October 29, 2018
One week and one day into my quest. “What quest?” I hear you say. Here’s the backstory.
I’ve been to Ireland twice before, but both visits were brief add-ons to longer sojourns on the European continent. Ever since I rode a bus beyond the Dublin city limits as a college student, I’ve been itching to set my feet down in this bewitching countryside for a good long ramble.
After reaching Santiago in August 2016, I visited Ireland again on the way home. At Glenstal Abbey I met a fellow pilgrim, also fresh from the Camino de Santiago, named Yvonne Tyler. She lives in Waterford. Yvonne told me how she once walked the camino for over four months, starting in Ireland! All ears, right here.
Fast forward two years. I have a heavily marked up NatGeo “Adventure” map of Ireland on the wall over my bed, a stack of Irish travel memoirs and historical fiction on my nightstand, plus John G. O’Dwyer’s authoritative guidebook, “Pilgrim Paths in Ireland.” I briefly tried using DuoLingo for Gaelic, with the unfortunate result that I now comprehend that language even less than I did before attempting to read words like “sliabh” out loud.
At some point, enough is enough of dreaming and you must simply go do it while you can. In typical form, and despite all the musing and reading, I have not exactly planned anything specific, so this is still a free-form undertaking. The goals are simple: walk some old pilgrim paths and see different parts of the country. (I just like using dramatic words like “quest.” It adds intrigue, wouldn’t you say?)
At some point, enough is enough of dreaming and you must simply go do it while you can.
Alas, now this blog post is about to devolve into that cheap appeasement of our decimated attention spans, the lazy listicle. My sleepless mind is sort of splattered about the country from Dublin to Co. Cork and up the west coast from Dingle to Donegal. Besides, it’s too soon for any sort of verdict on the whole adventure. I’ll try to avoid a boring litany of tired tourist attractions which you probably know already.
Voilà, a few of my favorite things:
- Every single inch of St. Finbarr’s Way, Co. Cork. This walk of about 35 kilometers runs north from Drimoleague to Gougane Barra. It meanders through lush farmland, climbs mountains, skirts glacial lakes, squelches through plush upland bog and finally traverses along the dramatic Foilastookeen ridge before descending steeply to St. Finbarr’s Oratory on an island in the incomparably serene Loch Ghuagán Barra.
- Irish weather. Hear me out! Grass doesn’t just get this green by thinking positive thoughts. Daily rain showers give way to multiple rainbows and leave everything freshly a-sparkle in the peeking sun. It’s magical. Admittedly, I’ve had several unseasonably warm days. I also prudently packed my other new favorite thing. (See below.)
- Rain gear! REI, the next time I want to whine about your high prices, I promise to recall the stellar performance of your rain trousers in a mountaintop squall. I’ll shush up, just this once.
- Top of the Rock Pod Pairc. I was skeptical at first, because I’m more backpacker than “glamper,” but this place gave me two of the best sleeps of my life in a hobbit-worthy (i.e. Chiara-sized) wooden “pod” shaped like St. Brendan’s ancient Gallarus Oratory. The whole place is also a working family farm, though mercifully devoid of roosters.
- The VW Up! I affectionately call my rental car Judy. Can we get this model in the States? She’s a darling! Parkable as can be. A lovely smooth manual transmission, curve-clinging agility, tiny turning radius, and just (barely) enough horsepower to carry me and my modest impedimenta up a steep hill at a semi-respectable speed. Judy even makes all this driving on the wrong side of the road a pleasure.
- St. Brigid’s Holy Well in Kildare. This prayerful, peaceful place of local pilgrimage is a lovingly maintained example of many such wells throughout the country. I’ve read that there are upwards of 2000!
- The Rock of Cashel. In the just-rained, late afternoon light, the commanding edifice was worth every penny of the admission fee, even if I was too late for a guided tour and had to be gently kicked out by the caretakers at closing time.
- Narrow, winding country lanes. They hold surprises around every turn. Sometimes it’s a charming cottage scene. Other times, it’s a massive dairy truck barreling down on me, a supremely unbothered ram, or a sheer cliff. Keeps me on my toes!
- Farm dogs and barnyard animals who sweetly entertain my visits, muddy-paw my trousers, nuzzle my camera and even keep me company for a few miles here and there.
- Foxy John’s Pub & Hardware Store in Dingle. Would you like some nuts and bolts with your Guinness?
