Ireland and Northern Ireland, November 2013
I started planning this trip for nine friends, all female. One by one, they all had to drop out, until, on the day I left, we were down to just me. That’s fine; I’d traveled to Ireland before on my own. Having grown up in Miami, most places held no fear for me. Caution, yes – I’ve learned always to lock my valuables up, and give no one a chance to disappoint me. However, I held no apprehension on traveling on my own. My husband did – but he had to work, and I wasn’t giving up this vacation after spending so much time planning it, and already having paid for chunks of it, like the car and airfare.
The plan was: Flight from Pittsburgh to Dublin on November 15th (Friday), rent a car in Dublin. Spend time in Drogheda (2 nights), Armagh (2), Cushendall (3), Bunbeg (4), Westport (2) and Glasson (3). Fly back on December 2nd (Monday), thus avoiding the high airfares on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This was my fifth trip to Ireland, and my eighth trip to the Isles. I was revisiting some favorite spots, and staying in some new places. Because it was late November, I had to make accommodation for the short daylight hours, and cut down my sightseeing from what I was used to in May and June. That meant long evenings in pubs – which I was looking forward to! Sometimes this was a huge success, sometimes not so much.
Details of places I’d stayed, etc.
Flight: Aer Lingus (codeshare with United) PIT – ORD – DUB and back, $644. I got an afternoon flight (3:30pm) which allowed me to work half a day on that Friday and still drive to Pittsburgh in time to check in. My layovers were 2-3 hours each, the perfect length for my level of comfort on international flights. I would return 9:30pm on Monday, which got me home at midnight. I had to work the next morning.
Car rental: Dan Dooley, $640 (included CDW and extra insurance, and it was useful!)
Drogheda – I stayed at a friend’s house in Mornington
Armagh – Dundrum House (www.dundrumhouse.com)
Cushendall – Riverside B&B (www.theriversidebandb.com)
Bunbeg – Teac Campbell B&B (www.teac-campbell.com)
Westport – McCarthy’s Lodge B&B (www.mccarthyslodge.com)
Glasson – Benown House B&B (www.glasson.com/index.aspx)
And now, on to the detailed narrative. Feel free to use it as an antidote for insomnia!
My photos are avaiable in public Facebook folders here:
Friday, November 15th:
I’m sure most of you have experienced this phenomenon – the day before you leave for vacation is by far the longest. It seems like the day itself lasts for weeks. Well, I only had a half day, and it felt like it stretched on for a month. However, at noon, I had prepared everything for my absence, bills set up to pay while I was gone.
The drive to Pittsburgh Airport is about an hour and a half, and about halfway through I realized I had never checked in online for my flight. Oops! Not a big deal – I wasn’t checking any luggage, and I had already selected my seat. I arrived at the airport, drifted through row after row of filled Extended Parking before finally finding a spot, and then checked in on my phone while on the shuttle. However, since it was an international flight, I still had to check at the counter to show my passport. Luckily, the line was short and fast, and I got through quickly. Security was also a breeze, and I got through in about 15 minutes. The TSA staff was professional but easy-going, joking and looking like they were having a fun day. They did ask to look in my bag (the tripod usually makes them nervous) but were quite kind and polite about it.
Now, there had been an issue with some shoes I had bought online from Crocs. I love my Crocs. My normal everyday choice is a pair of Crocs sandals that are comfortable and don’t look like the standard ugly type. However, I knew that sandals were impractical for November walking around in Ireland, so I had ordered a new pair of neoprene slip-ons. I had ordered them the week before I left, paying extra for fast shipping. The tracking showed it was on its way – until Thursday night before I left, when the tracking email said the package wouldn’t be delivered until the following Tuesday. Well, I was a bit upset at this, and got online to chat with a rep. He said he would try to expedite it, but was unable to, so I resolved to take my two pairs of boots instead. One pair was snow boots, and chaffed a bit at the ankles, and the other pair were furry on the inside, but suede outside, so no waterproofing. Also, I’d not worn either pair since last winter, so blisters were always a possibility. I did bring some moleskin in case!
When I did my post-security shopping (bottle of water, some snacks, etc.), I also found the Crocs store. They had the same pair I had ordered, in my size – just grey rather than black. I bought them, and they worked. Unfortunately, they slipped a lot at the ankle at first, before the sole compressed to your foot shape, so the moleskin got good use. They were quite useful, especially as the furry boots evidently had deteriorated inside under the heel, making them very uncomfortable. I switched to the snow boots as needed for muddy spots, and the neoprene Crocs resisted moisture and dried quickly.
So, shoe saga handled, I went to the gate to top off my iPhone charge. There were limited plugs, but I saw one young lady unplugging and packing up her stuff. I sat next to her, and plugged mine in where she had vacated. She then looked at me, paused as if I had stolen her spot, and gave me a dirty look. I offered her the spot back, asking if she still needed it, but she shook her head, gave me another dirty look and an exasperated sigh, and left.
The flight to Chicago was quick and easy, just an hour in the air, and then a 3 hour layover. I did have to go through security again (and again, the tripod excited interest). I had some food before the flight – an appetizer with Italian meats (cappicola, etc.) and some odd little dough pockets at an Italian restaurant. I was the last section to board, and I was on the window seat (I like to take photos out of the window when I can, and lean against the side to sleep). My traveling neighbor was Frank, an engineer on business from Cork. We chatted a lot about family, history, seafood, Kinsale, DNA, religion, etc. Then we retreated to our entertainment systems. I caught a couple episodes of Big Bang Theory. Dinner was sweet and sour pork – it was awful. I think it was actually the worst airline meal I’d ever been served, and that’s a pretty bad record. It was clumpy, undercooked, and sickly sweet. The brownie was good, though – I maintain a theory that airlines (and other establishments as well) try to make up for horrible mains with great desserts, and I’ve seen it often.
Saturday, November 16th :
I managed to sleep a couple hours, despite my terribly short-sighted logistic issue of leaving my earplugs packed in my carryon – which was well and truly wedged in the overhead compartment, and not coming out without major surgery. Breakfast was a croissant sandwich, rather thin and watery, but at least filling. There was a stunning sunrise over the clouds as we got into Dublin.
Frank was chivalrous and got my bag down for me. It required him to stand on two of the seats and tug hard on it, chivvying it around until it was released. It was a bit overstuffed, I must say. I try not to check luggage on my way to a vacation, as the record in the past has been about 50% delayed luggage. My trip to Scotland had my luggage delayed for five days, and I still only got it then because I was ruthless in nagging them, and got someone to get up and physically LOOK for the bag. So, I had everything in my rollerboard; five days of clothes, a fleece jacket (I had my long wool coat carried on separately), my tripod, electronic bits, some of my jewelry to show off, travel documents, etc. I’ve done this before, but winter clothes are bulkier than summer clothes. Oh, and I also had a fold up duffel to turn into a checked bag on the way back, so I wouldn’t have to deal with this again. I don’t mind as much if my clothes are checked and delayed when I return.
I got my car from Dan Dooley with no issue, a small blue Micra with manual transmission. I find that it is easier for me to adapt to driving on the left than it is to revert to driving on the right when I get home. Also, I drive automatic at home and manual abroad. I had seriously considered getting an automatic, as I’ve no experience driving a manual on icy, hilly roads, but I decided to take the chance (it was a $300 difference in price!). Luckily, there were only one or two days with any ice in spots, and that only in a couple places, easily handled.
The plan: Trim Castle, Gormanston College Cloisters, Fourknocks, Slane Castle, and Proleek Dolmen, ending up in Mornington.
Well, that was the plan, anyhow. Most of the sites on my to do list had GPS coordinates. I discovered that, while some of these were spot on, some were a bit off (depending on how precise they were) and some were WAY off. If I could get in the right area, I could often find brown signs directing me to the right place. Sometimes, that didn’t work, either, and I gave up.
When I got the rental car, I programmed in the first spot, Trim Castle – south on the M50. It noted that it was a toll road – and I didn’t have any change yet, just large bills, so I passed. I guess I wasn’t in the mood for a restored castle yet – I have a limited capacity for them, as I prefer ruined places, picturesque and crumbling. Besides, south was away from my destination that day, and I was unsure how much energy I would have that day, after my less-than-restful night on the plane. I thought it would be the better part of wisdom to get closer to my evening’s lodging.
So, off to Gormanston College Cloisters. This was a last-minute addition to my list, and just a photo opportunity (there are many of those, as I sell my photos at Art Shows and Celtic Festivals). This place had a lovely tree tunnel, with the branches interlocking overhead, similar to the Dark Hedges, and I wanted to get some photos. I found the place, via GPS (I actually have a TomTom, but GPS is more generic and easier to type), but it was a couple hundred feet to the entrance. There was a big sign saying private, but I saw a bunch of cars in the parking lot, so I took a chance and went in anyhow. No one seemed concerned, and after a bit of wandering, I found not one, but TWO! Two lovely tree tunnels on the manicured lawns and lovely forest bits. The weather was overcast, but it was warm enough I didn’t quite need my jacket yet.
After several dozen photos, I went on to Fourknocks, a Neolithic burial site. I found the spot (after some circling), and there was a sign on the door that a key could be obtained from Fintan, and gave directions to his house. I found the house (with the help of a friendly store clerk), but Fintan didn’t appear to be home. I went back to the site and still explored around it – I just couldn’t get INTO the burial mound. It was fenced off rather close – not much room around it, lots of hedges and trees.
My next stop was Slane Castle, another restored place, site of many concerts (including U2 and Celtic Woman) over the years. The GPS took me to a ruin, which was NOT Slane Castle, and I walked around it trying to find an entrance. I encountered several cows on the riverside that seemed amazed that I was stopping to take photos of them. I think they were actually posing for me. As I finished glamour shots on the cows, a group of about 30 bikers drove up to the parking area, and we joked a bit.
When people think of animals on Ireland, they automatically think of sheep, but I saw cows, horses, cats, dogs and donkeys this trip before I saw my first sheep. Now, I saw plenty of sheep later – perhaps the area north of Dublin is just short of this particular species, but it seemed odd to me.
I also noticed the autumn colors were brilliant. Reds, golds, yellows, oranges, even the browns were rich and delightful. Part of it was probably the mostly overcast sky, which makes colors stand out more. In West Virginia, most of the trees had already stripped off their autumn cloaks for their stark winter skeletons, browns and white bones in dancing patterns. It was nice to see the colors again.
I drove around a bit and found a brown sign for Slane Castle. I found an entrance, but it was closed and locked, a high gate with a long drive down into a valley with a large castle. That must be it – but there were construction vehicles around it, so they were likely doing winter maintenance, no admittance this time of year. Ah well, I got a couple good shots from the road, and went on to my next spot.
I started to head up to Proleek Dolmen, which was about a half hour north, but saw a sign for Old Mellifont Abbey. Why not? There was some scaffolding here and there, but the ruins were interesting, and there were some others wandering around. A couple was posing for pictures in wedding garb at one archway. The slight drizzle didn’t seem to bother them much – it was a lovely spot near the river.
It was getting near past lunch time by now, and I had learned from prior stays that most pubs stop serving food around 2pm, so I decided to find a spot. I was near a town called Collon, and the first pub I stopped at served no food. They directed me to Watter’s Carvery, which had a buffet-style offering. Not my favorite, but it would do, as I was quite hungry. There was roast bacon with stuffing, carrots, broccoli, and parsley sauce. It was quite salty (well, duh, it was bacon!) but quite filling. Irish bacon is not like American bacon – it’s much more thickly cut and more like Canadian bacon, but a bit fattier.
After my first couple days, I stayed at B&Bs, and they had Full Irish Breakfasts, which kept me full until at least 2pm each day – at which time most pubs had stopped serving lunch. Also, since I was on my own and had limited daylight, I resented time spent eating at a sit-down restaurant during the day. So, I had a constant supply of snacks (usually Fig Newtons, called Fig Rolls there), sometimes picked up a pre-packaged sandwich of chicken tikka or egg and bacon. These are usually much better done than the American equivalent, by the way.
After lunch, I went to find Monasterboice. It was on tomorrow’s list, but I had seen a sign, so followed it. I found New Mellifont Abbey instead, which was a rather modern structure like a huge farm with a forest around it. I eventually found Monasterboice, and was glad I had done so. It was lovely in the late afternoon sun (it was 3pm by now, and the sun set around 4:30pm). There were some boys playing ball in the parking lot, and I went to explore the small cemetery. It had two large Celtic crosses (one was a High Cross, which is usually a memorial to an event or great person rather than a gravestone) as well as a round tower.
My husband calls these monk-roasting towers, as they were built partially to provide a haven when the Vikings came to pillage. There were no doors on the ground – just a window a couple stories up, through which the monks would climb by way of a ladder, laden with the church valuables, and haul up the ladder after them until the Vikings left. He figures the Vikings would just build a fire at the base of the tower and roast the monks out.
After wandering about Monasterboice for a bit, I went off to Proleek Dolmen. Well, that was a mistake! It was a long journey with no results. I couldn’t find it anywhere, according to the GPS coordinates. I stopped to ask someone mowing grass, but they had no idea – they weren’t local, either.
I gave up, planning to try again another day, and headed down to my friend and publisher’s house. Kemberlee was kind enough to offer me her couch for my first couple of nights in Ireland. We had never physically met before, but had known each other online for several years, through Ireland groups and then book groups. I found the house, thanks to her excellent directions, just as her husband Peter got home. I got to meet her two border collies, Daisy and Poppy, and evidently I met with their approval. It was just getting dark, and Peter had brought home a Subway sandwich for us to munch on while we chatted, as actual dinner was planned for much later.
We chatted and chatted. We talked about books, history, family, etc. We talked about Britcoms, and I mentioned Waiting for God, one of my favorites. They hadn’t seen it, so we found a couple episodes for them to watch; I think I got them hooked. I also showed them the Danny Bhoy comedy bit on Irish accents and the one on Scottish instruments.
Much later, we had a lovely dinner of bacon, potatoes and cabbage – a perfect first dinner for Ireland. I was amazed I made it to as late as 9pm before I started to droop, but the conversation was interesting enough for me to power through without realizing the time. However, when the fatigue hit, it hit fast, and Kem made up the couch for me to sleep on. I slept like the dead.
Sunday, November 17th:
The plan: Tullynally Castle, Fore Abbey, Kells, Loughcrew, and Hill of Tara for the 8pm Druid Full Moon Ceremony I had been invited to.
Up around 8am, refreshed and ready to roar! But quietly, as Peter and Kem are still asleep. I had some cereal, showered, and started the long drive to Tullynally Castle. This was about an hour and a half, or as Peter said, halfway across the country. However, I had corresponded with the castle and they said they would open the gardens for me if I got there before noon, so off I went! The GPS took me to Castletown, which sounded appropriate, but I couldn’t find any brown signs. I asked directions, and was sent down a road – but it was the wrong road. I basically took the long way around a very large lake, and I eventually gave up, and put in the coordinates for Fore Abbey.
As soon as I started off for Fore Abbey, I found Tullynally Castle, naturally. It was just a few minutes past noon, so I went on in to see if I could still get in. There is a long, winding drive into the demesne, with lovely gold and red trees all around. I saw no one around, but there were cars parked in the courtyard. It looked deserted, and the garden gate was locked, but I walked into the inner courtyard. An older lady came out to greet me, and told me she thought I had been a man. Christy is a man’s name in Ireland, and this wasn’t the first time I had come across this (i.e., Christy Moore, an Irish singer). She gave me a map and let me into the gardens.
It had been drizzling on and off today – a soft day – but it stopped for about an hour or so to allow me to walk around. It was 48 degrees, according to my phone, which allowed me to wear the fleece jacket rather than the long wool coat. I also had on my underarmor (both shirt and pants) that I had bought for this trip; I wore it every day, and it was most efficacious in keeping my body warm. The only parts of me that ever got cold were feet, hands, ears and face. I had brought two pairs of gloves – a ‘useful’ pair and a thick, warm pair. Of course, I either lost or hadn’t brought one of the latter pair, so I used the thinner, useful pair. At least I could still operate my camera with those on. I also had two scarves and a woolen knit hat to complete my fashion ensemble. So sexy!
The gardens were extensive, and quite lovely. There was a hidden grotto in a tree tunnel, brilliant red trees against the golds and browns, a flower garden (that actually had a couple stubborn little roses left in it). There was a kitchen garden, with rhubarb and herbs, and some lovely views from the castle itself. It was well worth the effort, and I can only imagine how glorious it would be in the spring.
I headed back out for Fore Abbey, and followed the brown signs. Eventually I found Fore Abbey, Priory and St. Feichan’s Church across the street. Also, there were not one but two clootie trees on property. A clootie tree is a wish tree – a holdover from the pagan belief that if you tie a piece of fabric on a sacred tree and make a wish, the wish goes to the gods as the piece of fabric disintegrates. Of course, I’ve seen many objects on clootie trees – rosaries, baby shoes, tissues, and plastic candy wrappers. I imagine that some are more effective than others to those that believe.
There was a young couple with a baby in a stroller braving the drizzle to explore the abbey while I was there. She lived nearby, and had visited as a child, but hadn’t been back since then. I realized my camera battery was dead, so headed back to the car to get a spare (and from then on, kept a spare in my jacket pocket). I have explored many abbeys, in various states of ruin and repair, and this one was pretty standard. However, the stark contrast of black wet stone against white lichen was rather dramatic, and made for some good photographs. There was a rather vocal herd of cows off to one side, all black with a wide band of white around their middles.
I went off to tackle Loughcrew. This was perhaps the worst time of the trip to have tried this hike. It was up a rather tall hill, on a day that had been mostly rainy all day, there was mist shrouding the top, and the winds had picked up rather strongly. Also, other than sending my husband my daily plan, no one else knew I was up there. I did see some other folks when I first climbed up, but none after that. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, so started following what seemed to be a path. The wind and mist were strong, even though my long wool coat, hat, scarf and gloves. It made it very difficult to see through my glasses. I followed it doggedly until I realized that it was going around the hill, and through bracken – not a set path, then. Likely it was just a vehicle track in the mud. I was halfway around the hill by then. Oh, and there were sheep everywhere, and the natural result of that was slippery mud AND sheepshit. I was very glad I had decided on the snow boots!
So, I guess I had to go up. It was a rather steep proposition with the slippery mud, and I considered going back, but sallied forth anyhow. After a very determined climb up the hill, with a few stops to catch my breath and futilely try to wipe my glasses off, I finally found the fence that surrounded Cairn T of Loughcrew atop the hill.
