with Steve McCarthy
We schlepped our bags from the ferry in Dublin, hailed a cab to the airport and picked up our new rental car. Remember, we had to drop the UK registered car in Holyhead or incur a £1000 charge! What a racket!. We made a mistake and opted for a nicer, larger car. From our experiences in Scotland, we should have known better. The Opel was more comfy, but proved to be a liability at times. Here's a tip, always rent something small.
Anyway, we headed west, not sure where we'd stop, figuring we'd let St. Serendipity guide us. It was getting on to the later afternoon, and we just asked Sean the Less-Than-Reliable for a place to stay. He sent us to Mullingar and the Mullingar Park Hotel. Looked a bit fancy, but we were tired. turned out well. Not only a room for under €100, but the bar had the last minutes of the Dublin/Mayo Gaelic Football match for the All-Ireland Championship! Mayo hadn't won since about 1951, so most of Ireland was rooting for them. Dublin dropped back into a "prevent defense" and prevented themselves from winning, giving up the tying point in the closing seconds! Match ended in a tie with a replay match (no sudden death here!) in two weeks time. Sadly, we found out when we got back that Mayo didn't have the luck of the Cubbies and lost.
St. Serendipity didn't let us down for dinner. There's a Chinese restaurant in the hotel complex that was FANTASTIC! Place is called "Mr. Wong" and had some of the best Chinese we've ever had. Got to compliment Mr. Wong himself. Remember, we live in SoCal. Some of the best Chinese food in the world is here. We told him this and that his was as good as the best!
The next day, the good saint led us to another great find. Marianne loves checking out the binder most hotels have in every room about local stuff. In it, she found Fore Abbey as a recommended stop. So, off we went. Great ruin of an old abbey and pair of small churches. We got there early, so had the place to ourselves. Not only a neat ruin, but there's a Sacred Well there too. Very peaceful place. We also cruised through Longford. My great-great-great grandfather emigrated to the US from there, escaping the horrors of the Great Hunger. His pregnant wife died in childbirth on the way.
From there, we were off to Clonmacnoise, a much larger monastic site, filled with tourists, but the view of the gently flowing Shannon River made it well worth the side trip. Both of these are well off the beaten track and required some deft driving on the narrow lanes.
After Clonmacnoise, it was getting towards lunch and since the cafe at the abbey was full of tourists, we headed out. In Shannon Bridge, we found a great old pub/market called Killeen's. A real local. Old guys in a booth solving the problems of the world, good food, good beer. Nothing better!
We then hit Cong. hotels.com found us a B&B called the Dolman, just out of town, and after dropping off our bags, we headed in for a dose of serious tourism. Cong is where John Ford filmed "The Quiet Man," one of our favorite movies. They play up the connection of course. We got there a bit late, but one shop was open so we loaded up on the usual stuff: fridge magnet, calendar, t-shirt. Marianne was jazzed!
We toured through the abbey there, then went for dinner Lydon's Lodge. In Cong, each pub takes it in turn to host the evening's music, and this was the place. It was there we hit on an idea that would help us for the rest of the trip.
We were seated at a table for four and about to order when in comes a couple looking for a table for two. Nothing available. They'd have to wait quite awhile for a seat. I chimed in, offering to share our table with them. Very nice couple from Belfast on holiday. We chatted away at dinner, steering clear of politics and religion and had a great time. I HIGHLY recommend this as a practice! It's VERY un-American, but so much fun, and in fact, stood us in good stead for several more meals down the way.
The next morning, the compliments of our hostess at the B&B ringing in our ears ("I wish all my guests were as easy to please as you two!") we were off for some more sights and the town of Doolin.
First up was The Burren. This part of the west coast of Ireland is amazing. It's a large, no, make the HUGE limestone dome that covers several square miles. From afar, it looks bleak, desolate, and barren. It's not. The stoney ground is carved like jigsaw puzzle pieces and the gaps are filled with small wild flowers. Cattle and sheep graze (watch out, this is open range country!), and there is a remarkable feel to the place. There are two places that are "must see".
