APRIL 2013 – It begins! For the next 16 days I would travel by car and foot through rural areas of Ireland in search of possible shooting locations for a video series I’m working on about the role of pubs in rural Ireland. During this time I would visit about 82 pubs (that number is a bit hazy), enjoy more than 100 pints of Guinness, hike more than fifty miles and meet many new friends… some of which will likely be lifelong acquaintances.
My goals were to find out more about the state of pubs in rural communities, the role that pubs play in the local’s lives and to meet some interesting people that are willing to allow me to tell their story with a camera. I also hoped to reconnect with my Irish roots and HAVE FUN!
It was a fantastic journey, filled with unexpected twists and turns, jaw-dropping scenery, pubs overflowing with character, lovely people and pints of Guinness… oh yes, there were pints!
Day One: Kells
I landed in Dublin at 4:30am, rented a nice little red Nissan Micra and drove straight to Kells, birthplace of my Great Grandfather, Andrew Corcoran. In the early 1900’s Andrew moved to Blackrock, Dublin and worked as a stable man. My Grandfather Bernard and my Mother, Maureen were also born there.
I chose Kells as the first stop because I wanted to see what further information I could uncover about my family. As I departed the airport, a beautiful sunrise was easing up over the horizon. The highway was nearly empty, and it was smooth sailing all the way, a bit more than an hour of driving. I arrived at 6:30am and the streets were deserted so I parked and started exploring the town on foot.
The most dominant feature of the town is the Abbey of Kells at St. Colmcille, where the Book of Kells was disastrously stolen during a Norse raid in 1007. The round lookout tower and some high crosses from the 9th century are still here and I rambled among them, shooting photos and searching for hints of the Corcoran name.
I polished off a gigantic Irish breakfast and then took a drive around the surrounding area, visiting Castletown, Navan and Bristleking. The farmland here is rich and well tended. I drove down a few dirt roads just for the fun of it and saw a lot of farmers working their fields.
By early afternoon I was back in Kells and thirsty for my first pint of the trip. I stopped at the Western Pub, a meticulously maintained pub with a friendly barman. I was the only one in the place so I had a chance to visit with him for a bit and get suggestions on where I might stay for the night.
The town was heavily booked for a wedding that weekend, but I did find a nice little room at Janetta B&B, run by a very nice elderly couple, May and Michael. At first they eyed me suspiciously – a lone American, wandering in out of the drizzle and scraggly from 36 hours of travel. However, when they learned about my roots here, I was welcomed warmly into their home!
That night, I visited as many pubs as I could: Smith’s, Chaser’s, Virginia’s and many more – all buzzing with people socializing, many with men betting on the horse races. People here are extremely interested in sports of any kind and there were several Bookmakers, all within easy walks from the various pubs. I made many friends in this town, mostly farmers, and everyone was extremely welcoming. A special thanks to my new friends Marcus, John the Farmer, “Gay Jerry” and Charles the bartender for being such welcoming and pleasant people!
My evening meal was at the Cross Street Bistro (www.crossstreetbistro.com) and it was absolutely incredible (Potato Leek Soup, Battered Haddock and Peas). Afterwards, the owner (originally from the U.S.) came out and sat with me for a whiskey.
Day Two: Ballyvaughan
In the morning I was greeted by May with another full Irish breakfast that she had prepared. Even though I wasn’t very hungry, she demanded that I sit and eat!
I headed westward on the M6 toward my destination for the next few days: Ballyvaughan (population 224), a beautiful seaside village about an hour south of Galway.
My original plan was to stay with a friend, Father Gerard McCarthy, a Catholic priest living in Galway. However, this weekend he was covering for a colleague and friend, Richard Flanagan, in Ballyvaughan. So it was decided that we would both stay at Father Richard’s for a few days.
Upon my arrival, Gerard instantly whisked into the back room of the local pub and seated me at a table with a family having a funeral lunch! They had buried their brother, PJ Vaughan that morning, and Gerard conducted the services. PJ was the local school bus driver for many years in the village. Ironically, he was a man loved the sport of auto racing, even though he was notorious for driving overly cautious with the bus for many years.
Talk about an authentic Irish experience! One moment I’m a tourist and the next, I’m in the middle of an Irish funeral! The family was very welcoming to me and we all enjoyed a hearty lunch of roast beef, mashed potatoes, steamed veggies and apple cake, washed down with a couple pints of Guinness of course.
Gerard and I spent the rest of the day exploring the area. We walked the Rinn Peninsula, with views of Galway across the bay to the north. We explored the Burren and looked across to the Cliffs of Mohr and the Aran islands.
