Westport, Sligo and Dun na nGall
01.11.2007 - 14.11.2007
It was pretty dark by the time we got back to mainland Eire from Inishmore. A little over an hour or so later we pulled into Westport, a nice little tourist town with the Carrowbeg River running down the middle of the main boulevard; which I at first mistook as a canal of some bygone era. We checked into the Boulevard Guesthouse, a charming Georgian establishment that overlooked the river.
It had been a long day of hiking, biking, boat rides and driving so you’d think the main thing on our minds after settling in was to shower and hit the rack. But we were hungry so shortly after situating ourselves we hit the street and found a restaurant and then a pub where I discovered Paddy’s Irish whiskey, some of the smoothest, tastiest of whiskeys I’ve ever had. Come to find out, much to my dismay and chagrin, you can’t get it here in the States. Thank goodness I have friends over here that are able to pick me up a bottle when returning from their native homeland. Or have their relatives who are willing to do the same when visiting.
After a goodnights sleep we bounded down to the cheery dining room of the guesthouse where we were offered a full Irish breakfast. Since I figured that it would be a good idea to give my arteries a break, I opted for the breakfast bar of cereal and fresh fruit instead. The next thing on our agenda was laundry. It was day seven since we boarded the plane at O’Hare and the clothes were starting to pile up – and funkify our packs. One of the most practical travel tips we learned from Rick Steves was that it’s best to find a Laundromat that takes drop-off service and then go sight seeing. That way you’re not wasting two hours of your vacation time sitting in a Laundromat when you know you’d rather be driving the Doo Lough Valley. In several of the central city maps of Rick’s Ireland guidebook, he provides the location of Laundromats, and Westport was no different.
After dropping off our laundry we headed south on the road that brought us into Westport, traveling back towards Leenaun and stopping off periodically to gawk and take photos of the landscape that was shrouded by the darkness of the night before.
Once at Leenaun, we drove a little along the south shore of Killary Harbor before doubling back to look for a place to have lunch, settling on a little road side eatery for soup an a sandwich. We spent the rest of the afternoon on a nice little drive along the R-335 through the Dhulough Pass in southern County Mayo, stopping to take in the sights of Aasleagh Falls, the Famine Walk memorial, the Coffin Ship sculpture and some of the prettiest landscape the west part of Island has to offer.
Some day I’d like to come back and hike the terrain. Also found along this loop that eventually brings you back to Westport, are stray sheep that find comfort just lying on the edge of an already narrow road. On the trip up the night before, I almost waxed a couple because I didn’t see them until I was right on them. Caution is definitely a good thing to exercise when coming up over a hill or around a bend in remote areas.
Upon our return to Westport, we decided to do a little window-shopping before picking up our laundry, stopping in a bookstore and striking up a conversation with the owner, who happened to be an American ex-pat. After picking up our laundry we headed north out of town, stopping for gas and a few road snacks before continuing on North toward Sligo. Once around Sligo we started looking for lodgings as it was starting to get dark, finally settling on a roadside pub with rooms upstairs named Moran’s. I loved this place. It reminded me of houses where the occupant has probably lived in since before The War and never gave much thought to redecorating. It was dimly lit and had a feel of lived-in comfort to it, a little lonely at first sight but not in a sad way. The old woman who checked us in was obviously the owner and by the looks of it, the only one running the joint as well. She looked to be in her early 70s, was well spoken and no-nonsense. If I remember right, I think her name was Eileen. We inquired about some rooms to which she said she had 5 free out of six with a shared bath. Fine by me.
We both had a dinner of bangers and mash at a little joint just down the road within walking distance and afterwards settled into the pub in the back room of Moran’s for a few pints. It was a bit chilly out so I sat next to a peat fire burning in the cast iron fireplace. We were the only ones there with the exception of Eileen, who was working the bar, and a nice fellow by the name of Jimmy, a Scot in his 60s who once worked in the shipyards of Belfast as a painter. He was a short guy with a thick accent but provided good conversation when I could understand him.
We sat there drinking and entertaining each other for a while when before too long, a local and his wife, whose names I can’t recall, joined us. It was good conversation all around with U.S. politics taking the floor. At the time of our visit here there seemed to be much buzz around Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House because of her husband’s role in the Good Friday Peace Accords back in the late 90s. As a result, she was a bit more popular than the junior Senator from Illinois who would eventually become the first black President of the United States – even though he only emerged out of political obscurity a little over a year ago by this time.
The topics of conversation changed subject every 5 to 8 minutes or so as they tend to do. How it got around to moonshine I can’t remember but talk about that we did and that led us into Poitin (pronounced somewhat like POY-cheen or PWA-cheen, take your pick), a strong type of liquor usually derived from potatoes. The gentleman wondered aloud if he had any at home and before I knew it, had his coat on and said he’d be right back. His wife was out back having a smoke and when she came back in asked where he went.
“He said he was going home for a minute to see if he still had some Poiteen.” I told her.
