The side of the lorry whizzes past me, only inches from my head, as the wheels on the passenger side of my rental car slog through the road's muddy shoulder. Few would consider it as a lane and a half here in North America, but in Ireland, it is part of typical two-way traffic. In Los Angeles, my experience would inspire all kinds of cursing and road rage, but moments later, my heart rate is back to normal and once again, my jaw drops at the stunning and seemingly never ending beauty of the Irish countryside.
The day before, when approaching Dublin Airport, the first thing I noticed was sheep grazing just off the runway. I could not help but wonder how far one would have to travel from LAX to find grazing sheep. I was relieved that the now economically booming Ireland had not lost any of its bucolic charm.
After picking up my rental car, I headed out to Westport in County Mayo on the West Coast. My mission for this trip was to visit all of the Counties where my ancestors had lived before they came over to America, and Mayo on the North Western corner of the republic was my first stop. The journey began easily on the freeways around Dublin and the inter-county routs, but after several hours, I had to exit the highways for the perilous labyrinthine Irish country roads. The sun was setting, and I would soon learn the one thing I tell all of my friends and family when they are going to Ireland. DON'T DRIVE AT NIGHT!!!!!! It is not that there is any danger from rogue Celtic bandits or raiding Viking hordes. Driving in Ireland is just near impossible to navigate at night. I got hopelessly lost and drove for hours in the wrong direction.
By the time I had finally made it to Westport, it was nearly 2 AM. They were not answering the door at the hostel where I had planned to stay, or at any of the other hotels in town, so I ended up sleeping in the rental car. As uncomfortable as it was, this ended up being a blessing in disguise as I was awake at dawn. Westport and the surrounding Clew Bay are magical in the early morning light. The clouds in the sky reflected off the glassy bay. The barren peak of Crough Patrick, the mountain where the barefoot and naked Saint Patrick fasted for forty days had his legendary vision of a civilized Christian Ireland, towers over the area.
The National Famine Monument is at the mountain's base. Sculpted by John Behan, It depicts a giant bronze "coffin ship" strewn with gruesome abstract skeletons. It is appropriate that the Monument is in Mayo as the area was hard hit by the famine losing almost 30% of its population to starvation or emigration. My Grandma whose family hails from Mayo recounts that when she asked anybody from her old neighborhood about Mayo they would say, "Conny Mayo, God help us!" The macabre nature of the monument in such a tranquil and picturesque location seemed out of place, but I suppose it is a perfect example of Yeats' fitting description of Ireland as "A beautiful terrible place."
From Mayo, I drove along the coast stopping every so often to see the gorgeous landscapes in front of me. I stopped that night in Galway. Galway is a beautiful lively medieval city. I walked along the shops and restaurants of High Street, and then along the bay, breathing in the cool salty air.
The next morning, I took a ferry to Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands. There are several bicycle rental houses right on the dock at Kilronan, and after only a few minutes, I was cruising along the Island on wobbly wheels. Besides its obvious beauty, Inis Mor is also known for its historical sites. I knew that if I pedaled hard enough I could see them all.
The first stop was Clochan Na Carraige. To get to it you have too park your bike and walk down a rough farm road. It is not easy to find. There was a ruined stone building down the way, which to an unknowing tourist appears to be the likely destination. Thankfully, a farmer shifting his cow from one of his pastures to another was there to point me in the right direction. He was gracious and friendly, like everybody else I met in Ireland. I asked him how to get to the ruined structure I saw below, and he said "Och, that thing is just a ruined ald shed," apparently, I was not the first to make the mistake. "What yer looking fer is over there." He pointed off to a rough rock structure over a few pastures. After hopping a few rock walls, feeling slightly like a trespasser, I was there. Clochan Na Carraige is one of the many Monastic "Beehives" built between the 5th and 10th century. The rockwork was amazing. Once inside, I could not help but imagine the solitary monk crouched penitently inside, praying sheltered from the elements centuries ago.
Further along the island I stopped at "Seven Churches," a site where over the centuries seven different churches had been built upon the ruins of their predecessors. The weathered tombstones and the crumbled walls in the green fields with the backdrop of the wild Atlantic create an amazing site. Two tour busses stopped and left in the time that I was hopping around the ruins. The tour guides were informative and charming, but I appreciated having the bike so I could explore the island on my own time.
