Ireland/Britain 1998 day 21: Stirling/Inverness


I left Glasgow on the Great Northen Railways “In the Path of the Flying Scotsman” on 10 February 1998. The plan was to travel to Inverness stopping at Stirling en route. I’d seen Braveheart and read about William Wallace and the Battle of Stirling so I figured it was worth a day trip. From the train station I made a bee line toward the distant stone tower I assumed was Stirling Castle. The walk was longer than it looked and I had to wend my way through streets lined with those ever present British suburban duplex houses.

I made it to the big stone building, paid my admission, and climbed to the top of the tower. It was only when I read the plaque identifying buildings one could see from the top that I realized I was an eejit and not in Stirling Castle at all but in The National Wallace Monument. It was quite possibly the dumbest tourist moment in the entire six weeks. However, I got a good walk out of it and on the way to the real Stirling Castle I crossed the bridge that marks the site of the actual Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Stirling Castle made my day. It’s just a big old castle built atop craggy outcroppings and fun to wander around and explore. Great audiovisual displays interpreted the site and there are great views from the battlements. The castles was (and probably still is) undergoing some serious renovation, but even this was fascinating as signs explained how the castle would be restored to its former glory.

Arriving in Inverness, I checked into Eastgate Backpackers Hostel. For supper I got some Chinese take-away which inexplicably came with a side of chips. Hey why not have all of one’s greasy, sodium-filled foods at once? I stopped in at a couple of pubs – The Phoenix and Johnny Foxes – and tried some Scottish ales. Tuesday night in Inverness is pretty quiet though so I retired early.

Stirling Castle

On the walls of Stirling Castle.

Lion

This lion with its tongue sticking out cracks me up.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 20: Glasgow


In the morning, I stumbled down for breakfast in SYHA hostel. It was a crummy breakfast, but included in the price, and I was getting my money’s worth on 9 February 1998. In the breakfast room, the big, hairy Hells Angels type of guy who did most of the smoking and shouting the previous night sat down right across with me and tried to strike up a conversation. As if he had not been the most inconsiderate person in the world. As if he didn’t know that I loathed him with every fiber of my being. Luckily, I was too tired to speak my mind and responded only with non-committal grunts.

There actually is an independent hostel in Glasgow, their flyer posted to lampposts by the SYHA hostel as if they were freedom pamphlets for poor travelers stuck in overpriced rooms with brutish thugs. So I checked out of the SYHA hostel and checked into Globetrotters Hostel. I was shown to a funky room called the Death Star and assigned to a bunk called Darth Vader. In the kitchen, sesame bread with butter, jam and lemon curd was freely available. Much better.

Glasgow reminds me of Philadelphia, kind of grubby and rundown but with marvelous cultural institutions in unexpected places. I visited two museums this day, both of which were excellent. First I visited the St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art. The collection included well-interpreted and presented artifacts of religious traditions from throughout the world. I don’t think there’s any other museum I’ve ever seen quite like it. Next I visited The Burrell Collection, a spectacular modern building with a fantastic collection of stained glass and medieval tapestries among other things.

It was a good day for museums as the wind was so fierce that the rain fell sideways and I was completely soaked after waiting for the bus to the Burrell Collection. My umbrella was toast and I was down to my last pair of clean pants. That evening I attempted to catch up on my laundry, and went to a laundromat my guidebook claimed was open until 9 pm. The lights were on, the door was open, people were doing there laundry, and there were no hours or closed sign on the door. So I went and started filling a washing machine when the old woman who ran the place came over and yelled at me that the laundromat was closed. I steamed in rage as I stomped back to the hostel.

In the lounge I joined the other guests reading questions from Trivial Pursuit cards. My favorite question that came up that night: “What is the largest city in Scotland?” They were nice people but I didn’t really bond with them. As I wrote in my journal “they’re all Australians looking for work and I’m an American on holiday at a stupid time of the year.”

Glasgow Cathedral

Glasgow Cathedral reflects off the sodden square it shares with St. Mungo’s Museum.

Thinker & Otter

Art at the Burrell Colection: The Thinker by August Rodin, 1880, bronze. The Otter by K&M International, 1992, polyester fiber.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 19: Belfast and across the sea to Scotland


Another Sunday in Ireland, I start the day of 8 February 1998 with a long walk to view the murals and sites of West Belfast. I start at Milltown Cemetery where many Irish Republicans including those who died as a result of the 1981 hunger strike are buried. I walk along Falls Road where there are a great variety of political murals, some covering entire buildings such as the headquarters of Sinn Fein. Compared to Derry, the murals are a shoddy and uninspired. At least many of the newer looking ones portray visions of a peaceful future. This is less true in Sandy Row, an adjacent Protestant neighborhood where the murals depict calls for violent action and “No Surrender!”

Bummed out by all of this, and feeling like a “terrorism tourist,” I head to the more cheerful environs of the Belfast Botanic Gardens. I don’t know much about plants but I love botanical gardens and visit them in any city I encounter them. Belfast’s is quite lovely with a couple of large greenhouses dating back over 100 years. I refresh myself in the warm, misty, lush surroundings.

In the afternoon, I departed Belfast and Ireland for good, setting sail on the SeaCat ferry – aka the “vomit comet” – to Stranraer in Scotland. Sharing my passage are a large number of drunken Scotsmen in kilts returning from the Five Nations Rugby match in Dublin. Scotland won so at least they were happy drunken Scotsmen in kilts. As the ferry picked up speed and the seas got rough, they spilled more and more of their beer on the deck. They took advantage of this by turning the ferry into a giant slip and slide.

