Pubs filled with jovial Irishmen, laughter, and music both day and night … narrow country roads meandering through the pasturelands with seldom a car to be seen … my heart yearned to discover Ireland, my ancestor’s birthplace. After two weeks, I found neither the pub nor the road. My image of a welcoming, bucolic culture didn’t exist.
I stumbled upon the only pub in the village of Ballymurn, one with the Prendergast surname of my maternal grandmother. My husband and I entered the pub, nodded to the staring locals, and greeted a petite, gray-haired woman behind the bar. After ordering our Guinness pints, I mentioned my grandmother had been one of twelve siblings born to George and Rebecca Prendergast. A patron on a nearby stool asked from which county. When I replied Berks County, Pennsylvania, he grunted. Two days later, I mentioned my heritage at Prendergast’s Pub in New Ross and heard more grunts. I had expected at least one enthusiastic bar patron so say, “So ye traveled all those miles across the big pond to explore your roots, have ye? What are ye thinking about me own proud country?” Then, a lively conversation between the locals and the Yank would flow. Instead, I read between the grunts. We were invaded by the Vikings, the Normans, and the Brits. Now the tourists are traipsing through our rock-walled pastures and clogging our narrow country roads. That’s precisely what Yanks, Canucks, and continental Europeans are doing in droves. Nonetheless, the Pubs are plentiful and no village is without one. If there’s a church, there’s a pub nearby and the Guinness flows freely.
Ireland is a member of the European Economic Community and the Euro is its currency. The exchange rate reduces American buying power by almost forty percent and prices are steep regardless of the Euro to Dollar value. We spent $5.00 US for a cup of coffee and it wasn’t Starbucks. We didn’t expect gourmet food in a country known for the potato, but we were pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of meals offered in pubs, guesthouses, and restaurants. Overall, food and drinks cost fifty percent more than US prices for the same. Fortunately, all our accommodations included a bountiful Irish breakfast.
The Euro currency isn’t the only European influx to Ireland. Many hotel and restaurant employees are from Poland. Few are fluent in English, although they try very hard. The European work ethic has also invaded Ireland’s businesses. From job day one, the Irish are entitled to four weeks paid vacation plus nine paid holidays. According to the Irish Examiner, the workers feel cheated. Several European countries give employees six or more weeks of vacation plus holidays. The newspaper article also mentioned that Irish workers feel stressed when they take extended vacations because their workload does not lessen commensurately. Most American workers don’t worry about the stress induced by long vacations … we don’t get them.
On a final economic note, Ireland’s real estate market has been booming with demand far exceeding the supply. In urban areas, prices rose drastically and creative financing followed. The real estate and lending bubble may soon burst, just as it has in our own country.
During our travels, we relied heavily on Frommers and Eyewitness Travel for information and tips. Every region boasts medieval castles, some dating as far back as the ninth century. Don’t confuse Irish castles with Cinderella’s home in The Magic Kingdom. Picture cold, stark stone structures with no creature comforts for the lords and hordes living within the walls. Sanitation equated to raw sewage running down the exterior. The waste has long since biodegraded along with many of the stone structures. The older castles offering tours have been renovated extensively in recent years, but they depict life in Ireland from the ninth through the fifteenth centuries. We learned of the favorite medieval Irish occupation that found its way to America … cattle rustling. When Irish Chieftains weren’t distracted by foreign invaders, they stole cattle from one another. This was not a mischievous endeavor. Ruthless clans rightfully earned nicknames such as the ferocious O’Flahertys.
Beyond the crumbling stone fortresses, green pastures permeate the Irish countryside delineated by hedgerows or rock walls. Vibrant orange wildflowers border the roads and purple-red fuchsia vines engulf the rock walls. Village pubs are decorated with window boxes brimming with red geranium, deep blue lobelia, and white alyssum. Baskets overflowing with petunias flank sidewalks and doorways while roses grace the garden gates of most cottages. Grass, flowers, and trees thrive in the cool, temperate climate and predictable rainfall.
Guidebooks tout the grounds surrounding better-preserved estates … the Irish call them demesnes. Although those landscapes are attractive, they don’t measure up to the botanical wonders of Butchart Gardens (Victoria, BC), Biltmore Estate (Asheville, NC), and Longwood Gardens (Kenneth Square, PA). Ireland is best appreciated for its natural gifts such as The Burren, an untamed beast and beauty.