The Burren (meaning “great rock”) is a karst-landscape region in northwest County Clare. The region measures approximately 250 square kilometres and is enclosed roughly within the circle made by the villages Ballyvaughan, Kinvara, Tubber, Corofin, Kilfenora and Lisdoonvarna. It is bounded by the Atlantic and Galway Bay on the west and north, respectively.
A small portion of the Burren has been designated as Burren National Park. It is one of only six National Parks in Ireland and the smallest in size. The crevices (grykes) provide moist shelter and support a wide range of flora including dwarf shrubs and alpine plants, interspersed with orchids and the blue flower of the Spring Gentian.
The evening was spent at Oloclainnn, a teeny tiny classic Irish pub that does not open until 8pm daily. In this pub there is no television, no music, no games, just good whiskey, Guinness and conversation. We drank Green Spot whiskey and it was glorious! Margaret and Peter are the owners and are super nice people. They are interested in being part of the pub project – hooray! Now… how am I going to fit a film crew in this place?!
Day Three: Bell Harbor / New Quay / The Burren
I woke to a bucolic scene just outside my bedroom window, a nice pasture with a flock of sheep roaming about! My accommodations are absolutely idyllic and I can’t thank Richard enough for hosting me here!
Gerard and I set out for a day of sightseeing and hiking, stopping at Bell Harbor for panoramic views and MacDonagh’s pub in Aranmore for a pint.
We then ambled along little-used dirt roads to Thoor Ballylee Castle, a 15th century Anglo-Norman tower house near the town of Gort. It is also known as Yeats’ Tower because in 1916, William Butler Yeats purchased the property for 35 pounds. The property currently sits empty and deserted, having run out of funds to keep it open to the public more than five years ago. Fortunately Gerard knew his way along the back roads to this hidden gem.
For twelve years, Thoor Ballylee was Yeats’ summer home and country retreat. There’s a tablet on the wall that commemorates Yeats’ sojourn:
I, the poet William Yeats,
With old mill boards and sea-green slates,
And smithy work from the Gort forge,
Restored this tower for my wife George.
And may these characters remain
When all is ruin once again.
We wandered through the woods surrounding the tower and along a merry stream – probably loaded with nice fish.So peaceful and scenic and isolated… what a wonderful retreat for a writer!
From there, we traveled to Coole Park, formerly the estate of Lady Gregory and the Gregory family and now a nature reserve open to the public. The walled garden contains an autograph tree that is engraved with initials of many of the leading figures of the Irish Literary Revival who were personal friends of Lady Gregory including William Butler Yeats, Edward Martyn, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey.
The Yeats poem, “The Wild Swans at Coole” was inspired by the beauty of the swans in the turlough at Coole Park:
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
Yeats also wrote “Coole Park, 1929″, a poem that describes the park as a symbol for the revival of Irish literature:
Here traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand,
When all these rooms and passages are gone
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone.
Gerard and I hiked four or five miles around the park and down to the lake. It was a beautiful day and we had the place to ourselves. Surrounded by this natural and peaceful beauty, it was easy to imagine Yeats and Shaw and Gregory gallivanting around in these woods, drawing inspiration and glorious good will from the lush landscapes!
The next stops were the handsome Dunguaire Castle, Kinvara Pier for a coffee and then on to Corcomroe Abbey.
Corcomroe Abbey is an early 13th-century Cistercian monastery, noted for its detailed carvings which are not commonly found in structures from this period. Legend maintains that the building was commissioned by King Conor na Siudane Ua Briain, who died in 1267 and whose tomb niche and effigy are visible in the north wall of the choir. According to the legend, Ua Briain executed the five masons who completed the abbey to prevent them from constructing a rival masterpiece elsewhere.
We returned to Richard’s place and he prepared a delicious meal of lamb chops, boiled potatoes and peas with a beautiful bottle of wine. Richard is a huge fan of all types of music, but especially loves opera. Every moment I was at his place, the air was filled with music of some kind: his favorite opera pieces, some more modern choices or sometimes just the two of them whistling or singing – it was a wonderfully joyful atmosphere!
In this village the pubs generally don’t open until 8pm, so at around 9pm, we set out toward Fanore to have a session at O’Donohue’s pub. This is a gloriously rural and scenic pub! Situated on the edge of the sea and surrounded by lush farmland, it’s the primary meeting place for the locals and just the type of pub I’m looking for.