I saw a fellow tourist trying to take a picture of a drunken, dancing sliding Scotsman but before she could the picture he lifted his kilt and showed us that he was wearing nothing but what God gave him. I talked with the flashee and learned that she was Charlotte, a Canadian traveling with an evangelical group called Youth With a Mission. After docking in Stranraer, I followed about a dozen of the young missionaries to the train station where the train was waiting empty and unlocked. We all just dumped our bags on the train and headed into town to find a chip shop for supper. Back on the train, we took our seats and ate, after a long prayer of grace of course.

An hour later the train steamed off to Glasgow. I arrived tired and dopey and stumbled to the SYHA Glasgow Youth Hostel. I’d been staying in independent hostels and avoiding the overpriced, overregulated HI hostels, but my Let’s Go guidebook listed this as the only one in town. After being charged for a sleepsack even though I brought my own, I was put in a room with two ruffians who stayed up all night smoking and shouting with the lights on. This was the most awful night of my vacation but somehow I fell into a fitful sleep.

Belfast mural

This wacky mural on the Falls Road appears to have no political significance, but I like it very much.

Catalonia

The Irish Nationalist movement gains solidarity from people around the world involved in political struggles.

Botanic Garden

A moment of solace in the Botanic Garden.

Scotsman

One of the more sober kilted Scotsman on the SeaCat to Scotland.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 18: Derry/Belfast


I made my tearful farewell to Derry and Steve’s Backpackers Hostel on the morning of 7 February 1998. Steve and Brett walked me to the door, posed for pictures, and very warmly bid me goodbye. This is definitely not your typical hostel.

I took a long bus ride to Belfast. It was sunny in the green hills approaching the city, but felt gloomy once I got there. For all the evidence of The Troubles in Derry, there was not much of a visible presence of security forces while I was there. This was not true of Belfast. Armored vans patrolled the streets with men in fatigues leaning out the back with very long rifles. I was talking to my Mom on a pay phone when one of these vans passed by and I described it to her and just then the phone cut out. I called her back right away so she wouldn’t freak out. It turned out that I was more freaked out than she was.

At The Ark hostel, people were amicable enough watching a Shirley Bassey special in the tv lounge, but it lacked the warmth of Steve’s. I go to an internet cafe to checkup on my email, look at the schedules for ferries to Scotland, and while I’m at it check up on the Mets. Hey, we got Al Leiter in trade!

I decided this would be a good time to pick up my tickets for the ferry to Scotland. En route, I see one of Belfast’s landmarks, the Albert Clock tower which is kind of like Westminster merged with the Leaning Tower of Pisa in miniature. I also see the Lagan Weir which keeps the waters of the River Lagan under control in an industrially beautiful way. After buying my ticket, I walked down to center city, a large district made pedestrian-only to prevent car bombings, with the unexpected benefit of commercial success. I did some window shopping but most of the stores were closing up already.

Belfast’s oldest pub, White’s Tavern, is in the center city so I pop for the charm and a pint, but it’s pretty much dead. The next stop on my pub crawl Ye Old Eglantine Inn. In direct opposition to White’s, it is too crowded with lots of young college students. I don’t fit in so I take my leave early from there as well. Feeling gloomy, I return to the Ark and to bed.

Steve’s Backpackers Hostel

Steve, Brett and myself in front of the hostel.

Albert Memorial Clock

The leaning clock tower of Belfast.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 17: Derry/Ulster American Folk Park


I took a day trip from Derry on 6 February 1998 to the Ulster American Folk Park.  This is an open-air living history museum that depicts the lives of people in Northern Ireland and how they brought their culture and tradition to the United States when they emigrated.  I’d actually visited and enjoyed a similar museum about the immigrant experience in Virginia called The Frontier Culture Museum.  Another commonality among these museums is that I visited them on miserable days in the off-season when there was absolutely no one else there.  Despite the challenges though, I submitted to my history geekdom and made the best of the visit.

In Derry that evening, I meet up with an Australian named Brooke whom I previously met in Killarney and is staying at Steve’s.  We discover that we both have Aqua’s “Dr. Jones” stuck in our head and find ourselves humming it involuntarily.  We go to Peadar O’Donnell’s where we meet a woman from Derry named Carmel and her Geordie boyfriend (that is from Newcastle, England).  We have a few pints and a few laughs, but overall it’s a quiet night.

Ulster American Folk Park

Role playing in the school house at Ulster American Folk Park.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 16: Derry


On 5 February 1998, I fell in love with the city so nice they named it twice Derry / Londonderry. I visited the old walled city starting at the excellent Tower Museum, which summed up the city’s history and does not flinch at intelligently interpreting the sectarian divide. Then I walked along the walls of the city itself for a birds-eye view of the Bogside, the Catholic/Nationalist neighborhood where I was staying. Here and all around the city are murals painted for various political causes.

At the spot known as Free Derry Corner (named for a famous sign declaring the Bogside to be free of British rule), are several high-quality murals. Steve, the owner of the hostel, called this area an open-air art museum. I wandered around the Bogside studying murals and then visited a Protestant/Unionist neighborhood called the Fountain. You can see photos of this cultural/political tradition via this post at MetaFilter. Back at the hostel, I discuss the murals with Brett and Mickey, and look at Brett’s photo collection of the murals. When we get to a picture of the King William III mural I saw in The Fountain, Mickey makes the sound and gesture of spitting on King Billy. Wondering what reaction I’d get, I tell Mickey that I actually live in a town named after King William III. “What do they call it?” he exclaims, “Bastardsville?”

