tall. Many of them had small little markers in front of them (the only signs in the place) and there were California redwoods, sequoias, elms, oaks and strange names I’d never seen before. The bulk of the trees were covered in a soft kelly green moss, about 10-12 foot up the trunk. And it was so dark, the sun making such bright streams of light through the trees that it looked like there were yellow and red strips of rope in the forest.

We walked in silence, and in utter awe. I was wondering what in the world had we stumbled on. The trail followed the stream around a bend and back, snaking along as streams do. The breeze coming of the river was blowing an icy breeze our way.

Then, suddenly the stream kept going straight and the trail turned DEEP into the heart of the forest. This was decision time. I asked Sally what she thought. She said she’d never seen anything like this in her life and let’s go on. I was so very excited to do that and so hoping for that reply that I didn’t say what was on my mind: there was ONE and only one sign: Cong Nature Walk. Not a single word about HOW FAR. Now we were about to turn into the deep forest and how far was this? I was remembering the gap. We didn’t know there either. But, I wasn’t about to be the one to ask such a silly PRACTICAL question. I might not ever get a change to walk a forest like this again in my life.

Off we plodded, and plodded was the right word. My tennis shoes still have a good deal of Cong mud on them. The trail rose just a bit up and leveled off. But it was just enough that it wasn’t quite as muddy, and the trail was covered with soggy wet leaves, some puddles and we walked the trail, but even zigzagged on that to follow what appeared to be the driest path. I would step off the trail now and again to get close to some tree sign to read the names, but don’t recall many of them. There were dozens of different sorts of trees, most I’d never heard of.

After a while, us always heading in the same direction, the trail turned sharply to the right toward a wall of rock. I thought it might be ending. There was a wooden bench!!!! First sign of human kind save the muddy trail and tree signs. And at the base of the rock wall was a sign about an underground river, and an open mouth to the cave below. We walked to the edge and there about 8 foot below us was a beautiful clear creek flowing out of the rocks on our right, and into a large cave on our left. The creek filled about ½ the cave opening, but a human could have waded in.

Honest, I didn’t even think about it. I’m terrified of caves. Next to where we were standing was another sign of humans – this time a narrow wooden railing leading up a very steep and rocky trail. We followed this on up and soon came up on top, perhaps 50-100 feet up from the trail we’d been on. Then I noted a fairly good sign, but said nothing.

We were now headed back the way we’d come, walking about parallel to the original river, perhaps ½ mile deep in the woods. I suspected we were on a rectangular trail. But I said nothing and Sally seemed utterly unconcerned about where we were going, she was completely caught up in the marvel and wonder of this place. Just as it should have been. It was so magical.

The trail leveled out, us now high on a plateau over a valley, but the woods every bit as dense and gigantic and dark as before. However, the trail was now dryer than before and rocky. After a while we came to a stone structure right along the trail. It was very odd looking, just a flat odd shaped stone structure. It then dawned on me, this was the BACK side of a grotto. I scrambled (slowly) down the rocks to get below it and I was right. It was ancient, and a grotto where there had once been a stature, but that was gone, just an empty grotto. Sally had come down as well once I saw what it was. This grotto looked down the steep steep rocky hill, and would have been visible from the valley below, but difficult to see because of all the trees.

Back on the trail a while later and the next comforting piece of this puzzle fit, we made a sharp turn to the right, and now I knew we were headed straight back toward the river, though some 50-100 feet above it. And it wasn’t long before we came to another wooden banister, this time taking us back down to ground level. Within minutes we came out of the woods and to the trail along the river, and we were headed back toward Cong.

By now it was a bit warmer, the sun brighter though it was quite late afternoon. The trail was only about 2 foot from the river and we came to a small clearing with a bench, which had dried in the sun. We sat. And we didn’t talk. The creek roared, there were beautiful small yellow birds with red on them which chattered in the trees, they in turn still dripping from the rain. The moss sparkling green on all the trees. No human sounds, yet it was still very loud; the sounds of life of the forest.

We rested a while then continued the walk back, having made a marvelous rectangle in this incredible “nature walk.” Oh me, Cong is a waste of time as a movie tourist visit, but it is worth a trip to Cong JUST to walk the Cong Nature Trail behind the ruins of the old monastery. Forget the rest. And it isn’t a taxing walk at all, just an awe-inspiring one. It’s not difficult and not more than 1 ½ hours of walking. Just wonderful.

We made out way back to town and found the one grocery at the point of the triangle, where two of the streets came together. There were picked up some wine and a lovely picnic including some hot food, and headed back to the hotel for a restful evening, dreaming of that incredible little forest with the gigantic trees and their dripping moss.

No breakfast the next morning. And it was very fortunate that I listened to the fellow when we checked in since he told me the small key was for the BACK door that went out to the parking lot (I think not many people come here by bus!) since when we got down to the desk at 7:15 AM there were no humans anywhere. The place was locked up like a fortress. We let ourselves out the back door, came around to the front. It was very windy and cold and we found shelter in a door way across the street from the Ryan bus stop. The bus was right on time and off we went, fewer than 24 hours having been spent in Cong, but it was a memorable visit, one I will never forget.

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Bob Corbett