Under The Spell – A travel tale by Danny O’brien
“The great advantage of having an ancestry like that of a mongrel dog is I have so many ancestral homes to go home to. ” We caught the ferry from Le Havre, France to Ireland, land of my ancestors. Every since I was a wee lad, my mind has been used as a canvas by every Irishman who has been displaced from the Emerald Isle. A picture of quaintness bordering upon myth. Cute I thought it would be, but never as much as the tourist hype I had read. I donned my suit of armor constructed of cynicism, forged by age. Protected thus from the hype, I the ancestral child would see Ireland as it really is.
Mind you, no tourist hype for me. The ship pulled in to Rosslare Harbor near Wexford and lowered its gangplank. I made it most of the way down before I was sucked clean out of my armor into, head over heels, and under the spell of the Emerald Isle. We had arranged for a rental car, to be picked upon arrival at the harbor. I thought perhaps we would be shown how to operate it. Instead the attendant said in his sweet Irish brogue, “It’s the wee red one over there,” and handed me the keys. Still dazed by the sudden entrance in to “The Spell” we sped off in our wee red Ford Fiesta.
Every so many hundred yards along the road signs reminded us to Drive to the left. ” On the open road it was no problem, however moments later in the congestion of Wexford I was near panic, yelling at Travis to help remind me what side of the street I was on. It didn’t help that he often mixes left and right up in his mind, some sort of hereditary functional disorder. I almost broke out in sweat when I had to make my first right turn feeling as though I was going head on into the oncoming traffic. By the time we got through Wexford I was in desperate need to stop for a wee pee.
I saw a small side road and took that hoping to find a secluded spot to relieve myself. I discovered that when you leave the main roads in Ireland you are almost immediately secluded. We stopped in front of an old abandoned barn made of stone with an unusual door shaped like a horseshoe. The earth smelled wet and fresh and was a bit boggy, more so when I departed. It was only a few hundred yards before we learned our first rule of driving in Ireland. One must share the road with all other life forms. In this case a herd of very big fat black and white milk cows.
First in front of us and soon all about us. The rear end of the heard lead cow was in front of the car, walking down the center of the road in a very eisurely manner, lots of large bovine eyes were peering through the side windows. Patience is definitely a virtue when driving in Ireland. Never, never be in a hurry to get anywhere. The roads are almost all narrow and two lanes but the surfaces are quite good and it is a pleasure to drive without feeling separated from your surroundings. Any less separation at this moment and we would have been up to our noses in cowtits.
One of the mysteries of Ireland is how such a small country can be so big. We arrived at Rosslare Harbor at two thirty in the afternoon and managed to drive he total distance of thirty five long miles before seeking shelter for the night in Slieveroe near Waterford. The whole of Ireland is ninety miles across by one hundred miles long, yet the thought of driving across Ireland in one day would be unthinkable. We would contemplate driving on to another location only to decide that it would be too long a journey for one day, then check the map to discover that our destination was the huge distance of fifty four miles.
A great part of the mystery was solved when we realized that the purchase of the wonderful Michelin No. 405 map of Ireland contributed to this illusion. The map scale is 1 inch equals 6. 30 miles. A map of California at this scale would be over eleven feet long. Our wee map of Ireland was only four and a half by three feet, perfect to unfold in our wee red Ford Fiesta. There was barely a cow path in the whole of Ireland that did not exist on this map. Fortunately neither one of us are one of those people who can’t fold up a map. Neither could we unfold it the car. The map became part of the adventure.
Suddenly there seemed to be an infinite number of roads to take. Some roads we soon dis-covered would slowly diminish in size and driving surface until we ould find ourselves wedged between two stone walls on little more than a dirt path wondering how and if we could ever turn around. Eventually and miraculously, we came to a break in the walls just large enough to get the car turned around, with me inside the car screeching out for directions like a trapped wild bird, and Travis outside the car frantically waving directions, none of which I could decipher or see. We had no choice but to go back the way we came. Travis’ propensity, i. e. atural inclination, for always taking a different return route was unsatisfied. He was not amused. Nor is he presently amused by my description f his abilities at hand signaling. I am compelled as a seeker of truth, mind you, certainly not for our mutual amusement, to describe another Irish road story, much to the dismay of the Irish Tourist Board and Ministry of Roads. It was another typical Irish day, soft rain falling. While driving on a rather nice road I saw what appeared to be nothing more than a large shallow puddle on the road, the kind that are great fun to run through to hear the sound of the water hitting the underside of the car.