There were, from what I could see through the mists and now fairly strong rain, two small stone circles, some individual standing stones, and the central cairn which took most of the hilltop. I knew I couldn’t get into the cairn itself, as that would have required hunting down the key before I had started. (I passed on trying, after my experience at Fourknocks). I explored the stone circles, tried my best to protect my camera from the rain by wrapping it in my scarf, and put my back to the wind when I could. I circled the cairn and decided to head back down.
I knew this would be more difficult than going up – going down was always more slippery. At one point, it was quite steep, and I knew I would slip, so I just sat down anyhow and slipped down on purpose. Better to choose my own spot than hurt myself! I did slip once more, once near the bottom track, but I fell on my well-padded hip and sustained no injuries. The snow boots had the added bonus that they were quite firm around the ankles (they came up almost mid-calf) so turning an ankle, my particular specialty, was less likely.
Near the very end of the hill walk, I slipped a LOT – it was very muddy with fallen leaves on stepping stones, and it was like surfing the last ten steps to the tree-lined steps down to the parking lot. However, miraculously, I didn’t fall. Perhaps the gods of balance decided I had dealt with enough on this trek already. However, it meant my steps were very shaky as I made my way to the parking lot, down the shallow, long steps. I made good use of the scant fence for balance. I happily shed my wet shoes, jacket and gloves, and made my way to Kells.
It was just about dark twilight, around 5pm, as I got into the city. I was too tired and hungry to search for any high crosses, round towers, or ruined churches, so I found a pub called The Round Tower for dinner. I’m certain, by the name, there was one nearby. I didn’t bother looking. The rain was stronger again, and I had some time to kill before I went to the Hill of Tara at 8pm.
I sat at the bar, and ordered the fish and chips, and a pint of Bulmer’s cider. I don’t care for bitter, so I don’t drink beer or wine. Whenever I drink in Ireland, its cider. This first dinner taught me that I should only order a half pint if available, a small bottle if that’s all that’s on hand. It was a good, filling meal, and I couldn’t finish it all and the pint. The pub was a commercial sort, some families having dinner, not really a local with conversation and the like.
I took some time to update my journal, and realized it was still only 6pm. It was full dark out, and still rainy, so I thought I would just head to Tara and hang out in my car, perhaps play some games on my phone until it was time for the ceremony. Evidently, however, I put in the coordinates to Fore Abbey instead. It said ‘Hill Road’, so I thought I had the wrong spot. Oops again! It’s difficult to tell in the dark and in the rain that you’re headed the wrong direction, especially if you aren’t familiar with which towns are where. When I realized where I was, I corrected my GPS and headed to Tara. As a result, I got a lovely tour of dark, windy roads, scary drivers, and finally figured out how to work my highbeams.
I arrived at Tara around 7:20, and the rain was still dripping down rather hard. This was the only really rainy day of my trip, but it was getting to me since I was out and about all day. There were a couple cars there already, and I got out to chat. I met JP and Orla. JP had little umbrellas attached over his driver door and over the back – evidently he chatted in parking lots a lot. He was an aliens and ley lines pagan, and was quite fascinating to talk to – I did a lot of nodding and smiling. Another gentleman heard me say I climbed Loughcrew that day, so went and got me a postcard of Loughcrew during Beltaine, and gave it to me.
Red John, the person running the ceremony, finally arrived shortly after 8pm, and we went up to the hill. He decided to do the ceremony under one of the large trees rather than up the top of the hill itself. It offered a little shelter, but there weren’t many leaves, so the rain just dripped in larger drops rather than finer ones. The ceremony was interesting – I had only participated in Wiccan ceremonies before, and this was Druidic. It lasted about 2 hours, and we were all feeling the cold and the wet, though we were all well-bundled. About halfway through we did some walking around the circle to keep our circulation going. The moon did shine through a thin spot in the clouds briefly at one point.
We did a meet and greet afterwards a bit, and I met a young lady from Brazil who was living in Dublin. I mentioned to her that there was a social group called ‘New and Not So New in Dublin’ that had welcomed me in their group on my last trip, when I encountered them in the Aran Islands. We then all parted ways and I made the dark, wet trek back to Kem’s house.
I warmed up watching TV with Kem and Peter, and talked some more. Never Mind the Buzzcocks was on, with Michael Bolton as the guest host. It was rather bizarre and surreal. We then watched some funny videos, and I was exhausted, ready for sleep.
Monday, November 18th:
The plan: Monasterboice, Ballymacdermot Court Tomb/Ballykeel/Clontygora, Warrenpoint (a view over the inlet), Tollymore Forest/Foley’s Bridge, Ballynoe Tree Tunnel, Inch Abbey, and Castle Ward, ending up in Keady.
After breakfast and a lovely sunrise, I was off to parts north. Northern Ireland, that is. I’d been before, but not inland – I’d only explored the coast and some of the Antrim Glens. This time I was headed to Armagh, where I had some loose bits of ancestry about 400 years ago. I had Allen ancestors that came from that area, but that’s all I knew, so tracing them wasn’t my goal. I just wanted to get a feel of more of the inland area.
Since I had already found Monasterboice my first day, and hadn’t found Proleek Dolmen, I decided to try that again. I had researched the location of Proleek Dolmen a bit more before I left WiFi at Kem’s house, and discovered it was on the grounds of a hotel, so I programmed the hotel’s location into GPA, since it was on my way. I likely should have done this before my first attempt, but you learn as you go.
The hotel itself had signs indicating where to park for the Dolmen, and I did so and took a lovely walk (about a mile?) through the golf courses in a lovely, cool, crisp sunny morning. The trees were sparkling with morning dew and autumn colors, and the slanted morning light made it mystical and magical. One part was a tree tunnel with fencing on both sides, and I surprised a partridge which scuttled away to one of the fence openings to escape me.
At the end of the path, there was a small chambered cairn and the dramatic dolmen. This dolmen was quite tall and thin in comparison to others I’d seen, and the rocks looked like they were precariously balanced. It was quiet and serene in the slanted morning sun.
My next stop was for Ballymacdermot Court Tomb, which took me up into the higher hills. The sun was bright, but the temperatures were still quite cool. A couple sprinkles of soft weather helped me along, but moved quickly. I found the sign for the tomb at a small T-junction on the side of a hill, and another car had parked nearby. I figured this was the closest parking spot (not always the case) so I parked and got ready to walk to the tomb. That’s when the drizzle decided to be a bit stronger, so I decided to wait it out a bit. Just a couple minutes later, a herd of cows came towards me, led by a young man and his border collie, down the road. The cows got right up to my car – and my windshield wiper, which had been on delay, moved. The cows did NOT like that at all! They backed and filled, and refused to go past. I quickly turned the wipers off, and the young lad managed to get the cows past after a minute or so. By this time the rain had stopped, and I got out, bundled up against the wind on the hill, and started my trek to the tomb.
It wasn’t far – perhaps a quarter mile – to the small enclosure that had the smaller court tomb. It was an interesting configuration, with deep areas that were much too slippery to explore much. I didn’t see signs nearby for any of the other sites that were supposed to be close, Ballykeel and Clontygora, so I gave those up and went back to the car. I still had lots to do today!
I made it to Warrenpoint town, but was hoping for a sign indicating a scenic view. I had seen some lovely photos of the inlet from up high, but saw no indication as to how to get there. This was one of the places I hadn’t been able to find any GPS coordinates for, of course.
My next goal was Tollymore Forest, and I was looking for a bit of a walk, some time outside of the car. My left leg, unused to manual transmission (I drive automatic at home) was feeling a bit cramped. My right leg, used to cruise control, was feeling the same. I adjusted the distance of my seat a bit, trying to find the right balance between access and distance.
The route through the Mourne Mountains to Tollymore was fantastic. Mists and autumn colors combined for a surreal, almost unreal, landscape as I drove. There were so many colors, sparkling through like gemstones in the dappled sunlight.
I found Tollymore without too much trouble, and it was truly glorious. I think this is one of my favorite spots on this trip. The road through to the parking lot was brilliant with color, a riot of trees, bushes, a few flowers and berries clinging on to the glory of summer. The first bit of the walk was along a stream, going down into the valley, and had fairly cultivated growth along it. It had a tunnel, statues, a couple bridges across the stream, and many ornamental plants and flowers. Then, when you got to the main river, it expanded into a tall forest, a thick carpet of fallen leaves underneath like a fancy oriental carpet in autumn colors.
I walked along the river until I found Foley’s Bridge, a lovely old stone bridge with several spots nearby to sit and watch the water cascade through the small rapids underneath. It was a delight to the senses, and a truly relaxing, refreshing place. I wished I could explore all day, and perhaps someday I shall come back and do exactly that.
There were a couple other walkers around, some single, some in pairs or family groups. I waved as I passed, and one old couple stopped and chatted for a while. They were locals, and came to the forest every week at least once. I thought that was delightful.
My next stop was Ballynoe, where another tree tunnel was supposed to be. I was obsessed with tree tunnels this trip, and I found several. On the way to the place, I surprised a couple more partridges which flew quickly into the hedgerows, escaping my car crashing through the outstretched brush. In many of the areas I had seen, the hedgerows were recently clipped, the stark autumn skeletons of the shaved foliage showed starkly along the roads. However, some were still unclipped – it must be the season, and some just hadn’t been seen to yet.
I found the brown sign for Ballynoe, and discovered it was not just a tree tunnel, but also a stone circle. Win! It was a brilliant day, and the sun shone dramatically through the gaps in the branches in the tree tunnel. It was quite muddy, so I switched to my snow boots to make the journey. I did some more surfing here and there, but nothing too bad. The tunnel was quite long, and actually seemed to be in two parts, with an L at the end… which opened to a large, open field with a quite large stone circle on it. There was a tumulus in the center, and a smaller circle inside that. The grass sparkled green in the dew, with bits of brown and gold here and there. I explored around the circle, and saw some cup marks on the stones (a common type of carving within megalithic stones).
Back through the surfing mud of the tree tunnel, I set my GPS for Inch Abbey. The GPS said the only way I could reach it was via ferry. Oops? OK, then, on to Castle Ward. I found a huge estate with a restored Manor House. It was a lovely setting, on a hill overlooking the inlet, beautiful sunken formal gardens, but it certainly didn’t look anything like the set of Winterfell in Game of Thrones. I was very confused. I then tried Inch Abbey again, for the heck of it. No ferry this time. Perhaps I had messed up the coordinates last time? No matter. Off to Inch.
On the way to Inch, I saw another brown sign – it indicated a cairn and a castle. A twofer! Sure, why not. The cairn was a long, very muddy, very slippery walk through a field of cows on the shore of the inlet. I found what looked like a small well, but not much else, and I was about done with the slipping mud and dodging cow patties at this point, so I went back. I did try the castle, though, which was farther along the single track, unpaved road. It was a long road along the Strathmore Lough. Oh! It was Castle Ward. The real one, or at least the one I had been searching for! There were a couple vehicles here and there inside the courtyard, but the information office didn’t appear open. I wandered around a bit, and definitely remembered this from Game of Thrones, the inner courtyards where Robert Baratheon arrived, etc. The day was fading, though, so I thought I ought to move on. I found Inch Abbey, which had a lovely setting in a low valley next to the water, but I wasn’t as impressed, so I explored a bit (it was getting downright cold now!) and moved on to my B&B for the night.
Dundrum House B&B is a lovely 18th century country manor house on a large farm (80 acres), on a hill in County Armagh, near a town called Keady. It was lovely, fairly easy to find via GPA, but there were a lot of windy roads to get there. Luckily, I had the company of a brilliant sunset, and found the house just as the last of it died into a velvet twilight.
My host, Larry, talked so fast that I could barely understand what he said, even attuned as I was to Irish accents. However, he also had a habit of repeating what he said two or three different ways, so eventually I got his meaning. He brought me some tea and some cupcakes his daughters evidently had made, and we chatted a bit after I set my things in my room. He offered me a room upstairs at the front of the house, so I had a lovely view of the surrounding area, the house being up on a hill.
I asked about food, and he said the only options were in Keady, take-aways, pizza or a chippy. He recommended Ellen’s Chippy, so that’s where I headed. Keady was about a mile and a half away, and I realized I had probably walked about 6 or 7 miles today. I felt it! I also determined always to bring my hat and gloves, even if I didn’t think I’d need them when I first started out. The wind made the sun quite chilling.
I found the chippy without too much trouble, as Larry had given good directions. I ordered some fried cod and chips with curry. It was a monster portion! Huge. There was no way I could finish even half of it. It was very tasty, and extremely messy, even with knife and fork, but I could barely make a dent. I felt bad throwing it away, but there was no place I could keep the leftovers in my room, and no way to heat it up later.
I decided to find a pub to have a pint in. It was still quite early, about 6pm, but there were at least three or four pubs around. I looked into a couple, to see what the crowd was like. One was mostly older folks, another all young folks. Most had nobody, or only a few people in them, but that’s because it was so early. I finally settled on one along the main street – Mone’s Bar. It was very quiet, but the television was on. There were four or five people chatting in one corner, sort of behind a huge pillar, while the alternated watching an Irish soap opera of some sort. The bartender barely spoke to me, but she went back to join her group in the corner. I finished off my half ping and moved on to another place.
The next place I tried was Cassie’s, around the corner. This was one that had mostly older folks in it, but it was a little more mixed as I came in. It was all men, most of them retirement age (pensioners), but a couple middle-aged and one or two younger guys. The bartender was younger, as well. I got to know Seamus Brown and Herbie, who chatted quite a bit, at that very fast-paced speech which I think is common to the region. Seamus said he was a gravedigger, I’m not sure I believed him.
Then I met John, who everyone called Berabus, and who came around to sit next to me. If you have seen Ballykissangel, you may recall a character named Eamon, an old shepherd who lived up on the hill. He usually sat in the corner of the pub and talked, but no one could understand a word of what he said. John was Eamon. I even suggested this to the others in the pub, and they completely agreed with me. He looked like Eamon, as well! He also, at one point, asked me to marry him, but I had to assure him that I was already married.
I chatted with some of the others. Anthony drives a tour bus, the bartender was Eugene, and Brent was evidently the local designated driver – he was in charge of taking the older men home after their pints. I met Ruben and Pat, who was a horse dealer and plasterer. I thought he said pastor at first, and commented on the apparent contradiction in the two professions.
We all talked about all sorts of things – politics and music, the Quiet Man and Darby O’Gill. Eugene was trying to remember the name of the King of the Fairies in Darby O’Gill (King Bran, it was). I sold one of my jewelry pendants to one of the gentlemen, and there were rounds bought both ways.
When I made my way home, I found it very difficult to sleep. The bed was a bit firmer than I liked, but it could have just been the strange place, too much cider, or being excited about being in Ireland and no longer exhausted after the sleep-deprived plane ride. Who knows? But I didn’t get great rest.
Tuesday, November 19th:
The plan: Belfast, Navan Fort/Emain Macha, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh
It snowed in the night! Not much, perhaps an inch at the most. As the morning brightened in the sky, turning everything pale blue, I could see it across the hillside in front of my window. I saw some cars drive by quite quickly out on the road, so I figured the roads were in pretty good shape. I was right.
I tried to check in on the WiFi, but it seemed only to work in the downstairs lounge, and even then it was somewhat iffy and very slow. I went into the large, well-decorated and posh breakfast room for my morning meal. The fried bread was very tasty, but rather dense. It worked fine with a bit of egg on it, though. The bacon was a bit dry for my taste, but it was my first Full Irish Breakfast of my trip, and I would enjoy it, despite myself.
I met another lodger, a London scrap metal dealer who had been born in India. He said he dealt with shipping the scrap metal to the Far East. It started snowing again while we were eating breakfast, so I thought I’d wait a bit before I started out for the day. I watched a bit of television in my room, hording the warmth in my bed in case it was in short supply the rest of the day. After about a half hour, it had stopped, and I went on my way.
I decided to stop by Armagh first, since it was on the way to Belfast, and only about 5 miles away. I found the city somewhat congested and confusing, but found the cathedral readily enough. It rather soared into the sky and made an easy target, despite the winding streets. I found a parking spot, and realized that the slush along the sidewalk and roads would require me to wear my snow boots again, so on they went. I was developing a bit of a blister under the ankle, but discovered that a little moleskin and making sure the boots were zipped up tight kept it from getting any worse.
I slipped and slid a bit along the sidewalk to the cathedral, and then made my way up the stairs/driveway to the building on the hill. Keeping on the driveway along the edge seemed to be the safest bet. The cathedral was beautiful, exquisite. I was very glad I had made time to come see it.
Inside, there were two nuns that seemed to be putting out tchotchkes for sale. There were little kachina dolls, matryoshka dolls, and African dolls, some Brigid’s crosses, and lots of other manufactured items. These were being set up on two tables near the door to the church, inside.
I tried to walk very quietly through the church, so as not to disturb the folks that were there, despite my clunking snow boots. I took my photographs circumspectly when I could. There were perhaps 20-30 people in the church in various areas, either praying, or lighting candles, or reading. The ceilings and walls were all delicately decorated in abstract designs and details. There was a wealth of stained glass art, statuary, and all sorts of beautiful sights wherever I gazed. It was a magnificent place.
I wandered out again, and explored the graveyard briefly, boots crunching in the snow crust on the springy grass. Then I decided it was time to head towards Belfast.
We had flown into Belfast Airport on my last trip, but we didn’t even go into the city that time – we just headed straight north to Cushendall in our jet-lagged haze. This time, I wanted to spend most of a day there, exploring the area and the Titanic Exhibit which opened last year.
I followed the GPS coordinates into the city, and then it said the Titanic Exhibit was eight miles away. That didn’t sound right, as I was right near the docks, and I had SEEN the iconic building, with its patterned brushed silver exterior and rakish angles. So, instead, I followed the signs to the docks, and eventually found it. I was getting quite skeptical of GPS’s ability to find anything but, having few other options, kept using it.
The cost to get in was £14, which seemed a bit steep to me for what was offered, but I am somewhat jaded by tourist attractions, as I grew up near Orlando. Don’t get me wrong, it was a fascinating exhibit! I especially enjoyed the areas where they recreated the cabins for each level of passenger, and the film of the actual launch of the ship into the water. However, I thought it was a bit pricy for what was offered. £10 would have seemed more equitable, but like I said, I was jaded.
I was getting a bit hungry, so I stopped by a convenience store to pick up a pre-made sandwich (chicken tikka) and some water. I then found the pick-up spot for the Hop-on, Hop-off Belfast bus tour, which was in the nearby Premiere Inn, and paid for my ticket there. A full circuit took about an hour and a half. The bus, alas, did not have an open top. This was, perhaps, better due to the weather being quite cold, but it also meant many of my photos were poor due to reflections in the dirty glass, despite my best attempts. The guide was very good, and quite knowledgeable. He had a ready banter, and answered questions easily. There were only three of us, me and an older couple, so he came upstairs to sit with us as he did his spiel.
