Ballina to Westport Great British Railway Journeys


Ballina to Westport

On the last leg of Michael Portillo's long journey from Wexford to Westport, a fashionable Victorian seaweed bath is followed by a steamy scene in Ballina.


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For Victorian Britons,

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George Bradshaw was a household name.

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At a time when railways were new,

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Bradshaw's guidebook inspired them to take to the tracks.

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I'm using a Bradshaw's guide to understand how trains transformed

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Britain and Ireland, their landscape, industry, society

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and leisure time.

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As I follow its routes 130 years later,

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it helps me to discover these islands today.

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I'm completing my journey across Ireland,

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now on the rugged north-western Atlantic coast

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and I intend to take to the waters,

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but safely, because the sea has claimed many lives.

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Religion looms large in Irish culture.

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I'll investigate how a beatific nun tackled poverty and hunger,

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and I'll assume the high ground in search of Ireland's patron saint.

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I began my journey on the coast at Wexford

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and then travelled north to Dublin, the capital, before turning west.

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I crossed this beautiful country

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discovering an Irish identity stimulated by political struggles.

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I'll be ending my Irish travels on the Atlantic coast.

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For this final leg, I begin in Ballina, stopping next in Foxford,

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before concluding in Westport and the coast at Clew Bay.

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Along the way, things heat up, with an unusual Victorian health treatment.

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Steam is rising all around me.

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I learn of a terrible tragedy at Clew Bay...

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A lot of the young people got very excited,

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because they'd never seen a steamer before,

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and they all went to one side to have a good closer look

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and unfortunately, the boat capsized.

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..and stretch my skills at a woollen mill.

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I'm involved in a delicate industrial process!

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I'm on tenterhooks!

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My first stop today will be Ballina.

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Bradshaw's tells me it's probably more frequented by tourists than any

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other part of the district, with 40 miles of splendid cliff.

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The tourists might make excursions into the wild Tyrawley and Edis districts.

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Despite the formidable reputation of the Atlantic,

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I do intend to take a dip.

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I don't want anyone to think me sea weedy.

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As Bradshaw's indicates,

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there was much to draw Victorian tourists to the region.

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Arriving by train from towns and cities inland,

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they would flock to the coast to take the air and waters.

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Along the coast in Enniscrone,

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a particular treatment has attracted visitors for over 100 years.

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It relies on a locally growing ingredient.

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I've come to meet Edward Kilcullen.

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-Edward.

-Michael.

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What a very beautiful place, what a lovely day.

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I'm really awestruck by it.

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Well, you're very welcome.

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Can it be true that you bathe in seaweed here?

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Absolutely, Michael. And we have done for the last 104 years.

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-Why?

-Because seaweed bathing and seawater and seaweed is good for you.

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Don't ask me to prove it scientifically, but tradition along

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the west coast of Ireland has it that if you bathe in

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seawater and seaweed,

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it's good to relieve the symptoms of rheumatism and arthritis,

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and years ago, that's why people took seaweed baths.

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-Which seaweed do you use? This stuff?

-No, that is bladderwrack.

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It's not abundant enough for us.

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What we use is Fucas serratus, more commonly known as Flat wrack,

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which grows just a little bit further down the shore

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and we have to harvest that every day.

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So while the Prince of Wales in the 19th century is going to Bognor...

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-Yes.

-..here, you are developing seaweed bathing,

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also as a kind of genteel activity,

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-is that right?

-Genteel activity, yes.

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The actual original bathhouse that was built in Enniscrone was built as

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a private facility by our local landlord, who was a fashionable gentleman.

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So he took a swim here in Enniscrone on the beach.

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The water's only about 12, 13 degrees, so it will be freezing!

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So he built a little bathhouse on the rocks

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and so somebody would have his bath ready for him when he came in,

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to warm him up.

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So that was the first seawater bath in Enniscrone

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and he was the one who did it.

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So because he did it, other people decided to do it.

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The seaweed is harvested by hand every day at low tide

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and then taken up to the bathhouse,

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which was opened for business in 1912 by Edward's grandfather.

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Ah, thank you so much.

