While visiting the pubs in Kinsale we met a happily drunk group of Canadian golfers who insisted we absolutely had to visit Old Head where they lost their golf balls in the sea. One of the revelers called “Mikey” snuck away to the Actons Hotel with the intention of one last whiskey after a comedic rendition of Tura-Lura-Lural. Intending one last beer, we found Mikey and everyone’s good intentions flew away as good conversation ensued. A brilliant business man, he counseled me on building a customer base, his winning personality and eyes shining. The first to comment on our ages, Mike said he wished he’d brought his wife to Ireland when they were younger; she died a few years ago. We heard versions of his sentiment throughout our holiday. The messages we brought home are live every day, joy comes through experience rather than possessions, and saving for old age is a gamble at best. Again, human connections rounded out our day of sight-seeing and we slept with a cool salty breeze blowing in from Kinsale harbor.
A hardy Irish breakfast under our belts, we drove the long way to Kenmare via Old Head Kinsale, which took us up the cliffs, then wound us through country back roads all the way to Killarney National Park and Ross Castle. Not the quickest route, but the Canadians were right.
Ross Castle, built in the 15th century and home to the Earls of Kenmare, is beside Killarney’s lower lake, Lough Leane. It was the last stronghold in Munster to hold out against the bastard Oliver Cromwell. I think the prefix is part of his legal name in Ireland and Scotland.
A pathway next to Killarney’s middle lake led us away from the crowds and into the woods, which provided a rougher uphill terrain, and made me grateful once again for a splurge on high-quality hiking boots that tightly cradled my ankles and supported the arches. Waterproof hiking boots are my #1 footwear suggestion for Ireland and my # 2 is Sketcher Go-Walks for ladies on pavement.
The path dwindled after the upper lake, but still, I hoped that it would lead me back to the immaculate flat lawn of Muckross House.You never realize a path disappeared until you are well off it, however we were halfway back, just a little lost. My stamina almost spent, I could not hike back the way we came, so my husband went up a hill to appraise our options. Luckily he found a shortcut. Unluckily, it entailed me climbing over a log, up a steep hill, and down again to our original woodland path.
As I weighed my options that really were not options, he of course snapped a shot of me. Unaware that I mistakenly set the camera to video, it caught an under-my-breath reference to sweating like a $2 whore. Nice souvenir.
After resting on the lawn for a good half hour, we drove a short way down the road to Torc Falls. Killarney National Park covers 26,000 acres, basically a walking and gawking expo.
Down the road from Killarney is Kenmare and Sheen Falls Lodge, our accommodation for the next two evenings. Kenmare is the jewel in the Ring of Kerry, and Sheen Falls Lodge, a fantastical manor hotel to which I often return in meditation.
Kindly Siobhan led us to our room on the second floor of Sheen Falls Lodge and handed us a key with a huge fob on it. A king size bed dressed in pure white and light gold, a bathroom the size of most hotel rooms, and Louis XV cream brocade chairs still left plenty of room to walk around comfortably in our opulent haven. We built in a slow day midweek so I could write, rest, and gain energy for my husband’s walks that turn into hikes and other escapades, and he could go fishing. My swollen ankles and fatigue indicated perfect timing.
First, however, a Portugese gentleman in the lounge regaled us with pictures of his seaside villa and hilarious stories about marriage to an Irish woman who didn’t go home after holiday. An older Irish gentleman, to our benefit, competed for our attention. Jokes and stories kept us up laughing and making new friends until midnight, a pewter statue of Molly Malone as witness.
The next morning I sat on the balcony at 7:30 a.m. in a soft white robe with a cup of coffee and eased slowly into my unstructured day, while my husband had to meet his fishing guide with a full-on hangover, so rushed down to breakfast after groaning about that last pint, or maybe the last two. I almost felt sorry for him, but we were in each other’s company every minute of the past four days, and pulling rainbow trout out of Loughbarfinnity is to him what writing is to me. We were both better for it.
Following a light breakfast, I found the pool. A pungent herbal aroma and lilting Celtic notes lent to a healing vibe as I lazily floated on my back. A couple laps and a soak in the blue glass hot tub were restorative. Then I explored the hotel with my camera and notebook.
I settled on the patio next to the river and wrote some horribly flowery prose in my state of infatuation, then sought out a book of Father Brown’s photography I spied earlier in the library.
When he returned hungry from his adventure and found me with tea in a sunny yellow drawing room, he smiled and shook his head a little at my extravagance, then showed me the picture of his fish and told me about Damien the guide on the way to the car.