First is the Ailwee Cave. Now, neither of us are much for spelunking, but this was pretty cool. The cave was discovered in the 1940s by a local farmer who'd lost his dog. McFido had wandered into the cave and the man, Jack McGann, followed. What he found was astounding. Even more astounding was that he never told anyone about it for some 30 years. In the 70s, the cave was further explored and was developed into a tourist site. It goes back some 3/4 of a mile into the hillside, has remains of giant bear, stalactites and stalagmites, deep caverns, and when they turn out the lights, total, complete, darkness. Impressive to say the least. In addition, they have a Birds of Prey exhibit that is worth the extra euros. Some of the oddest birds form all over, on display and put through their places. Admission also helps bird preservation in Ireland.
Next stop was the Poulnabrone Dolmen. Another spectacular site, well off the beaten path, but a must see. It stands lonely in the midst of the barren Burren and, as all of these are, older than the Pyramids of Egypt! Great limestone slabs support a limestone top that must have taken a couple of barrels of Guinness and three Irishmen several hours to erect.
Our stop for the next three nights was to be the fishing village of Doolin. This became one of the top highlights of our trip. In fact, when we go back to Ireland, I think we'll just stay there for a week or two and do side trips. What a great village. We found lodgings at The Lodge, a good sized, newer place. Up THREE flights of stairs, we had an entire suite to ourselves, complete with kitchen. The staff were great, the breakfast good, and the laundry service reasonable.
It's also an easy walk into town. One of the things we wanted to do was take the ferry to the Aran Islands. We found the tourist shop where tickets were sold, wanting to head over there in the morning. The lady there said to check back the next morning, as the weather was looking bad, and they might not be running. Sure enough, the next day, no chance. Try tomorrow. sigh.
No real problem though, we headed for the Cliffs of Moher, one of the other places we wanted to see in the West. WOW! We got there ahead of most of the tour buses (highly recommended to time things this way) and it was windy and drizzly, and still spectacular. There's a good reason the Cliffs are such an attraction.
That night, we had dinner at Fitzpatrick's Bar. Great mussels in a huge pot, great bread, and of course, Guinness. From there we walked down to McGann's Pub. This was THE discovery of the trip. Our friends from back in our racing days, John and Martha Gianelli (she's the Irish one in that family) strongly recommended McGann's Pub. Boy, were they right!
We got there and the place was jumping. Squeezed up to the bar for pints, then stood around, amazed by the music. Best craic of the trip. There was an uillean piper that was one of the best I'd ever heard. Found out later that the man on flute was Donal Lunney, one of the giants of Irish music! The place was rockin'! And as the infomercial says, "But Wait, There's MORE!"
We went back the next night, early to get dinner (which was great) and got seated towards the back by the woman who seemed to run the place. She could tell we weren't too happy about being away from the music and, after I mentioned that I was a piper myself, asked if we'd mind sharing a table. "Of course not!" She hustled us up to the table next to the musicians, plunked us down, smiling all the while.
About 9:00, she starts setting up mics and such, in comes a young woman with a harp and an older gentleman with a banjo. They play and our hostess sings. Seems she's none other than Geraldine McGowan, former lead singer for the Irish band "Oisin" and someone we'd listened to for years! She's the real deal. Photos of her on the internet with the likes of Sting and Pavarotti no less! By our third night there, we'd been adopted. Geraldine is one of the nicest, sweetest people we'd met in a nation of nice, sweet people. As she was singing, she'd look our way and give us an inquiring thumbs up, which we'd enthusiastically return. Ireland is an amazing place.
The only small fly in the ointment was the stagger back to the hotel. Only a half mile, but in places, dark as the inside of a cow. Marianne was not too happy about it, but using the light on her cell phone as a marker for traffic (all two cars of it) got us safely back. It was good of her to brave it.
So, I'll leave you all here for now. Next time, the trip to Inish Oirr, the Conor Pass, and Dangling in Dingle.