At 9pm, we were the first ones to arrive, with most others walking in between 10 and 11pm! The ceilings were low and crammed with ancient and modern memorabilia. The room was lit by a just a few dim bulbs and a fire in the hearth. The smells of burning peat and wood with salty air of the ocean while sipping on a fragrant Guinness was heavenly.
We had several pints there and enjoyed spirited conversation. I can think of no better drinking companions than two Irish priests! They were eager to tell me about the history and culture, how the Irish political system works, differences in religions and how the Catholic religion has evolved, flora and fauna of the area, etc. All the locals know them and respect them and we talked and drank well into the morning.
Shortly before midnight, a small group arrived with a homemade lotto contraption and picked the winning numbers for the local lottery.
Gerard drove us back to the village, about twenty minutes along an inky black single lane coastal road, and there was not a light nor sign of life to be seen.
Another fantastic day!
Day Four: Gort / Poulnabrone Dolmen
Today the weather looked fantastic for a game of golf, so we played 18 holes on the scenic Gort Golf Club. Richard gleefully took my money with his superb play, but no matter, the views were sublime and it felt great to get out and hit the ball. My drive off the first tee was one of my best ever! But then things quickly went downhill and I hacked my way around the course… smiling all the way!
From there we hit Linnane’s Bar in New Quay for a few pints. Linnane’s is a lovely seaside pub, brightly lit from the floor to ceiling windows looking out to the bay, with a heavy aroma of clams and garlic in the air and horse racing on the telly. The priests assured me that this was one of the finest pints in Ireland and they were absolutely right! Creamy. Cool. Roasty. Smokey. Velvety. This was a glorious pint of Guinness. The best pint of my entire trip! There… I said it!
I spoke with the owners and they agreed to be part of the Pub Project! So Linnane’s Bar is at the top of my list for locations when we return with a crew.
We drove down a coastal road along the dramatic gray Flaggy Shore, and stopped at the Martello Tower in Finvarra, a small defensive fort that was built during the 19th century to serve as a defense against a French invasion.
We paid a visit to Bishop’s Quarter in Ballyvaughan, one of Richard’s domains, which is an area of ancient burial grounds overlooking a wonderful view of the sea where deceased are still buried.
Back at Richard’s place, the priests once again prepared a sumptuous meal of pasta carbonara, washed down with a good bottle of red. Life is good!
After dinner, Gerard and Gally (Richard’s dog) and I headed up the mountain to see one of Ireland’s oldest landmarks, the Poulnabrone Dolmen, at sunset. The Poulnabrone is a portal tomb in the Burren dating back to the Neolithic period, probably between 4200 BC and 2900 BC. More than 5000 years old, this monument stands eerily alone in a barren field of limestone and is considered the best-preserved example of a dolmen in the country.
Finally, at around 9:30 in the evening, it was time to return to “the best pub in Ireland”, O’Loclainn’s Bar, where Margaret cheerfully poured numerous Green Spot whiskeys and pints of Guinness for us.
Day Five – Galway
Early in the morning, I drove to Gerard’s house in Galway and enjoyed some nice coffee and biscuits, then caught a ride into the city center. I roamed the streets and piers of this wonderful place for the entire day in a light drizzle rain.
Galway lies on the River Corrib between Lough Corrib and Galway Bay and is known as “Ireland’s Cultural Heart”. People here enjoy a vibrant lifestyle, lots of shopping and numerous festivals, celebrations and events. I noticed a wide variety of cultures represented and many musicians in the streets. Small shops were plentiful along numerous pedestrian-only walkways.
I enjoyed the best fish and chips of my life at McDonagh’s and then walked down to the Spanish Arch, the pier’s end, across the Claddagh (where the famous symbol originated), St. Nicholas Church, Galway Cathedral and a handful of pubs.
Early in the evening, I met up with Richard and Gerard once more at the King’s Head Pub for a pint and then a phenomenal dinner at Martine’s restaurant. We finished the night back at Gerard’s with numerous beautiful and rare whiskeys while Richard played DJ, introducing me to loads of new music – just awesome!
Day Six – Clifden and Westport
Homemade bread, marmalade, rhubarb pie and tea were set out on the table by the garden when I rose. We enjoyed a sunny morning breakfast and then bid farewell to my two hosts that had shown me so much generosity and joyous spirit! I am so very THANKFUL to both of you and I look forward to visiting again.
I drove to Clifden, a town on the coast of County Galway, located on the Owenglen River where it flows into Clifden Bay, and had a nice lunch of Seafood Chowder, then explored the town. It’s a nice enough little place with fine galleries, colorful pubs and many choices for food.
