RETURN TO IRELAND – A Quarter Century Later
WEEK 1 of 2: UP THE NORTHWEST COAST
Days 1 and 2: Wednesday-Thursday October 4-5
Our great return to Ireland began with the silly rigmarole of modern air travel. As utterly ready as ready can be after days of thoughtful preparations and packing, we had but to get up and go. So we started our day exactly as usual, with quiet tea and toast – then put bags in the car and went.
At Cincinnati airport the best part was a sign saying folks over 75 need not remove their shoes when going through security. But my belt must come off. It all went as the system would have it, thousands of people were input, moved through efficiently, excreted as outputs – then a boring wait and we were airborne to Newark. Our three-hour layover there was a repeat of Cincinnati but on steroids, the most noticeable difference being an endless string of well attended bars extending down the endless concourse. E-tablets for ordering front each barstool, making barmaids and their salaries obsolete. A noticeable increase in Joisey accents included some fast-talking official announcements so thickly accented my down-home ear had no idea what they said. What if it were important?
Airborne again and into the night, I knew it would be impossible to sleep sitting upright in an airplane chair that reclines all of three inches, and it was. I remember almost dozing off once while watching a perfectly awful science fiction movie, the best option I could find. Six hours passed immobilized at 38,000 feet; perhaps it’s not quite as bad as being waterboarded. At long last, body paralyzed and day’s earliest light a promise, we glided up the Shannon, its beautiful waters and surrounding green unseeable in the early dawn, and settled safely with the slightest of bumps onto the runway. Hello again, Eire-land.
* * *
What a difference. After the megasized, bustling self importance of Cincinnati and Newark, Shannon terminal was like a peaceful, welcoming country cottage. In an otherwise empty large basement area, two people – two alone – checked our passports and welcomed us to Ireland with friendly smiles and banter.
Around the corner was the detail of getting our little economy car from Dan Dooley Auto Rentals. The free wheeler who checked us in may have been Dan Dooley Junior, but the highlight was the two Dooley employees who ferried us out to the car lot – both Russian, blabbermouth makers of bad jokes, disorganized to a fault. Ireland seems to be changing.
The roads to Lisdoonvarna
Bold letters atop the driver’s window admonish: DRIVE ON THE LEFT. I quietly commit myself to remain very conscious of this detail at all times. Drive out to the end of the airport access road and turn left – the opposite of 1991 when we turned right. Each turn, respectively, set the tone for the entire tour that followed.
Up the very busy four-lane highway to Ennis town, then off on a lesser road northwestward toward our destination Lisdoonvarna, made famous by the old Irish fiddle tune Road to Lisdoonvarna we’ve played so very many times, in medley with its natural partner Swallowtail Jig.
Arriving around 10AM local time, hours earlier than we need to, we observe that Lisdoonvarna seems a bit adapted to the tourist trade, a condition not noticed in 1991. Backtracking fifteen kilometers to the village of Kilfenora, we spend an hour at the Burren Centre, a nicely home-grown museum of the burren region’s unique geology and history of early human settlement. More on the burren later. The Centre has a pricey tea room off the pricey gift shop but we’re not in the mood for pricey soup-of-the-day: vegetable. Across all Ireland, we would discover soup of the day to be, consistently, vegetable. In Ireland all foods called “soup” are served pureed. One gets used to it.
Down the street around the curve was The Roadside Tavern where we bought, at reasonable price, perhaps the best seafood chowder I’ve met . Herself had butternut and sweet potato soup, pureed of course. And with brown bread. Our every meal in Eireland would come with brown bread. A good time was had by all.
Then ensued a complex search for lodging. Between Kilfenora and Lisdoonvarna are perhaps a hundred B&Bs. Every fourth house, it seems, offers B&B hospitality for tourists. But we could not find one for ourselves though we stopped and inquired at many – no one was home; they have no vacancies; they do not accept the particular vouchers for which we have prepaid. We are groggy from jet lag, mind you, seriously in need of some sleep and rest here a day and a half since we last slept.
