October 3rd, 2014
When Stephen and I first decided to go to Ireland, it was really more of a decision to go to Dublin. But after talking to a friend who had recently been to Dublin, we weren’t sure if there was enough to do for three whole days. So we started brainstorming about what would be on our “Ireland bucket list,” and we came up with several things. Among them were the following: castles, Cliffs of Moher, walking trails, a lake, and Gaelic, all of which we were (sort of) able to experience on our weekend holiday!
You can probably guess that the castle was higher on my bucket list than Stephen’s, so I set to work finding a real castle that we could stay in. A problem soon presented itself, though. Staying in a castle is expensive. Like, eye-watering, mouth-agape, sharp-intake-of-breath kind of expensive. At least, if you aren’t George Clooney, who evidently often enjoys staying at one of the estates I looked at. Luckily, I discovered a compromise. That could possibly also be seen as just a big cop-out. Ireland has a very big industry of quasi-castles, most of them built in the twentieth century to capitalize on tourists’ interest (like us) in staying in medieval-looking buildings. We did not want to consider these since they felt very much like Disneyland without the rides: a fake, quaint, packaged “experience” that you can tell your friends about. (Although we love Disneyland– who doesn’t? Actually, the answer to that question is almost all parents everywhere.) At this point, we almost threw in the towel, but then I came across a place called Ballynahinch Castle, which was running a super sale, had castle in the name, and actually had a really interesting history, including a pirate queen and a maharaja. The hotel isn’t actually a castle at all but was categorized as a castle a few hundred years ago because the O’Flaherty chieftains, the owners, wanted to pay less taxes, and castles were taxed less than houses. Since it was right on a lake, had lots of outdoor activities, was located in a stunning part of the country, and cost less than even our hotel in Dublin, we decided to book it.
The flight to Ireland only took a little more than an hour, so we had just enough time for a cup of tea before we began our descent. The flight attendant cheerfully announced that if anyone had been on any British farmland, near any livestock, or in direct contact with any live poultry recently, to please let the nearest official know as soon as possible upon disembarkation. Stephen and I looked at each, a little bewildered, trying to think if we fit any of this criteria, when the English lady next to us laughed and said, rather fondly, “Well, we are in Ireland. You know, dear, it’s quite rural.” As we were taxiing to the gate, we passed a field of cattle, which confirmed this view.
Since we had originally decided to visit only Dublin, we had booked a roundtrip flight from Dublin Airport, which was three hours away from the Connemara area where we would be staying. There was no way around it: we would have to rent a car, which someone would then have to drive. On the left side of the road. Through roundabouts. Most likely in the pouring rain. Happily, the car we were renting required the user to be at least 25, so that left Stephen to drive the whole way and back, while I ate a scone and gave suggestions (i.e. critiques) from the passenger seat. Because neither of us know how to drive a manual (which is the transmission of most cars in these parts,) we had a very limited selection of vehicles. A tiny microcar with no A/C, a Toyota Corolla, or a midsize BMW. We went with the Corolla, since Stephen was adamant we needed A/C (we didn’t) and both of us wanted to drive the smaller car since we had read that we would be driving on some narrow roads. When we got to the rental desk, they were out of Corollas, so we were upgraded to the BMW, free of charge. The clerk had probably never experienced such annoyed silence when informing customers that they were getting, at no extra cost to them, a nicer car to drive.
So as Stephen loaded our bags into the back, I got in the car, took off my wet raincoat, and cranked up the heating (see what I mean about not needing A/C?). Stephen tapped on the window, looked at me in a confused way, and said “I thought I was driving?”. I had gotten into the car, taken off my shoes, situated our maps, put some euro in the cupholder for tolls, and adjusted my seat, all without seeing the steering wheel. I can only explain it by saying I didn’t expect to see a steering wheel in the passenger seat, so it just didn’t even exist until Stephen pointed it out. After I did the crawl-of-shame over the center console to the actual passenger seat, we started on our way.
Driving out of Dublin went surprisingly well, as the roads were wide, almost empty, and nicely paved. Outside of Dublin, we came across a service station, which was like an American rest area, but wonderfully complete. In addition to clean bathrooms, they have 24/7 petrol, a convenience store, ATMs, and two or three fast food chains, all in one great little building with its own motorway exit. It is a one-stop shop for motorists. We stopped in for an Irish breakfast, which seemed to be the same as an English breakfast, except for the addition of black or white pudding. (I got white. It was tasty!)
After leaving the service station, it was smooth sailing for a couple of hours, if you don’t count that time we had to circle the roundabout three times, or when Stephen was in the incorrect lane and everyone honked at him. The real trouble started when we had to leave the M and N roads, which are the nice, big motorways, for the small L and R roads, which are tiny, winding country lanes. And I mean tiny. Two cars could just fit if you both slowed down to a crawl, maneuvered your left tires halfway off the road, and crossed your fingers. These two lanes, which ranged from the size of 1.25 to 1.50 American lanes, twisted and wound so much that every 10 seconds or so, you had to make a hairpin turn around a completely blind corner, with no idea what bus, tractor, or car you might find barrelling towards you. And I do mean barrelling. The speed limit was 100 km/hr (about 60 mph), and most people seemed more than happy to go that fast. I had never missed my Mini Cooper and its tight turns so much. And remember, we had just been upgraded to what we Americans would consider to be a midsize car and which, by European standards, was massive. It was like driving a station wagon on a road built for Fiat 500s. On top of all the other road hazards, it was pouring down raining. And did I mention the sheep?