Naturally seeking amusement, I made no attempt to avoid it. The front end of the car dropped suddenly and for the ongest moment I had the feeling we would not come out the other side of this newly discovered monster pothole. The sound of the tire rim striking the other shore of the pothole quickly dispelled this feeling. We stopped and checked for damage, only to find indications that the tire rim had previously experienced such transgressions to its integrity. Later over a cup of tea in a local pub we told our “monster pothole” story to one of the locals, expecting a reply of sympathy about local road conditions.
Without the least hesitation he replied “Now, I hope you didn’t go and disturb he wildlife in it did you? ” Our first, but not last lesson in the sharp wit and tongue of the Irish. After spending the night in a charming B&B in Slieveroe, we headed off in a generally west-ward fashion on N24 to Carrick-on-Suir where with luck we would find and take N25 or R676, same road, south almost to Dungraven where we would go west again on N72 to Cappoquin where, exhausted from the long drive of thirty four and a half miles we stopped for a reward of the best tea and scones we had ever had.
Now for some inexplicable reason N72 became R666 for all the twenty miles to Fermoy where we once again needed to find and take N8 south to outside Cork where N8 ended and became N25 for the last two and a half miles into Cork City. We reached Cork about mid afternoon proud that we have covered almost ninety, as the crow flies sixty five, miles without getting completely lost more than once. One of life’s less forgettable experiences is an Irish road signpost. It is usually a post near an intersection which usually has three or more roads intersecting at the same point.
On this post are a multitude of narrow long boards pointed at one end and pointing in every conceivable direction. In whatever language the local population accept as politically correct in that region is the name of another town or village that is in the general direction from that intersection. I say general direction, it may or may not be on the road that the sign points toward. Theoretically there will be a sign further down that road that points in the new general direction where that village may exist. Sometimes, but most times not.
Sometimes there are miles indicated, sometimes not. It is a foregone conclusion that if you drive in Ireland you will experience adventure. It is a foregone conclusion you will get lost. You will almost love every minute of it. LOST IN CORK Once in the city center we found a large open parking lot, which one is supposed to somehow pay to park in. We did not know how to pay or where to pay, only that we saw some kind of parking tags with holes punched out for the hours you were allowed to park. These were placed on the dash boards of the parked cars.
After much debate and finally asking a stranger he informed us we needed to purchase a parking tag at a local tobacco stand, and after finding one we did. Now very legal and proper for the next two hours of our existence we set off to explore Cork. For Travis exploring Cork meant the shortest distance to the closest book store or music store. There were no particular sights we had planned to see in Cork so together we set off for the book stores. Before we knew it our legal existence was coming to an end. The City of Cork wanted its ransom.
Travis had not covered every book and music store in Cork yet so I volunteered to go back and take care of the parking ransom and meet him at the car. As much as you love and care for someone there are times after traveling closely for extended periods that it is great to be off alone to explore on one’s own. With a sense of freedom I headed back toward the parking lot, having some parking time left, I browsed here and there along the street until the time was almost up. I turned to head back to the parking lot, nothing looked familiar. I realized a horrible truth, I was completely lost.
Lost in Cork, lost from Travis, lost from the car, lost thousands of miles from home, completely lost. Alone! I spun around in panic, nothing looked familiar anymore, I spun around again, nothing looked familiar again. I wanted my Mama. Suddenly I heard laughing behind me. It was Travis, he was headed back to the car and saw me there rushing own the street in the wrong……… ……. direction, eyes open wide, panic stricken, looking like a lost dog searching for his master. I was so relieved at being found that his amusement at my expense was quickly forgiven . My desire for freedom greatly diminished also.
Now and then for the rest of the trip I would hear him chuckling to himself as we drove along, and when probed as to about what. After an interminable pause he would admit that he was remembering the look on my face, lost and frightened in Cork. Right then I could have used a cork.. from a wine bottle! Ireland does villages and small towns well, however cities are not its forte. We were relieved to get out of the congestion of Cork and back on the road to Clonakilty. We had passed through Inishannon traveling on N71 when beside the road ahead stood a young local lad with his arm outstretched, hitching for a ride.
