The land of the leprechaun, where everything is possible

Sometime in March this year this song kept coming to my mind.  I searched for its author and came to learn about the series of books on the Irish Famine by Brendan Graham. Then an advert caught my eyes, about Donegal being voted “the coolest place on the planet” by National Geographic. So the desire to visit these places started to take shape. An Irish friend and colleague then helped me plan the itinerary and put together a driving trip through the West Coast (but skipping Donegal this time, as too long a trip). Finally, another Irish colleague gave me advice on places to stay and eat, and so the Irish adventure began.

Days 1-3: Dublin

We arrived in Dublin very early on a Friday morning and checked in at the hotel, neatly located within 20 minutes-walk of any major tourist attraction in Dublin. The owners were pretty honest and advised us breakfast across the street at “Taste Food” was better than their own, so off we went for some amazing “eggs benedict” with bacon, and a delicious enormous “crock madame” that could feed a little army. This was the place for our breakfast for the next three days, and the best we had for the entire trip. On followed a nice stroll in St Stephen’s Green park, some window shopping, and a small exhibition on the Irish Great Famine on the second floor of St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre. This was sobering and made for an emotional backdrop for the holiday.

For the evening, some quick fish and chips at “Rua Bar” before the amazing “Riverdance”at Gaity Theatre. It was a goose-bumping display of pure art, with music and dance that would take you ages back into Celtic history and would then bring you back into the present world, with a dance-off between Irish dance and American jazz tap dance, followed by some traditional  Russian dance and Spanish flamenco, all on a background of Irish traditional music. Elating.

4riverdance

Gaity Theatre

The next day was planned for Trinity College and Dublin Castle. On the way to Trinity College we bumped into two of Dublin icons: the statue of Molly Malone with her well-known cart for “Cockles and Mussels, alive, alive, oh”, and the famous “O’Donoghue’s” pub, where “The Dubliners” have started their career some 50 years ago. The Frommer’s travel guide had some hilarious notes about the Irish “monumental wit” and the funny names that locals give to their symbols: Molly Malone statue for example was referred to as “The Tart with the cart”, or “the Trollop with the Scallop”, or “the Flirt in the Skirt”. That made for a good laugh on our way to Trinity. “O’Donoghue’s” though was a slight disappointment as on our last night in Dublin my husband and I went there for some live music, and we were surprised to see it full of teenagers (or what appeared to be very young people), and no music – maybe we were too early… on the bucket list for next time.

We booked a guided tour of the Trinity College compound, which was given by a second-year business student studying there. Funny stories about the history of the oldest Irish university (1592), including the “special” (pretty bad actually…) relationship of the college administrators over the years with the various architects. One of the buildings, the Graduates Memorial building apparently collapsed three times before a proper building contract was agreed.

The highlight of the visit was of course the “Old Library” and the “Book of Kells”, Ireland’s most famous national treasure. The book contains the four gospels of the New Testament; it was written on vellum (calfskin), in Latin, possibly between year 500 and 800 AC and is adorned by extraordinary calligraphy and ornaments. It may have taken several years and authors, and possibly hundreds of calves, to finish the book, which is why it is now understandably protected as a national treasure. By comparison, Dublin Castle was not that impressive, possibly because of its association with its long British ruling… except perhaps the emotions of the James Connolly room, where the hero of the 1916 Easter Rising was brought before being sent for execution at Kilmainham Jail. Today, many of the rooms are used for presidential and other state functions. Dinner that evening was at Millstone, a posh place serving the most amazing Irish lamb steak, discovered by our son, who is developing a good nose for fine restaurants.

 

Last day in Dublin was planned for the distilleries, but on our way to St James Gate, we stopped by for an exhibition on Viking and medieval Dublin, in Dublinia, near the Christ Church Cathedral. Got our names spelt using runas, were greeted by “Strong Bow” and learned about the “honour price” of various citizens in the Irish medieval society. If you were a noble man and someone attacked your honour, they would have to pay you three caws, if you were a peasant, only one young heifer. The origin of the economic cost of a human life, a question modern health economist still struggle with…

Guinness Storehouse was a whole other experience though. The brewery is possibly another “national treasure”- so much seems to be invested in the promotion of the “black stuff” that you’d think the entire country lives off its profits. It does taste really good though, as we experienced on the free tasting session (and throughout the trip in Ireland afterwards), when free samples were offered at the top of the hour, together with some traditional Irish dancing. Mixing the Guinness draught with a “Riverdance”-like mini-show makes for a very riveting experience. The marketers’ imagination for promoting the four-ingredient stout is boundless – an entire floor is dedicated to the history of Guinness commercials. And the Gravity Bar on the top offers stunning panoramic views of the city.