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It still retains all the original porcelain baths, solid brass taps

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and panelled wooden cisterns.

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The process today is exactly as it was 100 years ago.

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Now, Michael. So, I'm going to fill your bath with warm seawater.

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As well, I'm going to pop the seaweed into it.

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But first of all, you'll sit into your steam box,

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so it opens your pores before your bath.

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Sit in, close your door and you'll pop your head up at the top.

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And you just lift the lever slowly.

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Then, your bath and there's also a cold seawater shower

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as well, yeah. Forgot to mention that bit!

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So that closes your pores after,

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so it's being pumped straight in from the sea, if you're brave enough.

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The bathhouse has many regular customers who take weekly seaweed soaks.

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The bath is filled with warmed seawater, then the seaweed is steamed,

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turning it from brown to green.

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-It's a completely different texture as well. It's oily and slimy.

-Urgh!

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The steaming process releases oils,

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nutrients and alginate from the seaweed.

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So your bath's ready for you, Michael.

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-What do you think?

-Er...

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unusual, I would say.

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So I'll just leave you to enjoy your bath, OK?

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Thank you, Lorna.

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Step one is to get inside the steam chamber.

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Oh! That is a very strange feeling!

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I have a little steam lever, here, which I'm going to operate rather gently.

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Steam is rising all around me.

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Actually, that's rather pleasant!

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The heat and the steam open up the pores, ready for the seaweed soak.

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Former politician involved in steamy scene.

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HE COUGHS

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Now, like Dracula rising from his coffin!

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Oh!

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I step into my seaweed bath.

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Ah!

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I can feel it all over my skin, sort of clinging to me.

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But now, I've sort of got over the yuck factor,

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it's actually rather nice.

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The amber tint in the water is caused by iodine.

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Seaweed is one of nature's richest sources of this therapeutic element.

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It's certainly very relaxing,

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but all good things come to an end.

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Now for the Lorna challenge - a shower in cold seawater.

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AH! AHHH!

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My next stop will be Foxford, which the guide tells me is a small

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place on the Moy, a good salmon river.

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In Victorian times, a river could mean a mill.

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A mill could mean work, rather than the workhouse.

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Foxford, a village with a population of around 1,300,

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is located in the western county of Mayo.

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The great famine hit County Mayo hard

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and nine workhouses were built for the destitute.

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I'm visiting a more cheerful vestige of those times -

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Foxford Wool Mill, run by Joe Queenan.

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-Hello, Joe.

-Hello, Michael. You're very welcome.

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Thank you very much. I must say, I love visiting a mill.

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And you've got some gorgeous-looking products here.

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There's not too many of us left operational in the world at the moment

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and this loom in particular is weaving Irish tweed

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using Shetland yarns.

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This is the sort of wool you use, is it?

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This is the wool, it's lamb's wool, 100% Merino.

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The mill, I suppose, was established by the river to use water power.

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You won't be using that today.

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No, we stopped using water power in 1965.

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We're using mains now.

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The mill dates back to 1892

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and it's surprising to find out that its founder was no rich

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industrialist, but a nun from the Irish Sisters of Charity, Mother Arsenius.

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Joe, it seems like we're in the historic part of the mill here.

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Tell me more about Mother Arsenius.

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She obviously had a passion about helping people

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and she visited Foxford and saw the destitution that existed in the area,

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and she wanted to do something and help her fellow mankind.

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This devout and driven nun secured a loan of £7,000 from the so-called

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Congested Districts Board.

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A mill race off the River Moy and mill buildings were constructed.

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The early years were a struggle, but by the turn of the century, the mill

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had begun to thrive and to employ much of the immediate population.

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She was effectively, then, an entrepreneur, which seems odd to me.

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I don't think of nuns as being entrepreneurial.

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No, she knew nothing about textiles, knew nothing about business,

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but she just had this vision and passion.

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What do you think drove her?

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She had a great faith in God and with that, a huge desire to help people.

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And if we look up here, Michael, at her motto and logo,

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"God's providence is our inheritance."

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What does she mean by that?

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Her attitude was you didn't just pray and hope things happened,

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you went out, did your 100%, and providence met you the other halfway.