The island ends on a rocky point. A lighthouse is perched on Rock Island not far off the coast. I sat back and relaxed on the rocks taking it all in. I on my return trip I made a quick stop at Dun Aengus, a stone fort up against the high cliffs on the Island. There is a small admission fee, but it is worth it to see the formidable ancient structure. The sun was beginning to set, so I rode back to the Mainister House Hostel, where I was staying. That night, I was treated to an excellent five-course vegetarian meal in the dining room. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The staff is friendly, the rates are reasonable, and the food is spectacular.
After the ferry back to Galway, it was back in the car. I headed toward Dingle with a couple of stops planned along the way. The first was the Burren, a rocky and barren hill country famous for its wild flowers and archeological sites. I stopped at the Caherconnell Stone Fort; an ancient Celtic fort that they estimate was built around 400AD. Again, there was a small fee to tour the fort, but it is worth it for the history lesson.
From the Buren, I drove to the famous Cliffs of Moher only a short drive away. Towering 700 feet over the Atlantic, it offers spectacular views, and for few Euros, you can climb O'Brien's Tower, a 70-foot lookout on the edge of the cliffs. It was a clear day, and I could see all of Galway Bay and the Aran Islands where I had left just that morning.
Once I left the Cliffs of Moher, I was at the mercy of the treacherous roads of County Clare. The quality ranges from the standard lane and a half Irish country road, to a single lane gravel death trap. I got lost again and ended up driving through some of the small towns two or three times. One of those towns was Lisdoonvarna a town famous for its matchmaking festival. On my third trip through the town, I wondered if the mischievous Irish pagan gods were giving me a subtle hint. Thankfully, all of the roads were colorful and charming, so it was not too much of burden to drive them several times. The buildings lining the roads through the small towns had bright yellow, green, and red painted facades. Along the way, I was caught behind a shepherd moving her flock up the road "“ I'll take the Irish traffic jam over the Los Angeles version any day. I finally got on the right highway and drove through Limmerick and Tralee to Dingle.
Dingle is one of the few popular tourist traps that I have been to that has not lost an ounce of its charm. Lively traditional music fills the pubs at night. And I spent my first night there in the pub with a huge order of fish n' chips and a pint or two.
The next day I drove along the southern coast of the Dingle peninsula. Both "Far and Away" and "Ryan's Daughter" were shot in and around Dingle, and I could see why. It really embodied everything that I imagined Ireland to be: towering emerald green mountains and huge waves crashing against black cliffs. At Commenole Beach there is a small monument commemorating the local filming of "Ryan's Daughter." This anecdote might seem esoteric for most, but as a fan of David Lean and Robert Mitchum, it held ample reverence for me. The Skellig Islands, the western most point of Europe, jutted out of the Ocean to the south and the Blasket Islands shimmer to the west. With soft sand, craggy rocks and clean cool greenish blue water Commenole is the beach you think you can only find in your dreams. A lucky lone surfer had a nice glassy swell all to himself. I finished the day strolling along the cliffs of Brandon Head watching the mighty, frothing Atlantic crash into the cliffs below.
That night I was back to the pub for some live music. A kindly older local gentleman drinking at the bar struck up a conversation with me as I was ordering a pint. "Do you like Snooker?"
I admitted that I had never seen it before. He was a big fan and had come to the pub to watch the world championships. How could I pass up this opportunity? As I drank my pint, I was educated in the art of snooker and even helped cheer along his favorite player. "That was a nice shot." Referring to a shot we had just seen. "Aye, t'was," he replied.
Later that evening as the band was readying, I offered to share my table by the fire with a friendly local family. Somewhat taken with me, one of the older ladies offered me her hand in marriage. "I have several acres with lovely cows." It was a hard offer to pass up. If you like traditional Irish music, it is hard to go wrong in any pub with local musicians. Half way through the set my suitor leaned in. "I have at least a hundred chickens." It was of course all in good fun, but I flattered and couldn't ignore that these people treated me like family, just as the kind snooker fan had treated me as an old friend. The daily busloads of tourists that filter through have done nothing to jade the local's friendly polite manner or charm.
Hard as it was, I had to pass up the dowry and the dream of living the Irish Country life. Of all of the places I visited in Ireland, Dingle was the one that most resembled what I hoped and dreamed Ireland would be, but St. Patrick's Day was near, and I had more places to visit on my Irish journey.
Written and photographed by Jason Fitzpatrick