The highlight was the surrounding area! I drove along the Sky Road, and WOW was it spectacular! High above Clifden, there are views across the sea that took my breath away. I then dropped down to the Beach Road and walked along the beach for a little while – it was a windy day and the waves were churning.
From there, I headed north to Conemarra National Park. Connemara National Park is one of six National Parks and is situated in the wet low lying area where the blanket bog exists.
I hiked the trails to the top of Diamond Hill and once again was treated to beautiful views! The weather was perfect, with a gentle breeze and puffy clouds in the air. I saw Purple Moorgrass everywhere along with Sundew, Butterworts Trap and a good variety of lichens and mosses.
I wish I knew my birds better because I noticed quite a few of them that I had never seen or heard before – although I did spy a Kestrel hawk. Of course, sheep were everywhere and I even happened upon a couple goofy-looking Connemara ponies.
Just north of the park was the next stop, Kylemore Abbey. At 12.50 euros, it was a steep admittance price for what I saw, but it was interesting – a beautiful abbey and walled Victorian Garden.
The drive from there to Westport was stunning – about two hours of coastal and lakeside driving through winding roads. I stopped frequently for photos and captured some really nice landscapes. Stopped briefly in Clew Bay for a pint – nice little place but nothing special, and then proceeded to my final destination for the day, Westport.
I had one of the finest meals of my life at An Port Mor (www.anportmor.com) of Crab Claws, Crab Cakes, Scallops, Chocolate Mousse and great wine. I met the owner, Frankie Mallon and we chatted for a while – he suggested some locations for me to explore along the coast which became my game plan for tomorrow.
I wearily dragged myself to Matt Malloy’s pub (of the Chieftans) where traditional music was on the bill, and despite the loud, uptempo atmosphere, I had trouble keeping my eyes open so I called it a night and slept mightily.
Day Seven: Achill Island
Achill Island in County Mayo is the largest island off the coast of Ireland, and has a population of 2,700. Achill is attached to the mainland by Michael Davitt Bridge, between the villages of Achill Sound and Polranny and is comprised of 87% peat bog.
I followed a narrow but good road all the way out to the tip of the island, ending at Keel Beach. It was absolutely beautiful and deserted, except for the Black Faced Mountain Sheep which kept a close eye on my activities. I had a blast running around on this gorgeous beach, shooting photos and enjoying the spray of the sea!
This island has a lot of character but wow is it WINDY! I have never ever experienced this intensity of wind before!
I met Margaret, the owner of the North Winds Gallery on the island and also the tourist board rep for the area. I filled her in on the project and she put me in touch with some of the local pubs, all of which were wonderful and perfect for the show.
I visited: Lynet’s in Cashel, Valley House in Valley, Micky’s in Dooega, John Patton’s in Dereens and the Achill Sound Hotel in Achill Sound. The Achill Sound Hotel was my favorite stop of the day, with the bartender and owner John proclaiming, “That’s a fine head of hair you have there lad!” Whereupon all the locals seated at the bar (all of them elderly) started laughing and welcoming me into the place.
At the bar I met Justin, who is the only resident on a tiny island just off Achill, in for his weekly supply run. He cuts his own peat and maintains a little farm, and fishes. He agreed to be part of the project and I look forward to someday bringing a crew to his world.
Returning to Westport, I had a chance to walk around in the city for a bit, popping into a few pubs and betting on the ponies here and there. Westport is a wonderful city for music, with live performances happening every night in at least a dozen pubs.
I spent the entire night roaming from pub to pub, checking out the live music in each one. The final stop of the night was at a place that was deserted except for the two old men in the corner, one with a guitar, one with a banjo, both completely wasted, neither of whom could remember the words to their songs. I was the only one at the bar, and sipped on a Jameson while listening to these two characters stumble and laugh through their songs – a perfect end to the night.
Day Eight: Slieve League and Ardara
I woke very early and enjoyed another full Irish breakfast at the hotel before hitting the road. Today’s destination: Slieve League. Along the way I stopped at Yeat’s Gravesite, just north of Sligo and stood for a moment to soak in the aura.
The next stop was Bundoran to check out one of the pubs on my list, Brennan’s. It’s a lovely old pub, carved wood bar and ceilings, stained glass windows. But the community and the neighborhood is run down and didn’t have a good vibe. I wandered into the casino across the street and hit for about 50 euros! Sweet – that’s twelve pints (yes, I think of money in terms of pints now).
I continued on and stopped in Donnegal city, just to rest a bit and get my bearings, and then started the treacherous drive up the narrow winding roads towards Slieve League.
