Your Trip Is, Well, Your Trip

My vendors at the farmers market know me and know I’m about to travel. One of them pointed out the vendor next to him: “She’s going to Ireland too!” Her eyes lit up and we talked some. It was a nice chat.

I always ask, first, “Which airport are you flying into?” Shannon. Ah.

She’s on a golfing vacation, eight courses over a couple weeks. She mentioned Lahinch (one of my favorite places), so I suspect they’ll be golfing at the Lahinch Golf Club. She mentioned Killarney too. I suspect all the courses and thus their sightseeing will be in the west, which is as it should be.

I tried to talk her out of Blarney Castle and Bunratty Castle because they are so, so touristy. “But what other castles are there?” she said. So I gave her the address to this blog. 🙂

When she started talking about the Giant’s Causeway, I blinked. “That’s a long way,” I said. “Not that far,” she said. “And I have four extra days before my golfing friends arrive.”

I gave her the everything-will-take-longer-than-you-think speech, but I’m not sure she believed me. You look at a map and think, Oh, it’s only 300 miles … but I’m tellin’ ya, if you’re an American, they are not the kind of miles you are used to.

Well, it’s five hours in a car from Shannon to the Giant’s Causeway. And you know my position on this: do you want to spend your precious vacation time driving or doing? There’s so much spectacular scenery and things to see and do just in a one-hour radius from Shannon, I can’t imagine going all that way just to see one thing, then coming back.

But that’s just me. In retrospect, I feel bad about the conversation. I should have just said, “Have fun!” The touristy places are just fine for some folks. Not everyone wants my kind of vacation, and that’s as it should be too.

I should have said, “What do you want to do that your traveling companions aren’t interested in? Go do that with your four days!” But, you know, maybe the Giant’s Causeway is that one special thing that the traveling companions aren’t interested in.

I should have said, “Yes, you’re right to wander. Do it, friend.” Who am I to make a pronouncement on her vacation?

It was crowded at the farmers market, and her regulars were coming and buying while we were talking. I am getting ready to depart in just a few days, fewer than a week, so I’m stressing about a variety of things. (Work; it’s always work.) So I should have said much better things than what I did say, but at least I have had some time to reflect and repent. 🙂 Again:

1  Different vacation strokes for different folks.
2  I’m only an expert on my kind of vacation, not hers.
3  It’s your vacation! I hope you have a great time!

Lesson learned!

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So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 7): Let’s Go Shopping!

This series started with an introduction, and here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a souvenir shop in Ireland, so sooner or later you’re going to find yourself in one, if for no other reason that to pick up some postcards. But what you really want is something nice to remember your trip by. Something lasting. Right? I know I do.

When you’re shopping for gifts for yourself or others (I like to do my Christmas shopping in Ireland), look for things you can’t get at home, or—in the case of international brands like Waterford Crystal or Belleek porcelain—that you can get somewhat cheaper than at home. (Particularly when the exchange rate favors the dollar.)

So here’s a quick list of things you might buy in Ireland:

• Knitwear: sweaters, scarves and more
You’ve seen the sheep, now buy something woolen. I buy sweaters and scarves every time I travel to Ireland; they’re available just about everywhere. And the range of colors and styles! Oh! They make lovely gifts.

• Clothing made from Irish linen or tweed
You can buy beautiful woven wool scarves, too—and tweed caps, jackets, waistcoats (you may call this a vest). Some shops sell piece goods so you can sew your own at home. Look for beautiful table linens and handkerchiefs and you’ll think of Ireland every time you sit down to a meal.

• Crystal and glassware, china and pottery
Waterford Crystal is the category leader but there are other good quality brands equally beautiful (research it before you go). Jerpoint Glass is one of my favorite places to shop (Co. Kilkenny) but you can find their pieces in nicer shops all over the country. I also love Nicholas Mosse Pottery, which is readily available. Check department stores for Royal Tara china or Belleek, for a lot less than you’ll pay for them in the States.

• Handmade arts and crafts
There is so much to choose from here: jewelry, pottery, prints and paintings … we could go on and on. Look for small art galleries, museum shops, individual studios (like Jerpoint Glass and Nicholas Mosse) and workshops … and larger outlets like Kilkenny Design Centre in Kilkenny and Dublin (which often, by the way, runs free-shipping-to-the-States promotions). Here’s a website that will give you some ideas. Steer away from those Philip Gray prints; aside from the fact that Gray’s the Irish version of Thomas Kinkade (a hack), these reproductions are poorly done on cheap paper. You’ll know real art when you see it.

• Books
Ireland is a nation of readers (and the home of many fine writers), so you’ll find a bookstore in every town of a few thousand or more. Look for books by Irish authors, photography books, books on Irish history or of local interest (architecture, say) in both new and secondhand shops. Or choose a cookbook!

• Music
If it’s in the budget, you can buy traditional handmade instruments (tin whistles, flutes, fiddles, pipes, bodhráns) from craftspeople in their workshops or in more traditional music stores. While you’re in that music store, you might be interested in sheet music or teaching CDs, such as the one I purchased the featuring a how-to on fiddling traditional Irish melodies and techniques. Music stores and record shops will feature the recordings of local musicians and bands, too; these are affordable and make one-of-a-kind gifts.

• Fashion, design, and up-market personal products
Ireland has a youthful population and has a growing reputation for fashion and design; a special item of clothing might be just the thing to take home. There are many Irish designers (research it) but lately I’ve been loving Orla Kiely; you can find her bags all over Ireland (and they’ll be different from what you’ll find in the States). I also love Moulton Brown hair care products (it’s a British company but I was exposed to the products in Ireland), and I make sure I bring some home from every trip.

• Antiques
Dublin has an antiques district but even small towns have an antique shop or two. Look for unusual prints, vintage jewelry, a teacup … something small and special you can carry home with you.

• Foodstuffs
I am a real sucker for farm shops as well as the upscale grocers you’ll find in larger cities and department stores. I bring cheese home on every trip. And chocolate (see below)! Other delights: tea, jams and jellies, Sarah’s Wonderful Honey, cookies … and did I mention the chocolate?

• Chocolate in particular
On the other side of the pond, chocolate must contain at least 20 percent cocoa solids. In the US, on the other hand, cocoa solids need only make up 10 percent. So there’s definitely a taste differential. My three favorite chocolate brands are Áine, Butler’s, and Cadbury. I stock up on the big bars to bring home for gifts, Christmas stocking stuffers, and so on.

• Little gifts for friends
As mentioned, chocolate bars are always a hit. Irish-themed Christmas ornaments are nice (you can find them in souvenir shops or department stores). And, frankly, though it may seem cliché, the Guinness line of trademarked souvenirs (T-shirts, hats, and so on) are generally of good quality, so if you’ve someone who’d like that sort of thing, go for it. Now … if you really want a nice, truly Irish T-shirt … you’ll have to drive to Lahinch, on the west coast, to the Celtic T-Shirt Shop. A family-owned business since 1979, these shirts (and other apparel) are original designs screen-printed by hand—and they’re gorgeous. Honestly, the website doesn’t do them justice.

See? You don’t have to let the souvenir market drive your purchasing decisions. Don’t buy the first thing you see. Look around! You’ll find something perfect. And don’t forget to pick up a bottle of Jameson’s in the duty-free on your way home. 🙂

A few things that came home last time: scarf from Avoca Hand Weavers, Nicholas Mosse mug, chocolate-covered cookies from Cadbury.

A few things that came home last time: scarf from Avoca Hand Weavers, Nicholas Mosse mug, chocolate-covered cookies from Cadbury.

 

A Day of Rest (Work) and a Travel Day

Day 17, Thursday, 27 September 12

As usual we all met in the dining room for breakfast. We were in the capable hands of Marie—Edel’s friend who also works for her—who treated us to homemade banana bread, in addition to all the regular breakfast goodies.

Edel and her daughter, Emerald, had left before any of us were up that morning, to go to the National Ploughing Championships in County Wexford. No, I’m serious. This falls into the Only-in-Ireland category, I think (although it’s really more like a festival). The Irish Times was predicting more than 180,000 in attendance over the three-day event.

Edel has an interesting story (don’t we all?). She’s a nurse, and spent some time employed at a hospital in Arkansas, where she met the man who would be Emerald’s father. He is of Vietnamese descent, and Emerald was born with dual citizenship (Irish, U.S.). Edel later returned home to Lahinch, bought the B&B, and continues to work as a nurse. Emerald’s dad has visited Ireland four times to see her; she is sixteen, a music student, and, apparently, a fan of the National Ploughing Championships.

Jill and Alli had volunteered to walk Draco, the house dog (named by Emerald!), so shortly after breakfast, off they went.

Off they go! See the town on the other side of the bay? Liscannor. They ended up walking all the way over there.

Off they go! See the town on the other side of the bay? Liscannor. They ended up walking halfway  there.

