Kerry Hannon and Caitlin Bonney at Kilcolgan Castle; photo by Cliff Hackel
I’m tucked into the bend of the spiral staircase at Kilcolgan Castle, outside of Galway City on Ireland’s west coast, gazing out the window at the morning light lifting slowly across the green fields, the fast moving water, and white seabirds taking flight.

The castle is located on the banks of the Dunkellin River. It dates from the 11th Century. And it’s spectacular. My friend Karen Geoghegan owns it.

(Go to my Forbes column, here.)

It’s hushed and majestic. In full disclosure, it is raining and windy, but the Irish in me loves this weather. (And last night we had dinner at the famous Moran’s  Oyster Cottage, just across the way. The traditional thatched cottage dates back over 250 years. Today, the restaurant is run by the 7th generation of the Moran family. Talk about a family business.)

I know Karen from our mutual love of horseback riding in Virginia. A native of Massachusetts, she inherited the castle in 1997 after the death of her father, W.N. Gustafson von Hillerstamm, a former Swedish consul to the U.S. He had purchased Kilcolgan in 1988 as a retreat where he could fox-hunt and entertain friends. To defray the high cost of maintaining the property, Karen opened it to the public. It’s nice to have a friend who owns a castle.

Irish Castles and birthday bashes. Twelve years ago precisely, I had my 40th birthday party here. I wrote about it for Business Week. It was a giant house party for four windswept days where friends and family joined me to celebrate. The culmination of the weekend was the running of the famous Galway horse races just down the road.

It was a bit damp, and most of the guests had never met before, but by the end of our stay, everyone was sharing pints of Guinness and tales of adventures on sheep-clogged roads.

Weather-permitting, I’m planning to start this day horseback riding with Karen’s husband Tony Geoghegan, a terrific horseman, who specializes in training Irish sporthorses. He has some beautiful ones in his stable “yard,” as the barn area is called here. No doubt I will learn something about horsemanship from him. Then I’m going to the Galway Races once again with my husband, Cliff and niece, Caitlin.

Caitlin was a mere 8-years-old when she came to Ireland for my birthday party. Now she is about to turn 21 and studying this semester at The National University of Ireland, Galway, which was established in 1845.

There’s a lot to write about Ireland and returning home, as it feels to me in many ways. I actually have my Irish citizenship and passport, even though I wasn’t born here and have yet to use it.

I dream of owning land here, and writing and riding horses to my heart’s delight, as I age gracefully. My grandparents emigrated to America back a century or more ago, and I have travelled to this special land many times. I keep coming back. It pulls me.

But this morning as the daylight slowly lifts over the water, and I can see the horses in the fields through the ivy-draped stone archways, I’m thinking about travel and how it changes us. How we learn and grow and open our minds, when we leave our comfort zones. How changing places stimulates us.

Learning is living. I truly believe that lifelong learning is essential to inner happiness. The other day I attended a lecture with Caitlin at the University. The topic was the history of the United Nations and how it works today. It was an engaging presentation, and the dozens of college age students surrounding me in the hall were focused and curious. I was, too.

Connemara, photo by Cliff Hackel

Ponies and pints. Yesterday, Cliff, Caitlin and I drove through the magical land of Connemara, with its lofty peaks and expansive views of the Twelve Ben Mountains and flat boggy peat planes. The Atlantic Ocean rolled below the craggy peaks. We drove along a fjord. Streams rushed by.

This land’s ancient roots were simply present in this terrain in a palpable way.

In  Clifden, we grabbed a seat at the Connemara Pony sale, where I had to fight to not bid on one of these special creatures. It was an entire sub-culture gathered in the steep wooden bench seats surrounding the tiny sawdust-strewn auction ring. The auctioneer sang out Euros in rapid-fire succession… five hundred, six hundred and on up, and the four-legged equines headed to new homes in a slap of a final gavel.

The five-day Connemara sale brings breeders, farmer, buyers and horse enthusiasts from across the globe. There are four of these held each year in this tiny country town. These are hardy, tough, and athletic ponies, great for kids  or adults.  I knew a little bit about this. My sister had a wonderful Connemara pony when we were growing up. Soaking in this bustling marketplace milieu was mesmerizing.

We stopped at a pub and savored  smoked Connemara salmon, brown bread, and fish chowder. We were seated alongside a peat-burning fireplace, and listened to Springsteen tunes humming through the pub  speakers. We checked our e-mail via the free wifi. Modern times meet tradition.

Afterward, as we drove along the sea, I read in our guidebook about bogs and the cutting of peat (called ‘turf’ when cut) for fuel, which began in the 17th century. It’s quite a rural sight in this remote stretch of land.

Each morning, I’m up before dawn ready to see what will inspire me next about Ireland and my journey. And so I leave you this morning as a gray mist spreads across the castle stonewall, gazing out at the rushing waters beyond lost in an Irish reverie. And hoping you, too, will press on to travel, to learn each day in ways that may or may not change your life, but will always give it meaning.

Take a class. If you can’t travel to a foreign country, as I have this week, take a class on a topic that interests you. Check out community colleges, or find an Osher Learning Center. The Plus 50 Initiative by the American Association of Community Colleges is aimed at students over 50.

Stop into a community library and see what lectures might be scheduled. Take an online course. I recently signed up for a free six-week one via Coursera taught by the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, Dan Ariely, called: A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior.

However you can do it, keep learning, keep challenging the way you view the world.

You never know where it will lead, or where a new idea or understanding may present itself. Many aging experts say that to stay healthy, older adults have to learn new things, stay active socially, and exercise. When you stop challenging your brain with new experiences, you’re in trouble.


Follow me on Twitter, @KerryHannon I’m the author of Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … And Pays the Bills (John Wiley & Sons), available here Check out my column at AARP. My weekly column  at PBS’s is here.

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