“Oh, Jesus, I hope I didn’t throw it out.” She replied a little concerned.
He was back inside of ten minutes and handed me one of those little bottles of wine that you generally get on the airlines. You know, the size that holds about a glass of wine in it. Anyway, the bottle read 2006 Chardonnay, Central Valley, Chile. But inside was The Rare Old Mountain Dew.
“Now.” He instructed. “Just stick it in your bag, you should have no problem getting it home. And when you taste it, don’t knock it back. Just take a sip now and then. It’s pretty potent stuff.” With that in mind I brought a little to my lips just to experience the flavor. It reminded me a little of a cross between tequila and vodka, a distinct flavor but not too harsh. I put the bottle in my pocket (for later), conversation continued and as the evening went on a few more people joined us. A few neighborhood kids came in as well, but they were there to commandeer the pool table in the room out back and by about 11 or so it time to say goodnight, parting ways with more of the new friends we’d make on this excursion.
Around 8:30 the next morning, after we were showered, dressed and cinching up our packs, Eileen rapped on the door and asked us if we were about ready for breakfast. She had errands to run that morning and in a polite way told us to shake a leg. We were down to the dining area in less than 5 and within a half hour after that we were heading out the front door with Eileen. As she was locking it behind her she apologized for rushing us and informed us she had an early appointment to keep. “No worries at all.” We replied. “We had a lovely stay.” To which we did. Moran’s Pub and B&B doesn’t have a web site and they are not too well advertised that I saw. We literally happened upon it, as it sits about 16 clicks north of Sligo right on the N-15 at the T-bone intersection that takes you west to Streedagh Point. The rooms went for about €60 for the two of us, and as I said before, with a shared bath – towels provided. All in all, another pleasant stay.
It was about 45km to Dun na nGall (Donegal), a drive that took almost an hour because we took a side route through Mullaghmore Head, a little peninsula with a resort town on it. What caught my attention to it, as we were heading north up the highway, was this huge castle easily visible from about 3miles away. We headed towards it to get a closer look only to find that it was lived in. It didn’t look that old either. I later found out that it is Classiebawn Castle, commissioned by Henry John Temple who was better known as Lord Palmerston – a two term Prime Minister of England.
It was completed in 1874, nine years after his death and is now privately owned and is not open to the public. What was open was a cool little scenic drive that took us around the peninsula, stopping to get out of the car in some really strong gale-force winds to get some photos of the Atlantic being held back by a rocky coast. When I say gale-force winds, I mean just that. Being on the windward side of the car I though it was going to rip the door off our rental when I opened it and had to put my back into it to close it upon returning.
We pulled into the medieval town of Dun na nGall roughly around 10:30 that morning, parked the car and ambled through the streets, eventually winding up at Castle Dun na nGall for the dime tour. Actually, the castle is yet another Heritage Site, again covered by the Heritage Card and one of my favorite castle tours of the Island. Begun in the 1470’s by the O’Donnell Clan, the castle originally consisted of just the keep – the tall rectangular building on the right as you face it from the courtyard. After being destroyed by the parting O’Donnell’s during the Flight of the Earls after the 9 Years War, the castle fell into the possession of the English Captain, Sir Basil Brooke. Brooke renovated the structure, altering the original plan by adding the bay window on the second floor.
The square turrets were added, from what I read, for cosmetic purposes only in order to keep it from looking like a luxurious country estate, thus keeping it in a lower tax bracket. After this, the wing jutting off from the side of the keep was added and built in the style of traditional manor homes of England. After being abandoned by the Brookes, the building was left to deteriorate until being taken over by the Office of Public Works, who restored much of the original building to its 17th century grandeur.
After the tour of the castle, we picked up the road again, stopping for a bit of lunch in Letterkenny and continuing on to our destination for the night, Portrush. We stopped at Grianan of Aileach before we left the Republic, a ringed stone fort believed to have been built sometime during the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age.
There were no signs posted for the hours of operation and gate was closed when we got there, so we left the car at the approach, climb around the gate and walked up the driveway to the fort – a hike a little less than a quarter of a mile uphill (no stupid gate is gonna keep me from getting a bird’s eye view of the countryside). Once up there we had a beautiful view of the whole area – Derry to the east, The Inishowen Peninsula to the north. We could even see the rain coming in from the northwest with intervals sweeping across the landscape interrupted by blue skies and traveling beams of sunlight. You could actually see when the next shower was about to hit. We almost had the whole place to ourselves. Unfortunately we were forced to share the scene with an asshole of a Yank lying on the parapet and yakking on his cell phone with no regard for the serenity of the landscape about him or those of us trying to enjoy it – the epitome of an Ugly American. Seriously, this guy was annoying. We outlasted him though, and after 20 minutes of what seemed like eternity, he took it on down the line. We stuck around and enjoyed it for another 15-20 minutes to make up for lost time and after that decided we’d better head out. It was roughly another 65km to our next stop: Portrush on the Antrim Coast in the 6 Counties of Ulster otherwise known as Northern Ireland.