Someone once asked me, “Where does your soul feel most at home?” It was an interesting “ice breaker” if you will, and without hesitation I answered, “Ireland”. I don’t know what it is about the place but once you’ve been, it creeps into your being and beckons you back.
Bill and I took off from Detroit Metro on Friday afternoon to catch our Aer Lingus flight out of Boston later in the evening. We had purchased our plane tickets back in the fall when gas was over $4 a gallon and my fear was that the price would keep climbing. Since then I’ve learned that Aer Lingus frequently advertises sales in the early to mid winter. Lesson learned.
Our flight across the Atlantic was uneventful. I hoped to sleep merely because we wouldn’t be arriving Ireland until 1:00 a.m. our time, and 6:00 a.m. theirs. Sleep would be a good thing. Early into the flight the crew served up what Bill referred to as toy food. Everything is packed so efficiently into tidy little packages. It was like eating a TV dinner but better; well, except for there were no tater tots. Really though, the main dish was beef tips, potatoes, carrots, and peas. Very tasty and sufficient. Surely this would fill us enough to send us into slumber.
I seem to have a knack for picking seats located close to very young children. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love children. I really do. I enjoy them; except for on a trans-Atlantic flight. It seemed that every time my head would begin to nod a wee one would scream bloody murder - yes, bloody murder – due to the pressure in their ears I suppose. It is not a good thing and I’m sure it’s disheartening for the parents as well; however, they get to enjoy the little rascals when they are being cute as well. Not so myself.
We had a strong tail wind and arrived in Shannon 45 minutes prior to our advertised arrival time. After the usual wait-to-see-whose-luggage-would-come-down-the-shoot-last, we grabbed the rental car and headed out. When renting a car in Ireland it is by far cheaper to rent a manual transmission than an automatic. Being all about saving a buck, we went with the manual. Bearing in mind that the Irish also drive down the left hand side of the road (and oh yes, did I mention no sleep?) it was an adventure in the making.
Bill did not seem anxious to get behind the wheel so I headed into the fray. I positioned myself in the car and reached for my Michelin map of Ireland. Horror upon horrors it occurred to me that my map was still sitting out in the living room at home! I am the most anal retentive planner in the world and I had left my map at home? How could this be? I couldn’t believe it. The rental agency did provide a map of sorts so armed with the coloring book of maps we headed out fearlessly. Actually – anxiously.
Ireland utilizes many round-abouts to maintain the flow of traffic. They have a pretty bad reputation for lots of foreigners but if you can wrap your mind around all the traffic coming from the right it actually works okay. Since we couldn’t get into our hotel room until afternoon, I planned for us to drive the Loop Head all the way to Kilbaha. Our initial drizzle turned into rain with a few minutes. The road narrowed once we got beyond Ennis and I found myself just unable and unwilling to manage the 100 km speed limit. Every once in a while Bill would become quite religious and call out to the Savior; usually just before saying something like, “Get in the other lane!” or “You’re driving off the road!” I was thankful that he had chosen this trip to return to his faith and figured it was the least I could do to help him along.
We arrived in a location called the Bridges of Ross at around 9:00 a.m. It’s one of those spots that you wouldn’t find unless you did your homework, and almost wouldn’t find if you didn’t have a map – but we did. We pulled up the narrow two-track to marvel at the beautiful cliffs separating the Irish shore from the Atlantic Ocean. It was still raining so I suggested we try to catch some sleep. We laid our seats back but once again sleep eluded us so we shared a Five Hour Energy drink instead. After a half hour or so we were able to walk about unmolested by rain and really take in the view. Beautiful.
Our next mission was to find the Loop Head lighthouse. The lighthouse and the keeper’s house have been taken over by the Irish Heritage Commission. The keeper’s house is available to lease as a self-catering rental. Talk about being off the beaten track! It’s a narrow little road that gets you from the Bridges of Ross to the lighthouse but well worth the occasional white knuckles. A casual visitor cannot go into the gates due to the renters but you can tramp about the location and venture out to the edge of the cliffs if you so choose. The wind was still blustery and the weather damp but it appeared that the clouds might eventually lift. One could imagine what a lovely location this would be for some well needed solace.