We went by what our guide called the most optimistic people in Belfast – they had an above-ground pool in their yard! Definitely optimistic! Then we went on to Stormont House, along the Peace Wall, into Shankill Road areas, and by several other murals and artwork. There was a Christmas Market at Belfast House, and a lot of people-watching opportunities along the way. It was a brilliant day out now! You could see snow still dusting the hills surrounding the city, but it was warm enough to have melted everything else.
After the tour I went to get my car and back to Armagh, to find Navan Fort. I found something called Navan Centre in the GPS, but evidently this was a Leisure Centre. Not what I wanted at all! So I set it back to Armagh, and then I found brown signs to Navan Fort. I got there around 4pm, and there were cars in the parking lot, but it seemed rather deserted. The interpretive centre was closed, and it seemed built under a hill. Was this the Emain Macha hill? I had no idea. The signs directed me around the centre, and then there was a locked gate to the top. I couldn’t see what was there, but there was something. I did go by the Iron Age houses in an enclosure nearby, and got a couple photos through the locked gates, but that was it. Ah well. Perhaps it will be open in the morning.
I headed back to Keady, and decided to try the take-away tonight for some lamb masala. While waiting for my order to be prepared, a young man started chatting to me, but he was rather creepy, so I made sure not to give away any details of where I was staying, or that I was traveling alone, etc. He wasn’t wearing his jacket (there was still snow on the ground outside) which I found quite odd. I finally got my dinner and vacated the premises. I went to my car, got in, and drove away, to find a parking spot elsewhere to eat my meal.
The chippy the night before had tables where I had eaten my meal, but the take-away didn’t, so I put on my audiobook and ate in my car. It was VERY sweet. I had not expected that – almost crunchy with sugar! Tasty, but unexpected. I managed to finish more than half of it before I was mostly full. I tossed the rest and went back to Cassie’s for a pint.
Of course, the only person there was Berabus/John, but Eugene came in a bit later. The bartender tonight was Collette. There wasn’t much going on, and I was dead tired due to last night’s lack of sleep, so I called it an early night and went back to the B&B. I watched a little television, and then drifted off around 9pm. I slept better than the night before, but still not great, but I had plenty of time to rest, so it was all good.
Wednesday, November 20th:
I evidently got enough rest, as I was up before my alarm. There was just a hint of light on the horizon as I peeked out of the window. There was no signal up in the room, so I got dressed and went down into the lounge to see if I could at least get my email and any texts from my husband. Larry was very solicitous, and said the walls were very thick in these old houses, and it made the signal rather finicky. After breakfast I was off on today’s adventure!
The plan: Moneyglass Estate, Shane’s Castle, Ardboe High Cross, Antrim Castle, Ballylumford Dolmen, Gleno Waterfall, Cairn Castle and Shillanavogy Valley, ending up in Cushendall.
Today was a day of disappointments, for the most part. It was a travel day, but at least I knew exactly where I was going when I was done, as I’d stayed in Cushendall last trip, at the same B&B. No worries about finding the place in the dark, especially as it was ‘downtown’.
First I tried to find Moneyglass Estate, site of the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones. All I found was Moneyglass Community Centre, and no brown signs around to help.
Next I tried to find Shane Castle, the bridge to which was the fight scene between Jamie and Bryene in Game of Thrones. I found a forest, and an owl centre (both closed) where the GPS sent me – no castle, no bridge, but I did find a bit of rain.
Next was Ardboe High Cross. This was more successful, and a lovely drive at that. It was on the edge of a large lake, and the sun winked in and out of rainclouds as I explored this cemetery and cross perched on the edge of the shore. Just as I had finished, drops started pelting down on me, but even that lasted a very short time. It did that on and off all day, perhaps 5 minutes of rain each hour or so. Nothing I couldn’t handle. It was also rather windy, and the sun played peekaboo – revealing hidden rainbows throughout my journey.
My next stop was to be Antrim Castle, but again, I wasn’t feeling it, so I passed on it. Instead, I headed for Ballylumford Dolmen, which was obtained by driving out onto a peninsula. This had nice views, but the roads were a bit on the rustic side, even for Ireland. I almost missed the thing, and I still think perhaps I did. In Ireland, often the houses are RIGHT up against the road. This house was set a bit back, but the dolmen was RIGHT in front of the door, between the door and the road. Perhaps a distance of 10 feet between the two. It could have been Ballylumford Dolmen (it was a dolmen, yes) or it could be someone’s idea of a lawn ornament, and the real dolmen hidden somewhere in the field behind the house. I was unwilling to go explore, and no brown sign confirmed it for me.
Gleno Waterfall was up in the hills, and a delightful spot. There were, of course, the typical windy, twisty roads up, up, up and up to the parking lot, and a sign saying ‘not suitable for long vehicles (no kidding). Then a short walk to the bridge near the falls, and there I was. It was a tall, thin waterfall, and again, surrounded by colorful autumn foliage. The recent rains made the leaves sparkle. I wished my camera would allow me to take extended exposures – it let me do 15 or 30 second exposures, but not, say, 3 seconds, to get the silky waterfall shots.
It was now past 1pm, and I was beginning to get a bit hungry. I had eaten the last of the fig cakes earlier, so I decided to stop for gas and a meal. I stopped in Larne, a town I had been in before, and found a pub that served food called, of all things, Checkers Wine Bar. There were several people both at the bar and sitting at tables, so I sat at the bar and ordered a half pint of cider with a steak & Guinness pie. And they had WiFi, so I got to catch up with email. The pie was a pie in an abstract sense – it was really a bowl of stew with a bar of flaky puff pastry on top. That pastry exploded when I touched it – which is why I dislike puff pastry, so messy. But, once I drowned it enough in the stew, it was quite tasty and behaved better.
This pub’s old man was Sam. Sam, like Berabus (John), asked me to marry him within a couple of sentences of meeting him. The bartender asked him to stop pestering me, in a sort of long-suffering way. Sam apologized, but kept on being the incomprehensible old man at the pub. He did buy me my half-pint, and then left before I could return the favor. Poor man, perhaps he was embarrassed.
I was then off to some fruitless searches in the afternoon. Cairn Castle was next, and while I found the sign for it, it was just a village – I couldn’t find a castle, nor a brown sign to show me where to go. It was near here, somewhere, which was where the beheading scene in the beginning of Game of Thrones had been filmed. I gave it up as a bad job, and went on to Shillanavogy Valley, which was the Dothraki Plain in Game of Thrones. While I didn’t find a particular spot, I did drive through the valley, and recognized the basic look of the land. It was sere and empty, brown and gold in the lowering sunlight. I made it up to the top of one of the mountains there, and then decided that the lowering sunlight perhaps meant I should skedaddle off to Cushendall for the evening, as it was still about an hour away.
I don’t believe I mentioned it, but the whole trip I listened to audiobooks on my iPhone while I drove, and sometimes when I walked around. I started off with Hunger Games, and then I moved on to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series – I was almost done with the first book in that series at this point, and about to start the second one, Dragonfly in Amber.
Cushendall is a small village along the Antrim Coast, and we had stayed in the Riverside B&B last trip. The host and hostess, Anne and Pat McKeegan, always made us feel welcome, and this was the only place I have now stayed at twice in Ireland. Anne was there to welcome me, and directed me to a room either just like the one I had last time, or the same one – I don’t remember if we were on the second or third floor last trip. The décor was certainly the same, an elegant oriental feel to it, black and white and silvers.
I asked Anne about a launderette, but she said she would be happy to do a load of laundry in her machine. We started that off, and then I headed to Harry’s restaurant, a couple doors down, for some well-anticipated dinner. I had eaten at Harry’s before, and it was likely the poshest place in town – good seafood, but not a local pub feel. Johnny Joe’s only served food on the weekends, Anne had said, in the off-season.
I was the only one at Harry’s, but they had a lovely fire burning in the hearth, and I ordered the goat’s cheese bruschetta and the seafood chowder. Perhaps I over-ordered, as I wanted to finish it all – I really did – but I could only do my best. It was delicious! The warm fire was welcome, as the day had been quite blustery, and my failures to find so many places frustrated me a bit. I caught up on my journal over dinner, and listened to the traditional music they played over the speakers. Then it turned to Cats in the Cradle, a song that always made me cry, so I left and returned to my room to watch some television and relax a bit.
I was watching Big Bang Theory, and came across an interesting phenomenon. Now, I’d seen British and Irish television many times on my trips. It was usually less prude and censored than American television, at least at prime time. This particular episode of Big Bang Theory had a line I was familiar with it, where Penny gets some mint-in-box toys for Leonard and Sheldon, and they tell her if they take it out and play with it, they lose most of their value. Her next line should have been ‘Yeah, my mother told me the same thing about my virginity.’ However, they cut that out of the broadcast. This confused me, but then I guess it was a bit of a battle in Northern Ireland between Protestant and Catholic values. Evidently the Catholics won on this one.
After that, I watched a food show, about taking food from the farm to the table. I was out in the lounge, doing some beading while watching, and Pat came up and turned on the fire for me. He sat and we chatted – he had brought tea and mince pies. We talked about history, language, religion, my parents’ love story, work ethics, economy, jobs, World War II (he was in the Navy), travel. It turns out he was in San Francisco at the same time my mother was, and visited Haight Ashbury, near where she lived in the 1960s. It’s a small world, is it not? I guess everyone who could get there did so at the time.
After an episode of Tudor Monastery Farm, I went off to bed by 11pm, well relaxed and feeling very much at home. I think I finally shed the anxiety of normal life and was truly getting into the swing of my vacation by now.
Thursday, November 21st:
I was up early, before my alarm again, and had slept pretty well, so was quite refreshed. Pat made me breakfast, and sat with me, eating his own porridge, to chat while we both ate. He was then off to work as the Harbour Master at Coleraine, to continue his love of all things nautical.
The plan: Antrim Coast (Torr Head, Murlough Bay, Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, Kinbane Castle, Dunluce Castle, Giant’s Causeway, Ballintoy Harbour) and the Dark Hedges.
Today looked like it would be a delightful day – mostly clear, cool, not much wind, and no rain. Therefore, I decided on the Antrim Coast today, rather than exploring the glens, as that could be done well enough in misty rain. I started on the road north, through Cushendun and along the Antrim Coast. When I got to Cushendun (the next village north from Cushendall), I stopped at the harbor to take some photos of the stunning sunrise that was coming up. I then stopped to do the same at Torr Head, the point you are most likely to see Scotland in the distance. I did, as the day was clear and crisp – several amorphous purple lumps against the edge of the water were visible. I could even see several distinct lumps, perhaps different islands or parts of a peninsula.
I went to Fair Head as well, or at least I tried. The GPS and brown signs for Fair Head both sent me to a dead end road on a run-down farm. At least it was near the end of a peninsula, but I didn’t feel comfortable parking the car and tramping through someone’s fields to find the scenic edge, as it were, so on to Murlough Bay. I’d not been there before, and it was, again, stunning. I will be using that word a lot today, as that is the best way to describe so many places along the Antrim Coast, especially in such brilliant weather. There are just so many superlatives you can use without sounding redundant, I think.
I found the harbour from which the Rathlin Island Ferry departs, and they had a pub called Marconi’s (Marconi invented the radio telegraph, I believe). Some tests were done between the town, Ballycastle, and nearby Rathlin Island in 1898. There is an elegant sculpture of seabirds flowing up and around near the harbour, and a beautiful beach nearby. Quite empty, of course, even though it was still a brilliant, clear day – it was still rather cold at 40 degrees.
I found Kinbane Castle, and went down to explore – but was stymied by a huge fence, a padlocked gate, and a sign saying it was closed for the season. I couldn’t even get exterior pictures, as the castle was evidently under the cliff the parking lot was on, so there was no direct line of sight. At least the bathrooms were open and I could avail myself of the facilities!
On to Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge. This is a bridge across to a small fishing island that involves a bit of courage to cross, especially when winds were high. Even more so if there is a child going before you, bouncing up and down like a rabbit, like the first time I visited. They weren’t very high today, and no rambunctious children preceded me. In fact, I pretty much had the place to myself, except for a couple of other ladies. The island itself wasn’t open for exploration, though, as it had been in June – anything other than the paved path was blocked off.
Just as I left, a busload of Asian tourists came through – at least 40 of them – so I had good timing. I also saw a young German couple I had also seen at a couple other points along the coast. I saw them shortly thereafter at White Park Bay, Ballintoy Harbour, and then at the Giant’s Causeway after that.
White Park Bay offered a delightful view of a lovely white strand beach, several inlets and bays in the distance, and cliffs beyond that which, I think, started the Giant’s Causeway area, but I’m not certain. The viewpoint itself gave a small pictorial map that gave the different points. The sky remained clear and visibility was high, so I saw everything listed.
Ballintoy Harbour had been a filming location for Game of Thrones, the setting for the Iron Islands. I could definitely picture the scene in my mind as I wandered the rocks, waiting for the waves to crash through the nooks and crannies of the stony shores. On the way back up the long, windy road from the harbour, I noticed a very oddly out-of-place house. It looked like someone had taken a villa from a Greek Island and planted it here on the Antrim coast, all white plaster and rounded edges with multiple terraced rooms. I also stopped to greet a couple of donkeys and a curious, grey, fuzzy horse, who were quite happy to say hello and get some attention from me.
Next stop was Dunseverick Castle, a picturesque ruin perched atop a cliff inlet on the coast. The ruin itself looked like something had cleaved it in two with a giant axe, as all that was left were two massive walls, opposite each other with nothing in the middle. Since the cliff it was on was about the same height as the one just across a narrow channel from it, it looks like an even larger axe had cleaved the land itself in that spot.
The last time I had seen the Giant’s Causeway, the visitor centre was under construction, and the weather was rainy, windy, and quite fierce. This time, the centre was complete, the wind was strong, but not horrible, and the weather was gorgeous, if chilly. I grabbed the audio tour, but gave up listening to it after three or four stops. I just walked, enjoying the changing scenery of rocky landscape, moonscape rocks, and marveling at how many tourists were out, even in November. There was probably about 70 people there – including that busload of Asian tourists, and my old friends, the German couple.
As I made my way back to the Visitor Centre, my tummy started letting me know that it needed sustenance, and would greatly appreciate something warm and savory – so I got a bowl of Irish stew at the café, and it was quite good – despite the odd enormous lump of potato in the middle, reminiscent of a matzo ball. I felt sufficiently stuffed and sated, though, and moved on to my car… only to realize I was missing a glove! I had originally packed two pairs of gloves – a thinner pair that allowed me to use my camera and do other manual tasks while wearing them, and a thick, fluffy pair that was warmer, but much less utilitarian. Evidently, early on, I either lost the right hand glove of the fluffy pair or never packed it. When I was at Dundrum House, I also mislaid the right hand of the thinner pair. Luckily, I found that one – next to my car in the parking lot, where I had dropped it when I pulled my luggage out. Now that same glove was missing again, so back into the café I went – and found the errant accessory.
Magheracross was my next photo op, a dramatic sea shore with white cliffs and a little natural tunnel through one cliff. It was a little less dramatic than last time, as the sun was getting low on the horizon behind it by this time in the day, but still beautiful. I then made my way to Dunluce Castle (still just in front of the Asian tourist bus) for some exploration of that ruin before the sun set too far down. Actually, the sun was in a good place to light it for lovely shots, and I got my share before I left.
Today had been, I think, the coldest day, despite being no snow. I wore several layers – my underwear, my underarmor, my regular clothes, my fleece pullover jacket, and my long wool coat, with gloves, hat and scarf. This left my nose exposed, but everything else was toasty, even in the wind. And, when a bit got too warm (like around my neck) it was easy enough to loosen my scarf. That was the last time, really, I needed the long wool coat – the fleece jacket sufficed after that.
Along my travels that day, I had seen at least four signs advertising potatoes for sale at individual farms. I had never seen that before in my travels to Ireland, so I’m thinking it must be that now is when they were harvested. The signs ranged from hand-drawn to professionally printed, and some had specific varieties listed.
My last stop of the day was another place I’d been before, the Dark Hedges. This is a dramatic tree tunnel near Armoy, the last scene of season one of Game of Thrones, as Arya is leaving King’s Landing. It was dramatic in all lights, spooky, creepy, and delightful. I didn’t have it to myself, either – there was another photographer set up with his tripod, taking macro photographs of different trees and stumps. The light was low, late afternoon light streaming through the trees, preternaturally bright and dark. The white of the beech trees was emphasized, and the dark gold of the branches were a strong contrast, echoed in the brown-gold branches of the bushes along the edge of the tree line. A faint hint of green grass lined the edges of the road, convincing you that it was a color scene, after all.
After that climactic visit, I headed back to town. There were a few small patches of ice on the side of the road, here and there, but they were easily seen and avoided, and I drove slow enough that, if I hit one by accident, it wouldn’t end tragically. Almost as if in compensation, the sun set slowly among the pink and golden hills of northern Antrim, painting them with a light touch of silhouette.
Instead of eating at Harry’s again, I thought about eating at the Glens Hotel. However, I walked down and read their menu – most places that serve food post their menu in a window – and didn’t care for any of the options listed. I could eat at the Half Door takeaway; we had eaten from there last time, and it had been delicious. However, they had no tables inside to eat, and I didn’t want to take it back to the B&B. Instead, I headed to the pizza place in town, and ordered a prawn Rose Marie open sandwich. This was very heavy on the sauce – more sauce than prawns, actually – but still very tasty. I also splurged on some dessert, a sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream, and it was delightfully sticky sweet. It was nice and warm in the restaurant. They had a fake fire in the fireplace, and a heater over the door that sounded like the idling engine of a Mack Truck.
After dinner it was still quite early, so I wandered around a bit. The pub I wanted to go to – Johnny Joe’s – wasn’t open yet, so I wandered to another pub for a bottle of cider and a bit of chat. The young girl behind the bar was evidently on her first day, but she was a talker, so I’m sure she’ll do fine. I talked with some of the other folks there, about Ulster Scots and pool.
After JJs opened at 8, I wandered back down the street to them. They have a huge cast iron stove in one room, and that’s where most people hung out when there was just a few of us. There was a young artist from Norway named Solvig. She was the current Artist in Residence at the medieval tower in the center of town, and she was doing interviews with people, showing them about a dozen macro photographs she had taken, asking each person to choose three that interest them. She then asked us to describe what each one reminded us of, how we felt about them, and type those observations on her old, manual typewriter. Evidently, I was the fastest typist she had encountered, but I told her she would have a lovely time interpreting my typing around all the errors!
