Monday, July 07, 2008

Ireland: highlights

The map below (linked to its live version on Google Maps) shows the circuit we followed this June. We moved counterclockwise, beginning (June 4th) and ending (June 28th) in Dublin.

Our Ireland itinerary

Our first days in Dublin were spent striving to look right before crossing the street, and walking carefully, deliberately, to Dublin's attractions. Our hostel was near the Guinness Brewery, and we took in the Old Jameson Distillery right away. Ghazi volunteered for the taste test, during which participants are coached to prefer Jameson's Irish over scotch and over Jack Daniel's. "None of that smokiness you find in scotch whisky!" Happily, a table of testers next to me were actually non-drinkers, so I got all the benefits of testing with none of the required hypocrisy. Photos of John Jameson -- a film biography of the legend kicks off the tour -- show a remarkable resemblance to my late Uncle Hugh.

Trinity College Dublin Trinity College Dublin Volunteer for taste test at Jameson distillery
Getting mom to pay attention Scene in Dublin Christ Church Cathedral

On the second day we visited the campus of Trinity College Dublin, where we saw the Book of Kells and the "long room" of the Old Library, a place which both exalts and humbles. A scholar who trained in this space would always be imbued with the nobility of learning, and at the same time mindful of how much he or she had left to read. Quite a contrast with the carrel! The next day we went out to Phoenix Park, the largest enclosed urban park in Europe, and saw the Dublin Zoo. The antics of the baby orangutan were among the highlights of the trip.

When the dreaded moment arrived, we returned to the Dublin airport to pick up our rental car, an Opel Corsa, made by GM. Navigating through airport traffic in an unfamiliar city during construction season driving on the right and shifting gears lefthandedly, now that's adventure! After a few whiteknuckled hours and clueless detours, we made it to Ballycastle in County Antrim in Northern Ireland, surprised that there had been no visible border crossing. The hostel hostess was out when we finally arrived, so the more enterprising guests took it upon themselves to get us set up in our quarters. In particular, Seán and Niki, from Australia, were among the nicest people we met on our trip. When we set out for Giants Causeway, we gave a ride to Carlos, a social worker from Boston. The Causeway is beautiful and disarming: I suppose I know that rocks have regular geometric form at some small invisible level, but to see perfect hexagons of this size in nature is quite something.

Giants Causeway Giants Causeway

After dropping off Carlos in Derry, we made our way to Dunlewy, just five minutes away from a national park. The Errigal Youth Hostel, situated at the foot of Mount Errigal, is without rival for comfort and hospitality, thanks to the energy and vision of its owner, Karl. Ghazi and I visited the so-called "Poisoned Glen" -- it was our first (and last) experience of "hiking" in a bog. Think of it as a vast, wet, gluey plain, where your foot sinks down ten inches with each step, and the ground sucks your shoes off your feet!

Bog cotton in the Poisoned Glen in Glenveagh National Park, county Donegal

After leaving Dunlewy we had to improvise for a night because I couldn't find an ATM out in the remote parts of Donegal and only one place accepted credit cards. But no matter: when we reached the summit of Slieve League, all earthly concerns vanished. The drive up the mountain was so steep that, at several points, I could see nothing but sky out the windshield. No clue as to whether there was an oncoming car or another hairpin turn just ahead.

Here's what I think of expanded tourism. Slieve League

We traveled next to Westport and were comfortably lodged in the former abbey of the Christian Brothers, now known as Abbeywood House. Susan, the proprietor, had lived for seven years in Oregon, and she bakes fresh brown soda bread for each morning's breakfast. From Westport we visited Ireland's most popular pilgrimage destination, the Croagh Patrick, or Patrick's Mountain. We also saw some extraordinarily beautiful countryside, and the impressive Kylemore Abbey.

