Beyond the Blarney
The Ireland you dream about still exists--the pubs, the people, the wild green yonder. Reid Bramblett goes exploring on the country's friendly western coast.
James Ashe's Pub was exactly what I'd hoped to find on my jet-lagged, hungry first day in Ireland. Outside, the publican leaned against a tractor and chatted with a neighbor in Irish, a singsong Gaelic language that's changed little in 2,500 years. The pub was low and dark inside, with the sweet smell of peat wafting from a glowing fire, and the only other patrons were two creased-face regulars in a corner.
A boy barely in his teens pulled me a perfect pint, stopping the tap at the three-quarters mark and waiting for the creamy head to settle before topping it off. I asked about food, and he apologized. "We only have toasteds." These turned out to be premade ham-and-cheese sandwiches toasted in plastic sleeves--an odd, slightly carcinogenic custom repeated across the land.
This was hardly what I pictured eating when my girlfriend, Frances, and I planned our trip to western Ireland last spring. County Clare offers some of Ireland's best traditional music, and County Kerry is one of the last true Gaeltacht--regions where the Irish language has survived centuries of English domination. But signs of modernity have crept in, and I wasn't altogether happy about it.
We came to Ireland for green fields embroidered with stone walls and scattered with Celtic ruins. We came for cozy B&Bs and afternoon teas. We came for pubs where musicians jam in a corner and we could share good craic (conversation) with the locals jawing in Gaelic and gulping their Guinness. Picking bits of charred plastic out of the grill grooves in a sandwich was not on the agenda. In Ireland, though, things have a way of working out.
A tale of two peninsulas
I'd been looking forward to the famous Ring of Kerry loop road. A scenic drive through Killarney National Park brought us out onto Inveragh Peninsula, and to the seaside hamlet of Sneem and the Bank House B&B. The first thing proprietors Margaret and Noel Harrington did was offer us tea in the parlor. Warmed and settled, we then walked over a stone bridge across the village stream and ducked into the Blue Bull pub. We dug into hearty Irish stew crammed with tender mutton and buttery potatoes and held a "battle of the stouts" taste test, pitting Guinness against Murphy's. (Results inconclusive; more research may be necessary.)
The next day, we scrambled onto Cahergal Fort, an ancient ring of defensive stones capping a hilltop. In the village of Waterville--a string of houses wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and Lough Currane--we stumbled across a lovely lunch at the humble Chédéan Café, where two kind ladies hand-carved us $4 turkey sandwiches, ladled out soup, and generally beamed at the handful of customers from across a countertop piled with scones the size of a baby's head.
But ultimately the Ring of Kerry was a disappointment. It was too developed and not as rugged as I'd imagined. Perhaps the Ring would have been better if we had been able to visit the island of Skellig Michael and its ancient monastery complex. We had stopped in the fishing village of Portmagee and asked at the post office/general store--after politely declining a basket of duck eggs--for a local boatman. The salty captain who was recommended to us just stood in his doorway shaking his head. He mustered all his remaining teeth for a smile and indicated the waters with his stubbly chin. "High seas. Can't go today. Mebbe next week?"
We had much more fun the following day on the Dingle Peninsula, just to the north, a gorgeous patchwork of green fields sloping steeply to the sea and dotted with white sheep and pink wildflowers. The fields hid dozens of little-heralded ancient roadside attractions: the Fahan Group of prehistoric beehive huts, the Iron Age ruins of Dunbeg Fort perched atop a cliff, and Gallarus Oratory, a tiny, seventh-century chapel that resembled nothing so much as an upturned boat keel.
The main town--which, confusingly, is also called Dingle--is a fishing village of 1,500 people living behind tidy rows of colorful facades. For two decades, the tiny fishing fleet has been escorted to the sea each morning by Fungie, Dingle Bay's resident dolphin. Dingle also bursts with some 50 pubs, and we did our darndest to sample as many as possible in one night, including throwbacks such as Dick Mack's (half bar, half shoe store) and Foxy John's (bar/hardware store/bicycle rental). We spent most of our evening, though, at An Droichead Beag, clapping along to the traditional music and briefly boogying alongside Dingle's young and beautiful in the disco upstairs.
Rough seas, thick sweaters
We should have taken that crusty sailor's "high seas" comment as a warning. Two days after leaving County Kerry, I was downing Dramamine and shutting my eyes tight against the pitch and roll of a ferry loaded down with potatoes, carrots, and green-faced groups of schoolgirls and French tourists. As more and more passengers dashed for the bathrooms or leaned over the rails, I regretted--for the only time on the trip--the full Irish breakfasts I was cheerfully indulging in each morning. They're a cholesterol-fest of thick back bacon, fried eggs, fried black (blood) and white (don't ask) puddings, brown bread slathered with preserves, hot buttered porridge, fried potatoes, and a pot of tea. And half a tomato. The Irish put half a tomato in everything.