Chasing Landscape- a 2,000 mile journey around the Emerald Isle
The day had finally arrived. It was mid-August in 2016. I was boarding a 747 for an overnight flight to London, then on to Ireland.
Endless hours later, when the plane landed at Dublin airport, the sweet sound of Irish music began filtering through the chaos of travelers grabbing their bags from the storage bins above the seats. Descending out of the back of the plane and onto the tarmac, I was finally accomplishing a life-long goal. I had made it to the homeland. I planted my feet on Ireland!
After picking up my rental car, I found that driving on the left side of the road was not as difficult as I had expected. It was my biggest concern about this trip. Being the lone driver, my eyes were mostly on the road that first short jaunt up the motorway out of the northern edge of Dublin. And, of course, I was initially terrified driving on the opposite side of the car, on the opposite side of the road, and on the opposite side of the Atlantic from the continental U.S.
I had no idea how fast I was driving because the odometer was in kilometers! The motorway was lined with trees, so I really couldn’t see much until I got off somewhere in the vicinity of the Boyne River Valley.
At a gas station, I bought a good road map that would be my companion for the next two weeks. After some confusion along narrow rural roads, I found the Newgrange Hostel. There was an unexplained problem with my reservation, so I was sent to a different one- Slane Farm Hostel- down the road. I fell fast asleep on a comfy bed in a large, empty dorm room.
After barely sleeping on the plane, and having fallen asleep at 9 the night before, I woke up at midnight, back to sleep around 4, and was startled to wake up at 10 am. It was raining heavily outside. I quickly got up, showered, and packed so I could be out by 11.
I drove to the Newgrange Visitor Center and took in the ancient stories at this prehistoric monument in a valley surrounded by the Boyne River. It was much to absorb in my groggy state. What struck me the most about the displays in the visitor center was how much they reminded me of Native American history. I never thought I would sense a connection between the Irish and Native Americans. I felt the link at that moment, and I must say, it was exhilarating. We all have so much more in common that we realize.
With plans ahead of me, I had to skip the tour of these fascinating Neolithic ruins. This was only my first day, and I was already telling myself that I would have to come back to this place again someday.
In an effort to avoid driving through Belfast, I made my way through the many small towns and narrow roads of central Northern Ireland. I drove past several Protestant churches, and saw many houses adorned with British flags. I did see a large sign in front of someone’s home along a country road that read, “One Ireland, One People.” The tension and divisiveness in “the North” was noticeable even in the countryside.
My journey through the back roads was a very long and roundabout way to travel to the northern coast of the island. I lost my sense of direction under the gray skies and endless farmlands. There were several moments where I had absolutely no idea where I was, even with my excellent map. There were very few people out and about to ask for directions. My guess is that not many travelers venture through Northern Ireland this way.
I finally made it to the coast. Seeing the ocean was a huge relief. I now had a point of reference for the cardinal directions. Driving east into County Antrim toward Ballycastle was spectacular! I stopped at Dunlace Castle just down the road from my ancestral home. I was excited to see my first castle.
I pulled into Ballycastle and found my way to Glenmore House, just outside of town, where I had a reservation. After a short walk around the grounds, I drove back into town and walked along the harbor. Instead of eating out, I bought groceries and headed back to the B&B. When I walked in, I realized they had a small bar, so I sat down for my first glass of Guinness in Ireland. Creamy and smooth, it tasted so much better than what we can buy in the US. I had an interesting conversation with a young couple from England who had just come over on a ferry in a van with their two young children. They had spent some time in Belfast and talked about how many of the people they met compare the conflicts in Northern Ireland with the Israel/Palestine conflict. Having been to the Middle East, I understood the comparison.
After saying good night, I went up to my room and looked at the full moon out my window. I was happy to be in my paternal, ancestral hometown.
After breakfast the next morning, I drove into town to walk around as shops began to open. Merchants were sweeping sidewalks and placing goods outside of storefronts. The population of Ballycastle is approximately 5,000. I did not try to look up anyone named McGarry, but it was fun imagining my relatives living in this lovely little town. In a town so much older than any American town, I was kind of surprised to walk into a co-op grocery store. Silly me. Ireland is an active part of the modern world, even in a tiny town on the northern coast.
Heading west to Bushmills Distillery, I took a tour that ended with a very large glass of whiskey. The making of whiskey starts out with a large volume of liquid, and ends up with very little. The rest, I don’t remember. It was just noon, so I only drank some of what they gave me. Afterwards, I went to my car, ate cheese and crackers, and drank lots of water. I had much more driving to do.
Within this small town, a short distance away, is the amazing Giant’s Causeway. Walking down the path to the beach, I climbed around on 60 million year-old protrusions of basalt that had formed through a crack in the earth’s crust under the ocean. The lava had cooled rapidly, creating over 40,000 interlocking clusters of hexagon-shaped columns. People from all over the world were visiting this unique geological site. Having read about it many years before, I was so glad I finally got to be there and see it. I think the hike helped erase the whiskey in my blood.
