Doolin & The Aran Islands

The Aran Islands are another quintessential Irish bucket list. There are three, and you can take a boat out to any of them. If you are travelling via tour bus, then the most likely path is from Galway through Rossaveal, but we had a car and decided to go out of Doolin. Doolin itself is spoken of with a kind of reverential awe by those who visit regularly and now I know why. If you are lucky enough to plan your trip to the islands from Doolin instead of Galway, make sure you plan time for some trad music in the evening.


Inis Oírr

We chose to go to Inis Oírr (pronounced roughly “inis sheer”), the closest and smallest of the islands. It seemed like a nice way to see them without being overloaded with tour groups which all go to Inis Mann or Inis Mor. When I was planning the day, I looked at a map of all the things to do and see, mostly ruins but you know I am a sucker for ruins, and I figured I could just rent a bike and ride around to see it all.

It’s also possible to get into the carriage and ride around, but I like to go at my own pace, and the island was neither large nor described as very hilly, so a bike seemed great. I was looking forward to seeing the ruins of the O’Brien castle, the sunken graveyard, and the wrecked battleship. In addition, I was planning to hunt down some Aran knitted wool products because, well, they’re famous. So much I did not know…

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On the day of our ferry tickets, we made it to the parking lot and drove aimlessly looking for a spot for longer than planned. It was with some relief that we made it with a few minutes to spare, or so I thought. I was informed at the ticket office that our ferry had already left! Of course, like every ticketed event, they advised us to arrive 10-15 minutes early and the parking dilemma set us back from that goal, but we were still at least 5 minutes early. I couldn’t believe that they would just leave!

I began to protest and ask about refunds since they left before the scheduled time, and they agreed to put us on another boat. The longer I watched the docks, the more it became obvious that there was almost no order to the ferries at all. It seems like a few boats make the trip, and a few companies sell tickets, but they are not connected. Both going out and returning, we were just put on whatever boat was most convenient and the staff collected a variety of colorful tickets. I suspect that they then use those to collect their passenger fees from the ticket selling companies later. It’s confusing and disorienting and more than a little frustrating, but I guess it works.

It was such a lovely day with clear skies and bright sunshine that my companion wanted to sit on the deck instead of in the covered portion of the boat. There is something to be said for this, as one is much less likely to get seasick on deck, however, one is also much less likely to stay dry. We were hardly out of the harbor when the wind picked up and the waves began to splash in, covering the floor.

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I pulled my shoes up to try and keep dry as the water swirled around. We were not allowed to move once the boat was in motion due to the extreme bouncing, so I was stuck. Then the waves began to come over the side. Small splashes at first, but soon large drenching waves. It began to rain. Sudden hard sheeting buckets of rain combined with waves splashing us in all directions. I did not have any waterproof clothing on whatsoever because the day was so lovely when we were on land. By the time we arrived to the island 30+ minutes later, I was entirely soaked: socks, underwear, everything.

This extreme damper on my mood was not tempered by the fact that the rain had once more evaporated as we pulled into the island harbor and beautiful sunny blue skies prevailed. If anything, it made me even more grumpy. If I’d just sat inside on the boat, I’d have gone from sunny dry land to sunny dry land. Instead I got soaked to the bone with no change of clothes ahead for hours. I declined the carriage and the bike rental shop and immediately set off in the opposite direction of all the other ferry passengers, hoping to find a quiet and empty place to soothe my emotional distress and dry my wet socks.

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I did find a quiet section of beach with no humans around and I traded out my layers of clothing, alternately wearing and sun/wind drying. I managed to go from totally soaking to slightly damp over the course of about an hour. I listened to some music and watched the ocean. I let go of my expectations and my plans, and was finally able/willing to head back toward the cluster of buildings and see what there was to see nearby. I didn’t really have the time or energy to bike around to all the sights, so I just walked. I got to see some of the homes, quaint little cottages all divided by stone walls. I found a sweater shop. I learned a lot more about Aran Knit.

The Aran knitting patterns are unique, especially when combined with a rougher, less treated (more waterproof) type of wool. They were made by fishermen’s wives to stave off the rain, seawater, and cold winds that I had gotten only a tiny taste of on my boat ride over. (I got drenched on a “sunny” day, imagine what it was like for the fishermen?) The tradition is maybe 100-150 years old, and the sheep aren’t from the Aran islands (anymore, not enough sheep). There’s a strong mythology about the types of stitch and patterns in the knit, but it’s mostly from a single source, which always makes me skeptical.

Whether or not the patterns link to certain clans or whether the original ladies who knitted them ascribed the mythological meaning to bring health, wealth and such to the wearer we can’t be sure. What is sure is that the distinctive patterns are unique and in high demand. Such high demand that there’s now factories churning out machine made versions of the traditional fisherman’s wear. You can order them online, you can buy them in any city in Ireland. I doubt any casual observer will know the difference. The machine made sweaters are lovely and affordable. I didn’t want one.

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I perused the shop’s offerings, observing tags and occasionally asking questions. The hand knitted sweaters were truly lovely, but they started around 100€ each. I thought a lot about how often I’d wear a really thick wool sweater in my life. It would be great for the 20 minutes I’m outside each day in the depths of winter, but then it would be too hot to wear inside. Plus, I’m already quite fluffy, and bulky clothes are not flattering on my figure. I looked longingly at the scarves, because I love scarves, but I also have too many already and am trying to figure out which ones to leave behind on my next major move. Finally, I settled on a hat. It is hard to keep my head warm in the cold winter winds and they’re meant to be taken off inside, plus don’t take up so much room in the luggage.

I chose a hand knitted hat in a lovely moss green with several different classic Aran stitches. The gentleman at the counter and I chatted for a while about the changes in Ireland and on the island specifically in his lifetime. He told me when he was younger, everyone went down to the lighthouse to watch the football (soccer) game on the only television on the whole island, and now they had stuff like WiFi! His wife was part of the group of ladies that knitted the in house goods, but he wasn’t sure if she had knitted the hat I chose or one of the other ladies had. The wool itself was from the Connemara area because there just weren’t enough sheep on the Aran Islands themselves to support the knitting, it being more a fishing (and lately tourism) economy than a sheep based one.

I actually wore the hat a lot during the rest of my trip in Ireland and it was a welcome addition to a wardrobe that was packed for a more summery climate than I ended up with.

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With my souvenir goal achieved, I continued to explore and came across a small meadow behind some abandoned buildings. Down among the grass and weeds was a zoo of tiny life. Little black winged and red spotted moths, fuzzy bumble bees, stripey caterpillars, and beautiful butterflies. I had a wonderful time crawling around on the ground and taking pictures.

The line for the ferries back was almost as chaotic as the ferries out, but I had more faith that we wouldn’t be left behind. The weather was getting squally again, and the ships captains were having chats about the best way to get back. They started out asking all the people subject to seasickness to get into certain boats which were less likely to be as impacted by the waves and which would take the most direct route back to Doolin. Our reservations included a trip past the Cliffs of Moher and would be about twice as long as the direct route.

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Sadly, by the time we all bundled onto the boats, the captains had decreed the weather was too bad to go to the cliffs. I made sure to get a seat inside for the ride back, turned on my music and had a little nap. I have been known to get seasick when I’m below decks, but this ship was fairly wide and had big picture windows. It was not a real question of being wet and cold vs being a little nauseous.

Once more, I learned that no matter what the weather looks like on land, it is not related to the weather even 5 minutes out to sea and that whatever plans you make in Ireland that involve the ocean are subject to drastic change and cancellation without warning. I think the boat trips were worth it, and I’m glad I went to the island, even if it meant getting soaked, but if you only have a couple days in Ireland, maybe stick to mainland activities to avoid disappointment.

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Doolin Cave

When putting together the day plan, we had a few hours in the late afternoon free and the cave looked like a good “all weather” option. I booked the tickets for pretty much everything we did ahead of time online because summer is the high season in Ireland and popular sites sell out fast. Even though I wasn’t feeling great after my very wet morning, it seemed like a waste not to use the tickets that were already paid for, so we headed to the cave.

20190805_162628The cave is famous because it has the longest freestanding (or free hanging I suppose) stalactite in Europe. It is quite impressive. Tours go down in groups with hard hats and a guide. There’s a LOT of stairs, a fairly short walk, and a very dramatic presentation where you walk into the main cavern in the dark (flashlights pointed at the ground) so that when the lights come on, you get a stunning view of the star stalactite. Originally, there was meant to be a garden walk involved in this as well, but the rainy weather which had prevented us from seeing the Cliffs had caught up to the mainland and it was positively pouring down. On top of that, the cafe was closed by the time we came back up. I think the stalactite was stunning, but overall, I wish we’d been able to enjoy the other things at the location.

Doolin Music House

Whatever hardships the day threw at us, the evening plans made up for it all. I was able to change into dry clothes, which helped a lot, and our nighttime plans were for some trad music in a local house. I’d reached out to Christy and Sheila via email and arranged for a space in their house show. Trad (traditional) Irish music is a big draw both for locals and tourists in Ireland and while a lot of it is available in pubs, those can be loud and crowded – a challenge to anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed at the end of a long, hard, rainy day of touristing.

