Friday, June 13, 2008

Ireland, Part two of two (and link to photos)

One adventure we had as a family in Dingle was a search for a pair of pliers. In order to read the meter and pay the electric bill for the cottage, we needed pliers to open the access panel outside the house. A guy in a convenience store directed us to a place that was a combination bar and hardware store. We didn’t quite believe it until we walked into Foxy John’s Bar and Hardware: half bar, half hardware store. The left side of the room was a bar where some locals were quite lit at 10:30 in the morning. The right side of the room was a rabbit warren of cubby holes with all kinds of junk stuffed in them.

The bartender changed hats, so to speak, coming out from behind the bar and going behind the hardware counter. Sure enough, he went right to certain box and pulled out a pair of pliers for about €5. We were saved!

One curious thing I noticed was that as Ann drove around the back roads, every time a car came from the opposite direction, she would raise a finger or two. I asked her about it and she just said, “Country wave”. Gotta love the country wave. There is a certain convention, apparently about the correct use of this salute. Unless you recognize a friend, one or two fingers is sufficient. If you see an acquaintance, a whole hand wave is required.

On our last day in Dingle, we traveled around to see the famous beehive huts, famine houses and an ancient stone fort. After sightseeing, we stopped for an early dinner in Dingle at Ashe’s—turns out someone named Scanlon is the owner. We couldn’t find any “an”s anywhere, but there were plenty of Americans to go around. One sales clerk was from Louisiana, a server was from Bergenfield, NJ (a few miles from where I grew up) and some other tourists on the Fungi boat were from a town a few miles from our town in Ohio.

Kathy and I went to Mass on Sunday in the country church in Ballingeary. We were able to walk there fortunately, since there is no parking to speak of. I had been looking forward to that Mass all week. They had five servers: two girls who did all the work, one boy who was on the same side of the altar as the girls, and two little boys who had nothing to do over on the other side of the altar. The Mass was partly in Irish (the prayers and readings) and partly in English (the homily). It was a rather joyless affair, though, with no music at all. It all seemed so …obligatory. We sat near the front, about eight pews back with no one in front of us except two grandparents and five grandchildren. Then there was a no man’s land of about ten empty pews behind us and then about 150 people were jammed into the back of the church.

Our second week, we went ‘round the Ring of Kerry. All this time I thought it was some stone structure we were going to see, but of course it’s rather a string of towns with different sights to see, all around the Kerry area. One highlight was a trip through the Gap of Dunloe, a long winding road through a boulder strewn valley. There was one point in the trip where you had to pass between a kind of Scylla and Charybdis—two big rocks with only enough room for one car.

The absolute best part of the trip for me was a secret visit to Skellig Michael with Peter. We stole away one morning without telling Kathy where we were going. Everyone else know, though. Skellig Michael is a forty minute boat ride out into the Atlantic. Monks lived there beginning a few hundred years after Jesus finished his work on earth. They had to carve hundreds of steps into the stone, leading to the top of this big rock that sticks out of the ocean. They built bee hive huts there and a hermitage. They considered themselves living at the edge of the world, and it certainly seems that way when you are there. I hope you can see the photos on

You had to walk along the edge of the cliff for most of the hike, so it was no place for acrophobiacs. We met one on the way up. She was terrified of crossing a rather wide ledge—actually an easy part of the trip. She did make it to the top eventually and had someone walk her down later. I allowed myself a half hour to get down to the boat, and I just made it. Peter hot footed it down the trail and was the last one aboard.

My knee held up just fine through all of this and then gave out on our last day. Our last round of sightseeing included the Cliffs of Moher, which we saw both from the top and from a boat (courtesy of Ann). They were very impressive, despite the cloudy weather. Kathy made a new friend, Sean, on the boat. Sean coaxed her out onto the bow and told old jokes to keep her entertained. You can see him in one of the photos.

I have some classic shots of the 5,000 year old portal tomb at Poulnabrone—the last nifty sight we saw on our trip. After that, we headed for Shannon Airport for our last night in Ireland. Ann’s plan worked out very well. In fact, everything she planned for us worked wonderfully well. She was a terrific travel agent, guide, cook, driver, hostess and daughter throughout the whole two weeks.

I’ll leave you with some Irish-isms we heard during the trip:

- In one little town, a woman bent down in front of our car to pick up a coin. She came over to the driver’s side to say, “I always pick up money, because the angels have left it for me.”

- What time does the restaurant open? “When they get there.”

- How do I get to ______________? “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.”

Monday, June 09, 2008

Ireland Trip part one

We only slept a few hours on the way over to Shannon. The in-flight movie was “The Bucket List” which turned out to be very good, funny and sad. This time we had a plane with the TV screens built right into the headrests in front of us instead of the ones that swing down from the ceiling every few feet.

Our party split up with Kathy and her sisters going off with Peter directly to the house. I left with Ann to go pick up their dog Toby. He turned out to be a great dog. He’s about fifty pounds, a medium haired Alsatian. We’d hate to see a long haired one, since he was plenty furry himself. We learned that “Alsatian” was just a politically correct term for German Shepherd.