I continued driving westward through the northern coastal towns of Portrush, and Portstewart, down through Coleraine, then west again through Limavady. All the while, I was negotiating the roundabouts, which were challenging while also driving on the left. I passed through Londonderry (colloquially known as Derry by the Irish Nationalists), which was a hotbed of violence during the years of conflict in Northern Ireland in the latter part of the 20th century. Reminding me of some of the port towns in Oregon, Derry was more industrial than the towns I had seen so far.
After crossing the River Foyle, I realized that I had better stop for gas. I pulled into a station a little more to the west. While the attendant filled my tank, I asked for directions. I wanted to be certain I was on the road to Letterkenny. His answer was, “You’re still in the north.” At first, I didn’t understand what he meant. Perplexed, I drove out onto the road, heading west. I quickly realized that I was leaving Northern Ireland because, within about 50 yards, I entered the Republic of Ireland. A big sign welcomed me to Letterkenny. I don’t think the guy at the gas pump had ever been to Letterkenny. I was there within 15 minutes. Apparently, he doesn’t like helping anyone crossing over from the North. It is a sorry situation.
Before dusk, I made it to Dunfanaughy and found my accommodations at an old mill that was converted into a hostel and campground. The owners had a train car divided up into bedrooms. I put my bags into my private train car room and went out for a walk, escaping some noisy neighbors from Germany with screaming children who were running all over the place.
I wandered off to take pictures of the elusive sun peeking just above the horizon off the west Donegal coast. As darkness took over, I returned to my room. I needed sleep and had to ask several times for the drinking travelers to tone it down. The raucous neighbors didn’t quiet down until after midnight.
I got up early, showered, fixed breakfast, and left before my noisy neighbors awoke. I drove to nearby Horn Head on the northwestern tip of Ireland. The heather was in bloom, with subtle pink and pale yellow flowers that created a beautiful ground cover all the way out to the point. It was a long hike to the end of the cliff, but definitely worth it.
I stood at the junction of north and west. Breathing in the moist ocean air and gazing at the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, this California girl was having what some might call an out-of-body experience. I was standing on the corner of a land I had always dreamed of visiting. With the wind and the mist, it was literally a breath-taking moment. “Ireland, I am here!” emanated from my small frame of a person, standing amidst the heather, gazing at the ocean from the cliffs of my Ireland.
As I hiked back from the point, the clouds rolled in, and soon a wet and windy mist surrounded me, causing visibility to be at about 30 feet. I saw the car not far away. I jumped in and headed south, ready to take on the day.
Driving through County Donegal, I passed Errigal Mountain and Glenveagh National Park. Stopping at an art gallery along the highway, I got to see what the local contemporary artists saw in their mind’s eye.
Knowing I was in the land of famous woolen products, I stopped at a small town somewhere near Killybegs, named Ardvara. With most businesses closed on Sunday, I was lucky to find a shop that was open. I picked out a green blanket I could use on my bed in the winter. Surely, it will help me dream about Ireland.
County Sligo was next. Finding the place in the town of Sligo where I had a reservation, I met a nice woman from Italy who, unfortunately, had to tell me that there was a problem with my room. I was going to have to stay at a different location. I was so ready to rest, cook dinner, and do laundry. She gave me directions to the owner’s home a few miles away. I was surprised at how many of my reservations changed once I arrived.
At a recently built two-story house in a modern suburban neighborhood, I found the hidden envelope with the key. I was trying to let myself in when a van drove up with a man and three children. The teenage boy helped me open the door, and three large dogs came out to greet everyone. At first, I was excited to think I would have a whole family to meet. I could get plenty of questions answered about things I’d observed along the way. Instead, the teenager showed me to my room upstairs while the family closed themselves in downstairs. To them, I was just another traveller passing through, taking up space in their house. There was no access to the Internet, no place to cook, or do laundry, unlike what existed at the original place I had reserved weeks before.
I decided to drive back to the downtown area to find some food, and maybe even venture into a pub. I found a riverfront area with restaurants and bars. I walked up and down the river walk trying to figure out where to go. This part of Sligo was more modern than the small towns I’d seen, almost like an American city. Every place to eat looked expensive and, being close to 9 pm, they were getting ready to close. A large group of young men stood outside what appeared to be a pub. They were laughing, talking loudly, and smoking. All I saw when I went inside were loud, intoxicated men. I went up to the bar to ask if they had food. An old drunken man bumped my shoulder. We looked at each other, and all I could think was that this could not possibly be the pub experience everybody says you “just can’t miss.” I left disappointed and depressed.