That evening, I went to Peadar O’Donnell’s pub for the trad. A Swedish man in his sixties asked me for directions to the toilet, and thinking nothing of it I pointed to the sign that read Fir Leithreas. The man returning from the loo introduced himself as Joren (I think), bought me a pint, and treated me like a hero for finding the toilet for him! I told him I was from Virginia, but for some reason he called my Wyoming for the rest of the night.

A couple of Irish women he knew came in the bar and joined us. I was immediately smitten with Olivia and Elaine, especially when Olivia sang Christy Moore’s “Ride On” to me. As a group we capered across the central pedestrian zone to The Strand. Alas, all good things came to an end as Joren took his leave, and Olivia and Elaine met up with some friends. It was a lovely evening though.

Bathroomderry

A map at Steve’s Hostel shows the sectarian divisions of the bathroom (and Steve’s sense of humor).

Free Derry

The famous Free Derry sign at the entrance to the Bogside neighborhood.

Bloody Sunday Mural

A mural at Free Derry corner depicts a famed image from the Bloody Sunday massacre.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 16: Antrim Coast & Derry


As grateful as I was to John and Joanna for inviting me to join them on their tour, the events of 4 February 1998 confirmed the benefits of car-free, independent travel. For one thing, they got very annoying. For another, they kept getting lost and wouldn’t listen to my suggestions for navigating. Other than that though it was a lovely day.

First we visited Dunluce Castle, rugged ruins by the windswept coast. The highlight of the day was Giant’s Causeway, the mysterious basalt columns jutting out into the sea. I went a bit snap-happy with my camera here. On John & Joanna’s suggestion we went in search of the Glens of Antrim, zipping along the windy coastal roads at 70 mph. Finally we visited Dunhill, the remains of the Bishop of Derry’s estate house. I wondered if any fully-standing castles and estate houses survive in Ireland. John wanted to refurbish ruined castles and make them available for artists’ studios.

John and Joanna kindly drove me to my next stop, the city of Derry. They actually let me look at the map and give directions so we got there without any detours. We passed through towns where all the curbs and light posts were painted blue, red & white and towns where all the curbs and light posts were painted green, white, & orange, so we would know the political inclinations of the residents. They dropped me off at Steve’s Backpackers Hostel in Derry, and went off to see Donegal in the dark.

I was immediately set up by the hostel staffer Brett with a number of other hostel guests for a pub crawl. These included a California art student named Bailey, an Irishman named Mickey who told great stories, and a German woman named Jutta who was very devoted to the Irish Republican cause. We stopped in first at the River Inn Cellars and talked about tourism in Northern Ireland, The Simpsons, rioting in Derry, the Derry snog scene, and buying and selling drugs in Amsterdam (I obviously played no part in that last conversation). At The Strand, a band called Against the Grain played folk-rock renditions of “Republican songs” to a rowdy crowd. I walked back with Jutta who was upset that she forgot her jacket which had a Bloody Sunday pin given to her by the wife of Sinn Fein chairman Mitchell McLaughlin.

My traveling life had suddenly grown more intense, but I was happy to be among a friendly group at a cozy hostel.

Dunluce Castle

Joanna and I at Dunluce Castle

Giant’s Causeway

Standing atop Giant’s Causeway

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 15: Dublin & heading to The North


Tuesday morning, 3 February 1998, I wandered around Dublin visiting the famous landmarks of the city.  Statues of heroes Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stuart Parnell, the Garden of Remembrance, and the tribute to the working gal Molly Malone, among others.  I’d purchased a roll of black & white film in Galway and used half of it on Inishmore and thought it would make some cool city photos as well.  Unfortunately, that entire roll of film came out blank, which is why there are no photos in this post.

From Connolly Station I took the sleek Enterprise train north to Belfast.  I had a moment of panic when the guard at the Belfast train station asked for the tickets of disembarking passenger, but he waved me through after I rummaged unfruitfully through my bags.  I transfered to the Northern Ireland railway which was much less plush, in fact it reminded my of New York City subway trains from the 70’s.

At last, I arrived in Portrush, a seaside town obviously quiet during the offseason.  I once again panicked that the only hostel in town would be closed for the season, especially since there were no more trains out of town that night.  Luckily MacCool’s Portrush Youth Hostel was open and a nice woman named Leslie welcomed my.  In the lounge a met a 20-year old Polish woman named Joanna who was sitting with her back against the radiator because she was cold.  Joanna  was traveling with John, a 40-something English expatriate now living in Santa Barbara.

I’d planned to hire a bike to travel to the Bushmill’s distillery and Giant’s Causeway the next day, but they informed me that the only bike shop in Portrush was closed.  Instead they invited me to join them in site seeing in their rental car.  How very nice!

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 14: Return to Dublin


At this point in my travels I succumbed to the tyranny of my itinerary. In planning this trip I determined that I’d need five days in Dublin (including side trips out of the city), but split it up so that Dublin would be at the beginning and end of a loop around the southern portion of Ireland. I was enjoying my time in Galway, and in a nicer hostel I could spend another night, perhaps take a coach tour out to Connemara or the Burren. Or I could head north to Derry and stop en route for a night in Westport or Sligo.

Instead I took a train across the country to Dublin on 2 February 1998. For the first time on my trip my hostel of choice, Avalon House, was totally booked so I ended up at Kinlay House Dublin. It was a bit shabbier than it’s Galway cousin but otherwise okay and I had a great view of Christ Church Cathedral. After dropping off my stuff I visited the Dublin Writer’s Museum. It’s a nice place with lots of hand-written manuscripts and first editions, but the thing about books is that they’re more interesting to read than to look at behind glass.

