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Report 1922: Coasting Through Ireland on Pints of Cider

By Green Dragon from FL, Spring 2011

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Page 10 of 21: Friday, May 20th: We're Not Climbing up That, Are We? Redux

Luckily, my ankle was feeling much better this morning. Since breakfast wasn't until 9am (by military decree), we went out to walk about a bit before breakfast. However, it started raining pretty hard as soon as we rounded the corner, and of course nothing was open at 7am, so we got back into the car to do some rain-free exploring.

We drove towards Croagh Patrick. I had originally had the foolish thought of trying to climb part of this, until I saw it in person. Yes, you could see the track people followed from quite a distance, but the upper part was at least a 55 degree slope – not for beginners, certainly! And with the rain, and my ankle, it was right out of consideration. If I hadn't twisted my ankle, I might still have been tempted to try the lower, gentler portion.

We found a church with a lovely graveyard full of angels and Celtic Crosses, so I stopped to feed my habit and get some photographs. I very gingerly climbed through to the old, ruined chapel, the ivy-covered crosses, and the iffy footing. There was so much ivy and undergrowth covering the pieces of stone and brick that it was like walking in a bog of greenery. Back at the car we went on towards the mountain, like a beacon in the mists.

We saw another brown sign on the way – Famine Memorial. It intrigued our interest, so we went to see – a very bizarre but moving sculpture (bronze?) showing a large sailing ship, draped with skeletons. It was in the middle of a manicured park, the precision of care that it was kept made it seem quite incongruous next to the rough style of the memorial itself.

We backtracked a bit for petrol, and realized it was soon to be breakfast time, so we skedaddled back to the B&B, afraid that if we were a minute late, it would be "no breakfast for you!" Noreen was there, and we met her and another gentleman that was helping. Scrambled eggs aren't my favorite, but it was plenty for breakfast with the toast and brown bread. The two women at the next table had asked about (and received) bacon, and we wished we had thought of that, but figured it wouldn't hurt us to have no bacon for a day or two.

Today's plan was to drive around the Connemara Loop and explore that area, and if time allowed, explore some of Achill Island later in the day. We realized that this was an ambitious plan, but we are ambitious folk, and we only had the one day in the area. We drove through Clifden first, and then tried to find Mannin Bay, another brown-sign-promised view. We asked a couple of older ladies walking on the road, they directed us in the right place to Ballyconneely, and a beautiful sandy beach at low tide, a rocky wasteland, desolate and stark.

We wandered around the area a bit, noting houses in various states of being half-built, and others in varying stages of deterioration, usually right next to each other. We were later told that people would live in the old building, build a new one, and simply use the older one for storage – and do the same process again, 50 years later. Very rocky, but still plenty of holiday style homes built along that stretch of coastline – the views were sweeping and epic. We saw one town with a spa that advertised seaweed baths, the thought of which horrified V. She said she would never take a bath in seaweed, chocolate milk, chili with cheese with fries on top – anything she can't see through. To be more specific, anything that she couldn't tell wasn't 'waste matter,' to put it delicately. I reminded her that fish pee in water.

There were lots of horses and ponies, as well as cows, and not nearly as many sheep as had been in Donegal and Antrim. We saw a sign promising that littering would result in a fine, in the oddly specific amount of €1902.61. There was a place called Dogs Bay, and a sign that said No Dogs right nearby – rather ironic, that. Farther inland, we had seen one field with about eight horses that seemed not to be penned at all – wild ponies? Not sure, but Connemara would be the place to find them, if they were.

We made it around the coast to Roundstone, a sweet seaside village where we parked, took some photographs of the area, and found a place for lunch. O'Dowd's café had a Smoked Salmon Salad and a Seafood Cocktail Salad, with fresh whole grain scones and a shared bottle of cider. It also afforded a nice view of the harbor, and an upstairs room with a higher view of the same.

The sun was out most of the day with occasional clouds and not much rain, so it was a refreshingly bright morning and we enjoyed being out in it. We decided it was time to head up to Achill Island, about a two-hour drive. I have long since discovered that Americans think 100 years is a long time, and Europeans think 100 miles is a long way, and I know Noreen was surprised we'd been planning this much driving today.

