It’s been a couple of months since our trip to Ireland and we talk and laugh endlessly about our Irish journey as we go through photos and recall our Irish happenings. Travel experiences, like fine wine and cheese, get better over time.
One such happening was the decision to rent a car in Ireland and go where the locals go. Or so we thought. When it was time to depart Dublin, we picked up the mid-size, four-door Chevrolet sedan from Hertz then got a five-minute tutorial on driving-on-the-left-in-Ireland-with-a-six-speed-manual-transmission from Fintan, our new Irish friend. I will not soon forget following Fintan out of the Hertz car park (Irish for parking lot) onto the left side of a busy main Dublin thoroughfare, fumbling with the 6-speed stick shift. I was a bit nervous, Angelina was speechless.
Fintan led us through a maze of Dublin city streets to the N11, a modern motorway in Ireland, and pointed us towards Powerscourt in County Wicklow. Then with a wave and a toot of his horn he peeled off back into Dublin and we were on our own. The adjustment to left-side driving and shifting was surprisingly quick, only an hour or so, but it would be negotiating the very narrow roads and lanes that provided high driving drama throughout the rest of the trip. We had included a Garmin GPS in our rental agreement, thinking it would be a back-up in case we got lost. Bridget was the name we gave the silky voice with the Dublin accent in the GPS. Her smooth directions turned out to be very accurate and I don’t think we could have found half the places we went without her. She was our steady companion for eight days. It was on the next leg from Powerscourt to Kinsale that we discovered another feature of Irish driving – roundabouts everywhere. Roundabouts re-direct traffic without stopping and often take the place of traffic lights. I found them to be quick and efficient…as long as you select the right exit. If not, simply turn around in somebody’s driveway and try it again.
After two days in Kinsale, we took a travel day, spending the entire day meandering down to the southern tip of Ireland and then up the famed rugged western coast towards Killarney, stopping along the way on a whim.
First stop was in Skibbereen at the Heritage Museum dedicated to the devastating Irish Potato Famine in 1845. The 6-year famine, another bitter, tragic event in Irish history, led to the starvation deaths of 1 million and the loss of another million to immigration, a total loss of 30% of the population in less than ten years. We walked to a nearby memorial burial ground full of famine graves, a sober moment on our trip.
On the road again we made short stops in Bantry and Kenmare. By now I’m quite comfortable driving; downshifting smoothly into countless roundabouts, flying out the other side by centrifugal force much to Angelina’s chagrin. The narrow and twisty drive from Kenmare to Killarney on the N71 through the western mountains and part of the Ring of Kerry was absolutely spectacular even though I dared not take my eyes off the road.
In Killarney, we took a tour to the Dingle Peninsula, similar to the Ring of Kerry but with less traffic. By now, I was more than willing to sit and enjoy a ride in the country with someone else doing the driving. This trip to Dingle is where we saw Ireland as a stunningly beautiful green tapestry. The fields are defined by ancient stone walls forming an emerald quilt and filled everywhere with sheep. Homes and barns were built of concrete blocks covered with stucco; no wood structures at all. Walls were stacked field stones, just like New England; again no wooden fences. The best part of the day was the drive more so than where we stopped. The small towns were all quaint but filled mostly with gift shops and pubs for tourists. They started to look alike.
The following day we hit the road once more with another travel day stopping in Adare for lunch. Adare is where we found several of the increasingly rare thatched-roofed buildings. It’s also where we found aubretia planted in gaps in a stone wall in front of a boutique. We would see these bright, blue-violet floral clusters growing as feral flowers in nooks and crannies everywhere we went. I wish we could have brought some home.
Limerick was the next and final destination of our trip. We spent a very pleasant afternoon with cousins of mine that I had never met. The following day we went on our second day trip, this time out to the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher. The Cliffs were impressive in every way but it was the Burren that I found more fascinating. “Burren” comes from an Irish word meaning “rocky place” and rocky it was.
It’s a large area of rolling hills of limestone, a moonscape of archeological sites megalithic tombs, portal dolmens, Celtic high crosses, and ring forts along Galway Bay.
Going to the Poulnabrone dolmen, an ancient burial site, in the Burren was on my wish list for the trip and I was the last one back in the van after our visit. This was one of the trip’s high points and a fitting end to our Irish getaway as we headed home the following day.
We have come to realize that the best part of travel is the suspension of daily routines and putting worries on the shelf for a couple of weeks. It’s a calculated and delicious leap in the dark to somewhere new and wonderful. And despite careful planning, you never really know how the details will unfold. And, like fine wine and cheese, much of the reward lies in great expectations.