by Dyanne Kelley, November 2018

Let’s start with driving. The Irish very inconveniently drive on the left side of the road. Flying into Shannon, a small airport, gives us time to practice our skills.  Just in case Google Maps disconnects we opt for an old-fashioned Garmin navigator as well.  The car rental agent asks several times if we have insurance coverage. He says Ireland is very often excluded in worldwide coverage. Not a confidence booster.  He also says more than once, you will remember to drive on the left side of the road. He smiles like he said something funny. I repeat it to myself like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, yes, I will remember to drive on the left side of the road; yes, I will remember to drive on the left side of the road.

Off we go in a little red car the size of a soup can. The trunk fits one of our suitcases, and there are no visor mirrors or inside lights.  No quick peeks at how I look before getting out of the car here. We watched YouTube videos in preparation. My Guy takes the wheel.  Within minutes an Irish driver shouts at us as he passes letting us know the slow lane is on the left, not the right, you silly. The Irish have a need for speed. Get out of the way and they’re happy. You get the little one finger wave then. Up ahead, oh no, the dreaded roundabout.  Roundabouts are traffic circles where cars enter at four different places and go roundabout until exiting. Look right, turn left.  At the roundabout, Missy Garmin says, take the second exit. Oops, off the first exit he goes. No worries another one ahead. At the Roundabout, she says again, take the third exit. Oops off the second one we go.  The pressure to go roundabout is just too much. To make sure we get enough practice there’s a roundabout every quarter mile or so as we start out and head toward the Cliffs of Moher. At the roundabout, take the….okay we got it now. Driving lesson number one: Trust the Garmin. Listen to and do whatever she says. She’s like an all-knowing voice from heaven. Don’t bother trying to read the road signs. They often don’t match the directions or are non-existent.  While the Irish are good at many things, signage is not one of them.  

Do’s and Don’ts of Driving in Ireland

Now we’re off the highway on what I would call back roads barely wide enough for one car let alone two. Yikes, there are no freakin’ berms on these roads. My side of the car brushes the overgrown bushes lining the edge of the road. I think I’m going to be sick. Being the driver and driving on the left side of the road is not the hard part here. Being the passenger is the hard part.  I learn to look straight ahead and not get alarmed as the branches scratch against the door.  Our map has the major roads marked by the letter N and a number.  We call these the Nice roads. The secondary roads are marked by the letter L which we decide means Lousy, filled with bumps, pot holes and curves. Then there are the roads marked by the letter R, for Roughshod. These are the ones with grass growing right down the middle, seriously like a cow or tractor path. About the third day I took the wheel on the Beara Peninsula after My Guy got tired of the back roads and cliff driving.  It lasted under fifteen minutes. Being next to a cliff is not a good introduction to driving on the left side of the road. My Guy’s anxiety got the best of him especially with my speedy driving and hanging close to the edge. Stop the car he shouted looking green, I can’t take it. We switched drivers. I didn’t get another chance behind the wheel until the following week when My Guy had some digestive issues going on and needed to get home quickly. I obliged but couldn’t decide if driving slow and delaying getting back or driving fast and risking more motion sickness were the best options. We made it. I drove again in Kinsale, a small town of winding, small streets with cars parked along them like there was even enough room. This was necessity driving in that My Guy was golfing at Old Head, a famous golf course, and unless I was going to spend a day staring out at the beautiful scenery, which I could have, I needed to get behind the wheel. We did a practice run first. Okay, so I hit a couple of curbs going around curves at a decent rate of speed. I figured out though if I watched the white center line out of my side mirror I could stay within the allotted space.  I was good to go. My driving time in Ireland…probably less than an hour.     

I figured I had to be using up calories with all the bouncing and jiggling going on in the car. Wasn’t there a fitness center designed on that concept a while back?  You put the belt around your thighs and it vibrated your excess.  It must be the secret to keeping weight off in Ireland for sure. About two-thirds of the way into the trip we realize both our navigation systems take us as the crow flies which means we bumpity bumped our way through Ireland.  Truly off the beaten path we were. An adventure I highly recommend if you have the stomach for it. Don’t forget you’ll be burning up extra calories.