By lucky accident we found Dale View B&B, owned by Steve and Izzie. They accept our vouchers though Dale View is not listed in our booklet of B&Bs that do. Steve is excited – he’s on the eve of his big stag party preparatory to wedding Izzie two weeks hence. Early tomorrow, he tells us, he’ll leave here with fourteen (14) buddies. They’ll all fly over to London where they’ll join up with that many more to hold stag court in full festivity over Steve’s impending marriage. It sounds like quite a hoot – Steve sure knows how to throw a party.
Day 3: Friday October 6
Izzie fixed our B&B breakfast this morning, serving it herself because Steve her intended was long gone. A charming practical woman apparently in her third decade and thickening, she tells us how she and Steve built the house from scratch – he doing the building, she everything else, over the past twelve years. “We wanted to be sure before we married,” she tells us. Sylvia had the pancakes, I the “light” Irish traditional breakfast. I tried to eat it all, God help me had I ordered the “regular” Irish breakfast.
On the road again. From Doolin we head back up the road to Lisdoonvarna, passing through Ballyvaugn and Kinvara to reach Galway city by noon. In Galway we found a real shopping center somewhere downtown and paused to buy shampoo plus traveling water and Digesible brand biscuits, our old standby. We also bought a cheap little prepaid telephone thingy that works only in Ireland. This well served our daily need to call ahead and reserve B&B lodgings after each day’s travels for the remainder of the trip.
Proceeding northwest from Galway we took the N59 highway through increasingly wild and sparse countryside toward our destination, the town of Clifden on the Atlantic coast. “Sparse” means people, not vegetation and certainly not water. On both sides gorse and greenery thickly coat the land while glacial lakes are just everywhere one after the other. This terrain shows what’s left after the great glaciers retreated beginning around 18-20,000 years ago, denuding the ground as they went, dropping large and small boulders everywhere.
Someone in Connemara region thinks the N59 is a disgrace that needs attention. At frequent intervals we see signs nailed high on roadside poles declaring “N59 is notoriously neglected,” “N59 is years overdue for repairs” and suchlike. Dissent, a well known Irish trait.
Downtown Clifden is a busy place crowded solid with shops, hotels, B&Bs, pubs and restaurants, all row house style. Settled into our downtown B&B, we sauntered out to survey the an lar – the town center in Irish Gaelic – and find supper. Both things happened quite naturally and I had the tastiest, creamiest seafood chowder I’ve ever encountered – too good to be true. I generously gave Herself a couple of small tastes so she could properly contrast it with her very bland vegetable soup slurry.
I find I’ve reached that point in life where a one-half-sized Guinness seems perfect. Faintly do I remember those bygone days when I actually wanted a full pint of Guinness, then perhaps another.
Out of the drizzle and back in our room, this journal is caught up. Our B&B for tomorrow night has been reserved via the little Irish telephone . The owners of this fine B&B (she knits exceedingly while watching TV, he’s from upstate New York but now of Clifden) have helped us decide tomorrow’s itinerary. Life seems filled with purpose.
I think I’ll persuade Herself to join me for an impromptu outing. I know she’ll go for it there’s a good girl, she’s always up for new adventure. We’ll just saunter up the sidewalk and see what can we get into. This trip being in celebration of my eightieth, Herself but 72, and we both being fairly agile, what could possibly go wrong?
Day 4: Saturday October 7
Postlude to Day 3
We soon quit that cool drizzly night and returned to our semi-warm room. As a general default, no room in Ireland ever quite becomes definably “warm.” The evening found all Irish men, and women, intently focused on a soccer contest between Ireland and Moldova of all places. I realize with something like absence of regret how unfair it is that we in the US seldom think about Moldova, but it’s out there. We passed a pub with a big sign out front guaranteeing Live Irish music every night. The eyes of every soul in that pub were glued to the TV bringing them the game. We retired early, music-less, grateful to be in.
Stay on the N59
Ireland won. Nationwide rejoicing today is ubiquitous, on television and evidenced by Irish flags flying in jubilation just everywhere on pubs, houses and fenceposts.