They did stop to wave. (Crazy situation with all the wires, no?)

They did stop to wave. (Crazy situation with all the wires, no?)

Alli and Draco. (Jill took this photo.)

Alli and Draco. (Jill took this photo.)

Tide was on its way out, and it looks like the sun was trying to come out too. (Jill’s photo.)

Tide was on its way out, and the sun was trying to come out too. (Jill’s photo.)

I’m not sure where they were at this point, but this is a nice photo! (Jill’s photo.)

I’m not sure where they were at this point, but this is a nice shot! (Jill’s photo.)

They stopped here, near the 12th and 13th holes of the Old Course at the Lahinch Golf Club. That’s the Inagh River, and the bridge supports the R478 (the route to the Cliffs of Moher). (Jill’s photo.)

They stopped here, near the 12th and 13th holes of the Old Course at the Lahinch Golf Club. That’s the Inagh River, and the bridge supports the R478 (the route to the Cliffs of Moher). (Jill’s photo.)

In the meantime, I had declared this a day of rest. Frankly, I was exhausted, between doing the driving and just trying to keep up (I was still taking antibiotics for the pneumonia)—and I was desperate to finish the editorial notes that were due on 30 September. So while Jill and Alli went off for that long walk (several hours), Margaret and I went downtown. I settled in at Kenny’s Bar, where I’d have wi-fi, and Margaret shopped around a little. Later she checked in to Facebook while I wandered around and shopped a little.

One of my favorite places in Lahinch is the Celtic T-Shirt Shop. It’s classic, y’all: tiny and stuffed to the rafters with the most beautiful T-shirts (and tank tops and dresses too)—and one of the screen printers will probably be working as you’re shopping. Most importantly, the designs are unique and gorgeous and sold nowhere else. You can buy a T-shirt with Ireland printed on it anywhere, even in the States. These are the real deal. (I did some Christmas shopping.)

The Celtic T-Shirt Shop, Lahinch, 2012. (Margaret’s photo.)

The Celtic T-Shirt Shop, Lahinch, 2012. (Margaret’s photo.)

It’s not exactly a boardwalk any more, but there are several shops along the ocean in Lahinch. The Celtic T-Shirt Shop is just out of the shot on the left. (Jill’s photo.)

It’s not exactly a boardwalk any more, but there are several shops along the ocean in Lahinch. The Celtic T-Shirt Shop is just out of the shot on the left. (Jill’s photo.)

Lahinch is a popular surf spot. If you look closely you can see Jill and Alli near the top of the photo; they’re the ones with the dog.

Lahinch is a popular surf spot. If you look closely you can see Jill and Alli near the top of the photo; they’re the ones with the dog.

I also stopped in at the studio of Phillip Morrison and had a lovely chat with him. Love his work! I know it’s not for everyone but I was quite taken with his cityscapes. One of these days, perhaps …

It was very cozy in the bar, sitting at the back near the stage so I could plug in. I went through a couple pots of tea. We had soup (mine was roasted carrot) and a shared garlic cheese pizza for lunch. And I got a lot done!

We were anticipating Eoin and Tracy for dinner. Yes, we hadn’t gotten to visit much—what with the wedding and all—so after they returned from their honeymoon, Eoin insisted on driving down from Dublin—about a three-hour drive. They arrived in Lahinch around 5:30.

It was Arthur’s Day, and we got a free pint each, which is always a plus. (Arthur’s Day was started by the Guinness Company in 2009 to celebrate 250 years of the company’s history. It is controversial in some circles—it’s a marketing ploy, after all—but I assure you, in a snug pub in the late afternoon, it’s all about the black stuff.) We ate dinner and drank and visited—and a good time was had by all!

Tracy, Eoin, and Alli at Kenny’s Bar in Lahinch. (Jill’s photo.)

Tracy, Eoin, and Alli at Kenny’s Bar in Lahinch. (Jill’s photo.)

Today’s Image

No matter if the tide was low or high, up near the sea wall there was always an assortment of birds rooting furiously, quickly, in the piles of seaweed. No arguments among them, but every bird (of all sizes) intent upon his own little patch.

There’s a meal to be had here!

There’s a meal to be had here!

There’s a meal to be had here!

Herring gull: most common in Ireland.

Day 18, Friday, 28 September 12

One thing decided at the pub last night was that Jill and Alli would ride back to Dublin with Eoin and Tracy, so by ten o’clock, Margaret and I were packed and loaded and in the car headed back to Dublin with a few slices of Marie’s wonderful banana bread to sustain us.

It was a gorgeous, rainbowed day! Jill and Alli had a slightly less electric cable–obstructed view from their room. (Jill's photo.)

It was a gorgeous, rainbowed day! Jill and Alli had a slightly less electric cable–obstructed view from their room. (Jill’s photo.)

We thought we’d stop at Clonmacnoise on the way back, but when all was said and done, we missed a turnoff, and with the rain we thought we’d push on to Dublin and go to Glendalough later.

So we checked in at the Ferryview Guest House in Clontarf (pop. 31,063—but who’s counting? It’s Greater Dublin, for all intents and purposes), which is an upscale community right on the sea just north of Dublin Port.

You can’t tell from this photo but the Ferryview sits right on the Clontarf Road and overlooks Dublin Port. (Margaret's photo.)

You can’t tell from this photo but the Ferryview sits right on the Clontarf Road and overlooks Dublin Port. (Margaret’s photo.)

We met Jill and Alli at Gerry’s, said our good-byes (they were flying out early the next morning) and then Gerry, Margaret, and I went out to dinner with Neil and Maureen. I think I am feeling better—although it will turn out that I still have no energy or stamina—and am looking forward to the next five days in Dublin.

Today’s Image

We pulled up to the Ferryview after dark and met Dominic, the “night porter.” He had a very specific idea of where we would park (parking is always an issue in Ireland), and by the time I’d managed to get out of the car—which involved, no joke, my falling into a hedge—I was well and truly annoyed with Dominic. He had an unusual way of speaking; he seemed like he was not quite there … but he was. Didn’t miss a trick, in fact. On the other hand, he could be annoying; he circulated in the dining room at breakfast and chatted up everyone, even when they didn’t really feel like chatting or were put off by his strange manner. As the days wore on, however, I began to appreciate Dominic’s usefulness, and I was disappointed the day I learned he’d gone home for the season.

All Windy on the Western Front

Day 16 / Wednesday, 26 September 2012

My body clock goes off very early, and I wish I knew how to reset it. At home I tell myself it’s because the felines wake me up … but the truth is, even with a bed all to myself, I am awake at 5:30 almost every day.

Not that I mind. I get to see the sunrise most days. This is the view from our window at Craglea Lodge in Lahinch. All three homes on the left side (one you can’t see) belong to Kennys.

Not that I mind. I get to see the sunrise most days. This is the view from our window at Craglea Lodge in Lahinch. All three homes on the left side (one you can’t see) belong to Kennys.

Nine years ago September was warm and pleasant, but these last few days in the 2012 September were windy and cold. (It was, in fact, far too windy for an Aran Islands trip—but we’d known that was a strong possibility.) Of course, we didn’t stay in Lahinch nine years ago. No, Gerry and I came here in 2006 … in February. And February on the western shore of Ireland, my friends, is a chilly proposition.

Nonetheless, I fell in love with this town. It’s small (pop. 600), and the folks are really friendly, particularly during the off season. During the on season, it’s a popular resort town with 1) a gorgeous beach on Liscannor Bay that’s perfect for surfing and 2) the world-famous Lahinch Golf Club. It’s much more crowded then, and I’m not sure I’d like it as much.

Lahinch beach at low tide. You can see Liscannor (pop. 71) across the bay.

Lahinch beach at low tide. You can see Liscannor (pop. 71) across the bay.

For comparison, here’s high tide.

For comparison, here’s high tide.

Edel told us last night she’d normally be closed by now, but when I’d contacted her about our visit, she’d decided it was worth staying open for two rooms for three nights. And then because she’d made the decision, she accepted a few other lodgers. We saw one group in the dining room the next morning. (Sometimes you really can spot Yanks a mile away: this group—two women and a man—were all wearing ball caps, all talking very loud.) They left this morning, though, and by evening we were the only ones in the house.

I’m glad Edel decided to keep Craglea Lodge open. It’s nice. And her help serves homemade scones warm out of the oven every morning. 🙂

After breakfast we headed out for the Cliffs of Moher because we’d been advised that in spite of the heavy cloud cover and fine mist, the strong gusts of wind would drive it all away and visibility would be fine. I’ve been to the cliffs three times now, although the first—in 2003—I didn’t see anything because the mist was so heavy. You really do have to be prepared with a flexible schedule (and that year we weren’t) to allow for the possibility of poor visibility. I’d been very disappointed and made certain to plan flexibility on this trip.