Yesterday and Today

Having been to Ireland before nearly 20 years ago I felt drawn back to the place of my heritage. There’s so much to see and do on this tiny island the size of Indiana.  There’s ancient Ireland with stone circles and burial sites dating to before the pyramids. There’s medieval Ireland when Ireland was the land of saints and scholars where the religious came to become priests or enter monastaries or abbeys the ruins of which remain.  There’s foodie Ireland, yes, you heard me right.  The Irish have gotten a bum rap for food over the years.  More on that later. There’s musical Ireland of course. There’s the fun of the cities. And you can’t forget Viking Ireland.  Did you know that? Ireland was invaded by the Vikings around 800 AD. Dublin and Waterford grew out of this Viking presence.    

Now there’s even adventure Ireland filled with hiking, biking and sports like cliff diving. We met a bunch of young gals who asked us to take their picture outside of a pub/restaurant. They hopped up on a bench and then insisted we do the same. We ran into them again later that evening at another restaurant. One gal started talking to us, oh there you are again, she says. We thought it was a case of mistaken identity. We didn’t recognize her since she had changed from outdoor clothes to swanky night clothes for the evening out with friends. She told us she and her friends had gathered for a birthday celebration and decided to go cliff diving onto the beach and then swimming. She swims year -round with a wet suit, she says. No stopping these young Irish.

It was a bit overwhelming deciding which Ireland to see and experience. I wanted to do mystical Ireland which was a little harder than expected.  The Ireland I had the pleasure of experiencing all those years ago, when self-driving touring had just begun, changed.  She is more commercialized charging admission and parking fees now to major sites.  What you experience when you go back is that Ireland has moved on with the times. The Ireland of thatched roofs, quaint small towns and old pubs still exists, it just co-exists now with a new, modern, young, vibrant, hopeful Ireland.  This benefitted us in all the Airbnb’s we stayed in which were new houses with hot showers. No hot showers or big bathrooms the first time around. No outlets in the bathrooms though. In most public bathrooms there are no mirrors either.  The Irish definitely do not look at themselves as much as we do.  What you see is what you get. Who knew I needed to disconnect from this vanity -induced behavior?

Ancient Stone Circles

I decided the best way to be a part of mystical Ireland was to seek out stone circles. I would Google them wherever we were, get the coordinates, put them in our navigation system and head out in search of these ancient sites.  Harder than it seems because one, you’re on the cart path roads again and two, the stones are unceremoniously situated in a farm field in the middle of nowhere. We follow the directions to what seems like a farm. Parking is marked  which indicates to us we must be at the right place. Stepping up to the doorstep, I ring the bell. A short while later a nice woman answers. I tell her we are trying to find the stone circle and ask if we are in fact at the right place. The what, she asks. The stone circle. No, she shakes her head. I knew it was too good to be true, putting coordinates in a map and expecting to land at a stone circle. She says wait, say it again. Stone Circle. Oh, the rocks she says, yes, they are here. My husband is sick inside, but I can show you. She smiles and observes we don’t have our Wellies.  I have waterproof shoes on I say. She kindly takes us around the sheep pasture to the next field. Just up to the next field she says and through the gate.  Off we go stepping in sheep poo along the way. There they are in the middle of a field on a hill surrounded with sheep leaning against them for support and to scratch backsides I suppose. Who knows, maybe they felt something there too having worn mud circles walking around each stone. The sheep scatter as we approach and stand there staring at us not moving.  I feel the energy of the stones, meditate and open to what wisdom comes to me.  Feeling a slight breeze, warm sun on my face, smelling fresh grass and hearing total silence a deep peace envelopes me.  It is the gift of Ireland.  Getting ready to leave this beautiful peaceful place we both give each other a knowing look. We are all alone. Why not?  We pick spots and gratefully relieve ourselves. You never know where you are going to find your next bathroom.

The local Irish don’t seem to be as enamored with the stones as we are. Maybe ancient sites are just too plentiful to be extraordinary to them.  I think the whole island pulses with energy.  We make our way back to the car where we see more cars parked.  A priest heads into the house through the side door. Only then do we realize this poor woman’s husband is that sick. And she was kind enough with a smile no less to show us where to find the rocks. This is Ireland. You will never meet nicer, friendlier, kinder people with a way of turning a situation positive and ending with a smile and a laugh. No bother they say when you thank them for something. And they really mean it like they live to help you and be of service. They love to curse but even that comes out sounding lyrical. No feckin’ way they say. It just sounds like a natural part of the sentence. And boy, do they love to talk to anyone, anytime.

