The Emerald Isle via Car and B&B Part I
31.10.2007 - 15.11.2007
Part I: Arrival in Dublin and a few days in Carlow
Shortly after returning home in early January of ’07 from living in Richmond, Virginia for a few months, Amy and I started to talk about taking a trip abroad. While mulling over a plethora of destinations, we settled on Ireland. Living in Chicago, we’ve befriended many people who still refer to Ireland as home and when talk turns to that of the Emerald Isle, the inevitable question always pops up: “Have you ever been?” The reply was always a sheepish “No, but we’ve always wanted to go.” We both agreed that November would be the best time for us to visit the island – even though it’s the beginning of the rainy season – because school is back in full swing and every one is gearing up for the holidays. So the chance of not being overwhelmed by large crowds at tourist destinations (anywhere – home or abroad) is pretty good.
We bought our tickets rather early (in July) and Amy sent away for tourist info at the Discover Ireland website. We also reserved our car early (September) as well as accommodations at the B&B in Carlow we planned to stay at to make sure we were all set for that first day of arrival. Forgoing tricks or treats we left O’Hare International on Wednesday evening, October 31 and landed in Dublin around 7am the next Morning. After getting our passports stamped in customs and picking up our packs, we headed over to the currency exchange to change a couple of $ into € and then to find the Airlink bus to downtown Dublin. Airlink takes you straight to downtown from Dublin Airport for about €6.00 and can take over an hour but is more economical than a taxi. The end of the line is Central Bus Station but our driver dropped us off right on O’Connell Street by two popular (and one not so popular) landmarks: The General Post Office – a major site of the ’16 Rising, the statue of Trade Union Leader and social activist James Larkin, and a sculpture of sorts called the Millennium spire, better known to locals as the Stiletto in the Ghetto or, my favorite, the Stiffy On The Liffey.
Standing in front of the Post Office I consulted my map of Central Dublin and compass to get my bearings. We couldn’t pick up the car until about 3pm so we headed over to Connolly Train Station to stow our packs in a locker while we set out to see the sights Dublin had to offer. Connolly Station, named for Irish Socialist leader James Connolly, is your connection to points north and south along the Irish coast and is at the end of a tramline that connects you to Heuston Train Station, your connection for points west on the Irish Rail system. The lockers are cheap and a good place to stow your gear for a few hours if you just want to see the sights on a day trip. Our plan, once we got the rental car, was to head down to Carlow, which is about 50 miles Southwest of Dublin, and just relax for a couple of days to get acclimated to the time change and see a few things off the beaten path. Since we would be spending the last three days of our vacation in Dublin we weren’t going to spend a lot of time at any of the major tourist attractions on this day.
Heading back over to get a better look at O’Connell Street, we strolled south across the River Liffey veering left on to Westmorland and past the bank of Ireland to the tourist Information office which is located on Suffolk and just to the west of the northern end of Grafton Street (name sake of the Grafton Pub I frequent in Chicago). Even though we came armed with our Rick Steves’ Ireland ‘07 guidebook, the TI office is the best place to start no matter where you are. The cool thing about this one is that it’s located in an old church with a quaint little café on the second level over looking the knave.
We scoped out a few post cards to send back home and also purchased Michelin road map of the whole Island for our road trip. While we were there, we also bought a Heritage Card which, if you’re planning on an extensive trip to the Island and plan on seeing Heritage sites, is well worth the flat fee of €21.00. It’s basically a membership card that entitles you to unlimited admission to all of the Heritage Sites listed in the booklet that comes with your purchase and is good for one year from the date you buy it. After we bought our cards we headed upstairs to the café for a cup of coffee and a quick bite before hitting Grafton Street.
Once on Grafton we headed south towards St. Stephen’s Green watching all the passersby going about their daily errands. It was a bit chilly but the sun was out, which made for a pleasant afternoon by the time we walked through the Fusiliers Arch and on to the center of the Green. Also by this time at about 12:30 pm we were feeling a bit loopy due to the lack of sleep. We barely even napped on the plane due to the excitement of our trip and since Ireland is 6 hours ahead of us, our internal clocks were still at about 6:30am CST. Putting it in perspective we had been up since around 7:30 the day before.
After vegging out on a park bench, we headed back towards Grafton St. to look for a place to have lunch, settling on a carvery on one of the side streets. After lunch we headed back to Connolly Station to collect our gear and hiked over to pick up the car and started on the trip to Carlow. If you’ve never driven in Ireland – or the UK for that matter – just keep in mind that you always stay in the left lane. Think of it this way: you are on a one-way street and the only lane open to you is the left one. You’ll eventually get used to it but it’s something you always have to keep in the front of your head. Also keep in mind that round-a-bouts (traffic circles) travel clock-wise and they’re everywhere. If you’re not sure how to negotiate them at first, ease into them when traffic is light and pay attention to the direction signs so you don’t miss your exit.
One of the reason we chose to stay in Carlow is because Mike, the bar manager at the Grafton Pub, is married to a girl named Elaine, who’s from Ireland. Her parents own a B&B there called Dolmen Hall Guesthouse on the eastern fringe of the town, so named because it’s not too far from the Brownshill Dolmen – a prehistoric structure generally used as a burial tomb situated about 3km east of Carlow. Another reason we chose to stay there is because it’s out of the way and we both knew that we’d need to relax and decompress for a few days to get more acclimated to the time difference; not only that, but Mike’s always bragging about how comfortable the beds are so we couldn’t resist.
