OK, here's the start to my trip report. Photos will be gone through when I'm done, and I'll post a link to them later. I've just started, and will add to this as I go on.
I started planning this trip for nine friends, all female. One by one, they all had to drop out, until, on the day I left, we were down to just me. That’s fine; I’d traveled to Ireland before on my own. Having grown up in Miami, most places held no fear for me. Caution, yes – I’ve learned always to lock my valuables up, and give no one a chance to disappoint me. However, I held no apprehension on traveling on my own. My husband did – but he had to work, and I wasn’t giving up this vacation after spending so much time planning it, and already having paid for chunks of it, like the car and airfare.
The plan was: Flight from Pittsburgh to Dublin on November 15th (Friday), rent a car in Dublin. Spend time in Drogheda (2 nights), Armagh (2), Cushendall (3), Bunbeg (4), Westport (2) and Glasson (3). Fly back on December 2nd (Monday), thus avoiding the high airfares on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This was my fifth trip to Ireland, and my eighth trip to the Isles. I was revisiting some favorite spots, and staying in some new places. Because it was late November, I had to make accommodation for the short daylight hours, and cut down my sightseeing from what I was used to in May and June. That meant long evenings in pubs – which I was looking forward to! Sometimes this was a huge success, sometimes not so much.
Details of places I’d stayed, etc.
Flight: Aer Lingus (codeshare with United) PIT – ORD – DUB and back, $644. I got an afternoon flight (3:30pm) which allowed me to work half a day on that Friday and still drive to Pittsburgh in time to check in. My layovers were 2-3 hours each, the perfect length for my level of comfort on international flights. I would return 9:30pm on Monday, which got me home at midnight. I had to work the next morning.
Car rental: Dan Dooley, $640 (included CDW and extra insurance, and it was useful!)
Drogheda – I stayed at a friend’s house in Mornington
Armagh – Dundrum House (www.dundrumhouse.com)
Cushendall – Riverside B&B (www.theriversidebandb.com)
Bunbeg – Teac Campbell B&B (www.teac-campbell.com)
Westport – McCarthy’s Lodge B&B (www.mccarthyslodge.com)
Glasson – Benown House B&B (www.glasson.com/index.aspx)
And now, on to the detailed narrative. Feel free to use it as an antidote for insomnia!
Friday, November 15th:
I’m sure most of you have experienced this phenomenon – the day before you leave for vacation is by far the longest. It seems like the day itself lasts for weeks. Well, I only had a half day, and it felt like it stretched on for a month. However, at noon, I had prepared everything for my absence, bills set up to pay while I was gone.
The drive to Pittsburgh Airport is about an hour and a half, and about halfway through I realized I had never checked in online for my flight. Oops! Not a big deal – I wasn’t checking any luggage, and I had already selected my seat. I arrived at the airport, drifted through row after row of filled Extended Parking before finally finding a spot, and then checked in on my phone while on the shuttle. However, since it was an international flight, I still had to check at the counter to show my passport. Luckily, the line was short and fast, and I got through quickly. Security was also a breeze, and I got through in about 15 minutes. The TSA staff was professional but easy-going, joking and looking like they were having a fun day. They did ask to look in my bag (the tripod usually makes them nervous) but were quite kind and polite about it.
Now, there had been an issue with some shoes I had bought online from Crocs. I love my Crocs. My normal everyday choice is a pair of Crocs sandals that are comfortable and don’t look like the standard ugly type. However, I knew that sandals were impractical for November walking around in Ireland, so I had ordered a new pair of neoprene slip-ons. I had ordered them the week before I left, paying extra for fast shipping. The tracking showed it was on its way – until Thursday night before I left, when the tracking email said the package wouldn’t be delivered until the following Tuesday. Well, I was a bit upset at this, and got online to chat with a rep. He said he would try to expedite it, but was unable to, so I resolved to take my two pairs of boots instead. One pair was snow boots, and chaffed a bit at the ankles, and the other pair were furry on the inside, but suede outside, so no waterproofing. Also, I’d not worn either pair since last winter, so blisters were always a possibility. I did bring some moleskin in case!