Days 4-6: Galway and surroundings

After a first personal record of 17,000 steps a day, made up from walks within the brewery and the city of Dublin, off we went the next day towards the West Coast. The car hire experience is not worth remembering, except perhaps as the longest waiting time for a car hire (more than 2 hours). Into the first toll station on M6, the fine weather we have been enjoying in Dublin gave room to a cold pouring rain, preparing us thus for the whimsical weather of the West Coast. By the time we got to Galway though, the sun was out again and we enjoyed a nice stroll in the port and an excellent seafood and music from our youth at “The Kitchen” on Quay street. It felt indeed like a time travel, not only because of that music, but the entire town, and particularly our hotel, seemed to have stopped the time somewhere during the 1980’s.

 

The next day, Aran Island. I booked tickets for the ferry online, and was a bit surprised to see the timing on that booking was 11:30, when the hotel told us the ferry only leaves at 10:30 and 1pm. It turned out that, as the monopoly that the Aran Island Ferries operates, they had several boats and timings, and the 10% discount for online booking was in fact to limit the number of people of the first morning ferry. So, although we rushed to be there for the 10:30 ferry (an hour drive from Galway), we had to wait for the boat that was marked on our ticket, at 11:30. We were lucky though, others in the queue had to wait for the ferry at 1pm… Well, it made for a good bonding time with the ferries’ dog, and a funny conversation among ourselves about whether the boat anchored at the docks was Ed Sheeran’s or not.

Aran Island was another time travel experience and an immersion into wilderness and rustic life. The sun was out all day, and despite the wind, it made for a wonderful trek, and for another record of daily steps – 21,000. We made a new friend, John the cart-driver, who told us about the hard time people have to make a living on the island, despite the troves of tourists invading for 3-4 months a year. The rest of the time is dead, nothing to do on the island, so everyone moves on to Galway or nearby. Wonder though who the three schools on the island cater for… Life used to be really hard, as the movie Man of Aran shows.

A sophisticated dinner at Ard Bia at Nimmos near the Spanish Arch in Galway ended a full and beautiful day.

The next day the weather changed again. But despite the cold rain, the wind, and a horrible migraine, off we went towards the other iconic place of Ireland – Cliffs of Moher. Before that though, the Dunguaire Castle, a 16th century tower house, which later became a place of revival for the Irish literature, with famous writers and poets sojourning here for their literary works. Today, the castle provides for banquets and stylish dinners during spring and summer months.

A short drive then through Lisdoonvarna (the place of the match-making festival), and there we are for the mandatory photo session at the Cliffs of Moher. Despite the cold wind and the hundreds of tourists crawling around, the landscapes were stunning. Pure force of nature in display. The Burren though got skipped because of the heavy rain that started as we left the Cliffs, so it goes onto the bucket list for the next trip. Spanish tapas and good wine at Cava Bodega in Galway made us forget the cold and rainy day and only remember the amazing landscapes.

Days 7-8: West Coast and Westport

The plan for the next day was to drive through the beautiful scenery of the West Coast to Clifden, have a quick lunch there and continue to Westport, via the Connemara Park. Only by the time we got to Clifden it was pouring rain (again, what a surprise), so we kept going until the Kylemore Abbey.

There rain stopped and we enjoyed some wonderful backdrops for family photo, and a nice stroll in the Victorian walled Gardens. Then the most weird and amazing thing happened. As we were walking out of the souvenir shop at the Abbey, there she stand in the doorway, a tall Benedictine nun, with a warm smile on her face and gentle blue eyes. “Hello” I smiled and greeted her. “Hello”, she smiles back. “Where are you from?” she asks. “From Switzerland.” “Do you speak French?” “Yes, I do”. Then she gently grabs my arm and pulls me from the doorway into the hall, and shows me a piece of paper with a couple of paragraphs in French, some of the words highlighted with an orange marker. “Can you please help me understand what it says?” It was the story of one of the former Abbesses who suffered a long and difficult journey coming back from Ypres, Belgium where the order was created, to establish the Abbey in Kylemore. The nun knew French fairly well, but its’ true that the word “dénuement”(destitution, poverty) is a “faux amis” of “dénouement” (end of the play/story), and the phrase did not make sense with the latter meaning. She was very pleased that we helped her decipher the meaning of the two paragraphs and bid us farewell in our travels, after some more chats about other French-speaking Swiss travelers she met previously. A most thrilling and humbling experience.