Things have changed a lot since that first misty visit. In 2003, we parked on the same side of the road as the cliffs and walked about fifty yards out to the edge. I mean, literally to the edge. There was a small shack that functioned as a gift shop.

The approach to the cliffs in 2003. A short railing was all that stood between visitors and the sea (once you’d turned right or left, the walk along the cliff was virtually unimpeded, except for the warning signs). That’s a busker playing a tin whistle, with the entrance to the gift shack just beyond him to the right.

The approach to the cliffs in 2003. A short railing was all that stood between visitors and the sea (once you’d turned right or left, the walk along the cliff was virtually unimpeded, except for the warning signs). That’s a busker playing a tin whistle, with the entrance to the gift shack just beyond him to the right.

This is what I saw in 2003. That is, not much.

This is what I saw in 2003. That is, not much. You can’t get close enough to see this slab now.

When we’d visited in 2006 (on a windy, sunny day), we’d seen the scale model for everything that was planned for the new, modern site; it was very ambitious. But that year everything was a bit of a mess—just missing the “Pardon our construction” signs.

Take this, for example: the trademark Cliffs of Moher view was obstructed by fencing in 2006.

Take this, for example: the trademark Cliffs of Moher view was obstructed by fencing in 2006.

At the same time, if you wanted to get to the edge and jump off … no problem. Look how short the barrier is. Not that I believe it’s the government’s responsibility to protect potential suicides from themselves. (Yes, I cut myself out of this photo; hate my hair color from that period.) 2006.

At the same time, if you wanted to get to the edge and jump off … no problem. Look how short the barrier is. Not that I believe it’s the government’s responsibility to protect potential suicides from themselves. (Yes, I cut myself out of this photo; hate my hair color from that period.) 2006.

Danger indeed! This is the sidewalk up to O’Brien’s Tower in 2006.

Danger indeed! This is the sidewalk up to O’Brien’s Tower in 2006.

 O’Brien’s Tower in 2006. It was closed to visitors that year, so no spectacular view from the top; all we could do was walk around it. They’ve stabilized it now.

O’Brien’s Tower in 2006. It was closed to visitors that year, so no spectacular view from the top; all we could do was walk around it. They’ve stabilized it now.

It was shocking (in a good way, I guess) to see the finished product. Now it’s like Disneyland: all bricked and curbed and neat and clean … and with a fake signpost for people to take pictures of.

Look, honey! The Cliffs of Moher—thataway! Thank goodness they’ve got this sign—we’d never have found them!

Look, honey! The Cliffs of Moher—thataway! Thank goodness they’ve got this sign—we’d never have found them!

Don’t get me started on this atrocity. I’m not certain that’s even wood. (Jill’s camera.)

Don’t get me started on this atrocity. I’m not certain that’s even wood. (Jill’s camera.)

That said, there are many nice things about the site. (Although, interestingly, none of us took a photo of the setup on the way in.) The new visitors centre is actually embedded in the hillside (which is a great, green choice), as are several little craft shops that line the walkway. And the shop is quite large, unlike the tiny shack from 2003.

This photo is actually taken from atop the visitors centre, looking back the way we came in. The tour buses are parked where everyone parked nine-plus years ago. The car park is now across the highway in the far distance. The cliffs themselves are just out of the fram to the right; the craft shops are just out of the frame to the left. The entrance to the visitors centre is on the lower left, where the lady in the red coat and the big purse is about to go.

This photo is actually taken from atop the visitors centre, looking back the way we came in. The tour buses are parked where everyone parked nine-plus years ago. The car park is now across the highway in the far, far distance. The cliffs themselves are just out of the frame to the right; the craft shops are just out of the frame to the left. The entrance to the visitors centre is on the lower left, where the lady in the red coat carrying the big purse is about to go.

See? Here they are, just out of the frame to the right, the Cliffs of Moher. :) This concrete “roof” is terraced, like an amphitheater. (Margaret’s photo.)

See? Here they are, “just out of the frame to the right,” the Cliffs of Moher. 🙂 This concrete “roof” is terraced, like an amphitheater. (Margaret’s photo.)

The Cliffs of Moher, September 2012. (Pronounce it like “mower.”)

The Cliffs of Moher, September 2012. (Pronounce it like “mower.”)

It’s a view I can’t get enough of, frankly. (Margaret’s photo.)

It’s a view I can’t get enough of, frankly. (Margaret’s photo.)

There are paths along the top of the cliffs; you can walk all the way out there to Hag’s Head, which has a Napoleonic-era watchtower; you can see it here in this zoom photo. I think it’s a couple miles in that direction (south).

There are paths along the top of the cliffs; you can walk all the way out there to Hag’s Head, which has a Napoleonic-era watchtower; you can see it here in this zoom photo. I think it’s a couple miles in that direction (south).

I’m on the terraced roof. You can see how much taller the barrier is now.

I’m on the terraced roof. You can see how much taller the barrier is now.

Jill and Alli took off right away, and walked both north and south along the tops of the cliffs. I couldn’t keep up with that ambitious walk with my pneumonia-lung.

The stairway up to O’Brien’s Tower (on the left in the distance).

The stairway up to O’Brien’s Tower (on the left in the distance).

Gorgeous day, though! (Margaret’s photo.)

Gorgeous day, though! (Margaret’s photo.)

The observation tower—O’Brien’s Tower—was built in 1835 by Sir Cornelius O’Brien for no other reason than to view the cliffs to the south. (Some say he built it to impress women he was courting!)

Taken on the walk up to O’Brien’s Tower; note the stairs on the right. (Jill’s photo.)

Taken on the walk up to O’Brien’s Tower; note the stairs on the right. (Jill’s photo.)

Looking north from O’Brien’s Tower. (Jill’s photo.)

Looking north from O’Brien’s Tower. (Jill’s photo.)

Eventually we all ended up back at the visitors centre, which had a large gift shop, some exhibits, and a really nice café upstairs with fantastic views of the cliffs.

The café at the Cliffs of Moher. We lingered here for awhile before getting back in the car.

The café at the Cliffs of Moher. We lingered here for awhile before getting back in the car.

There is so, so much to see in this small area, much of it in what’s called the Burren—a karst limestone region that seems, at first, quite bleak, but which has a beauty all its own. I’ve been told botanists come from all over the world to study what grows there among the rocks (arctic, Mediterranean, and alpine plants). And it is rich with history too. There are more than ninety megalithic tombs (including Poulnabrone), several ring forts (Cahercommaun and Caherconnell, to name two), ruins of medieval churches (Carron, Oughtmama, Corcomroe Abbey, Dysert O’Dea, and others), caves, cathdrals, abandoned castles … You could spend days seeing it all. (And I have. If you looked at the link for Carron Church, you’ll see a photo of a dog; I met her, too, on a rainy day in 2006.)

But we only had hours, not days, so first we went to the cathedral in Kilfenora (pop. 169)—St. Fachtnan’s. Built around 1189 on the site of Fachtnan’s original monastery, this small church, by a quirk of language, actually belongs to the pope. (Yes, that pope. He’s the bishop here. Don’t ask me to explain.) This would be my third visit.

Interestingly, because it was my third visit, I didn’t take as many photos as I have in years past, although some are very different. This one, for example, which is the backside of the church. Some gravestones can be seen through the open gate in the wall that surrounds the churchyard.

Interestingly, because it was my third visit, I didn’t take as many photos as I have in years past, although some are very different. This one, for example, which is the backside of the church. Some gravestones can be seen through the open gate in the wall that surrounds the churchyard.

This is the north side of the yard. You can see a relatively new grace on the far left; the one in the foreground is nineteenth-century. (Margaret’s photo.)

This is the north side of the yard. You can see a relatively new grave on the far left; the one in the foreground is nineteenth-century. (Margaret’s photo.)

What you see ahead is called the Lady Chapel.

What you see ahead is called the Lady Chapel.

Between our visit in September 2003 and our return in February 2006, the Lady Chapel, once roofless, was spruced up with a glass roof. Frankly, I love it. It makes no pretense about belonging; at the same time, it doesn’t distract from the old stone structure.

St. Fachnan’s main claim to fame is the marvelous high crosses associated with it—now just three are still extant. (You can read about all eight of them here; it’s very interesting.) So there are three: the Doorty, the North, and the West, or High cross. Now two of them have been moved inside—to the Lady Chapel, under that glass roof—from the churchyard, to preserve them from the elements. This has been going on all over Ireland, an attempt to keep the intricate carvings on these precious artifacts from eroding. Generally they are housed right on the premises, as here; sometimes they install … um … fakes, back out in the churchyard. 🙂 Not here, though. On my 2003 visit, I saw these crosses in the yard.

This is the Doorty cross; that’s a bishop, St. Fachtnan.

This is the Doorty cross; that’s a bishop, St. Fachtnan.

The reverse of the Doorty cross, showing Christ. (Margaret’s photo.)

