Tuesday, January 19, 2016

9/21 Shannon, Doolin, and the Burren

9/21 Shannon, Doolin, and the Burren
More pics here.
Road trip leg 1 map here.

On Monday we took our last tube ride back to London Heathrow and had a fairly uneventful flight to Shannon, on the west coast of Ireland.  Shannon does have a few direct flights to Ireland and is nicely situated if you wanted to see the south or west side of the country. From here we would road-trip up the west coast to the northern edge of the island, then back across the middle of the country to Dublin for our flight home. There are also flights from SFO to Shannon now, something to consider if traveling primarily to see the countryside of Ireland. 

Despite our best efforts, the car company bamboozled us for insurance, and that combined with pretty heavy air sickness made for a rough couple of hours for me. None of which helped Ty get comfortable with taking the captains seat in a right-hand drive car! We picked up our tiny little Skoda – although it had four doors so it wasn’t tiny by European standards! Ty wisely took a few practice laps around the rental car lot, promptly running over a curb on the first turn, (which wasn’t very lappable, poor guy) and then we headed out. 

Our first stop was the well-marketed Bunratty Castle, just a few kilometers down the road. I’d hoped we could get a few practice miles in before driving through the big town of Shannon – although Shannon is not a big town and the highways wisely go around towns in Ireland anyhow. We also hoped to grab lunch and check off seeing a castle before driving out to the coast. 

The castle is small but well preserved, and has been refurbished on the interior. They have built a historic medieval village around it, as well as the requisite tourist stops. This made for easy lunch but high entrance fees, and a bit of a smarmy feel. So we ate lunch, walked around the perimeter, and left. I have heard the medieval banquette dinners are worth attending, but it felt a bit like Sutters Fort in Sac – fun for field trips and small kids, but not worth paying to see as an adult. 
We also started to get the feel of castles in Ireland: they are not the abodes of kings, but rather any fortified home or defensive building. They are still beautiful but founded in territorial disputes, not fairytale stories. 


We took beautiful winding roads out to Doolin village, on the west coast and around 1.5 hours from Shannon. Ty took to most of the right hand driving quickly, and having country roads to learn on was a good way to start. They are narrow but generally lower speeds and not crowded. And in this part of the country they aren’t surrounded by rock walls (we would experience that special form of high speed claustrophobia soon enough). The day was lovely and the countryside everything we expected it to be: rolling hills, quaint towns, green everywhere.  We found Doolin, which has expanded considerably since I came in 2001, but which is still quaint and charming. I believe it was around this time that we noticed that Ireland does not, apparently, use street numbers in its addresses. I believe Dublin and it’s suburbs might be the exception, but we never had an address to search for in west or north-west Ireland, just country road directions and the name of the lodge in case we had to pull over and ask for help. Thankfully there just aren’t many roads to choose from!

Doolin sits at the sea down the road from the famous Cliffs of Moher and is also a regional hub for traditional music.  There are four sweater shops, one music shop, one café, and four places to get dinner (all pubs), but dozens of guest houses, hotels and B&Bs. Most importantly, one of the hotels has laundry service (and the nicest staff, from Hungary, who helped us with our laundry). 


That first night we went down to the shoreline at the west edge of town, where I bee-lined for this amazing corner of coast that I’d wanted to show Ty for years. The Burren (more on that later) gets exposed here at the water’s edge, and where the rolling grasses stop, the rock tiers out to the water in exposed ledges. The seawater crashes against the edge, while the fresh water trickling down from the hills carves unique patterns into the limestone. The rock splits in geometric patterns and long, straight lines. In some spots you can hear and feel waves crashing underneath you, even though you are 10-20 feet above the sea. It’s one of the most special places I have been, and I’ve wanted to come back for 14 years. Watching the sun set through dramatic clouds over the water, feeling the wind of a storm coming in from the sea, looking back at the rolling green hills and the Cliffs of Moher cascading down the coast from us – and knowing I’d been able to finally bring Ty here – was a highlight of the trip. I let out a particular breath I’d been holding and reveled in the moment. Then we scurried back up the shoreline to the car park as the rain started falling! 

Doolin was where we had the most rain in Ireland, but it still wasn’t much. Maybe 30 minutes of rain, and then beautiful sparkling grass, fresh air, and even a double rainbow. It was really magical. It was now getting dark and the shops were closed, which means there’s not much else to do in Doolin but head to the pubs. We went to Gus O’Connors, the most obvious pub on the main road (half a block long) in town. I remembered instantly the money-covered walls, and flashed back to being in this pub in 2001. It was warm, crowded, and full of Americans – we met folks from at least 6 states. There was a karaoke couple singing ballads – apparently this is the early dinner entertainment in Doolin. 

We tucked in to the expected Irish stew, and an unexpected goat cheese salad that was fantastic. I learned you only get 3 choices of whiskey and no wine or craft cocktails in Ireland. I discovered I really liked Powers whiskey, which is not a high end brand but was closer to our bourbon than an Irish whiskey. It would become a stand by for me on the trip – I found that a hot toddy was a great cure for motion sickness! I also discovered I didn’t have the stomach to drink a 20 ounce Guinness every day, as my sweet mother in law had encouraged me to do (she gave me travel money for my birthday for just this purpose). We ended up sharing the Guinness most days, especially since for Ty, the only beer choices were Guinness, Carlsburg, and Budweiser!

There wasn’t much music seeming to happen at this pub, but some tourists we’d met said the better food was here, and the better music was up the road. We headed up to Fitzpatricks, where we found a room full of retirees mistily singing old Irish ballads along with an even more retired guitar player. We were a bit worried this was not the lively Irish music we were looking for, but decided to stay a bit anyhow. The next set was a true Irish session, with two harpists, a mandolin, a fiddle, and several more instruments on rotation. One of the harpists was Cath Connelly (only later would we realize she as a Connelly could be a distant relative of Ty’s mom’s family) from Australia, and was touring Ireland with most of the retirees we’d found singing, who were on a group Celtic Christian pilgrimage. They were a lively and emotional group – no doubt from spending all their days pondering the deep spiritual life in these stunning places. I think they needed to decompress after all that reflection – there was a lot of giggling and girly cocktails around. 

We ended up in a corner booth with some of them and had a great philosophical discussion with Libbey from Melbourne, who discussed the differences in Anglican/Evangelical/Catholic perspective and practice with us, and encouraged us to listen for God’s speaking on our trip. We are instructed to email her what we’ve heard once we are back. All this while listening to amazing music and drinking whisky and beer in a tiny pub in a tiny town on the west coast of Ireland. 

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