Beyond the Blarney

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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.

The ferry causing so much suffering was bound for Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, a chain famous for its sweaters--wide braids of wool woven thickly together to keep out the chill of the North Atlantic. Even the hardy islanders admitted, once we hit land, that the crossing was "pretty rough."

The Man of Aran, our B&B, was a whitewashed, thatched-roof  cottage behind a lush garden of flowers. In the yard sat the tar-black oblong of an upside-down currach (traditional Aran canoe). It looked like something out of a movie, and it was. The house was built in the 1930s to film Man of Aran and is now run as a B&B by islander Maura Wolfe and her husband, Joe.

We had neglected to reserve bikes when booking, so we spent two hours walking along the shore road back to the main town, praying for the rain to hold off. It was beautiful--in that eerie, isolated way of islands--and we passed more seals, up on the shoals to catch the odd ray of sunlight, than we did people.

Once in town, we warmed up at the dockside American Bar and discussed our dilemma: Dusk was falling, the minibus taxis that had met our ferry that morning were now gone, and we had to be back at the B&B for dinner in an hour. A man at the end of the bar overheard us, hoisted a half-full glass--clearly not his first--and said, "I'll take ye!" He paused and reconsidered. "As soon as I've finished this pint."

The road was one lane wide, and our benefactor weaved about at frightening speeds, focusing most of his concentration on conversation. He told us he loved Yanks and was in fact a U.S. citizen himself, by dint of having done five years in our navy, in which he enlisted after getting into "a wee bit of trouble" in Philadelphia. He had planned to stay Stateside but came back to Aran for a visit, fell in love, and married--a union that lasted 30 years, until his wife got cancer two years ago. Now he drives tourists around the island in a red minibus and drinks in the American Bar.

Behind the music

County Clare is known for the undulating Cliffs of Moher, rising 754 feet from the sea, but it's also the epicenter of traditional Irish music. Clare's capital is Ennis, a tiny medieval city that had once been described to me by a drunk man in a Dublin bar. "Ennis is brilliant!" he said, smiling sloppily. "They've more pubs than people there!"

I'd timed our trip to end in Ennis at the close of the Fleadh Nua, a traditional music festival that had been the highlight of my first trip to Ireland seven years ago. I'll never forget the great musicians--from adolescent accordion players to octogenarian Gaelic singers, performing onstage and in the pubs--or the tales of seanchai (storyteller) Eddie Lenihan, a twinkle-eyed elf of wildly gesticulating limbs, a thick brogue, and crazy auburn whiskers. I learned to dance some céilí sets (the complex Irish predecessor to square dancing) and took a group lesson on how to beat my brand-new bodhran, a two-foot-wide goatskin drum. The teacher, a beefy-armed man named Mossie Griffin, showed us how to hold the bone (an eight-inch dowel with bulbous ends) and strike it back and forth across the drum skin to get the traditional treble beat. Then he tucked his drum between an arm and his ample belly and explained how he had learned to play: from drumless old men who downed a pint per song and kept the beat by rattling off scat strings of "deedle-aye-da-diddly-aye-da-doh."

Well, that was seven years ago, and I should have known better than to try to re-create a favorite old trip. Poor planning got us to Ennis one hour after the Fleadh's closing ceremonies. Luckily, Custy's came to the rescue. This tiny shop--crowded with instruments, sheet music, and recordings, the strangled strains of a flute lesson drifting from a back room--is one of Ireland's traditional-music meccas. The clerk rattled off a short list of the best sessions in local pubs as he popped in CDs to help me figure out what to buy.

That's how we ended up at Cruise's. We arrived early enough for some pub grub, and I was actually a bit disappointed that toasteds weren't on the menu. (They had grown on me.) When we heard the strains of a violin from near the door, we elbowed our way to the sidelines of the session breaking out. Anytime two or more musicians end up in a pub, you've got a session--an informal jam at a corner table, the players taking a break between each song to drain their pints.

The session was being led by a fiddler in her early 20s who was weaving melodies into jigs, reels, and slow airs aided by an impromptu band of button accordion, banjo, flute, guitar, and squeeze box. The rhythm section consisted of a 15-year-old with an "L" sticker (the learner's permit for Irish drivers) slapped onto his bodhran and a craggy guy who must have been in his 80s. A cigarette dangled from his lips, and he tapped a pair of time-bitten drumsticks, first on a block of wood, then on his half-empty glass of Guinness. Sometimes, though, the tapping just didn't do a song justice, and he'd put down the sticks and break out with a "deedle-aye-da-diddly-aye-da-doh."

I thought of Mossie, and wondered who I could see about getting the old-timer another pint. The song was ending, and his glass was almost empty.

Western Ireland

Food

  • James Ashe's  011-353/66-713-0133
  • Chédéan Café Waterville, 011-353/66-947-4966
  • Cruise's Abbey St., Ennis, 011-353/65-684-1800
  • Foxy John's Main St., Dingle, 011-353/66-915-1316
  • The Blue Bull Sneem, 011-353/64-45-382
  • An Droichead Beag Main St., Dingle, 011-353/66-915-1723
  • Dick Mack's Green St., Dingle, 011-353/ 66-915-1960
  • American Bar Kilronan, Inishmore, 011-353/996-1130
  • Walsh's Main St., Dingle, 011-353/66-915-1147, iol.ie/~walshtownhouse, $88
  • Bank HouseSneem, 011-353/64-45-226, sneem.com/bankhouse.html, $75
  • Man of Aran Kilmurvey, Inishmore, 011-353/99-61-301, manofarancottage.com/, $88
  • Fahan Group beehive huts Slea Head Rd., Dingle, $2.50
  • Dunbeg Fort Slea Head Rd., Dingle, $2.50
  • Gallarus Oratory Ballydavid, 011-353/66-915-5333, $3.15
  • Fleadh Nua Ennis, fleadhnua.com
  • Custy's Traditional Music Shop Francis St., Ennis, 011-353/ 65-682-1727, custysmusic.com
  • Dan Dooley Car Rentals 800/331-9301, dandooley.com
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