When we arrived to Achill Island, I suddenly saw flags and streamers of blue and yellow everywhere. I currently live near Morgantown, West Virginia, and these are the colors of West Virginia University, so I was momentarily confused. Why would there be Mountaineer fans in Ireland? But it was a local school team's colors as well, as we saw several signs with the team symbols on it, as well as a pub entirely in yellow and blue (called the Way Inn).

School was out and the children were everywhere, so we drove very carefully through town. We saw a brown sign for "The Atlantic Scenic Drive" so off we went in search of scenic views. We were not disappointed. There were lovely views of the bay, and some ponies I stopped to photograph more closely. They were very friendly, especially the two foals, and one was quite brave to come right up to me, probably looking for something to eat. The owners were coming out of the driveway while I was there, and waved at me as they drove off. Obviously they were used to the charms of their friendly ponies to the tourists.

We drove around the coast road to the other side (south, I think) of the island, and saw a very narrow, very steep switchback road ahead, but we figured if the giant white bus that was coming down it could navigate it safely, so could we. We went up carefully, especially as the wind had picked up again to about 25mph, and it was well worth the journey. We later found out it was probably Keem Bay, and we had it to ourselves for a good while, though the wind tried its hardest to discourage our presence. Once again the sun helped us out for photographs, but it could do nothing about Sister Wind. The coast of Ireland is definitely a wealth of wild and woolly coastlines, and I thoroughly enjoyed each one.

On the way along the coastal route, we also found a tower on the water, and it turned out to be Grainne's Tower. Grainne O'Malley was a female pirate who lived in the area in the 16th century, and was rumored to have butted heads with – and met - Queen Elizabeth I.

After Achill Island, we headed towards Westport once more. A brown sign prompted us to go looking for a castle, but it was covered in scaffolding, even though it had a fantastic spot on a lake, overlooking a green valley. The scaffolding reminded me of the beginning feature in Monty Python's Meaning of Life, when the Accountants set sail on the wide Accountant Sea.

We settled up that night in the B&B, since we were off early the next morning for the ferry over to Inis Mor (no scrambled eggs for us!). Both Sadie and Noreen were there, and it was clear that Sadie was actually the one in charge. She reduced our bill by €10 since we didn't need breakfast the next day, and was much friendlier and less abrupt than the first night we were there. Perhaps she had just had a bad night?

I had hoped my charger would arrive, but told them that I would be back from Inis Mor in a couple days, and would call to see if it had arrived. If not, they said they could just forward it to my home, and I gave my details so they could. That is what ended up happening, and they were very kind about it. They refused compensation for the shipping.

We decided to take a break from pub food for the evening, and ate at the Indian/Nepalese restaurant down the street, The Everest (they had takeaway, probably prompting the sign in the B&B room). The food was delicious, we had Chicken Tikka Masala and Nepalese Lamb Masala. The lamb dish was very tasty, sweeter than I had expected, very aromatic. I wished I could eat more, but I am physically limited to what I can eat at one time, due to stomach surgery. And, of course, we couldn't bring any leftovers into the B&B on pain of death.

V was feeling unsocial again, so we went into the small grocery store and got a couple of small bottles of wine for her to relax with for the evening while she soaked in the tub, while I went to Matt Molloy's to meet Debe. I sat in one of the small rooms waiting for either Debe or music to show up. There was a girl from Hamburg, Germany sitting at one table, and a group of folks from Louisiana at another. I nursed my half pint of cider (I was still quite full from the lamb) and caught up on the day's events in my notebook. I find it's always easier to be sitting alone at a pub if it looks like I'm doing something, so I always bring my notebook.

I did hear a girl singing My Lagan Love in another room, her voice was sweet. There were several small rooms, like many pubs in Ireland, so different singers/players could have their own small audience without intruding on the other performers. I liked the setup up, as it allowed for different types and styles of music for different tastes. Joe's in Cushendall had been like that as well. Nancy's in Ardara wasn't doing music the nights I was there, but they often did Jazz or Blues, I was told.

Since I still didn't have my charger, I discovered I was doing fine getting small video clips on my camera. It did gobble up charge and space, about one picture 'space' for each second of video, but that was fine as I had plenty of memory cards. That's good, as the charger never did show up to the B&B in time.

As I sat and reflected on the trip so far, waiting for Debe to show up, I realized one of the main differences I saw was that there were decent seafood selections at every place we went – shrimp, salmon, chowder, mackerel, monkfish, you name it, they had it. I love seafood, and require a high amount of protein on my current dietary plan. Shrimp has a high protein content, so I ate that frequently, but it was very nice to have several options available. And it all tasted fresh and delicious!