After I was done with my impressions, two other ladies came in, Sheila and Katrina. They each took their turns at Solvig’s torture machine… I mean, manual typewriter… while we all enjoyed the fire in the huge, antique cast iron stove. I had brought out my jewelry at one point, and Katrina bought a pair of my gingko earrings. A gentleman named Fran came in – he was a storyteller. Others came in, bit by bit – John from Glenariff, who told a story. Katrina sang My Lagan Love and She Moved Through the Fair. We all talked mythology, history, and had a generally fun evening.
As I decided I needed to head back to the B&B, the group was all invited to Katrina’s for more jollity and song. I declined, as I had already told Pat I would like breakfast at 8am, and it was well past midnight already. I slept very well.
Friday, November 22nd:
The Plan: Glenariff Forest, Ballymacaldrack Stone Circle, Craigs Dolmen, Dark Hedges, Cushendun Caves.
Breakfast was once again shared with Pat, chatting companionably while I planned my day. My first visit was to the medieval tower in town, where Solvig was staying. She had invited me to come look inside; a rare treat, as it was not open to the public. It was a very cool tower, one room to each floor. There was a kitchen and small sitting area on the ground floor, another sitting room on the second, then the bathroom, the bedroom, and a final storage area on the fifth floor. There was a lovely view over the town from there, as it was the highest structure around, except perhaps the church steeples.
After the tower, I headed back to Cushendun. My visit the day before had not included the caves, which had been used in a scene from Game of Thrones (when Melisandre had given birth to her dark child), and I wanted to find them. Of course, they were just around the bend from where I had been the day before, hidden by a block of apartments – if I had but looked, I would have found them yesterday. I walked through the stones and scree to the multiple cave mouths, exploring in and out of the short caverns.
After Cushendun, I headed onto the Glenann Road to explore the Glens. However, about a mile up, I rounded a curve when a rock jumped out and, without warning, attacked my front left tire. Bam! I felt the car actually get air and bounce down. Once I settled, I got out to check the damage. Yup! Flat as a pancake. Sigh. Luckily, I had bought the extra insurance this trip, the one that covers all damage (including tires) and a low deductible – the first time I had ever done so, and the first time I had ever needed it. Go me!
I settled down to the task of changing out the tire with the donut in the trunk. I was laboriously cranking the jack up, turn by turn, when a helpful angel (by name of John) stopped by and offered to help. He was able to do the crank much more quickly, and got me sorted in no time. He recommended a place in town that would have tires.
I got into town and found the place – but they didn’t have the size the car required. They sent me to John’s repair shop, ‘pass two left turns, first house on the left… look for a mirror on the right, you can’t miss it!’ Luckily, they were right, and their directions were precise. Especially as, while I had a donut on, I don’t trust them for long distances, and they aren’t meant to drive on for a long time. Also, the right rear tire had a big bubble in the side. I have no idea if it was a result of my recent rodeo driving, or if it had formed earlier this week (it wasn’t there when I picked the car up), but it was there now, and looked ready to pop.
Evidently the tires were an unusual size, as both places mentioned it. John didn’t have any tires of that size in stock, but he could get them by this afternoon. In the meantime, he put a used tire of a slightly larger size on in place of the bulging tire, and I had the donut on the front. He warned me to keep my speed down below 80kph, as the donut wasn’t rated for higher speeds. I kept WELL below that limit! He wouldn’t take any payment for what he’d done so far.
I was careful not to abuse my poor little donut. The Skid indicator light remained on until I came back later that day to replace it. There was one place where it did have an issue with a couple small patches of ice on the side of the road, but other than that, it was all good throughout the day. I went VERY slow on the windy glen roads.
My next stop (much delayed) was to Ballymacaldrack Dolmen. I don’t think I ever found that dolmen, but I did find Dooey Cairn. This was a complex little circle and cairn in a small fenced field, with a very short walk. The morning dew was still frosty and limned the stones in a ghostly white, which sparkled in the sun like an angelic invitation. Of course, that also meant my shoes were soaking wet after my walk, but that’s a small price to pay.
I did find another dolmen, but this was called Craig Dolmen. It could have been another name for Ballymacaldrack, I have no idea. This one was in a large, wide open field near the top of a hill. The field had seen some serious tractor action lately, as the mud was churned and the turf torn all over, but it had been dry enough that this mud was no longer very squishy, and was easily navigated. It was quite bright and rather warm already (about 48 degrees F), and the sky was clear, blue, and brilliant.
I headed next to Glenariff Forest Park. I had walked through this park last trip, and enjoyed all the waterfalls and trees, so I was looking forward to doing so again, perhaps choosing a different route this time. I found the car park, but it looked nothing like the one I remember. It had a small café, but again, it looked nothing like the larger one I recalled. Was I mistaken? Had they changed it so much in just two years? It didn’t look like new construction or renovation. Shrugging, I chose a path to the Horseshoe Falls, as per the signs. It was a lovely, long, switchback trails, and the low sunlight filtered green and gold through the trees. I saw no waterfalls, though – the path kept going down and down and down. None of it looked familiar.
Finally, I made it down to the large waterfalls – and the real café, the larger one I remembered. Evidently there are two car parks and two cafés. I asked if there was a shorter route back up to the other lot, but the girl in the café said there wasn’t. Instead, looked at the map conveniently posted near the large waterfall, while its sound crashed and roared in the background. It showed another path (the Scenic Route) that would make it up to where I was parked, so at least I got to walk a different route. The original waterfall route I had walked last time was closed, and, I found out later, had been closed since some big storms came through last spring. As I walked, I could see several trees which had fallen across the river here and there.
Going back up made me sweat a bit, but it was well worth the climb. There was a bit of mist in the forest, so the low sunlight worked its wonders and made the path a sylvan paradise. Mossy trees in all the colors of autumn were around. I only met one other walker on the path. The path was listed at about 8km long, so I’d probably walked twice that in total.
Back in my car, I headed back to Cushendall, but stopped in Larne to photograph some of the gravestones and Celtic Crosses in their cemetery. For some reason, I wasn’t as attracted to them this trip, but I’m not certain why. Perhaps I thought I had taken enough of such photos? I never cared as much for the modern Celtic Crosses, and I was finding more High Crosses and ancient carvings when I could.
I got back to John’s around 3pm, just as my tires arrived – perfect timing! They were £112 for the two new tires, and I kept the receipt – Dan Dooley had no problem reimbursing me when I returned the car, by the way. I gassed the car up at the petrol station, and went to explore Layde Church a bit before the sun went down. Well, that was the plan – it took a while to get through what passed for downtown Cushendall (which was one short block), due to people parking and leaving in front of the one grocery store.
Layde Church is a ruin along the coast with a high cross and an ancient keyhole cross. It also had a small ruined church, and a fantastic coastal view. As I was walking towards it, I started a rather indignant partridge into flying low and fast to a safer place, the hedgerows opposite me. It made a raucous SQUAWK as it flew away on colorful wings.
Even with my gloves on, my fingers were freezing. I don’t know why now would be different than before, perhaps due to more moisture in the air as dusk approached. Regardless, I passed on walking the coastal route (I remembered it to be somewhat slippery in May, it would likely be worse now) and headed back to town for some dinner.
I had decided to visit the Dark Hedges again in the morning, hoping for some misty, atmospheric photos, instead of risking the roads tonight, when ice was more likely.
Since it was now the weekend, Johnny Joe’s served food, and so I headed there for dinner. I was the only one there, of course, as it was still early (around 5pm). I had a seafood bake with saffron and chorizo risotto – it didn’t look particularly lovely, but it tasted delicious! Warm, savory, spicy, and sweet from the crab and mussels. It had bits of salmon, samphire, squid, scallops, prawns, chorizo, all sorts of delicious morsels. I was well pleased, and well stuffed, next to the peat fire.
After dinner, I wandered downstairs for some pints. I sat with Anne and her son Paul in the room with the cast iron stove, keeping warm and talking. Then some other folks arrived – Mairead, Paul and Brian. I got some recommendations for food in Gweedore, Annagarie and Danny Mennies. And, of course, Leo’s Tavern – Leo is father to both Enya and Moya Brennan of Clannad.
We had a lovely conversation of politics, food culture, hunting, history, etc. Rounds were bought, and then many of them left to watch a game. Those that were left continued the conversation – we talked about guns and crime, prohibition, and music – and that’s when the musicians arrived. Several older gentlemen started playing some pure traditional tunes. They were Leo Brown and Jim McCorry on accordians, P.J. Hala on the banjo, and Kieran Dempsey, who played the piano. There were singers in another room, and couple more men with guitars. One of the older gentlemen sang Flowers of the Forest and the Boys of County Clare.
Fran came in again, and we talked about legends and myths, including Ossian’s Grave, which wasn’t far away. However, he mentioned it was on private land, and the owner had taken down all signs and indications to the place. After a great night of music and talk, I left around 11pm for the warm and cozy sanctuary of my B&B. P.J. and I actually spoke some Irish – he said my accent was quite good, and I was very pleased.
Saturday, November 23rd:
The Plan: Mussendun Temple, Celtic Prayer Garden, Griannan Ailleach, Beltany Stone Circle, Gortnavern Portal Tomb
Pat had the morning off, since he didn’t have to get up for work, so Anne was my hostess this morning. She gave me a small Irish keychain as a gift, and I settled up after breakfast, on my way to Bunbeg in County Donegal. Today wasn’t a particularly long travel day compared to others, but I did have a lot of places I wanted to visit.
Since I had forgone the Dark Hedges yesterday, I wanted to see it again this morning on my way out. I took a more northern route than the GPS wanted me to take, as I knew it would avoid some of the mountain roads, which were more likely to be icy. It was a very misty morning, and I had some lovely shots on mountain tarns and still reflections on the way. I had high hopes for the atmospheric shots at the Dark Hedges I was looking for, and I was not disappointed. I got some lovely shots, as the mist started fading away.
I found a ‘vanishing lake’ on my trip, and got some lovely reflective photos of that before reluctantly leaving the peace and solitude of that magical place.
Along the coast I drove, searching out Mussendun Temple, which sits atop a cliff. I found a brown sign, and parked near a rather elaborate gate, with a small gatehouse that was signed as a private house. The garden path to the temple started out well—manicured, but got wilder as the path went on. It wasn’t quite a dense forest, but it had several paths through the trees and shrubs, with ornamental flowers here and there for variety. I saw a couple other people walking with their dogs.
I took the high road, as I was looking for the Temple, and knew it was on high ground. I made it to a gated fence, and saw a folly on the open field, and went to explore. The folly was on a faint path, and rose high upon this grassy plain. From the folly, I saw the massive Bishop’s Palace closer to the cliff’s edge, and followed the manicured path to that edifice.
About this time, I saw a strange, short rainbow over the houses on the inlet to the left, and I hurried my pace a bit. Would I be able to get to the temple in time to photograph the rainbow with it? Perhaps. As I passed by the palace, vowing to come back later to explore it, I saw the temple, right on the cliff edge. The massive flock of sheep don’t even bother to move for me here – they must be well-used to interlopers on their turf, so to speak.
I arrived to the cliff edge just in time to get a couple quick shots of the rainbow behind the temple, hooray! Oh, look, a lovely beach below! I got a shot of the temple, rainbow AND the beach before the colors started to fade away, chased by the sun burning through the mists. I took some more photos of the area, and headed back to explore the palace a bit more thoroughly.
This was an imposing building, definitely built to impress. It formed great shadows and framed shots, and the ruined walls contrasted nicely off the very green grass of the field, as well as inside the palace. I headed back, then, and took the lower road through the garden.
The rain decided to mist a little bit on and off along my drive, but nothing heavy – just soft weather. I headed for the border, and then realized I wasn’t sure exactly where my passport was. The last time we had headed this route, they were stopping each car, so I stopped and made sure I had my ID on hand. I needn’t have worried – there were no stops required.
I made it to Muff on the Inishowen Peninsula, and searched for the Celtic Prayer Garden. GPS failed me again – but just as I turned around to head towards Griannan Ailleach, I found the sign for the Garden. Down a road past some larger farms, and I found the place, across from a spiritual centre with (yay!) bathrooms to use. I went into the garden itself, and wandered for some time. There was a path bounded in by wicker and bamboo, guiding the walker to different spots. Each spot was a contemplation stop, dedicated to different Christian saints. Some had quotes or sayings, some just the name of a particular saint. There were some modern sculptures, ancient crafts, and unusual trees. One part had some lovely little birds singing. The foliage was a bit sere, but still dramatic and interesting. It was probably quite spectacular in the spring.
As I circled around one edge of the garden, the peace was shattered by a dog announcing his presence, and his protection of the area. I had the place to myself until near the end, when a small group entered at one area. My impression was that half the garden was more wild, and the other half more cultivated, with mowed grass and manicured flower areas. It is well worth some time, no matter what time of year. I took the opportunity to divest myself of my leftover UK coins into the collection box.
GPS decided it was time for an adventure. It took me down some rather sketchy roads, and then to some smaller ones – until I was in a rutted puddle road, and very carefully backed up. I did so very slowly, as the hedges were touching the car on both sides. I ignored GPS’s wild imprecations to turn around, and picked a road in the direction I thought I ought to be going. Eventually, my hopefully reasonable road turned into a real one, and GPS finally grudgingly recalculated my way to Griannan Ailleach.
This site is an ancient fort atop a hill, with a lovely view over the Inishowen Peninsula and the surrounding countryside. That is, it is when the mists aren’t so thick you could drown by breathing in too fast. I got up to the parking lot, took stock of the views that were obscured, and went back down. There had been four other cars there, probably doing about the same. I decided I would have to revisit another time – I had four nights in Donegal, so there should be another opportunity.
My next stop was to be Beltany Stone Circle, which I had been unable to find GPS coordinates for. However, I had it listed in the town of Raphoe, so I headed there. This area is still rather cultivated, farms and towns rather than wild areas or peat bogs. The town of Raphoe itself had a triangle in the centre, and I was stuck going around and around a few times, getting my bearings and looking for brown signs. This wasn’t helped by the construction barricades that littered the area, and I went through very carefully.
I finally saw a brown sign for the stone circle, and followed it out of town. It was about a half mile away, right next to an agricultural centre of some sort. The field next door had a sign that said No Shooting, and a tree lane to the stone circle. The mud was rather squishy through here, and I gladly put my boots on for this journey.
Even in broad daylight, this was a rather spooky walk. The tree tunnel wasn’t narrow or small, but the trees were pretty thick, even in their late November autumnal state. The forest next to it was a thick pine forest, very primeval and dense. The mists reigned there still.
The stone circle itself was quite large, with a large mound in the center. It was crawling with sheep, who gave me dirty looks as I passed by, startling them into running away. A few of the more stolid beasts held their ground as I walked by, but kept a wary eye on my progress. The sun was peeking through the clouds, winking in and out with sunbeams and misty weather.
On the way back, I looked into the thick pine forest, and saw a small well or ruined house, so reclaimed by nature that it was difficult to tell what it had originally been. It was VERY muddy here, though, so I decided to return rather than risk a slip.
I looked at the coordinates for my last stop, Gortnavern Portal Tomb, which was north of here. My B&B was in Bunbeg, to the south, and the sun was starting to get low. It was still an hour drive, and it’s already 3pm, so I decided to forgo Gortnavern today.
The drive through the peat bogs and mountains of Donegal is simply gorgeous. Words cannot truly describe this area, whether in May or November. The rolling hills and sweeping browns and golds seem to go on forever, especially when the skipping sun dapples along the undulating waves as you drive. There were more rainbows – today was truly a day of rainbows – and dramatic clouds to accompany my drive. More than once I pulled over to the side to let the more impatient local drivers speed by, so I could appreciate the beauty around me.
I made a brief stop at Errigal for some photos, but with dusk fast approaching, I didn’t stay long.
As I arrived in Bunbeg, I saw a beach. It was still a light dusk, so I went down to the water, and took some photos of the sands, revealed by the low tide, with ripples of reflections in the twilight sun. There is an old shipwreck on the beach, and I took several photos of this until the light began to fade too much. I made it to the B&B, which was about a block farther down the main road, Teac Campbell.
Moira, my hostess, is a bit flighty, but very welcoming and warm. The hallways smelled a bit musty, like cigarette smoke, but I was amazed at how large the place was. It was rambling, old, and charming. Moira thought I was going to be male, as her husband had simply written down ‘Nicholas’, my last name. She offered me either the warmer room or the room with the view. I took the warmer room, as I figured I would only be in the room when it was dark out.
She recommended Sean Óg’s Pub for dinner, which was across the street, well within walking distance. It had two sides – the pub and the restaurant. It looked like it ran a good tourist trade in season, but was rather dead at the moment. However, I’d come to expect that in this November trip, and was not discouraged.
I ordered the lamb curry samosas as an appetizer, and they were delicious. Flaky, very spicy, and they came with a lovely spicy jelly. I had wanted the mussels for dinner, but they were off-season, so instead, I ordered the gourmet burger with brie. It was a huge burger, and very tasty.
The drive today hadn’t been as long as I had expected it to be. Last trip I had driven from Cushendall to Ardara, which was a bit of a longer drive, but I had also explored most of Inishowen Peninsula along the way, which I hadn’t done this time. I had had to resist the temptation, since the weather was so fine for most of the afternoon. And, granted, the days in May were much longer than November.
The waitress at Sean Óg’s was professional, and a bit detached, and I thought perhaps it might be more difficult to settle in here. Luckily, it was a beautiful area, regardless. I was one week into my holiday, and was determined to milk it for all it was worth.
I took stock of my photo cards, to make sure I was not running out of space, and it seemed I was doing fine. I had been fine with recharging my phone each night as I slept, and recharging the camera batteries as needed (I had 5 with me). The GPS no longer held more than about 10 minutes charge, as it was quite elderly, so I needed to use the one car charger spot for that whenever I was driving.
After dinner, I wandered over to the pub side. Of course, at 6pm, it wasn’t crowded. There were eight men watching the Chelsea v. West Ham game. Of course, the best spot available to me was next to this pub’s Old Man Who No One Can Understand. There were also a couple of guys playing pool, and a couple in the corner at a table.
The bartender, John, chatted with me a bit, but I knew not much else would be going on until the game was over. Except, of course, the Old Man in the corner. I don’t know that I caught his name, but he was rather strongly opinionated about people of color, from his remarks, and asked me if I knew his sister, who lived in Lowell, MA. The younger bartender, Eamon, rescued me with some less controversial conversation. I compared this Old Man to Father Jack from Father Ted, and Eamon agreed wholeheartedly.