We being from the land of violence and crime and wary of all strangers particularity hitchhiking strangers hesitated, then realizing we were in Ireland, stopped just in time to give him a lift. Suddenly relieved to be temporarily free from the paranoia and constant vigil for one’s safety. Here to give a stranger a ride seemed quite the normal thing to do. No one is a stranger for long in the Irish country-side. He looked to be in his mid teens, a handsome reddish blond boy, bright and fair with just enough of his childhood freckles left to add boyish charm.
The harsh Irish weather and life appeared not to have taken its toll yet…. So we thought. He was in good spirits and quickly we struck up a conversation. At first the polite formalities of name and where we all came from. That out of the way, he excitedly informed us that he had just got the results of his national school ests. These tests are given to all school children in Ireland to determine if they qualify for advanced education, if not its back to the farm or factory. Proudly he told us he had just learned that he had passed his exam. We congratulated him and wished him well for his future.
The word future fell heavy upon the exhilarated mood swiftly killing it. There was silence and his face suddenly took on a look of age well beyond his sixteen years. To break the awkward silence I asked him what occupation he planned to pursue. With sadness in his voice he spoke, “I would like to go to the university, but ou see, if I want to stay in Ireland it would have little meaning. ” “Why? ” I inquired. “There are few jobs in Ireland now that I could apply an advanced education to, there are simply no jobs. You must leave for England or the States for employment. I want to stay in Ireland. I had read about large electronic firms that had located in Ireland. I asked if they had brought employment.
“Yes at first, but as soon as we want decent wages they leave. ” I understood, and became very sad, very angry. It is the way now all over the world. Large multinationals move into countries to take advantage of cheap labor. As soon as the standard of living rises and the local population asks for fair wages they pack up and leave for other third world country. The potato famine is not over yet. Then, Irish food was shipped to England while millions of Irish starved or had to leave their homes and country.
The same wolf now lives in different sheep’s clothing. The mood lightened, too soon his destination arrived. We said our farewells feeling as if we were comrades in arms. One of our “places to stay” books listed a Georgian farmhouse outside of Clonakilty and that seemed appropriately romantic for Ireland. We located it here it was said to be in spite of the Irish road signs. It was set imposingly on a knoll above the town. Georgian farmhouses appear large however it is partially an illusion. Downstairs there are basically two large areas. One for the living room and another for the kitchen and dining.
At each end of the building was a large chimney for the upper and lower floor fireplaces. One fire place for each room in the house. The upstairs had been further divided into four small bedrooms, unfortunately leaving two bedrooms without a fireplace. Each room had a large window which even when closed let in as much cold wind as t kept out. The owners were past their romantic infatuation with the building. They now lived nearby in a modern ranch style house with double glazed windows and central heating. It was for us travelers to endure the cold charm of the older house.
In fairness, the living room was kept reasonably heated for the early evening and definitely had all the charm one would expect. It was full of the family heirlooms. We could not help but wonder how they trusted so many with their unguarded family heirlooms. It was a bit removed from contemporary Ireland yet not enough to be a glaring for-tourist-only trap. After one night in the upstairs bedroom with its quintessential Georgian farmhouse charm and wonderful view of the valley and town we understood why the owners lived in their warm, insulated, and centrally heated house.
That evening, as soon as the last warmth from the fireplace died, the dampness of the Irish mist permeated the house. We retreated under the down comforters seeking refuge from the cold for the night. The next morning the fires were burning again and a large breakfast of eggs, ham and toast was waiting downstairs. The inconvenience of a bit of Irish dampness was quickly forgiven. Particularly since it was a rare sunny day out. This “farm” was also a rest stop for horse drawn caravans. Outside the window we could hear the caravan for hire crowd getting ready to head out on their journeys.
We got into our wee for hire red Ford Fiesta and headed off for Killarney. A rare sunny day in Ireland is a day when the sun is out over a few hours and it doesn’t rain too much. By the time we reached Ballydehob on the Mizen peninsula our thoughts were back to finding the appropriate weather gear for Ireland. The prevailing direction of Ireland’s rain is horizontal, our umbrellas were useless. On the main street of the village of Ballydehob we spotted a very small bright red store with rainwear, boots, and about everything else hanging outside the door.
