(SLAHn cha) It’s an Irish toast that means “Health” or “Good health.” After a week in Ireland, it’s pretty much the only Irish word I learned. I’m usually pretty good at picking up words and phrases in other countries (see: Poa kichizi kama ndezi. Swahili for “crazy cool like a banana), but Irish is a tough one. What we did pick up a lot of was luck of the Irish, from mostly great weather (with appropriate rain) to blindly choosing great restaurants to putting together a fairly comprehensive and great fun touring vacation. We assembled an itinerary for a driving tour that ended in Dublin through a company called Solar Tours. This was a complete experiment as none of us had ever heard of the company, which is basically a travel services warehouse. We did a couple of upgrades, with hotels and car, but had no idea what we’d find. The experience will be chalked up into the “Take a Chance, It Could be Awesome” column.
We arrived at the Shannon Airport before 6 am and went directly to breakfast (of course) at the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis. It’s a beautiful hotel with good, strong coffee, much needed as we had decided to soldier on through the day, napless. We headed straight out to the Cliffs of Moher, which I was excited to learn are the Cliffs of Insanity in “The Princess Bride.” (You know, the ones where Fezzak has to carry three people up and is being chased by the Man in Black, who then gets in that brilliant sword fight with Inigo Montoya at the top. Love.) We were told later that we were really lucky. It was a cold and windy, but clear so we could see everything. A friend said he was out here this summer and couldn’t even see the back of his hand.
Fish and chips at the Locke Bar in Limerick were really really good, and the first of many Smithwick’s was drank (drunk?).
From Limerick, we drove out on the Dingle Peninsula, up and through Connor Pass. Driving on roads in this part of Ireland is harrowing. The roads are narrow and twisty and rolly AND you’re on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road. Luckly, it being November, there were few tour buses to come from the opposite direction and send us careening into a sheep. The pay-off is stunning views of the bay and sheep and cow pastures that seem to go right up to the edge of the water. The fish and chips at Fitzgerald’s Junction Bar were the best we had all week… and we had a lot of it.
The 4th generation of the family is running the place, and it’s warm and cozy with an amazing view of the bay.
We did a little more driving around and admiring it all, then headed back to The George Boutique Hotel in Limerick. A friend called Limerick “the stabbing capitol of Ireland,” so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was lovely. I felt safe enough to run around the downtown by myself right at dawn. The tourist highlight on Day 2 was The Hunt Museum.
It houses an eclectic collection of antiques and honestly, some pretty random but cool stuff dating back to the Bronze Age. I thought the coolest thing was what was supposedly one of the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas to betray Jesus. They also had an original 4 Gats (Barcelona) restaurant menu cover drawn by Pablo Picasso. 4 Gats may have been my favorite restaurant in Barcelona.
Lunch was at this groovy, trendy little restaurant called Absolute. Really, the only notable thing there was the bla. It’s on the menu a couple of times. The waiter didn’t know what it was either. Turns out, it’s this:
A roll that originated in Waterford. Despite claims to the contrary, Gloria found it pretty… blah.
On to Killarney, via the Ring of Kerry. We were very excited to launch onto this 115 (or so) mile driving tour through the countryside. I picked the first stop, at Kerry Bog Village, which is probably a huge tourist trap, but I didn’t care… I wanted to see a Kerry Bog Pony. They’re mountain and moorland ponies that used to bring peat and bog to villages in the area. These little ponies almost went extinct until a guy did some genetic research in the 90s and brought the breed back. Way cute. The Village also had a soaking wet Irish Wolfhound, the fattest chickens and roosters I’ve ever seen, and a recreation of a little town back in the day. Touristy, yes. I highly recommend it.
Lunchtime arrived farther down on the Ring of Kerry. We had no idea where to eat, and as it’s after the season, most places were closed. So we said we’d go in to the first restaurant we saw that was open. Jackpot. It’s called Lobster, in the town of Waterville. I had a turkey and leek pie that was delicious. A guy who was drinking beer at the bar (there are always a couple, at lunch) didn’t take much prodding to sing. He chose “Danny Boy,” which made me snicker on the inside, until he hit the high notes. He was FANTASTIC. Caron, the woman who’s just bought the place, is friendly and nice. Go there. Oh, and Charlie Chaplin used to summer here. His daughter is trying to sell their home, right on the water. Caron may be able to hook you up.
Of course we went to Blarney Castle. Of course it was appropriately raining on us all day long. Of course we all kissed the Blarney stone. That’s supposed to make you more eloquent. Patrick will find it awesome that I have a new reason to talk even MORE. Other highlights of the castle: the Murder Hole
The caves where folks in the castle could allegedly escape all the way to Cork, which is nearby… and the Poison Garden.
After two nights of using Killarney as a base, we took off toward Dublin. We stayed in a terrific hotel on the north side of the city called Pembroke Townhouses. They had cake and cheese and crackers out all the time and were friendly and nice, BUT the first night, we got the last room in the place, which is right next to the reception desk. We heard people coming and going all night long, but mostly between 1:30 and 2:30 am, when they stood at the desk and talked and laughed while they ate their cake and cheese and crackers. If you go there and they offer you room 203, go to a different hotel. I am serious about this. (We were moved the next day, which made the hotel experience there more awesome than not). Also, it’s really close to a canal with swans, and you can run for miles along it and feel safe.
With so many options in Dublin, we narrowed it down to three must-dos, agreeing that any more would be a bonus. I think we saved the best for first: The Guinness Storehouse. You have to see this place to believe it. It’s the show-and-tell part of the Guinness brewery, and 4-million people have visited since it opened in 1997. There’s a lot of history of the factory and how it affected Dublin, great exhibits on how they make Guinness, a tasting room, and the “Academy,” where you learn how to pour the perfect Guinness (and get to drink it after). We were told the visit would take 90 minutes. I think we were there almost three hours. Probably appropriately, our next stop was jail.
Kilmainham Gaol is a prison that held many Irish rebellion leaders, executing some of them. Someone told us the Gaol tour is the best in Dublin. Our tour guide was terrific, and the prison is still creepy after all these years. If you go there, go early; you have to sign up for a tour and they fill fast. Not to be missed.
You’d think that doing three things wouldn’t take all day, but you’d be WRONG. We had to practically run to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells before closing time. The Book was transcribed and illustrated around 800 AD. It’s beautiful in its own right, but when you learn about how it was made and how it survived through years and wars, it’s almost incomprehensible. It’s one of Ireland’s national treasures.
Our trip was too short, but that does mean there’ll be lots of stuff to see and do on a return trip. Here’s what I am taking away: The Irish people are warm and friendly with a wicked sense of humor that is a delight. The countryside is as beautiful as I imagined. There are pubs on every corner, and most are named O’Connor’s or O’Connell’s or Murphy’s or Paddy’s (you get the picture). There are a lot of sheep, but not as many as I had expected. Driving 40 mph on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road can make you feel like Ayrton Senna and scare the crap out of your passengers simultaneously. And finally, Smithwick’s is my new favorite ale. But if it’s not available, a Murphy’s will do.