The reverse of the Doorty cross, showing Christ. (Margaret’s photo.)

This is the front of the North cross. (Jill’s photo.)

This is the front of the North cross. (Jill’s photo.)

From the Lady Chapel we walked into the still-roofless chancel. It’s lovely. (This website has some interesting photos of Kilfenora’s little church, possibly taken in the 1980s. You will see that many artifacts have been removed—I’m not sure where they are now; perhaps locked up inside the part of the church that is still roofed and unavailable to us tourists? That’s a bit of a disappointment.)

This wall faces east, thus the rising sun would stream through these windows, in front of which would have been the altar.

This wall faces east, thus the rising sun would stream through these windows, in front of which would have been the altar.

This is, I believe, a sedile (a seat for the priest), although it could be a piscina (a shallow basin used to wash communion vessels). Note the bishop’s effigy above it. You can find references to this specific artifact being a sedile (or sedilia, since it would seat more than one) all over the web. But I’m not sure. It’s too small to be a tomb. Perhaps when I’m next there I can find someone who knows definitively. :) (Margaret’s photo.)

This is, I believe, a sedile (a seat for the priest), although it could be a piscina (a shallow basin used to wash communion vessels). Note the bishop’s effigy above it. It seems too small to be a tomb. Perhaps when I’m next there I can find someone who knows definitively. 🙂 (Margaret’s photo.)

The bishop in his mitre, right above the sedile. He looks rather determined, don’t you think?

The bishop in his mitre, right above the sedile. He looks rather determined, don’t you think?

There are still some interesting gravestones in the chancel. This one is in Latin, but has dates in the 1680s, ’90s, and 1700; apparently it represents several members of a family. Don’t forget you can click twice to zoom in on photos.

There are still some interesting gravestones in the chancel. This one is in Latin, but has dates in the 1680s, ’90s, and 1700; apparently it represents several members of a family. Don’t forget you can click twice to zoom in on photos.

Some praying clerics at the top of a column.

Some praying clerics at the top of a column.

The best, for me, is the West cross—and it’s not even on church grounds anymore. I did get a bit of a shock, though, when I saw the large open field of my memory had been sectioned into a half-dozen livestock pens.

Looking out the churchyard gate into the lane. Can you see the cross in the distance? It’s quite large. Let’s walk out there.

Looking out the churchyard gate into the lane. Can you see the cross in the distance? It’s quite large. Let’s walk out there.

Looking back the way we’ve just come.

Looking back the way we’ve just come.

It’s nearly fifteen feet tall. And isn’t it just gorgeous? This face depicts the risen Christ.

It’s nearly fifteen feet tall. And isn’t it just gorgeous? This face depicts the risen Christ.

We drove on into the bleak Burren for our final stop of the day: the Poulnabrone (pronounce this POWL-na-BRONE-ah) dolmen. It is arguably the most famous in Ireland, and its iconic silhouette can be seen everywhere. (Remember, we saw an inflatable of it in Dublin!) The site dates back to … well, who knows. I’ve seen dates ranging from 4200 BC 2500 BC. It was excavated twenty or so years ago, and contained the remains of both children and adults, most under the age of thirty. (It was a very hard life.) Still, we can only speculate about the actual purpose of this tomb.

First sight of Poulnabrone. It’s near the road but you have to walk in to see it.

First sight of Poulnabrone. It’s near the road but you have to walk in to see it.

This is the iconic silhouette. (Margaret’s photo.)

This is the iconic silhouette. (Margaret’s photo.)

A different view. (Jill’s photo.)

A different view. (Jill’s photo.)

You have to be really, really careful where you put your feet out here. It’s a twisted ankle waiting to happen!

You have to be really, really careful where you put your feet out here. It’s a twisted ankle waiting to happen!

The Burren. Designed by glaciers.

The Burren. Designed by glaciers.

This is typical Burren landscape.

This is typical Burren landscape.

It was really, really cold!

It was really, really cold!

When it’s that windy and cold, you get tired quick, so we headed back to Kenny’s in Lahinch for grub and the free wi-fi. Password is kennysbar.ie in case you’re ever there.

I had potato and leek soup and a salad. I loved the way the cook piled different interesting things in the salad with a dollop of homemade coleslaw and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Tasty. (Margaret’s photo.)

I had potato and leek soup and a salad. I loved the way the cook piled different interesting things in the salad with a dollop of homemade coleslaw and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Tasty. (Margaret’s photo.)

The cook heard there were Yanks about and came out and spoke with us. I should say, he had quite a conversation with the cool Californians in our group! Ha! Margaret and I might as well have not been there. :)

The cook heard there were Yanks about and came out and spoke with us. I should say, he had quite a conversation with the cool Californians in our group! Ha! Margaret and I might as well have not been there. 🙂

Our room at Edel’s was really nice, with a pair of barrel chairs snugged in under the eaves, which have a window looking out on the Kenny compound (grandparents and siblings all live on this little lane). From there I watched the sun go down.

Sundown at the Kenny compound in Lahinch. Again, that’s Liscannor you see across the bay.

Sundown at the Kenny compound in Lahinch. Again, that’s Liscannor you see across the bay.

Today’s Image

This morning I sat in this same chair while Margaret slept, watching the ravens on the peak of the roof of the house in front of the B&B (the small one on the right in the photo above). It was very windy, a steady wind, and the birds were all facing into the wind. One spread its wings and lifted its feet … and then it was flying in one place, just enough to rise up and drift backward onto the edge of the chimney, about two feet higher than he was. Smooth move.

Oh, What a Beautiful Morning, Oh, What a Beautiful Day …

Day 15 / Tuesday, 25 September 2012

It’s a gorgeous view from the dining room at Tower View B&B, don’t you think? If I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it here: eat your breakfast! Even if you don’t normally eat a big breakfast at home, you should have something substantial (not least because it’s a part of your cost of lodging at a B&B) to get you going. Once you’re on the road you don’t really know when your opportunity for a coffee break … or lunch … will come. You might get peckish if you haven’t had a good breakfast.

Even on a rainy day! The dining room at Tower View.

Even on a rainy day! The dining room at Tower View.

After breakfast, we said good-bye to all the animals—especially Benji—and got right on the Slea Head drive; the B&B sits right at the “entrance” to this scenic route.

It was windy and cold, but we followed the road—it’s very narrow—along the coast. Our first stop was the lookout at the Dunbeg promontory fort, just a couple miles past Ventry (pop. 405) on the southern side of the peninsula.

Actually, you stop right here and walk across the road to the entrance to the fort. The Stonehouse Restaurant is exactly what it looks like—dry stone masonry.

Actually, you stop right here and walk across the road to the entrance to the fort. The Stonehouse Restaurant is exactly what it looks like—dry stone masonry.

Promontory forts were built by the ancients as a defense for both animals and humans (the tribal family). Animals were kept within outer walls but in times of attack the tribe could retreat to inner walls; with the sea behind them on three sides, there was less to defend against intruders. Parts of this particular structure date to the late Bronze Age (800 BC), though it also has a crumbled beehive hut, which means it was used as recently as the tenth century.

I am really fascinated by this sort of history, and in 2003 Gerry and I visited Dingle and took the walk down the hill to the fort. It’s an important site, well worth seeing (when you stoop under the lintel, you think, Boy, they were really short), but while the photos I have here don’t really show it, it’s a not-insignificant hill to climb back up when you’re (ahem) older and not a hiker. It would’ve taken pneumonia-me awhile to get back to the car.

That’s the fort down there behind the horse, right on the edge of the cliff.

That’s the fort down there behind the horse, right on the edge of the cliff.

This little donkey had plenty to say—and a lot of personality. Again, you can see the fort down there. Here’s another great view of that.

This little donkey had plenty to say—and a lot of personality. Again, you can see the fort down there. Here’s another great view of that.

On this trip, we were squeezing the drive onto an already full day, so we had to make choices, and here we chose not to walk down to the fort. We did commune with the donkey, however. 🙂

Here’s a zoom of the fort. And when my 2003 travelogue is finally posted, there will be other photos, closer up.

Here’s a zoom of the fort. And when my 2003 travelogue is finally posted, there will be other photos, closer up. Don’t forget, as well, you can click on any photo to enlarge and zoom.

This gives you a little idea of how steep the climb is. These are the fields to the west of the fort.

This gives you a little idea of how steep the climb is. These are the fields to the west of the fort.

The thing about the Slea Head drive is the views are so spectacular you want to stop every few feet. Fortunately, there are turnouts all along the road to facilitate this. (Also to facilitate two vehicles’ passing, should you encounter oncoming traffic. Most people tend to drive in the direction we did, though: clockwise.)

It’s very dramatic along this drive. I mean … doesn’t this just make you happy? It does me.

It’s very dramatic along this drive. I mean … doesn’t this just make you happy? It does me.