Their house is only two years old, the garage about eight months old, so everything is very new. They have two bedrooms upstairs where the sisters slept, and three downstairs. Kathy and I had the one opposite the bathroom. It normally serves as a workroom for Peter, but they were nice enough to set up a bed for us in there.

The back of the house is a very big space with a kitchen that sprawls along one wall and an eating area set up in a sort of glass enclosed patio. They put down a line of black tape, scribing a arc around the food preparation area in the kitchen that is a Toby-free zone. He is not allowed past the line.

We spent a lot of time lounging at the dining table reading, talking, eating, looking out at the hills searching for the pheasant we knew lived in the bushes. Ann had set up our places marked with coffee mugs full of chocolate, and we wound up staying in our assigned spots for the whole visit.

Staying awake the first day is always a challenge. If you can stay up till 8pm or 9pm, you feel much better than if you sneak in a nap. To ensure our wakefulness, Peter and Ann took us out to an enchanted forest called Gougán Barra. OK, maybe it’s not really enchanted, but it’s my vision of a place likely to be populated by fairies and hobbits. The moss covered rocks and boggy ground with groves of pine trees are very picturesque. In fact, Peter has some wonderful shots of the area in his portfolio.

As part of our sleep deprivation routine, Kathy's sister and I decided to walk into Ballingeary proper—the village located just a mile down the road. We were instructed to walk on the right side facing traffic on the narrow country road. We dubbed it the Highway of Death because the cars race along without a thought for anyone foolish enough to be on foot. As you approach the village, you come to the Bridge of Death, as we called it, since there is nowhere to go if two cars approaching from opposite directions meet on the bridge. You have to go over the side. Fortunately, we survived the excursion and in the end we became rather blasé about cars rushing by us on the rural lanes.

We walked into the little store in town to get a head of lettuce, and had to ask the produce driver if he had any on his truck—fortunately he was just making his delivery. The store clerk was chatting with him as he worked. Since we were visiting an Irish speaking or Gaeltacht area, we heard lots of things we didn’t recognize. Later we saw the produce driver outside and he asked us, ‘Could you understand that lady in there?” We said no, and he said, ‘Me neither!”

Day Two
Ann and I drove out to the “Community Amenities Center”---read Recycling Center. Ann’s favorite activity is to smash the glass bottles she has brought inside the glass bin. It’s quite a carnival trick to get them into the hole in the bin so they won’t just smash on the parking lot.

Our next adventure was driving down south to a lighthouse point called Mizen Head. It was a cold and windy seascape there on the southwestern-most point of Ireland, with fingers of rock reaching into the ocean and waves crashing over them. Sea caves in the cliffs are a dramatic feature as are the folds in the rocks along the walkway that takes you to the light house buildings.

We stopped for a late lunch at O’Sullivan’s, a little pub on the water in Crookhaven. Most of us had the crab sandwich, complete with bits of shell, so you know it was authentic.

Day Three
We had plenty of authentic Irish weather on Wednesday, with pouring rain the primary feature. It gave way to scattered showers and sprinkles. Do the Irish have many words for rain, as the Inuit have for snow? They should.

Our inside activity was a visit to Muckross House, a big estate in Killarney Our tour guide Niall took us through all the rooms up and down and into the basement as well, explaining the function of each room. We asked about why the beds were so short, figuring it was just that people were shorter then, and Niall pointed out an additional factor—that they often had respiratory problems and they thought that sitting up in bed was better for them.

In the scullery, the guide pointed out the sinks that were built low to the floor, remarking that that was because the children of the servants would work at those sinks. The whole group groaned at the prospect of children inheriting their parents’ station in life.

One of the owners of Muckross House spent most of his fortune and all of six years preparing for a visit from Queen Victoria. He hoped to garner a title out of the deal, so he went all out. She spent a total of two days there, and after all that work and expense, she completely forgot about granting a title to the owner. Her husband, Prince Albert, died shortly after this visit and in her ensuing depression, she never gave it a thought.

I asked the guide about the name “Muckross”. It was derived from ‘Muck” meaning “boar”, since there were once boars on the property, and “ross” meaning peninsula, since it’s situated on a peninsula. No one else asked that, so I was quite pleased with myself.

We had a sumptuous lunch at the Lake Hotel in Killarney. The sisters decided that this was their favorite place to eat so we did come back here the following week. After lunch, the sisters and Peter went back to Ballingeary since the sisters were flying to London for three days. Ann, Kathy and I split off for Balliferriter, a village on the Dingle peninsula where we had booked a cottage.

The “cottage” turned out to be a three bedroom affair with a nice kitchen, dining area and a big living room, all very comfortable. The only thing we lacked was bath towels. We bought a couple rolls of the paper variety and that did the trick. Kathy felt like she was camping.