That evening I went on a pub crawl on what would prove to be a quiet Monday night. Mulligan’s is reputed to pour the best pint in Dublin and had a certain charm as a group of old men sang little ditties as they quaffed their Guinness. The Porter House offered fine microbrews and a match between Glasgow Celtic and Aberdeen on the television (Monday Night Football?). Celtic won the match and a group of men walked through the streets singing about how Aberdeen is a “shite football team” to the tune of the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.” The last pub I visited was The Bleeding Horse – a long walk away and dead as a doornail.

Should’ve stayed in Galway.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 12: Galway


I slept in really late this morning, no big surprise due to all the door-slamming and copulating going on around me throughout the night (if only the Quay Street Hostel made their guests read this article). As a result I missed the morning ferry to the Aran Islands and was pretty much stuck in Galway for the day. With no major sightseeing destinations in Galway itself, 31 January 1998 became my first vacation from vacation day.

First up, getting my stank clothing cleaned at Pleasant Hill Laundry. Although the window sign said “self-service,” the kindly old woman who worked there insisted on doing all my laundry for me as I watched. I’m sure if it was my maleness or Americanness that made her think I could not launder my own clothing, or if self-service just means something different in Ireland. The best part of the laundry was The Extractor. Between the washer the dryer, she put my clothing in this cylinder-shaped device which forcibly squeezed out all the water.

Next, lunch at AbraKebabra, an Irish fast-food chain that serves disgustingly greasy – and thus delicious – food, with plenty of vegetarian options. Here I learn from the radio that the song I’ve heard repeatedly during my travels is “Dr. Jones” by Aqua and that Larry Gogan is a real person, not just the dog in Roddy Doyle novels. I worked off the fat with a long stroll to Salthill, a scenic seaside suburb of Galway.

Returning to Galway, I popped into Taafe’s pub for an afternoon session of Irish trad. While enjoying the music I chatted with a middle-aged Irish working man. Telling him that I worked in a history museum prompted him to share that he’d been misled by the history he learned in school that wasn’t true, such as that the Irish rebels of the Easter Rising actually won the battle.

Filled with spirits and seeking the Spirit, I attended a Vigil Mass at Galway Cathedral, a lovely structure that is kind of the Camden Yards of Cathedrals because it was built in the 196o’s but given a retro-look the Middle Ages. The Mass was beautiful although I was thrown when all the other congregants recited the Lord’s Prayer in Irish!

That evening, I made a supper of the delicious chips at McDonagh’s (I’m sure the fish is good too, if you like fish). Then I attend my second session of the day in the upper room of a wonderful pub called The Crane. I heard some of the best music yet in my travels, and talked with a nice young woman from Portlaois as well.

Not bad for a day when I didn’t do anything!

River Corrib

The swift flowing River Corrib in Galway.  The dome of Galway Cathedral is in the distance.

Kayak

Not everyday you see someone carrying a kayak through town.

Painting a Boat

Low tide is a good time to paint your boat.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 11: Galway


30 January 1998 involved another set of long bus trips from Dingle to Tralee to Limerick and finally to Galway. This was better than the alternative as I was actually due in Williamsburg City General Traffic Court to face a charge of Failure to Yield Right of Way – Accident (to date my only auto accident, and I was responsible dammit!). Arriving in Galway I checked into the Quay Street Hostel, another recommendation of Pa’s but this one didn’t turn out so well. I was placed in a ginormous 18-bed dorm with a spring-loaded door that would slam shut every time one of my drunken bunkmates staggered in and out. All 18 beds were full, and some of them had more than one occupant if you get my drift.

Galway City however is a wonderful place with a great street vibe from the bustle of youthful people and the many buskers performing. I began my first evening in Galway by stuffing my face at Couch Potatas, a brilliant potato-themed restaurant. My evening pub crawl brought me to Monroe’s Tavern where a lively session was in full-swing. My luck was good that night as an attractive young woman named Corrine – from Connecticut of all places – struck up a conversation and I ended up spending part of the evening hanging out with her and her friends all of whom were students at University College Galway. We talked about going out dancing but the clubs were too far away so we finished off the night getting chips & vinegar at a fast food joint instead.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 10: Dingle Peninsula


I’m much more active the next day – 29 January 1998 – beginning with a visit to Foxy John’s, a hardware store/bike shop/pub where I hire a bike for the day. Following a loop route in my Rick Steve’s guidebook, I head out to Slea Head, the westernmost point in Europe. Along the route there’s the dramatic scenery of steep cliffs and ocean views as well as the cultural ruins of antiquity. Some of the latter include the Fahan clocháns, stone huts expertly built without mortar the resemble beehives or igloos. These were once used as habitations and still shelter the sheep that wander freely over the peninsula.

At Slea Head itself, a point marked by a stone crucifix and a statue of the Three Mary’s weeping, I’m amazed that the sheep are standing on the steep cliff itself in a place I didn’t think sheep could even get to much enjoy grazing. The sea is dotted with jagged rocks known as the Blasket Islands, once home to community of rugged islanders. Sadly the Blasket Islands Interpretive Center and the ferry to the islands themselves are closed for the season.

Heading back inland I pass through the village of Ballyferriter where Ireland’s official bilingualism is abandoned and all the signs are solely in the Irish language. The sun is already starting to set so I decide not to stop and cheat myself of a uniqiue cultural experience. The final site on the tour is Gallarus Oratory, a small stone church resembling an overturned boat that may date back as far as 800 AD. I get chills thinking of the small community worshiping here over a thousand years ago.