Same spot, looking the opposite direction; those are the Blaskets up ahead, so we were past Glanfahan but not yet to An Cros.

Same spot, looking the opposite direction; those are the Blaskets up ahead, so we were past Glanfahan but not yet to An Cros.

Here you can see the (very narrow) road and the little pullout; I’m looking behind us, so Dunbeg is back that way, around that curve.

Here you can see the (very narrow) road and the little pullout; I’m looking behind us, so Dunbeg is back that way, around that curve.

Now looking across the road. Sheep are everywhere. Fences mean little.

Now looking across the road. Sheep are everywhere. Fences mean little.

Now looking back out to sea; that’s the Iveragh Peninsula, probably Valencia Island.

Now looking back out to sea; that’s the Iveragh Peninsula, probably Valencia Island.

The rain kept quite a few away, I’m sure. And by this time in September we’d reached the “off season,” although I personally love September in Ireland for that very reason. (February is even more off—and also colder.) I’ve read that in July and August, these roads are practically impassable, there are so many tourists, which is why I’ll probably never visit then. This is also why the drive is traditionally driven clockwise, though there are no posted signs requiring you do so.

Continuing on to another pullout; you can see the road is only one lane wide. We’re at Slea Head.

Continuing on to another pullout; you can see the road is only one lane wide. We’re at Slea Head.

This is An Cros, at Slea Head; you can see Dunmore Head beyond the red car.

This is An Cros, at Slea Head; you can see Dunmore Head beyond the red car.

As noted, this particular point—the titular Slea Head—was packed when Gerry and I were here in 2003 (perhaps about a week earlier in the year). Today it was just three vehicles, some sheep, and that crucifix. I searched and searched and finally found some information about the statuary. The locals call it, simply, the Cross, and because we’re in the Gaeltacht, that’s An Cros to you. It was put up sometime before the 1960s—funded by an Irish-American lawyer who was a relative of a local priest—to mark the boundary between Dingle Town parish and the parish of Ballyferriter. And, of course, to dazzle the tourists. 🙂

So we parked, got out. There were a couple of guys with a camera on a tripod and an enormous zoom lens … whale-watching. Alli made friends immediately. She’s good at that. 🙂

Whale-watching guys mugging for the camera. (Jill’s photo.)

Whale-watching guys mugging for the camera. (Jill’s photo.)

Another pull-out, another photo. Here we’re barely past An Cros, looking at Lure (the rock), just off Dunmore Head, and the Blasket Islands in the distance. See the farthest one? They call it the Sleeping Giant. Can you see it? He’s lying on his back.

Another pull-out, another photo. Here we’re barely past An Cros, looking at Lure (the rock), just off Dunmore Head, and the Blasket Islands in the distance. See the farthest one? They call it the Sleeping Giant. Can you see it? He’s lying on his back.

Approaching Dunmore Head.

Approaching Dunmore Head.

Rocks! Lots of ’em!

Rocks! Lots of ’em!

On the R559 approaching Dunmore Head. I can’t tell you why this little strip of land fascinates me so, but it just does. I imagine myself in that little grey house, looking out and seeing the sea on both sides of me, and I kinda shiver. In a good way, I think. (Margaret’s photo.) Don’t forget, you can click on any photo and see it larger, and if you click again, you can zoom in.

On the R559 approaching Dunmore Head. I can’t tell you why this little strip of land fascinates me so, but it just does. I imagine myself in that little grey house, looking out and seeing the sea on both sides of me, and I kinda shiver. In a good way, I think. (Margaret’s photo.) Don’t forget, you can click on any photo and see it larger, and if you click again, you can zoom in.

Western tip of Dunmore Head.

Western tip of Dunmore Head.

You get a good view of the Blasket Islands from this point.

You get a good view of the Blasket Islands from this point.

The head of the Sleeping Giant through the zoom lens. To me it always looks like the head of a crouching dragon but I guess you could see Abraham Lincoln too.

The head of the Sleeping Giant through the zoom lens. To me it always looks like the head of a crouching dragon but I guess you could see Abraham Lincoln too.

Back in the car, drive a little further, probably to the Ballinglanna area.

Now we’re past Dunmore Head on other side of the Blaskets.

Now we’re past Dunmore Head on other side of the Blaskets.

Looking back the way we’ve come. This is not exactly like having your house on the celebrity tour in Los Angeles, but it might as well be.

Looking back the way we’ve come. This is not exactly like having your house on the Homes of the Stars celebrity tour in Los Angeles, but it might as well be.

Even if you had all the conveniences inside the house, what a pill to get groceries, medical care, etc. It’s beautiful here, but I’m not sure I could do it… (Margaret’s photo.)

Even if you had all the conveniences inside the house, what a pill to get groceries, medical care, etc. It’s beautiful here, but I’m not sure I could do it… (Margaret’s photo.)

At last we were at the Blasket Centre in Dunquin (pop. 74). This lovely heritage museum opened in 1993, forty years after the last group of islanders—the Great Blasket had been inhabited for at least three hundred years—was relocated to the mainland. It was a harsh life, made more so because there was no shop, no doctor, no priest. There had been no school since 1941. The crossing to the mainland was dependent on the weather, and once there, it was still a twelve-mile walk to the nearest doctor.

Still, they stayed. In the 1920s folklore scholars were delighted to find these people were perhaps the only group of Irish speakers who could not also speak English. These people were encouraged to write their life stories in their native tongue, and several of those books have become celebrated classics.

While Jill and Alli enjoyed a cup of tea and a bowl of soup in the snack shop, Margaret and I browsed through the exhibits and watched a moving documentary about life on the Great Blasket. (And also shopped in the bookstore, of course!) And then … back in the car!

Clogher Head, near Ballyferriter, looking west toward Sybil Head and the Three Sisters.

Clogher Head, near Ballyferriter, looking west toward Sybil Head and the Three Sisters.

I believe this is Dún an Óir village.

I believe this is Dún an Óir village.

The other side of Sybil Head and Smerwick Harbor, taken near Gallarus.

Smerwick Harbor and the other side of Sybil Head, taken near Gallarus.

We were on our way to see Gallarus Oratory, I for the second time. Again, I can’t tell you how excited I get over old piles of rock; this one is reputed to have been built in the 700s. Or 800s. They’re not really sure, frankly. They’re not sure about a lot of things. Was it an early Christian church? Or a gravesite? What they do know is it is an almost perfect example dry rubble masonry (that is, no mortar); each slab laid at a tilt so that water runs off, rather than inside. (Rick Steves claims he’s gotten wet inside it on a very rainy day, but others claim not to have, so I don’t know whom to believe. But I’ve seen the thing up close, and it looks pretty snug to me.) Margaret and I undertook the hike up the hill (not that difficult, really, unless you’re unwell). Wow.

It was pretty windy as we were walking up the hill to the Gallarus Oratory. I loved this image of the undersides of the leaves, blowing up in the wind.

It was pretty windy as we were walking up the hill to the Gallarus Oratory. I loved this image of the undersides of the leaves, blowing up in the wind.

Looking back down the hill we’re walking as we head to the oratory; now we’re looking northwestish at the Three Sisters from the other side, across Smerwick Harbor.

Looking back down the hill we’re walking as we head to the oratory; now we’re looking northwestish at the Three Sisters from the other side, across Smerwick Harbor.

There is it—the oratory (church)!

There is it—the oratory (church)!

Let’s get a little closer.

Let’s get a little closer.

Some say it looks like an upturned boat. Whatever. I don’t think that was the point.

Some say it looks like an upturned boat. Whatever. I don’t think that was the point.

A little cross, also very old—before they had the sorts of tools that could carve those magnificent high crosses we’ve seen.

A little cross, also very old—before they had the sorts of tools that could carve those magnificent high crosses we’ve seen.

The back side.

The back side.

This had to’ve been a lot of work.

This had to’ve been a lot of work.

Inside, taken with flash.

Inside, taken with flash.

And that was it. It was lunchtime and we still had a four-hour drive to our next B&B in Lahinch (pop. 600), so we needed to get off the peninsula. Naturally, that’s when we got a little turned around. Emily (GPS) finally put us to rights, though not before she took us up a one-lane horse-cart track. Pretty exciting, I must say.

Even when you’re lost you can see some pretty things, though; this is heather.

Even when you’re lost you can see some pretty things, though; this is heather.

One last stop as we’re leaving the Dingle Peninsula.

One last stop as we’re leaving the Dingle Peninsula.

On the peninsula, all roads lead back to Dingle town, where we caught the N86 to Tralee (pop. 23,693) and the N69 through Listowel (pop. 4,338) to Tarbert (pop. 805), where we would catch the Kilrush Ferry. This was a mad dash, because crossing the Shannon here would save quite a bit of time; we just weren’t certain how long we might have to wait for the next ferry.

It was rainy, windy, and cold on the ferry; I didn’t get out. That’s my little collection of flora on the dash.