From Clifden to Balina (pronounced balley-nah) the N59 national road meanders up the west coast of Connemara region – at times in sight of the surf, often a bit further inland. About six hours driving were planned, leaving time for the way we enjoy traveling, making both planned and impromptu stops wherever and whenever we like.
First planned stop was Kylemore Abbey, a large former estate with mansion a long city block long. It’s surrounded by acres of gardens to tire one’s feet and raise one’s hunger so one will drift into Kylemore’s restaurant and conveniently adjacent gift shop. We took photos from the parking lot which they call a “car park” in Ireland, used the gift shop rest rooms and drove on. The weather was too cool and drizzly for walking gardens anyway.
Matt Molloy’s Pub
Arrived in Westport. Parked, drifted into Matt Malloy’s famous pub and looked around. We saw a perfectly ordinary small, dark and grungy pub (drinks only, no pub food) owned by he of worldwide Chieftains fame. Two barhounds held down stools and lifted glasses in serious discussion with the bartender. Matt himself wasn’t in that day. Well, we’ve been there now, don’t have to go back. Had a nice lunch – neither chowder nor soup – in a bright pleasant hole in the wall run by three cheerful ladies and patronized by a full crowd of locals, ever a good sign.
Proceeding up the N59, well marked with road signs, we missed one critical turn at the single place not so well marked. In consequence of going straight ahead instead of curving right we had an unscheduled adventure driving out the long craggy peninsula along the north side of Clew Bay – 45 minutes out, 45 back. I’m not sorry it happened, the sights were just spectacular. High barren rocky mountains very much reminding us of the Scottish highlands. I suspect these are a southwestern extension of the same geology. We pass through mile upon mile of barren moors, inhabited by nobody but sheepies which regularly wander out on the road to graze the shoulders, unfazed by auto traffic to which they seem fully adapted.
Back on course but possibly running late, we sped north then east through this strange countryside. We noticed when at last it turned back into civilization and human houses became plentiful again. Arriving in Ballina around 5:30 we soon found and settled into our B&B, then walked down past the broad river and cathedral to the downtown for supper. Had – guess what – seafood chowder. Real good. Just like those other times.
Day 5: Sunday October 8
Less driving, more exploring. Heading generally northeastward all day, we took five adventurous side trips which went as follows.
Ancient tombs and giant graves
Noting mention of ancient tombs on our map, we turned off at what seemed to be the right road. Or maybe not. Stopped by the roadside studying our map, an old black car pulled alongside. Out slowly emerged an absolute twin lookalike to Farmer Hogg in the movie Babe – rubber boots, corduroy coat, cap and all. “I saw you stopped and studyin,” he said genially, “so I figured you needed help.” He then helpfully gave directions to the old tombs, repeating them at my request. He then added one known locally as “the giant’s grave, folks call it, you might like to go see it.” So off on the very tiny side road we went as how could we not.
Then ensued perhaps 5-6 miles driving on some of the narrowest roads in the world, if you haven’t been there you wouldn’t believe it. Bounded to the south by one of the region’s spectacular treeless mountains, we soon found ourselves ascending that very mountain. Up and up on this windie one-lane track, the views getting higher and farther with each quarter mile, sheepies out in the roadway. Then a sign: “Ladies Brae.” There being nothing but wilderness in sight, we pushed on. Half a mile later we passed a sign facing the opposite direction. Looking back, we read “Ladies Brae.” Nothing – nothing whatsoever save greenery and several errant sheep lay between the two signs. I will never know what Ladies Brae was. We didn’t find the giant’s grave either, but the views were beyond description.
Someone had told us Ross’s Point would be a good place to visit. It probably was until the last ten years during which developers have moved in to improve it. The area today is turning into a high-end community of townhouses and a country club. They all look new. At the very end of the Point, however, we saw the old original Ross’s Point, including a large concrete swimming “pool” open to the sea on its tidal side. A passing local told us “when the tide comes in and fills the pool the whole village comes down here, jumping in so thick there’s no room to swim.”
