Friday, February 10, Co. Dublin/Co. Kildare/Co. Laois/Co. Tipperary/Co. Limerick/Co. Clare
You’ll recall that we were out late last night at the pub …
I was awake at five a.m.—apparently the time needed for my body clock to adjust to a different time zone is just forty-eight hours. I’d hoped to sleep longer but unfortunately that was not to be; perhaps I was just excited about leaving for County Clare.
We’d had a small disappointment yesterday when the booking agent for our planned destination (some of you may remember how excited I was that our apartment in Clare was to be right on the ocean) called and said that our rental had been storm-damaged, and they were putting us in a holiday village just one minute down the road. Uh-huh.
Definition: holiday home, holiday village
Ireland—especially towns near the coast or in some desirable destination—is peppered with holiday villages, little neighborhoods of identical or nearly identical houses that are intended to be rented to vacationers. People rent a holiday home by the day or week or month, but no one actually lives there permanently. So there’s no landscaping, no pleasant potted geranium on the front porch, no wreath on the front door. I find them sterile, sad, and lonely-looking.
Definition: storm damage
Storm damage is what happens when you’ve promised an apartment to someone who’s only going to rent it for three days during the off-off-season (and paid for it in advance!), but then someone else comes along who wants to rent it for a week (or, to be fair, maybe longer). Even if there hasn’t been a storm on the west coast of Ireland for weeks. 🙂
So, I’m awake with a bit of a nervous stomach that might or might not have something to do with County Clare. That’s it, no more drink for me (don’t we all swear it off on the morning after?). And no shower either—I couldn’t bring myself to take off my clothes and get into cold water feeling that lousy. Maybe our apartment, er, holiday home in Lahinch would have a reliable shower … so I decided to wait.
But no, no, actually, the reason I couldn’t sleep and felt so lousy was I had the scratchy throat of an impending cold. After the “full-Irish” (i.e., breakfast) downstairs, I realized truly that I was sick; it wasn’t a hangover I had—it was a full-blown head/chest cold with a ferocious sore throat and cough. I drank some more Airborne and resolved to pick up some over-the-counter cold remedy once we got on the road.
As was the case during my last visit, I managed to get us just a little bit lost at first (I’d forgotten that the pictographs on the road signs are as important as the words are), but then I began to hit my driving-in-Ireland groove. The real problem was that I getting visibly and audibly (anti-audibly: I was losing my voice) sicker by the minute, and we finally stopped to buy cough syrup and medicine that would at least alleviate the cold symptoms.
I’d planned to do some sightseeing along the way—taking the N7 from Dublin south and west to Portlaoise to see the Rock of Dunamase—but as we approached the town (pronounce it port-LEESH) it was evident I wasn’t up to climbing rocks, so we continued on. I wasn’t even much up to enjoying the scenery, frankly, although it was beautiful—and completely different from the countryside I’d experienced in September 2003, since it was a different season altogether. Gone were the charming, tree-ceilinged lanes; instead I saw dramatic branches outlined starkly against the soft winter sunlit sky, and wild gorse in brilliant, yellow bloom. A harbinger of spring, the gorse—I’m sending a photo—is a spiny shrub that grows nearly everywhere in Ireland, providing shelter for birds and small wildlife.
We continued on the N7 through several counties … through Roscrea and on to Nenagh, which skirt the lovely Silvermine Mountains (Gerry pointed out every mountain range as being the “Dublin Mountains,” which don’t actually exist—Google them and you are redirected to Wicklow Mountains—and this became a running joke for the entire trip: “Amazing that you can see the Dublin Mountains all the way from County Clare, eh?”) before dropping you down into the basin of the River Shannon.
The Republic is in the process of switching from miles to kilometers (don’t ask my why; Wikipedia seems to imply that metrication is being done to impose a single system on the whole world—but that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to me!), which means all distances and speed limits are given only in kilometers … so I got a chance to practice my math skills on the drive as well. The change means that all those quaint old pressed-tin signs that listed both miles and kilometers are disappearing, replaced by new, flat signs that only indicate distance in kilometers. The locals still refer to distances in miles, though, I learned to my amusement when I stopped for directions. You can take the miles off the signs, but you can’t take them out of minds and hearts, by golly!