I looked up to the television, and could have sworn I saw Ron Jeremy doing a Doritos commercial. What?? I tried to get the WiFi on my phone, but the signal kept going in and out. I then realized the folks that were standing next to me were speaking Irish. I was definitely in the Gealteacht now! For some reason, it makes me very happy to realize the language is being kept alive in more than just a tourism manner.
Four tourists down from Derry started chatting with me; Kieran, Pamela, Wendy and Pat. I told them my parents’ story, and showed off my jewelry. Then we met actor Jerry McSorley on the way out, and we chatted a bit. He said he was here writing a book – which he jokingly entitled ‘Life Farts on Everything.’ He had us cracking up.
Sunday, November 24th:
The Plan: Bocan Stone Circle, Glenevin Waterfall, Malin Head, Crana Bridge, Carndonagh, Clonca High Cross, St. Mura’s Cross, Fahan, Leo’s Tavern.
Good morning! Up at 6:30, well before the dawn or my alarm. The bed in this B&B is VERY bouncy, but it’s very comfortable, and I slept very well. I showered and wandered a bit around the quiet, rambling halls with the low lights left on, showing puddles of dim, somewhat faded rugs and portraits. I didn’t find any room that looked quite like a dining room, and the kitchen was dark (it was about 8am by now), so I watched a bit of television in my room until I heard stirring in the house. I went out into the long hallways again, and saw Moira letting a cat outside the front door, and she apologized profusely for waking up late. She brought me through a small living room and into a large dining room, with a window that looked out onto the beach in the distance.
Breakfast was tasty enough, though a bit on the dry side. This was the first B&B I had gotten black and white pudding on – perhaps they don’t like it much in Northern Ireland? She also served what looked like homemade orange marmalade – very strong and a bit too bitter for my taste, but it did wake me up with zest.
While I was eating, I flipped through a book that had many photographs from earlier decades in Ireland. Another person came in while I was leaving – she reminded me of my Aunt Sandy. An older lady, a bit pinched looking, with eccentric clothing, tight curly brown hair, and a no-nonsense attitude.
My first stop today was Griannan Ailleach, since it was shrouded in mists the day before. However, I stopped first out to the lovely beach again, and walked a bit, taking photos and enjoying the solitude and peace of the place. I think my husband would love it here. There was a very long, shallow tidal flat that made all sorts of lovely patterns and shapes in the sand. The sunrise was spectacular, pinks and golds burning through the heavy mists.
After I left the beach, I saw a brown sign promising the Lough Salt Scenic Drive. I’d not heard of this, so I thought, why not? We’re on a coast, it’s not like it can take me too far off course. Well, I was mostly wrong. It wasn’t off course, but it was a very small, windy road that took about an hour longer than I’d anticipated!
It was lovely, though – there were still, misty mountain tarn lakes, mysterious mountain views, and when I finally emerged, I headed for Griannan Ailleach…. And got there at noon! Well, I hadn’t anticipated spending most of my morning in that area, but it was too lovely to begrudge. The sun was still low enough to give color to the fog and color it in a fantasy landscape.
The atmosphere was much clearer today, and when I climbed the steep driveway, I was rewarded with a clear, beautiful, somewhat surreal view all around me. There were a couple other visitors, and we all explored the ancient fort and it’s prominent location. I must have taken 50 photos of just the view from there.
I went on to Inishowen Peninsula, looking for my first stops. I searched for Glenevin Waterfall, near Clonmany, but found nothing, and no signs to help me locate it. Strike one. Then I went towards Malin Head, the northernmost part on the Irish mainland. I’d been near there before, at the Wee House of Malin, but that had been a very rainy day, and we hadn’t taken the extra time to find Malin Head. Today wasn’t rainy, though mists occasionally made the weather a bit soft, but it was one of the windier days on this trip. When I finally did make it to Malin Head, following signs on and on, passing the many small white utility vans that everyone here seemed to drive, it was well worth it.
This remote point was spectacular. Rocky outcroppings lifted us (there were about a half dozen other people here) up and out of the ocean, and gave us views of beaches, cliffs, islands in the distance, and an overwhelming fear of awe and humility. I felt quite ephemeral while standing on that cliff, as if I wasn’t truly there, only a ghost, a moment in time in comparison to the relative eternity of the stones I was perched upon.
After Malin Head, I thought anything else might be rather anticlimactic. However, I went off to another brown-signed location, nearby Banba’s Head, and realized it was just as spectacular. I’ve read of both of these places that they are the northernmost points, and I’m not sure which is which, or if one is a subset of the other. Regardless, they are breathtaking – and not just because of the rather stiff sea wind!
I headed back south (how could I not?) and went towards Carndonagh, where I knew a 5th century cross stood, as I’d visited it by accident last trip. I found the Donagh cross, with the help of a young lad walking his dogs along the road, and then went to find St. Mura’s or Fahan Cross. This was another GPS fail – strike 2. I found the general area, but couldn’t find any brown signs to help me find it. Then I went to find Crana Bridge – again, I found the town, but not the bridge itself. How do you lose a bridge? But it was getting dark, so I skipped the Clona High Cross, and headed back towards the homebase.
Today’s meanderings were a mad criss-cross around the peninsula, with no real plan or order, and I likely ‘wasted’ a lot of time, but I like getting lost in Ireland. It’s one of my joys in life. I had some more places to visit today on the other side of my printed list, but hadn’t realized that until it was quite late.
I stopped near Letterkenny to get some gas, and came across the first (and only) issue with not having a chip-and-pin card. My last trip, I had gotten one preloaded with some money on it, but only needed it once. This trip I didn’t bother – and only needed it once. The clerk couldn’t take the cards (debit or credit) that I had, but they had an expensive ATM machine in the corner, so I took out cash to pay for my gas and snacks.
It had been mostly a dim day, but the sunrise had been brilliant, and a lovely sunset capped it as I drove through the peat-covered hills and mountains of Donegal. The twilight is long and low in the evening, and the blue is intense, almost as if it was solid. That deep indigo contrasted with the bronze and brass tones of the hills. While the wind had been stiff today, it was not as strong as it had been on my last visit, and I was able to wear just my fleece jacket without gloves or hat for most of the day. I didn’t even really need my jacket going to and from the car for dinner.
It was full dark by now, and I headed to Leo’s Tavern in Gweedore for some dinner. This is a tavern owned by the father of both Enya and Moya Brennan (lead singer of Clannad), and I had always wanted to visit. It was quiet, though there were a couple people on the bar side, and a family at a table in the restaurant side. I sat at the bar to eat, and ordered some Fisherman’s Pie and a half pint. The music playing was Clannad, of course!
The pie was delicious, savory, and hot – just what I needed. It had salmon, cod, smoked mackerel, mashed potatoes, carrots, and was topped with a thick layer of melted, shredded cottage cheese. It was huge, and I could never finish the whole thing, but I did my level best. I at least got all the fishy bits! While I was finishing up, Robin the Hooded Man came on, and I had visions of Michael Praed and his bow. Outside, I greeted Cleo, a placed black lab who seemed to be on watch on the porch.
Bunbeg, and my B&B, was only about five miles away, so driving in full dark wasn’t an issue. I charged my phone up a little, and asked Moira about a launderette in town. She said there was one about a half mile down, and it was open late, so I figured I’d do that the next evening, after dark had settled in. No sense in wasting the precious daylight hours in doing chores!
After a bit of recharging (both me and the phone!) I headed across the street to Sean Óg’s for some pints and craic. It was more full tonight, though I came in at a later hour, so that may be part of it. I chatted with Eamon, at the bar, and we talked of immigration and the likelihood of aurora sightings in Inishowen. I chatted with Tony and Hughie about deer hunting in West Virginia, and Tony made a joke about stag parties (their equivalent of bachelor’s parties). They tried to get me to start a Donegal Supporting Team in West Virginia. I laughed, as I have no interest in any sport.
One guy came in drunk, staggering and very much the worse for wear. He was told that he had been barred, (an incident years ago, evidently), and he started getting belligerent. Finally, he asked Eamon to call him a cab, and he settled down a bit while he waited for that to arrive.
I tried out my scant Irish again, and had some accent corrections, but was praised for my ability. I think it is amazing to most Irish that any American would try to learn their language.
By 11 the long day was catching up to me, so I headed back to the B&B to collapse.
Monday, November 25th:
This morning, I had breakfast on my own, and Moira was more chatty and friendly. She hadn’t slept too late this morning, so had evidently had time to wake up and get in gear before I started demanding my breakfast, so to speak!
The Plan: Bloody Foreland, Errigal Mountain, Glenveagh Castle/Park, Fanad Point Lighthouse
I went by the launderette to learn the hours, and discovered they were open until 9pm, so that was grand – I looked for some soap to purchase, and asked if they had single use portions at the shop next to it. They did – for .80 Euros, she brought me a small plastic bag with one load’s worth, which was all I needed. I set it aside in my car, as I wasn’t certain the shop would still be open when I got back that evening.
On the way to Glenveagh, I stopped at Errigal Mountain, just as the sun, which had been working hard all morning, burst through the heavy mists over the Five Sisters, and bathed us in a golden glory of foggy beams. It was incredible. I was there with one other couple, and we just couldn’t stop looking at it, marveling at the beauty, taking photos, and stopping again to behold it. It was with great reluctance that I moved on.
I headed towards Glenveagh Park. I had no idea how stunning this place was. It was open, sere, brown, gold, and all sorts of bronzes, reds and brass colors. There were at least a dozen still, misty, reflective lakes dotting the mountains. I had the place completely to myself, it seemed – miles and miles of undulating waves of golden grasses. As I made my way through the winding roads, I got to the centre of the park – which had a manor house of some sort, locked tight, and a visitor centre that had people in it, but didn’t look open yet. I decided I had seen the most beautiful bits already, and moved on to head towards Fanad Head.
I took a slight detour, a lovely drive near Milford, and then eventually found the brown signs indicating the Fanad Drive. I figured this was on my way, according to the GPS, and it sounded like the right area. It was longer than I had anticipated, but this was all to the good – similar to Inishowen, but a little more settled, this was a delightful drive, a long inlet to accompany the road. There were little compact beaches here and there along the inlet.
Eventually I made it up to Fanad Light House, and I saw another rash of white utility vans everywhere. The lighthouse itself was lovely, but you couldn’t walk up to it, or even see it much behind the high fence. But the cliff face and beach was pretty spectacular on its own. There was a herd of sheep that decided I was little threat, and milled around me and my car for a bit while I took photos of the beach below.
I tried again to find an earlier place I had passed on, Gortnavern Portal Tomb. This tomb is well-hidden, as I failed once again, both by GPS and brown signs. I found an older man walking along, and asked him about them – he said there were two Gortnaverns, and gave some complex directions to both, but didn’t know if there was a tomb at either. Since I was already on a sheep track, and the road he wanted me to go on was even scarier, I passed on further explorations for this site.
My last trip was to the Bloody Foreland. I didn’t have a GPS coordinate for this, but I found a town ‘nearby’, according to the map – this was more of an area than a place. I set the GPS for Falcarragh, and headed up a gorgeous seaside route to a sweet town. The beach was fantastic, and I was accompanied by rainbows and a brilliant orange sunset over the docks.
I wandered a bit around town, looking for any stray brown signs that might be lost, and then decided to head back to Bunbeg to tackle my laundry pile. If I did all the clothes today (except what I was wearing), I shouldn’t have to do any laundry again until I got home. I was told there would be music tonight at the Tabhairne Bunbeg, which is right near the launderette.
I put my laundry in and walked across the street to the pub. It was full dark, but only about 5:30pm, and the pub was completely dark and empty. I was hungry, so I went down to Sean Óg’s; however, they evidently only serve food on the weekends during off-season. BUT – the owner said she had seafood chowder if I wanted some of that, and I heartily agreed.
Eamon was there, having a drink since it was evidently his night off, and I told him he reminded me of an actor on Monarch of the Glen, who played the character Ewan. He pulled it up on the TV, and said he couldn’t see it – but everyone else in the bar could. I met Michael, who had been to a big wedding in Chattanooga, complete with full country barbecue, and we discussed some of the segregation issues in that area of the country, as he had found them rather disturbing.
When I had come in, there was a much older man sitting in one of the chairs near the fire. His name was Dominic, and he was John (the owner’s) dad. When I entered, I heard one of the guys telling Dominic he was cut off. About twenty minutes later, he attempted to walk out, and collapsed down the stairs, falling flat on the floor. It scared me pretty badly, and I rushed to see if he was OK. He was breathing, but his eyes were open, and I thought perhaps he had had an attack of some sort. Luckily, people more versed in his condition came – evidently this was a fairly common occurrence since his wife had gone out of town to visit a friend. Everyone worked together to get him sorted, called John to pick him up and take him to his house to put him to bed.
Michael and I chatted some more, about the show The Newsroom, and I brought up the opening scene for him to watch on Youtube, a very powerful scene. We talked education, politics, science fiction, and languages. His job is actually translating from Italian to English, and he had lived in Italy for several years. He knows over 10 languages – I was duly impressed.
I chatted some with Mary as well (John’s wife, she is very sweet) and we talked about how the pub here had many different age groups – younger people in their twenties to older folks in their seventies and eighties, like Dominic. It was an even mix of men and women tonight.
As we were talking, Mary’s son Shane showed up – stinking of burnt curry. Evidently, John had been cooking the curry at home. When he got the call about Dominic, he left at once – forgetting the curry on the stove. Well, Shane came home some time later, wondering when they had painted the kitchen white… it was white with smoke! Luckily, other than the pervasive smell of burnt curry, that seemed to be the extent of the damage.
At one point, I was invited to Glasgow the next day, as a group was going to support the Celtics, because I can drive manual transmission. I kindly declined the invitation, but wished them all luck.
As the evening ended with an ‘I’m taller than you’ contest involving Mary (who was a bit on the short side) and another lady who was very tall, and escalating to chairs and then bar stools, I got hugs goodbye and took myself back to the B&B. I was going to miss this place, I felt very welcome and at home here.
Tuesday, November 26th:
I didn’t sleep well this night, I have no idea why. I tossed and turned a lot, but I was up at my 7am, and breakfast at 8. Moira was horrified because she slept in again – the second time in years, and both during my visit! She was aghast, truly. I chatted a bit with the two gentlemen eating their breakfast – they were here on business. Their job throughout the year was to go from place to place, putting tarps over the piles of drying peat, all around the County of Donegal. It could be very wet, windy, and cold work at times, I was sure – and that was just in the summer months!
The Plan: Kilclooney Dolmen, Maghera Sea Caves, Sliabh Liag Cliffs, Glencolmcille
My first stop today was Kilclooney Dolmen. I had been here before, but wanted another visit. In fact, everything on my list today was a rehash of previously visited spots, but that’s OK – I liked them so much the first time, I wanted to see them all again. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
Knowing how boggy my first visit had been, I made sure to wear my boots once I got out of the car for Kilclooney Dolmen. It is located in a peat bog behind a farm house, and about a quarter-mile slog out to the dolmen itself. This time, however, it was guarded by four friendly horses, fashionably garbed in blankets, and happily having their breakfast as I trekked through their table.
I was lucky enough to have a stunning sunrise through mackerel clouds as my backdrop for the dolmen today, and I was very glad to have come. The mud was a bit thick in spots, as the misty rain the day before had evidently been much stronger here than farther north. There were times when the mud was in danger of splashing into my boots, which came up about a third of the way up my calf!
After Kilclooney, I drove through Ardara, the town I had stayed at on my last trip. It’s a great place, and I enjoyed my time there greatly, but I had wanted to visit the northern half of Donegal more this trip, so chose a spot a little better situated for that. However, last time we had come, we had explored the area for the Maghera Sea Caves. We had navigated through tall sand dunes, with 50 mph winds sandblasting us mercilessly, only to realize that, as we came to the beach itself, we had no ideas what the tides were like, so turned back reluctantly.
This time, I knew the tide wasn’t coming in any time soon. I drove down the long, narrow road that flanks the deep inlet, and made my obligatory stop at Assaranca Waterfall, a lovely tall falls about halfway down the inlet. I went on to the sand dunes, parking my car, and waving at the shepherd moving his herd of sheep into the barn at the entrance, with the help of his two border collies.
Since the wind was much kinder on this visit, I made my way through the surreal waves of sand dunes and sea grass without too much trouble. Other people had obviously been here since the last tide, as there were lots of footprints, both human and dog, running through the sandy valleys. The dunes are much higher than I am, so it was like I was going through some sort of skateboarding park, abandoned but yet, alive somehow.
Finally, I made it through the maze and to the beachfront. The tide was well out, and I made my way to the rocks to the left. I kept turning around another bend, hoping to find a cave, but it looked like, if any caves were there, they were filled with sand. I couldn’t find one large enough to actually walk into. Perhaps I didn’t look far enough? I made it to the water’s edge without luck. I did find some sparkling veins of white quartz within the rocks, and the rocks themselves were beautiful, stark and colorful against the neutral sand.
I headed back, somewhat disappointed at once again missing the caves, but having enjoyed the walk. I set the GPS to Glencolmcille, and it said to keep going along the small road – through a rather precarious mountain pass. I trusted it, and drove very carefully! The road was quite narrow, and there was absolutely no shoulder – just cliff on one side and mountain on the other. I felt somewhat better on the other side, when I had some give and leeway, but it was beautiful, if dangerous. I was also glad I met no one coming the other way!
I made my way through the winding roads to the southern coast of County Donegal, and to Glencolmcille. This is a village that has a couple things to recommend it, including a spectacular cliff view, a holy well and site, as well as a folk village, where each cottage was recreated to portray a different time period, such as 1750, 1800, etc. Alas, as I walked up to the village to take some photographs, I was told that the place was closed for renovations until the spring. Ah well, on to Sliabh Liag!
I love cliffs. I love standing on them and looking out into the sea, as if I could see forever, see the curve of the earth in the distance, feel the winds of the ocean tease my hair, whipping and stinging against my face. I find it invigorating, strengthening, filling me with vitality and power. If I could build a house on a cliff, I would. Of course, driving up and down that cliff in icy conditions is another matter…
At Sliabh Liag, you can drive most of the way up. There is a large parking lot about 2/3 up the cliff itself, and then a set of rough stairs a bit farther up. After that, you are climbing rocks, but most of them are pretty easy. It was quite boggy, though, and difficult to climb too much. I climbed farther than I had last time, when the winds made footing precarious. This time it was the mud that made footing precarious. I wasn’t the only one up there – perhaps 20 people were there, at different points, exploring the cliffs.
The cliffs were all the colors – emerald and gold, blue and grey, sparkling in the sunlight and shadows, dappled in sunbeams, showing vivid and deep in the shattered light. The sun was gorgeous, shining on the water in a brilliant display of reflections. There was a storm in the distance, playing tag with the sunbeams. I drank in the scene for some time before I made my way back down to the mundane existence of the earthbound.
