It’s been with great reluctance that I write about Kilkenny, the second last town we visited on our trip. Dublin, our final destination, was a 14-hour whirlwind and we were sleeping for five of those hours so it almost doesn’t count. Kilkenny was the place where we truly said goodbye to the welcoming, community-oriented spirit of Ireland. Perhaps that’s why our night in Kilkenny went on longer than any of our others.
But first, the beginning, which of course includes getting tragically lost. We leave Ann and Peter’s after a long goodbye over breakfast and many pronouncements that we will be back sooner rather than later if we can figure out a way to afford it. I declare that I’m willing to sacrifice buying new shoes (with the exception of running shoes) if it means we can come back next year.
This is the hottest day of our trip, another scorcher, and Dave has to cover his driving arm with his jacket again. We are beyond kissed by the sun. My forehead is peeling and Dave’s is hot pink. We spend most of the early afternoon walking the grounds of the Rock of Cashel, a stunning fortress and abbey that is one of Ireland’s most spectacular archaeological sites.
The fortress sits atop a prominent green hill on the outskirts of the town. The area includes a complete round tower, a roofless abbey, a 13th century cathedral, and a cemetery. I take gobs of photos which we’ll post on a shared website at some point soon.
I also learn from the guide book that Cashel is the home of the fictional Sister Fidelma, a 7th century crime-fighting nun in Peter Tremayne’s mystery series. I remind myself to mention this to my mom and Dave’s mom as they both love a good mystery and Sister Fidelma is considered the Miss Marple of the Dark Ages.
Once again, we wait too long for lunch and we’re starving when we arrive at an overcrowded pub. We sit at an un-bussed, dirty table for about ten minutes before I ask a bartender if we need to order at the bar. She says to sit at a table where we’re sitting. We wait another 15 minutes and no one comes around. We decide to head elsewhere and find a less-crowded pub. Dave gets what has now become his regular lunch fare – egg mayonnaise sandwich. I get a toasted cheese sandwich.
Then it’s off to Kilkenny we go. We hit Kilkenny’s main thoroughfare at rush hour. The streets are jammed and it’s hot and, yes, we’re tragically lost once again. Clare tells us we’ve arrived at our B&B but we’re at the end of a road looking at a detour sign. Hmmmmm. I call Nuala, the B&B operator. She attempts to give us directions after I tell her we’re passing a florist and a butcher and we passed the glorious medieval Kilkenny Castle a few minutes ago. She rattles off some directions and tells me to call back if we can’t find our way. Of course, we can’t. So I call back and tell her the shops that are on either side of the road. She says “go up the lane a bit and you’ll see a car park. Stop there and I’ll come get you.” Before I can object, she hangs up so we find the car park and wait. A few minutes later, Nuala shows up in her Volvo and leads us to the B&B. In true Irish fashion, we’re a mere mile away and we actually passed the B&B when we first entered town. Bad Clare, bad bad Clare had steered us in the wrong direction at the first roundabout.
We set out for pints and dinner around 6 p.m. Nuala is extra careful in explaining how to walk back into town. She gives us a map and marks it up extra heavy with black ink, most likely terrified that we’ll end up tragically lost in Kilkenny for the rest of our lives. The guidebook recommended Matt the Miller’s for a lively night out but when we arrive we are the only customers. No worries, we have 59 other pubs to explore if we want to.
We share a plate of veggie nachos and order pints of Kilkenny, the local brew. Our table has a view of the River Nore and a group of teenagers entertain us and other curious onlookers as they jump off the bridge.
The pub wasn’t filling up so we move on to The Playwright for another pint but the crowd here is minimal. Nuala suggested the Kyteler’s Inn, the 1324 house presumably haunted by Kilkenny’s witch whose four husbands had a knack for poisoning themselves on their first anniversaries, so we decide to check it out. What we first think is a trad session turns out to be a one guy playing some covers, mostly American tunes. Dave and I request several trad songs and he says he doesn’t know them. Boo-hiss to that. We text our friend Brian for more suggestions. Only one request gets through. He’s finishing up his set but we’re not ready to finish the night. Dave goes to the restroom and returns with a new friend, the one, the only Davey Cashin.
It happens to be Davey’s birthday and he tells us his gang is going to The Fields where there will be a band and the craic will be going strong. We’d noticed Davey with his buddies in the Kyteler. They were all slapping each other in the face and laughing it up so we figured this would be a good crew to follow. Little did we know that we’d end up in their slapping game an hour later.
The Fields, named after the play by John B, Keane, is hopping. The lead singer of the band looks like an older version of Dave’s best buddy and former bandmate Sean Rhiney so we immediately feel at home. Davey and crew enter the scene and order up a new round of pints. In short order, we drink pints, link arms, and get slapped in the face.
We’re not sure of the exact origin of the slapping game but Davey and friends give each other slight slaps, and then declare “you can’t get mad!” Dave Purcell takes a slap from Davey and then one from Davey’s friend Seamus. Game on. Now, the thing is, you have to be “level” before you leave the bar. So Dave owes them slaps. I get and give some slaps. A woman at the bar joins in the fun. Soon we’re all dodging slaps and getting level with each other. The good news? No one gets mad. Not even a little bit. We discuss who in the hell we’d be able to play this game with in the States without starting a brawl in the bar.
The game goes on. And on. Near the end, Davey slaps Dave about ten times in a row. The pub is getting ready to close up so there’s not a lot of time to get level but Dave is able to do so. I get slapped by Davey and decide to give him a kiss on the cheek in return. He declares it the most brilliant move of the night. As we’re exchanging emails, Seamus mentions that Davey is in a band called The Kilkennys. We discover he’s an accomplished tin whistler, singer, and all-around grand musician. And here we’ve been slapping him six ways to Tuesday. No matter. We’re all level now so we thank our new Kilkenny pals for a fabulous night and make our way to the B&B. It quickly becomes apparent that we don’t know if we’re heading in the right direction and…well…after all of the pints Davey and crew supplied us with, we’re wobbling down the cobblestones. A nice man in a cab pulls up and saves the day. And just like always, we’re a mere half mile away from the B&B.
