BY JEAN NETHERY – The Beacon welcomes back our occasional writer, Jean Nethery, who is writing this time about Ireland. This is part one in a two part series.
As our Boeing 757 touched down on the Dublin runway I could almost hear the angels singing “When Irish eyes are smiling, sure ‘tis like a morn in spring.” It was spring and for years I had dreamed of this trip; after taking a summer course on Irish History at Young Harris College, I knew that Ireland had to be our destination for 2015.
With some advance planning and thriftiness on our part, my husband, Al, and I took the city bus from the airport to a stop within three blocks of our small hotel on Merrion Square, The Davenport, where we spent the next three nights. Unlike most hotels in Europe, The Davenport provided our room when we arrived at 7:30 a.m. in the morning; frequently we have had to check our bags until midafternoon when a room is available.
Before committing to a tour company we had checked numerous Ireland travel company itineraries, costs, cancellation policies and talked to friends who had been to Ireland. We decided to go with a UK firm, C.I.E. Travel, who has conducted tours to Great Britain for 80 years, and is well respected. Neither of us was disappointed.
We opted for the 14-day Jewels of Ireland Tour, covering Northern Ireland as well as the Irish Republic. We decided to go one day early in case of travel delays and also to see the Book of Kells and The Long Room (Trinity College’s Library, housing over 200,000 books and 14 marble busts of writers), which were not included in the tour. At my request we also visited the Writer’s Museum, housed in the Jameson (Distillery) family home; there were interesting stories and displays of some of my favorite Irish writers – W.B.Yeats, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift, and more recent writers like Maeve Binchy and Colm Toibin.
March is an “iffy” time to go to Ireland with more rain and cold weather than later in the season; however, we were fortunate to have only one or two days of rain, temperatures in the high sixties, and fewer tourists. As one local put it, “No such thing as bad weather in Ireland, only inappropriate clothing.” We were fully equipped with rain jackets and umbrellas.
To us, the real Ireland is not Dublin, but rather the unspoiled rocky coastlines, rolling green fields, historic seaside towns and castles dating back to the Norman occupancy. Nevertheless, Dublin has some sights not to be missed. The best way to see Dublin on your own is to board one of the “Hop-On, Hop-off” buses where you can spend as much time as you want at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin Castle and the Temple Bar area. The Old Jameson Distillery and Guinness Storehouse also offer tours with stops from one of these buses. Just outside of Dublin in Kildare is the Irish National Stud Farm, founded in1900 by Colonel William Hall-Walker and transferred to the Irish state in 1945. Racehorses bred and trained here have become famous throughout the world. Mr. Walker’s Japanese Garden is interesting to walk through, as a sidelight to the green pastures with rollicking colts, barns and the museum.
WATERFORD, CORK AND KERRY
A trip to Ireland almost always includes a stop at the House of Waterford Crystal. Even though purchasing crystal was not high on my list, it was interesting to learn about this heirloom-quality crystal and their new contemporary designs.
Traveling further south into County Cork we spent the night in the historic old port town of Kinsale, where “foodies” flock in the summer time for Breton crepes, smoked salmon, farmhouse cheeses and fresh fish. It was here that The Battle of Kinsale occurred in 1601, with the Irish joining the Spaniards in fighting the English, but nonetheless losing the battle. Kinsale is also where the Lusitania was sunk 100 years go, and its sinking is now highlighted in a new best seller written by Erik Larson.
Our tour guide, Michael, got us up early the next morning in order to arrive at Blarney and see the castle before other tour buses descended on this scenic town and the woolen mills. Rest assured that they clean the Blarney Stone several times a day with antibacterial cleaning fluid, so if you feel energetic enough to climb the narrow, steep stone steps to kiss the Blarney Stone, you can certainly do this. I passed on this, and instead enjoyed the various castle rooms and beautiful spring flowers near-by.
Traveling to the west we stopped in Killarney in County Kerry to take a horse-drawn jaunting car ride through the 24,000-acre Killarney National Park to Ross Castle. Our driver entertained us with stories and humor throughout our hour or so ride, drawn by Charlie, the horse.
Killarney is often a destination in itself with its heather-clad peaks (in summer), near-by lakes and mountains, golf courses and proximity to the Ring of Kerry. Lunch was on our own so we chose Murphy’s Pub where we enjoyed homemade mushroom soup with brown bread, Guinness and the chef’s dessert special, sticky toffee pudding, which appeared to be a special dessert of the area.
We had a long way to go to reach Dingle by evening but stopped for a break at The South Pole Inn for good Irish coffee and to hear the story of local hero, Tom Crean, who made three expeditions to Antarctica, his last with Ernest Shackleton from 1914-1916. Unfortunately, Tom failed to reach the South Pole on any of these trips, but named his pub so that in his retirement, he could go to work at the South Pole every day.
Imagine celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland in the small town of Dingle where there are 50 pubs for 1500 people. We saw no green beer, but folks were dressed in funny green hats of all shapes, and wore small bunches of baby tears (rather than shamrocks) pinned to their shirts and blouses. We watched their small town parade which included local dignitaries, area bands, floats, and young girls dancing the typical River Dance with arms down at their sides. The action was all in their feet. Lunch of fish and chips with mushy peas followed at one of the pubs.
One shouldn’t miss a drive to the untouched, wild and rugged Dingle Peninsula where Gaelic is still spoken and used on road signs. Archeological ruins dating back to the Stone Age (500 B.C.) and 12th century beehive houses used by hermit monks dot the area inhabited by black-faced Hampshire sheep. Many films have been shot here, including “Far and Away” and “Ryan’s Daughter.” The Blasket Centre in Dunquin, of contemporary design, gave us a bit of history on the offshore Blasket Islands, inhabited until 1953 by hardy farming and fishing families. We hated to leave the Dingle Peninsula and Benner’s Hotel, our home for two nights, a small family run hotel where we partook of delicious food and drink and admired their family heirlooms and antiques.