Slieve League is a mountain on the Atlantic coast of County Donegal. At 1,972 feet, it has some of the highest sea cliffs on the island of Ireland. Although less famous than the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Slieve League’s cliffs reach almost three times higher.
The north side of the mountain has been devoured by the winds and sea, creating an imposing wall topped with a knife’s edge which forms the summit.
I parked the car and hiked to the top ridge, and it was STEEP STEEP STEEP! It was a gorgeous day, perfect for hiking, and when I reached the summit I was treated to expansive views of the village below and the sea just beyond that. I walked for more than four hours, traversing the narrow ridge aptly named “One Man’s Path”. This is certainly one of the most remarkable walks to be found in Ireland – not terribly dangerous, but needing a good head and careful progress on a stormy or windy day.
Satisfied with this fantastic excursion and lots of photos, I made my way back down the mountain and started the search for a place to crash for the night.
After some aimless motoring through a web of rural backroads, I finally ended up in Ardara (population 731), named Ireland’s most livable Irish village by the Irish Times. A bartender arranged a room for me at the Brae House (35 euro, just leave on the bed when you leave), and I proceeded to drink and eat my way around the town. Despite the small size of this village, there are twelve pubs along the four block stretch! Dinner was at Nancy’s where I enjoyed stunning seafood – this is a must stop if you are ever in the area. I spoke with many of the locals and everyone seemed so happy and proud of their village. This is certainly an idyllic way of life here.
It was Saturday night and things were hopping! I met a nice man named Brian who is a Math Professor at the University of Ulster in Belfast and he convinced me to add Belfast to my itinerary, along with a list of pubs to visit while I was there. Thanks Brian – if it wasn’t for your advice I would not have gone there and met some really great people (more on that later)!
The night ended at Dougherty’s, where there was a raucous and boozy hen party (bachelorette) where the women were going crazy over a guy who stripped as he sang Tom Jones songs… the place was mad all night and it was loads of fun!
Day Nine: Glenveagh National Park
I had brought along my full complement of backpacking gear in hopes of being able to strike out into the wilds in this section of the country, but this morning I woke to the worst weather I’ve seen on this trip – heavy winds, rain and even some hail… forget about camping tonight!
I hugged the coastline all the way to Crohy Head, through the Rosses, a very beautiful part of Donegal and then to Kincaslough where I checked out Sharkey’s pub. Being fairly early on a Sunday, it was closed but it certainly looked like the kind of pub I’m looking for – one of only two pubs in the area with many houses close by for walkers in a very small village.
Onward through Gweedore and then to Errigal Mountain – where I had hoped to do some climbing, but the weather was still fiercely terrible and the mountain shrouded in fog so I passed on by and stopped at Glenveagh National Park and Castle.
Glenveagh is the second largest national park in Ireland. The estate was established by John Adair, who became infamous for evicting 244 of his tenants and clearing the land so they would not spoil his view of the landscape. The gardens and castle were presented to the Irish nation in 1981 by Henry P. McIlhenny of Philadelphia who had purchased the estate in 1937.
I had a great afternoon of hiking despite the bad weather. Using every bit of rain gear I had, I hiked way up to the top of the mountain looking down upon the beautiful lakeside castle. The trails here are STEEP! And they go straight up, no switchbacks on these trails.
Because of the conditions, I had the place to myself and didn’t see a single person for the entire day. At the top of the peak, the wind was so strong that I had to fight just to stay on my feet! The strongest winds I ever encountered anywhere, even Achill Island.
At this point I was yearning for more of an urban experience, so made my way to Derry – a bustling city and my first visit ever to Northern Ireland. Derry is the second-largest city in Northern Ireland and the fourth-largest city on the island of Ireland. It’s the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland and one of the finest examples of a walled city in Europe. The Walls were built during the period 1613-1619 by The Honorable Irish Society as defenses for early 17th century settlers from England and Scotland. The Walls vary in height and width between 12 and 35 feet and are completely intact, forming a walkway around the inner city.
It was a bit strange to convert money to sterling here, but that’s the way it works – I’m in the United Kingdom now. Did a bit of exploring the city, had a nice meal of fresh monkfish and chips and then hit the sack hard.
Day Ten – Giant’s Causeway
Wow! What a day this was – absolutely jam packed with goodness!
Before heading out for the day, I decided to learn more about Derry and “walk the Wall”. I learned about the brutal history of wars and strife in this city, and I really felt the weight of suffering in the air as I walked along the top of the entire length of this wall.
