It was with a certain amount of pandemic-induced trepidation that I packed my 40-liter backpack for 10 days in Ireland the evening of May 27. In the morning, my partner Mick, our friends Mark and Mary, and I boarded a plane to Chicago, landed at O’Hare, boarded another plane to Dublin. We arrived in Dublin at the crack of dawn on a Sunday, then headed north in a rented Opel Crossland with a manual transmission.
I thought there would be more formality as we crossed the border into Northern Ireland. Our first clue that we were now in the United Kingdom was a Union Jack flying in the stiff breeze near a building that my jet-lagged brain filed under petrol station. That may be incorrect. Our second clue was the change in the speed limit number. We had been traveling at 120 kilometers per hour. Suddenly, we were directed to travel at no more than 60 miles per hour. Our rental car’s speedometer showed only kilometers.
Portrush is the town my friend Oonah once lived in as a young adult. I was unprepared for the big Ferris wheel by the beach and the famous royal golf course. In my mind, there had only been the beach at the top of Northern Ireland. Our B&B was run by a couple named Sam and Tim. They were delighted to answer our questions about local attractions.
Portrush was the base from which we saw the otherworldly basalt formations that are the Giant’s Causeway, ordered a flight of whiskey at Bushmills Distillery, strolled among the Dark Hedges, decided not to cross the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede, looked down on the remains of Kinbane Castle from a long stair-laden path. We acquainted ourselves with the narrow roads we’d be on for so much of our trip, roads on which a manual transmission was a gift.
Our last stop in Northern Ireland was at the Fairy Bridges in County Donegal. No. I’m wrong. County Donegal is not in Northern Ireland. The Fairy Bridges are not in Northern Ireland. We crossed the border at Derry (Londonderry to some). The fairies paid us no mind, but they know that the Fairy Bridges are further north than much of Northern Ireland itself. Borders are slippery, irregular things.
Old cemeteries invite contemplation. Just before we got to Sligo, the four of us stepped delicately around a cemetery outside an abandoned church. The cemetery held a fresh grave in spite of the church’s disuse. A baby kestrel greeted us with rumpled fuzzy feathers and bright eyes as we rounded one side of the church. We looked at headstone after headstone, searching for a surname that was in Mark’s family tree. He found it, took a photo, paused for a moment.
There was no one else in the graveyard until just before we left. A middle-aged woman came through the weathered iron gate, stood with head bowed before a newer grave. We kept our distance.
From there, we drove to W.B. Yeats’ grave. That cemetery was, of course, well-tended for the tourists. I preferred the other one with all its crumbling old stones and weeds. After that, we’d had enough of death and remembrance for one day. On to Sligo, to clean rooms, a pub.
There’s an old-school bar-restaurant in downtown Sligo called Walker’s. We found it in the rain on a Tuesday night after the restaurant recommended by our hotel bartender turned out to be closed. It wasn’t too crowded, one of our deciding factors for dinner spots on this whole pandemic-affected trip. In fact, it was perfect. Dark wood, a long bar, small tables. Wood-framed windows looking out on the rain-slicked street. A charcuterie board for the four of us, a shared burger for Mick and me, some wine, some beer. We took our time. There was nowhere else we had to be.
After Sligo, we navigated narrow, shoulderless roads to Connemara National Park. An unconcerned sheep stepped out in front of Mick as he sped along, causing all of us to perk up a little more. We later learned the sheep like to lay in the road because the asphalt is warm.
The park had several walking paths from which to choose, all color-coordinated to indicate level of difficulty: yellow, blue, red. We chose blue, walked beneath great swaths of bright Irish sky, gazed at low mountains, laughed at a playful foal and a fuzzy lamb. We tsked over someone who let their dog run loose in spite of postings not to do so for the sake of the sheep. The park cafe beckoned when our walk was complete.
From there, we drove on to Clifden and Abbyglen Castle, where Mick nearly met a car head-on as it barreled up the skinny driveway toward us. He backed up in a hurry, jamming the transmission into reverse and spitting gravel around a sharp uphill corner, then tried again once the car was gone.