The idea of sitting in a nice quiet living room and listening to music and stories was far more appealing than the pub. Sheila welcomed us in and invited us to sit by the fire which was burning local peat and smelled amazing. Peat is harvested from the bogs of Ireland. It’s dead and decaying organic matter that’s been pressed into turf. It’s dug up in chunks and dried in the sun, then used for fuel. Ireland doesn’t have a lot of trees, which is why so much is build of stone and why the people burn peat for fire. Even with new gas and electric heating systems being installed around the island, a lot of folks still use peat in their fireplaces and stoves. I also had the chance to see some of the harvesting and drying in process when we drove through peat bogs later on.

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When we first came in, we entered Sheila’s painting studio where she creates and displays her artwork. In the living room, however, the walls are covered with charcoal sketches of some of Ireland’s most influential trad musicians of yore. Sheila brought us some wine and other guests filtered in. It was mostly people over 50, I may have been the youngest in the room, but they were lively and talkative (I think the Irish might be the only people who talk as much as the Americans). We were served a light meal of local salmon and local cheeses with fresh bread and we just ate and chatted for a while. It was very relaxing, like a dinner party at a friend’s house.

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When we had all finished eating, Kristy and James came out with a fiddle and an armload of flutes. James stuck to his fiddle the whole night and only very rarely spoke. Kristy was every inch the Irish story spinner and played a variety of flutes and even the spoons at one point. Between songs, Kristy would tell us all stories about the music and about growing up in Ireland. Although he never said his age directly, I gather he must at least be in his 70s if not older. He’s been performing professionally for more than 40 years, but the stories he told about his childhood experiences lead me to believe he’s been playing much much longer. 

I did not have the kind of memory capacity in my phone to record all those wonderful stories, but I was charmed by tales of the older way of life that had still been common when he was a boy. How all the men worked hard physical labor jobs, and almost no one had any money, but it barely mattered because they could go round to each others homes at night and play music and dance. He told us the history of the instruments and how the music grew up as something more to accompany dancers than as it’s own art. Dancers were the percussion and the main entertainment. A musician who couldn’t follow the dancer’s beat wouldn’t soon be invited to play again.

Sheila and her friend came out to show a small demonstration of the dancing, so focused on the movement of the feet and the stillness of the body. The whole world has seen Riverdance by now, the famous show that came from this traditional dance style. It has been heavily adapted to appeal to a broader audience with more movement and flash, but the original style is very subtle and very challenging to master.

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We listened to music and stories totally captivated. It is one of my best memories of the entire trip. My Airbnb host, Marcella, lives just up the road, and of course has known Sheila for years and was stunned to find they were asking so “high” a price as 25€ per person for the experience. I found it to be totally reasonable for such a wonderful evening. No public show could have compared to the warmth and personal touches of being in their home, and yet they were impeccable hosts with regard to our comfort and keeping our wine glasses full. Plus, while they may just be the neighbors to Marcella, Kristy is a world renowned and award winning musician with a lifetime of amazing stories to share.

Every night is different because different musicians and dancers show up to accompany Kristy. Plus, although the night I was there, none of us were brave enough, Kristy did say he likes it to feel more like a group event than a performance, and anyone is welcome to sing, play or dance as they like.

The main website is very classy, and doesn’t properly give the impression of the impish charm that Christy exudes. I took a single video for my own memories and to share with you all, but if you want to see more, their Facebook Page has a much wider selection than the primary website.

The Dingle Peninsula

The joy of planning any vacation is discovering new things. Naturally, I had a list in Ireland of sites I knew I wanted to see, but there were whole swaths of countryside between the known destinations for me to fill in. Going from the Ring of Kerry directly to the Aran Islands was just too long a drive. When I looked at the map, the Dingle Peninsula came up as a must see for it’s beautiful coastline, charming local culture, and one special local resident named Fungie.


Fungie the Dingle Dolphin

I love dolphins. This makes me basic, but I don’t care. I struggle sometimes because they can be real jerks (BBC article, TW: rape), so I don’t go in for the “dolphins as spiritual healing animals” line, but like many intelligent wild animals, I find them fascinating. I was in Florida in middle school, and we went to local marine parks a lot. I wanted to be a marine biologist – or a dolphin trainer – but then we moved away from the sea and I learned about the horrible things that happen to dolphins in captivity.

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Since then, I have sought out responsible interactions with fascinating wild animal. Although some animal protection extremists say there’s no such thing, I go with “as responsible as possible”. My swim with the wild dolphins in New Zealand is a good example. The NZ government limits the number and type of boats that can legally interact with the dolphins and it reduces random tourists and boats from interfering with them while raising money and awareness for environmental preservation.

Fungie is an entirely unique case and there’s not really another dolphin like him in the world. He’s a solitary middle aged bachelor who lives in the Dingle Bay and likes hanging out with the humans. He was never a captive, never “trained”, isn’t fed by people or enticed to stay in any way other than through social interaction. And if he’s tired of people, he can swim out of the bay and the small boats can’t follow him into the unsheltered Wild Atlantic.

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I ran into people (Irish people, not just tourists) outside of Dingle who thought that he was a myth, or an exaggeration, or one of a long line of different dolphins that the town named Fungie to keep up the tourism, but Fungie is actually the subject of some scientific interest because he is so unique among dolphins. He’s a little bit like a “wolf child”. In the sad case where a human baby isn’t socialized with other humans before a certain age, they don’t learn language or basic social skills… ever. Fungie was separated from his pod at a relatively young age, just old enough to feed himself, but not fully socialized… think about Mowgli or Tarzan? He came into the Dingle Bay because it’s extremely sheltered and safe, plus lots of food (good fishing). He never got reconnected with his pod or any other, and now he tends to hide from pods passing through the area. Scientists who study him think that he can’t communicate well with other dolphins, sort of like having a speech impediment.

However, dolphins are very social, much like humans, and whatever his reasons for avoiding other dolphins, Fungie discovered he could get some degree of socialization from humans. I suspect it’s similar to the way that we interact with our pets. Fungie has lived in the Dingle bay for about 36 years, and they think he was about 4 when he moved in. For a long time, he was only known to the locals, but in more recent years, he has become a mainstay of Dingle tourism.

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I chose my tour boat because of the timing. Partly because I wanted to do two things that day, and partly because dolphins are most active early in the morning. This is the only boat that goes out in the early morning and it only holds 10 people, so book in advance. The good news is that this smaller boat inside the bay is unlikely to be impacted by the weather, unlike the larger boats, which as I will relate shortly, definitely are. Plus, the tiny boat means you get quite close to the water, and consequently, the dolphin.

There’s also the option to swim, but the Atlantic Ocean there only gets up to 15C/60F in the warmest month, and that’s still colder than most people who live south of the 60th parallel want to swim in without a wet-suit. The water I went in NZ was 13C and even with a short wet-suit, I just about stopped breathing when I went in. I didn’t have a wet-suit in Ireland, and I hadn’t figured out how to rent one in advance, so I was SOL. There was a family on the boat with us who decided to just go in in swimsuits. I think they were Swedish. The children turned blue, and Fungie never really got that close.

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The tour company kitted us out with outerwear, pants and jackets, that was super warm and waterproof. I am so glad they did, because however pleasantly cool the weather on land was, it was insanely cold out on the water, plus we got boat spray and rain. It was a gray, wet morning, I got some nice photos (as seen in the first part of the post) as we pulled out of the harbor, although the visibility was limited. I was a bit sad I couldn’t see the cliffs around the bay, but all was forgiven once Fungie showed up.

Our guide told us a bit about Fungie’s history and the studies I briefly outlined here, and then we set about trying to play with him. The guide said later in the day, there would be dozens of boats in the area all competing for his attention, so going in the early morning we got him all to ourselves. The best way to play with Fungie is to run the boat quickly, creating a wake, then pumping the breaks so the wake passes the boat. Fungie loves to race the boat and then body surf in the wave the boat creates. We did this over and over to the delight of everyone on board, and apparently Fungie as well.

When he was done with us, he just swam off. Even with our guide trying to lure him back, he was ready for a break. I point this out, because it’s really important that Fungie isn’t being exploited. He doesn’t want to live with other dolphins, and if humans stopped playing with him, he’d probably get really depressed (which happens to all social animals in isolation).

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We had a quick run out of the bay just to feel the difference in the weather, which is intense. It was wet, cold, and insanely fun. We bounced like a roller coaster and although I got splashed many times, the waterproof outerwear did a good job of keeping me warm and mostly dry. This is very important, because I the next day I ended up on a boat with no waterproof clothes and it was an entirely miserable experience. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats WITH warm waterproof clothes = fun. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats in regular clothes = soaking wet underwear. Choose wisely.

As we came back toward the harbor the other tour boats were starting to gather. We spotted Fungie a few more times, but even just having a few other boats around made me really appreciate the time we got with him while we were the only boat on the water.

The Weather

I mentioned our morning was gray and rainy, with an extra side of nose numbingly cold on the water. This was August, by the way, the warmest month although not the driest (that’s June). The morning’s short excursion out of the bay and onto the ocean gave me my first taste of why it’s called the Wild Atlantic. Even doing the speed up/sudden break trick with Fungie in the bay was a smooth calm ride compared to the unsheltered open ocean.