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And what was her impact, then, on Foxford?

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Huge. If you imagine, this place employed 250 people of a population of 700.

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Today, the operation that Mother Arsenius set up

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remains an important part of the local economy.

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The workforce is much smaller, but the mill still employs

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around 70 people.

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This appears to be a delightfully colourful part of the process.

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What's going on here?

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This, Michael, is called a tinter.

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It's a very, very old form of drying.

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If you look at the two lines of chains with hooks on them,

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they're known as tenterhooks.

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So the expression under pressure or nervous comes from there.

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I had no idea about that.

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And what width are you using here?

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We're using 66.

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We need it to go out to 69.

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Pressing now.

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That's it.

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-Perfect. Well done.

-69 on the button.

-On the button.

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And is there anything we should do while it's going through?

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No. It's important to keep it straight,

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so as the machine is moving, if you have to, apply some pressure,

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mainly at the edges, and keep it straight.

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-Well, let battle commence.

-OK, Michael.

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Now, come over here and just watch that your lines are straight.

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It's perfect.

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Hot air circulates through the machine,

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which drives the fabric whilst it's being stretched.

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I'm involved in a delicate industrial process.

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I'm on tenterhooks.

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Foxford Station is on a branch line off the main Dublin to Westport line.

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In order to continue west, I'll need to make a most unusual change.

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Riddle - when can you neither enter nor leave a railway station?

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Answer - when it's called Manulla Junction,

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because, whilst you can change train here,

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there is no ingress and no egress.

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You cannot buy a ticket here, you cannot buy a ticket to here.

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Unique in my experience so far.

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Serving only a sparse population, the station closed in 1963.

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It reopened in 1988 as an interchange station only.

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The Dublin train has taken all the passengers, leaving me alone.

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Finally, my train arrives.

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My next stop will be Westport, County Mayo.

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Bradshaw says, "It's in a valley at the head of an inlet on the south

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"side of Clew Bay under Croagh Patrick.

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"A week might pleasantly be passed boating,

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"picnicking and bathing amid the islands."

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In the limited time that I shall have,

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I intend to study disaster and divinity.

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The planned Georgian town of Westport dates back to the late 18th century,

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when Lord Sligo of Westport House cleared a village of 700 people to

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make way for it to be built along the Carrowbeg River to Clew Bay.

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Now, this is interesting.

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The town before the railway was designated to be the port of the west of Ireland

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and stacks of now vacant warehouses were built.

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They might readily be converted into factories and ships run into

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Westport with cotton from America.

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In the 21st century, those warehouses were changed into hotels,

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cafes and seafood restaurants.

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Yummy.

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To end my day, I want to try a local speciality from this coast.

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Good evening. You're welcome to The Idle Wall.

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Oh, thank you very much. I was hoping for some fresh seafood

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-from Clew Bay.

-Tonight, I have some really wonderful native clams.

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Sold. And a glass of white wine, please.

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-Absolutely, coming right up.

-Thank you.

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Ah! Gosh.

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Fascinating clams, aren't they?

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This is the prayer clam, you see the beautiful pearlised inside.

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-I do. That's superb.

-And this is a lighter shell one.

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It's a little bit more sweet.

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I'm going to try this prayer clam.

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Dip it in the white wine and the garlic.

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Mmm.

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Gosh, that's so fresh.

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Now try the native clam.

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What a delicious meal.

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This morning, I start on the coast at Clew Bay,

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looking out to the rugged Atlantic Ocean.

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"Clew Bay," says Bradshaw's,

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"forms an archipelago of 100 green islands popularly said to be 365,

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"varying in size from a few acres to a mile in length.

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"Mist and rain are the rule here."

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And, indeed, bad weather threatens today.

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Over time, the islanders have often had to close ranks

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and not just against the elements.

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One of the largest islands of the archipelago is Achill Island

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and I'm meeting one of its residents, historian John Sweeney,

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for a tour of the bay.

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How many of these islands is populated?

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Just four major islands with a decent population left.

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The rest of the 360-odd islands are down to maybe an odd house.