The morning’s breakfast is more welcome than ever and I opt for scrambled eggs and toast, a first for the trip. I needed something to soak up the beer. We’re tired but our shopping opportunities have been scant so I suggest we go to the Kilkenny Design Centre where I find most everything friends and family had asked me to bring back.
Our final evening is spent in Dublin but, in our memories, Kilkenny is our grand goodbye to the country we’ve fallen in love with. We know it’s not a matter of if we’ll come back to Ireland someday; the only questions are when and how soon.
The Babo Rating (1 cookie being Tragic!; 5 cookies being Brilliant!) A bakery filled with cookies to Davey and Seamus for introducing us to their slapping game
5 cookies to the kids jumping from the bridge
5 cookies to Nuala for rescuing us from another episode of Lost, the Ireland series
Absolutely no cookies to the fact that we have less than 24 hours left in the country
It’s the first day of June and the weather is again glorious. We’re getting the feeling that all of this sunshine is not the natural state of weather affairs in Ireland but we’re not complaining. I decide I can’t leave Dingle without a quick run — and another gander at the sheep grazing nearby — so I get up before Dave and jog around the bay. The only people out this early are those at the docks preparing their boats for fishing and possibly those who never went home from the pubs in the first place. My knee holds up for about two miles and I walk-jog back to the B&B just in time for breakfast.
Back in the car we go and we’re on our way to see our friends, Ann and Peter. Peter is a Dublin native and Ann hails from Cleveland. We met them in Chicago, where Dave and Ann worked together at SPSS back in the late 90s. Ann is a technical writer by trade but is also working on fiction so we’re both unapologetic about our book geekery and about our desire to get the seven-figure book deal so we can relieve ourselves of the corporate grind. Peter is a former computer pro who is now a fabulous and award-winning landscape photographer. See (and buy) his work here. Not only do we have a lot in common with them from philosophical, political, and dog-loving standpoints, they also were the buyers of our old Mercury Tracer, the very car that Ann used when she learned to drive a stick shift.
We have a list of questions for our friends, including, “how can we stay in Ireland forever” but the questions will have to wait until we stop in Killarney for a bite to eat.
Dave is sporting a lovely sunburn on his driving arm, the one hanging out the right-side window of the car. I’ve got a similar thing going on with my left arm but it’s not as severe. He puts his raincoat on his driving arm to keep it from burning any worse. When we get to Killarney, the headlines on the local newspapers say, “It’s A Scorcher!” And yes, in Ireland, journalists are allowed to use exclamation points with abandon, unlike newspapers in the states where my old Associated Press Style Book declares the exclamation point an abomination that should rarely be used. I decide Ireland would be the perfect place for me to be a journalist since I’m a big fan of exaggeration and the appropriately used exclamation point which, in the case of this bizarre weather trend, is definitely appropriate. Ann later confirmed that they have not seen a stretch of sunny skies like this in at least two years.
We eat lunch at Mac’s on Main. I have cream of mushroom soup (sorry, Ann, I know you hate the thought of mushrooms) and Dave has another egg mayonnaise sandwich (i.e. egg salad). We are both ridiculously relaxed and talk about how coming home will be an adjustment; our regular overloaded schedules seem like a nightmare we’d rather forget. We talk about the things we’re learning from our trip and what we’ll carry back with us. So far, we’re learning that we need to focus on the things that matter most and get better about saying no to the things that don’t. We’ve learned that we need to keep a better eye on stress-creep and not let it overflow into every aspect of our daily routine. We’ve also been reminded how important community is to us; it’s something the Irish seem to instinctively understand and value. This heavy conversation takes place over Dave’s dessert of strawberry rhubarb crisp with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream.
Here’s the other thing about Ireland: my freak magnetism is polarized. I don’t attract the Irish freaks. Stunning. In the states, this guy playing Irish tunes with his band of marionettes and puppets would’ve followed me down the street, told me his life story, and asked if he could stay with us in our B&B because I’m that much of a freak magnet. Thus the reason I can’t attend circuses or festivals without some form of a bodyguard. Oh, and also baseball games whereupon the mascot always, always, always finds me.
After walking off our lunch in Killarney and attracting zero freaks, we pull out Ann’s directions which are two pages, single-spaced. Laugh all you want but these are the finest and grandest directions and ensure that we will not get as tragically lost as we have been. Our friends live in Ballingeary, a small town with two pubs, a hotel, and an eternal stretch of greenness. They’re an hour west of Cork where Ann works.
We’re not sure what to expect but we’re not all that surprised when we pull up to their lovely home nestled into the countryside, complete with cows grazing in a field near their driveway. We sit in the front yard soaking in the sun while throwing toys to Toby, the more rambunctious of their two dogs.
Callie, a huge Irish Wolfhound, is happy to get a few pats on the head and nudge her head under your arm when your petting wanes.
I ask about the cows: “Food or pets?” I know the answer is food. We’re in Ireland’s countryside and no one is keeping cows because they’re cute and cuddly. It turns out the cows belong to their landlord who raises them but doesn’t do the finishing. Finishing sounds far more palatable than the word we use in America: slaughter. Peter tells us that if there would ever be a problem with the meat purchased from the butcher, that butcher could probably trace the issue back to the actual cow. And here is one of those moments we know we’re very far away from most of America where people have zero clue where the food they eat every day came from. But that’s another blog for another day. We’re on vacation.