I also realized that as we headed farther south, into 'touristy' areas, the roads got wider and less windy than in Donegal and points north. I'm sure that will change eventually, as more EU funding helps tourism, but I already saw the differences. Of course, Westport and the surrounding areas are also more heavily populated than, say, Ardara, so that was certainly a factor as well. Can't blame the tourists for everything, can we?

I'd long ago learned a very important lesson in Ireland – there is no shame in letting the locals drive past you. In fact, they appreciate it when you do, as they know the roads well, and actually go the speed limit, while you're poking along, afraid of what's beyond the next bend or hill. Pull off in a lay-by and they'll blink their lights as they go by in thanks. By now, however, I was driving confidently enough that some tourists were pulling over to let me by. I felt so proud!

We also noted a proliferation of signs, whether they be warning of twisty roads ahead (which should just be a blanket sign for the entire island of Ireland), or 'no verge ahead' (there was a sign every 20 feet coming off of Achill Island). We posited that there was one little old lady in the back country churning out hundreds of signs for the roads, and she was rather overworked by now. The time-honored tradition of Sign-Making in Ireland, a true cottage industry! Random 'Danger' signs on every bend, 'Concealed Entrances' ahead, or perhaps 'Hidden Dip?' You decide.

The pub is filling up quickly as the evening progresses, but I have not yet seen Debe. I'm pretty confident I'll recognize her when I see her, as she looks a lot like my friend Celesta, so I just continue to observe, sip, and write. A short, older man with white hair comes in and starts chatting with one of the tables, asking where everyone is from. For each response, he sings a song or a bit of a song related to their place of origin. When he comes to me, of course, he sings 'Country Roads' (or a clip of it) when I tell him West Virginia. I told him I was from Florida before that, and that seems to stump him, so I start off with Suwanee River (Old Folks at Home).

I was joined by another older gentleman (perhaps around 70?), who literally put his dancing shoes on – evidently he was looking for someone to dance with, but I begged off due to my ankle, as I've never been the most graceful person at the best of times, and my ankle made me a right danger to those around us. He told me the singer's name was Mick Lavelle, and you could tell he loved the singing. Mick continued singing some other songs, including Molly Malone (which many of us joined in on) and Wild Rover, then When Irish Eyes Are Smiling and Black Velvet Band. He tried to get us to sing the chorus on that, but we failed in volume and tune.

The four people next to me borrowed the stool I'm saving for Debe, promising to return it when she arrives. I spoke to one of them (they are from Boston), and showed off my jewelry once more. One man's daughter also makes jewelry, and I gave him my card, as I wrote an article on getting started in the art show business.

There is a rowdy group of girls against one wall, obviously here to drink and not listen to the music, so when two players started in one corner, everyone got quiet except them. I think they were too drunk to notice that the music was even playing. These were definitely session players, there for fun and to enjoy playing, not paid performers here to entertain the tourists. Not that there is anything wrong with that, that's fun, too – but there is a definite difference between the two types of entertainment. Paid performers are more polished, and cater to the crowd more, while session players simply play for the pleasure of it, and play what they like and know.

Debe walked through, and I recognized her, called to her. She said she hadn't been sure it was me. She sat and chatted for a bit, and then we migrated into another room, a larger one, where her boyfriend was performing. He was one of the aforementioned paid performers, and he was very good. He knew how to work the crowd, which increased dramatically quite quickly. A hen party (bachelorette party in American) of about 60 girls came in, all dressed like Audrey Hepburn, the theme of the party. It was a nice change from the usual flashing headdresses and sparkling neon jewelry bits of most hen parties.

I met Debe's friend Jackie, a buyer for a department store, she was a blast. We sat and talked about all sorts of things. I dragged my jewelry out again to show it off to them. She told me that it was great stuff, but in all honesty, too high priced for the Ireland market right now – I greatly appreciated the information, and it made sense, since everyone was in a recession right now. Dee sang things from traditional stuff like Clare Island to Sweet Caroline, 500 Miles, Daydream Believer, and Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Fun was had by all!

By midnight I was tuckered out and made my way back to the still hard-partying streets of Westport to my B&B. It was only about a block away, but ducking drunks on the street made it an interesting slalom course. This is definitely not a sleepy town on a Friday night, and had a healthy night life.

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