Ireland’s stunning beauty will never change though. The Cliffs of Moher will always take your breath away dropping dramatically to the sea, the wildness of the waves pounding against the rock. The winds blew strong and gusty that first day nearly toppling me needing to hang onto my hat, phone, scarf and each other. It seems we brought hurricane Michael with us and were met with rain and high winds in the following days. We travel south from there along the west coast catching a car ferry across the river on our way to the Dingle Peninsula, one of my favorite spots in Ireland. If I wrote about all of the stunning vistas, you would be reading all day, there are just so many. All of the peninsulas, Dingle, Kerry, Beara, in the southwest and the Hook peninsula in the southeast, the Copper Coast between them stunning in how the mountains and rock formations rise from the sea, green almost to the top, cows and sheep grazing straddling the hillsides divided by miles of stone fences. Then there’s the Connemara in the northwest with an otherworldly feel to its peaks. All breathtaking with a remote, wild ocean feel to them. Actually the drive is called the Wild Atlantic Way. We drive a good part of this stopping at as many lookouts as we could.  We stop at a parking lot filled with rocks. We park close to the entrance and walk to the cove.  Another small soup can car pulls up and drives right across the rocks. What the heck, we think. Two guys jump out, pop the back hatch, and out hop around 15 little dogs, Jack Russels I think, like a scene from 101 Dalmations. One guy carries a horse whip. A big dog runs up, and he is shooed away with the whip. He doesn’t respond. In no time flat those little dogs surround him. He manages to escape and hightails it down the beach one dog along side him the whole way. He doesn’t look back and keeps on going.  Glad there is nothing else to report here. 

40 Shades of Green

It’s October and green, green and even more green as far as you can see. If you didn’t know what time of the year it was you would think it was spring time. Wild flowers line the sides of the roads, fuchsias, lilies, and hydrangeas. Petunias still in flower boxes. And here’s a surprise, palm trees and pampas grass. It’s a temperate climate never really getting too cold or hot. The Irish woman I met at the airport before boarding told me I was landing in a heat wave in Ireland.  She was wearing shorts. I think it did get up to 60 degrees one day.  The weather was mostly sunny and in the mid-50s during the day for most of our time there. 

About the cows. Cows have taken over Ireland. They, along with windmills, dot the hillsides and are everywhere. These cows are the happiest cows I’ve every seen.  You just know when you look at them grazing on the greenest pastures licking and rubbing against each other. No barns for these beauties, the climate is mild enough there’s no need for winter housing. Happy grass-fed cows make the milk flow apparently. I read a Sunday editorial about how Ireland is addressing climate change and someone suggested they become vegetarians given the amount of methane gas Ireland’s cows release into the atmosphere. Something to consider. 

Foodie Paradise

They say St. Patrick explained the Holy Trinity to the Irish with a shamrock. I think the Holy Trinity has changed in Ireland too. It’s really brown soda bread, Guiness and butter.  Ubiqitous brown bread is served with almost everything, breakfast, soups, stews, chowders and as sides.  What the baguette is to France, brown bread is to Ireland. I quickly become addicted to this moist, thick, nutty bread.  Pushing hard to open a door in a shop one day, the owner quips I need more brown bread to fortify me.  Oh, she’s getting it, My Guy informs him.  Guiness needs no explanation. It’s a food group in Ireland and good for you they say. Then there’s butter. It’s like you get a pint of Guinness and a pint of butter with your meals.  There’s butter and/or cream in everything here, sautéed, baked, spread. No need for olive oil. And oh my, the cheeses. One might argue that the Holy Trinity would include potatoes. You do get chips (french fries), mashed, boiled or roasted potatoes with your meals, sometimes all together.  At home I don’t really consume much dairy, bread or beer. With all three combined this had to be the gasiest trip we ever went on together. We too put enough methane gas into the air to contribute to climate change. Other than that minor inconvenience my complexion never looked better so something must have been working for me.  

The smell of fresh coffee and warm fires greet you in most restaurants and pubs. If there isn’t traditional music other music is playing mostly 60s Motown and 70s music. Johnny Cash is referenced a lot. With the soup of the season on every menu, I sample it wherever we go. Always pureed and, you guessed it, cream -based, the soup is served with brown bread: potato and leek; carrot and coriander; pumpkin and thai spice, vegetable. My favorite was the potato and leek at McCarthy’s in Kenmare. And then there were the seafood chowders and pies, fresh, delicious usually including salmon, a popular fish there along with Hake. Of course we eat the obligatory fish and chips and do comparison tests. My Guy is into everything beef and lamb and has his share of Irish Stews and Shephard’s Pies, the best lamb pie in Clifden at Mitchell’s. Dingle and Kinsale top my list for best meals, although there is good food everywhere, and to be fair we did not eat dinner out in every location opting to eat in many nights. The first night we shared prawns in a spicy chili sauce on a bed of lettuce that was fresh and new to our palates. This prawn dish is served up all through Ireland. Also served all through Ireland and on every pub menu is chicken curry, too funny. Chicken curry and Ireland don’t seem to go together. Curry sauce is poured over other things as well like fresh cod. At Anne’s Seafood in Dingle we eat the most delicious scallops and mussels.  Dinner at Doyles produces a beef shank slow cooked for 18 hours that fell off the bone with no fat whatsoever. I have a delicious seafood stew with whole prawns. The best oysters tasting like the sea came from Bulmen’s in Kinsale. My Guy teasingly asked the waiter if he gathered the oysters himself. Oh no, he said, that’s at five in the morning and one bay over, too early for me. Fresh from the sea. 