Across the front large letters proclaimed that “J. O’Farrell” was the proprietor of this establishment . Once inside the store there was little clothing in sight. On shelves going up the walls to well beyond reach were stacked bundles all carefully wrapped in plain brown paper and meticulously tied with cord. Behind the small worn counter were Mr. and Mrs. J. O’Farrell, a cheerful elderly couple. Mr. O’Farrell was thin and weathered and spoke with a eavy County Cork dialect which was rather unintelligible to our ears. We inquired about rain gear. He looked me over, thought for a moment and then purposefully retrieved a bundle from among the hundreds stored on the tall shelves.
Mr. O’Farrell carefully untied and unwrapped it. There was the perfect rain jacket and pants I had been looking for in the proper size. I chose a blue pair. He slowly re-wrapped the bundle, put it back, then looked at Travis for a moment. Another bundle was pulled from the hundreds and carefully opened. Travis’ choice was green as there was no other color in his size. He wrapped our urchases in plain brown paper, the same brown paper every bundle in the store was wrapped in. The sum was quite reasonable. We paid, bid a fond farewell to the O’Farrells, then drove out to Mizen head to test our new rainwear and a good test it was.
At the end of the peninsula on a rough promontory on which stands the Mizen Head light-house we stood facing the wild Atlantic Ocean in our dashing blue and green rainwear waiting for the next gale to blow in, little realizing greater tests were yet to come. THE PILGRIMAGE Travis is into Irish music. Mind you, I love Irish music but Travis is into Irish music. A minor obsession you might say. In County Clare, on the rugged western shore of Ireland lies a small village called Doolin. Doolin is to Irish musicphiles as Nashville is to country and western lovers, a Mecca.
Doolin is so small it is not on our monster map. This much we do know. It is near and just north of the Cliffs of Moher. Offshore are the Aran Islands. We would have to rely on the Irish road sign-posts and the kindness of strangers to find Doolin. It seemed a good idea to begin our search from the Cliffs of Moher which, being well known, we could easily find. We caught the ferry near Tarbert to cross the Shannon River which at that point as more like a wide bay. Once on the small open car ferry we donned our “J O’Farrell” weather wear.
With the wind bellowing up our blue and green rain jackets we looked like balloons with legs as we stood on the ferry deck, faces pelted by the wind and rain enjoying the beauty of the Shannon River. Upon disembarking the ferry we took N67 to Kitrush (Cill Rois in Irish) then R483 through Creegh to Quilty on the Mal Bay, there intersecting N67 again which took us north to Lahinch (An Leacht) and finally R478 to the Cliffs of Moher. Four road changes in thirty miles, not too bad for Ireland. The rain had increased and could no longer be called soft rain.
However the wind had picked up off the Atlantic and the rain in, spite of it size, was still traveling horizontal along the wet and slippery Irish sod. This time rather than looking like balloons the wind caught our amply large jackets and created blue and green sails. Our arms flapping in the wind we slowly worked our way up the incline towards the Cliffs of Moher. Once at the top we came across other brave fools who had come to see the natural wonders of the cliffs. There we all were sliding about on the slippery, muddy paths laughing at each other’s attempts at emaining vertical in a decidedly horizontal prone environment.
The edge of the cliffs were fenced with nothing more than large flat slabs of stone hopefully to keep us from going over the edge and provide some wind break. The wind striking the face of the cliffs would be forced upward capturing the water runoff, propelling it straight up and back over the cliffs at us. There were causalities strewn about everywhere slipping and sliding about and down into the well trampled mud. Are we having fun yet? It was so insanely ridiculous that no one could help but laugh at the madness of it all. There was a sudden break in the weather and we all got to see what we had braved the elements and insanity for.
Spectacular cliffs rising hundreds of feet straight up out of the ocean mist extending down the coast as far as the eye could see, bathed in an eerie glow of light illuminating the green moss growing on their surfaces. The land above the cliffs green and soft as velvet. I had the sudden desire to have the hands of a giant so I could stroke the land and feel the softness of the Irish earth beneath my fingertips. A sensuous orgy of sight and texture. Still dazed by the beauty of it all we descended back down the slope and ttempted to clean he Irish mud from our shoes.
Nine miles up the road we came to an intersection, there was one of those notorious Irish signposts, its flat pointed boards pointing in all directions. Definitely too many to read on the fly. We stopped and desperately searched the post for that special one that would point toward Doolin. Much to our surprise it was there, pointing toward R479. A mile or so later we came upon another intersection, turned left, and appearing before us along a lovely stream was Doolin. We drove over a small bridge crossing the stream and onto the main street of the illage which ran parallel to the stream. There was O’Connor’s Pub.