Back in Dingle, I shower off the offensive smell I’ve gained while peddling around the Slea Head loop. Jessica, Amy, and I head out An Droichead Beag or the Small Bridge Pub, which true to its name is built over a bubbling stream. The music is good (they even sell an excellent recording called A Mighty Session) and the company is even better. Jessica and Amy try to fix me up with the local women (they both have boyfriends at home) with little success and mostly we enjoy conversing. Jessica even offers to let me stay at her flat in Paris. I accept the offer and start thinking of ways to revise my itinerary to piece in a side trip to Paris.

My time in Dingle turns out to be much the opposite of my time in Killarney, quiet, contemplative, and understated. I enjoy it all the same and consider Dingle one of the loveliest places on Earth.

Bicylcing to Slea Head
Pedaling to Slea Head. I was so proud of myself for managing to get this shot with the self-timer.

Slea Head Sheep
Baaa! How did these sheep get out on this cliff?

 Cliff!
There’s no subtlety in Irish warning signs.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 9: Dingle


Early in the morning of 28 January 1998, I board a bus in Killarney to Tralee and from there another bus to Dingle the main town on the Dingle Peninsula. The entire journey takes about 6 hours since Dingle is a bit off the tourist path, especially compared to Killarney. This is one of the reasons its worth visiting. Another is that the peninsula falls in a Gaeltacht region, a place where the Irish government supports traditional language and culture. A big draw of course is that the small town of 1,500 is home to over 50 pubs which are renown as some of the best pubs in Ireland for Irish trad. Many of the pubs do double duty including Dick Mack’s which is part pub and part leather-working shop.

On Pa’s recommendation I check into the Grapevine Hostel, a pleasant and cozy place to stay albeit quiet compared to the Súgán. There I meet up with Sonia, a young and attractive German woman I met on my first night in Killarney. She spent last night in Dingle and is heading out again on the next bus. We go shopping together in Dingle, each time we enter a store Sonia bellows out “Hello!” in the European fashion. I end up purchasing a blue woolen sweater, a charcoal gray lambswool scarf, and a little knit cap that rolls up much like the on Pa was wearing (I still wear all three of these articles of clothing). These prove to be practical purchases as the temperatures during my time in Dingle dip down into the 30’s and 40’s, the coldest of my entire six weeks of travel.

Back at the Grapevine I meet up with Jessica again as well as a Canadian woman named Amy. They determine that it is too cold to go out, so I end up going out alone for a lonely pint and somewhat subduded music at a pub called Teach Thomáis. Then I call it a night.

Fishermen
Fisherman working with their nets on the Dingle Harbor.

Sonia
Sonia and I agreed that port towns like Dingle and Hamburg are the most beautiful places to visit.

Shipwreck
A wrecked ship on the Dingle waterfront.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 8: Killarney


I almost didn’t visit Killarney at all. Suffice to say, Killarney is a notorious tourist trap, the base camp for the Ring of Kerry, a loop road traversed by coach buses and rental cars full of foreigners. Experiencing the hospitality of Pa an his family at the Súgán I didn’t regret making a short stop in Killarney and actually extended my stay another night. Tourist or no, I enjoyed the company of the group of international travelers and nights on the town where the locals were mainly entertaining themselves during the off-season. On 27 January 1998 though I did what I actually had planned for my visit to Killarney, visit Killarney National Park which also proved worth the time.

I’d intended on hiking through the park but Pa convinced me to rent one of his bikes which proved wise since I was able to cover more ground and get away from main clusters of tourism. Not that there were many people there to enjoy this sunny day in the low season. The large swathes of asphalt by the entrance were blissfully free of tour coaches. I pedal to several of the main attractions including Muckross Abbey, ruins of 15th-century Franciscan monastery which contain a fantastic yew tree and the 60-foot high Torc Waterfall. Mostly I just pedal around leisurely – I’m not in the best cycling shape – enjoying the sun reflecting of the lakes upon which swans swim and men fish.

I should mention now that I wasn’t traveling entirely alone. I brought with me a small plush otter who I’d often place in front of landmarks and photograph him for a kind of Where’s Waldo effect. The friend who gave me this otter purchased him at museum in Newport News and as the otter was sitting on a rock in Torc Waterfall, I decided that Newport is a good name for a travelling otter since he always in a new port.

Back at the Súgán, a group of us decide to have our photo taken in front of the hostel and I decide that Pa should hold Newport for the photo. Pa is not at all surprised at being asked to hold a plush toy. “20 % of people traveling have something like this.” As we pass off cameras and take turns snapping photos Pa tells a story about a man whose thing was to pose nude in front on world landmarks. “He got arrested in front of the Eiffel Tower and locked up overnight in a Paris jail.”

That night a group of us go out to Yer Man’s pub whose claim to fame is that they are the only pub licensed to serve Guinness in jam jars. I’m not sure why anyone would want to drink Guinness out of a jam jar, but I get one for the novelty. Later, this group joins up with pretty much everyone else at the Killarney Grand for music that unfortunately is mostly Southern rock. But the company is good as is the beer.

Sugan Hostel

In front of the Súgán Hostel. That’s Pa in the middle with the otter. The seated woman is Jessica who will return to this travelogue in later posts.

Torc Waterfall
The waters of Torc Waterfall baptize Newport the Otter with his new name.

Jam Jar
Drinking Guinness from a jam jar at Yer Man’s pub. Did I ever look that young?