We left the lighthouse and tried another little road for the trip back to Ennis. We came to the village of Kilbaha where Keating’s pub brags to be the “nearest bar to New York”. We were desperate for a cup of coffee or tea but Keating’s was not yet open for business. We were instead pointed in the direction of the Lighthouse Pub and B&B. We got a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee (tea for me – when in Ireland…) that set us back nearly $20! That won’t be happening again.
We did the Great Explorers routine a while longer before I realized I was just exhausted and probably not the safest driver on the little road. The roads were such that upon meeting a vehicle, one car would have to find a place to pull over so the other could pass or visa versa. We were sort of lost trying to find the road back toward Ennis, but from a distance Bill spotted the ruins of a church we had driven by during the rainy season. We made our way via one lane roads back to what we recalled was the village of Cross and off we went!
We arrived in Ennis around noon and thus began the task of locating our hotel for the next two nights, the Temple Gate. I’d planned our trip around the Fleadh Nua (Fla Nua) festival in Ennis. It is a week-long celebration of traditional dance and music. As we wound through the streets it became increasingly difficult to get to where we at least thought we were going. There were vendors set up along the edge of the narrow streets and more and more one way lanes. We became so engulfed by Ennis that we ended up in a tiny little parking lot nestled behind some buildings. Bill asked a man walking by how to get to the Temple Gate and the gentleman basically told us to give up. He said the streets were blocked for the festival and we’d probably have to just leave our car where it was.
We paid a small fee to leave the car and set off on foot to find the Temple Gate. To exit the parking lot we walked through a narrow passage way and under a stone archway to get to the center of the town. There was a large mobile stage set up filled with youngsters and their beginning sounds of traditional music. It did not take us long at all to enter the courtyard of Temple Gate and make our weary way up to the front desk.
As we approached the desk I noticed a handsome older gentleman chatting it up with the desk clerk. We explained our predicament to them and the man attempted to ascertain just where we had left the car. “Two minutes from here?” he asked.
“Yes I think about two minutes” I replied.
After a bit more discussion, he finally turned to the desk clerk and vowed to return after helping us get the car back to the hotel. We introduced ourselves to the gent whose name was John and began weaving our way back through the festivities to the stone archway.
“Two minutes?” he asked again rather skeptically.
“Well, I guess it depends on how fast you’re walking,” I replied; hoping the guy wouldn’t get in trouble at his work for being gone too long. When we got to the car he asked if I wanted to drive or him to which I said, “God bless you” and happily handed over the keys. As we twisted our way around Ennis he mentioned having been responsible for closing one of the streets to foot-traffic only when he was on the city council. As we neared the hotel parking lot the fellow backed our car in next to his Mercedes and rather off-handedly said, “This is my hotel. I own it. I’m John Madden, but not the coach.” I had read about the Temple Gate and the reputation of John Madden hotels so I was pretty tickled that the owner of such a fine place would be our chauffer and one hell of a nice guy to boot.
Our room wasn’t ready so we wandered off to buy “The Complete Road Atlas of Ireland” and have our first brew. It had been suggested by folks on TripAdvisor to pick this book up at the airport for use instead of a map. Maybe that’s why I inadvertently left my map behind, but unfortunately we arrived at the airport about 3 hours before any of the shops were opened. After visiting the book store we headed to Cruise’s Pub. Cruise’s is a traditional old Irish pub famous for good craic (crack) meaning fun. Bill had his first Guinness and I ordered a Bulmer’s thinking it might be a light beer. Bulmer’s is actually a hard cider; not bad, but not the beer for which I’d been thirsting. We returned to the hotel to check into our room and take a lay down.
Our room is on the third floor and less than a block from where the main stage is set up. As I lay down to sleep I could hear the music and remembered that this was why we came to Ennis in the first place. Bill plugged in the small fan we’d packed for white noise and within seconds there was a loud “Pop” and smoke started pouring out from it. Apparently we didn’t have the adaptor quite right. Dang. We opened the door and the window to air out the smoke and I realize how close we’d come to repaying John Madden’s hospitality by burning down his lovely hotel!
Later in the evening Bill and I set off again. This time we started our at Halloran’s pub where we watched the championship rugby match between Leinster (Ireland) and Leicester (England). We arrived in time for the last 10 minutes of play and I pretended to understand the game and cheered when everyone else did. Bill explained to me that this was like the Super Bowl of rugby and the pub was packed. The boys from Leinster were victorious. (Loud cheering.) We finished our beers and headed back down to Cruise’s.