Ann treats us to a fantastic risotto for dinner while we fire off question after question about living in Ireland. In short order, we find out that there is no overtime in Ireland. You work your hours and that’s that. Our suspicion that the Irish have a “work to live” versus a “live to work” mindset is confirmed. We sigh at the mere thought of no overtime and being around people who aren’t so wrapped up in their job that they have time for nothing else. Ann admits that she was stymied for story ideas when she lived in the States. Now that she’s in Ireland, she can barely keep up with the steady stream of ideas and characters and conflicts knocking around the right side of her brain. I give a double sigh and “seethe with jealous rage,” an Ann-ism I picked up in the first hour we were with them.
We eat and chat, and Dave takes Peter up on his offer of a nippy-tasty – a shot of Scotch – after dinner. The next day is a work day for Ann and the sun and general quietude of the countryside has worked its magic. We turn in around 11 a.m. and I fall asleep looking at the nearly full moon that’s positioned perfectly in the middle of the skylight.
Dave opted for eggs at breakfast but I went for the ludicrously tasty Crunchy Nut cereal. Here’s one of many things I love about Ireland – people pepper their conversations with adjectives and adverbs that are much more rich and colorful than ours. Our great is their grand. Our excellent is their brilliant. Our bummer is their tragic. Our flavorful is their ludicrously tasty. Try getting that statement through the legal department at any U.S. ad agency. Not gonna happen. I can barely use the word “great” or “best” because that’s too much of a “claim” that needs to be verified and confirmed by Jesus and his 12 apostles before it makes it to print.
Our options for the day are plentiful and much to Ann’s dismay, we select Kinsale, the town she says is too much like the south of France. No wonder our foodie friend Sean recommended it here. The guide books tell us that the town may very well be the only place in Ireland with more restaurants than pubs. And both Sean and our friend Brian recommended Fishy Fishy for lunch. Dave and I are neither foodies nor fish eaters but I like saying Fishy Fishy so we’re settled on that spot.
Peter puts on his tour guide hat and drives us to Kinsale, giving Dave a chance to relax and see more of the countryside instead of worrying about hitting an oncoming cow trailer, tractor or stone wall. Thanks to Peter’s ludicrously excellent driving skills, we make it to Kinsale in time for the second last harbor cruise of the day. Again the weather gods bless us with an insanely brilliant day, enough so that Peter douses his fair Irish skin in something like SPF 90,000.
The harbor tour is about 30 minutes and we get a good look at the 17th century Charles Fort, and also learn that, in 1915, the Lusitania was sunk just off Kinsale’s Old Head. It also seems like Kinsale had the misfortune of being invaded about every other month by the Spanish or the English or some pissed off Protestants looking for something to pillage. It also appears that Kinsale has not figured out their version of Dingle’s Fungi the Dolphin so our wildlife sightings are limited to a few sea birds and cranes.
After our history lesson we of course head off to Fishy Fishy for lunch and what has now become a constant stream of questions for Peter to answer. It’s a good think Peter has the patience of several saints and doesn’t mind the battering ram of who, what, why, where, when and how. Also, Peter showed me a few easy ways to take better photographs than I’d been taking. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the quick lesson.
Back in Ballingeary, we pick up Ann and the pooches and take a walk in the Gougane Barra. In some ways the forest felt familiar with its tall pine trees and mountain views, as if we were in the Smokies or the Rockies yet the green moss and ferns were so strikingly green, we knew this was like nothing we’d seen before. Oh, and Peter our fabulous fount of Irish trivia informed us that we were passing through one of the quietest places in all of Ireland. I hated to tell him that the silence was soon to be broken since I was there and, well, I’m not what you’d consider quiet.
Ann kept Callie on her leash but Toby ran free picking up sticks to be tossed up the trail. He attempted to pick up several fallen trees with trunks thick as telephone polls but resorted to sticks much more his size.
Our long walk was rewarded with pizza, handmade by Ann using her Kitchen Aid mixer, the envy of all Ballingeary and possibly County Cork. Trust me, the whole town is seething with jealous rage over Ann’s mixer, including me. Dave tossed back a couple of pints but I appreciated the break from our daily Guinness and Smithwick’s. We sat on the comfy chairs in the comfy living room as Peter treated us to a slide show of his work, also the envy of all Ballingeary and most likely the whole Emerald Isle. Following the slide show, we were treated to two episodes of Father Ted, the 1990s BBC comedy about three Irish priests living on the fictional Craggy Island. If you grew up Catholic, this is a must-must-must series to rent. As Father Ted says, go on, go on, go on and rent it. But careful now! You will laugh so hard you’ll need to watch each episode twice to be sure you’ve caught all the comedy.
Peter supplies us with another most appreciated factoid: the show started a bit of a holy war between the Aran Islands of Inis Mor and Inis Orr, both of which claim to be the rightful home of Craggy Island. Now there’s a big Craggy Island World Cup to determine who gets to be Craggy Island for the year and there’s a Ted Fest in honor of Dermot Morgan (Father Ted) who died in 1998 from a heart attack at age 45.
Ann and Peter, thanks for being such wonderful hosts! And yes, we’re still seething with jealous rage over your house, your mixer, your photography skills, and the fact that you live in the most beautiful country we’ve ever visited.
The Babo Rating (1 cookie being Tragic!; 5 cookies being Brilliant!)
A factory of cookies (without mushrooms) to Ann and Peter, a ludicrously fabulous couple.
Several dozen cookies to Toby and Callie who never found me in the suitcase and decided I would be a ludicrously scrumptious plaything.
5 cookies to Kinsale, that lovely harbor town
5 cookies to the Gougane Barra and the discovery that The Waterboys actually reference the Gougane Barra in their rendition of This Land Is Your Land. Finally we know what they’re saying!
p.s. 1 cookie for my plot to mail myself back to Ballingeary. I checked and I fit in the mail slot. But then I thought about Toby and Callie awaiting my arrival on the other side of the door and that might get ludicrously tragic so I need a new plan.
We get a late-morning start out of Doolin and follow Ann’s advice to drive the N69 to the Killimer Car Ferry to get to Dingle, our final destination for the day. The weather – again – is tres gorgeous and Dave and I are both acquiring a tan. We expected to come home with wool sweaters, a cap, and some trinkets for our families but never did we expect to land back in the States with a Florida-esque tan.
