... and a little toe-tapping music thrown in (Part Two)
The second half of our 10 days in Ireland continued our visual feast. Meanwhile we were getting a taste of Irish humor. The labor leader was asked how long the petrol protest might last and answers, "How long is a piece of a string?" The bus driver biding his time as he wound down a narrow road behind a slow-moving VW bus, finally blurts out, "What we have here is a man taking a van out for a walk." Then there was the radio interview with the restaurant critic. "Do you take a glass a wine yourself?" he was asked. "No," he answered simply, "I take several."
I suppose we could have stayed in one place and just soaked up this spontaneous humor and the local lore, but we pressed on.
Located in an idyllic setting just outside Cork City is the famous Blarney Castle, which replaced a 10th-century wooden structure. It's four stories high. On this particular hot Sunday morning the line from the roof to the bottom extended down the entry path. One man emerged from the castle, looked at his watch and said, "hmmm, 45 minutes." You climb the four flights, walk around the perimeter on the top and -- if you are brave -- lie on your back, wiggle your head and shoulders over a open space, then pull yourself up with an iron rail to kiss the famous stone. Most of this account is second hand. Only half of our twosome was feeling adventurous. Legend has it that kissing the Blarney Stone imbues you with the gift of eloquence. Imagine how long this story would have been had I gone up?
There is a more serious side of the story. It's said that Cormac McCarthy, King of Munster, provided four thousand men to support the forces of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. King Robert gave half the Stone of Scone to McCarthy in gratitude, and the stone was embedded into the battlement. One story is that the Blarney Stone was mentioned in the Bible as "Jacob's pillow" and was supposed to have been brought to Ireland by Jeremiah the Prophet. My theory is that the author of that story had kissed the stone.
This is such a hot town that even the Irish flock here on vacation. Again, getting a reservation at a B&B is not always easy, especially between June and September. We arrived on the day of the televised national hurling championship which Kilkenny won over Offal, and the town went quiet during the game, sort of like the seventh game of the World Series. The downtown is bustling with good restaurants and shops and a variety of places that offer toe-tapping music at night.
You can also hire horse-drawn jaunting cars in the center of the downtown to swing around the nearby lake and visit the Muckross Estate, but if you have a rented car, it's cheaper and faster to drive to a point near the Muckross grounds where jaunting rides are also available. Killarney is quite a jumping off spot for excursions, most notably the varied sights provided by the several peninsulas that stick out like fingers off the Southwest corner of Ireland. I'd advise doing these 6-to-7 hour trips on excursion buses. If you insist on driving the precarious, narrow roads that sometimes have straight drop-offs of 100 feet or more, heed the advice of Gerry Cook: start on the north side of the peninsula and swing around to the south so that you are always driving on the inside of the road (it's left-side driving there, and another tip is to hire an automatic shift, because lefthand stick shifting along with driving on a different side of the road take some getting used to).
We chose the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula for our two trips, based on time, the guidebooks and experience of other tourists there who said the trip around the Berea Peninsula, the southernmost of the three, was not quite as good.
Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula
Measured at 112 miles the Ring is longer but the Dingle driving is more difficult, so both will take about six or seven hours roundtrip by bus from Killarney. For ocean, countryside and mountain views these trips are as filling as a Thanksgiving Dinner. Some of the closeup stops are worthwhile as well, such as the Kerry Bog Village and a demonstration along the way of sheep-dog herding on the Kerry trip. Inch Beach, Dingle itself and the Gallarus Oratory are among the Dingle highlights. At Inch, there is a sense on the four-mile long beach that you can almost look out and see America.
In Ballyferriter what looks like an inverted boat made of stones -- with no mortar -- is called the Gallarus Oratory. It looks like the granddaddy of the beehive-like huts that sprinkle this countryside, but it was a place of prayer for monks, dating back to somewhere between the 9th and 12th Century. The front door opening and a narrow window four feet up on the back wall allow air and some light into the chamber.
Our bus driver, possibly in jest, said that anyone who climbed out the window would get 15 years of good luck. Later he privately told me, "Only a cat could squeeze through that opening!" But two of the women in our group tried, and both made it, including my traveling partner. As they emerged one at a time, the small gathering cheered boisterously, rousting the security men in a nearby shop who thought there must have been an accident
Sunset over the bay is quite a show. The ocean turns orange for as far as you can see. As it turned out, that was only a preliminary. Our one night at a B&B overlooking the bay presented us with a full moon. Phew. We planned to eat at a restaurant called Donnelly's in Barna, but, when we turned off the coast road onto a lane that ran down to the water 100 yards away, we could see a long waiting line. The lane was too narrow to turn around, so we drove to the end and came to one of those picturebook coves with fishing boats tied up and the moon blaring at us over a high stone jetty that protected the cove from the open sea.
There on the right at the end of the lane was a house converted into a secluded two-floor restaurant called O'Grady's. The menu posted in the window was enticing, and we luckily got a table. The rest of them were all reserved. It turned out this was a favorite of well-to-do locals. The Galway side of the bay is reminiscent of the south side of Cape Ann, although the coast line is probably five times longer than the distance from Route 128 to the Lanesville-Rockport line.
Connemara is a rock-protruding countryside -- unlike the lush landscape most everywhere else -- sprinkled with lakes and edged by low mountain ranges. It's raw beauty. We would like to have gone to Clifden on the west coast but ran out of time, so we turned southward just after Recess, about two-thirds of the way across. On these roads the cows and sheep reign. When they are out for a stroll, cars hardly intimidate them. You just wait. If you edge too close to their rears, they'll turn and give you a disdainful stare.
This is a "working castle", so you can't go inside. In other words, it is now a hotel/meeting place -- with its own golf course. But there is lots of area to wander, plenty of ramparts and little turrets to climb around, providing distinctive vantage points for picture-taking. The castle and fountains were sufficient backdrop, but riders passing by on horseback and several anglers fishing on the lake shore behind the castle added an extra touch. If you get lost on the property -- as I did when we were trying to exit -- you may stumble across a house where "The Quiet Man" was filmed. The Ashford, which dates back to 1228, is about a 45-minute drive from Galway. It makes for a delightful half day.
Except for the five thatched-roof stores across from our hotel, Adare reminded me of Wellesley center. Upscale, clean, delightful. The romantic lure of staying at the Adare Castle was tempered by the cost of the rooms, so on our last night we settled on the Dunraven Arms Hotel across the street from the castle, which doubles as a golf course. Indeed, the Women's World golf championships were being played there during our visit. The hotel has all the amenities. Indeed, the bathroom in my room was bigger than most of the B&B rooms I had stayed in. There are good restaurants in the town, I'm told, but we settled on the hotel dining room, which had the best service we encountered along with outstanding food.
The most difficult choices on a trip to Ireland are what not to see. We chose to hug the east, south and west coasts, deciding because of time pressure to forego Northern Ireland, Donegal, the Lakelands and the center of the country. The most difficult decision was to bypass the town of Leitrim in the county of Leitrim where my mother was born. But, hey, Mom has forgiven me for worse transgressions.
We also didn't spend much time in Cork City, although we were there twice. Nevertheless, that first image when Cork City is mentioned will no longer be that little neighborhood in Melrose. Instead, the words "Cork City" will trigger images of green hills and dales, devilish wit, the music of storytellers, and, yes, I'll admit, the taste of a cold pint.
Photos by Jennifer and Jack Driscoll.
November 3, 2,000