My highlight at Ross’s Point was watching two guys launch a small sailboat. In an astonishing five minutes they arrived, launched the boat, pulled the trailer up and parked it, raised the sails and were tacking wind, all apparently without getting their feet wet. A moment more and they were half a mile away – out there with the other little sailboats that looked just like theirs.
Next northward and a few miles inland we found Glencar Falls, an exquisite delight. Up a paved path just a quarter mile off the small back road, the falls descends fast off the slope of a big mountain, hitting freefall for the last 75 feet or so. Across the road an astutely placed modern tea house provided the best chai latte I’ve ever met.
Up the road a ways we came to Drumcliff Church – a large and very old gothic stone structure surrounded by graves from the past three centuries. In one of these lies Ireland’s pride William Butler Yeats, 1865-1936. Alongside lies his beloved wife George, yes George, d. 1968. Sylvia took many pictures of very tall old Celtic crosses and other interesting things.
Mullaghmore Head drew us down a long and (of course) narrow side road to circumnavigate this small peninsula. Passsing first through a village which, though tiny, exhibited pub, large houses, modern hotel and an lar crowded at mid-day with thronging pedestrians, I wasn’t expecting much. But that’s where I was wrong, for immediately upon exiting the village the road turns a corner…
Extending away and out of sight, great acres of dark gray layered sedimentary rock lay at a sharply tilted angle across the strand and into the sea, great waves constantly breaking violent and foamy across them. A geologist’s dream. In places erosion had carved jagged chaotic badlands into them, inviting the passerby to climb down, live dangerously and walk all around on this rocky fairyland. We almost did – but we didn’t, mindful of how thoroughly a single small misstep in this dangerous place could spoil our trip. Besides, the road kept going higher, the cliff’s edge a breathtaking few feet away, the views ever more awesome.
One soon notices the plenitude of place names beginning with Ball and Bally all up and around Connemara region – e.g., Balleycroy, Ballaghadereen, Ballysadare, Ballintober, Ballyhaunis – conveying no doubt some nuance of Irish Gaelic unknown to me.
We got to Ballyshannon around 5:00, found our B&B and walked to town for supper. Fish and chips, a welcome change from three days of seafood chowder regardless how scrumptious. The B&B itself was wonderful, faded elegance from a bygone day now run by an aging couple, farmer and wife. A long tree-lined tunnel leads in from the highway, then one finds the manor house surrounded by bright green fields with grazing cows. Two hillsides over stand six mighty windmills, their great long blades slicing away. I asked our host if it would be all right to take a walk in the fields, to which she responded “Oh no, there’s bulls in them.” A former raiser of bulls, I immediately changed plans. Methinks we’ll sleep well in this big old under-heated room tonight.
A side note of interest: at Ballyshannon we were only a couple of miles from Ulster’s westernmost border, and that border lies only about five miles inland from the west coast. This elongated westward extension of Northern Ireland thus comes that close to cutting large County Donegal off entirely from the rest of the Irish Republic. That it does not I surmise to be because Donegal’s poor rocky ground is far less fertile, workable, valuable, than the rich green fields of Ulster.
Day 6: Monday October 9
A day of adventure – after we got far enough north for the adventures to begin. The first two hours were uneventful traveling from Ballyshannon up through Donegal town and thence through the heart of County Donegal to the city of Letterkenny. Irish place names often give me pause. At Letterkenny we paused to get oriented, the better to find our reserved B&B later in the day, and to find a pharmacy so as to purchase treatment for Herself’s eye affliction now most inconveniently timed in its return (her ophthalmologist has told her she’s got disgusting little bugs living in her eyelashes which make her look as if she had pinkeye, and she is not pleased). I oriented to Letterkenny by way of a large and remarkable sculpture made of long logs erected in the town’s first roundabout.
Continuing north on the N56 we paused at noon to enjoy a sunny tea room in the village of Creelough, then on to Dunfanaghy, a touristy village near land’s end. The land actually does end at Horn Head, a hummock of quite large mountains which form Ireland’s most northerly reach in this central part of Donegal. (Tomorrow we plan to reach the ultimate most northerly extreme in far northeastern Donegal.)
