By Gretchen McKay

An Irish Ramble

Categories : Travel

DOOLIN, Ireland — No one wants car trouble on vacation, especially when the sun is setting and, thanks to poor planning, you still haven’t found a room for the night. But if you’re going to blow a tire in Ireland, this pretty little seaside village on the northwest coast of County Clare is the place to do it.

My husband and I were on route from Ennis to the Cliffs of Mohr, one of the country’s most spectacular natural wonders, when an oncoming car flew ’round the bend and ran our tiny rented Fiat Punto into a ditch. We were shaken but not all that surprised; Ireland is notorious for its narrow roads and speed-demon drivers, particularly in rural areas. Besides, we’d already knocked the cover off the passenger side mirror the previous morning when an equally crazy driver got too close on the main street through Tipperary.

Still, we didn’t notice any real damage until hours later, after we’d toured the Cliffs jutting some 700 feet over the Atlantic (absolutely stunning!) and then curved our way north along the coast to Doolin, known worldwide as the unofficial capital of Irish traditional music.

Actually, someone noticed it for us.

“Do you have a room?” we called out hopefully to the man standing in front of the Seaview House Bed & Breakfast.

He shook his head. “But you have a flat,” he offered helpfully.

Considering Doolin is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and the spare was one of those dinky temporary numbers, we panicked; less than 36 hours into a whirlwind, four-day trip across the country, we still had hundreds of miles to go and dozens of sites to see. We couldn’t afford to waste one minute searching for a repair shop.

But the luck of the Irish was with us. The woman who owned the B&B we thumped our way to assured us her friend John, who had a tire shop in the middle of a sheep pasture just up the road, could set us up and was more than happy to rouse him by cell the next morning. So we were able to spend the evening as originally planned, listening to live music while enjoying a pint at two of the town’s three pubs: Gus O’Connor’s Pub, which dates to 1832, and McGann’s.

Much has been made in recent years about the “new Ireland” and how it’s progressed from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the wealthiest. The capital city of Dublin, for instance, in which one-fourth of the Republic’s citizens live, is now one of the top destinations in the EU, drawing more than 4 million visitors a year.

But let’s face it: Tourists really go there to experience the old Ireland: lush, sweeping landscapes dotted with medieval ruins and castles; picturesque thatched-roof cottages still warmed by a peat fire; the lively sounds of traditional Irish music; a pint of Guinness at a century-old village pub.

With both sets of grandparents having been born in Ireland, it’s always been my husband’s dream to visit — or “return home,” as he puts it. But it wasn’t until our oldest son, Dan, left to study for six months at the university in Galway that we finally scheduled a B&B trip through Aer Lingus’ Vacation Store (www.aerlingus.com).

Due to work schedules and baby-sitting issues, we wouldn’t have much time: just four and a half days and four nights. So we decided to bypass Dublin and the east coast and focus instead on the rural (read: authentically Irish) towns to the south, west and north. Our itinerary included everything from Kilkenny and Cork, where we could kiss the Blarney Stone, to Galway, Westport and Bundoran, the tiny seaside resort just south of Donegal where my husband’s maternal grandmother was born.

Here’s where we made our first mistake. Even though Ireland is a relatively small country, the map is deceiving; tiny, windy roads means it takes a lot longer to get from point A to point B. Though our first planned stop, the medieval city of Kilkenny, was just 84 miles from Shannon airport, it took us nearly four hours to get there (jet lag, an unfamiliarity with driving on the left side of the road and an hourlong traffic jam in Limerick didn’t help). So, not wanting to spend all our time in the car, we quickly regrouped and scrapped planned trips to Cork and Killarney.

After a quick nap in our luxury room at Newland’s Country House B&B, we headed into town to tour the landmark Kilkenny Castle, built in the 12th century and restored to period splendor in the 1960s. But we got there 15 minutes too late, so had to console ourselves with simply walking its beautiful grounds along the River Nore. (Tip: Most tours end an hour before closing time, so plan accordingly.)

A quick bite at the charming Matt the Millers pub reinforced what our son had been telling us for months: Ireland is amazingly expensive! Soup, salad and two pints of Smithwicks cost us 29.90 euros or about $40.

From there we headed 15 miles south to the scenic village of Inistioge. A favored romantic hideaway for local Irish, this teeny-tiny hamlet boasts a tree-lined square and a stone bridge with nine low arches spanning the Nore. So lovely is the backdrop that two Hollywood movies, “Circle of Friends” and “Widow’s Peak,” were filmed there.

On the way back to Kilkenny, we passed through Thomastown, a market town founded in the 13th century by Welsh mercenary Thomas FitzAnthony.