Despite the sun, the day is still a bit chilly so we’re dressed appropriately for the 20-minute ride across the Shannon Estuary. Estuary? I think that means it’s the mouth of a river but I’m not up on my river vocabulary and maritime terminology so I look it up. An estuary is a semi-enclosed coast body of water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea. They are made up of brackish water. Awesome. As we’re making our passage, I tell Dave I could take a ferry every day over brackish water because this brack is so peaceful. There’s something soothing about spending 20 minutes listening to the whir of the ferry’s engine while staring into the brackish-ness. Dave starts singing “Don’t Pay the Ferryman” by Chris de Burgh which sort of ruins the moment, but only for a moment. (p.s. we did pay the ferryman and he was very nice about taking our euros).
We disembark from the ferry and head to Listowel, a stop our friend Ann recommended for lunch. Listowel also happens to be County Kerry’s mecca for writers and we arrive during Listowel Writers Week. Woo-hoo! Not only am I in the country of some of my all-time favorite authors but there are actual Irish writers walking about the town. I pretend I’m one of them.
Once again, with time being fluid and all, we arrive in Listowel around 2 p.m. and Dave is ready to eat Babo or anything resembling a plate of chips. Given that it’s a special week, parking is at a premium so he quickly slides into a spot and the high curb greets the hubcap with a lovely scraping-scratching-head-turning crunch. Uh-oh. It turns out to be the only damage the rental car suffers through our trip. After inspecting the slightly crumpled hubcap, we walk through the town square where street musicians are playing, of all things, Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.”
Unlike Springsteen, these guys have pint holders on their mic stands and they’re all filled with an afternoon pint of Bulmer’s cider. Empty cider glasses line the bench behind them confirming the fact that it’s always happy hour somewhere. We check the menus of a few cafes and decide on Lawlor’s where we order the cauliflower, leek and cheese soup. I love it but the leeks end up not loving my stomach.
We walk about the town square and visit the Kerry Writing and Cultural Centre which is packed with writerly types for the special week. The museum portion of the center is closed (kind of) on account of the workshops but I’m not to be stopped so I head upstairs to the special rooms dedicated to some of Ireland’s finest including John B Keane, Bryan MacMahon, and Brendan Kennelley, among others.
Remnants of the morning’s workshops remain in some of the rooms including plates of cookies and Dave helps himself to two sugar cookies as I scan the displays in each room. Babo obviously approves of the cookie stealing. There’s a reading going on downstairs but it’s standing room only and nearly 4 p.m. and we need to make our way to Dingle which means one more hour of driving and then another hour of trying to find the Towerview B&B because, once again, the directions are as vaguely outlined as the Shroud of Turin: Arriving in Dingle, turn left on the first roundabout and go along the waterfront. Turn right on the second roundabout. Our B&B is the second house on the left. It’s as if everyone arrives in Dingle from the same direction which isn’t the case.
Our track record for getting lost to the B&B remains in tact. We arrive in lovely, lovely Dingle and take the main drag as Clare directs us and as our Shroud of Turin seems to indicate as well. We end up in the parking lot of a church. Maybe God is trying to tell us something – hey, lapsed Catholics, it’s time you get your heathen selves back to a church and not just for picture-taking.
We call Mary Griffin, our B&B hostess and tell her we’re tragically lost because we now know that’s the way to describe it. She says, “oh no, you should not be spending your time driving all around Dingle when you’ve just arrived. Now I’m going to take you the long way because that is the only way to get you out of this mess. It’s a long, long way but once you’re at the B&B, you’ll see that you’re only a short walk from the center of town.”
The long, long way turns out to be two miles max. We’re greeted by a marigold B&B and Penny, a black and white border collie who is ready to herd all guests to the door with a happy doggie smile and a wagging tail. We are desperate for dog love and give Penny a major rubdown.
In the back yard and across the street are sheep, ponies, and a few chickens. This is my kind of place. Mary loads us up with maps of Dingle and the surrounding area along with pub recommendations, of which there are more than 50 to choose from; this is our kind of town. It’s a Saturday night and a bank holiday weekend so Mary warns us the town will be packed and there will be many a hen and stag party. I’m thinking, what? They let the chickens come to the pubs here? But she explains that hen parties are akin to our bachelorette parties and the hens (women) will be dressed up in their weekend finery as they crawl from pub to pub.
We decide on Murphys and walk into town. What strikes me as more odd than my suntan is that there are small palm trees dotting the landscape. I keep forgetting we’re near the ocean. I’m eyeing Dingle Bay for Fungi (fun-ghee) the Dolphin who’s made the town famous. You see, in the early 1980s, Dingle fishing crews began noticing a bottlenose dolphin following their boats and playing around them. Now, eleven tourist boats go out every day in the summer and wait for Fungi to appear. If he doesn’t you get your money back. Dave is convinced it’s a total sham and that the original Fungi died years ago and that there are fifteen Fungis hidden all over Dingle Bay that do the job now. Fungi never appears to us but we also didn’t get in a Fungi tour boat to see him.
Murphy’s is crowded but we find two stools at the bar. I order up a plate of steamed vegetables and Dave gets an egg salad sandwich and chips. I decide I’m going to brave a pint of Bulmers. Brave as I can be, I’m unable to get the cider below the halfway point before trading it in for a Smithwick’s. The band begins their trad session and we stay for awhile. A guy from Australia comments on Dave’s “You Am I” t-shirt and says how much he loves the band.
