Celebrated connections

On the drive back to Dublin we stopped at Clonmacnoise, a monastic settlement that used to be the most famous destination in County Offaly until somebody discovered that Barack Obama’s great-great-grand-something-or-other came from Moneygall.

The complex beside the Shannon felt less remarkable than some of the other medieval sites we’d visited, but we enjoyed the high crosses in the museum. Some of the reliefs looked like stony versions of marginalia from the Book of Kells.

Nearby is one of the most thoroughly ruined castles I’ve ever seen.

Farther east we made a minor detour to Mullingar, where my great-grandmother grew up (the family pub is pictured in the header image up top). It seems unlikely that the Texas Department Store was around in the nineteen-aughts; otherwise, judging by family stories, the town today is probably about as glamorous as it was back then.

We saw a couple of buildings that looked like they might conceivably at one time have been Gaynor’s, but the pub itself is long gone. We did not visit the Ulysses Pub, which pays tribute to Joyce with photos of footballers.

Is “celebrated” exactly the word?

We celebrated getting back to Dublin with dinner at the Winding Stair, a restaurant that wins points for also being a bookshop, and for a bread-and-butter pudding that might contain more warm butter than bread. Then we took the bus back to the airport and got ready to go home, which, eventually, we did.

Some things had happened here while we were away. Not all of them were bad.

Trash & trash

Driving around Galway is easy until you actually arrive in Galway, when it becomes very very hard. So it’s a good thing that after our Aran daytrip we didn’t feel the need to go anywhere for a while. Like a lot of college towns, Galway is good for long hours of hanging out doing nothing significant, and that’s what we did. We strolled around and sat and ate and went to Charlie Byrne’s bookstore and strolled some more. Very occasionally I took a picture.

Also like a lot of college towns, Galway is well stocked with garbage, particularly in its waterways. The swans (which the town has like some places have pigeons) probably appreciate this, although I don’t know if they have any use for Carlsberg cans. I especially admired a giant rubbish-mound on the docks; it was unclear whether the trash was being gathered and deposited here for shipment elsewhere, or if it would later be scattered along the Corrib for the enjoyment of passersby.

All the strolling and eating and bookstore-going was good, but Galway is also known for its cultural events, and on our last night in town we felt like we should probably do something that seemed more like something. So we picked a convenient event in the Cúirt litfest, the play Grenades. Actually, I think it was me who picked it. I believe my thought process was something like “the theater is within walking distance and it says in the program that the heroine likes the Undertones, and I used to like them, so, sure, let’s go.” Unfortunately, I failed to fully consider that the play was (a) critically acclaimed, (b) intended to Make a Statement about the Troubles, and (c) told from the point of view of a tragic yet sassy adolescent girl. The combination of these factors pretty much guaranteed that we would hate it. Plus, the heroine wasn’t even a real fan of the Undertones, she was just copying her martyred older brother. So much for teenage kicks.

Mór, Mór, Mór

From Galway we took the bus (crowded) to the boat (very crowded) to Inishmore (crowded in Kilronan, empty after that).

Because none of the standard transportation options — rent-a-bikes, minibus tours, expensive horse-carts — appealed to us, we set out on foot. Walking to Dun Aengus, the big-deal prehistoric fort everybody is supposed to see, would have made us miss the boat back to the mainland, so instead we headed toward the Black Fort, which turned out to be even less popular than we expected. On the entire walk we saw only three or four other humans and indeed very few mammals of any sort, although we did pass by a pasture where frolicsome goatkids were taunting their hobbled elders, all very allegorical.

After an hour or so of stumbling over stone pavements and clambering over stone fences we reached the other side of the island. Unlike at the Cliffs of Moher, there’s nothing here to stop a person from tumbling over the edge and bouncing the hundreds of feet down to the Atlantic.

It’s very difficult to convey the scale of the cliffs. The tidy little cubes of rock you see at the bottom are as big as houses. Possibly bigger.

Everything is very rectilinear.

Except when it isn’t.

Getting to the Black Fort itself involves a number of don’t-look-down moments, but once we were on the other side of the wall it was rather cozy.

The lashing rain didn’t start until after we got back to Kilronan. There we ate warm fish chowder, and stood around soggily on the docks with assorted Australians, and watched work crews build another pier that will help more tourists get to the primordial isle and help more residents leave it.

Pounding the pavement

The best thing we did in County Clare was go walking in the Burren, where the thin layer of farmland is worn through in places, exposing the limestone pavements underneath. We chose more or less at random to take the Wood Loop trail. It starts in Ballyvaughan, a village on Galway Bay, quaint with all mod cons:

The path out of town sneaks through shrubby woods, with occasional arrows spraypainted on rocks to indicate a general direction, then travels along country lanes and across a series of pastures.

Someone really should make a potato Western here. Obvious title: To Hell or Connacht.

After a couple of hours, the road gets higher and rockier.

Then back down to Civilization.

The Cliffs of Moher Experience

We reached the Clare coast when there was still plenty of daylight, so I thought we might as well go to the Cliffs of Moher. I’d heard the area had been pretty heavily commercialized, but still, it was nice out and we were only a couple of miles away from one of Ireland’s greatest Natural Wonders, so why not take a look?