Below the Galway Bay, we discovered The Burren, a limestone plateau that covers the northwest portion of County Clare. Imagine a harsh, eerie moonscape with sporadic vegetation sprouting in bizarre places. The visitor’s center describes plant species ranging from artic to sub-tropical thriving within the cracks and crevices of this hostile, rocky terrain. Efforts to cultivate this land resulted in unending rock walls lining the narrow roads that were truly meant for horse and cart … not modern vehicles. Somehow, the cattle, sheep, and horses graze among the rocky fissures that were formed beneath the sea a million years ago. On the southwestern edge of The Burren, the Cliffs of Moher drop dramatically to the Atlantic Ocean and extend for five miles along the coastline. During north Atlantic gales, the pounding surf rivals nature’s drama seen along California’s Big Sur.
Visitors to Ireland expect to hear traditional Irish folk music and only the early-to-bedders will be disappointed. In Doolin, a village famous for Irish music, the musicians start playing around nine o’clock. We listened to live Irish music in Killarney, Limerick, Dublin, and places in between and it’s late before the entertainment begins.
In Limerick, we stumbled on the best Irish music during our trip. The Locke had an incredible band that creatively blended traditional Irish with Bluegrass music. Anyone familiar with Riverdance will understand how the first influenced the second. Dolan’s Pub featured various local musicians who came to jam with fiddles, flutes, guitars, banjos, even spoons. They treated us to great, spontaneous Irish music and we loved it. Dolan’s also owns a concert hall that offers a litany of performances by famous groups.
At O’Shea’s in Dublin, just north of the River Liffey, we enjoyed live Irish music as well as great, impromptu dancing from visitors staying at the hotel. A gracious, talented gentleman helped me kick up my heels during an easy-to-follow Irish dosey-doe. At An Pucan in Galway, we listened to an entertaining guitar player from Virginia until ten o’clock when an Irish band finally set up to play. They opened with a polka and we left.
Despite the enthusiasm for traditional Irish music, Americans won’t get homesick for their familiar tunes. When the musicians are absent, good old rock ‘n roll, blues, country western, and Motown are pervasive in pubs throughout the country.
If the Irish approached every aspect of life with the same fervor as their sports, the country would undoubtedly become a world superpower. We think our NFL players are gladiators. HAH! Watch rugby or hurling. Irish players are hard-bodied, zealous athletes who bring new meaning to the term physical contact. Rugby reminds me of American football without protective equipment or rules … any rules. Hurling is similar to rugby with the added advantage of a stick used to inflict more harm on an opponent. Imagine football, ice hockey, and lacrosse being played at the same time. That’s hurling. The Irish are passionate about their teams and entire towns turn out for the local rugby and hurling matches.
Perhaps their involvement in physically demanding sports keeps most Irishmen strong and sinewy. On the flip side, the women are full-bodied … built to give birth and suckle their young until the first pint of Guinness. Without a doubt, Irish women have breasts. Unlike the FDA-approved chests many American women proudly display, these puppies are the real McCoy! They have no need to dress like a pop-singing tart. Just a mildly scooped neckline reveals a lovely hint of healthy cleavage. I thought I had ample breasts; in Ireland, I felt like Twiggy. When hubby caught me scowling at my chest, he kindly suggested that any more than a handful is a waste. Kindness like that keeps marriage alive; ours is pushing thirty years.
Driving in Ireland is a sport all its own. American auto insurers will not cover a rental car in Ireland; rental companies mandate their own insurance and it’s expensive. In a small car with manual transmission, I concentrated on opposite-side driving while trying to master Ireland’s answer to intersections … the infamous roundabout! Despite the awkwardness of left-sided driving, I soon became adept maneuvering through roundabouts because I encountered one every quarter mile in the city. On the open highway, drivers can travel almost five miles between roundabouts. Just to keep things interesting, some roundabouts also had traffic signals. Adding to the driving challenge are narrow roads through small towns where drivers park wherever they choose… halfway on the street… halfway on the sidewalks. Few cities have bypasses to circumvent traffic around the downtown area. Hour-long backups are typical in places such as Waterford where major cross-country routes funnel all traffic across a single two-lane bridge in the heart of city. Stretches of national highway are curvy, two-lane roads with no shoulders. Regardless, the speed limit is one-hundred kilometers per hour (62 mph) until drivers reach the next roundabout on the outskirt of a town or village.
Wait! There’s more. I thought the national highways were narrow until I traveled on regional roads. Oncoming cars cannot pass without squeezing up to a hedgerow or a rock wall delineating the edge of the road. There is no space on either side of the road… zero, zippo, none. Fortunately, vegetation covers many rock walls. When a car brushes against vines, a driver knows that further yielding will cause serious vehicular damage. This is particularly helpful when the approaching vehicle is a tour bus, a sixteen-wheeler, or an oversized farm tractor pulling a flatbed full of hay. While the roads are riddled with hairpin curves, shared with bikers and pedestrians, used for cattle and sheep crossings, the typical speed limit is eighty kilometers per hour (50 mph). Years ago, visitors drove for miles without seeing another car. Those days are long gone, the current road system cannot handle the traffic, and the allowed driving speeds add to the danger. The next time you seek a thrill, forget the latest mega-ride at Six Flags. Just rent a car and go for a drive in Ireland.