When I did my post-security shopping (bottle of water, some snacks, etc.), I also found the Crocs store. They had the same pair I had ordered, in my size – just grey rather than black. I bought them, and they worked. Unfortunately, they slipped a lot at the ankle at first, before the sole compressed to your foot shape, so the moleskin got good use. They were quite useful, especially as the furry boots evidently had deteriorated inside under the heel, making them very uncomfortable. I switched to the snow boots as needed for muddy spots, and the neoprene Crocs resisted moisture and dried quickly.
So, shoe saga handled, I went to the gate to top off my iPhone charge. There were limited plugs, but I saw one young lady unplugging and packing up her stuff. I sat next to her, and plugged mine in where she had vacated. She then looked at me, paused as if I had stolen her spot, and gave me a dirty look. I offered her the spot back, asking if she still needed it, but she shook her head, gave me another dirty look and an exasperated sigh, and left.
The flight to Chicago was quick and easy, just an hour in the air, and then a 3 hour layover. I did have to go through security again (and again, the tripod excited interest). I had some food before the flight – an appetizer with Italian meats (cappicola, etc.) and some odd little dough pockets at an Italian restaurant. I was the last section to board, and I was on the window seat (I like to take photos out of the window when I can, and lean against the side to sleep). My traveling neighbor was Frank, an engineer on business from Cork. We chatted a lot about family, history, seafood, Kinsale, DNA, religion, etc. Then we retreated to our entertainment systems. I caught a couple episodes of Big Bang Theory. Dinner was sweet and sour pork – it was awful. I think it was actually the worst airline meal I’d ever been served, and that’s a pretty bad record. It was clumpy, undercooked, and sickly sweet. The brownie was good, though – I maintain a theory that airlines (and other establishments as well) try to make up for horrible mains with great desserts, and I’ve seen it often.
Saturday, November 16th :
I managed to sleep a couple hours, despite my terribly short-sighted logistic issue of leaving my earplugs packed in my carryon – which was well and truly wedged in the overhead compartment, and not coming out without major surgery. Breakfast was a croissant sandwich, rather thin and watery, but at least filling. There was a stunning sunrise over the clouds as we got into Dublin.
Frank was chivalrous and got my bag down for me. It required him to stand on two of the seats and tug hard on it, chivvying it around until it was released. It was a bit overstuffed, I must say. I try not to check luggage on my way to a vacation, as the record in the past has been about 50% delayed luggage. My trip to Scotland had my luggage delayed for five days, and I still only got it then because I was ruthless in nagging them, and got someone to get up and physically LOOK for the bag. So, I had everything in my rollerboard; five days of clothes, a fleece jacket (I had my long wool coat carried on separately), my tripod, electronic bits, some of my jewelry to show off, travel documents, etc. I’ve done this before, but winter clothes are bulkier than summer clothes. Oh, and I also had a fold up duffel to turn into a checked bag on the way back, so I wouldn’t have to deal with this again. I don’t mind as much if my clothes are checked and delayed when I return.
I got my car from Dan Dooley with no issue, a small blue Micra with manual transmission. I find that it is easier for me to adapt to driving on the left than it is to revert to driving on the right when I get home. Also, I drive automatic at home and manual abroad. I had seriously considered getting an automatic, as I’ve no experience driving a manual on icy, hilly roads, but I decided to take the chance (it was a $300 difference in price!). Luckily, there were only one or two days with any ice in spots, and that only in a couple places, easily handled.
The plan: Trim Castle, Gormanston College Cloisters, Fourknocks, Slane Castle, and Proleek Dolmen.
Well, that was the plan, anyhow. Most of the sites on my to do list had GPS coordinates. I discovered that, while some of these were spot on, some were a bit off (depending on how precise they were) and some were WAY off. If I could get in the right area, I could often find brown signs directing me to the right place. Sometimes, that didn’t work, either, and I gave up.
When I got the rental car, I programmed in the first spot, Trim Castle – south on the M50. It noted that it was a toll road – and I didn’t have any change yet, just large bills, so I passed. I guess I wasn’t in the mood for a restored castle yet – I have a limited capacity for them, as I prefer ruined places, picturesque and crumbling. Besides, south was away from my destination that day, and I was unsure how much energy I would have that day, after my less-than-restful night on the plane. I thought it would be the better part of wisdom to get closer to my evening’s lodging.