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What sort of communities do you have on the islands?

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Sadly it's a two-ended side to the community.

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We've the very young, up to 17 and 18,

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and after that they go off to college,

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emigrate usually after that and we don't see them again,

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and then we have the very elderly on the island,

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so we're a community of kind of two halves, the young and the very old.

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Emigration has long been a part of life for the islanders of Achill.

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During the famine of the 1840s, many left their homeland for good,

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whilst others travelled for seasonal work in other parts of the British Isles.

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In 1894, a terrible disaster would strike these migrant workers here in Clew Bay.

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It was a shocking tragedy,

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which consisted of migrants from Achill who were travelling to

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Scotland to pick the potatoes.

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They were on what they would call a hooker, that were a big carrying boat,

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and they were just outside Westport to meet the steamer here.

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It was picking them up and bringing them up to Scotland,

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and a lot of the young people got very excited to see the boat because

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they'd never seen a steamer before,

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and they all went to one side to have a good closer look

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and, unfortunately, the boat capsized and, as a result of it,

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34 young people were drowned.

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Tragic. Lost the whole island, as you can imagine.

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The bodies were returned to Achill by train from Westport.

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The line had just been completed and the very first train to run

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performed this sombre service.

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Sadly, the very last rail service into Achill would also be marked by tragedy.

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The tattie pickers were in Scotland,

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finishing up their contract for the year and they were locked in a barn

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and, unfortunately, a fire started during the middle of the night and

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ten of them lost their lives in this tragic fire.

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The dead were once again returned by train.

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It was to be the last rail service to the island before the line was

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closed for good.

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Leaving Clew Bay behind me, ahead is my last stop here in Ireland

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and it's one of the most breathtaking.

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Bradshaw's tells me that the tourist who neglects the ascent

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of Croagh Patrick will lose one of the finest sights of its kind in the

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British Isles and with such encouragement,

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will I be daunted by a little rain and swirling mists?

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The striking mountain of Craogh Patrick is the destination of

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one of Ireland's most popular Christian pilgrimages.

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The name is Irish for Patrick's Stack and is known locally as the Reek.

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Guiding me up its slopes today is historian Harry Hughes.

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-Hello, Harry.

-Hello, Michael, how are you?

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You're very welcome to a bleak and wet, but wonderful Croagh Patrick.

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-You weren't put off by the weather, thank you.

-Indeed not, indeed not.

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I'd like to present you with a stick for the Reek,

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traditionally the staff for climbing the mountain.

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Very nice. Thank you very much.

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We meet by a statue of St Patrick.

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According to my Bradshaw's guidebook,

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there is a hut on the mountain where, supposedly,

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the saint sojourned for a time.

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-Is that true?

-It is true.

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We know from earlier references, particularly the Book Of Armagh,

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which is at Trinity College,

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written 200 years after Patrick's sojourn on the mountain.

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It clearly states that Patrick came here, we believe,

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in the year 441 and stayed on the summit for 40 days and 40 nights.

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-Who was Patrick?

-Patrick, we believe, came from Wales, but he

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certainly came from Gaelic Britain and he was caught as a slave,

0:24:000:24:05

enslaved here, herding sheep for a number of years.

0:24:050:24:07

He eventually escaped, studied the Christian faith,

0:24:070:24:10

eventually became a bishop and came back to Ireland with the intention

0:24:100:24:13

of Christianising the Pagan Irish.

0:24:130:24:15

This wonderful mountain,

0:24:160:24:18

exceptional mountain with its deceptive conical shape,

0:24:180:24:21

was that of importance to early man before the Christians?

0:24:210:24:26

Hugely important. The archaeologists found early Roman jewellery, 500 BC,

0:24:260:24:31

which is 1,000 years before Patrick's visit to this mountain

0:24:310:24:35

and it would have been important for Patrick to conquer all the important

0:24:350:24:38

Pagan ritual sites on behalf of Christianity.

0:24:380:24:41

I'm not trying to get all the way to the summit today,

0:24:410:24:44

-but shall we press on and get on the way?

-We'll try, anyway. Come on.

-OK.