I thought I’d go through the Glengesh pass on the way back to Bunbeg, but GPS decided that I wasn’t to have that pleasure. It took me another route, and I kept looking for the spectacular place (I’d been through before) when I realized I was already in Ardara.
The last time I was here, I had a delightful time at Nancy’s Bar, and I decided to see if Nancy’s was serving food. I parked in the small downtown area, and walked down the block to where it had been – and found McHugh’s Accountants in its place. Did I remember it wrong? Did they move? There was still a pub there, but I could have sworn they’d had the whole corner. Regardless, it looked locked up. Either they weren’t open yet tonight, or closed for the season – either way, they were unlikely to have food on a Tuesday night off-season, so I moved on.
The hills here are comfortable in their desolation. I felt embraced by their golden waves. The occasional lonely homestead tells the story of a desperate clinging to tradition, home and family. Some villages, like Gleann, appear new and freshly created, and seem more precarious than the ruined wrecks of crumbling stone and mossy rocks from a bygone age. As the mists descend in the lowering twilight, the peat smoke starts billowing from thatched roof chimneys, and a blanket of snug warmth is drawn up around the cottages, holding them from harm.
I made it back to Bunbeg by the time the velvet twilight wrapped itself around the town.
Since Sean Óg’s didn’t even have any chowder that evening, I walked down to Pepper’s Café for some fast food – Irish style. It was one of the few sit-down restaurants open, so I couldn’t be too picky, and actually, it was quite tasty. I got the spicy chicken sandwich with ‘skinny’ fries, and some curry to dip them in. The chicken had a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce that was very good. I saw skinny fries on a lot of menus in Ireland, and I had never noticed them before. Fries were usually called chips, and they were thick, like what we would call steak fries. These were thin, though, like McDonald’s fries. Perhaps it is a recent gastronomic fad?
I headed back to Sean Óg’s for my last night in Donegal. It was probably going to be an early night. The only people at the pub I recognized was Paul, as most of the other young men had gone off to Glasgow for their Celtics game. I had thought he was going with them, as he was the one who had asked me if I’d go to be a driver, but he said he was just supervising. John told some stories, and had us all laughing.
I mentioned how surprised I was at how many larger, developed towns there were in north Donegal, especially in the Inishowen Peninsula. West Donegal seemed much less populated and isolated, perhaps because of the peat bogs. However, the folks that do live out there seem to prefer that isolation, and there were many people on holiday down from Derry and Letterkenny, seeking out that isolation on purpose.
The Celtics/Milan game started, and most people stopped talking to watch that. Jade, the bartender tonight, had received a ‘Distinction’ grade on her psychology ‘train the trainer’ course, and shared the good news with everyone.
There seems to be an undercurrent of racism here. I don’t know if it was true of Ireland in general, as I’d not really encountered it before, or if it was just a few people I’d happened to meet, but I heard the term ‘Pakkis’ and ‘darkies’ several times from several older men. I even heard the term ‘filthy Indians’ at one point. I hope it was just an exception, but they sure aren’t afraid to express such opinions to strangers on holiday.
Wednesday, November 27th:
I was up at my normal time, and met with a man named Charlie at breakfast for a bit of a chat, before I settled up with Moira and went off for my long travel day to Westport. Today was a day of Neolithic monuments!
The Plan: Boa Island, Creevykeel, Drumcliffe High Cross, Knocknarea (Maeve’s Cairn), Carrowmore, Knockbrack Dolmen, Corrower Ogham Stone
GPS only brought me in the general area for Boa Island, and the signage wasn’t precise, so I asked at a convenience store. The kind girl there gave me good directions, and I was on my way. I’ve found, over various trips and getting hopelessly lost countless times, that the people in Ireland love helping out with directions. They aren’t always very clear, or accurate (especially for distances – 1 mile is sometimes really 5 miles!) but they are always happy to help. I’ve never come across someone that was surly when asked directions.
The land here had a very different feel. It was marshy, with lakes and thinner trees, and almost reminded me of some areas of west Florida or the Everglades in its general feel. I was back (barely) in Northern Ireland now, in County Fermanagh. I was searching for one thing – an enigmatic stone carving known as the Janus Figure. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but found a small sign for an old cemetery, and thought I’d give that a try. The island wasn’t wide – perhaps a quarter mile across at this point – with the road going through the center. So the drive down to the cemetery was short, but rather unkempt. The cemetery itself was definitely old, with mossy bits of stone among the somewhat more recent gravestones. It wasn’t large at all, just a small enclosed field, and the Janus stone was immediately apparent.
The Janus Figure was an odd carved grave figure, with faces on both sides, oddly shaped with almond eyes and diamond shaped faces. No one is really sure from what time it dates, but it has a distinctly pagan look about it, or perhaps very early Christian, when the pagan hold on Christianity was even stronger than it is today in Ireland.
I wasn’t sure if there was another figure on the island; I seemed to remember something about more, but I wasn’t certain, so I explored a bit farther down. I came across a ferry dock, and got out for some lovely lake views, but decided I needed to move on, so reversed course and headed back down towards Sligo.
I came across a random brown sign saying Castle Caldwell, so stopped to explore. There was a lovely forest drive, a ruined chapel, and a parking lot, with a map, so I decided to get out and enjoy the morning a bit. The trail was gorgeous, the bright sun dappling the ground with flickers of light among the bright yellow leaves all around. After a little while, I came across what looked like a square tower keep – at least, what I could see through the thick ivy growing all around it. It was definitely a ruin! I didn’t know if this was a castle or just a guard tower, but it was sufficiently picturesque to satisfy my needs that day.
Back towards the main road, I stopped to explore the ruined chapel. The ground was very mushy here, and difficult to see as it was covered with a very thick blanket of fallen autumn leaves. I found a crest on the chapel, but didn’t go inside the small building. I headed back onto the road afterwards.
Gone was the winding, twisty roads through waves of sere mountains. Gone was the rocky, wild coastline. Now I was in a more settled part of Ireland, with towns, and what might even be called highways, industry, and commerce. There were occasional strip malls, and parking lots. There was, of course, more traffic and fewer special, hidden spots that I could see.
Creevykeel Court Tomb is a spectacular spot just on the main road, and easily found. You can practically see the stones from the road. There is a huge clootie tree near the entrance, and I made my request, tying on a bit of cloth to the tree, before I went in. The tomb itself is large, and excavated into an open multi-chambered area, available for explorations and speculations for its purposes.
I moved on down the road a bit, headed towards Drumcliffe. I saw the signs for Glencar Waterfall, and decided on a not-so-quick detour. I’d been there before, and knew the drive was windy and twisty, but well worth it. I had the place to myself, except a couple leaving as I arrived. The last time we were here, there were at least 35 people wandering about, children running and laughing. All very fine, but I enjoyed and treasured the solitude, absorbing the power and beauty of the sparkling falls all by myself.
Drumcliffe is on the main road, and the church with the High Cross easily found. The Cross itself was lovely, but there were several people obviously coming to attend a funeral, so I didn’t linger too long, as I didn’t wish to intrude upon their ceremony.
I finished listening to the second book in the Outlander series (Dragonfly in Amber) some time during the day, and switched to the third, Voyager. As I have read them all before several times, it is good as background interest, but I don’t miss anything if I zone out for a minute.
I found the signs for Knocknarea, or Maeve’s Tomb. I knew it was a huge cairn on the top of a hill, I’d seen the photographs. I even saw it in the distance at one point, and knew I was headed in the right direction. The trees soon obscured the view, though, and I followed the signs through side roads, around hills and villages. GPS sent me up one of the hills, and I found a small parking area and a set of crude, muddy stone steps up the side of the hill into a forested path. I followed the path, which was bounded on one side by a stone wall. The forest was pine, so it was thicker than I had been used to, with winter stealing many of the leaves in other woods.
I followed the trail, up and up, into more forest, and then along a path that looked like it went to a clearing. I made it to the clearing – and saw the cairn, plain as day, on the NEXT hill over. Sigh. Light was already fading, and I realized I wouldn’t have enough time to get down, find the next hill, and climb another one, and still get to Westport in decent time. I satisfied myself with some photographs from afar, cursed GPS and the capricious gods of the satellites, and moved on. The weather was brilliant, still, and clear, though, and the views from the mountain was a lovely consolation gift.
I stopped by Carrowmore, interested in once again getting some photographs of the multiple stone circles, dolmens and cairns this incredible site held. However, it was all padlocked, closed, and down for the season – sigh. I could see one or two from the road, but the padlocks prevented any exploration.
My next goal was Knockbrack Dolmen… but GPS once again failed me. Corrower Ogham Stone was another fail. It was with some damping of spirit that I pulled into Westport, just as the dusk was settling upon the town.
Leitrim and Sligo were much more domestic, settled and industrial than either Donegal or Fermanagh had been. Sort of like the difference between Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The roads were wider, in better repair; even the small ones. Every bit of land seemed parceled out to either field or farm. There were more horses, especially being ridden down the road. I knew the day would be a flyby day, as it was a long travel day, and I wouldn’t be able to stop at all the brown signs I saw… but, to be honest, I didn’t notice as many brown signs. It was disappointing, especially as I hadn’t found as many things as I had hoped that day. I missed not seeing Knocknarea the most.
I was relatively familiar with Westport, having stayed there before, and greatly enjoyed the town. My main goal was to spend some time at Matt Molloy’s, a pub I enjoyed. I also had a meeting set up with a friend of mine, Debe, and a friend-to-be, Niamh (a mutual friend thought we should meet). I stopped at the store for some more snacks, some gas, and some Jelly Babies, feeling particularly Whovian as I did so.
I found my B&B, McCarthy’s Lodge, without much trouble. It was just off one of the circles (or Octagons, in this case) in the city. There was a pub and next door, the B&B. Getting inside was a little more trouble. I had visions of trying to find another B&B by myself in the dark, or sleeping in the car. The place looked dark and locked up, but I did see someone inside, doing some renovation work. The person doing the work came out and managed to get me a room in the B&B next door, after consulting with the owner on the phone.
The room was huge! It had a double bed and a single bed. I settled in a bit and then went off to search for food. As I walked outside, I noticed a huge line across the street. There must have been 100 people in it, and it wrapped down the block and down an alley. I saw that it led into a funeral parlor.
The first place I found that had a menu posted (the easiest way to find a place that served food) didn’t have anything that particularly appealed to me at that moment, so I explored around the Octagon for other options. After making a full circuit, and a couple of ventures down a couple of the offshooting lanes, finding where Matt Molloy’s was (they don’t serve food), and then settled on a pub called Dunnings. There were several other options, such as take-away, pizza, a bistro, and even a couple ‘normal’ sit-down restaurants. Westport is not shy of options! But I wanted pub food, so in I went.
I ordered a nice Irish stew and a half pint of cider, and chatted a bit with the folks watching TV in the pub. The funeral had been for a 22 year old man, the victim of a horrible car crash. Evidently Westport (and perhaps all of Ireland?) has a tradition of everyone in town coming by to give their condolences at one time, to keep them from being dragged out over weeks and months, a constant reminder to the grieving family.
After my lovely Irish stew (with two scoops of mashed potatoes served on the side, of course), I went to McCarthy’s and hung out at the pub a bit, to see if the owner was there, so I could meet him. I did, his name was Michael, and I was also able to get the WiFi password. I went up to my room, charged my phone a bit, and relaxed until it was time to go find some music and craic at Matt Molloy’s.
The funeral still had a long line, and some people were now lined up on either side of the street, as if to see a procession come through. I walked behind the lines, and made my way to the pub. I sat at the bar – not many people were in yet, and I imagine many of the regulars were over near the funeral. Jimmy Molloy, Matt’s son, served me, and I asked him if he was Niamh’s brother. He said he had also met my friend Susan, the one that was arranging for me to meet Niamh. Susan is a good friend of mine in the US, a musician and singer. She had played with the Molloys at one point, and made friends with them.
People were eventually starting to come into the pub in small groups. The pub is huge, with five different rooms, including the huge one in back that is arranged with a stage. The last time I was here, my friend Debe’s boyfriend Dee Moore was playing in that big room. Jimmy mentioned Dee might be performing at the pub next door tonight.
There was a sign on the wall with a list of letters in what looked like an acronym. I asked Jimmy about it, and he brought it down for me to see. The front were the letters and on the back, the meaning. I don’t recall it exactly, but it was something like “AAROYCADIR” = “As a result of your curiosity, a donation is required.” Jimmy had brought a small can – it was for the Lion’s Club, a worthy charity.
We talked a bit, and both discovered we had very musical parents (Matt Molloy is one of the members of The Chieftains, for those that don’t know), without having much talent ourselves in that area. We commiserated a bit on this, and then I moved into the back room, as some musicians were due to arrive shortly. Also, my back wasn’t happy with sitting in tall bar stools with no back for long periods of time, and needed some proper support. My legs tend to fall asleep, as the struts never seem to be in the proper position to hold my feet.
When I was in Cushendall, and people were singing songs, I tried to think of what songs I knew well enough to sing. I knew several common songs, such as Molly Malone, but I didn’t want to do anything too common. I could do Loch Lomond or Queen of Argyll, but those were Scottish songs. There were many songs I could sing if I had the words – but not memorized more than a verse and the chorus. I could do funny songs, like The Scotsman, Johnny Be Fair, or Tom Lehrer’s Irish Ballad, and indeed, I did sing a couple verses of this last in Cushendall.
There was a group of three Canadian older women in one corner in this smaller room, and a couple of French men in another. A woman came in with her young son (about 10?) and mentioned she had been here twenty years ago, meeting her husband there.
I really enjoyed the flow and ebb of conversations between groups here. The pub culture is one of the great things about Ireland and the UK. It is truly like a neighborhood living room, with occasional visitors. Even the more touristy pubs, like Matt Molloy’s or Sean Óg’s in Bunbeg, there is a warm feeling of community, and sense of implicit friendship. It’s nothing like the meat market bars in the US. I know there are some Irish-style pubs here that come close, but none near where I live. Of course, if I were to live near a lovely pub with a good pub culture, that would be highly detrimental to my waistline! Drinking cider every night is all very well on vacation, but would be rather disastrous to any diet plans in normal life. Of course, if I WALKED to and from the pub every night… perhaps!
Some musicians came in after a while, and sat in the corner next to my table. I remember that was where the musicians had been the last time I was there… I chose that seat on purpose! There was Seamus on the accordion, Noel on the bouzuki, and Declan on the guitar. They asked where I was from, of course, and my standard answer to that on this trip was ‘I am living in West Virginia, but lived most of my life in Florida.’ The standard response to this was some mention of the song, Country Roads, as this is all most people ever know about West Virginia. They played a couple strains of it, and then gave up. Declan sang a lovely version of Andy M. Stewart’s Man on the Moon.
After Vincent came in with a mandolin to join them, they did “Leave her, Johnny” and some other tunes. Declan evidently had a great sense of humor, and was a very good showman. He asked for some others to sing songs. I got brave and offered to sing Tom Lehrer’s Irish Ballad. I think I did a creditable job, and Declan asked for the name of the song so he could look it up.
I headed home around 11pm, and collapsed into bed. It had been a lot of time in the car today, without many walks to split up the strain on my feet from driving manual, and the lack of cruise control was definitely being felt on the long distances.
Thursday, November 28th:
Breakfast at this place was the best so far. Mary was very sweet; she cooked and served for me and another gentleman who worked in town, Dave. The only thing that was a bit overcooked was the black pudding. The white pudding was soft and juicy and delicious, but the black pudding was closer to a hockey puck. Still tasty, but it required a good dose of egg yolk to be able to chew and swallow it.
The Plan: Dún Briste, Céide Fields, Achill Island, Croagh Patrick
This morning I was headed to the north of the peninsula. First stop was Dún Briste and Céide Fields, and then to explore Achill Island. First, however, I had noted that my camera memory cards were filling up fast (mostly due to some film recording I did of the performances last night at Matt Molloy’s). I decided to check the Pharmacy to see if I could get one card burned to DVD while I was out and about. I dropped it off (after waiting for the clerk to arrive late), and took off.
I headed due north, for Downpatrick Head, also known as Dún Briste. I set the GPS for Ballycastle, and drove through manicured farms and lovely homesteads. North and north, until I saw the coast. I found the sea stack, but couldn’t quite get to a spot that I could take a good photo of it. I could be ON the headland, but the angle was a bit wrong. That’s alright, there were plenty of other cliffs to photograph, and I sat enjoying the sea spray and sights before I moved on. The cliffs and beaches were stunning, of course.
I found Céide Fields nearby, a Neolithic farming area, but it was closed for the season, unfortunately. But there were more cliff views along the coast, and I enjoyed my drive despite the disappointment.
I headed back south, to Achill Island. That was my main goal for the day. I had visited before, and explored the island a little bit, but I meant to do more today. It probably took a bit longer than it should have to get there, as I was behind an industrial truck for six miles in a no-pass zone. The landscape started changing, moving from cultivated fields to peaty hills again, swamp and lake more common than farms and fences.
Last time I had explored the island, I had started on the right along the Atlantic Drive. This time I started on the left for variety. My first stop was Kildavnet, which has a lovely, lonely square keep tower where Grainne O’Mhaile once lived. She is Ireland’s Pirate Queen, and lived during Queen Elizabeth I’s time. She mostly lived on Clare Island and different places around Clew Bay, such as this one.
The keep is just on the water, with some reedy bits surrounding it, but it was well locked from intruders, so I satisfied myself with some photographs and a brief exploration of the area.
On the way in, I came across a sign for Achill’s Secret Garden. Thinking about the Celtic Prayer Garden, I stopped for a look. There was a walk down a driveway, and a lovely ornamental garden with a few sculptures. It was small, but lovely. However, I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was trespassing, so I left rather quickly.
Then I made my way up the coast to what I knew would be the highlight of the day. Hopefully not the only one, but certainly up there… Ashleam Bay.
Atop a tall headland, you can look down into the ocean below and see the waves shatter against the ragged rocks, sweep into the sandy beach inlet, and marvel at the beauty. There are several small white houses along the curve of the green land beyond the beach. Indeed, I had taken some language classes in Pittsburgh, and the teacher said he grew up in one of those houses, when I showed him the photo. They were mostly modern construction, with occasional ruined stone huts here and there for flavor.
The headland itself was covered in grass with a large parking lot. There was a small jitney bus, with no one in it, parked in the lot, no one else was around. I saw another one not far away, at another stop. Were they just randomly left there?