Irish humor: I wondered out loud where all those historic old signs were going, and Gerry replied that “they’re no doubt being sold in America at a handsome profit.”
The Ford I was driving was brand new, and the speedometer was in kilometers, which was good, since I had no idea, when I started, how fast 120 kph is, although those of you familiar with my lead foot can imagine the little thrill it gave me every time the speed limit was 120 (it’s 74.56 mph)!
The N7 takes you all the way to Limerick city (we used the bypass to avoid traffic in this very busy city rather than going in to explore, because at this point I just wanted to be “home”), and once you cross the Shannon, you’re in County Clare, which was our destination.
From Limerick we jumped on the N18 to Ennis, a town we really enjoyed in 2003; today there was a traffic jam in the city center, and we spent more time than we wanted there. Though we’d been driving in lush dairy farmland, once you reach Ennis the landscape becomes more and more bleak until you reach the Burren, the vast limestone plateau that dominates northwest Clare (and which really must be seen to be appreciated).
In Ennis we found the N85, a smallish road that heads northwest straight toward the coast, through Ennistymon to Lahinch … at last! A journey of just 160 miles took us six hours—and most of that was on main roads. This was the Ireland I remembered, and love.
The Links holiday village is on the main road (the N67, in fact) between Ennistymon and Lahinch, just before you enter the little seaside village itself; a walk into town might take five or six minutes from the front door of our house (which had been left open for us). Again, back in August when we made our reservations, we’d rejected the Links in favor of the Wharf (which, as mentioned earlier, sits, ahem, right on the wharf). Parked in front of this grim—but pink—house, I wasn’t sure if I was as disappointed as I was—deeply—because I sick, or what … but I do know I’d had my heart set on watching the tide roll in from the warmth of a cozy apartment.
Warm and cozy are not words that can be applied to the place we’d just arrived at. Lucky for Gerry, I’d completely lost my voice at that point—so I couldn’t complain! Ha! The place was freeeeeeezing; holiday homes are not kept warm and toasty in anticipation of your midwinter arrival. (In fact, you pay extra for heat.) We immediately overrode the automatic timers on the radiators, and turned every single one to the equatorial setting as we unloaded the car.
In retrospect, the place was not so bad. It was very roomy, with a bedroom and bathroom downstairs, and a bedroom and bathroom upstairs as well. The full kitchen was large and adequately supplied with cooking utensils, a microwave, dishes, flatware, and so forth (and an electric kettle, the likes of which most of you have probably never seen, but which is, let me tell you, one of God’s great blessings in this dark world). There was a cheery dining room, and a comfortable living room with both a television and a fireplace (and a comfortable couch and large coffee table, on which we ate all our meals). There were ample windows.
No, there’s really no reason for me to refer to the Links as the Village of the Damned (well, OK, perhaps the teenagers renting the home next to us shouting drunkenly outside at three the next morning have something to do with it), but in my cold, cranky, coughing state, that is what it became, and what it remained for the duration of the trip (world without end amen amen), even though we did manage to warm it up after the first twenty-four hours.
More pressingly, however, there was one unresolved detail: there were no towels. The fact that we needed to bring our own was clearly stated in the written material and on the website; in our excitement, we’d just failed to make note of it. This oversight had an unexpected, and pleasant, consequence, however, as we were forced to drive back to Ennistymon for towels, and where we got some excellent recommendations for places to eat in Lahinch.
Lahinch, you see, is pretty much a resort town. The population is just 800 or so, and it only has one retail area about a block long. But—and this is a big but—it has two claims to fame: it has a magnificent mile-long beach (locals call it a strand) enjoyed by sea-lovers and (as I was amazed to discover in cold, cold February) surfers, and it also has a world-class championship golf course that dates back to 1892. There are several pubs and restaurants, a few shops, a grocery store, a church, a post office, a seaside aquarium along a boardwalk, and—even in February—a casual, surfer dude vibe. (On Saturday morning the beach was teeming with surfers in colorful wetsuits.)