It was rainy, windy, and cold on the ferry; I didn’t get out. That’s my little collection of flora on the dash.

Fortunately, the wait was mere minutes. We had a few nervous moments looking at the price schedule while we were in line to pay; it’s very confusing and slightly alarming. As it turns out, it was twenty euro (I think) for our car and passengers to cross.

From Killimer (pop. 482) on the other side we called Edel Kenny, our B&B hostess, to let her know we were on the way. We were all pretty hungry and were considering stopping for a pub meal somewhere along the road. “Oh, you’re close,” she said. “You can eat when you get here. Take the N67.” This was counterintuitive, but it turned out to be a great choice of route. So off we went through Kilrush (pop. 2,694), Kilkee (pop. 1,024), Doonbeg (pop. 206), Quilty (pop. 194), and Milltown Malbay (pop. 1,580), and finally we were in Lahinch.

Edel had given us directions to the Craglea Lodge B&B, “but if you pass it, just go on in to Kenny’s Bar and they’ll help you.” Because, it turns out, Edel is a Kenny. The bar is owned by her brother, the shop across the street (Kenny’s Woolen Mills & Gifts) by her sister. All of this is at the top of Main Street, where it ends at Church Street; and they all live in a group of homes just behind that (frankly, I’m surprised the Kenny compound isn’t on the map!). We easily found the B&B but Edel, a nurse, had to work until eight o’clock, so we went into town for some supper.

I loved Lahinch the last time I was here and thought it was a great, central location (in spite of our lodging in the Village of the Damned, which is a story not yet published in the 2006 travelogue). I’d been sick that time, too (flying on airplanes is apparently hazardous to my health), and had a wonderful Guinness beef stew at Kenny’s Bar that I am certain was instrumental in my recovery. The seating arrangement is different, and for a while I wondered if I’d remembered wrong … but I’ve since found a video taken there with the old arrangement I remember.

The Kenny public house on Main Street in Lahinch. Highly recommended. (Jill’s photo.)

The Kenny public house on Main Street in Lahinch. Highly recommended. (Jill’s photo.)

We were there about 5:45 and had to wait for the kitchen to open; in the meantime shops on the street were closing up, although Jill and Alli went out for a quick look around. I was exhausted from the drive, so I stayed put and had my first Guinness of the trip. Kenny’s is quite cozy and snug, the waitress (not a member of the fam but a longtime employee nonetheless) was friendly and attentive, and the barman was, too, talking to us from behind the counter as he rinsed and dried glasses one by one. (Later no one believed me when I said he was British, not Irish … but I was right. Ha! There are a lot of not-Irish folk waiting tables in Ireland, including an American girl at the Shelbourne and Germans at the Pearl Brasserie.)

Eventually the kitchen opened, food was served, and it was good. I had the beef and Guinness pie with a salad and veg.

Afterward—we were still waiting for Edel to return—Jill walked down to the little Spar (like a convenience store in the States, but in Ireland conveniently located in the middle of town) for bottled water and some fresh fruit. Nothing fresh available, and the proprietor told her she’d have to drive into Ennistymon (pop. 881) for a grocery store. What? I was pretty sure there was a Centra grocery store in the next block—and there was. Why did the guy tell her there wasn’t another grocery in town? Maybe because she was American and he could have a bit of sport with her? Who knows!

Then I drove everyone to the pier to have a look at the sea and to get a layout of the land. If I hadn’t been sick, this would have been an after-dinner stroll, of course. I also drove them to have a look at the Village of the Damned. It’s not Pepto-Bismol pink anymore—it’s been painted white—which improves its ambience not one whit.

By this time we were tired, so we checked at the B&B and caught Edel’s teenaged daughter returning home from a music theory lesson, so she let us in. And all was well until I learned there was no wi-fi. I’d been very frustrated with the trouble I’d had getting online, particularly at places whose websites had declared the availability of it when I was making reservations. “You can go down to Kenny’s,” I was told. (Not what I had in mind, but it ended up being a minor inconvenience.) Edel returned from work and came around to introduce herself. She’s chatty and friendly. (In the Small World Department, Edel works at the nursing home where I went to the Sunday walk-in clinic back in 2006.) And then I was really ready for bed!

Edel, house dog Drago the Labradoodle, and Alli.

Edel, house dog Drago the Labradoodle, and Alli.

Today’s Observation

I know I keep going back to the cultural differences in table service, but here’s another one: it’s a problem, in Ireland, in my experience, to split tickets at a table. Here in the States, the server often asks, “Will this be one ticket or separate tickets?” In fact, servers tend to assume separate tickets. This seems reasonable to me, but everywhere we went, if we asked—always ahead of time—to have separate billing, it seemed as if we were asking for something unusual and difficult. Some places really weren’t happy about it. At Kenny’s they were nice enough about it, but it was clearly out of the ordinary, and I’m not the sort of person who likes to ask for special favors.

A Visit to Doc Shannon …er, ShannonDoc

Sunday, 12 February 2006, Co. Clare
After another night of coughing that I could feel from my waist to the top of my head, I was finally convinced I was not getting better. Isn’t that what we always think, that we’re about to turn the corner? It was definitely wishful thinking in this case. In fact, I was concerned that I was getting a sinus infection, and rather than wait for it to make me truly miserable (I wrote in my notes: “My neck, my cheeks, my ears, even my teeth hurt”), and possibly spoil my trip, I decided I’d had enough. Gerry’d been patient and kind and attentive, but TLC was no longer enough. I wanted drugs.

This makes it sound all very civilized, when in fact what happened was I hobbled into the living room, threw myself on the couch, and whimpered, while, possibly, shedding a few tears, “I’m sooo sick. Do you think you can find me a doctor, like, right now? Pleeeeeze?”

Gerry dialed 11811, which, in Ireland, gets you both Yellow Pages (called Golden Pages) directory assistance and regular old information too. And it’s live, not automated. He requested a doctor in Lahinch, and was given a number to call. This was at eight a.m., which is important to the story; you see, it seems Gerry was given the number of a doctor who is retired. Actually—he woke him up. The man was then kind enough to rouse his wife, who got up and located the number of an after-hours clinic! In spite of the fact that it involves my causing two elderly folk to be woken out of a sound sleep on a Sunday morning, this is my favorite story of the trip. 🙂

Lucky, lucky me: Gerry called the clinic and learned it was in Ennistymon, or, actually, just outside Ennistymon, on the Lahinch side. So it was very close, a five-minute drive. “Just look for the ShannonDoc sign,” we were told, and to arrive at ten-thirty. No prob.

Gerry cooked up a wonderful breakfast that I could hardly eat, and by ten-twenty we were turning up the long drive to an old folks’ home, out of the back of which ShannonDoc operates, as Gerry mused aloud that the name sounded like an American television show (Doc Shannon: the story of a kind, small-town country doctor saving life and limb in the wilds of western Ireland! Tune in next week when a rich American benefactor of Irish ancestry gifts the Doc with a helicopter, to dramatically increase the amount of lives and limbs he can save! You won’t want to miss this touching episode, etc.!).

The waiting room was in the home’s dining room, empty, at that hour, of the elderly, although the décor was distinctly … old-folksy. While we waited (Gerry with his newspaper, me with my book), the loudspeaker on the wall crackled into action, as a small choir of really old women with quavery voices began singing a hymn, a capella. It was time for mass to begin, and it was being broadcast to everyone in the home, even us sick people waiting in the dining-slash-waiting room.

We were only there a short time, but I remember the kindness of the nurse, who stroked my arm with tenderness as she took my temperature, speaking quietly to me as she wrote in my chart, assuring me that I’d be well taken care of (not that I was worried). The doctor was a gentle, long-haired man in his early forties who said, as he looked at my chart, “the closest I ever got to Tennessee was Harlan County, Kentucky,” which, all things considered, I told him, was pretty darned close! It seems I was wheezy (I’d listened to that wheeze for two nights), developing bronchitis; he gave me a day-and-a-half’s worth of antibiotics and a prescription for more. He was very thorough, even informing me that the pills I would get from the pharmacist might be a different color. The whole episode took half an hour and cost forty euro (roughly forty-eight dollars), which I didn’t think was bad at all.

But this is my vacation. I’d like to see something.

So from there we set off to explore the Burren (from the Gaelic boireann, meaning a rock or a stony place), which, as I mentioned earlier, is a geologically important land formation of stratified karst limestone in northwest County Clare, about 115 square miles of it. It’s nearly impossible to describe; I read something interesting just now that said it’s not obvious like, say, the Grand Canyon. After all, Ireland is a rocky place anyway. You could just … not notice it. 🙂

But then you do: those hills aren’t green, they’re grey.

See it? The grey hills? That’s the Burren.

See it? The grey hills? That’s the Burren.

Look closer now. Those are hills of limestone.

Look closer now. Those are hills of limestone.