I did not actually think the weather that day was bad. It did rain on us a bit, but it wasn’t anything like a storm. Nonetheless, shortly after we were back on land from our morning visit with Fungie, I got an email from my afternoon tour that the boat trip was cancelled due to bad weather. I have to say I was very surprised. I didn’t think a light rain was enough to warrant a cancellation, but this just goes to show how little I understood about the Wild Atlantic. Yes, I’m going to keep calling it that, because the Atlantic Ocean is big and has different temperaments on different coasts, but what goes on along the west coast of Ireland can only be understood in terms of elemental forces.

The afternoon tour was meant to be a visit to the Blasket Islands, an eco tour where we could see some of the wildlife and get to have a short walk on the island. It was meant to be the alternative to missing out on Skellig Michael. When the tour company cancelled, I asked around at some of the other boat operators to see if anyone would be going. Please remember, in my ignorance, the slightly overcast, intermittent light rain just didn’t seem like a weather obstacle, and I thought, surely a saner company would still be going. One company operating a smaller boat said they were planning to go, but were all booked up, and we could be on the alternate list in case anyone backed out. I left them my number and went to the tourism office around the corner to see what else I could do in Dingle that afternoon.

There were a few things, caves, churches, museums and I probably could have made a go of it, but in the end, I didn’t have to. The small boat company had a family of 4 drop out, so all of us who were waiting got to go after all. The upshot is that I got to go out on the Wild Atlantic on a day when all but one tour boat was docked for bad weather. Let me say again, “bad” meant a little windy, and a little rainy. Honestly, it got downright sunny and pleasant over lunch. The ocean is a crazy place.

Why did the small boat go when the big boats dared not? Smaller, lighter weight boats are more maneuverable, and also lower to the ocean surface, with less surface area. They’re less impacted by high waves and high winds. So, there I was, all bundled up in the waterproofs again, and holding on to a boat that was more inflatable life raft than seaworthy vessel for a 3 hour tour, and trying not to hum Gilligan’s Island under my breath.

Is there a way to be sure of a good boat ride? Sadly, no. Ireland just rains a lot. I honestly do not know how people out there made a living at fishing… well, I do… a lot of them died. Even in the “driest” months, the weather can turn ugly and it can last your whole vacation. We didn’t see nice weather for 4 more days. This is not to say it was all miserable. The sun comes out a lot between the raindrops. If you’re on land, it’s fine with an umbrella and some waterproof shoes/shoe-covers. Maybe a water proof jacket if you’re on the coast, because wind does make umbrellas useless. If you don’t mind a wild wet ride, it can be great fun, but if you are counting on a beautiful clear sunny day like the brochure photo either be prepared to hang out all summer or go somewhere that isn’t famous for rain.

The Blasket Islands

Once I got over the weather, it was pretty good. I think it would have been stunning in sunlight, but we got some nice up-close views of the cliffs, and some history about the pirates, which were really more like smugglers, but pirate sounds cooler. We passed by another Star Wars film site, where Luke leaps from rock to rock to harvest the green milk.

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The Blasket Islands are a little series of Islands that were occupied by a very small (100 or so people) population of very traditional Gaelic speaking Irish. I gather there was a lot of tension between them and the occupying British/Anglicized Irish, hence maybe some of the pirating. In the 1950s, the last 22 occupants were relocated to the mainland for safety reasons. In the high season, it is still possible to spend the night on one of the islands, but most people who want to visit, go for a single afternoon, much as I had hoped to do.

I was starting to understand why a 70 person ferry wasn’t going to navigate around a bunch of huge jagged rocks in high wind and waves, but I wasn’t sure why we weren’t allowed to land until I saw the dock. The dock that was a nearly vertical stone stairway up the cliff. I have to say, that if it had been a sunny day, I would have fought through it, and climbed, but I’m slightly glad I didn’t have to. I also very much understand why no one wanted to try and navigate that with rough currents and winds.

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After a couple hours on the rough seas, I was slightly beginning to regret my choice. For safety, the boat’s seats were basically saddles with backs. They were very stable, and I never once felt like I might fall off, but if you’ve ever ridden a horse at a trot or canter, you know that saddles aren’t super comfortable at speed. There’s a reason racehorse jockeys don’t sit. You aren’t actually supposed to sit, but rather put your weight in the stirrups and use your thighs to stay balanced and level. Otherwise, your internal organs bounce all around and  your sitting area gets very sore. The waves of the Wild Atlantic were not unlike a bouncing trot. At first, I could handle it, I planted my feet and bent my knees and kept myself pretty well stable. As my legs got tired, I had the choice of three positions: stand, which is bouncy and awkward and requires a lot of core strength, sitting, which is comfortable when the boat goes up, but painful when the boat meets the water, and the saddle squat which gives the most control over the bouncing but uses the most extra muscles.

We didn’t get to see the puffins, I don’t really blame them, but we did stop in a little sheltered beach to see the seals. I am very curious as to why there isn’t a nice easy dock on or near this beach, because it was obviously sheltered, and much flatter than the vertical cliff face the actual dock is built into, but I’m sure there’s a reason involving winter storms or wildlife preservation.

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The seals like to sun themselves on the beach, which was obviously not happening that day, so we drifted to a slow stop in the smooth glassy waters and I realized that the water around us was positively filled with seals. Children of the corn style.

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I’m a bit spoiled on wildlife after living in the Pacific Northwest. The average sail around the sound will result in several seal, porpoise, and even whale sighting. People on the ferry see orcas on the regular. My last visit to Seattle, we got to see some humpbacks breaching as well as a little pod of dolphins, and a seal pup hanging out on a little bit of driftwood waiting for mom to come back. On a single sail. Nothing I have seen compared to the colony of seals *watching us from the water.

In all the photos and videos and they just look like driftwood or waves or shadows. First I noticed one or two as they bobbed a bit higher out of the water to get a good look at the weirdos in the boat. Then, like one of those 3D pictures or an optical illusion suddenly changing from duck to rabbit, I realized the sea was full of these animals and they were all staring at our boat. I am super happy that seals are much more like chocolate Labradors than sharks. They were just curious, but in that super foggy weather it was a spooky moment.

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Despite the gray skies, near constant rain, kidney jostling waves, and view obscuring fog, I am still glad I went. There were moments that the ocean sparkled turquoise, which I didn’t think it could do without sunlight. There were times as the islands came toward us out of the fog and sea spray that it felt like magical lands emerging from the mist. And there were times when I was really glad that staring at the horizon works for seasickness. As stunning an experience as a ride on the roughest possible while still being safe seas was, I was very happy to return to dry land and dry clothes.

Leaving Dingle that evening, the sun came out once more and I was treated to a beautiful roadside rainbow as I drove on to my next destination, Doolin and the Aran Isles.

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Ireland: The Ring of Kerry

If one is doing a road trip in Ireland, a couple of “must dos” are the Wild Atlantic Way, and the Ring of Kerry. The main point of the Ring of Kerry isn’t actually the many interesting stops along the way, but the beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean from the road. However, since it is an extremely long drive, it’s nice to have places to stop and get out for a while. The main ring is the N70, which is a lovely wide (for Ireland) highway, but all the really good stuff is off the highway and down a series of narrow twisty side roads. Neither Valentia Island nor Skellig Ring are technically part of the Ring of Kerry, but it could be argued they are more interesting.


Car or Bus?

Driving in Ireland is not for the faint of heart, but if you are nervous, then you can also take a bus tour. The advantage of a bus tour is that you can spend the whole time looking out the window at the view. The disadvantage is that they only stop at a few very popular spots, and you have to contend with all the other tourists around your photos.

I personally enjoyed most of the drive, with the exception of a few moments of extremely heavy rain and one point where we managed to drive through a cloud. Low visibility on narrow steep roads is… challenging. Despite the white knuckle moments, I’m glad I drove myself because I got to pick and choose my own stops. There’s a nearly infinite list of things to see, and no way at all to do them in a single day drive of the Ring. The good news is, the Ring of Kerry is very affordable. I believe that some of the restoration houses and museums do charge a small fee to come inside, but as far as I know, all the outdoor attractions are free of charge.

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This is the route I traveled according to my Google Maps history. We spent 10 hours on (and off) the Ring of Kerry, starting in Killorglin (a smaller town than Killarny, so the Airbnb was cheaper) and ending in Killarney (although we continued to drive on to Dingle that evening). For reference, most bus tours are 6-8 hours and start and end in Killarney, so you can imagine they move faster and see less.

The Challenge of Skellig Michael

Possibly the most popular place to visit on the peninsula is Skellig Michael. It is a phenomenally beautiful island with a wonderful wildlife preserve and interesting ruins of an old monastery. To preserve the environment, only a limited number of people are allowed to set foot on the island per day. If you are lucky enough to get a spot, the boats may be cancelled due to bad weather, even if the weather on land seems ok. They don’t call it the “wild” Atlantic for nothing.