But—no bath towels. Ennistymon is just five minutes’ drive from the Links, though, and it is a bit larger, with a busy city center. And, as I’ve said, the woman who sold us towels gave us two recommendations for eating, both of which we tried over the course of our visit. Neither of us had eaten since breakfast, so we hustled back to Lahinch and the Corner Stone, which is a snug little pub with an excellent menu. I choose exactly what I’d been fantasizing about for the last three or so hours: beef stew. And oh man, it was just what the doctor ordered! The beef was fork tender, the stew was loaded with meat and carrots and potatoes, seasoned with porter ale and onions, and was served with thick slices of brown bread.
I wrote in my notes, “I am so going to indulge myself in this Irish brown bread,” and I did. This simple wheaten bread, made without yeast, had caused me to search out local artisan breads when I returned from Ireland in 2003. Nowadays that’s all I buy. Interestingly, I’d noticed in every grocery store we’d been in so far that the artisan bread mania has hit Ireland too. Only there it’s—oooo la-la—labeled French Bakery, and the choices are fantastic. It was easy to give in to temptation!
After dinner we strolled Lahinch’s main street, shopped a little (I bought a mohair/wool scarf, which I would use on the rest of my trip), picked up some turf for the fireplace, then headed back to the Stepford House.
For those of you who’ve never smelled a turf fire, I’ll say you’re missing one of life’s great pleasures. Just imagine the coziest, homiest smell possible, though, and you’ve got it. It’s a little smoky-flavored, and makes me think of what it smells like on a fall day when someone in the neighborhood has been burning leaves. Gerry built the fire while I boiled water for tea (for Gerry) and a stiff hot toddy (for me—the best possible thing for a cold!), then we skootched the couch up close to the fireplace, pulled the duvet off the bed, and huddled up underneath it while we watched an Irish American-Idol-type show on the television. After a second hot whiskey I was asleep and snoring on the couch, and at eight-thirty I gave it up.
Gerry’s Hot Toddy Recipe:
Place two thick slices of lemon in a large mug; squeeze the juice of whatever’s left of the lemon into the mug too. Add a teaspoon (about two dozen) of whole cloves. Add whiskey (I prefer Jameson’s Irish Whiskey) to fill half the mug. Pour boiling water over lemons, whiskey, and cloves to fill, and muddle (mash) the lemons with a spoon to bring out the juice. Add sugar or honey to sweeten if you’d like (I do).
Saturday, February 11, Co. Clare
We were both awake around three-thirty (which is what happens when you go to bed so early, I guess), listening to the kids next door, who were outside in the yard, shouting and carrying on. Actually, they woke me up around midnight, too, with similar antics, but I’d thought the party was over. Oh, how wrong I was.
We’d been wary of the kids when we’d come in yesterday; there were several of them, boys and girls, in expensive cars that they’d parked carelessly, thinking they had the cul-de-sac to themselves. This, as it turns out, did not bode well. Gerry had asked the village superintendent whether we should be concerned, and he’d said no, they were Good kids! Locals! Just on their spring break! If we had any trouble, he said, call and he’d sort it out. Of course, one doesn’t really want to call anyone in the pre-dawn hours.
Later I woke myself up coughing, and I decided to get up and drink some medicine and some hot tea. I was, I realized, very, very sick—probably developing a sinus infection. Gerry took excellent care of me, though, by cooking big breakfasts, keeping the fire built, and making sure I always had a cup of hot tea to keep my cough down. Meanwhile, I had no energy, and no “wind”—it felt like something was constantly pressing on my chest.
Finally around eleven a.m. we managed to get out of the house. It was overcast and windy, but there were patches of blue sky trying to peek through, which was encouraging, and off we went, heading straight for the Cliffs of Moher. You may recall that on my last visit here we weren’t able to see the cliffs due to heavy mist, so I was particularly anxious to see them on as nice a day as possible.
