In case postings about the expensiveness of Ireland and Melissa’s bad Thursday give the wrong impression, we’ve had a lot of great experiences during our month on the Emerald Isle. We’ve also had some smelly or scary or silly moments that have given us a better feel for life in rural Ireland.
Here are a few:
- Taking beautiful, lonely walks through dramatic scenery at the ends of the Sheep’s Head, Mizen Head, Dingle, and Horn Head Peninsulas.
- As we drive down a country road on the northern side of the Beara Peninsula, we see an older Irishman at the side of the road waving us down. When we stop, he asks whether we can give him a lift a few miles to the nearest town. Hitchhiking is common in Ireland, and it’s obvious that we have plenty of room in our four-door rental car, and he looks harmless enough, so we say yes. He politely strikes up a conversation, and being Irish, he proceeds to talk non-stop for 20 minutes (all the jokes about talkative Irishmen are so true!). It turns out that he’s a bachelor farmer with a small piece of land and about a dozen cows, who is heading to town for his weekly shopping before catching the once-a-day bus back home. He really didn’t have to mention the cows; the smell when he got in the car had our eyes watering for miles. When we told him our itinerary in Ireland, he was incredulous. We could get around the country three times in our six weeks, he told us; there’s just not that much to see, especially in these boring rural areas. Hmm, guess it depends on your perspective!
- Seeing puffins (one of Chris’s favorite birds) in the wild for the first time, on a boat trip around the Blasket Islands. When they’re sitting on the water, puffins resemble other sea birds. But when they fly, they look like panic-stricken bumble bees, flapping frantically as though their stubby bodies weren’t designed for flight.
- Attending a village dance in the tiny hamlet of Kilfenora in the Burren region. As the owner of the pub where the dance was held—and her daughter, who runs the hostel next door—both made a point of telling us, this dance wasn’t a show for tourists. It was something the community did twice a week, year-round, for its own pleasure. Couples young and old danced complicated set dances in groups of eight to music performed by members of the Kilfenora Ceili Band, which is well known in western Ireland. We had fun watching, listening, and absorbing the atmosphere. We hadn’t planned to dance (there were no lessons for beginners, and it was obvious that most of the dancers had been doing these steps for years). But as we stood near the door waiting for a dance to end so we could make our exit, an older woman grabbed us and pulled us into her group for the next dance. It started simply enough, with everyone joining hands and moving in and out in a circle. Then we broke apart and the woman called “now you just waltz.” Yikes! We’ve never really mastered that. But we shuffled along for a few minutes with everyone in good humor, until the music ended and we could take our leave. Like the old couples from the village and the nearby farms, we’d had a special night out.
- Chris getting up the nerve to sing at a traditional-music session at Molly’s Pub in Dunfanaghy, Donegal. After the guitarist and whistle player leading the session played some tunes, other people in the room took turns singing a capella (eyes closed in concentration, churning out a long, heartfelt ballad or a silly song). Chris was itching to take a turn, but she was almost too nervous. But near the end she screwed up her courage and did it (the song was “Rambling Rover” by Scotsman Andy M. Stewart). She got a round of applause from the small gathering and was very relieved not to go home kicking herself for cowardice.
- Finding, in an otherwise dingy little hostel in a tiny village (Kilcrohane on Sheep’s Head Peninsula), a wonderful small book of local history. It was full of old photos: confirmation classes through the years, the first motor car in town, the last traveling peddler, or tinker, to visit the area. Townsfolk contributed essays about local superstitions, the history of the school and churches, how things have changed in farming and fishing. Schoolchildren collected their families’ reminiscences about the night Great Granddad drowned at sea or when Grandma was cured at the old holy well (spring) next to the ash tree. A great portrait of the kind of traditional Irish village life that people often don’t think about recording until it’s too late.
- Losing about 10 years off our lives from the stress of driving the “wrong” way (south) between Killarney and Kenmare. That route passes through beautiful scenery, but the road is very narrow and winding. It’s also part of the heavily touristed “Ring of Kerry” circuit. Tour buses are only allowed to drive the circuit in one direction, which happened to be the opposite direction from the one we were going. It seemed like every time we came around a blind curve, a huge bus was about to plow into us. Standard procedure at that point was to screech to a halt and inch as far over to the left as we could (without going into a ditch or denting the rental car on a rock wall) until the bus could slide past. Twenty-five kilometers never felt so long.
- Eating amazing, buttery seafood chowder with thick brown soda bread and watching kids learn to tack in tiny boats at the summer sailing school in Crookhaven harbor.
- Driving miles down a narrow country lane and then walking along a deserted path to emerge at a Bronze Age stone circle and the ruins of early hunters’ huts. As the sun set on that quiet green spot, the only sounds were of birds, cows, and trickling water.