Skelig Michael Steps, Credit: IrishFireside via FlikrEven before 2017, it was a popular attraction that required lots of booking ahead. Then the Last Jedi came out, and suddenly the whole world knew about Skellig Michael as the beautiful and remote island where Rey finds the reclusive Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker. Those sweeping staircases and round stone huts weren’t inventions for the film, those are the actual ruins. Thanks to the Creative Commons I have photos to show you.

Reservations for boats that simply sail next to the island must be made up to a year in advance in the high season and I spoke to one couple that had been waiting for a spot on a boat that allowed people to walk on the island for more than 3 years.

As amazing as it would be to have the chance to go explore this beautiful place, I think that it would be something I’d have to plan a whole trip around, choosing a time of year that is just off enough to have availability without having your chances of bad weather above 80%, and then also being willing to stay nearby for several days/a week because when your boat does get cancelled, you are still around for the “make up” tour.

Skellig hivesThere are so many beautiful small islands along the west coast of Ireland, and while none are the same as Skellig Michael, I think for most people, they are going to be just as enjoyable while being much more accessible and far less expensive. I myself visited the Blasket Islands (from Dingle), the Aran Islands (from Doolin), and a teeny little place called Inishbofin (from Galway). And if you just HAVE to have that Skywalker connection, the Blasket islands are actually in the film as well.

Finally, there is the Skellig Experience Center, which is on Valentia Island. I gather it is a warm, dry, indoor experience involving models, miniatures, and a video. I ended up skipping this as well because it was a recommended 45 minute visit, and we simply ran out of time for everything we hoped to do that day.

What I Actually Did on the Ring

Cahergall Stone Fort

Stone forts or ring forts are ubiquitous in Ireland. There are more than 45,000 ring forts, some of earth, some of stone. Many are on private land, so you can’t necessarily just drive up to them, but lots and lots are open to the public and managed by a park service. This is not to say they are easy to find, or that they have any parking facilities, but if you are intrepid, you can do it.

There’s a very small parking area along a very narrow road with a little sign pointing to a sheep trail through a meadow, and if you follow this trail, avoiding the sheep poo, you will come up to the stunning sight of this majestic stone monument crowning the highest hill in the area. It’s not roped off, and you can freely touch, climb, enter and explore which is great. Because we were not with a tour group, we only ran into one or two others while at the fort, and it was easy to take lots of beautiful, if somewhat gray, photos.

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I feel like the term “fort” is a bit misleading. I originally thought that these were military installments placed on high hills for visibility and ease of defense. It turns out that these “forts” were probably more like farmsteads where people and livestock lived full time. The double ring looks like a good way to keep the animals safe in the outer ring, and the humans in the inner ring, with a ragged stairway up to a walking path. The strong stone walls would protect from weather, predatory animals, and rival clans. The livestock could be let to roam and graze in the day / good weather, and then gathered in, like a barn or paddock, as needed. The double ring with livestock would mean the inner circle of humans would be much warmer than the surrounding countryside. 

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Many historians think that the size of the ring indicates the owner’s social standing, which makes sense if you consider that richer families would have more livestock and more (living) children. The one at Cahergall is about 70 ft / 25m across.  It also makes a lot more sense why there are 45,000 of them if you think of them as farms/homes rather than military forts.

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Cahergall is one of the more famous rings because it has recently been restored and is quite beautiful. Some people think that the restoration is “cheating”, but it’s 1400 years old and was made by dry stacking flat stones (no mortar of any kind). The restoration makes it safe to climb and gives a good idea of what it would have looked like.

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On our way back to the car, a farmer had come down to greet a tour bus with a young lamb in his arms. He wasn’t “charging” for the privilege of holding and petting this adorable soon-to-be-dinner, but everyone was giving him a Euro or two as a tip/thank you. We beat the tour bus by only a few minutes and figured that farmer would probably get 50 Euro or more from that bus alone for sheep petting… not a bad deal for him.

Valentia Tetrapod Trackway

There’s a trope in the story of evolution of the first “fish” crawling out of the sea and onto land. This is a very oversimplified version of how evolution works, but it’s a good story because it helps us visualize and understand the process. There was a period known as the Devonian between 350 and 370 million years ago where that process occurred and sea creatures gradually developed legs from fins and began to explore the food and safety options of damp land.

There are only 4 locations of earth where you can go and actually see the footprints of one of those animals and one of them is in Ireland along the Ring of Kerry.

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I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as a kid and I even did a few amateur fossil  hunts. I was delighted to find stones with the imprint of life that was millions of years old, and growing up did not reduce that delight. I recall finding fossilized seashells in the desert of Saudi Arabia, and being completely awed. So, when I found out that this level of rare fossil was available for the viewing, I had to go.

We had variable weather on the day of this drive, and were mostly lucky that the rain came down while we were driving and let up when we parked, but this stop was the one big exception. The tracks, like everything outside a city in Ireland, are not super easy to find, but Google Maps helped and there are also plenty of websites with landmark based directions. There’s a decent parking lot, but it is a bit of a walk down to the water from there. On the day I went, there was a documentary film crew on site, and they thought we were crew too because they just couldn’t imagine any tourists crazy enough to come down in that weather.

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It was only a light drizzle when I started the walk, but turned into a serious downpour about half way down. I decided that since I was going to get just as wet walking back to the car as down to the shore, I might as well carry on. I got entirely soaked. Only my shoe covers kept my feet dry. Waterproof shoes or shoe covers are an absolute must in Ireland.

It’s a beautiful rocky shore, and the steps down are a little tricky in the rain, but not too bad. There are several informative signs with models of the tracks (so you know what to look for) and a bit of history about the site itself. 385 million years ago, Ireland was actually south of the Equator, and what is now a cold and rocky shore was a warm, silt laden river delta. In addition to the footprints, there are also fossilized ripples (below) made as the muddy silt dried in patterns and was covered over by layers of different soil. Both ripples and prints were compressed over millions of years as the landmass drifted north. Finally, the erosion of rain and sea revealed this layer of the strata.

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The footprints are accompanied by a tail drag, since tetrapods were still heavy and low to the ground with long, broad tails for swimming. I think without the informative signs showing me what to look for, I (not a paleontologist) might have missed it entirely. Once you get all the way down to the shore, you know where to look because one area is roped off. Since this isn’t a restorable relic, we can’t walk on it or touch it lest we erode it away completely.

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Before I went, I was thinking these footprints might be much larger because in my head, dinosaurs are huge. However, the Tetrapod was only about a meter long (3ft). For perspective, the average alligator is about 4x that size. The footprints are tiny little polka dots with a sidewinder looking divot between them (lower left quadrant of the photo above). They look not unlike a close up of a sewn edge with the thread removed. Once I got over the fact that I was soaking wet and that these were really small dinos, it was a very cool experience.

It’s not that you can’t see these kind of tracks in a museum, but there’s something… deep and connecting about seeing it where it happened, to know that this piece of rock was once thousands of miles away, and that your feet are there on the same ground that this ancient ancestor and key link in the evolution of life on land once walked.

Skellig Ring: St. Finian’s Bay & Skellig Chocolates

Skellig Ring is not part of the Ring of Kerry. It’s a little side loop down a peninsula and closer to the coast. While looking at the map, it seemed rather silly to go to Valentia and then backtrack to the official ring, so we kept hugging the coastline, which made for some lovely views.

I think we stopped at St. Finian’s because it was pretty and I needed a place to pull over and check the map. We were on our way to the Skellig Chocolate store and I was struggling to navigate the narrow roads, strange turn offs, and Google Maps all while driving a car on the “wrong” (to me) side of the road in the rain. It is a beautiful little beachfront, and I while it makes for a gloomy and picturesque photo op on the rainy afternoon I stopped there, I am sure it’s also stunning in nicer weather.

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As for the Chocolate store, it’s a cute little chocolate shop, and they have lovely tastings where you can sample all the flavors before you decide which ones you want to buy. It was good, but not spectacular. I think I’m spoiled on chocolates. I’ll generally avoid the slave labor chocolate companies like Hershey’s, but I can order my fair trade online easy enough, so chocolate shops aren’t usually on my travel itinerary.

Theo’s Chocolates in Seattle is a stop I always recommend because they roast their own beans and actually make the chocolate from scratch (unlike most shops which buy chocolate then remelt it to add flavors and shapes). Plus, I love their factory tour which makes me feel like oompa loompas are hiding just around the corner. I also spent more than a glorious day in Brussels making my way around all the famous, historical, and newly excellent chocolate shops, chatting with makers and sampling a variety of confections, some of which were “meh” and others sent me over the moon with chocolate joy.

Skellig Chocolates are certainly better tasting than Hershey or Nestle. I enjoyed the flavors, but I wasn’t over the moon. Also, although they are making some confections on site, there is no tour or museum where you can learn about chocolate making. If you happen to be passing by, and have time, great, but you can buy the same chocolates in most Ireland gift shops or at the airport if you really want to try it and don’t fancy stopping your driving tour of natural/historical wonders for this tourist money trap.

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If you want to see Valentia without driving the Skellig ring, I’d recommend taking the ferry (5 Euro/car one way) from Reenard Point and drive off the island via the bridge next to the Skellig Experience center, then follow R565 East back to the N70. I personally wish I’d been able to spend more time on Valentia to take in things like the Glanleam Gardens or the Fogher Cliffs, so even though I only wrote about the Tetrapod tracks, there’s a lot more to see there.