I then set out on the stunning Causeway Coastal Road, stopping for a walk in Ballykelly Forest, and then on to Downhill Demesne, a mansion built in the 18th century for Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, but then destroyed by fire. Perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea on a sky blue day, it was an eerie and striking structure.
I stopped in Coloraine for lunch and a look around. This town has potential, with loads of pedestrian walkspaces, but there was a depressing vibe in the air… plus there were very few pubs!
The next stop was the wonderfully dramatic Dunluce Castle, a ruined medieval castle located on the edge of a basalt outcropping in County Antrim.
Cool fact: this castle appeared on the inner gatefold of Led Zeppelin’s album “Houses of the Holy”, and Giant’s Causeway is on the cover!
But all of that pales in comparison to the excitement and anticipation I’m now feeling as I approach Giant’s Causeway!
The Giant’s Causeway is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the
result of an ancient volcanic eruption. The tops of the columns form stepping stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea. Most of the columns are hexagonal, although there are also some with four, five, seven or eight sides.
According to legend, the Irish giant Finn MacCool was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Finn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet. When Finn realizes that his foe is much bigger than him, he runs back home to hide! Finn’s wife disguises him as a baby and tucks him in a cradle. When Benandonner arrives and sees the size of the “baby”, he reckons that its Father must be a giant among giants. He flees back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Finn could not follow!
I’ve always been interested in geology and since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to see this place in person. Now I’m finally here and it’s incredible! So surreal, wild and exciting – this landscape is awesome.
I spend a couple hours shooting photos and then book a room at the Causeway Hotel at the top of the cliffs – a FANTASTIC Hotel! I highly recommend this place for any visitors to the area.
I enjoyed a couple pints of Magner’s cider (in honor of my friend Kathy who is from the area) and a beautiful Cod dinner, and then set off for a sunset photography hike. The sun sets around 8:45 here, so there was plenty of light left for a good long walk along the tops of the cliffs.
It was windy but clear and I was the only one out there. The sea was lashing wildly and foam was flying clear up to the top, hundreds of feet in the air. As the sun descended, the weather increased in intensity – pounding rains and winds, loud crashing waves of the mad surf – I happily shot photo after photo and then tightened up my hood and hastily made my way back to the comfort of the hotel bar.
Day Eleven: Ballycastle
It’s an absolutely beautiful morning, so I couldn’t leave this area within one more hike along the cliffs above Giants Causeway to the north. The area is a haven for sea birds such as fulmar, petrel, cormorant and razorbill, while the weathered rock formations host a number of rare and unusual plants. Along the top, Yellow Gorse and Purple Heather were plentiful. Probably did six or seven miles – good way to start the day!
From there, it’s just a short trip down the road to the Bushmills Distillery, where I learned how their whiskey is made, then had samples of course!
What better way to follow a whiskey tasting than to cross a rope bridge over the sea? Headed to Carrick-a Rede rope bridge, originally used by fisherman to get to a little island just off the coast, now a tourist attraction. Was a fun experience though and another good walk.
Onward to the destination for the day: Ballycastle (population 5,089). The town has a large clean beach with views across to Rathlin Island and the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.
It’s here that I wanted to check out another pub on my list, McDonnels, but it’s only open from Thursday to Saturday… a sign of the times in this struggling economy. In my travels so far, I’ve found that the pubs in the very small villages where they’re the only one (no competition) are doing extremely well, but the small towns that once supported five to twelve pubs are not – with many closing or reducing their hours.
Still, I had a fantastic night in this little seaside resort town. I randomly chose a lovely B&B, the Fray House, run by the lovely Lilly, who made sure I was comfortable and well fed!
In the early evening, I wandered through the village, having a few Guinness with the locals and betting on the ponies, then dropping down for some fish and chips at Morton’s – wow! GREAT fish and chips! John Morton owns the place and he is a fulltime fisherman – the catch of the day was young cod… tasty! This is the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten… there I said it.
John’s niece, Vicky, was bartending at the Harbor Bar just down the street. I had a good long conversation with her about life in the village. John Morton might be a great person to follow for the documentary and I secured permission to shoot and go out on the boat with them for a day.
Day Twelve: Torr Head and Belfast
I continued along the Causeway Coastal Route all the way down to Belfast, one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever taken! I had a tip from Bartender Vicky to visit Torr Head along the way and it was spectacular.
About an hour detour on a tiny road frequently clogged with sheep and hugging the sides of cliffs, dropping thousands of feet to the sea on one side and up against a hill on the other. I arrived at Torr Head to find a dilapidated house on the top of the hill, with
Torr Head was absolutely beautiful and once again, I didn’t see a single person on the roads.