Finding an Italian restaurant that was still serving food, I went in and ordered a glass of wine and some stuffed mushrooms. When the mushrooms arrived, I had to laugh because they were battered and deep-fried just like fish and chips. “Irish” stuffed mushrooms, I suppose. After eating them, I drove back to the suburban home, crawled into bed in the lonely upstairs bedroom.
Around 7 am, after a nearly sleepless night, I heard commotion in the house. Someone kept going up and down the stairs. I took a quick shower, dressed, and packed my things. I opened the bedroom door when I thought I heard the mother talking to the daughter. A few moments later, the mother leaned in the door and said, “Hello”. I waved her into the room, anxious to talk with her. She explained that they were all very excited because her daughter had just found out that morning that she had been accepted into a teaching program in Dublin and would be leaving within a day or two. In Ireland, high school seniors have national exams at the end of the school year. The results don’t come out until the end of summer, so no one knows where they are going to college until the last minute.
She was very nice and apologized for not being available the night before because she had worked a night shift somewhere. I mentioned I had been having difficulty sleeping. She recommended going to a pharmacy and getting “salts” to help bring back the balance in my system from jet lag. She told me about a small beach town south of Sligo called Strandhill where I could get breakfast.
I drove to Strandhill and ate breakfast in a tiny place by the sea. Heading back to the main road, I saw a cemetery and decided to pull over. I array of Irish names were amusing to read. “Paddy O’Brien and his wife, Brigid.” How Irish is that! I felt related to all these past souls. I took a peaceful walk among the graves. Somehow, it grounded me. A wave of acceptance swept over me at the finality represented in these tombstones. I also felt the importance of living in the moment. I was so glad I made the decision to take this trip and not put it off. The future was now, and I was there.
I was also glad that that there were no more reservations scheduled until my last night in Dublin. This meant that my days would now be more open and spontaneous. I could stop wherever and whenever I wanted. I was free! Of course, I still had to think ahead a little bit. I had heard that tourism was up by 17% in Ireland because of terrorist attacks in the mainland of Europe.
I thought it best to go directly to Westport and get settled at the B&B I booked that morning. I did a little bit of exploring off the main road through County Mayo, but decided to take the main road to Westport in order to arrive before evening. Another gorgeous ride through Irish countryside, I headed directly southward.
When I finally drove into the charming town of Westport (a destination for many Irish tourists), I tried to find my B&B and drove down to the harbor where it was supposed to be. I was very, very tired. After I drove through the small harbor, the town ended abruptly. Suddenly, I was driving away on a narrow, overgrown road. I found a tiny place to turn around. Then, I did what had happened three times since I started driving in Ireland. I backed into a space to turn around, and then drove forward again, automatically switching back to driving on the right. As I started down the road, a man in a pickup was suddenly coming right at me. I quickly pulled to the left, as did he from his direction, and we both stopped abruptly. I then pulled up and rolled down my window to apologize. As he leaned out of his window, I fully expected him to yell at me with that Irish temper I know so well.
As I started to speak, I began to cry and told him how sorry I was, and how I was really tired, and that I couldn’t find my B&B. The look on his face was one of terror, watching a grown woman cry. He told me very kindly to “Pull over, love, and get some rest.” I apologized again, and we went our different ways–on the LEFT.
Returning to the harbor, I parked in the parking lot and walked along the waterfront, calming myself down. Stepping into a photography gallery, I talked to a friendly older woman from England who worked there. It was wonderful to talk to someone. She gave me all sorts of good advice and even called the B&B to find out where it was (which was just up the block and around the corner). She also told me where to go to hear music in town that night. I finally got to my B&B, checked in, and took a much-needed nap.
Around 9 pm, I walked up the hill from the harbor into town. I went to McCarthy’s, a pub closest to my stay. Three musicians were playing music. I braved my way up to the bar and ordered a glass of Guinness. A place to sit opened up in front of the musicians. I quickly sat down. They played for over an hour without a break and were having a great time, as was I. It was so wonderful to finally be in a pub and feel comfortable there. After a while, they even asked if I had a request. Timidly, I asked if they knew “Come to the Hills.” After some recollection among themselves, they played the tune beautifully.
I left after an hour. All three nodded to me as I got up to leave, and I thanked them for the music. I walked back down the hill to my place of rest for the night. My day was complete. I slept well.
I decided to stay two nights in Westport, so the day began calmly. However, I had to move out of my B&B because they didn’t have a room available. Breakfast was painfully quiet as strangers sat at tables in the little dining room, being served way too much food. (The quiet might have something to do with being hung-over.) I doubt most Irish eat “a traditional Irish breakfast.” It consists of eggs, cereal, homemade Irish soda or brown bread with butter, and several kinds of meat (bacon, sausage, and black and white puddings made from pork meat, blood, and spices). Originally prepared for a hard day’s work, tourists eat it up. They probably gain a fair amount of weight on their Irish vacation. This is not a meal for a vegetarian. I just ate the eggs and bread.