THE WESTERN COAST – NORTH KERRY, SHANNONSIDE, CLARE AND GALWAY
Traveling in fog along a stretch of the 170-mile Shannon River (Ireland’s longest) offered several places of interest. A stop at the Foynes Flying Boat Museum in County Limerick (funded by actress, Maureen O’Hara, whose pilot husband died in an airplane crash), where the first transatlantic flying boats took off from this small inland waterway, was an important part of history. Pan American and British Airways flew refugees and celebrities across the Atlantic during the 1930’s in what were luxurious planes for those days.
One winter night in 1943, a flight headed to Newfoundland had to return to Foynes Shannon Airport due to bad weather. A Morse code message was sent to the control tower informing them of their return and for the small restaurant to prepare something warm for the passengers. The chef decided to put some good Irish Whiskey into their coffee. A few weeks later this same drink was served in a stemmed glass with whipped cream on top, and that is how Irish Coffee began!
North Kerry and Shannonside are often known as the area of storybook castles. Bunratty, Knappogue and Adare Manor (a Victorian Gothic Mansion converted into a five star hotel) are some of the noteworthy ones to see. We were hosted at a fabulous medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle (15th century) and were escorted into a great hall by the Ladies of the Castle. We were served mead, entertained by harp and fiddle music and then led to the banquet hall for a four-course meal, Irish choral music and some fun and rollicking humor between the Butler and the Earl.
We visited the mighty, dark sandstone Cliffs of Moher, standing 700 feet overlooking the wild Atlantic. The site’s magnificence became even more awe-inspiring when shadows shaded the rocks. This is part of The Burren (meaning rocky place) in County Clare, which is a vast western limestone plateau where the ubiquitous Irish green now changes to gray with a lunar landscape.
In addition to overlooking Galway Bay, this 20 mile stretch is home to Poulnabrone Dolmen, a 4,000 year old Celtic burial site, numerous wildflowers, birds and sheep. We were given the opportunity to watch an exercise in sheep herding using Border Collies. We then drove on to Galway City, home to the National University of Ireland, where we would stay two nights in the Hotel Meyrick on Eyre Square, formerly the Railway Hotel which opened in 1852. We were told that our hotel was inhabited by ghosts, which in our case came true because we were roused in the night by an attack on the bathroom plumbing.
CONNEMARA AND COUNTY MAYO
The Connemara area is an artist’s paradise – uninhabited with changing skies, misty fields of sheep and white ponies and scenic hills surrounding lakes and streams. Green marble from Connemara is often described as Green Gold, due to its scarcity. Some of us purchased marble jewelry at a gemstone shop.
As we drove to Killary Harbour in Leenane for a catamaran cruise we viewed hills that were ridged from growing potatoes. Much of this land has never been productive since the potato famine of 1845-1852.
Captain Sean readily agreed to run his catamaran cruise for us (the first of the season). He explained how mussels and salmon were farmed, as we passed the markers, and viewed mountain scenery surrounding this small inlet at Nancy’s Point.
En route to Dan O’Hara’s Homestead where we would have lunch in the farmhouse, we passed Kylemore Abbey, a former private girl’s school which is photographed on numerous brochures advertising Ireland as a destination for tourists. Time did not permit us to stop, so we went on for our home cooked lunch of Irish stew, soda bread and apple crumble. Following lunch we toured the O’Hara property in a tractor-drawn wagon and saw how peat was cut and used for heating and cooking.
It was a long drive back to Galway and the Hotel Meyrick, so our tour guide put on the movie, The Quiet Man, filmed in Connemara, to pass the time. Dinner was on our own so we chose The Front Door (better known as Sonny Molloy’s Pub) where we had Shepherd’s Pie and that black beauty with a blonde head – Guinness. Music from another pub full of students, on our way back to the hotel, enticed us to stop and listen to Irish favorites such as Red is the Rose and The Isle of Inisfree with musicians playing typical Irish instruments – the tin whistle, fiddle, guitar, accordion and goatskin drum called the bodhran.
Just as James Joyce made Dublin his own through his writings, Sligo was home to author W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). Sligo has churches of all denominations – Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, and, of course, Catholic. According to writer Sean O’Faolain, “The best Protestant stock in all Ireland is in Sligo.” The Yeats family was a part of that. There is a Yeats trail for those who are Yeats fans, but time did not permit us to follow it. We did stop for a final tribute to Yeats at Drumcliffe Church where he and his wife are buried.
At the border of Northern Ireland we stopped for lunch in a lovely little café in the Belleek China Factory and Shop (which we toured). Lunch was on our own and we used the British pound to pay for our food. The menu had such tasty treats as quiche, tea sandwiches and homemade soups and desserts.
Donegal Town would be our destination for two nights; we first toured Donegal Castle, which was just a short distance from our hotel, Mill Park. The castle was built by clan leader Hugh O’Donnell in the 15th century but was later owned by an Englishman, Sir Basil Brooke, who added Jacobean towers and turrets to the main fort. Impressive were the giant banquet hall and gargantuan sandstone fireplace. The Jacobean mansion, destroyed by fire, is just a shell.
On arriving at the hotel we were allowed some “down time” so as to walk the hotel grounds, enjoy the swimming pool or have a sherry or gin and tonic before dinner. We didn’t see any swimmers in the pool as they required both men and women to wear swim caps. Tomorrow, and for the next few days, we would be touring Northern Ireland and using British currency. Check out next week’s Boca Beacon for Part Two of this story.