Gawking at Blarney Castle was a slow process. We arrived at The Spaniard late for lunch with the only other patrons a few men visiting the bartender. From the yelling and laughing I surmised they were good friends.
We sat on the patio in the sunshine enjoying pints and the view from The Spaniard’s lofty location on a curvy road snaking up the Kinsale hillside. Jim had fresh fish and home-cut chips, while I gave in to a Cajun chicken wrap. Complimenting most of our meals was the standard bit of greens tossed in a light vinaigrette.
During our respite at The Spaniard we noticed a good number of vehicles with deep scratches or dents on the passenger side and mirrors torn off, all driven by local folks.
It made us feel more comfortable about the hedge scratches on our rental, which was brand new when we picked her up.
We left The Spaniard refreshed and drove on High Road to Charles Fort, an English 17th century star-shaped fort which once guarded Kinsale Harbor. The walls packed with turf, they were almost impregnable to cannon fire.
During the Williamite wars William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James II at Charles Fort by approaching from the land side and laying siege for 13 days, finally breaching after 3 days of steady cannon fire on a single spot of the outer wall. My most important lesson of the tour was do not ask questions about William of Orange if you want to keep your friends in The Republic.
We wandered the fort after our tour silently taking in the panoramic vistas and the sailboats of Kinsale in the distance. Ireland once again struck us dumb, smiling nostalgically even though we had not left yet.
Back at our hotel we laid our heads down for a mere half hour before Kinsale’s pubs called to us to come play. We found The Sea Captains at The Armada, a duo who played the banjo, acoustic guitar and Irish whistle. We settled on Caesar salads with warm, dense brown bread, and a few pints for dinner. The Armada is one of the few pubs that served us beer at our table, in which case it is entirely appropriate to go against the standard and leave a fat tip. As I listened to The Sea Captains tears began to roll down my face. I was actually at an Irish pub listening to two Irishmen play after visiting Blarney castle, eating well-prepared, flavorful, and fresh food in Ireland, hiking the grounds of a star-shaped fort, and eating the best brown bread I tasted so far. My tears were happiness overflowing and I took a deep breath and told myself “remember this, remember this”.
Leaving Glendalough we wound our way through the Wicklow mountains to the Hollywood Inn, where we were introduced to the Hurling Finals and learned a few Irish turns of phrase not mentioned in guide books.
Ravenous from hiking about, I dug into fish and home-cut chips, fascinated by the muscular men on the field balancing a tiny ball on short clubs while running, hitting the ball and being hit by it, all with no protective gear, but plenty of blood and bandages. The excitement rivaled a Superbowl party and Hollywood Inn was more than I hoped for with an uneven stone floor, heavy dark wood , a stone courtyard, tasty fresh food and superb service. Our first day in the Irish countryside was a success, now we had a real drive.
Bolstered by a hamburger he described as “very lean”, Jim drove us on narrow back roads to Kinsale, a quaint harbor town in County Cork, where we stayed at the Actons Hotel overlooking the harbor.
Our TomTom was set to avoid toll roads, which made each trip a bit longer and more scenic than motorways. We had no trouble finding “toilets”, a convenient petrol station in many towns we passed through.
Billy, our bartender in the lounge at Actons, patiently explained how children in Ireland begin their first day of school with a lunch box, a backpack, and a hurling stick. An older gentleman at the bar put us through a course of Irish dialect in a descriptive telling of a helicopter ride over County Tipperary that his daughter gifted him with on a recent birthday. They both asked what we liked most about Ireland thus far. I said I loved the water everywhere, especially the streams flowing down mountains and bubbling over rocks. The old man said, “Ahhh, that’s the piss!”, then laughed open-mouthed as did we. I told him I also like the potatoes, they were better than at home. He said, “Ahhh, yes the new potatoes are in, but don’t eat the chickens!”. Billy told us of growing up in Kinsale and said he would like to visit the Wicklow Mountains someday. Huge sprays of Asiatic lilies and eucalyptus graced tables throughout the hotel while small bouquets of hydrangea and roses adorned each stall in the lobby bathroom. Our room was modern and bright with clean lines and a warm breeze blew through a tall unscreened, tilted window. Sailboats rocked in the moonlit harbor. We slept deeply.