I sat there for a good while. The sun was playful again, dipping in and out of clouds, throwing sunbeams left and right, shining and sparkling on the water. This is another spot, like Sliabh Liag Cliffs, where I could have stayed forever. It was peaceful, powerful, invigorating, and relaxing, all at the same time. I wanted nothing more than to build a small cottage here and live the rest of my days, doing crafts and watching the silvery ocean do its best to batter the black rocks below.
I followed the road down, and found a brown sign for Minuan Scenic Drive. Up, and up and up the mountain road I went. Into the misty cloud that sat on top of the mountain. Eventually I saw nothing. Nothing at all… except for the road that stopped at a fence, and what looked like an industrial communication tower or something on the other side. Ah well… turn around and go back. As the mists started to thin on my journey down, I noticed the spectacular view I could have had, still too white to have shown up in any photo, of the towns and coastline on the other side of the mountain. Ah well! Down and down and down onto the other side of the island. More jitney busses were dotted here and there, empty and abandoned, for all appearances.
I followed the road on some more, and came across another brown sign, for the Famine Village. This was an abandoned ruin I had wanted to explore, so I followed them. I ended up in a town called Dooagh and found some scenic docks. I turned around and found the actual village, as well as a lovely graveyard. The weather was still misty, and everything was rather wet. I didn’t slip on my way up the hill, but my leg went under me as my other leg slipped forward. It didn’t hurt at all, but my side ached a bit afterwards.
I drove some more around at random. I saw the Silver Strand beach and the Golden Strand beach. I found Keel and walked out to the beach there, marveling at the sparkle of the sun working hard to shine through the mottled clouds. I then started making my way back to the mainland, and back to Westport.
On the way back, there was a lake… a still lake, surrounded by the low, brown and gold hills that I remembered from Donegal. It was like a little bit of the wild left here, just for me. I stopped and savored it before I moved on.
I waved at Croagh Patrick on the way back in. I would have liked to stop and explore, but the misty weather kept me from even seeing halfway up the hill at this hour in the evening, and would have done me little good.
Back in Westport, the clerk at the photo booth in the Pharmacy let me know that the card would have taken about 6 DVDs to burn, and cost about E50. Instead, he said, a new 16G card was just E20. I was glad at the cheaper option, and went on my way.
I went to the B&B, recharged myself and my phone, and headed to Cobblers Bar for dinner. This was another of the places on the Octagon that I had scoped out the night before. I ordered the mussels in white wine, which came with delicious soda bread, and my obligatory half pint. They were delicious. And so many of them! The Irish definitely know how to do mussels well. Most pubs seem to offer WiFi now, though some have very poor signal. This one was going in and out too often, so I gave up. Still, when it works, it’s a very useful amenity.
Debe said she’d meet me around 7:30 at Matt Molloy’s tonight, as that was when she was done with her radio show, so I headed off around that time. Elaine was tending bar tonight, Jimmy was not in evidence. I had posted a photo of the mussels I had for dinner, and Jason, back at home, was upset with me for having such delicious seafood without him.
While I was waiting for Debe, I listened a bit to the two guys next to me. They seemed to be speaking Polish, and I remember hearing about a lot of Polish immigrants who had come to Ireland, especially to work in the construction industry. I met an American couple who had just arrived from the airport about an hour earlier, from Chicago, and were very jetlagged.
I decided to retreat to a real chair for a while, to save my back from protestations. I finally saw Debe, and she introduced me to a group of friends – Paul, Derrick, and a couple others whose names I promptly forgot. Paul was a true character. He was from Manchester, and a very close talker. He wasn’t afraid to voice his very strong opinions about just about everything, including religion, conspiracy, business, politics, drink, music, literature. I am sure I shall never forget him! Derrick was much more soft-spoken, and we discussed business, philosophy, and positivity. I then finally met Niamh – what a delightful person! I also met her boyfriend, Tom; they were both adorable.
I brought out my jewelry to show off, and showed some of the photos and digital paintings I had on my phone, and all were duly impressed. I saw Dee, and reintroduced myself. It was a grand night of craic, rounds, and music. Niamh let me know about the group in the big back room, Coda. They were a mostly a capella group, including Declan from the night before. They were fantastic! Beautiful harmonies. I bought their CD, which I think is the only thing I bought for myself on this trip.
I stumbled home, full of fun and joy with new friends.
Friday, November 29th:
The Plan: Connemara, Kylemore Abbey, Cong, Brigit’s Garden, Coole Park, Turoe Stone, Kilconnell Friary, Glasson
I didn’t sleep very well. Perhaps too much cider keeps me from sleeping? I was up at 7, though, and headed for my breakfast. Everything was delicious (including the black pudding being softer, yay!). I reflected that I only had three full days left of my vacation, and felt some regret.
As I had unpacked when I arrived in Westport, I had realized that I was 2 outfits short of having enough clean outfits. I must have miscounted at one point – so I had washed out a couple pairs of underwear and bras to dry on the radiator. The pants and shirts were less of an issue, as I was wearing underarmor each day, so they didn’t get sweaty or dirty. I could deal with re-wearing some of those.
Other reflections: Many people rolled their own cigarettes. When I asked Niamh, she said it was because it was cheaper. I told her of the cigarette-rolling machines at some tobacco stores in the US. I definitely smelled some smoke other than cigarettes outside different pubs – I swear I smelled clove cigarettes, and some wacky tobacky. I also smelled some sweet, incense-like smoke. Camoflauge for other scents? I don’t know.
Mary had the radio on while she served breakfast, and I heard the news announcing local deaths, with mass and funeral arrangements. I’d never heard anything similar on American radio.
Off to Connemara today, and then, to Glasson. It was another long travel day, but the day was turning bright and clear, and I was looking forward to the drive through lovely country of Connemara.
My first stop was to Kylemore Abbey, for the photo opp. I hadn’t gone inside last time, and I really didn’t have to time to do so this time. The parking lot was completely deserted – I don’t even think it was open, though it was early yet. The clouds came in, low and somewhat grim, but there was no rain.
I drove through the hills of Connemara. The lovely, rolling hills, somewhat more populated than those of Donegal, but still wild and sere, golden and yellow. There were blocks of green trees still here and there, and lovely lakes to enjoy, reflecting still and shining in the early morning calm.
Driving along, I had just decided to skip the detour to Cong. I had been there last trip, and the two places I was most interested in were unavailable to visit inside. The White O’Morn Cottage from the movie The Quiet Man lie in ruins, left by the American who owns the site, refusing to restore it. Pat Cohan’s Bar, from the same movie, would be closed this early – and besides, I’d heard that it had been sold from the folks that had restored it.
Just as I made this decision, I saw a brown sign that made me turn – The Quiet Man Bridge. And so it was! I stopped and took plenty of photos of the lovely little creek and its stone bridge, trying hard to get shots without the modern house right next to the one side.
I drove farther along, and found my next spot, Brigit’s Prayer Garden. This place had been recommended to me by John Willmot, of Celtic Ways. John ran a spiritual retreat a bit farther north, and had been very helpful in finding spiritual spots to visit. I am very glad I found this place – it was lovely. AND it was open! Jenny was inside, and gave me the overview. There were four sections of the main garden, one for each of the Celtic Feast Days – Beltaine, Litha, Lughnasad, and Yule. Each one had modern sculpture and traditional sculpture to give the feel of the holiday. There were other areas, such as an Iron Age crannog, a dream circle, a beautiful, still, reedy lake, and a Celtic sundial. I wandered about a good while, and then went inside for some scones and tea at the café.
Back on the road, I started searching for Coole Park and Thoor Ballylee. Coole Park had been a literary retreat, a nature reserve and manor house owned by Lady Gregory. She hosted friends such as George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, John M. Synge and others. Yeats lived nearby in Thoor Ballylee, a square tower keep on a lovely river. Coole had a huge tree, called the Autograph Tree, where many of the famous visitors carved their initials or symbols.
As I approached Coole Park, I saw the dreaded and anticipated brown sign – Thoor Ballylee this way! I followed it down a very small, sort-of paved road, with high hedges on either side, and thick grass growing in the center of the road. However, I eventually followed the signs to the tower keep. It was closed up, of course, but it was lovely. It set on a bridge on a lovely, babbling stream, and the late morning light filtered through the leaves still clinging on the surrounding ivy-clad trees. I experienced a perfectly still moment in time, standing on that river, next to the imposing tower, and thinking of the beauty that had been created there.
I moved on to Coole Park, and went to the office to see if I could find a map. There was a huge manor house, some ornamental gardens, and several tree walks – my main interest was the Autograph Tree. I saw someone in the office, but she just sort of shook her head and ignored me. However, a nice man walking his dog came by and directed me to the right place. I walked through the lovely trees – the autumn colors were strong, and the trees still clung on to their autumn cloaks, despite the chill. There were several people walking about, with dogs, or strollers, enjoying the fairly mild day. I walked by one large enclosure, and saw a herd of deer inside. The antlered buck was alert, but just stared at me, posing while I took several photographs through the fence. The does ignored me, evidently quite used to humans walking by. The buck just stared, making sure I wasn’t doing anything but looking.
I made my way through to the walled garden, and found a lovely formal garden, with the Autograph Tree near the center of one side. I was somewhat disappointed by the fact it was fenced off, but I understood the need. I’m sure others would feel the need to add THEIR initials to the historic signatures that existed on it. I made my way through some more paths to get back to my car. Such a lovely place – I would love to live near here and walk through the woods regularly.
My next goal was Turoe Stone, a carved stone from Neolithic times in the La Tene style. I drove through cultivated farms and rolling hills. I was once again in an area where every square foot was used, a patchwork of domesticity. As I made my way through the town of Turoe, it was a madhouse in the one downtown street. There was some sort of event at the school, so everyone was trying to park at once. I did ask where the stone was, and was told it was at a nearby Pet Farm. Well, no, it wasn’t. When I got to the farm, I was told it had been removed for renovation. The person telling me about this was giving me an entire treatise as to why it had been removed, the process of renovation, when it was supposed to be returned, the fact that they had been hoping to bring in a fake ‘replacement’ stone, but hadn’t since the renovation was going more quickly than they had planned… it was difficult to get a word in edgewise. I needed to move on, as it was getting dark. I wasn’t interested in the brochure he was trying to sell me. I had wanted photos of the stone, and if it was gone, then I couldn’t do that. Please let me just leave…
I made it to my last stop of the day, Kilconnell Friary. I saw it, behind a row of houses and stores, but I saw no entrance. How did I get in? I parked at one point, and just walked along the row of houses, and then I saw it, almost hidden – a small concrete V step stile, allowing someone to walk through a small alley onto the field that held the Friary.
It was worth it to visit this one. While I had been to many ruins before, this one had some lovely curvilinear carvings in the windows, almost organic and very elegant. There were beautiful architectural elements, and some detailed saint carvings. The sun was beginning to dip, and offered some brilliant sunset photographs as it hid behind a strip of shredded cloud.
On to my home for the next three nights, Glasson. This was my only true interior stop of this trip, as I was trying to wean myself of my addiction to the coastline of Ireland. Also, I had some distant ancestry from the area – Dillon and Fitzgeralds, from 400 years ago, lived in the area. I found Glasson, which was about 5 miles north of Athlone, without any difficulty. The B&B was easy to find, and Theresa, the hostess, welcomed me with homemade cookies.
When I asked about dinner options, she recommended The Fatted Calf and Grogan’s in town. ‘Town’ consisted of one downtown street with a couple pubs and stores. She said it was walking distance, so I walked it. She hadn’t lied, but she also hadn’t mentioned that part of this walk was along a rather busy street with no sidewalk. However, that was only a short bit of the walk, and I made it safely to The Fatted Calf.
This was a rather posh attempt at a gastropub. The menu offerings were fancy (and expensive), and I wasn’t all that interested in spending E30 on dinner, so I opted for one of the appetizers – scallops with pulled pork. It sounds like an odd combo, but it was quite good, and filling enough for E14. They also served a fantastic olive tapenade with crusty bread, yum! The waitress also brought a bucket (literally, a metal bucket with a handle!) of skinny fries. The place was quite deserted, and I asked the waitress if there were any pubs around that had decent craic in the evenings. She quite honestly recommended heading into Athlone if I wanted any kind of socialization.
Oh, one thing that did surprise me quite a lot was the graphics on the toilet. Yes, there were drawings or prints or something on each of the toilet seats, as well as the upturned toilet seat covers. Bizarre! The one I had was drawings of a horse laughing over a fence at a jockey in the mud, with little horse vignettes around the toilet seat itself.
I caught up on Facebook and email while I was there, and then I walked back to the B&B, settled in a bit, and decided to go check out Sean’s Bar in Athlone. It had been on my list to visit, as it was reputed to be the oldest pub in Ireland, dating to 900, a claim backed by Guinness World Records.
Athlone is a larger city than I’d been dealing with yet this trip, except for Belfast. The GPS decided that it could find Sean’s Bar, but was horribly wrong. I parked near where it told me to go, and wandered around a bit. However, I could find nothing that looked like Sean’s Bar. I asked a young couple who had their hands filled with Christmas shopping bags – they kindly directed me to the other side of the river, just behind Athlone Castle. I headed back to the car, navigated across, and found parking just near the bar.
Oh, my, this bar was crowded! It wasn’t a large place, and it had some musicians in the front, and perhaps 50 people packed into the two rooms. There were a lot of suited businessmen around, and this was perhaps the smallest (physically) pub I’d yet been in this trip, except for one in Keady. There was no room to sit or stand at the bar, so I made my way to a small table and caught up with my trip notes. The ceiling was decorated with all sorts of sporting equipment – rifles, fishing rods, nets, paddles.
Perhaps my insular, solitary behavior was taking over, but I felt most uncomfortable with this crowd. I didn’t feel like chatting, I wanted to escape the press and the noise. I was in a place that was over 1000 years old, and it wasn’t enough to keep me there. I finished my ½ pint, and made my way, very slowly, out of the pub.
I drove back to Glasson, and decided to try Grogan’s for a pint. This place was also crowded, but was a lot less intimidating. Many people were dressed up very nicely, with sparkling dresses, clutch purses and black suits, but I was able to find a seat at the bar. All of a sudden, it emptied out – evidently most of the crowd had been here for a wedding, and the festivities were due to start soon.
There were still a few people around. A few couples were eating in this room, and there were three more rooms with both tables and bar. There was a tall shelf around the top of the wall with many different sorts and colors of bottles. There was, of course, the typical Old Man in the Bar (Anthony), seated a couple stools over from me.
I have found the midlands to be gentler, with fewer stunning vistas, or at least, fewer high places to view the vistas. There were more trees, perhaps because of less sea wind. I’ve seen more horses, cows and donkeys and fewer herds of sheep. I see more people from other countries here – Indian, Hispanic, Asian, black. It is definitely less homogenous than the west and the north areas had been.
The odors of the food being served in the other rooms came through, and it smelled delicious. I decided I could do with a salad, and ordered a smoked warm bacon and mushroom salad from the varied menu. This place also had a penchant for fancy gastropub menu items, but it wasn’t as dear as The Fatted Calf, and seemed a bit less pretentious. The salad was absolutely delicious. I chatted a bit with the bartenders and Anthony, and then headed back to the B&B, very tired after my long day driving.
I watched a bit of television before I went to sleep. I had strange dreams of roommates who broke the lease, and then invited in nosy, destructive friends to live with us, friends who resembled Penn & Teller.
Saturday, November 30th:
The Plan: Athlone Castle, Moydrum Castle, Portlick Castle, Hill of Uisneach, Belvedere House, Durrow High Cross, Naas for Christy Moore concert at 8pm.
Today was going to be a long one, because I had bought a ticket for the Christy Moore concert in Naas at 8pm, which was about an hour and a half drive from Glasson, so I would be back very late. It was also a day of castles! Theresa served a lovely breakfast, the best yet.
I headed out first to Athlone Castle. Though I had seen it the night before, lit up with lights and dramatic, I was looking forward to some daylight exploration. I arrived too early, of course – it wasn’t open for visitors until 11am, and I would be well away by then, visiting other places. I did get to walk around it, and get some lovely shots of the sun rising over the river, and went on to my next goal, Moydrum Castle.
This castle was nestled in a group of small farms and spindly trees. The ruin itself was blocked off, and evidently being used as some sort of farm shelter. There were a couple horses tethered (yes, tethered) at the ruins, and bales of hay stored in one area. It looked very ramshackle and neglected. The horses were thin, but didn’t look too underfed, and weren’t very shy, so at least that was good.
I moved on to find Portlick Castle. This had been a Dillon castle, and my ancestors had lived there at one point, centuries ago. I did find a lovely bay, and took a delightful forest walk to the edge of Lough Ree. It was a bit marshy here and there, but still well worth it. There were ivy-covered tree trunks and splashes of red and gold with autumn leaves still clinging on. I met an older couple, also walking, and they gave directions to where the castle was.
I found the castle, eventually… well, I found the castle gates, with two lions flanking the heavily padlocked doors. The name Dillon came from the Norman De León, so the lions were understandable. You couldn’t see the castle itself, as there was a long, tree lined drive past the gates. However, the padlocks – and the sign declaring the property for sale – was disappointing. I chatted with an older man who was out walking, and he said that I might be able to find a key from a man in Kilnaver(?) named Nolan, but I decided not to make that most likely fruitless trek.
The Hill of Uisneach, my next stop, was the geographical and spiritual centre of Ireland. I was very much looking forward to this experience as well, and found a lovely, green hill… and the entrance was barred. There was a note that it was private land, and that one could arrange for tours by calling a number. The gate was next to a house, but it didn’t look like anyone was home, and calling the phone number yielded no answer. I hadn’t realized this was a private site, or I would have arranged ahead of time. It’s too bad – this is very much a national heritage spot, as much as, if not more than, the Hill of Tara. I was saddened that I could not experience it.
Across the street I found a rather large graveyard, and I wandered it a bit. I did find several Dillon gravestones there, and felt a little more of a connection to the place.
On to bigger and more accessible places! Belvedere House is a huge estate. It has gardens, both formal and informal, a restored house, and a ruin called The Jealous Wall. There was a very busy café and gift shop, where I stopped for a huge salad with goat’s cheese, roasted pepper and ciabatta bread with pine nuts. There were children running around and screaming in the café, and I was very glad to escape the madness and din for the relative peace of the courtyard.
There was a small petting zoo next to the café, and I took some time to go greet the friendly denizens. Then they complained a bit when a group of children came careening out of the café towards them, with breakneck speed and dubious intentions, and I moved on to The Jealous Wall. This odd ruin was simply a wall, built to block off the view of the owner’s estranged brother’s house, which was built nearby. It is simply a folly, with no true structural purpose.