From there it was straight to Belfast where I secured a hotel room and then set out on foot to explore.
Belfast is the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland with a population of 641,638 (for the area). It’s been a center for linen, tobacco, rope-making and shipbuilding: the city’s main shipbuilders, Harland and Wolff, which built the well-known RMS Titanic, made Belfast the biggest and most productive shipyard in the world in the early twentieth century.
This is a wonderful city! A great energy bustling with people, loads of shopping. Many professional people and young people walking the streets and musicians everywhere.
I enjoyed a pint at Madden’s Bar, a traditional Irish pub with a great crowd of people, and made many new friends there! Two of them were Adrian and Jennifer and they asked me to join them for a couple pints down the road. Adrian is a native Belfast resident and Jennifer is an artist from Baltimore, Ireland, who is in town because she’s having an art opening on Thursday night of her paintings.
We strolled down to Kelly’s and met up with many more people, sat outside in the sun and had a great time! We then went to Adrian’s place to keep the party moving and listen to music. He lives in a very interesting part of town, overlooking the very apex of the dividing line between the Catholics and Protestants.
The “Peace Walls” that divide the two factions are massive and prominent. I can see how these imposing structures would have cast a gloom and reinforce the divide during the Troubles, but now they have been transformed into to art and messages of hope. Hundreds of murals decorate the walls now, and there is much respect shown from both sides – I saw very little graffiti or vandalism.
After a long boozy night, I grabbed a cab back to the hotel, had a whiskey at the bar and crashed hard!
Day Thirteen: Belfast
I had all day and night to explore Belfast today and took full advantage of it. I started with a drive around the city, checking out the Titanic Museum, Belfast Castle, the Peace Walls and the city center.
I learned that the population here is evenly split between Protestant and Catholic residents and both of these cultural communities have contributed significantly to the city’s culture. Throughout the Troubles, artists continued to express themselves through poetry, art and music and since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Belfast has begun an economic and cultural transformation.
The city center is as fine as I’ve seen – LOADED with excellent restaurants, shops and pubs and everyone quite friendly…. even when I inadvertently drove on to a pedestrian-only section of town and then had to keep going for about a block because there was no way to turn around!
I had a fine lunch and then then started checking out the pubs – classics like the John Hewitt and the Duke of York were fantastic! Thank you once again to my friend Brian, who I met in Ardara just five days earlier, for the suggestions! (btw, I tried to call you to meet up for a pint but the number didn’t work – I must have got it wrong. If you read this, please shoot me an email!)
This night was also the start of two arts festivals in the city: The Festival Of Fools (Street Performances) and The Cathedral Quarter Arts Fest. I caught the first show of the Festival of Fools at St. Anne’s Square and it was wonderful! Lots of people, especially small children and a great comedy act.
I then grabbed a cab to the Engine Room Gallery to support Jennifer’s opening – which was quite nice. The event itself was very similar to any opening I would find here in the states, with kind people milling about, sipping wines and admiring the art. Jennifer’s work is quite impactful, the subject being African child soldiers, but it was her mastery of light that really impressed me.
I explored a couple more pubs after that and then met up with the gallery group at Sunflower Bar, where a bit of lively music was playing. We talked and drank all night with Adrian and his sister (Celine) and Jennifer, plus some new friends Mauve and John. We were finally kicked out by the owner at around 1am… great night!
Day Fourteen: Dublin
This was a bittersweet part of the trip. I’ve had such an amazing time here and feeling very sad to know that it’s almost at the end. But more than anything, I’m feeling grateful and exuberant for having the opportunity to do this!
I started the day by meeting up with Jennifer, who needed a ride from Belfast to the Dublin airport on her way to Berlin. It was a nice chance to visit with her during the two hour drive and I hope we will be long-time friends.
Dublin has always been one of my favorite cities in the world. It has a vibrant, multi-cultural nightlife with music in every pub and street corner, plentiful pubs, shops and fine dining. However, this time it felt different… perhaps it was from being immersed into the less pretentious, tourist-free rural areas I had traveled through during the past two weeks. Mobs of people, from all over the world, were everywhere and getting obnoxiously drunk and rude.
However, there are still many quality honest pubs in the outlying areas, some of which I visited, with entire families arriving in the late afternoon to hang out, the men drinking pints, the women with tea and the kids milling about while watching the football games.