They’d changed the entrance to it since the last time I was here; in the past you could drive by and see the cliffs in the distance. If you wanted, you pulled into the parking lot, paid the per-car entry fee, and walked down to cliff’s edge. Well, no more. The temporary visitor center is on the opposite side of the road, and they’ve built up a huge earthen barrier, which prevents you seeing anything of the cliffs until after you’ve climbed it. I wish now that I’d taken a photograph of this path, because in my memory it looms as large as Mount Everest.
It will be nice when it’s done, I guess, but right now it’s all still a construction site. (In point of fact, it’s a twenty-one-million euro project, with the tourist center to be dug into the side of the cliffs, leaving it virtually invisible from ground level. We saw plans for it, and when it’s finished, the views should be stunning. It may be that the path we climbed was on top of this structure, which is due to open in spring 2007.
Still, the cliffs were there, they were visible, and that made me really happy, even if it did take every bit of my energy to climb the hill to see them. You really get the sense, as you stand there struggling against the wind, that you are on the edge of the world, with nothing but the roiling Atlantic between you and New York City. The cliffs are five miles of sheer rock face with a massive 700 foot drop; get too close to the edge and a gust of wind—and there’s plenty of that—could carry you right off the edge. Walk the dirt path along the edge at your own risk.
We even walked up to O’Brien’s Tower, a Victorian-era observation tower (that is, a tourist attraction).
In fact, it was extremely windy and cold, but that was invigorating. Invigorating enough, that is, for me to drive us back to Lahinch. (It was a continuing theme of this trip that my original itinerary had to be modified, cut back, to accommodate the fact that I was moving slower and had less stamina. And really, that was OK. We thoroughly investigated the things we did see, and we enjoyed them. The rest can wait for another time.)
On my 2003 trip I’d picked up a brochure for a shop located in Lahinch that offered silk-screened T-shirts featuring original Celtic designs; when we’d driven through that time, though, I’d failed to find it. Since we were to be staying in Lahinch on this trip, I wanted to be sure to visit, and—knowing that some places shut down during the winter—I’d emailed the owner to ask if he’d be open.
This was the response I’d gotten last September:
I apologise for not answering this mail last month.
I think it was because I like to reply immediately ..but didn’t know the answer.
February is so far away !
If you get to our door and find it closed, just call [redacted]
and it will magically creak open within minutes
in fear of forward planning
So when we got back into Lahinch, we parked and walked along the boardwalk (I’m sure that’s not what they call it in Ireland, but that’s what it is), where there were, again, quite a few young men in wetsuits surfing in the vigorous waves on a day when the temperature couldn’t have been over thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit.
The shop was closed, but I raised Mike on the mobile phone; he was watching the big rugby match (Ireland/France) at one of the local pubs, and preferred to continue watching it, so we agreed to meet at the shop at four p.m., and Gerry and I hustled home to watch the game ourselves.
At four we were banging on the door, when a young man—not Mike—showed up. It turns out that he was the silk-screener, and was planning to work a little. He was a bit puzzled by us pounding on an obviously locked door, but when we explained the situation, he laughed, said Mike might have dozed off at the bar, and let us in the back door, where we had a private shopping excursion. After that we went back to the Corner Store where we’d eaten the day before, because I was hankering for more of that hot beef stew.
So this was not an action-packed day, but it was as much as I could handle. That evening we watched an interesting show on the subtitled all-Gaelic channel (yes, a channel for Gaelic-speakers, complete with news shows, documentaries, and even soap operas in a language that is a marvel to hear, as it’s not like anything—French, German, Swahili—you’ve every heard before). It was about how the indigenous folk on the island were a matriarchal society up until the time the Celts arrived in 500 BC. The Celts were warlike, and men did the fighting, so that influence began to change the society, and then when Patrick arrived with his Christianity, the switch from a woman-revering society to a patriarchal one (even, one might say, a misogynistic one) was complete. It was suggested that perhaps Mary’s importance was emphasized here to gain allegiance from the locals who still intuitively remembered the old, female-centric ways. Regardless of what you believe, it was an interesting hour of television.
And that seems as good a place as any to close this episode, curled up in front of a warm turf fire, nursing a hot toddy, munching on a scone. There’s more to come, including my semi-annual rant about tour buses. 🙂