I dropped off my clothes at the one laundry in town where I had no choice but to let them wash my clothes for me. It cost ten euros for not even a full load! I headed toward downtown Westport and found a place to park in the middle of town. I stopped into a pharmacy to get some electrolytes (the “salts” recommended to get over jet lag). I went into a bakery and sat and drank the stuff. Then I watched a sunny morning suddenly turn into pouring rain. About twenty minutes later, it all cleared up again.
Wandering in and out of stores, I went into a local artisan shop, where a woman was spinning yarn on a very old spinning wheel. She dyed and knitted with all the traditional materials. Wool is easy to come by in Ireland. Sheep are everywhere. I bought a small item for a gift because I wanted to support her.
I decided to take a drive out of town to check out the coast to the south and west. I turned at a sign that read “Old Head.” Driving down another overgrown, narrow road, I ended up at a cluster of empty houses. As I rolled down my window, I could hear the sound of children laughing. I drove toward those sounds and, as I have many times now, discovered a hidden destination. There was a lovely beach that was the playground for several families. I walked along the “strand” and was impressed with how pristine the beach was. Children were busy building castles in the sand. The sun was out, the day warm. It made me think of what a traveller to Humboldt might find, discovering the hidden beaches of our dramatic north coast.
After a lovely afternoon, I drove back to Westport, picked up my clean clothes, and made my way through thick traffic to get to my new B&B in the middle of town. The building was older, with furniture to match, and had more personality than the last place. After resting for a while, I wandered out and ate dinner at a pub. I then walked over to Matt Molloy’s. This very crowded pub is why many Irish tourists come to Westport. Matt Malloy is one of the Chieftains, the famous traditional Irish folk band. Playing together for over 50 years, they are credited with making traditional Irish music popular in the contemporary music world, especially in America. There was a cover charge for a bluegrass band visiting from the States. I knew I didn’t come all the way to Ireland to hear American bluegrass so decided to call it a day. I walked back to my room and got another good night’s sleep.
After another silent breakfast at a B&B, I left County Mayo and entered County Galway from the north, driving into the Connemara. The views are stunning! The north side of the Connemara looks as if the mountains rose up and took the rock-walled and hedge-lined pastures, sheep and all, with them. Tears arrived again, but not out of loneliness or fatigue. This time it was gratitude for being there, as well as for the sheer beauty of this sumptuous landscape. I welcomed them as I soaked in the lush Irish countryside.
With Celtic music blasting away in the car, I drove past green pastures of peat bogs speckled with sheep. Rain and sun took turns saturating the sky and the earth with color and light. Eventually, I passed through a fjord called Killory Harbour. I had no idea there was a fiord in Ireland. Soon after, the road wound around the Twelve Bens. These are the mountains that dominate the landscape in the western center of the Wild Atlantic Way. This appropriately named road runs along the entire western coast of Ireland. As I rounded toward the southern side of the mountains, I passed a sign that said something about an “Irish Heritage Centre.” I realized I should turn around and check it out. am so glad I did. Tucked behind a small turnoff was a B&B with a gift shop, and the first thatched house I had seen. I spoke with an older German woman who worked in the shop. She told me about a fully restored house just up the hill and said I could walk up to it and go inside.
I made my way up the steep hill and came upon the restored homestead of Dan O’Hara. Sitting alone in the house for a good while, I felt as if this was what I had come here to find. I had a better understanding of the daily life and challenges of my ancestors. The potato famine was particularly tough in this part of Ireland. Already prey to very harsh winters, the family in this house ended up leaving for America. Some did not survive the trip. As I sat there being warmed by peat burning in the fireplace, I gazed out the door to the west. So many had left this life behind when they sailed across the sea to a new world.
In extreme contrast, I drove away from the stone cottage and into Galway to encounter my first Irish city with stoplights, large intersections, and architecture that was modern, mixed, and taller than two stories. Galway is the sixth largest city in Ireland, with a population of 80,000. My hotel was to the west of the city. It was a small B&B that doubled as a cooking school during the winter. Having had a full day, I decided that more sleep before I took on city life was the best idea. I was grateful to be catching up on rest.
In the morning, instead of going east into the city, I decided to go west and check out the Aran Islands. I got to the dock just in time to catch the ferry, purchasing one of the last tickets sold for that run. Although the water looked calm, the ferry ride across Galway Bay was rougher than I expected. It was exciting to be on the water. The boat was packed with people speaking many different languages.
Arriving at the shore of Inishmore, I stepped onto this large, low-lying shelf of rock out in the sea and knew the experience would be unique. Without the car, the options were to walk, rent a bike, hire a horse carriage, or take a bus tour. The forecast was for a downpour. I was glad I chose the bus because the driver was not only informative, but also funny and entertaining.