Cruise’s Pub is a charming place. It has beamed ceilings and a fire burning in the cut stone fireplace. There are little alcoves scattered about and a slate floor. The musicians were setting up near the fire for their first set. They looked to be just out of school; one with a fiddle and one with a set of Uilleann pipes. These are a kind of bag pipe but do not require the turning-red-in-the-face blowing of the traditional Scottish pipes. Instead the air is forced through a bag placed under the arm of the piper. After a while these two were also joined by a fine banjo player.
In short time Bill struck up a conversation with a couple from Ohio (Rita and Jerry) who had retired in Ireland. Rita had parents from Ireland and I suspect this enabled them to obtained Irish citizenship. Jerry loudly enjoyed talking about all the free stuff he gets from the Irish government whilst the band was attempting to play over his bragging. Jerry also explained that Rita had lost her hearing due to listening to too much Irish music however I suspect it was really from listening to Jerry for too many years. It is rude to carry on loud conversations during pub sessions and eventually we pulled away from our new best friends and returned to listening.
A man perhaps Bill’s age had pulled a chair up to the musicians table and looked quite focused. I nudged Bill and told him I thought we were about due for a song. Sure enough, the band ended their number and this man began to sing without accompaniment. It was an old Irish song unfamiliar to me but related to the conflicts between Irish and English. To hear the Irish accent singing out the lovely ballad while watching the fire glowing in the background was something like being in a dream. When he was done, the crowd cheered the band started up again.
At Cruise’s there was a character that I suspect is a local “familiar”. He was a bit “lit” and always had a Guinness in hand. He had this great booming voice though and every once in a while would call someone out for a song. Another lady was standing by the fire warming herself when he called her out. She hesitated but not for long and soon the “shussing started”. We learned the routine that whenever someone would get ready to sing, the crowd would shuss anyone who was carrying on conversation (and during the song if need be). This woman’s voice was indescribably beautiful as she sang for us “The Cliffs of Doneen”. I was only mildly embarrassed by the tears streaming down my face. This was a moment that no amount of film, or recording, or reliving can bring back. It was the most beautiful thing and one of the reasons I love Ireland so much. When she finished I turned to Bill who was sitting just behind me. My beautiful man was trying to stem his tears as well. We both were nearly turned to blubbering fools by the experience.
At that point we were bound to Cruise’s for the rest of the evening. Folks came and went and the occasional singer would begin a song between band breaks from one part of the pub or another. I made friends with Aiden who had sung a little ditty earlier whilst sitting a few people down from me. Later when his seat was next to mine, I urged him to sing again and he did. Wow. Can you imagine sitting shoulder to shoulder with a beautiful Irish soul while he sings out a tune? I know that sounds weird but it’s just the sense of being a part of the music and the people and the moment all at once. It was funny because shortly after Aiden’s song his cell phone rang. “Uh oh. I’m in trouble.” Apparently wives hunt their husbands down in the pubs the same way they do at bars in the states…
Several singers joined our table and we delighted in their company for what remained in our evening. Bill took some good natured kidding for his whiskers. One man came up to our table and it took three repeats of “ye missed sumthin” before we got it – he “missed something” when it came to shaving his beard. There were a couple Santa comments as well but all in good humor. That Bill; he likes to blend in with the locals. Our first singer of the night gave a good try at the song "Kelly the Boy from Killann" for Bill but stumbled on the words. Bill joined in when he faltered as I stood watching from a few feet away. It was one of those Kodak moments but I couldn’t ruin it with a flash. I love to see Bill happy and I think he was in heaven.
One of our singers for the evening, Gerry Shannon, was also selling CDs. He started at the price of 15 Euros but I explained to him we were on a budget and it was CDs or beer but not both. As we were leaving the pub, he kindly reduced his price to 10 Euros and I just couldn’t resist. He was such a cute little guy; the quintessential Irishman. Speaking of leaving the pub, it was just about midnight when they started setting up the place for the rock band (I suspect) and moved us all out of our most comfortable seats. I had had enough but I think Bill may have gone until morning had I not insisted on getting some sleep. We walked through the streets of Ennis now lit up with glowing street lamps and young people – mini-skirts are definitely back by the way. The festival atmosphere was contagious and I told Bill I’d try to go back out after a little rest. I could hear the partying and voices throughout the hotel but there was no way I could rally. That was it for our first day but a great day it was!