I wandered a bit and found the manor house, which had a tour path, with no need of a guide. It had restored rooms, such as dining rooms, drawing rooms, etc. It was a lovely place, and I had it mostly to myself. Coming out of the back door, you could see a lovely vista before you, with steps down to the lake and fields, like something out of an 18th century painting.
I walked until I found the walled garden, where I found a greenhouse and some delightful tree-lined squares, with statues and drooping trees. There was a fountain, several benches in spots appropriate for contemplation, and a wee fairy garden.
The fairy garden was a small stream and bridge, with little statues and figurines of fairies, gnomes, and other silly sculptures not very well hidden among the greenery. It was a cute place, but more for children than for me, I think.
I wandered back towards the café, and my car, narrowly avoiding the meandering children that were still infesting the café and the parking lot. I don’t dislike children, but sometimes too many of them can be quite deafening!
I went in search of Durrow High Cross, and found a brown sign. Detour! This sign said Lilliput Park, or Jonathon Swift Park, and it sounded intriguing. When I reached it, it had a lovely lake, but it looked like it was more of an activity park – pitch-n-putt, game fields, an activity centre, etc. There was a team of boys playing soccer, so I took a couple obligatory photos of reeds reflecting in the waters, and moved on.
GPS sent me down what looked like a private lane. I was somewhat skeptical, given its history, and I turned around, and explored the nearby Durrow Roman Catholic church I had just passed, in case the cross was there. There was a wedding going on, and so I left off my explorations of the graveyard, and returned to the private lane. For once, GPS was spot on – this was indeed where I needed to be. I found a brown sign for a holy well to Colmcille, and walked down a rather perilous path. The path itself was only reasonably muddy, but what made it so perilous were the two very angry-looking sides of pot roast staring at me as I passed. The sign said it was electric, but I wasn’t certain these two bulls knew that. They were complete with nose rings, and stared at me quite intently as I walked along their field.
Colmcille’s Well was hidden in a little tree-covered pocket of garden, and looked in relative good repair – someone was maintaining it, while leaving it looking a bit wild. It was old and mossy, but the water was clear and empty of leaves.
Back past the intent black bulls, I went into the small church which held the Durrow Cross. It had originally been inside, but had been moved inside to protect it from the elements, and it was quite spectacular. The carvings are clear and tell stories, and the photographs and explanatory material inside help you to interpret those stories. The graveyard outside was very old, with mossy, slanted stones, tired from having stood straight so many centuries, leaning against the grass for support.
I started heading towards Naas for the night’s concert, by way of Kildare. Along the way, I saw a sign for Monastervin, and thought I remembered something about the place, but I wasn’t certain what. I saw no other brown signs, so passed it up in favor of Kildare. Later research reveals that it has a town high cross, and many bridges, earning it the nickname Venice of Ireland. Ah well, another time!
Near Kildare, I made my way to St. Brigid’s Well. This is a sacred well area near the National Stud Farm. I wouldn’t have minded visiting the Stud Farm and gardens as well, but daylight was beginning to fade, so I satisfied with the well, as I’d been to all of them before. The well is an extensively built up site, with a stone structure around the well, a statue of Brigid (saint and/or goddess), and a huge clootie tree in the back area of the enclosure. I made my wishes, supped of her water, and enjoyed the peace of the place once again.
In Naas, the whole town was setting up for Christmas. There were singers on what looked like the City Hall steps, and the sound was being piped into speakers all along the High Street. Decorations were going up, shoppers were everywhere, and stalls of vendors were set up. There was a lot of traffic, and it crawled through town. I tried to find the hotel where I was supposed to be for the concert. I was early, as I wanted to find it while still a bit light out, but I didn’t see it. I stopped and asked directions, and was told to drive back through town, stay on the road, and it would be there. It was!
Such a beautiful hotel – it was a grand house, and had been a nunnery at one point. Christmas lights were all over the trees out front, and I parked to have a good walk around. I found the area that the concert would be held around back, and then went in search of food. It was still a couple hours until the concert, but was full dark, so I was unwilling to go exploring in town again, with the traffic.
I had encountered another gentleman while walking around, as he was on the same mission as I was. His name was Wilfred, and was here on business from Vancouver with other friends. We both noted the concert venue, and went our separate ways. I went into the Snug Bar, but they served no food. They recommended Jack’s Bar, and I made my way through the byzantine hallways and doors until I found it.
This was a very crowded hotel, and the restaurant was no exception. They were able to get me a table, and I relaxed and enjoyed my shrimp and smoked salmon ciabatta sandwich, with a bowl of potato and leek soup. It was warming and tasty, though I don’t understand the obsession with hard breads and squishy fillings, which almost guarantees that those fillings will squish out of the sandwich when you bite into it. Every sandwich in Ireland seems to be on ciabatta bread these days, unless it is specifically a hamburger.
This was the first time I encountered DCC this trip – Dynamic Currency Conversion. Usually it is not to the traveler’s advantage to be charged in dollars rather than Euros, as they tend to use a high exchange rate. They said it came up automatically in dollars (which may be true, being a hotel) but I wasn’t pleased. However, for such a small charge, I wasn’t going to make a stink. I did tell her it was violating Visa rules to not offer the option, though.
Now, I had to pass the time until the concert began, so I headed back to the relative peace and quiet of the Snug Bar. On the way, I passed by a closed door with a window frosted, except for the edges – and I saw Christy Moore and a couple other people on stage, doing a sound check.
The restaurant had been modern and glitzy, filled with people both sitting and eating as well as standing and drinking. The ceilings were high, the lights were fairly bright, and the staff was a bit snooty. However, the Snug Bar was close and comfortable, with dim lights, wooden furniture, a wee fire, and a friendly bartender. I was the first one in there for a pint, but it got quite full after about a half hour.
The music being piped in, of course, was Christy Moore. The barmen said he was about sick of it, but had been able to see a bit of the concert the night before. He said often the bar staff was allowed in, but this concert they had not been able to. He had snuck in a small peek, though.
About 7pm I wandered into the concert hall, as it was general admission, and snagged an aisle seat, about 15 rows back. There were about 800 people at the concert, and Declan Sinnott played with Christy Moore. Christy was very funny, and chatted with the audience between songs. He told some small stories about the songs, or just in general. He didn’t watch his language either – nor would I expect him to!
The playlist, as far as I was able to note down, (should anyone care) was this:
(I don’t know if these were the names of some of the songs, or just the chorus lines)
Nancy Spain (this one made me cry)
Welcome to the Cabaret
Farmer Michael Hayes
Back Home in Derry
(a song about a dead poet – Coralnie?)
I’m a Bogman (Luka Bloom’s song, his brother)
The Curragh of Kildare
Weekend in Amsterdam (this one was hilarious!)
Joxer goes to Stuttgart
First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
City of Chicago
Black is the Color
Bright Blue Eyes
Lisdoon-lisdoon-lisdoon-lisdoonvarna! (Couldn’t help listing that out!)
Fairy Tale of New York
He sang clear, so powerfully, and put so much emotion and passion into each and every song, I thought he would burst. I greatly enjoyed the concert, and was very glad I came. It was interesting to see folks’ cheering on Fairy Tale of New York – even the couple next to me, probably in their 70s.
It was a long, dark drive home, with a bit of misty rain to accompany my hour and a half long journey, but not too bad. I was still pumped up with the concert, and was happy I had gotten some film of the concert on my camera. I slept well.
Sunday, December 1st:
The Plan: Castlegrange Stone, Clonmacnoise, Clonfert Medieval Church, Birr Castle and Gardens, Leap Castle
Ah, my last full day in Ireland! I am very sad, but also want to make full use of this last, brilliant day of my holiday. I was up just before the alarm, which is good. I still had the ringer turned off from the concert the night before, and I’m not certain the buzzing of a vibrating phone would make it through my earplugs. Regardless, I headed for breakfast, and Theresa surprised me with pancakes in addition to my full Irish. Sweeter and a bit thinner than American pancakes, they were delicious. I did have a nostalgic thought for the candied ginger that I had gotten with Scottish Pancakes on my trip to the Isle of Skye, and our stay at the Lodge at Edinbane…
First, I gassed up the car and went on to my first stop, the Castlegrange Stone. This was another Neolithic carved stone in the La Tene style, like the missing Turoe Stone. This one, however, was in place. It was on a small farm, with a bit of a clearing around it, tucked into the side of a country road, and was beautiful. The La Tene style of carving is very elegant, curvilinear and flowing, a precursor to the more well-known Celtic knotwork. The culture started in Halstatt around 800 BCE, and is considered the beginning of the Celtic culture. This stone was created around 200 BCE.
I saw a brown sign for The Windmill, and tried to chase it – but it blew away, evidently. I couldn’t find any further signs. Then I saw one for The Ancient Cemetery, and I parked to walk along the path it indicated – but it was padlocked up tight. I saw the path, along two fields, but it was surrounded by trees, and I couldn’t see what was on the end. Another brown sign promised St. Patrick’s Holy Well, but once again, it was locked up with not just a padlock, but barbed wire as well.
So, brown sign attempts all being stymied, I headed towards Clonmacnoise, a huge medieval abbey on the river Shannon. I’d been here before, among crowds of June tourists. On the way, I saw some Percheron horses, and what looked like llamas. Perhaps they were alpacas? I’m not certain.
I got to Clonmacnoise around 11am. There was a group of five Italians, and about3 other people there. I stayed to watch the small film on the history of the place, and when I left, no one was outside exploring the site, so I had it completely to myself. The wind was low and the sun was bright, and I greatly enjoyed it. There was some construction going on nearby – the peace was occasionally shattered by some machine and perhaps a jackhammer – but the huge flock of crows wasn’t bothered. They were my only company, and contemplated my movements with a great deal of interest. I got many wonderfully gothic photographs of them standing on or flying around the gravestones. Shortly thereafter, a flock of geese came honking by, disturbing the crows and the sky was a cacophony of caws and honks.
I moved myself on to Clonfert Cathedral, but saw the sign for Birr first, so I went there instead, intending to find Clonfert on my way back. Birr was a lovely stop! While the house itself was not open for exploration, the grounds and gardens were. While I passed the gate for the house, you could see it, an impressive edifice. There was a car out front, and a man in a suit with some shopping bags going into the house. The flag was up on the flag pole, so the family was in residence. It is home to the family of the 7th Earl of Rosse.
Even for winter, the grounds were lovely. There was a river, and I followed the signs for the waterfall. I would love to see this place in full view, but even in the winter it was sublime. The path for the waterfall was a bit narrow, and ended at a bridge to a part of the house that seemed to be overgrown, crumbling, and in disrepair. Still, I enjoyed the leaping river and waterfall hum.
I walked a bit farther along, and found a huge structure in the center of a relatively clear place, in the center of the grounds. This was a 1840s/Victorian-era telescope, and it was huge! Gears and levers and all sorts of interesting mechanical bits festooned this creation.
I kept walking, and came across the Millenium Gardens – an area that was originally started in the turn of the 20th century, though the Earl who started them never saw them to completion. There are beautiful cloister-style tree tunnels around two large courtyard areas. There is a glass house in the Pergola Garden. While the flowers weren’t blooming, different colors of stalks and ferns lent a lovely variety to the area. There was an odd set of face sculptures in one area, and a globe sculpture in front of what looked like a hobbit hole. Also, there were incredibly tall 300-year-old box hedges, according to Guinness, the tallest hedge in the world.
It was with some reluctance that I left these gardens. They were lovely. The sunlight filtered in through the trees and hedges, green and gold. I had the gardens to myself, though others were walking elsewhere on the grounds.
I went in search of Leap Castle. This is, supposedly, the most haunted castle in Ireland. I drove to the town of Roscrea and searched for brown signs, but found none. Instead, I asked a couple out walking their dogs, and they directed me pretty well through town, down a road, and turn left here… I found it, which surprised me completely. I had no idea at the time if it was the RIGHT castle. There were no signs or indications. The front gate was open, so I parked the car and walked down the drive. The castle is behind a wall, down a driveway, and on the side of a hill. When I got to the castle, I saw that there was serious renovation going on – a couple trucks with boards and masonry were parked out front, ladders were evident, and tarps. Obviously it was not open, and I had not expected it to be. I took some photos, made a quick check for any wee ghosties that might be poking their heads out of an upstairs window, and went on my way. Looking Leap up later, I verified that I was at the right castle.
I started my way back north to Glasson, and hoping to find Clonfert on the way back. I set my GPS fairly carelessly, though, and somehow ended up in Turoe again! Argh! I don’t think GPS likes the midlands. Dusk was fast approaching, so I gave up on Clonfert. I did find a Clonfert sign, but it led to no other signs, and when I came to a crossroads, I evidently chose the wrong direction.
I did see a sign for St. Sianan’s Well, and I stopped to see – from what I remember, this saint may have been the origin of the name of the river Shannon, and I was probably somewhere near the Shannon Pot, the starting point of the river. However, this pathway was again padlocked and closed to visitors. I saw two other brown signs for holy wells – one each for St. Patrick and St. Ciaran – but I was disillusioned by this point, and didn’t even bother looking for padlocked gates. Evidently November and December are not months one is permitted to be spiritual.
I arrived in the booming metropolis that is downtown Glasson by dark, and chose Grogan’s for dinner. It was a very busy night, and the place was chock full, even at just 6pm. I had never had goose to eat, and my husband didn’t like it, so when I saw it on the menu, I thought it would make a fitting last dinner in Ireland. It was served in slices with quince sauce, and a nice crusty bit of fat along the top, accompanied by a dish of roasted leeks and carrots. It was delicious, though I think I still like duck better.
I was full and replete, but the pub and restaurant was still so busy. I was seriously considering just going back and vegging on my last night, but I was unwilling to waste my last night in such a way. This pub, though not as posh as The Fatted Calf, was still not as homey as I prefer. It wasn’t someplace that felt like locals would go to much, mostly catering to visitors. I wonder if the midlands was more like this? The coast seemed to be more relaxed.
I finished my dinner, and headed towards the bar itself, but it seemed very full. There wasn’t any place for me to sit and have a pint, and talk to anyone, so I gave it up as a bad job, and went back to my B&B. It was only about 8pm by this time, and I watched some television before going to sleep. I came across a show sort of like So You Think You Can Dance, but all with traditional Irish step-dancing, called The Jig Gig. It was in Irish, so I enjoyed watching it and trying to understand the language. I went to sleep early.
Monday, December 2nd:
The Plan: Glasnevin Cemetery, Airport
This was it, time to travel back home. I had dreamed of leaving my luggage in the rental car, so when I woke up, I knew I wouldn’t let that happen. I checked in online and was able to choose a window seat on the north side of the plane for my return flight. If we passed over Greenland when the sky was clear, I wanted to see it.
I was up early, at 6am, made sure everything was packed up, ate a quick breakfast, (which was again very good), and went out the door. The trip back was mostly highway, and still mostly dark when I left. As I drove, a ribbon of sunrise burnt its way through a blanket of clouds. I made it to Glasnevin Cemetery by 10:30am, and decided I had about an hour to wander around. Oh, it was huge! I had no idea it was this large, and I could have spent hours and hours exploring this fascinating place. I had to satisfy myself with a rather quick jaunt around the main part, taking photographs of funereal sculpture like mad, and reluctantly got back to my car, and headed towards the airport.
Driving through Dublin wasn’t bad at all, though I didn’t get into downtown. I made it to the Dan Dooley drop-off point pretty easily, received no problem with the receipt for the two new tires (it was refunded to my card in two days), and was checked out in 10 minutes. The shuttle took me to the airport, and I checked my bag of dirty clothes. I had brought a spare duffel bag with me, for just this purpose, so I wouldn’t have to fit everything into the carry on again, in case I bought things. It also allowed me not to wear the long wool coat – it would now fit into the carry on, and I could wear the lighter fleece jacket.
I went through security, and the tripod once again concerned the agents. I went through security again for US Customs, and they didn’t like it either. The ticket said boarding was at 11:30, even though I had a 1pm flight, because of the time it takes to get through all the screenings. I had made it by noon, and there was no boarding yet. However, there were VERY limited options for food at this point. Basically, just one little café with pre-packaged sandwiches and pressed pannini. Of the five varieties listed, only two were left – tuna salad (which I don’t like in the best of circumstances) and a ploughman’s pickle sandwich, which had cheddar cheese, pickle, and really was rather good, considering.
I finished off my sandwich, and boarded the plane. I watched the movie Pacific Rim, and somewhat enjoyed my lunch of Chicken Tikka. As we passed Greenland, the clouds did indeed clear, and I was able to see (and even get some photos of) the white, sparkling tip of Greenland. I finished off the flight with several episodes of the Game of Thrones.
I was able to collect my bag, without issue (yay!), and search for the shuttle to my car. About five different shuttles came by before the one for extended parking showed up. The driver kindly took me right to my spot, though it was against the rules.
The drive home was uneventful, and as soon as I got home, around midnight, I crashed into bed, my adventure done.
My favorite pubs: Sean Óg’s in Bunbeg, Matt Molloy’s in Westport, Johnny Joe’s in Cushendall.
My favorite B&Bs: Riverside in Cushendall, Teac Campbell in Bunbeg, McCarthy’s Lodge in Westport.
From the above, you can probably tell that Cushendall, Bunbeg and Cushendall were my favorite stops this trip. You would be correct! While each place had spots of indescribable beauty that took my breath away, these three spots had so many more of them, and more than that, a feeling of welcome that I could barely escape, that they felt like home.
My favorite sites: How to choose? I’ll mention some. Tollymore Forest, Glenveagh Park, Bunbeg beach, Achill Island, Brigid’s Prayer Garden, Celtic Prayer Garden, Ballynoe Stone Circle, the Dark Hedges, Ards Peninsula, Mussendun Temple, Banba’s Head, Tullynally Castle Gardens, Monasterboice, Birr Castle Gardens, and so many more.
I didn’t shop much this trip, and didn’t really buy anything for myself except a CD from the group in Westport. I usually bought some jewelry or scarves, but I really didn’t find myself in any gift shops. I had brought some postcards to bring back to friends, and a gift for my friend, Natile, but nothing much else.
I love Ireland so much, my heart is breaking at this point, just thinking about the fact that I had to leave my soul’s home, mo anam bhaile, tomorrow. It wasn’t just the people, the sites, the history, or the land, it was all of these. It is a land of strength and perseverance, a land of friends and joy, sorrow and pain. It is infused with this mixture like an ever-present incense in the peat smoke, nestled on the hills and in the valleys.
Someday, I vow, I will live in this land. Until then, I shall keep it alive in my memory with my reports and my photographs. Thank you for journeying along with me.