We also eat at Dunbrody in County Wexford, a cooking school and Michelin recommended hotel and restaurant. It looks like a manor estate and has a Ralph Lauren hunt style look and feel inside. My Guy has a pigeon appetizer tasting a lot like liver, and if you like liver, is very good and a duck leg confit for dinner. My main course a vegetable ragu which amounts to about three tablespoons of mostly beans with carrots and parsnips the size of half a crochet needle with the greens attached. Good flavor though.  The price you pay for Michelin inspired creativity I guess.  Beautiful atmosphere. My Guys’ grandfather told him once you can’t eat atmosphere though. Another thing you do not associate with Ireland are the cheese and meat plates.  So good. Certainly challenging Italy for the number one spot.  Real bakeries in every town with scones, orange and carrot cakes, fruit tarts all made with, you guessed it, lots of real butter.  If you didn’t know, Irish butter has more fat in it than ours which makes baked goods even more delicious. 

A young bartender, they are all young, at the pub in Dunbrody chatted with us and told us 80% of the Irish go on to college. I think this may includ technical school. He said many go abroad and work, for example, mining in Australia, and then return home to their parishes with enough money to build a modern house and start their own businesses. We had noticed all the school students wearing uniforms and ask about Catholic schools. He said they are National schools; however, do teach Catholicism which they are trying to change.  You find bookstores in most larger towns and thick newspapers available. The Irish seem to be well-read and educated and willing to talk to anyone.  We are most asked about our President who apparently is not very popular across the pond.  One man wants our president to know Irish Dairies own 150 farms in the US and trade and commerce work both ways.  Ok, I’ll let him know.

Pub Life Alive and Well

Now about the old pubs, one of my favorite places to be in Ireland. Wait, let me get a Guiness before I write this. There are pubs with food and pubs just serving drinks that at one time had other functions like selling leather goods, some still do. This is where you find impromptu gatherings of musicians playing traditional Irish music. They play for nothing, not even tips, and buy their own beer if drinking. One starts a song, and the others join in playing. Between songs they laugh, chat, look at their phones and get drinks until someone feels inspired to begin again. Some of our favorites are Dick Mack’s and O’Sullivan’s in Dingle, music and drinks only, and Knox’s in Ennis, food and music. The true local pubs in the villages are the pulse of the people. A group of adults and children sit in a circle in one pub we visit. They sing, tell stories, laugh and drink. When we ask, we are told it wis a wake. This happened twice.  You would never know or guess. Once we sat next to an older woman probably in her 80s smartly dressed in a cornelian blue suit with a stream lined skirt, and matching blouse tied in a bow at the neck. She sat quietly, no expression, sipping coffee. Her son comes in to gather her first having a pint himself. We greet him. She then speaks to us in Irish. He says, no, Americano. He looks at us and says she will go around a store and not stop until she finds someone who speaks Irish. She lights up though and asks us if we like that man, you know, your leader.  Everyone is curious about our thoughts. She tells us she has won several awards as a ballroom dancer and still dances and teaches lessons. She gets up and starts an Irish jig, encouraging My Guy to try it. She teaches us Gaelic for good-bye, Slan’. Her son is double-parked and keeps popping in and out of the pub. She tells him to have another pint.  No, he is driving he says.  She says she never gets to talk and just wants to talk some more. Sadly we stop engaging her so her son can get her home and have his supper.  

I could kick myself for not taking a picture of this lovely woman. I do this every vacation, take pictures of us and the sites and then wish I had pictures of all the people we met.  It all comes down to this…no matter where we are it’s all about the people, the food and the laughter. The scenic views linger in my mind’s eye but I feel the people in my heart.  

My Irish Eyes are smiling.  

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