We arrived late that evening at our Bed&Breakfast on the coast of Bertra Strand, to another cold, rainy and windy weather, but the amazing views of the Croagh Patrick mountain, even if half covered in haze and fog, softened it a bit. This is the Irish holy mountain where pilgrims come every spring and climb it barefoot for redemption of their sins. The plan for the following day was Clew Bay – an amazing assemble of (it is said) 365 small islands, geological formations called drumlins, spread across the Atlantic Ocean near Westport. Helas, we were not meant to see them this time around, as pouring rain again, so one more thing onto the bucket list for the next trip. But what we saw instead totally made up for it. The landlady told us about a place called “Achill Island”. The name sounded familiar from the book “The Whitest Flower”, as one of the main characters was from this place.

We were not prepared though for what came at the end of a long drive through a landscape of bog, mountains and large stretches of water, west of Newport. The GPS map showed the road was ending (and all habitations with it) near a very large beach. After we passed the last pub and the last house, the road started to climb and became very narrow. We were a bit put off by this winded and steep path, but as cars were moving ahead and the landscapes were stunning, we continued. And there it came – from the top of the mountain we saw the most beautiful heavenly place – a white sand blue-flag beach between two green mountains, opening up towards the large ocean. This was Keem Bay, a place forgotten by civilization, with only a caravan serving some warm tea and coffee, and the iconic Irish sheep guarding the road – the rest was wilderness. The funniest thing though was that local parents, all dressed up for what it was, a cold windy day, left their children play in the freezing ocean, dressed only in their swimming suits. I suppose that’s how you toughen up in Ireland.

On the way back to Bertra Strand, we stopped by Keel Beach, still on Achill Island, where brave youngsters (or perhaps not that young) were surfing on some amazing ocean waves, against the backdrop of a mountain. Put us to shame as we were freezing just by looking at them… Then as the sun came out for some time, we made a detour to go to Ballycroy National Park, where a government programme supported by the European Union set to preserve the bog formation and the wild habitat around the West Coast. Peat, the vegetal decay formed in bog lands, is used as fuel, and has a very specific, unforgettable strong smell and a signature blue smoke. A very good initiative though, as the habitat supports some wild flora and fauna that would otherwise disappear. Dinner both evenings was at the Tavern bar in Murrisk, who sported not only excellent food but also the traditional by now humour related to the national drink. For the bucket list for next time, it will be the Matt Molloy pub in Westport, where live music is performed by the owner, a famous flute player. But Westport was some 30 min drive from our sleep, it was cold and raining, and horrendously difficult to find a parking spot in Westport.

Days 9-10 Road back to Dublin

On the way back to Dublin I wanted to go back to Galway to the famous Thomas Dillon Jewelry shop on Quay Street. On my checklist there was a Claddagh ring from this shop, which claims to be the original designer of the unique ring, only produced in Claddagh village near Galway. The ring features two hands holding a heart, and a crown on top of them – symbols of friendship, love and loyalty. Not sure if the claim is real – when I asked the owner how did they manage to keep the business within the family for hundreds of years, he responded slightly unconvinced “with great difficulty”…

claddagh-ring

But this was another opportunity to stroll once more on the Quay Street and smile at the famous Irish humor at “Fat Freddy’s”. The drive back to Dublin was uneventful, and the flight back to Geneva the following day smooth and (too) quick.

12galway

It was an amazing 10 days and we were all so happy to have learned so much about a new country and its wonderful people, see some amazing landscapes, and taste excellent food and drinks – or rather “one” excellent drink, the unforgettable “black stuff”. Still, lots of places to see and things to do on the bucket list – this was just the appetizer. Ireland, get ready, we will be back soon!

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