Staigue Fort

I like ruins. They are one of my favorite things to see. I like the stretching sense of history, and of being connected to other humans who lived and built things hundreds or thousands of years ago. I will almost never pass up the chance at a ruin. I wasn’t planning to see any stone rings after the Ring of Kerry, so I was happy to have an opportunity to compare two.

The Staigue Fort is considered one of (if not the) largest stone rings in Ireland. It is even larger than the Cahergall Fort, but it lacks the inner ring. It is older by about 300-500 years, and it hasn’t been restored as heavily, so it’s a little rougher around the edges. However, I did think that it was much easier to climb and walk on than Cahergall. The steps were wider and the path at the top was wide and smooth.

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Unlike Cahergall which was on high ground, the Staigue Fort is surrounded by higher hills. It was deeply foggy when I was there, and so the whole place had that kind of ancient, spooky, mysterious vibe. I got to climb to the top and walk around.

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I also learned what nettles look like for the first time from a local lady who was there showing her family around. I’m actually really glad I found out, because they sting if you grab them (or fall on them) so it’s nice to know what to avoid. I’ve read about nettles, stinging nettles, nettle tea and such in a wide variety of books, particularly by British authors, starting from childhood. I got so used to not knowing what they were, it never even occurred to me to look them up once Google was invented, and so now I know. Sadly, later on this trip, I was destined to find out how their sting feels… ow.

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There is a sign at the gate stating that there is a 1 Euro charge, but there is no one to collect it, only a collection box, which was jammed by two coins in the slot when we were there. The local lady who told me about the nettles, also said it wasn’t really necessary to pay, but we left a coin anyway because I like to support the care and maintenance of historical relics.

The final bid to collect some coins is a small “waterfall” and “wishing well” which is really a cute little stream where coins can be thrown with a wish, so if you want to contribute in a more creative way than the collection box, you can always toss a coin in the water. If you’re lucky, you might even see some of the famous “rainbow sheep” up close!

Kenmare Stone Circle

Stone circles are quite distinct from stone forts. The most famous stone circle in the world is, of course, Stone Henge in England, but there are thousands of stone circles around the British Isles and northern Europe (France, Germany, etc). Stone circles are much older than stone ring forts, and most date from around 5000 years ago. They show no signs of habitation (leftover bits of pottery, food, or tools) and that has led most archaeologists to believe they serve a religious or ceremonial purpose. Lots of the stone circles are also aligned with the sunrise or sunset on the equinox or solstice, which lends some credence to their use as annual calendars.

Some archaeologists think anything they don’t understand must be about religion, but there are other possibilities, one of which is that these were meeting places for nomadic or semi nomadic groups to come, exchange goods and stories, perhaps even find spouses. The solar link of the stones would make it easy for everyone to agree on the right meeting day. Maybe there was some liturgical aspect to this as well, but think about how many of our modern holidays that focus on commerce, gift exchange, and extended family visits started out as and still involve at least a little bit of a religious day. (*cough*Christmas*cough)

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Maybe if I went to a stone circle in the countryside on a dim gray misty day, it would feel more druidic or sacred, but the Kenmare Stone circle is in a town, and when we arrived, the town was also setting up for a fair and there were carnival tents and rides being built all around. I gave up trying to find real parking and just put the car down out of the way on the side of the road. There’s a small booth asking for a 2 Euro fee to view the stones, but like the other places, there is no attendant or enforcement, so donate or not as your conscience dictates.

I put the Kenmare circle on my list because stone circles are cool, and this one is considered quite large. It would have been silly to drive so close and not stop, but it was so strange to see this 4-5000 year old monument in such a cute suburban garden setting. The trees and lawn are well manicured, and there’s even an attempt at some flower beds nearby. Finally, there’s a wishing tree where people can write their wishes on paper and tie them to the tree branches.

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As an American, it can be strange to me to see things that are more than 400 years old. When I do see ancient things, it is almost always in the context of a heritage site or museum or such, but there’s just so much old stuff in northern Europe that it isn’t at all uncommon to see it integrated into modern day life. I was watching a British interior design show, and one of the houses was 800 years old. It wasn’t some special historical site or museum, it was one of many homes in the village that was still being lived in by totally average people. The designers were looking at the wooden beams in the walls and roof and talking about when those beams were put in place 800 years ago and still in people’s living rooms. That kind of thing blows my mind.

The Kenmare Stone Circle is just that kind of thing: it’s a millenia old site that has been built into a modern public garden. It’s wild to see the contrast, and it’s amazing to contemplate the stretch of human civilization between the people who buried these enormous boulders and the people who mow the lawn and plant the peonies today. What it isn’t, is a magical connection to my druid ancestors, real or imagined, and that’s ok. Not every stone circle has to be a mystical experience.

Torc Waterfall

I love waterfalls. I will make a day of waterfall hunting, or drive miles out of my way to visit a waterfall. I honestly have to say, I could have skipped this one. The national park is gorgeous, and the waterfall itself is quite beautiful, since Ireland rains enough to keep the rivers full. However, this might be the single most popular stop in the whole south-west of the island. The car park was enormous, filled with tour buses and private drivers like myself. I’d seen almost no one all day (except at the chocolate store) and suddenly it was like the mall at Christmas. We had to circle the parking lot several times waiting for a spot to open up, and when we did finally find a place, and embarked on the short 5 minute walk to the falls, I was accosted by the noise of the crowd.

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After a full day of quiet (often empty) Irish countryside and coast-way, it was a real shock. On top of that, it was our last stop of the day and we were tired, hungry, and in a hurry to get to our beds that were another 2+ hours away. I think on the whole, I would have been more satisfied to stop at one of the other viewpoints like Moll’s Gap or the Ladies View and skipped Torc. That, or spend more than one day on the ring so that Torc could be part of a greater exploration of the national park. There are several nice walking trails of different lengths and difficulty that would be a nice way to spend a day (or at least a half day), but sadly not a great way to end one. It should also be much more empty earlier in the day since all the tours end their day at the falls.

In Conclusion

The Ring of Kerry is a lot to do in a single day. If you are going to try to be crazy like me, carefully pick your stops in advance and plan rests since long periods of driving on those roads can be tiring. GPS and cell service gets spotty outside the towns, so load up your maps and make sure they’re available offline before you hit the road. Expect to have to turn around and ask directions, and know it will take you longer than Google says. Regardless of the expectations of speed limit, unless you are a very skilled/reckless driver, it is likely that the narrow curving roads will slow you down, and inevitably you will have to do some back up, drive around, wait for sheep.

Follow the advised direction (counterclockwise). I looked at the idea of going clockwise to avoid the tourists and I am SO GLAD I did not. There were several sections of the ring that would have been terrifying if not impossible to navigate going the “wrong” way. Everything is set up to make it easy for drivers following the route, and clever dicks online who advise you to go the other way are mad.

Take 2 or more days if you can. If I had it to do again, I’d still start from Killorglin, but I’d slow down, and stay in one of the small towns maybe 2/3 of the way through (Sneem or Kenmare) then spend the second day exploring the rest of the ring and the Killarney National Park. Live and learn.

What is Up with 2 Irelands Anyway?

One of the things that bothered me most while I was on the Emerald Isle was realizing how little I knew about Irish history between the potato famine and now. Like, I know some fun things about the pre-history, and the Celts and druids, and how those terrible Anglo-Saxons invaded and enslaved … well impoverished anyway, the native Gaelic people. And I know that Ireland is free now… and somehow also 2 countries, but, I really had no idea how that happened. So, this post is going to be all about my discovery of Irish history, how many and what kind of countries it is today, and how we got there.


Pre-History & Myth

A while ago, I got a book of Irish Folk Tales that I have long since passed on to other needier readers, but one of the stories toward the beginning has stayed with me. Irish pre-historic tradition tells of a series of invaders that came and conquered the island in waves. They’ve been Christianized now so that some of the earlier inhabitants are the descendants of Noah, but earlier versions describe them as gods or demi gods, followed by the kind of super-humans that do things like discover how to plow or build tools. There’s a race of monsters and one of giants.

The 5th wave of invaders is known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, which is a familiar word if you ever watched Willow. The Tuatha were described as beautiful, blonde and wise, skilled in magic. Their enemies were the Formorians, described as ugly, deformed and monstrous. It really could be Tolkien’s elves and orcs.

The 6th and final wave were the humans that make up the Gaelic people, also called Milesians, a name which means “soldier of Hispania” because the Milesians were said to have sailed to Ireland from Hispania (Spain) after wandering the world for centuries. They defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, but didn’t kill them all. The remaining Tuatha went underground and became the fairy folk of Irish folk lore.

I was completely fascinated by the notion of this tiny island with zero decent natural resources being invaded by wave after wave of supernatural races before finally being settled by humans. It explained so much about the modern persistence of Irish fairy-tale beliefs well into their Christian conversion and even the Enlightenment and modern age.

20190803_095046.jpgI’ll be sharing some of my own experiences with Irish pre-history in the form of ring forts and museums in a later post.