The pubs in Temple Bar were overpriced and seemed to promote a false “ye olde Irish” vibe. Many of them were giant mega-pubs with mixed drinks specials and televisions everywhere. At night, every one of them were bursting at the seams with people, all having the time of their lives – so I tried to refrain from being judgmental about the whole thing and just go with it.
And the music! Music is absolutely everywhere in this city and much of it very very good. My favorite place was the Gypsy Rose, right along the river Liffey, where I saw some amazing musicians at work.
I stayed in the heart of Temple Bar at the Eliza Lodge – a cool little place I would highly recommend. GREAT location!
Day Fifteen – Dublin
Today is my final full day in Ireland so let’s make the most of it! Started the day with a big breakfast at the hotel, with the entire album of David Bowie’s “Alladin Sane” playing – awesome! Turns out it was my waiter’s ipod playing, and so we had a good long discussion about the legendary Thin White Duke.
From there, I set out on foot to visit the National Leprechaun Museum. I thought it could be kind of cool and fun, but it was terrible. How they could have screwed up such a rich element of legendary Irish folklore, I don’t know, but I would advise anyone to avoid this place.
From there, it was a short walk to the Jameson Distillery. Whiskey tastings in the morning? Okay! It was an excellent tour and afterwards, I picked up a bottle of the finest whiskey I have ever tasted in my life: Yellow Spot. This whiskey is special in that it contains single pot still whiskey that has been matured for a full 12 year period in three oak cask types: American bourbon barrels, Spanish sherry butts and Spanish Malaga casks. (Update – the whiskey made it home and we drank it all) AMAZING stuff!
There was a Farmer’s Market and Artisan’s Fair happening in the streets of Temple Bar, so I sampled some cheeses and breads, and picked up some presents for my people back home.
I took a walk down Grafton Street, shoulder to shoulder with people and street performers every 50 yards, then on into St. Stephen’s Green. From there I walked miles and miles into the outlying neighborhoods, trying to get into the less touristy areas of the city. I found a couple run-down and somewhat sad pubs for a couple pints here and there and listened to the pub owners bemoan their struggles in this tough economy. Here again, it’s the small Mom & Pop pubs in the urban areas that are getting hurt the most: the locals don’t have as much expendable income as in the past, the drink-driving laws have become so tough that people just can’t chance it anymore, and the franchise mega pubs are pulling in some of their traditional customers.
Merrion Park is a gorgeous lush park in the city center, and on this day the sun was shining and a surprising number of people were lying out in the grass, reading and writing. Truly a focus on the literary arts in this area – there’s even a statue of Oscar Wilde here.
Near the early evening, I found myself at The Hairy Lemon, by far the funniest named pub of the trip! This place was great – old school vibe, loaded with characters! I got into some friendly spirited debates with two older gentlemen about the differences between our countries and it was all good. I highly recommend this place for a visit.
I finished the night back at the Gypsy Rose, where a blues man was playing some great tunes. I sipped on a Jameson and just smiled at my good fortune in having such a rich and trouble free journey, soaking in the last bits of music and good craic… this was a great adventure indeed.
Day Sixteen: Home!
My last day in Dublin started out a bit rough. I needed to be driving to the airport by about 7:30 am in order to have plenty of time at the airport. I packed up my massive amounts of luggage, checked out of the hotel and walked across the river to the parking garage. There I found a gigantic lock on the gate, with a sign that read, “Open at 9am on Sundays”. NOOOOO! Having never driven in Dublin, I was already nervous about having enough time to figure out how to get to the airport, now I would be really pressed.
There was nothing to do but wait there until someone arrived, which he did, at precisely 9am. Fortunately, I used my waiting time to study the maps intensely to the point that I knew the exact fastest route to the airport. I flew out of there and thank goodness for Sunday morning lack of traffic, I made it to the airport in record time. Got the car checked back in, caught the shuttle to the terminal, through ticketing, through security, through customs, through security again and finally to the gate, just as they were boarding the plane! Whew! Made it.
From there it was a nice flight to Chicago, then on to Phoenix… arriving just past midnight and in time for a Manhattan with Debi.
Once again, THANK YOU to everyone I met along the way. Every single person was so welcoming and lovely and it was my honor and privilege to be in this incredible place. Thanks especially to Fathers Gerard and Richard, and to Adrian in Belfast – I look forward to seeing you again and hope you can someday visit my home.
I was encouraged to find ten pubs and a couple key individuals who are interested in being part of the documentary project and I’m now currently working on the logistics of getting the crew over there for some shooting. I look forward to many more trips to revisit this gorgeous country and her people.