The schools on Inishmore teach in Gaelic (simply called “Irish” by the locals), and I could hear the bus and carriage drivers speaking the language to each other at tourist stops. Preserving their culture is very important to the residents of this island.
This glacial shelf of karst limestone has only six inches of soil on it. Lovely, docile cows, harrier than most, eat whatever grass there is. There are no sheep on the island because, according to the bus driver, sheep eat deeper into the plant and impact the roots. Somehow, potatoes are grown in this land with little soil. Our driver talked about how the potato famine blight did not reach the Aran Islands, so people were able to survive there and did not migrate. Early settlers caught fish and traded it with those on the mainland for sod to help build up the soil on one small part of the island. They also composted seaweed to make soil.
Walking out to the southern shore of the island at the furthest point the bus would take us, I stood at the edge of the cliffs and looked south over Galway Bay, and then to the west over the Atlantic. I realized I was halfway around Ireland, and halfway through my trip. I met a nice young man named Stephan from Germany who had been riding his bike around England and Ireland. I could tell he really needed to talk to someone, as did I, so we had some good conversation. We also helped each other take pictures of ourselves with our cameras. He may come to California some day and ride his bike along the coast. I gave him my card.
The bus brought everyone back to the harbor. There was a big shop selling Aran sweaters (also called fisherman’s sweaters) as well as many other beautiful woolen items. Many tourists buy something to take home. The sweaters are very expensive. I already had my Donegal blanket. At the foot of the Celtic cross in the harbor’s center, there were three children who looked like siblings playing concertinas and accordions. When they finished a song, I could hear them speaking Irish to each other. On the ferry back, I got to sit on the top deck. The rain never came. It was a glorious day.
Back in my car, I drove east into Galway’s city center and parked in a huge parking structure a couple of blocks from the Kinlay Eyre Hostel. Although the room was clean, I was surprised at the smallness with six bunk beds. The city hostel was as minimal as I wanted to experience. Except for this old woman, the occupants of the room were single American women in their twenties, all from the East Coast.
I ventured out into the night to take in the Galway scene, and what a scene it was! Lit up and with no car access, the cobblestone streets were filled with street performers, musicians, pubs, and restaurants. A street artist juggled fire sticks with a big crowd watching. The scene reminded me of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
I walked into a couple of pubs where traditional Irish music was alive and well. They were packed with people. I wandered farther from the center of it all and found a less crowded pub. Two men playing guitar and fiddle were performing. I ordered my pint and sat down right across from them. Pulling out my iPad, I started drawing them while they played. They sang all sorts of folk rock and got everyone to sing along. After about an hour, they got up to take a break. The singer/guitarist came up to see what I was drawing. He asked me to email the drawing to him, and he gave me his card. He is an engineer by day. I went back to the hostel and, still awake, crawled into my bunk and worked on the drawing a little more before emailing it. I was just getting used to my iPad, so the drawing wasn’t very good, but he seemed excited that I had drawn him.
The woman above me snored all night. I barely slept. As the morning hours arrived, I watched three of the others in the room–one by one–get up, get dressed, put on her backpack, and quietly leave to her next destination on her own. Any one of them could have been me 40 years ago. Yet, I had only just arrived.
Heading out of Galway on my way to the Cliffs of Mohr in County Clare, I stopped for lunch in the “Matchmaker” town of Lisdoonvarna. There really is a matchmaking festival there every year. Single Irish people come from all over Ireland to find a mate. It was coming up in just a few weeks.
I drove to the Cliffs of Mohr where there were thousands of visitors from all over the world. Although very crowded, it was still an awesome place to see because of the steep, dramatic cliffs. My parents took a boat ride there on their honeymoon in 1950 and looked up at the cliffs from the water. If I return to the Cliffs of Mohr someday, I will have to consider doing that. I am certain it would be memorable. After walking up and down the paths and touring the visitor center, I was overwhelmed by the crowds, and once again tired from a sleepless night the night before.
I drove back a few kilometers to the small town of Doolin, known by many as the Irish music center. I checked in at the hostel and was able to take a nap in my dorm room for almost an hour and a half before a nice young woman named Lexi came in. She was from somewhere east of Seattle, Washington. A couple of women from Germany arrived. Later, two women from County Mayo came in. The room was now full.
I went downstairs and ordered a pizza, declared to be the best in town. Also, the only pizza in town. Lexi came downstairs, and we sat outside on a very pleasant evening and visited while watching people and horse carts pass by. The air is so clean in Ireland. It felt wonderful to sit outside, even though it was a bit cool.
Lexi was in her early 20s and filled me in on events happening in her life. She reminded me of me at that age, finding my independence, separating more from family, and being comfortable on my own. We both needed to talk to someone as lonely travelers. I shared some of my pizza with her.