We drove into Balliferriter for dinner at the hotel/restaurant/pub. I ordered Irish stew and got four whole potatoes, carrots as big as tree trunks and meat in a big bowl of broth. If I had worked all day building stone walls, I could probably work up enough appetite to handle it. As it was, I asked to take the rest home and the woman serving us bit her lip, considered the problem and said, ‘I’ll try to find something to put it in.” Turns out no one had ever asked for a doggie bag before. Fortunately I did not use that phrase—it might have really set her off. She returned with a plastic container that she had obviously scrounged from the kitchen. I felt kind of dopey after that.

Day Four
Ann and I walked down the lane to the beach near our cottage in the morning to collect shells and check out the scenery. The day before had been so rainy we couldn’t see anything. Today we saw the mountains surrounding us for the first time. There is a set of peaks called “The Three Sisters” (ironic for our visit) across the water from our beach. There were photos of them in the cottage, and I took a stab at capturing them on film, er, memory card too.

One thing we got accustomed to this trip was “elevenses”, or what the Hobbits might call “second breakfast”. At about 11am each day, we would find a café and get coffee, tea, croissants, cake or whatever we could find. Kathy was shocked to find me ordering a pot of tea at each stop, since I never ever drink the stuff. I decided to give it a try on this trip.

What I learned was that, at least for me, tea kind of slows things down. First, you have to wait for the tea to steep in the pot. Then you pour, add milk and brown sugar to taste, and wait some more for the cup to cool enough so you can drink it without scalding yourself. By then, things have slowed down to a manageable pace. How civilized.

Next stop was Dingle town and the search for Fungi. Nope, not the mushroom variety—this Fungi is the dolphin variety. We boarded a small boat and set out into the bay to look for the famous dolphin. The deal is, if you don’t see Fungi, you don’t have to pay for the excursion. This seems like a fair deal until you realize that he is a mammal after all and has to come to the surface to breathe. If he were a shark or something, that would be a different story.

Of course we spotted the critter, but often it was just a glimpse of a dorsal fin. One time everyone but Kathy was leaning off the port side, and the tricky little guy showed up along the starboard rail, grinning at Kathy. She jumped up and whooped at the sight!

At lunch at Murphy’s pub, I told Ann to text the following message to Peter: “Sighted Fungi, Sank Same”, hoping he would get the reference. He did.

During this trip, I was in search of a CD from an Irish traditional group called OSNA, who had played at the afters party at Ann and Peter’s wedding. After checking three stores in different towns, I finally went to their website and discovered that the new CD is not out yet. It’s really the thrill of the hunt that I was after, so I didn’t immediately take the easy way out on the Internet.

Peter and Ann are really of the Internet generation, since it is their first resource. Ann uses her laptop as her kitchen radio, listening to NPR stations. It’s also her typewriter for communicating on her blog and her movie studio for DVD’s and game arcade just for fun. Peter has servers running in his computer room that take care of his web site, and of course he has a desktop for his photo business, not to mention a ginormous printer producing those elegant prints of his.

After dropping Kathy back at the cottage, Ann and I took off for Connor Pass, circling around the mountain to approach it from the more difficult side: the side with a single lane road with two way traffic.

At one point, a car was coming down and we had to back up to find a spot to inch over to the left to allow the car to pass. There were a couple of problems with this. First, there was already a car behind us, so we had to get them to back up too. Next, the woman coming down the hill was in a rental car and thus not familiar with the area and so she panicked at this situation and froze. She made us come right up against the rock wall on our left until she finally crept past us.

I told Ann she deserved the Connor Pass Driving Merit Badge. Part of the test for an Irish drivers license requires one to back up around a curve. It was surprising how often this particular maneuver was needed on narrow country roads. There is another trick you have to use when stopped on a hill facing the crest. You need to pull the emergency brake, then release the brake while applying the accelerator—it almost feels like the collective on helicopter controls. Ann is also a star when it comes to this trick.

Triumphant, when we reached the top of the pass, I bought her a “99”, an ice cream cone with a chocolate stick poking out of it. We enjoyed the view of the mountains to one side and Dingle town to the other. It was cold and windy, so after a brief rest, we climbed back into the car for a trip down the mountain on the easy three lane road for a change.

A word about Ann’s car: it’s a diesel Peugeot, four door hatchback with amazing power. Ann has nicknamed the vehicle ‘Leo”. Leo did an outstanding job during this whole trip.

We next ran down to Sleá Head drive, a nifty road that takes you down to a hidden beach that is covered in high tide. (The beach, not the road.) There is a section where a stream runs over the road. It’s too expensive to build a bridge at that spot, so they didn’t. You just have to be careful when you come around that curve.

This being an Irish speaking area, the traffic signs and messages were in Irish. Here are some typical ones:

“Go Mall” - go slow

“Tog Bóg Ė” - Take it softly (slow down)

“Failte” - Welcome

“Sían” - Come Again (or something like that. Appears when you are leaving a town.)

(more to come)