Footnote: I’ve never been back to Killarney, but if I ever have the opportunity I’d love to go back and stay at the Súgán, even though my hosteling days are past. Pa still runs the Súgán and has expanded it so that there’s a private room in addition to the dorms.

A few years back while looking for information about my favorite place to stay in Ireland I came upon this article. I know I was just a traveler who spent two nights in this family-run hostel, but I was heartbroken when I read it and offer my sympathy to Pa and his family.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 7: Cork/Killarney


I awake the next morning 26 January 1998 at 10 am, feeling rested and perfectly fine. I don’t question why, I just accept it. On a brighter and warmer day than the one proceeding, I walk to western Cork City to visit Cork City Gaol. Like Kilmainham, this jail museum purports to be a part of the history of Ireland’s struggle for independence. Upon entering I’m issued a ticket which reads:

CORK CITY GAOL
Inmate No. 51240
Sentenced to serve time and charged
Adult £3.00

And serve time I will. Waxworks are never a good sign when looking for a legitimate history museum. Just beyond the entrance a waxwork of a man in a warden’s uniform – grinning with exaggerated glee – directs visitors into the main exhibition space. Cell after cell contains waxwork dioramas: madmen clinging maniacally to the bars, a bare-breasted woman breastfeeding a crying infant, and a human treadmill where prisoners are forced to grind grain. Sound effect loudspeakers pump in the cries of prisoners, the shuffling of manacled feet, and the drip of leaky roofs. The exhibits are one way only so there’s no way to escape this torture but to go through the entire museum. The piece-de-resistance comes at the end, where I’m ushered into the former recreation area, locked in and forced to watch a multi-media presentation on CRIME, PUNISHMENT, and oh yeah a bit of Irish history, projected on the whitewashed walls.

After my parole from Cork City Gaol, I promise myself not to visit any more jails on my holiday. The time wasted walking to and visiting Cork City Gaol leaves me with little time to take in any other sites in Cork. At this point, though, I am ready to shake the dust of Cork City from my feet. I walk back into the city center, bail my luggage out of storage, and board the next bus to Killarney. On my ride through the beautiful Lee Valley, the sun came out, illuminating the green hills around my bus. I felt brighter days ahead of me.

I select my lodgings in Killarney based on eavesdropping on Australians in the kitchen at Sheila’s in Cork. The Súgán sits modestly amid row houses and shop fronts albeit painted a cheerful green with Celtic swirls and imagery. Bicycles, potted plants, and picnic table merrily clutter the small, paved front yard. The cave like room enter has low ceilings with wood beams, stone walls, and stone floors, but it’s cheerfully warmed by a peat fire. I’m befuddled, because from my limited experience this looks nothing like a hostel.

I find myself greeted by a chorus of women shrieking “It’s a man!” Four attractive young women sitting with one bearded man all look at me expectantly.

“Uh, where is the Reception desk.”

“It’s right here!” says the man cheerfully pulling out a chair. “Have a seat.”

This was my introduction to Pa, the most cheerful proprietor of the most laid-back hostel. After spending an hour or so just chatting with Pa and the young women (who are not surprisingly backpackers from Australia), and hearing Pa play a bawdy song on guitar, he finally checks me in. Pa takes myself and a young woman from Pennsylvania named Jessica on a tour of the hostel. Although the hostel is tiny (only 18 beds) the tour takes another hour, is full of jokes and anecdotes, and in short is the best guided tour I’d have all month. Highlights include the kitchen where the kettle is named Jenny, the toaster is named Annie, and the stove is named Moffat. Out back in a shed separate from the main hostel are the showers which Pa claims are well-heated because he hired three electricians to wire the heater, something he says is necessary in Ireland because if you hire just one electrician he won’t show up and if you hire two, one will show up but he’ll bungle the job.

Upstairs we find beds and Pa tells us the secret of what to do when other people are snoring. “If there’s somebody snoring and you can’t fall asleep. Just whistle. It really works. As soon as you hear someone snoring, if you whistle they will stop. I tell this to all my guests and it hasn’t failed yet. Except for one lad who came to me and said ‘I couldn’t sleep at all last night.’ I says ‘Why, was somebody snoring.’ He says, ‘No, nobody was snoring but everyone was whistling.”

Pa’s family also lives in a room adjacent to the dorms, and I meet his wife Mia and energetic six-year old daughter Jesse. Mia will make dinner and Pa implores us to go out and enjoy Killarney’s nightlife, including a play in which he will be performing.

“So you’ll go out tonight in Killarney for some craic? That’s not crack like you have in America, craic is what the Irish call having a good time at no one’s expense. So if I’m having a good time, she’s having a good time, but were riding him and he’s not having a good time, that’s not craic. But if I’m having a good time and she’s having a good time and he’s having a good time, that’s craic.” Pa’s finger moves from himself to Jessica to me to illustrate the he’s and she’s.

After a delicious vegetarian meal, I head out for a night on the town with all the other guests of the hostel including Jessica, a German named Sonja, and the many Australian women. Much is made of the fact that I’m the only male staying in the hostel. We go to the Killarney Grand where there’s a performance of the short satirical play Pure of Heart by John B. Keane, featuring Pa in a great comic performance. Afterwards Pa and some of his friends play bluesy music and later another band plays Irish folk songs.

Back at the Súgán, we gather around the peat fire, and the glow of the flickering light, Pa tells stories. This time he tells of Irish lads coming to Killarney for stag parties and basically making pests of themselves in the hostel (sometimes when they’re not even lodging there). He concludes, “That’s why you can’t rent a bed to someone from your own country. I think it’s true no matter where you are, but here I can take in people from England, Germany, America, Japan or anywhere else and have no problem. But I can never trust the Irish.”