Later that night around 9:30, I walked to the other end of Doolin, just a few blocks down the road, and went into a crowded pub called McGann’s. The music was just starting. The young singer had a lovely soprano voice. I found a good spot where I could see and hear, yet not feel too conspicuous, and worked on a drawing on my iPad. Four men about my age sat down at a table next to me. We talked a little. They were all friends who were “on holiday” together, riding their motorcycles from Dublin to towns along the west coast of Ireland. They were very kind and polite. One of them shared pictures of his 20-year-old daughter, also an artist.
After about an hour of contemporary and traditional Irish music, I went up to the band in between songs and bought a CD. Then I walked back along the road in the dark to the hostel. The music made me feel very happy. As I passed silhouettes of young people walking by, they all said hello. Doolin felt very safe and friendly. I crawled into my bed in the dorm room where three or four others were already sleeping. My visit to Doolin made me wish I was still in my 20’s. In that moment, I felt like I was.
Wouldn’t you know it? Lexi snores! So sleep was, once again, sketchy. In the morning, I attempted to take a shower, but the water ran cold, so I gave up. The toilet paper was also gone. That was it! I decided that my hostel days were over. I got dressed, packed up, and went downstairs to make breakfast. I cooked up the rest of my eggs and shared them with the German roommates who had just come downstairs. Lexi arrived, and we ate breakfast together. I didn’t mention the snoring.
Heading out, I took a ferry across the River Shannon and headed for Tralee, which turned out to be more of a city than I had expected. I decided to go for the long drive around the Dingle Peninsula instead of walking around a city. Yet another stunning and dynamic experience in landscape, the Dingle Peninsula did not disappoint. The view from the top of Connor Pass, looking down at both sides of the peninsula, was incredible!
After a beautiful and exhausting drive, I found the B&B I had reserved that morning in the middle of Tralee, above Sean Og’s pub. I got my bags into the tiny, odd-shaped room with only a skylight for a window. After resting, I ate my leftover pizza, and decided to go downstairs to the pub. An American couple from New Jersey sat near me, and we began to talk. With their help, we got the bartender to talk with us. He was very busy, but we entered into a discussion about the American election. He was certain Trump would win. I truly did not think it was possible, and said that the American public would never elect such a horrible person. I still think about that bartender, and wish I could talk to him again to find out what he knew that I did not.
Planning my travels the next morning, I attempted to book a place in a town called Skibbereen, on the southern coast. I tried using Airbnb. The one available place wanted me to scan my driver’s license on both sides. I didn’t like the idea of giving them such reproducible identification so I packed and headed out, not knowing where I would end up. It was another Sunday, and very few things were open anywhere. I guess it’s the Catholic thing–going to church, a day of rest.
I drove to Killarney in County Kerry with the goal of seeing Killarney National Park. Initially, the park reminded me of Golden Gate Park, urban and planned. Fortunately, I found a restored farm area, complete with stone cottages, stables, and animals. Inside two of the cottages, women were baking bread over a fire. I talked with one of them who told me all about how to make the bread. Because it was Irish Heritage Week, she was there all day, every day, making soda bread and talking to tourists. I got several questions answered. I also got to eat some fresh, warm bread. I’m so glad I found her.
Back in the car, I headed up the road through the park toward the southern coast. The view looking back toward Killarney National Park was spectacular. It was evident that major glacial activity had gone on there in centuries past. I could see that a large part of the park was wild and natural, not like the cultivated part I had just visited.
Stopping at a shop on my way out of the park, I asked the cashier about the road ahead. She asked if I was driving alone. When I said yes, her eyes grew bigger. “Oh, you are brave,” she replied. “One woman and the open road!” I don’t think many Irish women travel alone. So off I went into the unknown.
The road south was narrow and winding. It reminded me of Hwy 299 in California. It was rugged and mountainous. This was probably the most challenging drive yet (except for the roundabouts). I made it to Kenmare for lunch at yet another pub named McCarthy’s, following the maternal family name. Not knowing what would be available ahead, I got out my iPad and decided to book a room in Bantry. By the time I got to Bantry in County Cork, I was too tired to drive any more, so it was a good thing I had picked it as my place to stop.
My hotel was a four-story building, right in the center of town, by a little harbor. My room was very small and not very enticing. I went for a walk, passing by pubs that were full and loud in the mid-afternoon. There was a soccer game on TV. I wondered if I went into the pubs after the game, but before the music, whether I might have a better chance of talking to someone, and learn more about my whereabouts. I needed to decide where I was going next. I went to the pub in my hotel. It seemed like a calm moment. But as soon as I started to ask about the road ahead, the bartender got busier. I managed to ask him where to go in the southwest. Tramore is what he told me. So, I booked a room online, and then ordered a pint.