So, off to Gormanston College Cloisters. This was a last-minute addition to my list, and just a photo opportunity (there are many of those, as I sell my photos at Art Shows and Celtic Festivals). This place had a lovely tree tunnel, with the branches interlocking overhead, similar to the Dark Hedges, and I wanted to get some photos. I found the place, via GPS (I actually have a TomTom, but GPS is more generic and easier to type), but it was a couple hundred feet to the entrance. There was a big sign saying private, but I saw a bunch of cars in the parking lot, so I took a chance and went in anyhow. No one seemed concerned, and after a bit of wandering, I found not one, but TWO! Two lovely tree tunnels on the manicured lawns and lovely forest bits. The weather was overcast, but it was warm enough I didn’t quite need my jacket yet.
After several dozen photos, I went on to Fourknocks, a Neolithic burial site. I found the spot (after some circling), and there was a sign on the door that a key could be obtained from Fintan, and gave directions to his house. I found the house (with the help of a friendly store clerk), but Fintan didn’t appear to be home. I went back to the site and still explored around it – I just couldn’t get INTO the burial mound. It was fenced off rather close – not much room around it, lots of hedges and trees.
My next stop was Slane Castle, another restored place, site of many concerts (including U2 and Celtic Woman) over the years. The GPS took me to a ruin, which was NOT Slane Castle, and I walked around it trying to find an entrance. I encountered several cows on the riverside that seemed amazed that I was stopping to take photos of them. I think they were actually posing for me. As I finished glamour shots on the cows, a group of about 30 bikers drove up to the parking area, and we joked a bit.
When people think of animals on Ireland, they automatically think of sheep, but I saw cows, horses, cats, dogs and donkeys this trip before I saw my first sheep. Now, I saw plenty of sheep later – perhaps the area north of Dublin is just short of this particular species, but it seemed odd to me.
I also noticed the autumn colors were brilliant. Reds, golds, yellows, oranges, even the browns were rich and delightful. Part of it was probably the mostly overcast sky, which makes colors stand out more. In West Virginia, most of the trees had already stripped off their autumn cloaks for their stark winter skeletons, browns and white bones in dancing patterns. It was nice to see the colors again.
I drove around a bit and found a brown sign for Slane Castle. I found an entrance, but it was closed and locked, a high gate with a long drive down into a valley with a large castle. That must be it – but there were construction vehicles around it, so they were likely doing winter maintenance, no admittance this time of year. Ah well, I got a couple good shots from the road, and went on to my next spot.
I started to head up to Proleek Dolmen, which was about a half hour north, but saw a sign for Old Mellifont Abbey. Why not? There was some scaffolding here and there, but the ruins were interesting, and there were some others wandering around. A couple was posing for pictures in wedding garb at one archway. The slight drizzle didn’t seem to bother them much – it was a lovely spot near the river.
It was getting near past lunch time by now, and I had learned from prior stays that most pubs stop serving food around 2pm, so I decided to find a spot. I was near a town called Collon, and the first pub I stopped at served no food. They directed me to Watter’s Carvery, which had a buffet-style offering. Not my favorite, but it would do, as I was quite hungry. There was roast bacon with stuffing, carrots, broccoli, and parsley sauce. It was quite salty (well, duh, it was bacon!) but quite filling. Irish bacon is not like American bacon – it’s much more thickly cut and more like Canadian bacon, but a bit fattier.
After my first couple days, I stayed at B&Bs, and they had Full Irish Breakfasts, which kept me full until at least 2pm each day – at which time most pubs had stopped serving lunch. Also, since I was on my own and had limited daylight, I resented time spent eating at a sit-down restaurant during the day. So, I had a constant supply of snacks (usually Fig Newtons, called Fig Rolls there), sometimes picked up a pre-packaged sandwich of chicken tikka or egg and bacon. These are usually much better done than the American equivalent, by the way.
After lunch, I went to find Monasterboice. It was on tomorrow’s list, but I had seen a sign, so followed it. I found New Mellifont Abbey instead, which was a rather modern structure like a huge farm with a forest around it. I eventually found Monasterboice, and was glad I had done so. It was lovely in the late afternoon sun (it was 3pm by now, and the sun set around 4:30pm). There were some boys playing ball in the parking lot, and I went to explore the small cemetery. It had two large Celtic crosses (one was a High Cross, which is usually a memorial to an event or great person rather than a gravestone) as well as a round tower.