Horn Head is spectacular – not like Slieve Leag, but it cannot be forgot. Viewed from the nearby village of the same name, one sees a single mountain perhaps six miles long spread across the horizon. On the nearer low slopes are small farms and several dozen houses, shining like white spots on drab green and brown terrain. On roads the width of alleys one pulls over to accommodate occasional cars coming in as we’re going out.
The road soon dwindles to single-car width with the usual pulloffs at random intervals. We are ascending up up up, fewer and fewer houses, more and more sheep in the road. They sure know how to nibble nourishment from these craggy mountain slopes of gorse and brown vegetation a few inches high.
Up and up, then over a crest and there goes the mighty Atlantic Ocean out to the end of the world. We are perhaps three thousand feet above it. Our view of the steep bluffs and 500-foot sheer cliffs across the inlets assures us the same cliffs face our side, the steep descent to which begins some few feet beyond where we stand. Maybe our mutual acrophobia is adapting? A sign says there be puffins and other seabirds living on these wild cliffs, but they are not home today.
From this perilous height we drive around to an equally perilous height across the inlet. At road’s end we park and walk a hundred yards to the highest point in sight. The wind is considerable, stay well back from the edge. Surrounded by perilous cliffs and crashing ocean far below, we take turns taking pictures of ourselves. Retracing, I actually find our way back to the village with only one wrong turn.
Return to Letterkenny
Back south we go several miles, then left onto rural road R251 which the tourist office lady said is the more scenic way back to Letterkenny. We decide she was – mygod – ever so right.
Immediately on our left we meet Errigal Mountain. I’ve never seen anything like it. Imagine an inverted ice cream cone as wide across the mouth as it is tall. Strip it barren of everything but its native rock, then scratch that around so it runs down in great aprons and rivulets of white shale all around the mountain. Then extend one side of the mountain so it stretches out twice as far as the rest of this spectacularly steep cone, and add a tiny parking lot where brave souls can leave their cars whilst they climb Errigal. God forbid slippery shale should slide beneath their feet after they’ve reached the higher slopes, for there are no handrails and nothing whatsoever to break a falling object’s descent.
The rest of our return to Letterkenny was a landscape viewer’s feast as we drove east through the Derryveagh chain – high barren mountains on our left with an intervening mile of peat bogs all across the high valley moor through which our road wanders.
Eventually and barely noticed, the gray-brown moorscape changed to green and we found ourselves among normal farms and houses again. Population increased, and soon we were back in Letterkenny – the mountains so near yet seemingly so remote when we were among them. Found our B&B, took a walk in the waning breezy dusk, bought takeout fish and chips to carry back to our room. Tomorrow the last part of Donegal – the far northeast just across an elongated embayment, Lough Toyle, from Northern Ireland.
Day 7: Tuesday October 10
Change of plans and I’m so glad. Today came in with much fog and intermittent pelting rain on a stiff breeze. Not a good day for sightseeing Ireland’s uttermost northern coastal point on a vast peninsula with no main road and a confusing network of those tiny local roads of the type which, having proceeded, one cannot remember all the correct turns to retrace and un-proceed. So instead of going north we headed back southward and were well rewarded for it.
Retracing the national road from Letterkenny to Donegal town, we tarried at the busy little village of Drumkeen where we had a most pleasant tea and scone. Up the street at Mr. G’s Discount Store, Herself bought herself another teapot – a shiny new stainless steel model of the famous and dripless “I’m a little teapot” design. Having noticed this style is nowadays popular everywhere we go, I knew she would have one and so was not unprepared when it happened, and that quite determinedly.
From Donegal we turned west on the N15 which runs along the crooked north shore of Donegal Bay, whereon we found more adventures.
