September 8, 2013

Irish Ring Roads

“Geographically, Ireland is a medium-sized rural island that is slowly but steadily being consumed by sheep.”  Dave Barry, humorist

Carol writes:  In order to understand the above quote, you have to visit Ireland (or the UK, for that matter) and see all the sheep—thousands and thousands of sheep along both sides of every country road!  There must be more sheep than people!  I am still wondering what they do with all those sheep!  It was a relief to find out that the spray paint that is used for identification purposes on the open range is water-soluble and gets washed out of the sheared fleece. Whew!  

Any visit to western Ireland would not be complete without taking in the tourist-favorite ring drive around County Kerry’s Iveragh Peninsula, otherwise known as the Ring of Kerry.  We allotted a full day for the over 100-mile loop drive, hopefully leaving ourselves plenty of time to savor its spectacular scenery along with a sampling of its ancient ring forts. 

We decided to drive the loop in the clockwise direction that was recommended in our Rick Steves guidebook, which is in the opposite direction of the overloaded tourist bus traffic.  That tactic would have worked out brilliantly if only there had not been a daylong bicycle race that was routed around the entire Ring of Kerry in the same clockwise direction!  Roads are very, very narrow in this part of Ireland, so that meant we had to travel at the speed of every bike we encountered until we could find a safe place to pass!

From the very start of our day, the weather didn’t seem like it was going to be in our favor either.  In spite of a steadily worsening dreary drizzle, we were determined to see what we could at our first stop—Staigue Ring Fort.  The sheep didn’t seem to mind the rain in this impressive and desolate setting, so we took it in stride too.

Staigue Fort was built without the use of any kind of mortar or cement sometime between 500 B.C. and 300 A.D.  Measuring about 80 feet in diameter and enclosed by very thick and very high walls, this ancient circular walled structure was used as a place of retreat during times of tribal unrest.  I can’t think of any manmade ruins in the U.S. that even come close to the age of this ring fort.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but this stop at Staigue Ring Fort turned out to be the highlight of our day.  As we continued our drive along the Ring of Kerry, whenever we came to what our guidebook described as a “brilliant view” or a “scenic vista,” all we could see was a fog bank in the distance.  It just wasn’t turning out to be a very ideal day to sightsee along one of Ireland’s most famous scenic drives.  So…that’s all I have to say about the famous Ring of Kerry.

The next day we headed over to the Dingle Peninsula to check out the town of Dingle. Our Rick Steves guidebook claimed Dingle Town was loaded with charm and that it was a great place to take in some traditional Irish pub music.  We had been waiting for that small-town venue where we could park nearby for the night and do our senior version of a “pub crawl,” without having to drive afterwards.  Pub music usually doesn’t start before 9 p.m., so we decided to savor the rest of our brilliant sunny day by taking in the 30-mile Dingle Peninsula ring drive.  We hadn’t gone far before it was obvious this drive would be jam-packed with one gorgeous view after another.

At this viewpoint we chatted with a German couple who were interested in our travels because they had enjoyed a similar adventure 15 years ago when they backpacked around the world! 

This gorgeous windswept Dingle Peninsula has been popular with the movies and was used in the filming of Ryan’s Daughter, starring Robert Mitchum.  We caught a glimpse of the cottage that was used by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman when they stayed here (in happier times) during filming of Far and Away.

One of the more interesting stops along the route was at 1300-year-old Gallarus Oratory, one of Ireland’s best preserved early Christian churches.  This simple church was constructed by means of carefully fitted drystone technique and has remained waterproof to this day.

Thus far our travels have shown us that so much of Irish history has been loaded with tragedy, turmoil, and violence.  I discovered a quote attributed to the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats that captured the essence of Irish history when he said, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”  Nothing illustrates the tragic history of Ireland more poignantly than the Great Potato Famine (1845-1849).  In four short years, over a million Irish people died of starvation or related diseases when the potato crop, their main food source, was destroyed by a fungus.  The famine years were responsible for the massive numbers of immigrants who left their homes in Ireland for better opportunities in the U.S., Canada, and Australia.  My maternal grandmother’s ancestors were Irish, and I remember my mother telling me that the Great Potato Famine was the reason her distant ancestors moved to America.  Incredibly, abandoned stone huts from the famine years still dot the countryside along the Dingle Peninsula.  Early in our travels in Ireland, along another road, we found several examples of simple stone monuments erected in memory of those who died in the Great Potato Famine.  They have not been forgotten… 

By the time we arrived back in Dingle Town, most of the tourist buses, along with many of the day tourists had already left.  We found a convenient spot in the harbor parking lot where we had been told that although technically not allowed, we could camp for the night and no one would object.  Finally, the stars had aligned for us to check out the ‘trad’ music in the pubs.

Our only mistake was starting our pub crawl in a highly recommended pub called O’Flaherty’s.  Although O’Flaherty’s drinks were superb--a pint of Guiness for Al and a heavenly Bailey’s coffee for me--it took us a while to figure out that the music part wasn’t happening that night at O’Flaherty’s, so we soaked up a wee bit more of O’Flaherty ambience and then headed down the street to another pub where we could hear the guitar music a block away.

I guess when you visit a pub in a tourist town it’s not surprising to find a musician who feels the need to give the crowd what he thinks they want—a few Irish tunes followed by a healthy course of their own music with an Irish twist.  I had hardly finished savoring a meaningful song about the ‘Troubles’ when our guitarist quickly broke out in a John Denver oldie, followed by an Irish version of “Proud Mary.”  Why was this crowd calling for more Johnny Cash after the guitarist’s rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues?”  Oh well, as we sat on the fringe of a large Australian group, Al was enjoying his Guinness and I was starting to mellow from a hot toddy.  In spite of a few puzzling music choices, our guitarist’s lovely Irish tenor voice and not-too-shabby guitar skills made our experience a memorable one.

Before the last call at midnight, we finished up the evening at one more pub located just a stone’s throw away from our ‘campsite’ on the Dingle pier across the street.  Here the music was more of a jam session between a guitarist and another guy with a small accordion.  By that time, I had drunk my quotient of alcohol and was more interested in the nearly 100-year-old framed newspaper articles on the wall that had pictures of the 1916 Easter Day Uprising leaders who were imprisoned and then punished with execution.  What was that all about?  I knew that before we left Ireland we would have to get acquainted with a lot more of its sad and troublesome history.

“Ireland’s ruins are historic emotions surrendered to time.”   Horace Sutton


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