After our first day of venturing we had a true appreciation for a full Irish breakfast, which consisted of an array of juices, fruit, pastry, cereal, breads, cheeses and smoked salmon. We ordered eggs and sausage and the plate unnecessarily came with white and black pudding and a grilled tomato. Each day seemed as though it may be the one to try the pudding, but I never did chance it, afraid my stomach might upset our plans. We walked around Kinsale’s colorful streets while our breakfast settled before taking off for Blarney Castle.
Blarney Castle was THE castle of our trip and we took our time exploring all the nooks and scary crannies. Stone stairs spiraled up to the stone with a rope on one side to hold on to. As we ascended the walls grew closer and the old man in front of us stopped in fear, the opposite of my typical run through it reaction. Voices filtered up from the stairs and signaled a group coming up behind us. I felt trapped already, barely able to breathe. I jumped back down two stairs and yelled to my husband that I’d see him when he came down. My discovery of the family room, murder-hole above the castle’s main entry and arrow shaft views throughout the castle rooms thrilled me more than if I kissed a stone that through my camera zoom looked wet. Ugh. But, do not let claustrophobic me deter you.
Manicured grounds, gardens and a long carriage house were lush with vintage blooms and beside the castle stood a poison garden planted with castor beans, foxglove and other nefarious, yet pretty, flowers and plants. We rested and took in the groups of people who dotted the expansive lawn before we perused the gift shop and purchased a watercolour that I would carry on the plane to insure its safe arrival home. Our breakfast worn off, we headed back to Kinsale and away from tour bus crowds in search of a late lunch and a pint.
Walking a mile to a mile and a half 4 times a week for 6 weeks prior to our Irish holiday deflated my middle and I lost five pounds, which to me means I can eat potatoes and bread (as long as I keep walking). You hear wild rumors as you get closer to 40, but I had to experience gaining weight while subsisting on salads and water to accept that my squirrel-like metabolism is dead along with my desire to buy a swimsuit. It all works out, though, because the rumor about fading endurance is also true. Just a few weeks of a walking routine increased my stamina and made Ireland more enjoyable than I imagined. I was even able to imitate running to catch our connection at O’Hare.
We spent our first evening in Blessington, a tiny town with a lone little terrier scouting main street just south of Dublin. On the winding gravel road back to our lodgings we got out of the car to peek at Blessington Lake.
The next morning we started off for Wicklow National Park and found ourselves stopping often to explore.
A park with a fast flowing stream over mossy rocks and a stone bridge called to us, as did a cemetery with Celtic crosses raised high. The faeries moved a bit too quickly for my eyes, but I swear I heard their giggles just beyond the bubbling gurgle of water.
Between my walking routine and Ireland’s vistas, I shed not only fat, but a bit of cynicism. Dreams coming true take chinks out of a calloused soul.
Walking does not build much muscle and muscle burns fat, so when I stop moving, my metabolism does, too. Motivation is plentiful on vacation, but hard to find on a snowy frigid days, which is when I discovered that truth. Almost a decade ago Ireland renewed a walking culture to combat the country’s growing obesity rate along with national dietary standards. It is not difficult to persuade an Irishman or woman to go for a stroll and GMO-free counties offer up food that reminded us what food used to taste like. My theory is that we do not eat as much when it is flavourful because we are more easily sated.
In the hills of Wicklow National Park I stumbled on loose rock and stepped in a deep uninhabited hole, highlighting the need for a walking stick. Mountain rescue teams are stationed in every area for good reason.
We were off to find St. Kevin’s monastic ruins in Glendalough and mistakenly walked up a steep road to find St. Kevin’s Parish where we lit candles for loved ones in heaven. There were lovely engraved garden sculptures on the grounds and I suspect my husband knew I would stop at the craft fair on our way back down as I was excited for any opportunity to visit with locals.
On the way up, I stopped to rest and take in the gardens at St. Kevin’s welcome center. It was all meant to be, I am sure. Just down the road we found the ruins of St. Kevin’s 6th century monastery. Raided for centuries by the Vikings, most of the standing ruins date to the 11th and 12th centuries. A man in a kilt and hose played Uillean pipes, whcih lent a melancholia to the scene, but a little girl yelling at the top of her lungs, “Rapunzel, let down your golden hair!” brushed it away. A spiritual place, the sun broke through the thick cloud cover just as I offered up my gratitude.
My husband was usually ahead of me because I am quite the gawker. Also quite the talker and writer, I have many a story to tell you about Ireland, so I will break our adventure into a few posts. Sláinte! (Good Health!)