Well . . .

The location now has an official brand: The Cliffs of Moher Experience. The Experience involves paying a large number of Euros to leave your car in a vast parking lot. Then you walk across the highway to a shopping-and-interpretation-and-more-shopping center; after that, you arrive at the Great Wall of Moher.

I can understand why the huge stone barrier was built: the cliffs are high and windy, and they are home to various forms of wildlife whose chances of survival are not helped by tourists traipsing all over them. And of course I understand why the shopping center was built: who doesn’t want foreigners’ money? What I don’t understand is why, of all the scenic and historic places we visited in Ireland, this was where we encountered by far the largest crowds of tourists. Americans, Brits, Germans, Italians, Japanese, all here to look at this wall. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial should have it so good.

So instead of lingering to see the sun set over the CoME™, we went for a walk outside Doolin, passing a long breadcrumb-trail of holiday houses until we reached something that began to feel more like the middle of nowhere.

Then we turned around and went to dinner. We had been forewarned that, like the Cliffs, the village of Doolin offers a version of the Irish Rural Experience thoroughly tailored to tourist expectations; however, it was a convenient place to stay the night, so we booked a room and an evening meal at Roadford House. What we hadn’t been warned about was that we would be sharing the restaurant with a giant group of Americans in town for a destination wedding at, of course, the Cliffs of Moher.

After the decibel levels of the wedding party (much bellowing about the relative merits of various Irish golf courses) it was a relief to hang out with the drunks down the road at McDermott’s. Here again most of the patrons were Americans, but the musicians were skilled, and when the Americans weren’t attempting Riverdance moves the ambiance was reasonably pleasant.

As often happens, everything seemed less overwhelming the next morning.

Ruins burnout

By the time we got to County Clare we were starting to suffer from ruins burnout. Or, more precisely, from driving-to-ruins burnout. So we didn’t meander as much as we might have, although we did take the potholed detour to Dysert O’Dea, which presents a fine portal.

We also stopped at the little church in Kilnaboy, which is crammed with graves. Given the levels of Sunday-afternoon-post-pub speeding we encountered on the winding road through town, the high mortality rate is not surprising. A carving over the door is purported to be a sheela-na-gig:

But to me it seemed more ambiguous than, say, this sign in downtown Dingle:

Local politics

One of the frequently remarked-upon features of Dingle is its collection of hybrid pubs that also sell hardware, rubber boots, or other useful items. One suspects that nowadays these places maintain their inventory more to add “authentic atmosphere” than in expectation of local people actually buying anything, but still, who can resist a bar with a window display of a pink child’s bicycle?

At Foxy John’s we barged in on a group of flannel-clad guys intensely discussing the game on the TV set: the Masters golf tournament. I had a moment of worry that we might face hostility from this gang of golf hooligans, but as it turned out they were quite civil. Among them was a young emigrant who had recently returned with a foxy American girlfriend. Girlfriend: “I’m a media buyer.” Guy at bar: “I don’t think we have those here.”

On the bar was a copy of the Independent carrying headlines about the funeral of the Catholic policeman in County Tyrone who’d been blown up by dissident Republicans. I started to look at the cover story, but the guy next to me flipped the paper over. “I think people are making too much of that,” he said. Everybody continued talking about Rory McIlroy. I stared at the sign behind the bar advertising Cheese Flavoured Moments, and the handwritten one on the wall advertising 18 MONTHS OLD SHEEPDOG BICH / ANXIOUS FOR WORK / EXCELLENT TEMPERMENT / EXELLENT BREEDING / NEGOTIABLE.

The next evening we went to Dick Mack’s pub-slash-haberdashers, where I doubt any hankies have been sold in many a year. They have stars on the sidewalk celebrating famous customers including Robert Mitchum and “Julie Roberts,” who must have come here while researching her role as what was really at stake in the Irish Civil War.

Business was slow so we started chatting with the bartender. R. eventually worked up the courage to ask her was was up with the signs we’d been seeing around town that said “DINGLE / DAINGEAN UI CHUIS: A TOWN DENIED DEMOCRACY.” She explained that this was a response to the national government’s insistence on naming the town An Daingean despite a referendum in which residents voted for the town to keep the name Dingle in parallel with the locally accepted Irish name, which is not An Daingean but Daingean Uí Chúis. Because Dingle is in a Gaeltacht (officially Irish-speaking) region, all road signs are required to identify it by the official Irish name, which in this case seems to be about as relevant as the Haberdashery sign on the front of Dick Mack’s.

This topic segued into a thoroughly depressing anecdote about the bartender’s sister dropping out of high school when it was announced that the leaving certificate exams in the Gaeltacht areas would henceforth be held exclusively in Irish, in which many locals are far from fluent.

We could have spent more time discussing the mysteries of cultural policy, but eventually the conversation turned toward a more urgent nomenclature issue: whether the tuniclike garment the bartender had on should be considered a “dress” or a “top.” Either way, she said, “I won’t be goin’ up that ladder.”