Ireland's national famine memorial View of Clew Bay from Croagh Patrick The Sheeffrey Hills in Connemara
Kylemore Abbey Ireland's national famine memorial Ghazi in the Sheeffrey Hills, Connemara

After a quick passage through Galway, we found ourselves at Lisdoonvarna in the Burren, a small town with a rather unusual niche: it hosts a matchmaking festival every fall. This was probably my favorite overall location in Ireland. And the Sleepzone hostel, run by the knowledgeable and affable Tony and Barbara, was almost as good as the Mount Errigal. While there, we saw the incomparable Cliffs of Moher, and explored the Burren for dolmens and other ruins.

Swan and cygnets Tree in windswept field

Cliffs of Moher Cliffs of Moher

Leaving the Burren, we gave a ride to Joe and Stephanie of Seattle since they were headed in the same direction. Stephanie encouraged Ghazi to check out BUNAC, an organization which helps you find work overseas. We found Killarney to be a refreshingly energetic town with good traditional music. The hostel was only fair, but we saw some people there we had met at earlier hostels, and Ghazi socialized quite a bit with them. While in Killarney we took an excursion around the Ring of Kerry, giving a ride to John, an interesting retired science teacher from Austria. We saw the Muckross Gardens and Abbey, and most memorably took a boat trip out to the Skellig Islands, where there are thousands of nesting sea birds and an imposing medieval monastery perched on the summit of a cliff.

Ross Castle Heron in lake along the Ring of Kerry Along the Ring of Kerry
View from Skellig Michael Muckross Gardens Along the Ring of Kerry

Puffin on Skellig Michael Puffin on Skellig Michael

We stayed for three days in Cork, making side trips to Blarney Castle and Cobh, and we ate at the Fishy Fish in Kinsale. Ghazi found good music and socialized quite a bit with the other hostel guests. Cousin Melanie had sent us photos of the McGrortys and Cunninghams kissing the Blarney Stone during a trip back in the 70s, and in their memory Ghazi did the same. The city of Cork has a Masters Swim team, a very beautiful university campus, a huge technology sector, and a summer arts festival, by which I mean: I think I could live there.

Blarney Castle MacCurtain's Street, Cork

We made our way to Kilkenny, stopping along the way at the Rock of Cashel, one of the most atmospheric sites in Ireland (especially on an atmospheric day...). Kilkenny itself we found exorbitantly expensive.

Me: Good morning! Could you tell me what it would cost to do a load of laundry?
Laundromat staffer: It starts at 18 Euros.
Me: Oh, sorry, I meant a load of laundry that I would do myself with my own detergent.
Laundromat staffer: As I said, 18 Euros.
Me: ...
Laundromat staffer: ...
Me: That seems rather a lot.
Laundromat staffer: Aye, 'tis.
Me: One might almost as well buy new clothes.
Laundromat staffer: Aye, you might.
Me: Well, ok. Thanks anyway.
Laundromat staffer: And it's Gearge Boosh you can blame fer it.

Rock of Cashel Rock of Cashel

Our days in Ireland being numbered, we then came back to Dublin and returned the rental car. In the last hours I saw the superb Irish History Museum, where the bog men are preserved. The very last day, we visited St. Mary's Pro Cathedral, which was in our neighborhood. I went inside to have a look and to see how a "pro" cathedral differed from the ordinary kind. Ghazi stayed on the steps finishing his can of Pringles. When I emerged, a very sweet lady was intently asking for his assistance in the effort to achieve canonization for Edel Quinn, Alphonsus Lambe, and Frank Duff. Specifically, if Ghazi were to benefit from favours attrituable to the these servants of God, he was asked to send notice in writing to the Legion of Mary. Now there was an echo from childhood! Intervening quickly, I told her, with an enthusiasm and emotion which she misinterpreted, that my aunt Eleanor had been a devoted legionnaire back in Nashville. She gently touched my forearm, and urged me and Ghazi to join the Legion upon our return to America. Mesmerized by her intensity, we nodded and listened in rapt attention. But she must have seen how carefully we avoided eye contact with each other, for she paused, tilted her head a bit to one side, and said, "I'm sure you're doing the Lord's work, in your own way."

We had dinner and a few rounds of local micro-brews with our man from Mullingar, picked up souvenirs, and then sadly made our way to the airport.

All the photos are online in this Flickr collection.


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