The warm cozy room with its peat fire and an international crowd telling stories make for a great ending to a wonderful day.

River Lee

Wistfully looking out over the River Lee in Cork City.

Pa

Pa at the Killarney Grand playing guitar, one of his many talents.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 6: Cork/Cobh


I reverted to form on 25 January 1998 and slept in until about 10 am. From hostel high on a hill I spotted the famous Shandon Church Tower. The pink tower stood out well against the battleship gray sky so I used it to navigate my way through the winding streets and alleys on a cold Sunday morning. Along the way I spied grafitti that read “Religion is a fairy tail” (sic). Apparently this represents a popular opinion in this part of Cork because when I reached the Church of St. Anne it was locked and the area desolate even though the sign on the door stated the only Mass of the day started a little less than an hour earlier.

Not wanting to look for another church, I moved on to plan B: a day trip to the port town of Cobh. I took the commuter spur of Iarnród Éireann to Cobh which is pronounced “cove” and was called Cove under English rule and then Queenstown after Victoria landed there for her visit to Ireland. Many of the “coffin ships” carrying emigrants from Ireland departed from Cobh. Annie Moore, the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island in 1892, departed from Cobh and there are statues of her at both locations. It was the last port of call for Titanic before it sailed off to its destiny with the iceberg. Rescuers from Cobh brought back survivors of the Lusitania, and the bodies of those who didn’t survive.

The main attraction for me was The Queenstown Experience a multimedia museum depicting the town’s maritime history. I was lucky in that the museum was actually supposed to be closed for the season but was open for a special group event that day and thus they let me in as well. It is an excellent and well-thought out museum. The town of Cobh was cute too, although a dreary winter’s day is not the best time for strolling along the harbor.

That evening in Cork, I go on a pub crawl in search of stout and Irish trad. Cork is home to it’s own stouts, Murphy’s (a worthy competitor to Guinness) and Beamish (a low-cost but still tasty brand). The music is a little more challenging to find. I visit the following four pubs:

  • An Spailpín Fánac (“The Wandering Potato Picker”) – there was a session here but hidden in a snug and not too audible. This pub rubbed me the wrong way so I moved on.
  • Rosie O’Grady’s – here the music was recorded, but the Beamish stout was good and I try a Caffrey’s Ale for good measure.
  • Donkey’s Ears – this pub specialize in reggae, but once again it was recorded music albeit expertly spun in Dancehall Stylee by the dj. The reggae beat and the swirling lights make for a fun, surreal experience for drinking stout, but I’m in search of Irish music so I move on to
  • The Lobby – this is Irish heaven, the right mix of stout on draft and a session of trad with the musicians playing at a table right in the middle of everything. As an unexpected bonus, I get to chat with Irish people for the first time, mostly a middle-aged woman named Jean. When I tell her I live in Virginia, she asks “Is that where they filmed Little House on the Prairie?” I try to explain that it was set in Minnesota, but probably filmed in California, neither of which is anywhere near Virginia.

Sadly I have to leave early as my American constitution revolts against having too much fine Irish stout. I make it out on the quay where I end up polluting the River Lee with the contents of my stomach. I somehow stagger my way back to the hostel.

Back in the USA, it’s Super Bowl Sunday and the game is about to kickoff. But I will spend most of my night by a cold toilet wondering if I will die first from alcohol poisoning or hypothermia.

Shandon Church Tower

The tower of the Church of St. Ann’s famed for its Shandon Bells.

 

Cobh

A tiered hillside of rainbow-colored houses in Cobh.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 5: Cashel


I traveled from Kilkenny to Clonmel to Cahir to Cahel on 24 January 1998. The highlight of the 2.5-hour bus ride was listening to Irish radio which began with cheesy Irish country songs about leprechauns invading from space. Thankfully, news reports frequently interrupted the music and I got to catch up the news from home with an amusing Irish perspective. John Paul II visited with Fidel Castro in Cuba and called for an end to economic sanctions of the country. “That may get some attention in the land of the free and the home of the brave if they can divert their attention from President Bill’s wandering eye,” commented the news woman. This would be the first I’d hear about the Lewinksky Scandal. Later a male reporter summed up a story on Jerry Springer-style talk shows: “Talk shows and talk show hosts, representative of American culture? The mind boggles!”

Of course, I did not travel to Ireland to listen to the radio. My destination for the day was the Rock of Cashel. Not just any rock, but a hill of limestone outcroppings prominent among the surrounding plains. Here fifteen centuries of castles and cathedrals were built. Sadly, today they lay in ruins, but the architecture that survives is remarkable including great arches, high crosses, and carvings. The scenic setting ain’t too shabby either. I certainly overcompensated with my camera in my attempt to capture every view. Down the hill the ruins of Hore Abbey sit on the wind-swept plains. I enjoyed a few moments of majestic solitude here writing in my journal until the ink of my pen froze up in the cold.

I visited the Cashel town center and took in some lunch, a process made difficult by having to navigate with my backpack through the crowded tables of the cafeteria. I decided that none of these people would ever see me again so if they thought I looked liked an oaf, who cares? I caught the next bus to Cork where I checked into Sheila’s Tourist Hostel. One unexpected pleasure of traveling in Ireland is that the woman who checked me in had no problem spelling and pronouncing my name correctly.

Rock of Cashel

The stunning Rock of Cashel.