The first was Castle Murray just outside Donegal town proper. A roadside sign lured us off onto another of those tiny narrow side roads that can go on for miles. But only a mile or so later we found it. Just there, a mere thousand yards from the road, on a craggy piece of land surrounded by the raging sea, stood two old rock walls, the sole remains of Castle Murray. One was perhaps five feet high by twenty feet long, the other a few feet away looked like the 12-foot tall remains of an old chimney. In between the two lay green grass, well clipped by the ever present sheepies. Uphill and across the road behind us stood a large, elegant and very modern looking resort building – capitalizing on free publicity from suckers lured down this cow path by the legitimate old-castle sign. I feel exploited. Bah humbug.
Of greater interest, not far from this spot we encountered a small monument relating that in the 1800s some two hundred fishermen from the area were lost in a terrible storm which arose suddenly while their little fleet of fishing boats were all at sea.
Next came Killybegs, a small town of note with a fine harbor and perhaps three dozen modern fishing boats. And I don’t mean skiffs – these were BIG bruisers, serious business for serious Atlantic fishing. Some were a hundred or more feet long, outfitted with cranes and spools the size of dump trucks on which to wind their huge nets, now piled in heaps on the adjacent wharf. We walked around on the pier, rubber necking in the blowing rain, all eyes among the crewmen who were out naturally in that blustery weather working on their nets – just another normal work day.
Then things turned serious. We spied the sign pointing to a significant landmark known as Slieve Liag – pronounced shleev leeg – and turned our little car onto the side road to go there. Normal and two-lane at first, the road climbed steadily – the ocean on our left, a dwindling number of houses and increasing clutter of boulders on our right. At some point after we’d entered the second thousand feet, the houses stopped altogether. The road dwindled, not unexpectedly, to one lane with grass growing up the middle through the thin asphalt. Occasional pullovers were thoughtfully provided so that two cars might in theory pass if, however unlikely, they should chance to meet from opposite directions on this remote high road to Slieve Leag. Some stretches became so extraordinarily steep that our little 4-cylinder car gave me some doubt as to whether it could.
But in the end it did and then we were there – one thousand seven hundred and ninety two (1,792 – Kentucky’s birthday) feet above the Atlantic Ocean’s entrance into Donegal Bay. A parking area, with room even to turn around, was provided at the very end of the road, near the top of the mighty mountain. A furious wind up here drove rain drops like pellets into our faces so hold onto our hats and forget our useless umbrellas. One disbelieving look to right and left showed us the cliffs – all those hundreds of feet of sheer rock face – that we knew likewise dropped away directly in front of where we stood but Thank God could not see
I believe it is the wildest place I have ever been in this lifetime. If there be unseen old celtic gods and Viking spirits and faeries and leprechauns and selkies and all suchlike there can be no doubt at all they dwell rightly at this dramatic place called Slieve Leag.
An unexpected surprise, it was reassuring to see how many other souls were parked bravely up there with us in this foul weather, all out looking around this violent land-and-seascape as if it were Sunday morning over a sunny calm sea. How did these dozen cars make it past those pulloffs without incident? Two hardy souls hiked beyond this terminus onto a wide steep trail continuing still higher until it disappeared into the clouds. A sign forewarned that when one reached the very summit the slopes fall sharply away on both sides – “Not for the faint of heart,” it read. We met in passing a tall pleasant old gent who said he had climbed to that summit “fifty years ago, when I was just graduated in geology.” His very existence makes you proud to be related to his tribe.
In two different sources I read that “these may be the highest cliffs in Europe.” In these days of GPS and satellite surveying it is unclear why they say “may” be. Based on my visceral reaction to being there indeed they certainly may be, though I distinctly remember, from my days in amphibious intelligence more than fifty years ago, the sheer rock cliffs which fall straight down something more than a thousand feet, without interruption, from the Yugoslav town of Dubrovnik into the Adriatic Sea. Neither Dubrovnik nor Slieve Leag is any place to be playing croquet anywhere near the edge.
Almost unbelievably, a mere hour later we were having tea back near Donegal town, laid up in a four-star country house B&B with its own splendid view of an ocean inlet and a peat fire in the guest parlor. Life is good.