Travis had arrived at his Mecca. There was not a single person or car in sight. Our anxiety rising, had we come six thousand miles for nothing? We parked the car across the road from the pub and walked over to the pub door. Closed. Mecca was Closed. Just as panic began to set in a man appeared on the street, we rushed over to ask him what was up. “Oh its Sunday,” he replied. Seeing the look of dismay on our faces he added “Holy Hours, closed till noon. ” Greatly relieved, we used the “Holy Hours” to find a B&B. A block up the road rom the pub was a sign that proclaimed Sancta Maria Bed and Breakfast.
A bit odd of a name for a Bed and Breakfast, we thought, even in Catholic Ireland. We walked up and rang the bell. The door slowly opened and staring at us was the propri-etress. She looked near middle age, bright blue eyes, straight pitch black hair combed straight down the sides of her face of pale white skin which was carefully embellished….. …… with bright ruby red lipstick and a slight touch of rouge. Her eyes, her hair color, her skin and her accent, everything about her appearance seemed to be a contra-diction. She appeared about as strange as the name outside. “Would you have a room for two for one night? ” we asked.
After an uncomfortably long pause she finally spoke. “Yes,” she said in a pleasant but acquired sounding Irish accent. She stood there staring at us unblinking just as a child would. We didn’t quite know how to respond. Fortunately, eventually, she did. She turned and led us down a narrow hallway which had evenly spaced doors along each side, each had a clear glass transom above it. There was certainly nothing we could see to indicate it was another kind of establishment. She opened one of he doors but said nothing. The room was small and very clean. Inside was a small single bed, a small night stand and a simple wooden chair.
The walls of natural finished wood were bare of adornment except for a small nondescript print. The room gave one the impression of a small monk’s cell. I had dis-covered a new style of architecure, Pseudo Monastery. ” She stood there with that stare, saying nothing until we broke the silence by asking, “Do you have a double room? ” Without replying she closed the door and led us to another room which was identical to the previous room but had two very mall beds Still dazed by the bizarreness of it all we brought in our bags and freshened up. Looking at our watches we realized it was noon.
Holy Hours” were over. We quickly left the B&B. Much to our surprise there was a traffic jam on the one narrow street of Doolin. A stream of local humanity was entering the door of O’Conners Pub. Old weathered men, women, children, babies, teenagers, fishermen, the young and the old arriving by every form of transportation, horse and wagon, tractors and cars. If the small stream had been big enough we would not have been surprised to see boats docking. We rushed down the road hoping there would be room for a few Yanks too. A matter of minutes after Holy Hours ended the Pub was full and the music was a-going.
Travis was in hog heaven. I was having one great time too. There were several rooms inside O’Connors’s. The regular clientele appeared to each have a preference for a particular room or area of that room. One large room struck me as the family room. It had a long bar along one wall lined with the older men in their Sunday best jackets and caps. Along the opposite wall sat as if holding court, older women, some holding children, I assumed to be either heir grandchildren or simply those of the young ones who wished to go listen to the music or have an ale without their children in tow.
Something told me I was not In England. Once, while on an outing in England with friends who had a eighteen month old child we were forced to sit outside on a cold windy patio for a pub lunch because “children were not allowed inside pubs. ” This room was the largest and had plenty of room for the kids to play and when the mood stuck anyone to dance though most seemed content at this point in the……………… …… afternoon to just have a drink and chat. A lone fiddler played in one orner, basking in the attention he received.
There were no paid musicians, anyone who had the calling brought their instruments and played when they felt like playing either with a group or alone. There seemed to be no system or pattern. Some groups obviously had played often together and were very good. Age did not matter. A weathered old fisherman could be seen playing a one row accordion along with a twelve year old lad on his penny flute. Ability, while appreciated, didn’t seem to matter. There was a marvelous tolerance for even the worst musicians. Anyone who played was treated with respect for trying.
The old fiddler in the corner of the family room, though sometimes off a note and a bit slow in his playing, was obviously appreciated. Especially by those, I imagined, who remembered his playing when he was younger and quicker to the beat. You could tell he had entertained them for many a year and no one would cast him out over something so small as a sour note. The Grim Reaper would say when this man played his last sour note and spare we mortals the task. Though, when he played a few particularly sour notes, I did see a few looks that lead me to suspect that he had a few friends who marveled at the patience of the Grim Reaper.