Carved head

Carved heads lined the inside of an arch leading into a small chapel.  It’s believed that these heads are representations of the stone workers who built the cathedral.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 4: Kilkenny


Whether I travel east or west, the effect of jet lag on me is to wake up early rested and refreshed (quite contrary to my day to day behavior). This was true on the morning of 23 January 1998 when I arose ridiculously early to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine on a walk around Kilkenny. Granted none of the sites were open, but I enjoyed circulating around the town and taking in the atmosphere. The locals were up and about at least including some school children some of whom had gathered in the schoolyard to bully a young lad by pulling his blue uniform sweater over his head. “I can’t breathe,” he shouted in vain. The Market Cross Shopping Centre was also open, notable in that it is full-sized modern shopping mall completely hidden behind medieval-style buildings so it is not an eyesore in the city centre. Why American cities can’t preserve historical buildings in the same manner I don’t know.

Having covered the whole of Kilkenny, I went back for a second go-around in hopes of finding things open. First stop, St. Canice’s Cathedral the namesake of the city (Cill Chainnigh means “The Church of St. Canice”). The cathedral was lovely but what I really wanted was to climb the adjacent round tower, but there was no one there to unlock the door. Fortunately, a couple came into the cathedral who were more assertive about finding the custodian. I followed them giggling and huffing up several ladders to the top. The view of Kilkenny and the surrounding countryside was astounding and I was especially amused by the Smithwick’s Brewery where beer kegs are stacked around the shell of a ruined abbey.

I also met the Canadian Katy and American Billy and we agreed to tour the town together. Since I’d already found all the sites I went into my natural tour guide mode. We visited the Catholic St. Mary’s built during the Great Famine and the Black Abbey, which was still closed but Billy liked the name. We stopped at Caislean Ui Cuain pub where Billy quaffed his first ever Guinness. We also tried some of the Budweiser that is brewed at the Smithwick’s Brewery and believe it or not, it is better than the American version. With a bit of a buzz we took a tour of the last big attraction, Kilkenny Castle, led by the pompous eccentric John Burke.

That evening on the recommendation of the Japanese man who ran the hostel I went to a pub called Matt the Miller for Irish trad. I sat with a large crowd of North Americans, mostly college students, but I didn’t mind since it was the first social interaction I had all week. Since I was raised on Irish folk songs, I sang along with everything the band played, much to the surprise of my fellow Americans who didn’t know any of the songs. There was a stag party in the pub making things rowdy, and after the lights went up a crowd of drunk Irish guys descended on our table. One of them asked where I was from and when I told him Virginia he launched into a rendition of John Denver’s “Country Roads.” I decided to sing along instead of correcting him and telling him that was West Virginia.

Back in the hostel I sat in the hallway talking with my fellow travelers about Irish literature, finally turning in around 2 am. I awoke completely refreshed at 5:30.

Guinness is good for you.

Yard sale

Some architectural detritus outside of St. Canice’s Cathedral, that made me think of an ecclesiastical yard sale.

Smithwick’s Brewery

The Smithwick’s Brewery surrounds the ruins of St. Francis Abbey.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 3: Dublin/Kilkenny


22 January 1998, three days into my vacation I was still feeling inexplicably blue and somewhat guilty over the extravagance. According to by journal, “to cheer myself up today I: 1. visited a jail, 2. imbibed a pint of a known depressant, and 3. saw art works on subjects such as violence against woman & disasters.” I never have a good a time as when I’m feeling gloomy.

This day I hiked along the Liffey River to the western part of Dublin, dumped my bags at Heuston Station and took in three tourist attractions. First Kilmainham Gaol, which is kind of a who’s who of Irish history since political prisoners from 1798-1924 were all held there. Next the Guinness Brewery visitor center at the Hop Store where I was thoroughly indoctrinated by the pro-Guinness propaganda and enjoyed a frothy pint straight from the source. Finally, a spur of the moment visit to the Irish Museum of Modern Art. As often happens, the spontaneous ideas turn out to be the highlight of the day. Highlights included an exhibit of Andy Warhol works, many focusing on gruesome disasters, but lighter works included a room covered in ultraviolet cow wallpaper and clouds. Another exhibit called “Once is More than Enough” focused on domestic violence toward women in Ireland.

That evening I rode the train to Kilkenny where I was overwhelmed crossing the bridge into town by the moonlit view of the castle. I checked into the Kilkenny Tourist Hostel, dined at the Italian Connection, and had a pint at the Pumphouse where a lone guitarist played rock and roll. All in all it was a quiet, solitary night.

Guinness Brewery

The famed St. Jame’s Gate Brewery, source of the mother’s milk.

bikes are best

Pro-bike mural in western Dublin.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 2: Dublin/Glendalough


On 21 January 1998, I took St. Kevin’s Bus on a round trip to Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin. For a nervous traveler out on his own the day proved inspirational, both in the beauty of the monastic ruins and their natural setting, but also because I successfully managed to get myself there and back! I also had my first real conversation since leaving the States with the museum guide who was managing the site for the day. I told him that since I worked for a museum the only time I could travel was during the off-season and we swapped stories of what it’s like during the high season when tour coaches start lining up at 9 am and never let up.

Back in Dublin, I had my first (and second) pint of Guinness of the holiday at Oliver St. John Gogarty’s pub in Temple Bar. I learned two things over my pints: 1) that Irish people smoke like factories and 2) that my sense of smell is really bad because I didn’t even notice how smoky the darkened pub was until my eyes started watering.

The pictures of Glendalough below I previously posted when I wrote about Saint Kevin who called Glendalough home.

glendalough3.jpg

glendalough2.jpg