0:24:440:24:47

It rises to a height of over 2,500 feet.

0:24:510:24:55

It takes around two hours to climb the peak and one and half hours to descend.

0:24:550:25:01

It's become a tradition to climb the mountain on the last Sunday of July,

0:25:010:25:06

known as Reek Sunday, when 20,000 people make the ascent

0:25:060:25:11

and a priest celebrates mass on the summit.

0:25:110:25:14

Bradshaw's tells me that around the patron saint's day,

0:25:150:25:19

pilgrims doing penance climb on their bare knees.

0:25:190:25:24

There probably were some who would have walked this mountain in their

0:25:240:25:28

bare feet back then, but the vast majority of pilgrims would wear

0:25:280:25:31

hardy boots and climb the mountain and walk up and will kneel at the

0:25:310:25:35

summit, of course, to say their prayers.

0:25:350:25:36

I suppose that around the time of my guidebook,

0:25:360:25:39

pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick would have become a national phenomenon in Ireland.

0:25:390:25:43

Yes, the train companies got on board and many trains brought

0:25:430:25:46

pilgrims to this mountain and they built a new church on the summit in 1905.

0:25:460:25:51

So we know for quite a number of years after this,

0:25:510:25:53

the main mode of transport coming to Croagh Patrick was by rail.

0:25:530:25:57

What do you think is the significance of Croagh Patrick to

0:25:570:26:00

-the Irish people?

-This is a hugely important site.

0:26:000:26:02

This is the interface between the mother Earth and the spiritual world.

0:26:020:26:07

And this, to Irish people, is the holy mountain of Ireland.

0:26:070:26:10

Today, the mountain attracts pilgrims and hikers from all over

0:26:110:26:15

Ireland and around the world.

0:26:150:26:17

-Hello.

-Afternoon, sir.

0:26:190:26:21

I see that you are climbing Croagh Patrick on a pretty inclement day.

0:26:210:26:25

-Why are you doing it?

-I heard it's one of the best mountains in Ireland

0:26:250:26:29

and hiking is what I do, what I love,

0:26:290:26:32

and I heard the legends about St Patrick climbing the mountain,

0:26:320:26:35

the penitant climbing the mountain and all that,

0:26:350:26:38

and that's something I had to see before I left.

0:26:380:26:40

Do you have any religious views or feelings?

0:26:400:26:42

-I'm a Catholic, sir.

-You're not going to get much of a view today.

0:26:420:26:46

-Does that make a difference?

-No, not at all.

0:26:460:26:48

-Why do you say that?

-It's the journey.

0:26:480:26:50

It's the journey that makes the experience.

0:26:500:26:52

As I end my journey in Ireland, I couldn't agree more.

0:26:550:26:58

Take an island separated from other land,

0:27:020:27:06

inhabited since the dawn of history, with its powerful myths and

0:27:060:27:11

distinctive language, heat with religion.

0:27:110:27:14

Whipped together, these ingredients produce a national emotion.

0:27:140:27:18

Add songsters and poets inspired by this verdant landscape and flavoured

0:27:190:27:26

with the fiddle and the harp and the emotion becomes a hope.

0:27:260:27:31

Stir with colonial repression and a terrible hunger,

0:27:310:27:34

and the hope becomes a determination to be free.

0:27:340:27:38

At the time of my Bradshaw's guide, Ireland was approaching boiling point.

0:27:380:27:43

Next time - through breathtaking scenery,

0:27:520:27:55

where I'll encounter magnificent beasts,

0:27:550:27:58

mimic fearless explorers and witness distinctive customs.

0:27:580:28:03

I'll travel 1,500 miles,

0:28:030:28:06

recapturing the excitement and promise of the American frontier.

0:28:060:28:10

On the last leg of Michael Portillo's long journey from Wexford to Westport, a fashionable Victorian seaweed bath is followed by a steamy scene in Ballina. On tenterhooks in Foxford, Michael discovers the visionary charity of an entrepreneurial nun. He learns of a double tragedy at Clew Bay and begins a pilgrimage to the summit of Ireland's holy mountain, Croagh Patrick.


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