An older Irish couple sat down next to me, and we started to talk. This was what I had been waiting for. The wife asked me what I thought of Ireland, good and bad. I raved about the beauty of it all, and I was quick to say how polite and helpful everyone had been. I did mention that I was disappointed that so many people in tourist/service jobs were “foreign nationals” from European Union countries. She explained that the young Irish don’t want to do the service jobs anymore. They want to go to school, get better jobs, and be more competitive in the world. The tech industry is growing in Ireland. This has to be a better thing for the Irish, but it changes the experience for the visitor. This transformation occurred when Ireland had a booming economy in the early 2000s. There weren’t enough people to do the jobs, so Ireland recruited from Europe. With the European Union, living in other countries is easy to do. Ireland was a cheaper place to live than anywhere else in Europe, and so Germans, Dutch, English, and Italians all came to Ireland. When the crash hit in 2007, the foreign nationals wanted to stay and couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. All of this was fascinating to learn. It had been almost two weeks, but I finally understood.
I rose early and decided to drive around the surrounding area before heading east. I watched the sun rise over Bantry and took several photos. A s I headed down the road to Skibbereen, I saw a sign or two on storefronts that read, “Welcome home, O’Donovan brothers.” The two young men had won silver medals in rowing at the 2016 Olympics. Unbeknownst to me, 20,000 people would gather later that day to congratulate them. It might have been fun to stay in Skibbereen, but I doubt I would have slept very well with all the celebrating.
I noticed the change in landscape in the south of Ireland. The land was less mountainous, and the weather, calmer. I skirted around the city of Cork (with a population of over 125,000), and bypassed the big motorways. I found my way to Cohb (pronounced “Cove”), just south of Cork. Down by the water, there was a memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives on the “Titanic”. Built in Belfast, she then sailed to England to pick up mostly first and second-class passengers. Departing from Southhampton for the maiden voyage, she stopped in Cohb to pick up mostly third-class passengers for the fateful journey into the Atlantic. A major port, this is also where my parents first landed at the start of their honeymoon on their initial visit to Ireland.
Due to the less rugged coast and straighter roads, I arrived in Tramore in the southeast within a very short time. The passing countryside reminded me a little of Napa and Sonoma in California. The light on this late August day was a little more washed out than on the west coast of the island.
I arrived in County Waterford. After confusing directions from strangers, I finally found my B&B. I was thrilled that my stay would be in a restored, thatched-roofed stone house. I had been so intrigued by these houses since long before my trip. There are very few of them left. During the boom, many were torn down and replaced with houses with much less character. This house was a blend of old and new, with yellow walls instead of the traditional whitewash. The owners, who were about my age and very friendly, had done all the work on their home. He had a job, but I could tell he liked to do construction and remodeling. She had worked in a bank, but was now retired and trying to run a B&B in their home. Surprised at how well the business was going, my hostess admitted that it was a lot of work. More people take their vacations in the west than in the southeast of Ireland. For her first summer of hosting visitors, this had been a busy one.
They had a sweet, young granddaughter, perhaps around five-years-old, visiting them for the day. She showed me to my room and told me that the room had been hers when she was a baby. We looked out the window at a lovely little yard. She told me about all the laundry that got done and hung on the line.
Her grandparents encouraged me to drive to Dunmore and eat at a nice place by the beach, where there were more thatched-roofed houses to see. I took the quick drive to the little resort town of Dunmore. I felt like I was suddenly in the Mediterranean. It was a sunny, little cove with a small beach. Families were playing in the water right beside a colony of restored stone houses. Everything looked a little older, with a longer history and more continental European influence. This area seemed more affluent than the northwestern part of Ireland. I sat for about an hour soaking in the sun. The cafe and bar had extremely slow service. The food choices were more Mediterranean than Irish, with a noticeable absence of deep fried items, and more of a variety of warm-weather vegetables.
Returning to the cottage in Tramore, I was content to spend the rest of the evening just resting in my room, watching Irish TV, and picking up on Irish contemporary culture from the news and shows. There were American cop shows, game shows, and talent shows. At least the news was uniquely Irish. As someone who doesn’t watch American TV, I found it strange to see so much American programming in Ireland.
My hostess brought a plate with two large, white, boiled potatoes, sautéed onions, and a pad of butter. She had also put a couple of slices of corned beef on the plate. She asked if I ate corned beef. I told her I was a vegetarian, so she took away the meat. I thanked her and sat in my room eating the potatoes as an evening snack. Only in Ireland!
I woke up in this lovely home from the best sleep I had had throughout my whole trip. (Maybe it was the potatoes.) After eating breakfast prepared by this nice couple, I was ready to go. They were so amazed that all I wanted was an egg and toast. They admitted that the traditional Irish breakfast is a lot of work and created a lot of waste. However, many people expect it, and some eat all of it, including the blood pudding.