Here There Be Vikings

Recently, some archaeologists found a whole ton of Viking relics around Ireland, especially in Dublin. Previously, historians thought the Vikings just came to raid the settlements and monasteries in Ireland before returning home, but the recent digs show that there were full on Viking settlements in Ireland as early as 759. If I ever get around to writing about the Viking Splash Tour or the Dublin History museum, I’ll go into more detail there, but I thought it was worth mentioning that after the 6 mythical waves of settlers, there was also a real wave of tall, blonde, fair skinned, skilled at metalwork and… wait, they kinda sound like the Tuatha Dé Danann, don’t they? But, no, the Vikings didn’t appear in Ireland until well after the semi-mythical defeat of the Tuatha Dé Danann, aka the much less mythical arrival of the settlers from Spain.

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The British Invasion

I am not a historian, I’m not trying to write the definitive work. I’m not even going to try to compete with the 17 Wikipedia articles about this. I am just writing a short, hopefully oversimplified, series of events for perspective.

The Lordship

From the 12th-16th century, there was an almighty struggle for the soul of the island. The Normans (aka the English) really wanted to introduce landlordship and feudalism to Ireland, but the Gaelic chief system was more about people (clans) than land because sheep move around, and not much grows in Ireland that’s edible, so the whole feudal peasants farm the land and pay taxes thing (think Robin Hood, right?) did not go over well. Dunluce Castle (below) is an example of the kind of medieval castles used by the lords during this time.

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The Kingdom

In 1542, King Henry VIII of England was made King of Ireland. Yes, that Henry the 8th. The one who 8 years prior had taken his whole country out of Catholicism because he wanted a divorce. There was an almighty row between the Protestant and Catholic countries, and many catholic countries refused to acknowledge his (Anglican) rule over (Catholic) Ireland, but eventually it sank in. One example of this struggle can be seen at the the Ross Errily Friary (below). It was a highly contested property from Henry VIII’s invasion until it was finally abandoned after the Franciscans were forced into hiding by the Popery Act of 1698, which placed a bounty on Catholic clergy. From then, the monks lived in hiding, pretending to be a textile factory for a while, and taking up residence on a now vanished nearby island. The last of the friars died in the early 1800s.

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Cromwell

They SAY it was the Kingdom of Ireland until 1800 (remember this year, it will be important later), but there was the little matter of Oliver Cromwell, and his Irish invasion. Cromwell was an ambitious and possibly crazy dude who led a very early anti-royal rebellion in the 1600’s, got King Charles I beheaded and lead England as a Commonwealth (no king = no kingdom). He also invaded the fuck out of Ireland.

To be honest, before this, I really only knew about Cromwell from the Monty Python skit/song, and now that I’ve learned more about him, it’s almost too hilarious not to share. I went looking for the skit, but all I could find was the song (with lyrics). I definitely remember watching it as a younger person, and it’s probably somewhere on the internet still, but not on the Monty Python YouTube channel. Regardless, it’s still Monty Python and funnier than any other version of history. Have a listen:

Cromwell finally got Charles I executed in 1649, whereupon Ireland and Scotland were like, “okay, Charles II is king now!”, so of course he had to invade and do terrible war to spread his anti-royalist sentiment for all of… 4 years. It really was horrible and mostly because of how much he hated Catholics, and only slightly because of how much he hated royalists. Anyway, Cromwell kicked the bucket in 1658, and I don’t usually go in for exact dates, but in this case it’s important cause this dude only ruled (um, commonwealthed?) England for 9 years… slightly more than 2 American election cycles… and he is STILL remembered for the atrocious mess he made. I got to see some of his leftover forts while I was there. This one is on the small western island of Inish Bofin in Galway county… yes that is on the opposite side of the country that’s close to England. Cromwell was a dick.

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People hated him SO MUCH that 3 years after his death by natural causes, they dug his body up so they could have a public execution posthumously. WHAT? True.

Aside from Cromwell’s pogrom of oppression, there were multiple violent occurrences (aka wars) during this time because of the systemic oppression of the Catholics under Protestant rule including: the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–53), the Williamite-Jacobite War (1689–91), the Armagh disturbances (1780s–90s) and the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Feel free to read more about them at your leisure. I’m not going to.

Unification

Remember that year I told you to remember? What’s so special about 1800? Interesting you should ask. The Irish Parliament actually voted to erase Ireland! It was ratified by the British Parliament and they officially became ONE dysfunctional country. Why did the Irish agree to such an obviously dick move? Weeeeell, it seems the British might have lied slightly about the quid pro quo. Most Irish who supported unification thought that the horrible, yet very legal, discrimination going on would finally stop.

For those of you who think that I mean like, oh people just didn’t like them, no. They couldn’t own land. They couldn’t inherit wealth. They couldn’t GO TO SCHOOL. They couldn’t gather for worship and prayer. The clergy had bounties on their heads and lived as fugitives in the woods. Catholics were cut out of government entirely with no possibility to ever get a member in Parliament. They were also outright forbidden from certain jobs.

This oppression started with Henry and continued until 1829… that’s like… almost 300 years. The Irish Catholics are bitter for a reason. Even after 1829, there was still a lot of the more “everyday” sort of discrimination like people not wanting to rent to them, or hire them, or let them in the pub or whathaveyou, and there was no such thing as the ACLU.

Also, I swear to all things I hold dear, if ONE person tries to use this as some reason why the Irish/white ppl are “as bad off” as the African Americans/former slaves — I will scream. It is NOT the same. Please don’t even.

The Potato Famine

Everyone with even a drop of Irish blood probably knows about this at least a little. This 4 year period from 1845-49 was one of the greatest losses of life in the 19th century, and it didn’t only affect Ireland. Everyone that relied on potatoes as a food staple was affected. This whole mess was generally blamed on the oppressive British rule that left the Irish farmers super poor and reliant on a single crop for food. Almost all the other food around was taken by the landlords or exported (also by the landlords, so the people got no money from it).

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It’s a long and complicated socio-economic mess, and again, I’m not going to try to explain it all here. Suffice it to say that if you have Irish ancestors, it’s likely they left Ireland as a result of this famine. More than 2 million Irish left following the famine, many going to America. The diaspora is still felt in modern day Ireland. Ireland is the only country to have fewer residents TODAY than they did in 1840. All other countries experienced a massive population boom as a result of the industrial revolution and improved travel/economic factors. Ireland had a bit over 8 million people before the famine hit, and only slightly more than 6 million today. There are literally more sheep than people in Ireland today. Those sheep pictured above are special Connemara sheep. You can tell because they have curly horns. Apparently they taste better, too.

Easter Rising, The IRA, & Irish Independence

Back up a minute….  Ireland and England never stopped struggling over class, religion, and land. In 1916 there was the Easter Rising, which was a mostly political move (yeah, there was definitely fighting and dying, but there was also some election stuff) to establish some degree of Irish independence. While I was visiting Trinity College in Dublin, I got to see one of the original declarations of independence that was put up on the post office during the Easter Rising as well as a number of random bullet holes on buildings and statues around town that were left as reminders of the event.

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The upshot of this was that in the 1918 elections, the political party known as Sinn Féin won 73 out of 105 seats in parliament, but then REFUSED to sit with the British. Instead, in January 1919 they formed the ‘Teachta Dála’ and declared the Independent Irish Republic, of which the IRA (Irish Republican Army aka Army of the Irish Republic) became the guerrilla military.

These guys fought the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921, and eventually won “dominion” status for Ireland… well southern Ireland… Northern Ireland opted to stay part of the UK at that time. What is “dominion” you ask? Me too! Apparently it’s the baby step between being part of an empire and being totally independent. Canada did it, and I guess maybe Austria too? It wasn’t until 1937 that (southern) Ireland created it’s very own shiny constitution and became a real boy, er, country.

The IRA had it’s first of many splits over that dominion treaty, since some of them thought it wasn’t good enough and it was still just British rule with a nose job. So, the OLD IRA who accepted the dominion treaty went on to become the National Army, while those who opposed the treaty remained the Republican Army, and they rejected both the new Republic of Ireland (south) and the still-part-of-Great-Britain Northern Ireland.

I know, I always think of the IRA as being part of North Ireland, too. I’ll get there. For now, this iteration of the IRA hated everyone for being too British and kicked off the Irish Civil War. Even after they lost the war, IRA 2.0 continued to cause trouble, a little bit like some other civil war losers I know.

The Troubles

The Troubles are a very sensitive topic. I am going to make jokes, but not because I don’t take it seriously. Rather, I need some humor to keep from screaming at the sheer bloody-mindedness of the human race.

Aaaaanyway. There was a (probably) non-violent protest about Catholic rights in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland was at the time mostly protestant and still part of the UK, and while the big huge discrimination laws had ended… the actual discrimination had not. Go figure. The British police responded with violence and the whole thing got way outta hand, and the IRA was like, “fight the man” — with bombs.