A night in a castle. Throne-like chairs in the entryway for photo ops. A champagne reception in the main floor piano bar/pub. A delicious dinner in the upstairs dining room where we waved away the person who tried to put an American flag on our table; we just wanted to be fellow travelers. A post-dinner stroll into the center of Clifden, a town known for the first transatlantic radio signal transmission and the first successful transatlantic flight landing. That the flight landed in a bog does not diminish its importance. We found a pub and listened to two guys with guitars play popular songs while we sipped our pints. Back at the castle, the piano bar morphed into a late-night disco. We chose the quiet of our rooms, that quiet being relative. Castles, it turns out, aren’t entirely soundproof.
Galway wasn’t far from Clifden. We took our time, bought small gifts in Clifden before we left. Drove the nearby Sky Road, gazed over the sea, found some friendly horses. One of the horses nibbled on Mary’s hand.
The hotel at Galway was huge, a conference center. It was my turn to drive that day. The GPS directed me right past the hotel and into a nearby neighborhood. Once I parked the car in the hotel parking lot, I didn’t drive it again for two days. Taxis were plentiful and it wasn’t that far to just walk into the area near the Spanish Arch in the old part of Galway.
We took a walking tour, one that we thought began at noon. At 11 a.m., we stood in front of the pub where the tour participants were supposed to meet up, discussing whether this was the correct spot when man named Brian came up and asked if we were waiting for the Horrible History Tour. He directed us to a man named Gary by the fountain across the park and said Gary would take us starting in a few minutes. Gary, it turned out, had studied history quite a lot and was willing to talk and talk and talk while we walked. Had we been on time, we would have missed it all.
Galway’s pubs are charming, music-filled places. There were patios situated outside open windows, so we heard musicians without having to stand shoulder-to-shoulder inside the pub. Pre-pandemic, we would have been in the midst of all those shoulders without a second thought.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to be in a crowded place again. But I’m quite sure I’m not the only one.
The Cliffs of Moher are among the top attractions in Ireland. We left Galway on a Saturday morning, drove winding roads through The Burren, arrived at the Cliffs early enough that the parking area was not yet filled with tour busses. The wind whipped our clothes and hair, scoured our cheeks. Everywhere we looked, we found photo-worthy views.
The last time I was at the Cliffs was in 2005. The year my father died. My daughter Abby, almost 11 years old at the time, traveled with us. And here I was again, no daughter with me, but a granddaughter back home in Minnesota who is the age Abby was. I wondered how Camille would like this wild beauty that defines the west coast of Ireland. I was surprised to have made it back to see it a second time.
We returned the rental car as soon as we got back to Dublin, found a taxi to our rooms at the Clayton Hotel in the Ballsbridge area. As we approached it, I thought it looked like another castle. It’s what I would call a grand hotel, elegant and stately and old. There were rugby players all over the place; we’d arrived on the day of some important game. The following day there was a women’s half-marathon. It rained. We toured the Guinness Storehouse, stayed relatively dry.
Dublin’s noise and traffic were a bit jarring after the west coast. But we stopped in several pubs, admired the dark wood bars and plank floors they all seemed to have. We went to Trinity College, looked at the Book of Kells, visited the Long Room in the Old Library Building. We wore out the soles of our shoes walking, walking, walking.
And then it was time to go home.
I always feel a little thrill when I get my first glimpse of Minnesota from the window of an airplane coming into the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. This time, my feelings were mixed. Ten days out of the country, with limited attention to US news, was a much-needed tonic. As the plane descended, I thought about what it was that we were returning home to: a violent country with much division, with too many guns and too much money in too few hands.
But my children are here. My grandchildren. My friends. Mick and I have a home here. Much as I would like to live elsewhere, this is where I’m rooted.
Travel is a great teacher. I’ve been shown again and again that there are a lot of ways to live on this earth, a lot of choices we can make for the good of all. Now that I am back home, I’ll see what lessons I can glean from this latest trip, figure out how to apply what I’ve learned, and what bit of Irish beauty I’ve brought back with me.