After dinner and a pint or two we move on to check out Dick Mack’s, the former haberdashery-turned-pub. Here the crowd is lively and in the back room the hen and stag party crowd is singing Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley. Dave goes to check it out and I queue at the bar where I’m joined by Tony, a short Irish man wondering if we’re from America. By this time in the trip, we’ve realized that as much as we’d like to think our Irish roots allow us to blend in with the natives, we still look very much the Americans. He begins telling Dave and I about his brief time in Seattle. We have trouble following the story, not because we can’t understand his accent but because his story seems to have a fair amount of holes in it. From what we gather he tried to get into the country illegally and got caught but we listen and nod.
Meanwhile, I’m captivated by the fact that I’m drinking a pint while sitting on the old cashier’s counter. Behind me on the shelves are a pair of rubber wellies, a few tattered oxfords, a bottle of shoe polish and a crumpled can of mushy peas. Everything makes sense except the can of peas. Dingle is turning out to have the same friendliness and vibrancy as Galway yet it feels a little smaller here and a little more close-knit. We converse with a guy from Paris who’s on holiday. He’s a photographer but his specialty is architecture. He’s having a blast capturing the atmosphere at Dick Mack’s. We begin talking about the overall low-stress vibe everywhere we go in Ireland and he agrees, telling us that everyone in Paris is too uptight. We close down Dick Mack’s with the regulars except we don’t we’re closing down the pub because, in Ireland, las call is not called out like it is in the States.
We wobble out of the pub and see the joke on the door next to Dick Macks. This about sums up how directions are given in Ireland: Where is Dick Macks? Opposite the church. Where is the church? Opposite Dick Macks.
As our friend Matt O’Connor advised us on our first night in Galway: “We know where we’re going so what’s the problem?”
The morning’s breakfast is a godsend after a late night out, and I eat an extra piece of toast hoping that will sop up the remaining Bulmers in my system from the night before. Today is the day when we officially hit the wall and it’s also the day that the weather is tremendously brilliant. We’ve been going non-stop since our flight touched down and Dingle, with its casual attitude, is like a sedative. But there are ancient ruins to see as well as stunning views of the peninsula along R559 to Slea Heag. After considering a few of the more ambitious options, we decide we’ll take a drive around the peninsula, do a little shopping in town, and relax by the bay.
Here’s the point in the trip where I simply cannot contain my love for the sheep any longer. Everywhere I look there are sheep. Not just sheep but sweet little lambs that Dave keeps calling “food” but I’m ignoring it because, in my head, every sheep I see is used solely for wool sweaters and nothing else. And leave the lambs out of this; they are insanely cute trotting next to their mothers. I concoct a plan whereupon we buy a B&B, raise some lambs in the backyard, and every day at 5 p.m., Alice and Macy would put on a sheep herding show. Oh, and I’d make my famous vegetarian biscuits and gravy so we’d be a hit with the vegetarian tourists.
The first ruin is the Dunberg Fort that’s been in existence since800 AD. The fort is from the Iron Age and is perched atop a sheer sea cliff at the base of Mount Eagle. The photo above is the view from the fort. All around the fort are, you guessed it, sheep grazing in the green, green grass. I can barely stand how damn cute they are.
From Dunmore Head you can see the Blasket Islands. You can’t quite see it in the photo above but in the distance is a twisty lane down to the beach where we got stuck like Chuck behind a bunch of cars. Dave had to back the car uphill for about a quarter mile. It turned out to be one of the most stressful moments of driving.
This is the point where we’re both too tired to go on so we turn around and head back to town. I shop a little, Dave gets honeycomb ice cream which is really caramel, and we sit on some rocks and stare at Dingle Bay. Dave nearly falls asleep but I’m searching the water for Fungi. Here’s the thing: whenever we go on vacation, I never see wildlife. Never. It’s like all the animals know I’m coming and decide to play a big joke on me and hide. I swear if we ever went to Yellowstone, I’d be the only person to never see a bear or even an elk. No wonder I’m so attached to the sheep! At least they don’t hide.
For dinner, we choose the Blue Zone, a gourmet pizza place where we fill up on garlic bread and pizza with goat cheese and roasted red peppers. I am full and tired by my second slice and think it’s going to be an early night. Dave suggests going to Foxy John’s for at least one pint. This is a converted hardware store but not nearly as lively yet as Dick Mack’s. Our good pal Tony happens to be there and we wave to him from across the room. The hens are out in full force and we’re watching the parades of bubble skirts and dresses and women tripping along the cobblestone streets in their high heels. The fashion in Ireland? It’s something, I’m just not sure what that something is. The women dressed for the hen parties seem to prefer a bubble skirt or tiered skirt with a wide belt. I’m talking wrestler-belt wide. And the heels. And lots and lots of eye shadow, typically in the same shade as the dress.
We’re feeling a little torn down and slightly old in the Foxy John’s crowd so we head back to Murphy’s. A duo is getting ready to play and we have a good laugh because they look like an older version of our friends and fellow musicians, Mark Messerly and Brian Ewing. I suggest we go stand in back and this is when I get my second wind.
We end up staying all night and dancing with some of the locals as well as a couple from England. Dingle is a small town, made even smaller when we notice that a couple that was in the row across from ours on the flight from JFK to Shannon is also in the crowd. We’ve been in Ireland almost five days and we’ve been traveling about and here is a couple from our flight? We also run into a family staying at our B&B and hang out with them for a bit. It’s a super end to our stay in Dingle. Galway still remains number one in our visit but Dingle is a solid number two. Even if Fungi didn’t show his dorsal fin.
The Babo Rating (1 cookie being Tragic!; 5 cookies being Brilliant!) All of my cookies go to the sheep …
except I’ll give 5 to the captain of the Shannon Dolphin (ferry) to make sure we had a safe passage and another 5 cookies each to Dick Macks and Murphys for the endless pints and craic.
Dance there upon the shoreWhat need have you to careFor wind or water’s roar?