Okay, I’m off the driving diatribe. Like me, most visitors acclimate themselves to the roads and safely arrive at very memorable places. To avoid duplicating information found in most tour books, I’ll focus on some off the beaten path. In the southeast corner of Ireland, Rosslare and Kilmore Quay are two pretty waterfront towns with stunning views of the Irish and Celtic Seas. Rosslare Harbour serves as a terminal for ferries to and from England and France. Kilmore Quay is a quiet fishing and resort town with charming thatched-roofed cottages and friendly local pubs. Just south of Limerick lies Adare, another colorful, quaint village. But unlike Rosslare and Kilmore Quay, Adare’s appeal is diminished by the incessant stream of loud traffic passing through its center on a national road.
New Ross, in County Wexford, has a memorial that put shivers up my spine and tears in my eyes. I toured The Dunbrody, a replica of the famine ships that carried sick, starving Irish emigrants to North America during the Great Irish Famine (1845–1849). The pseudonym for ships like The Dunbrody was coffin ships because many who were packed into the dark, dank hulls for six weeks did not survive the voyage. Within the bowels of the ship, six by six foot wooden platforms built two high defined the space for six adults. Passengers were allowed a mere thirty minutes on deck each day, if the ocean was calm. Over the four-year period, one million emigrants made that voyage. I won’t belabor the conditions they endured, but I’m deeply moved when I think of my ancestors who survived that crossing.
Overall, Waterford, Cork, and Galway are large crowded cities and we purposely skipped places like Waterford Crystal Factory and Blarney Castle. We took a day trip to Kilkenny and discovered bumper-to-bumper traffic and very little parking. The town has a nice castle, so we toured the grounds but skipped the interior. Weddings are popular on Friday, the day we were there, and finding a decent restaurant for a light dinner was a challenge. The highlight of Kilkenny was watching testosterone-filled young men impress girls by jumping from the St. John’s Bridge into the River Nore. Boys will be boys wherever you go.
Killarney is a tourist hotspot. We went there anyway and enjoyed the town. A full day in the Killarney National Park and a boat trip on the lake gave us a restful getaway from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Killarney has first-class hotels, great restaurants, lively pubs, and jaunting carts … the same as horse-drawn buggies. We met members of a tour group who enlightened us about the famous Ring of Kerry. They warned of dangerous roads, heavy traffic, and umpteen tour buses, so we opted to skip it and headed for the Dingle Peninsula. The town of Dingle has a pretty harbor, lively pubs, and an ongoing battle over the town’s name. Apparently, the government has changed most references to An Daingean, the Gaelic name. However, the residents are perfectly happy living in Dingle and catering to their many Dingle tourists, who also like visiting a place named Dingle. The vocal majority have posted signs throughout the small town decrying the actions of a government against the wishes of its people. Who knows? Perhaps there’s another tea party brewing.
Beyond Dingle or An Daingean depending on which side you’re on, the road leading to Slea Head is well worth a white-knuckled drive. The high coastal road led us to spectacular scenery and breathtaking seascapes. At Slea Head, the westernmost point of the Irish mainland, I climbed and crested a steep promontory jutting into the ocean. From this headland, I enjoyed a panoramic view of the coastline and a bird’s-eye view of the Blasket Islands, the last piece of Ireland before reaching America to the west.
Off the western cost near Galway Bay lie the Aran Islands. We visited Inishmore, the largest of the three. A tour of the island takes about four hours including time to visit Dun Aonghasa, an ancient stone fort sitting on a high bluff overlooking the sea. It could be two thousand years old, but no one knows for sure because nothing has been carbon dated. Ferry service to and from the Aran Islands and transportation on the island costs about $75 per person. Passengers on the ferry from Doolin enjoy Cliffs of Moher views, but the trip can be rough on landlubbers. The Aran Islands appeal to travelers seeking a quiet retreat. Hiking, biking, and beach combing are popular past times. Overnighters can choose between B&Bs or hostels.