The area that we were driving in was very rural with lots of sheep farms. The soil varied so much in this region that the farmers, in the interest of fairness, shared the land with no enclosures instead of each having their own grazing land. Some parts were so rocky and inhospitable that the sheep would starve, while other parts were so fertile that lots of sheep could spend all of their days munching on grass. So all of the farmers shared hundreds of acres of land, just like in the times before the Enclosure Movement, and they had generously allowed the government to build a road through it. However, they couldn’t build fences to keep the sheep off the road or else they ran the risk of lots of sheep being trapped on a part of land which only produces lumps of granite. So, as a consequence, motorists really did have to share the road with them. Some just stood in the road, day dreaming about their next snack. Others slept on the somewhat warm asphalt or crossed the road to get to a particularly springy patch of grass. The sheep were dyed all sorts of colors-red, blue, yellow- and sometimes more than one. As we later found out, since all of the sheep from numerous farm mingled together and shared the same land, each farmer had a particular signature with which he painted his sheep. Maybe a blue rump and red shoulder, or a yellow rump, red back, and blue shoulder. Using this system, all of the farmers could tell at a glance to whom a particular sheep belonged, in case it was time to shear them or one was injured. I imagine the latter must happen all too often with such a dangerous, high-speed road winding its way through their grazing land.
On top of being in fear for our own lives, I was afraid that around every corner we might run over some poor sheep taking its afternoon nap in the wrong place at the wrong time. I told Stephen that if he hit one, he might as well consider our marriage over, because how could I possibly look at him again after that? He did start going extra slow around corners, but I think he was more worried about the damage hitting a sheep would do to the rental car than to our marital future. Between the large car, the tiny lanes, the intermittant rain, the high speed limit, the grazing sheep, and the hairpin turns, we were quite an irritable, unhappy, and stressed couple (pending the results of his sheep-maneuvering, of course) for the remainder of the drive. By the time we got to the hotel, my fingers had stiffened into a claw from gripping the armrest for an hour and a half, and the rest of me was hardly less rigid. I don’t think Stephen has ever been so happy to get out of a car in his life. He said it was the most stressful driving situation of his life, and this coming from the guy who barely blinked an eye while driving inches from the side of cliffs on Hwy 1 along the California coast! We had a guided walk scheduled as soon as we arrived, but we begged them to put it off for half an hour so we could unclench our muscles and calm our nerves, which they nicely agreed to.
Once we came back downstairs, we met our guide and set off for our trek around the grounds. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable on just about every subject, talking fluently and engagingly about horticulture, history, birds, cricket and Gaelic football, salmon fishing, geology, and the Gaelic language. A lot of words and place names used in Ireland are simply English approximations of Gaelic words. While the English were mapping the island, the Irish and English weren’t exactly on cordial terms, so they had to just do the best they could without knowing the language, sounding out what they were hearing, and attempting to transcribe it into English. Whenever I would ask about a word I hadn’t heard before, such as benn, he would tell us the original Gaelic word, the English translation, and how the Gaelic evolved or was approximated into the current English word. We were blown away by all of this etymological knowledge, and I finally got up the courage to ask him how he knew so much. It turns out that he is a native Gaelic speaker from the Joyce family, and he proceeded to tell us about all sorts of shenanigans the Joyces got up to in centuries past.
Besides getting a much better understanding of Gaelic, he taught us all about peat, a fuel source often used in rural Ireland, although not as much as in the past. We walked to a small bog in the corner of the property, where he used a special peat-cutting tool to cut a brick-like shape of soil out of the ground. The brick looked like densely packed mud. Water quickly filled the the brick-shaped hole left in the ground, and we could see that we were really standing on this springy, damp, watery, muddy, and, well, boggy surface that I can’t really describe, but it was unlike anything I had stood on before. It felt just solid enough to even contemplate putting your weight on it, and you were unmistakably standing on something that toed the line between water and ground. I felt like I was one wrong step from my whole body sinking straight down into the muddy swamp beneath me. He showed us how the soggy mess of a brick was then stood up to dry, and an example of a brick he had cut a few weeks ago and dried. For lack of a better expression, it really was almost as hard as a brick! I know this whole peat paragraph will probably bore everyone to tears, but we thought it was really exciting! Me, because now when I read a book and the characters are getting lost in mires or bogs (The Hound of the Baskervilles) or burning peat (Outlander), I can actually imagine it! And Stephen just gets all amped about energy, especially the non-renewable kind. Our guide then took us to see an abandoned railway station which used to serve the area and was recently converted into a gorgeous house, all the while talking about peat: its composition, the history of its use as a fuel, the amount of energy given off by combustion, the average yearly use per family, the laws pertaining to “cutting turf,” its impact on the environment, the European Union’s position, and the rapid destruction of wetlands in mainland Europe. Did I mention he was extremely well-versed in just about every topic?
After seeing the railway station, walking along the river, and watching some salmon jumping, we went to the lake where he had a boat moored a short distance away from a gorgeous lakehouse, which belongs to one of Berlusconi’s BFFs. (He wasn’t in, understandably. At one of Berlusconi’s wild parties, no doubt.) We jumped on the boat, put on our life jackets (Stephen: “Safety first!”) and cruised along the lake until we came to a small island taken up almost entirely by a beautiful old keep.
The keep was built in the 16th century at the request of Ireland’s famous pirate queen, Grace O’Malley, in order to protect her lands from other Irish clans. As our guide said, back in those days, a few people had most of the resources, and if you were lucky enough to be one of those people, you had to expect that everyone else would try to take some for themselves. She had several watchtowers built to keep a lookout for raiders, and we got to visit one. The tower was falling down in spots and overgrown with grass, but we were more than happy to trudge through the mud and check it out.
After our cold and wet trek through the woods, we came back to the hotel and warmed up by one of the fires. We had dinner in their pub, and then spent the rest of the night sipping Irish whiskey and reading in front of the fire. Not a bad end to our first day in Ireland! Stay tuned for the second half of my (long overdue) Ireland post!