-To A Child Dancing in the Wind, William Butler Yeats
Doolin is a three-pub town but don’t let the size and the population of 200 permanent residents fool you. There’s an Upper Village and a Lower Village, all along the same main drag and about a half-mile apart from each other. If there is drama or competition between the two villages, the locals kept it a secret from us. This is a small but mighty town when it comes to Irish traditional music. It’s a must-stop for music fans and fellow travelers who enjoy bunking in hostels or camping by the ocean shore, or for those who want an easy stop-off before or after a trip to Ireland’s gem, the Cliffs of Moher.
This was our kind of town after a full day of driving from Galway through the Burren to the Cliffs. But first the Cliffs. Or rather, the drive to the cliffs. This is where we start to mistrust our trusty GPS named Clare.
First she treats us to the lovely Dunguaire Castle plunked down near Kinvarra for our viewing pleasure some time in the 16th century. We stop to swoon over the castle and the surrounding countryside that is, on this spectacular sunny day, positively storybook perfect and filled with every shade of green imaginable. It’s like being in the green section of the PMS swatchbook.
We begin to drive through the Burren, a rocky region that stretches across County Clare. I liken this unique limestone landscape to being on the moon, only the moon has sprouted clusters of beautiful pink, yellow, and purple flowers. Oh, and also a few cows and sheep and the occasional brave cyclist making his way up the steep twisties. The guidebook describes the Burren this way: The pavements, known as clints, lie like huge scattered bones across the swooping hills. Between the seams of rock lie narrow fissures known as grykes that support exquisite wildflowers. Tres groovy.
We bisect the Burren via a narrow highway and we’re thinking happy thoughts about cows and sheep and moving to Galway when Clare instructs us to turn right, but turning right looks like we’ll be heading west on the road to perdition (that would be eternal damnation) or quite possibly to Grandpa O’Malley’s house and we all know Grandpa O’Malley doesn’t tolerate trespassers. We drive down a few lanes and continue taking Clare’s instructions but are increasingly convinced that Clare has set us down in an Irish version of Deliverance. It’s then that Dave hits the brakes to avoid an unfortunate incident with a cattle trailer. I’m looking into the overgrown hedgerow on my left, waiting for a bull to burst through any second because he knows the sound of the trailer means good feed back at the trough. We wait and wait and then the farmer closes the trailer and drives on, after waving a friendly hello to us. We pull over the first chance we get and recalculate the route (twice) but Clare keeps giving us the same directions. When in Ireland, do as Clare says so we forge ahead.
You’ve seen them in every Ireland tourist brochure or advertisement you’ve come across. So you think you’re prepared to see them live and in person. It’s just some big old cliffy-rocky-steep-thingee. It’ll be just like seeing the Rocky Mountains or Bryce Canyon or Mt. Hood or some national treasure in the States. Um….negatory, Houston.
Located in County Clare, the cliffs rise in majestic formation from the Atlantic Ocean and stretch nearly five miles like a giant’s set of dominos. The highest point is more than 700 feet above the ever-churning waves and jagged rocks below. They give going vertical an entirely new meaning. To say the wind here is unrelenting is an understatement.
Here was the general conversation the first half hour we were there: Wow (which sounds very much like “ow-ow-ow” in the wind).
And my stock proclamation whenever I’m stunned by nature … The earth is freaking awesome.
Now, that’s what we’re murmuring out loud. Inside my stupified head I’m praying, “Jesus Mary and Joseph and all the saints, cherubim and seraphim, please for the love of all that is holy and good do not let me trip and fall over that edge to my untimely death when I haven’t found a wool sweater yet and certainly haven’t had enough pints of Smithwick’s. I beg you to let that last batch of greasy, late-night takeaway chips that must weigh five extra pounds in my stomach keep me grounded here on god’s oh-so-impossibly-green earth so this ferocious wind doesn’t send me somersaulting in a not so graceful way into the Atlantic Ocean. Amen. Oh, and I lied to my parents when I was in high school but I’m sure you can forgive a girl that sin right now as I’m hanging on to this little patch of dirt for dear life. Amen again.”
Here’s the thing: there’s a safe viewing area with a nice stone wall and then there’s a sign warning you to go beyond that point at your own risk and then there you are passing the sign la la la, utterly convinced that if those mini dots that look like people can brave it out with no safety rails then you can too. It’s a grand study in social behavior – tell the people they can’t go out there, and out they go anyway.
So I embrace the wind-blown look which includes a permanently sideways ponytail and we pass the warning signs. The day is crystal clear and miraculous, not a cloud for miles. Several times I brace myself and the backpack against a gust that threatens to blow me ass over appetite, as the saying goes. Meanwhile Dave hangs over the edge to get shots like the one above – it may not look intimidating but that’s probably a 400-foot drop. Dave also teases me for hugging the far side of the skinny trail but I’m known to get distracted by pretty things such as the 30,000 birds diving and playing in the wind so it is best to keep far, far from the edge. We’re about a mile out when Dave crafts the world’s worst and most clichéd short story whereupon a depressed lad comes to the cliffs to end his life and is saved by a dark-haired Galway beauty. We don’t realize until we’re back on safer ground that the Cliffs are, sadly, a watery grave for far too many folk. There are Samaritan signs with an emergency number posted around the perimeter of the cliffs. We thought the signs were similar to the ones we’ve seen in the mountains when you need to call in a rescue squad. But now the “Need To Talk To Someone” tagline makes sense.
Suddenly it’s 4 p.m. and we’ve been there for over two hours and we’re starving. And windblown to next Tuesday. We pop into the gift shop for postcards and I search for a floaty pen. These are the pens with fluid in the barrel and something that floats in the fluid. No dice. I decide I will send my own Cliffs of Moher design to the floaty pen people which will include tons of birds diving around the cliffs.