In comparison to towns such as Killarney and Kilkenny, Limerick is less prone to draw tourists. But the city is going through a rebirth like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Limerick is the boyhood home of Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, a book depicting life of the Irish urban poor between WWI and WWII. There is little left of the Limerick described by Frank McCourt, but the pub where Frank’s uncle treated him to his first pint of Guinness still stands. I did mention The Locke and Dolan’s for food, drinks, and music. Visitors should also spend some time at King John’s Castle where historic Irish conflicts are well presented. Also near Limerick is Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, an attraction that offers a fair depiction of rural life throughout the history of Ireland. At the Bunratty corn barn (think dinner theatre), we enjoyed a meal and entertainment resembling a small-scale Riverdance. Although touristy, the food was decent and the talented cast put on a worthwhile show.
Dublin deserves its own tome and many have been written. Edward Rutherford, author of Princes of Ireland, gives a wonderful semi-fictional account of Ireland from the ancient Celts, to the Viking invasion, and up to the Norman conquest. Dublin plays a focal point throughout his book. Carmel McCaffrey, author of In Search of Ireland’s Heroes, recounts the country’s history from the English Invasion in 1169 through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Again, Dublin is the keystone of the Irish Republic’s history. We spent three days skimming the surface of Dublin’s landmarks including The Book of Kells at Trinity College, Christ Church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Castle, St. Stephen’s Green, Grafton Street, Temple Bar … the list goes on. Dublin was our last sightseeing stop and the smartest move we made was to dump the rental car. Driving in Dublin is a nightmare and visitors can use a wide range of public transportation to travel throughout the city and out to the surrounding communities. We opted for affordable, modest lodging just two blocks north of the River Liffey and walked to everything we wanted to see.
It’s time to wrap up. Despite its entry into the technological world, history best defines Ireland – wild and woolly. Countless cows, sheep, horses, and goats graze the pastures even as the forty shades of green grass grows tall. Ne’er did we hear a leaf blower, weed wacker, or hedge trimmer. Ne’er did we hear a blender grinding out a frozen margarita. Guinness pours quietly from the tap as pints are built. The country was chiseled by glaciers and polished by wind and water forming a landscape full of diversity, character, and raw beauty. The people are as genuine as they are resilient … descendants by blood and culture of Celts, Vikings, Normans, Spanish, and British … survivors of turf wars, foreign invasion, famine, plague, world wars, and Rome. But that’s another story.
If you plan to visit Ireland, check out these links.
http://www.ballinkeele.com a manor house in Ballymurn, County Wexford. The owners are John and Margaret Maher, the gracious hosts of this lovely home. They offer their guests large, beautifully furnished bedrooms with private baths, wonderful meals for breakfast and dinner, and classic hospitality that includes fireside after-dinner drinks. They take pride in their impeccable house, the gardens, and the working farm. This place is very rural so don't expect much nightlife (except for Prendergast's Pub) within a short walk or drive.
http://www.ballinalackencastle.com a guesthouse in Doolin, County Clare. Dennis, the owner, enjoys bartending and chatting with the guests. He wisely abdicates the cooking to first-class chefs who create culinary feasts for those who dine there. The Ballinalacken is not a castle, although is sits next to an historic keep of the owner's lineage. Sitting high on the hill on the outskirts of the Doolin village, several rooms offer views of the ocean or the Cliffs of Moher. The one draw back is the distance from Doolin village and live Irish music ... seven kilometers (just under five miles).
http://www.greatsouthernhotelkillarney.com a very nice hotel in Killarney. This hotel offers all the amenities travelers want under one roof. Two restaurants, a bar, a library, internet access, spacious room, and lovely grounds. It's a great value for accommodations adjacent to the train and bus terminal and skirting the edge of downtown activity. We enjoyed several short walks to restaurants, pubs, shopping, the national park, and the bureau of exchange for more euros.
http://www.dolanspub.com/home.html If you're in Limerick, don't miss Dolan's Pub for good food and great music. The impromptu nightly musicians give spontaneous performances that draw the locals as well as the seasoned traveler. Behind the pub, Dolan's Warehouse has concerts featuring world famous bands. We stayed at the Clarion in Limerick and Dolan's was an easy three block walk from the hotel.
http://www.lockebar.com a great bar and restaurant in the edge of the Limerick's Medieval district. The Locke offers indoor and outdoor riverside dining and live entertainment within a short walk from St. John's Castle and several Limerick museums.
http://www.dunbrody.com/historical.htm a replica of the famine ships in New Ross, County Wexford. This heritage site gives visitors a clear impression the crossings made by many of our ancestors ... both poor and privileged. The movies have us thinking that steerage class on the Titanic was abysmal ... check out the Dunbrody.
copyright: DAWELCH, LLC 2007-2009
copyright: DAWELCH, LLC 2007-2008