And suddenly you find yourself driving down lanes between fields of stone, like pavement, eroded into interesting patterns; underneath there are huge caves and rivers that can flood when it rains (spelunking is not for amateurs here, as it can be dangerous). Let’s not even discuss the potential for twisted ankles, since it makes me cringe. It is a very inhospitable land, and it goes on for miles and miles.

But you know it when you see it. The Burren.

But you know it when you see it. The Burren.

It would have been a hard, hard existence here, eking out a life from this rough landscape, yet you can find remnants of whole villages that were abandoned—either through death or emigration—during the Famine, which is fairly recent. That they were, actually, living here is the fault of Oliver Cromwell, a horrible man, the English Lord Protector who’d recently toppled King Charles in the English Civil War and was now engaged in a ten-year war of extermination (that is, genocide) against the Irish. (Actually, Cromwell had it in for Catholics, but at that time the Irish were almost all Catholic.) By the mid-1600s he had forced them to surrender, and tried to crush the Irish resistance by deporting thousands of land-owning Irishmen to west of the Shannon, saying he would send them “to Hell or Connaught!” (The Burren is a part of the province of Connaught.) At the sight of this poor and barren province, even one of Cromwell’s own generals observed that there was “neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him.”

There’s strong evidence of a thriving prehistoric life in the Burren too. There are megalithic stone hilltop cairns (graves), wedge tombs, and portal tombs (called dolmens) that date as far back as 3800 BC (although they were used well into the Bronze Age, which is put at 2200–500 BC). There are over three hundred fulachta fiadh—horseshoe-shaped mounds of burnt stone, built around stone or timber water toughs, which are the remains of giant Bronze Age cooking-pits, and there are stone circles too. There are several impressive stone forts that date from the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500). And early Christianity is represented as well, with up to eighty-two ecclesiastical sites—church ruins, cemeteries, hermitages and monastic enclosures, holy wells, saints’ seats or beds, and penitential stations—covering a millennium of worship.

I find this all quite amazing, given what the Burren looks like.

We’d watched the weather (on the all-Gaelic-all-the-time channel), which had indicated that we’d get rain all day. Indeed, the wind had blown ferociously through the night, and the morning light had been slow in coming due to the heavy overcast. After watching the forecast, I’d expected it to be pouring down rain, but it was just a light/thick mist, really. We drove down the N6 toward Lisdoonvarna, stopping off in Kilfenora to visit the little twelfth-century cathedral there.

This was a repeat visit; we were here in 2003. And, like the discovery I’d made yesterday at the Cliffs, progress has reached the little cathedral here, too: they’ve put a lovely glass roof on the once-roofless north transept (the south transept is completely gone). I actually was quite taken with it (watch for a photo); after all, a new roof is a new roof. This one makes no pretense about “fitting in”—it is sleek and modern and lets in plenty of light; I just really liked the juxtaposition of the thousand-year-old stones and the modern glass roof.

Love the glass roof at St. Fachnan’s.

Love the glass roof at St. Fachnan’s.

Kilfenora has three very famous high crosses; now two of them have been moved inside from the churchyard, to preserve them from the elements. This has been going on all over Ireland, an attempt to keep the intricate carvings from eroding.

The Doorty Cross, east face, in 2006.

The Doorty Cross, east face, in 2006.

The Doorty Cross, west face.

The Doorty Cross, west face.

Generally they house them right on the premises, as they do in Kilfenora; often they install … um … fakes, back out in the churchyard. Inside the chancel there is an interesting Gothic style sedilia built into the wall (a seat for the priest), above it is the carved head of a bishop.

The sedilia inside the old cathedral.

The sedilia inside the old cathedral.

Even though there were no overt drops of rain, it was very, very wet. This is an interesting and very Irish situation, it seems to me; walking around in it was less unpleasant than being in a downpour, even a light one, but we were getting just as soaked. So we got back in the car with the intention of finding the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a well-known site that we’d failed to find in 2003 (when we were driving around in a downpour).

On our way there I saw a little old church out in a field, and stopped to investigate. To get from the road into the field I had to go into a shallow ditch and up over a stone stile; there was a farm dog running around, following a couple who’d gone in before me about a minute earlier, although he came back and gave me a few friendly wags of his tail before running off on some other dogly errand. I watched as the pair climbed over a second stile into the churchyard; the iron gate has long since rusted shut.

The iron gate to the churchyard—long since rusted shut. Look for the cairn too. (Remember, you can enlarge any photo by clicking on it, then clicking again.

The iron gate to the churchyard—long since rusted shut. Look for the cairn too. (Remember, you can enlarge any photo by clicking on it, then clicking again.

We learned, together (from a sign near the gate), that this is Carron Church, and it served the largest parish in Clare until the sixteenth century, when it began to decline. The initial building was erected around 1200, but some of what is there now dates from the fifteenth century. You can see this in the photo of the doorway below—you can see the edge of the older material, and what was added, perhaps after a raid of some sort: a hodgepodge of materials that came to hand, including an old broken grindstone, a half-circle of rock that sticks out incongruously, but which was just fine to use to rebuild the church (it’s very human and touching, it seems to me). And just so you know, that raid comment isn’t out of the blue: the church has battlements and a bartizan (a small defensive projection that allowed defenders to fire on intruders below), which suggests that the parish priest felt a need to protect himself. And, of course, he did.

Standing inside Carron Church, looking at the rebuilt doorway. See the grindstone? See the irregular “line” through the wall to the left of the doorway? This entire doorway was blasted out once, and repaired.

Standing inside Carron Church, looking at the rebuilt doorway. See the grindstone? See the irregular “line” through the wall to the left of the doorway? This entire doorway was blasted out once, and repaired.

To the south of the church there is a small mound of stones—a cairn—from which Carron probably gets its name (you can see it in the distance in the photo above of the iron gate, in front of the far fenceline). It used to be a local custom to carry coffins around the cairn before they were buried in the churchyard.

Cairns can be found all over the world, but they are very common in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales—three regions that also share a language, Gaelic (although the dialects are different). They are always manmade, and the tradition may have begun as burial mounds among prehistoric peoples. They were often used as a landmark or to commemorate an event. (The Scots even have a blessing: Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, that is, “I’ll put a stone on your cairn.”) As a side note, cairn terriers, a breed that originated in Scotland, were bred specifically to hunt small game of the type that would live in and around a cairn.

It may seem—when you see the photos—like just another desolate pile of rocks (no pun intended), but when you’re there in person, it’s very moving. There’s no traffic noise; perhaps you hear the wind rustle through the tall grass. It’s just a silent, holy place, a monument to the hardy souls who lived in the area, squeezing a living out of the rocky fields. On Sundays, at the end of a long week, they came, perhaps in a donkey cart but more likely on foot, walking for miles to worship … right here.

Inside the sanctuary of Carron Church; it’s very old. (The white dots are rain drops on the camera lens.)

Inside the sanctuary of Carron Church; it’s very old. (The white dots are rain drops on the camera lens.)

I struck up a conversation with the other visitors, a brother and sister. Originally from County Clare, he’d moved away, but she still lives in and is very fond of Clare. He was just visiting. We talked some about the features of the church listed in the little informational sign in the churchyard, and about being here in winter, which has its drawbacks (it’s wet and chilly, after all). But she pointed out how nice it was to be here with no tour buses, and said that this was the only time of year that we could see these things without having people crawling all over. (As tourists, we often don’t think enough about the locals, and how we’re affecting their lives.) I was grateful to see this place with these two quiet people.

I mentioned, then, that we were going to Poulnabrone and they said that they were going there next too. The Poulnabrone portal (or tomb) dolmen dates from the Neolithic period, around 3400 BC. Used as burial sites, portal dolmens are always oriented toward the rising sun, indicating a reverence for the dead that suggests a religious attitude. These people—the pre-Celts—were the matriarchal society we’d learned about in the documentary we’d seen the night before. Poulnabroune is still in the process of being completely excavated; since 1986 the remains of fourteen adults and six children have been discovered, along with fragments of jewelry and pottery, arrowheads, and other artifacts.

So we got in the car and rolled a couple miles to Poulnabrone.

Poulnabrone seen from the road. You can see how we missed it in 2003 (in the rain).

Poulnabrone seen from the road. You can see how we missed it in 2003 (in the rain).

We walked around—carefully, watching where we put our feet.

Gerry, staying warm at Poulnabrone.

Gerry, staying warm at Poulnabrone.

Poulnabrone dolmen.

Poulnabrone dolmen.

Another angle of Poulnabrone, 2006.

Another angle of Poulnabrone, 2006.

It was lovely … until a tour bus pulled up.