After we said our goodbyes, I realized I had driven away with the key to their house as I headed toward Dublin. It is now a souvenir of my stay with them in their lovely thatched-roof, stone cottage.
Bypassing Waterford, I drove on my first major motorway since driving north out of the Dublin airport two weeks earlier. I barreled straight toward Dublin in the middle of the east coast, and got there in two hours. It took another hour to wade through traffic to reach the city’s center. This drive made me realize how small Ireland is, even though I had driven many miles on my trip. Irish citizens can get to Dublin in less than half a day from some of the farthest points on the island via the main motorways.
I was not looking forward to city madness, but I knew I had to see Dublin. I found a parking garage and set out. The city was a jarring urban experience. Dublin felt more intense than San Francisco, even though SF has a much larger population. When I asked for directions, the friendly Irish manners were toned down, and it seemed like there were people from all over the world walking all around me. I quickly switched into city mode.
I found my way to a tourist information office and got a map of downtown Dublin. Walking to the center, I found that I liked this area because cars were not allowed on the cobblestone streets. People were everywhere.
I discovered the National Leprechaun Museum, and knew I had to go in. I bought a ticket and went on the unique and interesting tour of this odd, little place. The tour was a spoken word/performance art attempt at preserving and interpreting Irish folklore. We were ushered into a tiny room with displays of weird and historical references to leprechauns and faeries. Embarrassing American items were exhibited in glass cases, such as a movie poster of “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” from Disney, and a box of Lucky Charms cereal. The Irish laugh at these things. There were also poems by Yeats, Wilde, and others, revealing folklore and faerie tales. Our guide introduced herself and helped us find a hidden door to the next mysterious room.
Story after story, room after room, she told tales of the wee folk. She was very good at what she did. Using simple effects and minimal props, the overall experience was theatrically effective. Afterwards, I had a long talk with the manager of the place. He and his financier were educated in theater and Irish fictional literature.
When I came out from the darkened warehouse building of magical and transformed rooms, I didn’t know where to go next. I didn’t have the energy to see the Book of Kells or Trinity College, which are typical tourist destinations. Instead, I wandered around the streets, bought an inexpensive travel bag to carry my blanket home on the plane, and ate a vegetarian wrap for lunch. It tasted like California, where I would soon be returning. Tired and overwhelmed by the urban chaos, I searched for the parking garage, paid the exorbitant fee, and drove out onto the streets of Dublin, daring to find the final Airbnb that I had booked before my trip.
It took two whole hours to find the middle-class, suburban brownstone house where I had booked my final night. I was getting frustrated that her place was so far from downtown Dublin (which is not what was advertised). I finally found her house tucked within a network of streets with no visible street signs. It was definitely not simple for a foreigner to negotiate. I question the motives of those running Airbnb’s. It is good for them financially, but not always convenient or practical for the traveller.
I finally pulled into the driveway and was invited in by my hostess, offered tea, and asked to sit down and visit for a while. She was a talker. I learned many things about her contemporary, urban Irish life. After visiting for over an hour, she offered to drive me around the area where she lived and show me the sights. I liked the idea of being driven around, even though I was exhausted from the drive and the city.
As we drove off in her car, I found it strange to be sitting on the right in the passenger seat with no steering wheel in front of me. At this time in the evening, there was less traffic. This was another side of Dublin, and it was good to not be downtown. One constant observation throughout my trip was that Irish people like to walk. Many people were out strolling along the sand. The weather was pleasant, only cooling down a little bit. This may have something to do with being on the east side of Ireland where the weather doesn’t come directly off the ocean. We walked along a long beach and watched the ever-changing sky turn pink and purple as the sun was setting on my last evening on the Emerald Isle.
I woke up on the last day of August and had to figure out how to pack all my things into two small bags and a daypack. My hostess was up early making breakfast. When I came downstairs with my bags, she was cooking, with the radio blasting Ravel’s “Ballero.” She asked, “How many eggs?” I told her only one, but she fixed two. I decided it wasn’t rude to not eat all of it. She wrote down directions to the airport, starting some distance away from her house. She then said she was going to drive me through her complicated neighborhood until the written directions began, and that the rest of the way would be easy.
We said goodbye from car to car at an intersection, and I made my final drive in my little rental on the busiest highway in Ireland to the Dublin airport. Returning the car went quickly. I looked at my mileage total. After converting from kilometers, it was just over 2,000 miles! No wonder I was tired. After a long and quiet wait in the Aer Lingus terminal, I boarded the plane and realized it was time to bid farewell to Ireland. As we lifted off, I looked back at this jewel of an island and was so glad I had finally made it there. My whirlwind tour of winding, narrow roads, gorgeous vistas, rugged coastlines, lush green pastures, and charming towns with polite people who play music, and sing, and drink whiskey and Guinness, was over. I was heading home. I hope I can return someday. Ireland is surely a part of me now.