Quickly fading from lack of sleep, we decided to rejuice with dinner at The Coach House, a mid-1600s coach house-turned restaurant on the banks of the Nore. As we marveled over the antique beamed ceilings and wide-plank pine floors, owner John Casey stopped by to chat. Local legend has it that British military leader Oliver Cromwell — much despised by the Irish — stopped there before his death in 1658. As we ate, we drank in another distinctly Irish phenomenon: a coal fire.

Refreshed by a good night’s sleep, we started early the next morning for the Cliffs of Mohr via the historic towns of Cashel and Cahir in County Tipperary, both known for their medieval fortresses.

On route, we stopped to explore the remnants of an ancient, vine-covered stone church in the middle of a sheep pasture. It was but a taste of the wonders to come: dramatically situated on an outcrop of craggy limestone, the Rock of Cashel rises some 200 feet above the town below. Its origins as a center of power go back to 370 A.D. (St. Patrick visited in 450 A.D.), but in 1101 it was given to the church, which consecrated its imposing Hibernian Romanesque chapel in 1134. It was abandoned in the 18th century.

To the south, the Norman-style Cahir Castle, built in the 13th century and enlarged between the 15th and 17th, sits on a rocky island. One of the largest and best preserved fortresses in Ireland, it features spacious courtyards, spiral staircases and a grand hall.

This being Ireland, there were plenty more castles and ruins I longed to investigate. Time being of the essence, we instead sped toward the Atlantic, with the soaring Galtee Mountains in the distance. Which brings us to our second mistake. Thinking it’d be easier, we’d purchased “town and country” vouchers from Aer Lingus for each night’s stay at a B&B. The agent assured us we’d have our choice of “hundreds” of homes. Turns out most of the B&Bs we came across didn’t accept vouchers. And even when they did, the rooms were priced much lower than the $125 per night we’d forked out in advance. Luckily, the sole B&B in Doolin that accepted vouchers still had a room.

By noon the next morning, after some sweater shopping on Fisher Street and a delightful seaside drive that took us through a bleak, rocky stretch of land known as The Burren, we’d reached the unspoiled village of Ballyvaughan. Then it was just a skip and a jump to Galway, where we picked up our son and headed into its cosmopolitan town center for some lunch and shopping. At the top of my list was a claddagh ring from the oldest jewelers in Ireland (est. 1750), Thomas Dillon’s on Quay Street.

As we drove the long and barren highway from Galway to Sligo, we contemplated what we might find in Bundoran, a popular vacation resort renowned for its surfing. Our guidebook, after all, labeled it “tacky.” But we found its colorful promenade quite lovely, and its residents couldn’t have been more friendly.

We’d planned on overnighting in nearby Sligo, but once again we had trouble finding a B&B that took vouchers. So we continued way past dark to the coastal town of Enniscrone, where the kind proprietor of the Tara Farmhouse B&B promised to wait up for us.

And that leads us to mistake No. 3: Irish pubs don’t serve food after 9:30 p.m., no matter how pathetically you beg.

So after we unpacked our bags, we headed down the road to Ballina, County Mayo’s largest town. A guarda, or cop, directed us to Chungs at Tullios on Pearse Street, where we devoured kung pao chicken while listening to country Musak. It was one of our most surreal moments in Ireland but totally enjoyable.

On our way to Cong the next morning (the setting for John Wayne’s “The Quiet Man”), we passed through the coastal villages of Newport and Westport and meandered across the Partry Mountains, where the butter-yellow gorse bushes were in full bloom.

Leaving Cong, we stumbled upon Asbury Castle, a turreted 13th-century castle that was once a country residence for the Guinness family but is now a luxury hotel (Pierce Brosnan was married there in 2001). An even better surprise was the 13th-century Ross Errilly Friary we spied in the distance near Headford. This medieval Franciscan friary, which stands in serene solitude on the banks of the Black River, is among the best-preserved monastic sites in Ireland — and we had it all to ourselves, save for some sheep grazing in a nearby pasture.

Back in Galway, we celebrated our last night in Ireland with oysters, native salmon and Dingle prawns at Morans Oyster Cottage, a renowned seafood restaurant in nearby Kilcolgan. Afterward, we fraternized with the locals at three of Galway’s most popular pubs, including Taaffes, where the guitar and accordion was only slightly louder than the crowd.

As we headed to Shannon airport the next morning, we made one last stop in the town of Gort, where, with the luck of the Irish, I found the oilcloth Irish cap I’d been searching for my father. (A loaf of brown bread and Irish butter also made their way into my carry-on bag).

Seeing we had an extra half-hour, the salesman sketched out a more scenic route on the back of an envelope via the tiny town of Scariff. We started out with high hopes, but once again we were fooled by the map. Out of time, with more than 800 miles under our belts, we had to settle for the darling town of Tulla.

Next time, we promised ourselves.