Rant: I’d imagined … hoped … that I’d get through this trip without seeing one, but nooooooo. Nooooo. Don’t do it, kids! Don’t get on that bus! Strike out on your own! Strike out for Freedom and Truth and Beauty and stuff like that there! (ahem) But seriously. Just call me anti-structured-tour: I just don’t want to be told what to look at, what to think; I like finding my own way based on what interests me. And I certainly don’t want to be told how long I have to shop! Frankly, the “wrong” or unexpected turns we’ve taken have added just as much to the trip as the times when we’ve gone straight to our destination—sometimes much more. (Thus endeth rant.)

Anyway, this bus vomited out thirty or so bored-looking young people (I’d say they were ages eighteen to twenty-five) of a variety of nationalities. Some English-speakers (some Americans in that group), some not. It’s a short hike to the dolmen from the road, and I actually heard one girl say, once she and her friend had arrived, “There, can we go back to the bus now?”

Seriously, who is paying for this woman to take this wonderful trip? I could (maybe understand a comment like that if she were a five-year-old. (sigh)

The woman I’d spoken to at Carron Church earlier made eye contact with me and smiled, and, without missing a beat, suggested that Gerry and I might enjoy Aillwee Cave. And at that we said good-bye and moved on.

The cave was a few miles up the road, and as we drove we listened to the radio. Gerry had it tuned to RTÉ, which is sort of like NPR and sort of like the BBC. Probably more like the latter. You know you’re in Ireland, though, when it strikes the Angelus at noon and six p.m. It’s an arresting sound (the bell chimes in three groups of three, with a pause between groups); one should stop and say the Angelus (prayer) during this time. Can you imagine what might be accomplished if this actually happened?

We’d also been listening to a lot of discussion about the Irish president’s trip to Saudi Arabia; you see, from this country born of a Neolithic matriarchal society, President Mary McAleese had just been sent to address the Jeddah Economic Forum in Saudi Arabia—a country where women are largely prevented from voting in elections and are subject to numerous discriminatory practices, which are sometimes required by law. Indeed, at this event women were required to arrive through a separate entrance and to sit, unseen, behind a screen! Let me tell you, people were outraged. At least the ones calling in to the RTÉ talk show were. (To be fair, in her speech Ms. McAleese called for women’s participation in Saudi Arabian political and economic life.)

And then we arrived at Aillwee Cave, “Ireland’s premier showcave,” as the souvenir booklet trumpets on its cover. This is one of the many caves in (or underneath) the Burren that I mentioned earlier, but, as the booklet points out, these other caves are “wild” caves and must be treated with caution, as they react very quickly to rainfall and could be very dangerous. The most interesting thing about Aillwee (pronounce this ALL-wee), really, is the story of its discovery. They think that the first modern man to discover the cave was the landowner, Jacko McGann, in 1940. He’s described as a herdsman, but I’m not sure if that’s cattle or sheep. He was forty-four years of age at the time, and he crawled in with a candle, explored some, left his initials scratched in the wall … and then didn’t mention the cave to anyone for thirty-three years! At that time he told a group of cavers from Bristol (England) University about it, and they performed a more thorough exploration. Two years later work was begun to open the cave to the public. The booklet shows photos of “Sunday afternoons in the car park,” picturing a traditional music group and dancers (probably taken more than twenty years ago), which I think must have been fun, in a weird way. The booklet also has a very thorough timeline, which lists such items as “1980, second tea-room and terrace opened,” “1985, Japanese royal visit,” and “Jan. 1989, ice-cream kiosk constructed”—in addition to the more important stuff like “1977, sump 1 first dived by Jeff Philips” and “Mar. 1989, tour extended to take in waterfall.” 🙂

Aside from all this fascinating detail, really, it’s … well … just a cave, albeit a charming one. Like lots of caves, it maintains a constant temperature of 50°F, has bats, lots of straw stalactites, and shows evidence that prehistoric animals used it (no human evidence until Jacko entered in 1940). Most interesting are the hibernation pits and bones of a brown bear; since bears have been extinct in Ireland for over a thousand years, this part of the exhibit is pretty special.

All in all, a pleasant hour or so. On our way out, we stopped at the little Farm Shop at the bottom of Aillwee Mountain, and bought some nice fresh cheeses and local honey (the label reads, simply, “100% pure and natural, unheated and coarse filtered honey from Ben Johnson’s apiaries in the Burren, Co. Clare”), which we used at supper that night.

The “edge” of the Burren comes upon you without warning. You’ve been driving through fields of stone, and then … you’re not. I stopped and took some pictures as we left this unique region behind.

Leaving the Burren behind. Love that hairpin-curved road.

Leaving the Burren behind. Love that hairpin-curved road.

Back in Lahinch we went for a late lunch at the Shamrock Hotel (the second recommendation, you may recall), where I had a nice potato-leek soup. We wandered down to the sea and parked.

Parked along the seawall. The Spinnaker Hotel is where we’d originally reserved an apartment.

Parked along the seawall. The Spinnaker Hotel is where we’d originally reserved an apartment.

We walked along the sea wall, where I took photos of the beach at high tide. Actually there is no beach at high tide; the waves were already crashing on the rocks that support the sea wall, and as I watched the sun go down they came close enough that I could feel the spray. Time to go home!

High tide, sunset, at Lahinch, February 2006.

High tide, sunset, at Lahinch, February 2006.

Back at home, we boiled water for tea and laid out fruit, crackers and cheese, and the honey we’d bought at the farm shop. Perfect and cozy.

Tea and goodies … and even a couple books we bought at one or another gift shop.

Tea and goodies … and even a couple books we bought at one or another gift shop.

That night we watched a television dramatization of what’s known in Ireland as the Stardust Disaster. It refers to the Stardust nightclub, which burned just after midnight on Valentine’s Day in 1981, causing the deaths of forty-eight young (teens and early twenties) people (Wikipedia’s article really covers all the bases), maiming many more (over two hundred were injured), and creating devastation in the Artane neighborhood where it was located. Gerry grew up in Artane and still lives there; he was a regular at the nightclub at that time (he says it was the place to go, if you were from Artane; he and his friends usually showed up about once a week, although “none of us were there that night,” he told me). His parents were good friends with people who lost children in the fire, so it was definitely an event that touched his family, and he was interested in watching it.

As is the case with disasters such as this, there are many, many unanswered questions, and twenty-five years later the wound is still fresh; the RTÉ docu-drama itself was controversial, as many of the Stardust families, as they’re known, felt as if it was taking advantage of their pain. I myself sat there crying, watching as the parents rushed from one hospital to the next, searching for their children. The scene was very disorganized, and it was hours and hours before parents could get an accounting; some parents lost more than one child.

Even though some exits were locked and others had chains draped around the handles (to make them look as if they were locked), most of the kids might have made it had the doors opened outward. As it was, once the panic started, the people closest to the doors were simply crushed against them—there was never enough room to swing the doors inward. This gives me chills just thinking about it.

Sadly, the owner of the club collected his insurance money and went on with his life, never publicly acknowledging the families’ loss. To add insult to injury, he kept the property, which has had a car park (read: parking lot) on it; however, late last year he built a new bar, called the Silver Swan (which is the name of the pub many of the Stardust victims drank at before heading over to the nightclub back in 1981), at one end and—incredible as this may seem—planned to open it on February 14, 2006, exactly twenty-five years after the fire. Members of the Stardust families have been picketing in front of the business ever since, trying to dissuade people from entering. The opening was postponed for a few days as a result, but I believe it’s open now. No word on how well it’s doing—they’re still picketing out there.

The Morning After

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.

Wild gorse!

Wild gorse!

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.

Our little pink house in the Village of the Damned.

Our little pink house in the Village of the Damned.

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.

Construction at the Cliffs of Moher.

Construction at the Cliffs of Moher.

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.

You can see why, though: this was the path that tourists used to use to walk along the edge of the cliff. Probably a bit dangerous, all things considered.

You can see why, though: this was the path that tourists used to use to walk along the edge of the cliff. Probably a bit dangerous, all things considered.

This is a bit of the new path. Better, but still dangerous. If you wanted to go over the edge, you could. A work in progress!

This is a bit of the older path. Better, but still dangerous. If you wanted to go over the edge, you could. A work in progress!

See? I took this standing next to the danger sign.

See? I took this standing next to the danger sign.

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.

But it made me happy, sick as I was.

But it made me happy, sick as I was.

We even walked up to O’Brien’s Tower, a Victorian-era observation tower (that is, a tourist attraction).

O’Brien’s Tower in 2006, just after the remodeling at the Cliffs had begun.

O’Brien’s Tower in 2006, just after the remodeling at the Cliffs had begun.

This is what it looked like in 2011—all shiny and new! (I got this photo from Wikipedia.)

This is what it looked like in 2011—all shiny and new! (I got this photo from Wikipedia.)

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:

Dear Jamie
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
yours
in fear of forward planning
Mike O’Connor

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 low-tide beach at Lahinch, February 2006.

The low-tide beach at Lahinch, February 2006.

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. 🙂