We reach Doolin proper with minimal mistrust of Clare and scarft down lunch at Gus O’Connor’s Pub where we also have one of our first encounters with a local we truly, truly can’t understand. Trouble is, she’s the server and she can supply us with better directions to the B&B seeing as ours say something to the effect of “you’ll pass the castle and then see a road so take a left.” Hmmm…I brave the brogue and ask for extra help and again am met with the, “oh, dear, you’re so far away. It’s way on the other side of town, it is. Now what you’re going to do is take the main road for a good long bit and then you’ll see a slew of signs and turn right and it’s just down the way there.” This time, I’m prepared. “How many kilometers would you say it is?” I ask. “Oh heavens, it must be 5 kilometers, I’m sure of it.”
Three miles. This could mean another half hour. But time has become fluid for us. We’re eating lunch – much to Dave’s dismay – at 4 p.m. and we’re never quite certain what time zone our brains and stomachs are in so what’s another half hour or three miles?
Once we find the Craggy Island B&B, we make the toughest decision of the night – McGann’s or McDermott’s. Adrian, our B&B owner recommended McDermott’s for the best live session on a Friday night. Given that he sits in on trad sessions now and again, we went with his reco.
We get a table near the stage since we’re an hour ahead of the music and watch the pub fill up with regulars and tourists.
Soon, two fiddlers and a bouzouki player begin. They dig right in and barely look up between songs. The woman has an incredible voice and it’s the first of many times we hear Caledonia but it ends up being the best rendition of the trip. We meet a couple from Philadelphia named Willow and Peter. Peter is a classically trained violinist and he’s intrigued by this whole fiddling thing. Reels and jigs aren’t in his vernacular but he’s thinking he may need to study up on it. They leave and we’re joined by Viola and Mauritz, two German natives but Viola now lives in Kildare. We have a tremendous conversation about politics and Obama and their hope for both America and Ireland. We close out the night and say goodnight to Doolin on the porch of our B&B where there are more stars than street lights and that’s a very, very brilliant thing.
The next morning, it’s ridiculously sunny so we shop the two or three shops in town and Dave and I score our wool sweaters, woo-boy!
Then we walk around the pier where I take another ton of photos while others, like the man above, capture their memories on canvas. Next up is the Dingle Peninsula. Whereas Galway had the nightlife and vibrancy, Doolin is incredible for its pastoral beauty and its calming nature. We’re excited to see what Dingle will offer.
The Babo Rating (1 cookie being Tragic!; 5 cookies being Brilliant!)
5 cookies for a nap after the cliffs and the bazillion stars in the sky above Doolin
5 cookies for the trad session and the first of many times we hear Caledonia
10 cookies to striking up conversations in the pubs with strangers who instantly become friends
Zero cookies to Clare for her poor sense of direction to the Cliffs. Clare will be awfully hungry in the morning
In Gaelic, Craic (pronounced crack) means party and that’s exactly what we found in Galway City, population 70,000 plus that deliriously happy couple from somewhere called Akron Ohio. Galway’s Irish name, Gaillimh, originates from the Irish word gaill, meaning ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners’ but that term didn’t resonate with us. We immediately felt like we’d walked into the city where we were always meant to live. It’s a magical place, as evidenced by the magical appearance of my dad’s luggage tag within the first few hours of our arrival.
Long story short, my mom gave us my dad’s garment bag after he died. The bag has traveled to Boulder, to the inauguration, to several sociology conferences and plenty of jaunts back to Cincinnati. We didn’t know there was a luggage tag with dad’s name and address stowed away in one of the small, zippered compartments; we never thought to look in it. So, we haul our luggage into the Ash Grove House B&B, take a quick nap to revive ourselves after the long flight and a brief episode of being tragically lost. When we head back out to explore the city, I look down near the tire of the car and see this square piece of plastic. I bend down and am greeted by my dad’s handwriting. The tag had chosen this particular moment, after nearly three years, to make its presence known. My dad always wanted to go to Ireland. I decided this was dad’s way of letting the family know he’d finally made it to the Emerald Isle, if only in spirit.
The weather is what we expected, drizzly and chilly. Being nearly June, we dress for Ireland’s summer – long-sleeved shirts, sweatshirts, raincoats with hoods. Angela, the owner of the B&B, supplies us with a map and directions to the City Centre about a half-mile away. A quick left on Presentation Street to Mill Street and over a stone bridge spanning the River Corrib puts us in the heart of Galway’s pedestrian-only thoroughfare. Brightly-colored shops intermingle with ancient stone buildings and the steady rain gives everything a waxy glow, like we’re walking through a box of crayons. One building is canary yellow, the next fire engine red, the next violet, and then cornflower blue. The cobblestone streets are crowded with shoppers and street musicians hoping for a few extra Euro from the picture-taking tourists likes us. Even though we’re running on very little sleep, we feel instantly revived by the energy around us.
Now I understood what Angela meant when she said, “The rain brings everyone out.” In the States, the rain drives us inside. In Galway, one of Ireland’s rainiest spots, no one’s spirits are dampened by eternally wet hair and soggy shoes. Dave, who loves sitting outside when it’s raining says, “I love this place. We can walk around in the rain and no one cares. This really does feel like home.”
We find the Food 4 Thought Café that we had underlined in our Ireland On A Budget guide. The book describes the café as a “real student hangout with friendly prices and plenty of vegetarian options.” We both opt for the vegan shepherd’s pie. Dave orders a cup of tea like the rest of the regulars but I choose a good old Diet Coke.
After more walking about, we duck into O’Maille’s, one of Ireland’s oldest established clothing stores where creamy hand-knit Aran sweaters are stacked floor to ceiling. I’m a tactile person and have been known to set off alarms in museums because I forget about the “DO NOT TOUCH” signs. It’s all I can not to dive headfirst into the piles of cable-knit wool. We learned from Anne, the owner, that O’Mailles employs more than 100 knitters. Most are elderly, some well into their nineties. The sweaters can take up to 200 hours start to finish, which is reason enough for the steep price tag. But if you want a seriously authentic wool sweater, this is the place to go. Ann warns us about the souvenir stores selling Aran sweaters made in China and how to tell the authentics from the fakes. But we’re actually here for Dave who is looking for a cap. He’d researched options before we left and had it narrowed down to a floppy newsboy cap – a la Mike Scott of The Waterboys – or possibly the Greek fisherman’s cap. At one point, he puts on a tweed cap and had his mother been there she would’ve fainted at the sight of him looking so much like his dad.