We arrived in the late afternoon (around 5-5:30pm I believe) and were greeted by our gracious hostess, Mrs. Helen Toner, a lovely woman who had coffee out within minutes of our arrival. After she double-checked to make sure our room was ready, we visited for a bit getting to know one another and then she gave us a quick rundown of the dining area, showing us where everything was and letting us know that if we slept in, no worries, just help ourselves to breakfast if there was no one here. After that, it was time for bed – at 7pm. We unpacked for our three-night stay, took quick showers to hose the last two days off and slid into bed. Mike was not kidding. This was the most comfortable bed I had ever been in. Within nano-seconds of our heads hitting the pillows we laid there and felt the mattress just absorb our tired frames for what would become almost 12 hours of sleep.
We awoke the next morning to a tray of orange juice, coffee and tea outside our front door, which we enjoyed while we took turns at full-fledged showers and then down it was to breakfast. We had missed the morning breakfast rush and therefore had the amply spaced dining area to ourselves. We made some toast, grabbed a bowl of fruit and was going to pour a bowl of cereal when I noticed something called Wheat-A-Bix. I’d never heard of it but Amy had. I shook one out of the box and into my bowl, picked it up and while studying it said: “Well, this looks interesting.” And then took a bite, to which Amy informs me that I’m supposed to break it up with a spoon and add milk to it. Apparently it’s a form of shredded wheat, only bigger. Hell, I thought it was some sort of breakfast cookie you eat with your morning coffee.
We had just finished up and were enjoying our coffee when Mrs. Toner came out of her living area and simply said: “Oh good, you’re up. I’ll get breakfast started for you. Two full Irish is it then?” As she whirled around into the kitchen Amy and I stared at each other a little perplexed. “Did she just say she was going to make us breakfast?” “I think so but I thought we just had it.” Better make room because in seconds pans were rattling, in minutes the bacon was sizzling and shortly after that a couple of full plates consisting of two eggs, a rasher of bacon, a couple of sausage links, black sausage, white sausage, a serving of baked beans, a grilled tomato and toast were sitting in front of us. I laughed and dived right in. Being originally from Michigan and the descendent of farmers, I’m a bit accustomed to eating big. Amy on the other hand had a bit of a time but she held her own. Needless to say, we wouldn’t need lunch.
After our feast, Mrs. Toner came out and had a cup of coffee and a bit of the craic with us. We discussed our plans for the day as well as for our visit in Carlow and she gave us some tips on things to see, among them Duckett’s Grove, a beautiful Gothic revival castle built in the 1830’s. She even offered to show us the way there and within a half hour we were following her in our rental, zipping through the Irish countryside with a stop at the Palatine Pub, also owned by the Toners (just so she could show us where it was mind you. After all, it was only 10:30 in the a.m.). Shortly after that we were passing through this huge stone arch that at first I thought were the ruins of the castle. These were just the gates to the grounds for it was at least another ½ mile to the castle itself – a massive hulk of grey stone sitting on 1200 acres of land.
Much of the castle was boarded up and still pretty much unusable, having been gutted by a fire in the 1930’s, but Mrs. Toner told us the story of one old lady who still inhabited a wing of the building, living by herself until just recently when she was moved so she could be better cared for. We walked the grounds circumnavigating the entire building marveling at the beautiful gardens that were being replanted and wondered how magnificent it must’ve been to live there in the castle’s heyday.
Mrs. Toner had errands to run and chores to do yet so we parted ways after she showed us where the Brownshill Dolmen was. After touring the prehistoric monolith, we set out for a 50km jaunt to Jerpoint Abbey, a 12th century church about a mile and a half south west of Thomastown on the N9. The N9 is a national primary road, which is the type of road that’ll get you from point A to point B in the most direct fashion that it knows how. Don’t let the fact that it’s a National Primary Road fool you. It’s not an expressway but more of a rural road that tends to run pretty curvy and narrow. The Abby sits on a curve in the road with a stonewall around it that practically abuts right up to the edge of the road so you have to inch out just to see around both sides for oncoming traffic – and even then you only have about what seems like 100 feet of visibility in each direction before the road disappears around the bend. Remembering that I have to swing out into the far lane when turning right, I took a deep breath and gunned it just in time for some yahoo to come zipping around the curve from my right, faster than he probably should’ve been going. Of course he laid on his horn. I mean seriously, throw me a bone here buddy, I did everything right in being conscious of the area. But coming around a blind curve at break-neck speed near a tourist attraction ain’t a very bright thing to do.
We got back to the guesthouse later that afternoon and freshened up for dinner. We were going to walk into downtown Carlow, which is only a mile or so away and have a nice dinner and a sit in a few pubs. Walking out of the guesthouse we met Elaine’s sister, Lisa who was kind enough to offer us a lift into town, which we took her up on. Once downtown we eyed a few places, finally settling on a cheery little place for dinner. Afterwards we wandered the streets of downtown, taking in the nocturnal scenery and ventured into a few pubs. In the second pub we visited, which was a bit more like a nightclub, I needed to use the rest room. Not being sure where the facilities were, I asked a fellow where I could find the bathroom. As luck would have it, he was also heading there. Walking up to the wall (yes, you piss against a tile or metal-plated wall and into a gutter-type trough counter-sunk at foot level here. The only other place I’ve seen this was at the Big House in Ann Arbor, MI. Way more practical than urinals if you ask me.), he asked me where I was from.
“Chicago” I says.
“Ah, home of Al Capone.”
“Yeah, among others” I said chuckling.
“Well, enjoy your stay.”
I’d hear Al Capone’s name invoked at least three or four more times in correlation with my current home on this trip, which is fine by me. I mean, if it starts conversation then that’ll bridge gaps; and bridging gaps causes people to understand one another, which in turn, in my mind, leads to respect of cultures. That can’t be all bad now, can it?
After a few rounds, we decided it was time to go. We didn’t want to hang out all night because we were taking the train in the morning for a day trip to Kilkenny. We took a leisurely stroll back to the guesthouse, got ready for sleep and sacked out again in the World’s most comfortable beds.