In 1969, the IRA split again, giving us the “Official” IRA (OIRA or as I will call them, IRA 3.0) and the “Provisional” IRA (PIRA aka IRA 3.5). I *think* the OIRA were Marxists who wanted total abolition of British involvement in a united Ireland and also participated in politics as the Workers Party. And. I *think* the PIRA were not-Marxist but still left leaning folks who wanted total abolition of British involvement in a united Ireland and practiced a kind of politics known as abstensionism, whereby one runs for and wins seats in a legislature, but then doesn’t participate, rendering said seats… obstructive, and I guess maybe also preventing things like quorums or majorities. Honestly, I’m kind of freaked out by that tactic and I think it might be what the Republicans are doing in America right now.

Bloody Sunday

While I was in Northern Ireland, I took the opportunity to pass through Derry and see the Bloody Sunday bog murals (one of which is pictured below), which was certainly a large part of what piqued my interest in learning all this history. Bloody Sunday, also captured in a U2 song, was a brutal example of police violence in 1972 when 13 unarmed men were killed by police in a civil rights protest.

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Now, maybe they were “not angels” in the sense they may have belonged to one or more violent groups, but at the time they were killed by police, they were unarmed and not committing any violent acts. They were killed without an arrest or a trial. By the police.

I swear to all my gods, if you wanna compare this shit to what is happening re Black Lives Matter in America, please do so only within the context of shitty ass policing and do not try to say shit about the white people being victims too. It is NOT the same.

Sigh.

Then in 1986, yet ANOTHER split created the Continuity IRA (CIRA, or IRA 3.8). I gather their main objection to the PIRA was that around this time the PIRA stopped practicing the rather shady tactic of abstentionism, and the CIRA thought that was not cool. Other than that, the CIRA didn’t really do anything until 1994, when the rest of the IRAs were gearing up for peace.

The Northern Ireland Peace Process

Getting to a part of history I sort of remember! In 1994 there was a real movement to create some kind of peace and to end the decades of violent clashes between the various IRAs and the British forces in Northern Ireland. This went on for a while, and it danced around a lot, which I think is how I ended up with such a wildly confused idea of modern Irish history. Although the Good Friday Agreement of 1997 supposedly fixed things, it wasn’t until 2005 that the IRA actually declared they would stop fighting, and not until 2007 that the Troubles were declared officially over.

And yet…

What’s with Northern Ireland now that they stopped bombing stuff?

The IRA lives on. I saw quite a bit of pro-IRA graffiti (below) while I was looking around the bog murals in Derry. A new splinter group called the “Real” IRA (IRA 2011), came about as a faction who rejected the peace process decided to remain active. They are considered by all governments  to be a terrorist organization and have no legitimacy as a political party or national military force (unlike previous incarnations of the IRA which had one or both). Attacks this year (2019) have included Derry, Belfast, London, and Glasgow.

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As long as Ireland remains split, there remain unionists (who are for British union) and the nationalists (who are for a single non-British Ireland). Nowadays most nationalists are far from violent, and prefer to imagine they can either persuade the Northerners to vote themselves out of England or (as one of my tour guides told me) that the Catholic minority in the north will overtake the Protestants by virtue of birthrate (Catholics don’t go in for any of that “family planning” after all) and that on that day, they’ll have the pure numbers to push a vote through. The spirit of the IRA and the goal for a single free Ireland lives on, but nowadays it’s (mostly) just talk.

Beware venturing your opinion in earshot of an Irishman though. However much they may feud with one another, like any family, they can take exception to outsiders choosing sides. I recommend a pint of Guinness and a willingness to listen more than talk as the key to smooth international relations. 

Don’t let the politics put you off a visit. Northern Ireland is insanely beautiful, that’s why they shot Game of Thrones there, after all. Just look at this stunning coastline! Plus, it really is quite safe, especially outside the major cities. I’ll go into more of my personal experiences there in my futures posts so you can be charmed like I was.

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Finally Writing About Ireland

I have published something like 6 posts that are distinctly NOT about Ireland since I got back this past summer. Usually that would be because I was hard at work chronicling my adventures and polishing each post into a sparkly gem, but this time… it’s not. This post is going to be the start of the Ireland Chronicles, however, I’m going to take some time at the beginning to talk about a personal issue, so for those who are just here for the tourism, please feel free to skip down to the second segment. 


Why Aren’t You Writing About Ireland Yet?

It’s starting to feel like I can’t go traveling with anyone really important to me. I’ve now had two close relationships disintegrate after a trip, while the travels I take with friends who are less close have been great. I don’t define “relationship” as only romantic or sexual, by the way. I happen to think that any degree of association can be a relationship (work relationship, teacher-student relationship, my favorite barista relationship, etc). In this case I am talking about people with whom I felt a long term and deep emotionally intimate connection.

In reality, those close relationships were never actually healthy, and the constant close exposure of travelling together simply put them under a microscope until it was impossible to deny the core problems. As I learn about healthy relationships and boundaries, I find that it’s easy to spot the red flags in a new person, but almost impossible to drag myself out of denial with a person I’m significantly attached to. When you’re so used to something being a certain way, even if that way is awful, it just seems normal, and the abnormal situation of long international trip can cast it into sharp relief.

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In this case, I think I was most of the way out of the fog of denial before we actually embarked, but the plans had been made and the money spent, and I genuinely hoped that a nice, low stress holiday would reduce the big problems that I was still blaming on things like job and life stress. The only thing that could have made that more sarcastically apt is if we’d gone to Egypt instead of Ireland and I could really make some d’Nile jokes. I suppose I’ll have to settle for Blarney jokes instead.

I know in my heart of hearts that a single vacation cannot ruin or fix any relationship, it can only blow the truth up to billboard sized letters. However painful the experience was, I’m glad it happened because I think it’s better in the long run to identify unhealthy relationships so that we can either work to make them healthy or if that’s impossible to walk away. However, it makes it hard to write about a holiday when the memories are either good memories tainted by loss or just plain old bad memories. It’s like that movie, Inside Out, when Sadness touches all the memories and they turn blue and sad forever.

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When I wrote about the Philippines I did my best to simply leave out any and all references to the person I was with, treating it like a blank space in the narrative and jumping around the timeline to avoid describing the personal details of arguments and emotional clashes. I think it helped, too. The memories of that relationship are still painful, but now I can look at the experiences I had in the Philippines and remember the joy I took from them, happily recommend the island, and even think positively about going again someday.

I’m going to try to take the same approach with Ireland, yet at the same time, I don’t want to paint this in some kind of idyllic holiday life. Those who read this blog often know that I don’t like fake-positive online life, but I struggle to balance my need to be honest about the challenges I face with my desire to share only the best and most delightful experiences. I’ve been putting off writing about Ireland explicitly because I don’t want to think about the hurtful parts, and yet I think it’s vital to my gratitude practice and to my remembering self that I take the time to tease out the good parts and keep them alive.

So here’s the disclaimer: I’m cutting out all the personal negative experiences, I’ll only be including things that could happen to any traveler or group based on regular travel challenges. It could result in a choppy or unbalanced story, but that’s just how it has to be. My life is far from perfect, but I’m trying my best to be better.

Without any further ado… Irish Road Trip

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Renting a Car

I enjoy road trips when I’m getting out of a city. I love public transit and happily take buses and trains on most of my excursions, but I had some lovely experiences driving in the US, and later in Germany, France, New Zealand and Sweden. When I choose to get a car it’s because I want more freedom to go to places that are off the beaten track, way outside the city, or just generally hard to get to. Ireland is no exception.

When I was planning my trip, a friend of mine told me that he and his wife had done an Irish road trip about 20 years ago, before there was any kind of highway system at all. Although there is a large intercity highway system today, most of the things we wanted to see in the countryside were still on the old roads (more on that later).

In case you’re curious about renting a car, we used EuropeCar. I looked at a few local rental places, but it seems that there are a fair number of hidden fees with those places that can add up and be frustrating and expensive. By opting for a larger company, we got a real price quote up front and the process of picking up the car was much smoother. I was initially irritated that they were trying to up-sell us the “full coverage” insurance (quite expensive) at the pick up. I was extremely tired from running around Paris all day and a delayed flight into Dublin, so all I wanted was to get to our hotel. When we were standing there it felt like a scam sell, and I was very dubious.

The regular minimum insurance covers any scratches or dings that are less than a 2 Euro coin size (it’s a law) so the car companies can’t charge tourists for tiny chips, dings and scratches that occur in the normal course of driving. It also covers a minimum amount of liability in case you damage someone else’s car or property, or have to go to a hospital. There was a high deductible, but to me, it seemed worth it not to pay a few hundred more in insurance. However, since I wasn’t the one paying, we got the full coverage, and after I saw the driving conditions in the countryside, I was very glad that we did. To sum up, if you want to drive anywhere other than the cities and highways, get the extra insurance. If you want to stay in the cities and highways… ride the bus.

Driving in Ireland

The first thing to mention here is that driving in Ireland is done on the left side of the road, and that the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car… completely backwards from the US where I learned to drive. Lucky me, this wasn’t going to be my first time driving left as I’d had a chance to learn in New Zealand some three years previously. Nonetheless, I still spent a good portion of the first few days just reciting “left side, left side, left side” under my breath the whole time.