He has one picked out but it seems a bit snug so I dig through the stacks on the shelves. I finally find the perfect cap on the top shelf and wah-la, Dave looks fantastic in his Shandon Irish fisherman’s cap. I couldn’t justify the price of the sweaters (I know, shocking) so I choose a lime green hat, hand-knitted by Anne’s daughter, Niamh.
Our first Ireland purchases complete, we head back to the B&B for showers (why, I’m not sure, with all of the rain my hair was already an international disaster) and regroup before dinner. We decide on Mustard near the River Corrib. Dave has the sweet potato pizza which he dubs “stew on a pizza.” If you’re Dave, this is a grand thing. Roasted vegetables, a little cheese, some garlic. I have a steamy bowl of minestrone soup and spicy potato wedges.
Fully nourished, we seek out the “other nourishment” in Ireland – Guinness. We’d read about a few places in the guide books and a friend of my friend Suzanne had recommended a pub on Dominick Street called Monroe’s.
The city has a reputation for being Ireland’s cultural powerhouse which may lead some to think it would be a pretentious place filled with hipsters and posers but we found the vibe overwhelmingly pleasant and vibrant. It’s common to see young students attending the two universities there sitting elbow-to-elbow with regular work-a-day folk at the pub listening to trad (traditional Irish music). Monroe’s followed suit in this regard.
We walk into a roaring, chanting, standing-room-only crowd of young and old watching the Manchester United versus Barcelona soccer match. Little did we know (because we don’t follow soccer) that it was the World Championship game. Men and women are singing songs and pumping fists into the air. We’re confused why Galwayians would support either team but it seems most of the crowd is for Man U. Unfortunately, Barcelona takes the cup which later lead to a mini brawl in the middle of the bar. We talk to a friend of the guy who got ousted and he says, “Oh, it was only a matter of time for him. It wasn’t the question of if he would get thrown out, it was the question of when. We had bets going, don’t you know.” We talk to him a little more and he tells us he’s from County Mayo but “Galway is legend.” We couldn’t agree more.
After three pints, we decide to stay for a fourth because the beer is incredible and the craic is still going strong. I ask the band to play any Waterboys song that they know and two songs later they play “Fisherman’s Blues”, our hands-down favorite. This sends Dave and I into tears thinking about our Waterboy-loving friends like Sean Rhiney back home. It’s then that we met Matt and Mary O’Connor, Mary being the patron saint of driving instruction.
As the locals say, our first 24 hours in Galway is legend, and our remaining time there were nothing less.
Other Galway legends included:
Shiny, happy people – and only part of that shine comes from the rain. If there’s one observation we left with, it’s that people in Galway are generally happy and generally positive about life. The city exudes a positive vibe and there’s a sense of community that’s not always found in the States. It was common to see young people talking to older people at the pubs. It was also common to see young people singing along to the trad tunes and shouting every word with pride. Try finding a 21-year-old who’d do that in the States.
McDonagh’s Fish and Chips – Recommended by our friend Brian Halloran (aka Big Sugar or Sug for short), this was a must on our list. Actually, Sug didn’t recommend it as much as demand we go to the place with the “best fish and chips in all of Ireland, vegetarians be damned.” And yes, we broke our “nothing with a face” rule but we don’t want any grief over it. We’ve been vegetarians going on 20 years and we only stray when it’s an accident (as in a server neglects to tell us the soup is made with chicken stock even when we ask). How can you go to Ireland and not try the fish and chips? It’s sacrilegious.
Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed Into Heaven and St. Nicholas – Nothing like making the name of the church easy to remember. Rolls right off the tongue, it does. Our moms will be happy to know that all Mass times at ALL churches in Galway are prominently displayed at the doorway, just in case you miss Mass time and need to run across town. Here, we are in awe of the massive pipe organ and of the people stopping in on a Thursday afternoon for a quick 10-minute prayer session. I notice that the confessionals with the intimidating wooden doors are also in use. We light candles in honor of the proud Irishmen Mickey and Ed (our dads) and head toward Galway Bay where the Volvo Ocean Races were taking place.
Galway Bay in general and Hothouse Flowers on the Bay in particular – As Irish luck would have it, we are in Galway for the Volvo Ocean Races that include an outdoor concert with the Hothouse Flowers as the headliners. By this time, the wind has replaced the rain and the temperature is dipping into the upper 40s. We suit up in our usual Irish Summer gear, get our pints of Guinness and Smithwicks, and are treated to a two-hour show. Soulful, joyous, passionate, and a big ball of fun, it was. Anyone who thinks they’re another washed-up 90s act is wrong. Their last record, Into Your Heart, is fantastic. Liam O Maonlai and his mates rocked the bay.
Monroe’s, The Crane, and post-pub pizza – Monroe’s remained our favorite pub of the trip. The Crane was another grand place though we were only there for a pint after the Hot House Flowers show. And the good news? There’s a pizza-by-the-slice takeaway just around the corner from both pubs that’s not to be missed after a late night out.
The Babo Rating (1 cookie being Tragic!; 5 cookies being Brilliant!) 5 cookies for the craic at Monroe’s
5 cookies to our first perfectly-poured Guinness in Ireland!
0 cookies to the Radio Shack that gave us the wrong electric converter so we couldn’t use or charge up our various electronic devices
5 cookies to Peter Murphy’s Electric Shop where a kind man with a thick brogue handed us the converter we needed and said something along the lines of yes yes yes perfect yes very good 12 euros it’s what you need yes yes thanks very much.
A dozen cookies for being there the same night the Hothouse Flowers were playing an outdoor show for the Volvo Ocean Races
A factory of cookies for the Galway vibe