- Australians. Forgive me this generalization. It is made in all fondness. I love ‘em. I just love ‘em, with their warmth of spirit, their straight-talk, their pert humor and open demeanor. Extra fond thoughts to Bryan and Lyn Lynch, of Brisbane, Queensland, for their generosity and care.
- Harry Clarke’s stained glass. I just saw the superb examples in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart at An Disaert Center of Irish Spirituality and Culture. The figures’ expressions are warmly, wondrously human, and the ornamentation unstinting. Clarke’s beautiful lines of detail in each leaf and petal exemplify my favorite aspect of art nouveau. It’s difficult to believe this is just cold hard glass!
- End-of-season blackberries in the roadside hedges. They range in flavor from cloyingly sweet to tongue-teasingly tart (my absolute favorite.)
- Ordnance Survey Ireland(OSI) Major credit is due to my pal Emily Gallivan, who several years ago gave me the book “If Maps Could Speak,” by the former director of the Ordnance Survey, Mr. Richard Kirwan. (Londubh Books, 2010) Thanks to this captivating and informative read, I immediately bought detailed OSI topo maps in Dublin, which promise to direct my steps unerringly through some very remote corners of the country.
- Hygge! I know this is not an Irish word, but it is absolutely an Irish talent so ubiquitous they needn’t name it. Hygge includes, but is not limited to; cozy pub booths, turf stoves, crackling fires in the hearth, a fresh pot of tea, candles melting in the necks of empty bottles, snuggly knitwear, hot water bottles beneath the bed covers, plush upholstery, hot toddies, and neat whiskeys. OK maybe that last one is a stretch of the hygge concept, but it sure works for me at the end of a chilly day!
- Seamus Heaney. He was my favorite long before I ever visited Ireland, but the National Library now has a temporary exhibit on this late, great poet laureate. The exhibit, “Listen now again,” is housed (hidden?) in the fortress-like old Bank of Ireland building just opposite Trinity College’s main gate. Outside, teeming crowds of tourists and commuters seem oblivious to the national treasure just meters away. I had the place almost to myself for an hour, and then shared it with a small tour group for another half hour. (Apparently some people don’t thoroughly read every single word in a museum, not even original, handwritten first drafts of soul-stirring, earth-shaking poetry. Philistines!) I then lingered longer still. This man’s words speak to my very bones. Besides, on a scholarly note, Heaney’s whole œuvre is intimately bound up with the story of modern Ireland. It’s not to be missed.
- Friendly locals all too eager to offer their help and tell me everything they know about the paths, ruins, stories, history, flora, fauna, traditions and troubles of this country. A few of them I can contact personally, but most I cannot. So, like a message in a bottle, I hereby dispatch into the vast world-wide web my warm gratitude to Moira, Mark, Joseph and Anne, Mary, Camille, Pat in Gougane Barra, Katherine, Trina, Pat in Dingle, John and Deirdre, Margaret and Megan, Grainne, plus barmen, waiters, bus drivers, shopkeepers, passersby and many others whose names unfortunately escape me, but whose kindness, conversation and advice I shall not forget!
Now, lest you turn green with travel-envy, here are a few of my not-so-favorite things:
- Hertz rental car prices. Their daily or weekly rate might sound too good to be true. That’s because it is. The catch is in the pick-up fee, drop-off fee, one-way fee, fuel fee, insurance fees, etc.
- “Super-laid back” (read: “grossly irresponsible”) hostel keepers who permit their garrulous inebriated pals to make themselves at home at any unspecified hour of the night, including in the rooms for which guests have paid! There resulted a very asymmetrical battle of words, which was mildly amusing, but not as amusing as it would have been at literally any time besides 4 a.m. (Upshot: I got a full refund for the night and a sincere, sober apology. Pyrrhic victories.)
- The end of daylight savings time. This happened a week sooner in Ireland than in the States. Thanks to my backpacker’s “dawn-to-dusk” internal clock, I was up and at ’em earlier than any shop was open. Thus, I couldn’t buy food before the day’s pilgrimage. Hunger march and wild blackberries for the win!
- W. B. Yeats. I know he’s well-loved, and I’m prepared for you to fight me on this. Maybe he was a semi-decent poet, but a kind of repugnant character, in my estimation. The National Library has an exhibition on him too. It’s twice as large and four times as elaborate as Heaney’s, but whatever. Over him.
*But really the middle, or just the beginning.