You also need to know how to use a roundabout, which is a complex system of yielding and merging that is supposed to be safer and more efficient than traffic lights. Basically, anyone already on the roundabout has right of way over anyone trying to join it. Interestingly, some of the busiest roundabouts at major highway interchanges also included traffic lights because otherwise no one would ever get on.

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The road signs are pretty good, written in both English and Irish, and the streets often have painted arrows to help you remember your lane, and also let you know which lane to be in if you want to turn or go straight. There were a few times that the signs an Google Maps did not agree and I got a bit tangled up, but it never took more than a few minutes to sort out.  Except Coleraine (pronounced call-rain) in Northern Ireland, which is a hellhole of one way roads and inaccessible streets. My Google travel history looks pretty linear everywhere else, but in Coleraine it looks like a Gordian knot. Don’t get sucked in, drive around.

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There’s only one more very important note about driving in Ireland which is that outside the cities and arterial highways, the roads are typically only one car wide, but accommodate two way traffic. Even in the villages with two lane roads, there are so many cars parked along the roadside that traffic is reduced to a single lane’s width. In a lot of places, they are also lined closely with thick hedges, deep ditches, or stone walls meaning you have zero shoulder room. Two way traffic includes other normal sized cars, tour buses, farm equipment, and livestock.

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On the one hand, it can be a relief driving these roads because there’s no need to worry about left-side or right side. On the other hand, when you meet oncoming traffic, your knuckles immediately whiten on the steering wheel as you try to figure out how not to have a head on collision.

The good news is that the locals are very used to this. There are a fair number of turn outs on the most narrow roads, and often there is *just* enough room for two cars to pass on the single lane if we’re both willing to rub up against the shrubbery. Once I realized that the vast majority of other drivers were polite, careful, and familiar with the process, I did relax a little bit. As intimidating as these roads can be, it’s worth it to drive them because a lot of little hidden gems can only be accessed this way.

Public Transit in Cities

While we were in Dublin, we were actually able to simply walk everywhere we wanted to go by getting a room next to Trinity College. The main tourist district is quite tightly packed and walk-able, but if you want to go a little further or it’s just too rainy, there’s a great system of buses and trams. However, paying for these modes of transit are unnecessarily complicated. Fares change based on where and when you board and exit, so you can easily end up paying the maximum if you don’t know how to navigate the system.

The easiest way around this is to get a LEAP card. There’s a few ways to do this, but the simplest is to walk into nearly any convenience store and buy one. They cost about 5 Euro and are re-loadable. Fares are automatically calculated if you tap in AND tap out, plus you get a fare discount for using the card instead of cash. I wasn’t able to get the reloading app to work for me, but it’s very easy to reload at any number of grocery shops and convenience stores.

There is a tourist LEAP, but I’d shy away from that one because of the limitations. They are technically unlimited travel, but they only apply to city transit (and a few airport options). Generally, visitors to Ireland want to see the countryside or travel to more than one city, and the LEAP doesn’t cover that. The LEAP is good for most major cities (NOT Derry or Belfast as that is a different country), so I think the top-up card is the way to go.

Please note that the LUAS tram system is a bit unique. There is a post at the tram stop OUTSIDE the tram where you need to tap your LEAP card BOTH before you get on and AFTER you get off. If you don’t tap when you leave, you’ll be charged the maximum fare! I was a bit thrown off by the tapping posts being at the stops rather than inside the tram, but it did make boarding more efficient. I used this in Dublin.

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I used buses in Galway. With a bus you need to tell the driver what stop you plan to get off BEFORE you tap your LEAP card. The driver will program your fare and then you can hold your card to the reader. It takes much longer than the tram, but the drivers are generally pretty nice about it. Just make sure you use Google Maps or similar to know the name of your stop before you board. Again, failure to do so means a much larger fee.

Traveling Outside the Cities: Public Bus and Tour Bus

If you do want to travel to another city, there are great and affordable inter-city bus options. I used CityLink. You get a slight discount for booking online. The drivers don’t generally require a printed ticket, so you can book online from your phone or hostel no problem. You can also buy tickets at the bus stations in each city.

Finally, another great way to see Ireland without a car is to join tour buses that leave from the major cities and head out to the countryside. I personally did this twice: once from Dublin to the Wicklow mountains, and once from Galway to Kylemore Abbey.

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I shopped around using Viator to compare deals and I found that a LOT of agencies overcharge or misrepresent their tours. Read the details carefully. One of my day trips from Galway was to go out to Inishbofin. I did find a “tour” but it was nothing more than the public bus (CityLink) and the public ferry. They wanted to charge three-four times the cost of those tickets and didn’t even offer a guide to help you find the bus/ferry!

Long story short, if you can use the public transit to get someplace, do it. If there is no public transit, then make sure you pick a reputable tour company with plenty of positive reviews for the tour you are interested in. You can find the links for the tours I went on here:  Kylemore Abbey with Galway Tour CompanyWicklow Mountains with Gray Line Dublin.

If you do choose to join one of these tours, please be aware that not all the buses offer all the amenities. WiFi, charging ports and the like are hit or miss, but the seats are comfy and the drivers are very entertaining. I would recommend bringing lots of snacks or even a pack lunch as the timing doesn’t always allow you to eat when you’re hungry or both eat and sight see. They also have deals with some random tiny towns that they stop in for lunch. There’s usually only one place to eat, so it can get crowded or expensive.

Planning the Route

We had decided on a basic road trip itinerary before arriving. I think it’s important on any time sensitive vacation to schedule a certain amount of things. I like to schedule where I’ll sleep, as well as breakfast and dinner (lunch can be on the fly unless there’s a special reason to schedule it). I like to schedule one or two things in a day and also leave myself room to change, rearrange, add or subtract. The schedule for Ireland was unusually tight because my travel companion had a very long bucket list and while I might go back one day, it’s unlikely they will, so I tried hard to accommodate them. Even with a tight schedule, I don’t like to buy tickets in advance unless they’re likely to sell out so that I have the freedom to change things around as needed.

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Our schedule was also based on not doing more than about 4 hours of car time a day. It’s a holiday after all, there’s no point in spending all day driving. As a consequence, there were a couple places we visited just because we needed to stop. No regrets, though, even the small out of the way places were awesome. Our final road map looked like this:

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Finally, the end of the trip we spent in Dublin, so we returned the car and used the excellent buses or just walked from our very central hostel next to Trinity College.

After 16 crazy busy days, my travel companion returned home, and I had a much more slow paced week spent between Dublin and Galway where I relied on coach bus tours and public transit to enjoy myself.


EXPANDED 3 WEEK ITINERARY

For those who either want a sneak preview or need some ideas to plan your own Irish holiday. You could use this in all or part:
two week drive -day 1-14
one week drive: South = day 2-6+12&13 or North = 11-7 (backwards) + 12&13
one week Dublin/Gallway no-car experience – 12, 13, 15, 16/17 combo, 18, 19, 20/21 combo

Day 1:
arrived very late at Dublin airport, picked up car, stayed in a hotel near the airport

Day 2:
Irish National Stud
Leap Castle (haunted?)
Sol y Sombra Tapas, Killarney

Day 3:
Kerry Ring
(ancient stone forts, sheep, waterfalls, chocolate, and prehistoric fossils)

Day 4:
Fungie the Dingle Dolphin & the cliffs of Star Wars

Day 5:
Inis Oir (of the Aran Islands)
Doolin Cave
Traditional Music House

Day 6:
Lough Key: castle in a lake + treetop walk
Seaweed Baths @ Enniscrone

Day 7:
Belleek Pottery
Derry: Bog Murals, Guild Hall, Peace Bridge
Downhill Demesne

Day 8:
Giant’s Causeway
Carrick-a-Rede Bridge
Dunluce Castle

Day 9:
Bushmills Distillery Tour
The Dark Hedges
Glenarm Gardens
Glenariff Waterfall

Day 10: Game of Thrones Day
Belfast TEC: GoT Exhibit
Castle Ward (aka Winterfell)
Inch Abbey

Day 11:
Newgrange
return car to Dublin Airport
Pub Crawl in Temple Bar
This is the day we were supposed to go to Newgrange, but had a “zero damage” accident with a German family in the parking lot and ended up doing police and insurance reports instead, then had to leave to get the car back to Dublin on time.

Day 12:
Viking Splash Tour
Dublin Walking Tour
The walking tour was cancelled last minute, but we were so tired that neither of us actually minded and we spent the afternoon resting.

Day 13:
Trinity College Library & the Book of Kells
The Museum of Archaeology
The Museum of Natural History, aka “The Dead Zoo”

Day 14:
End of two week version, companion departed from Dublin airport
As the person doing the 3 week version, I took this day to rest and do laundry.

From this point, the schedule is FAR more relaxed… and I really needed it after so much fast paced adventuring. I also did the final week on public transit or tour groups.

Day 15:
Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough (GrayLine)

Day 16:
Bus to Galway
Honestly, you could do more, but I was enjoying the slow pace life.

Day 17:
Downtown Galway + unexpected Pride march

Day 18:
Kylemore Abbey (Galway Tour Group)

Day 19:
Inishbofin Island (public transit)

Day 20:
More downtown Galway… really good Irish food.

Day 21:
Bus back to Dublin airport and fly home.