My husband calls these monk-roasting towers, as they were built partially to provide a haven when the Vikings came to pillage. There were no doors on the ground – just a window a couple stories up, through which the monks would climb by way of a ladder, laden with the church valuables, and haul up the ladder after them until the Vikings left. He figures the Vikings would just build a fire at the base of the tower and roast the monks out.
After wandering about Monasterboice for a bit, I went off to Proleek Dolmen. Well, that was a mistake! It was a long journey with no results. I couldn’t find it anywhere, according to the GPS coordinates. I stopped to ask someone mowing grass, but they had no idea – they weren’t local, either.
I gave up, planning to try again another day, and headed down to my friend and publisher’s house. Kemberlee was kind enough to offer me her couch for my first couple of nights in Ireland. We had never physically met before, but had known each other online for several years, through Ireland groups and then book groups. I found the house, thanks to her excellent directions, just as her husband Peter got home. I got to meet her two border collies, Daisy and Poppy, and evidently I met with their approval. It was just getting dark, and Peter had brought home a Subway sandwich for us to munch on while we chatted, as actual dinner was planned for much later.
We chatted and chatted. We talked about books, history, family, etc. We talked about Britcoms, and I mentioned Waiting for God, one of my favorites. They hadn’t seen it, so we found a couple episodes for them to watch; I think I got them hooked. I also showed them the Danny Bhoy comedy bit on Irish accents and the one on Scottish instruments.
Much later, we had a lovely dinner of bacon, potatoes and cabbage – a perfect first dinner for Ireland. I was amazed I made it to as late as 9pm before I started to droop, but the conversation was interesting enough for me to power through without realizing the time. However, when the fatigue hit, it hit fast, and Kem made up the couch for me to sleep on. I slept like the dead.
Sunday, November 17th:
The plan: Tullynally Castle, Fore Abbey, Kells, Loughcrew, and Hill of Tara for the 8pm Druid Full Moon Ceremony I had been invited to.
Up around 8am, refreshed and ready to roar! But quietly, as Peter and Kem are still asleep. I had some cereal, showered, and started the long drive to Tullynally Castle. This was about an hour and a half, or as Peter said, halfway across the country. However, I had corresponded with the castle and they said they would open the gardens for me if I got there before noon, so off I went! The GPS took me to Castletown, which sounded appropriate, but I couldn’t find any brown signs. I asked directions, and was sent down a road – but it was the wrong road. I basically took the long way around a very large lake, and I eventually gave up, and put in the coordinates for Fore Abbey.
As soon as I started off for Fore Abbey, I found Tullynally Castle, naturally. It was just a few minutes past noon, so I went on in to see if I could still get in. There is a long, winding drive into the demesne, with lovely gold and red trees all around. I saw no one around, but there were cars parked in the courtyard. It looked deserted, and the garden gate was locked, but I walked into the inner courtyard. An older lady came out to greet me, and told me she thought I had been a man. Christy is a man’s name in Ireland, and this wasn’t the first time I had come across this (i.e., Christy Moore, an Irish singer). She gave me a map and let me into the gardens.
It had been drizzling on and off today – a soft day – but it stopped for about an hour or so to allow me to walk around. It was 48 degrees, according to my phone, which allowed me to wear the fleece jacket rather than the long wool coat. I also had on my underarmor (both shirt and pants) that I had bought for this trip; I wore it every day, and it was most efficacious in keeping my body warm. The only parts of me that ever got cold were feet, hands, ears and face. I had brought two pairs of gloves – a ‘useful’ pair and a thick, warm pair. Of course, I either lost or hadn’t brought one of the latter pair, so I used the thinner, useful pair. At least I could still operate my camera with those on. I also had two scarves and a woolen knit hat to complete my fashion ensemble. So sexy!
The gardens were extensive, and quite lovely. There was a hidden grotto in a tree tunnel, brilliant red trees against the golds and browns, a flower garden (that actually had a couple stubborn little roses left in it). There was a kitchen garden, with rhubarb and herbs, and some lovely views from the castle itself. It was well worth the effort, and I can only imagine how glorious it would be in the spring.
I headed back out for Fore Abbey, and followed the brown signs. Eventually I found Fore Abbey, Priory and St. Feichan’s Church across the street. Also, there were not one but two clootie trees on property. A clootie tree is a wish tree – a holdover from the pagan belief that if you tie a piece of fabric on a sacred tree and make a wish, the wish goes to the gods as the piece of fabric disintegrates. Of course, I’ve seen many objects on clootie trees – rosaries, baby shoes, tissues, and plastic candy wrappers. I imagine that some are more effective than others to those that believe.
