This April, I finally made it back to one of my favorite places in the world: Louisburgh, Ireland. A town of 600 on the southern shore of Clew Bay, Louisburgh was my home for fourteen weeks during my sophomore year of college.
A little back story: Betsy and I were freshman roommates at the College of St. Scholastica and both participated in Scholastica’s “Spring in Ireland” study abroad program, but did so two years apart. We’d been talking about going back together basically since the minute Betsy got home in 2007. About five years ago, we had fairly concrete travel plans, but life happened and it wasn’t until this winter that we finally decided there was no better time for our Irish adventure then now.
If you’re familiar with Ireland, but have never heard of Louisburgh, you’re not alone! Louisburgh lies 12 miles west of Westport in County Mayo and originated as a “planned town” dating back only to the late 18th century. Coincidentally, my great-grandfather was born about 20 miles away in Castlebar and Betsy’s family farm (yep, still in the family) is located just on the other side of Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain that dominates the landscape. It’s a corner of Ireland still not particularly developed for tourists, although Croagh Patrick attracts plenty of religious (and nonreligious) pilgrims, there’s world class salmon fishing inland, and surfers flock to the Atlantic beaches whenever “surf’s up.”
It’s always slightly tricky business returning to a place that was very important to you and is filled with so many memories. As the years have passed, Louisburgh has taken on a kind of dreamlike quality and sometimes it can be hard to separate fact from fiction in my memories. Often when we return to a place after a long time away, I think we can be somewhat underwhelmed with our return experience not because the place has drastically changed but because our tricky, twisty memories have morphed it into something it never was.
But Betsy and I both found that reality matched up with our memories pretty closely. The people were as kind (and reserved) as I remembered, the walk from the cottages to town was the distance I expected, the beaches and river looked the same. I swear the Airlink bus route from the Dublin Airport to Heuston train station has changed though . . . .
Betsy and I learned a lot about returning to a favorite place on this trip and one of our biggest takeaways was that even the shortest trip is better than no trip. In fact, a quick trip might even be preferable, at least for the first return trip.
Of course, we sing the praises of the short but sweet trip now, but the truth of it is that Betsy and I were both at the mercy of the weather gods and the airlines when it came to the length of our trip. We were scheduled to fly out on Saturday April 14 – a day now known as the day Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport was closed for the longest time in its history due to a snow storm that stretched from the upper Midwest to the Atlantic. While I was able to make it to my departure airport (Thunder Bay), by the time I got there, no planes were flying into Toronto and my flight was delayed . . . by 50 hours. Long story short: Betsy managed to fly out of MSP on Sunday afternoon, while I didn’t make it out of Thunder Bay until Monday night and then almost missed my connecting flight in Toronto. The fact that we both made it to Louisburgh was cause of much celebration in and of itself.
Suffice it to say, we had zero time for faffing about. This very short trip (six days, five nights) forced us to really think about what we absolutely wanted to do and see.
Perhaps the thing that worked best for us was having simple, easily attainable goals that could be achieved rain or shine.
- Walk back from the pub in the dark
- Eat a chicken sandwich from Durkan’s deli
- Find sea glass on the beach
- Go to the beach every day
- Go for a very long walk
By focusing on things that didn’t depend on weather or others, we actually accidentally unlocked “The Perfect Irish Day” one day. Our activities that day included a hike out to a 900 year old abbey and graveyard on the edge of town, afternoon tea at a new coffee shop, sitting outside our cottage in the sun near the blooming gorse bush, watching the sunset over Clew Bay, giving directions to fellow Americans, and going back to the cottage for a chat in front of the peat fire.
I think it’s also important to expect and accept change when you return to a favorite place.
I turned 20 during my semester in Ireland so I’ve maybe changed a teensy bit since I lived in Ireland. It’s only fair to expect Louisburgh to change a little bit in that amount of time as well. Quite honestly, I’d be worried if we’d both stayed exactly the same.
In fact, many of the things that had changed were among our favorite things from this trip. There were more dining options (praise be!) and more small businesses, including a bookshop and a gift shop focusing on local sourced crafts. A decade ago, you had to get yourself to Westport to do any shopping of note, so it was wonderful to be able to keep our Euros right in Louisburgh. We noticed an increased focus on adventure travel and saw far more tourists than a decade ago. The town had also made some infrastructure changes to make the town more pedestrian friendly. Despite calling the new bridge across the Bunowen River an “abomination,” it really was nice to be able to cross the river on a sidewalk rather than sprinting across a one-lane bridge and hoping for the best.
But the really important things are just as they always were . . . the beaches, the views of Croagh Patrick, the sheep dotting the field, and walking into town for a pint at Joe Mac’s and a chat with (the ageless) Joe Mac himself in the evening.
Perhaps the happiest takeaway from the trip was the reminder of just how much we each enjoy this corner of the world. It refreshed our memories on how relatively simple it is to travel in Ireland and it certainly got our minds churning with ideas for future trips.
Of course, it might be another ten years until I return again, but Louisburgh, I’ll be back.