There was a young couple with a baby in a stroller braving the drizzle to explore the abbey while I was there. She lived nearby, and had visited as a child, but hadn’t been back since then. I realized my camera battery was dead, so headed back to the car to get a spare (and from then on, kept a spare in my jacket pocket). I have explored many abbeys, in various states of ruin and repair, and this one was pretty standard. However, the stark contrast of black wet stone against white lichen was rather dramatic, and made for some good photographs. There was a rather vocal herd of cows off to one side, all black with a wide band of white around their middles.
I went off to tackle Loughcrew. This was perhaps the worst time of the trip to have tried this hike. It was up a rather tall hill, on a day that had been mostly rainy all day, there was mist shrouding the top, and the winds had picked up rather strongly. Also, other than sending my husband my daily plan, no one else knew I was up there. I did see some other folks when I first climbed up, but none after that. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, so started following what seemed to be a path. The wind and mist were strong, even though my long wool coat, hat, scarf and gloves. It made it very difficult to see through my glasses. I followed it doggedly until I realized that it was going around the hill, and through bracken – not a set path, then. Likely it was just a vehicle track in the mud. I was halfway around the hill by then. Oh, and there were sheep everywhere, and the natural result of that was slippery mud AND sheepshit. I was very glad I had decided on the snow boots!
So, I guess I had to go up. It was a rather steep proposition with the slippery mud, and I considered going back, but sallied forth anyhow. After a very determined climb up the hill, with a few stops to catch my breath and futilely try to wipe my glasses off, I finally found the fence that surrounded Cairn T of Loughcrew atop the hill.
There were, from what I could see through the mists and now fairly strong rain, two small stone circles, some individual standing stones, and the central cairn which took most of the hilltop. I knew I couldn’t get into the cairn itself, as that would have required hunting down the key before I had started. (I passed on trying, after my experience at Fourknocks). I explored the stone circles, tried my best to protect my camera from the rain by wrapping it in my scarf, and put my back to the wind when I could. I circled the cairn and decided to head back down.
I knew this would be more difficult than going up – going down was always more slippery. At one point, it was quite steep, and I knew I would slip, so I just sat down anyhow and slipped down on purpose. Better to choose my own spot than hurt myself! I did slip once more, once near the bottom track, but I fell on my well-padded hip and sustained no injuries. The snow boots had the added bonus that they were quite firm around the ankles (they came up almost mid-calf) so turning an ankle, my particular specialty, was less likely.
Near the very end of the hill walk, I slipped a LOT – it was very muddy with fallen leaves on stepping stones, and it was like surfing the last ten steps to the tree-lined steps down to the parking lot. However, miraculously, I didn’t fall. Perhaps the gods of balance decided I had dealt with enough on this trek already. However, it meant my steps were very shaky as I made my way to the parking lot, down the shallow, long steps. I made good use of the scant fence for balance. I happily shed my wet shoes, jacket and gloves, and made my way to Kells.
It was just about dark twilight, around 5pm, as I got into the city. I was too tired and hungry to search for any high crosses, round towers, or ruined churches, so I found a pub called The Round Tower for dinner. I’m certain, by the name, there was one nearby. I didn’t bother looking. The rain was stronger again, and I had some time to kill before I went to the Hill of Tara at 8pm.
I sat at the bar, and ordered the fish and chips, and a pint of Bulmer’s cider. I don’t care for bitter, so I don’t drink beer or wine. Whenever I drink in Ireland, its cider. This first dinner taught me that I should only order a half pint if available, a small bottle if that’s all that’s on hand. It was a good, filling meal, and I couldn’t finish it all and the pint. The pub was a commercial sort, some families having dinner, not really a local with conversation and the like.
I took some time to update my journal, and realized it was still only 6pm. It was full dark out, and still rainy, so I thought I would just head to Tara and hang out in my car, perhaps play some games on my phone until it was time for the ceremony. Evidently, however, I put in the coordinates to Fore Abbey instead. It said ‘Hill Road’, so I thought I had the wrong spot. Oops again! It’s difficult to tell in the dark and in the rain that you’re headed the wrong direction, especially if you aren’t familiar with which towns are where. When I realized where I was, I corrected my GPS and headed to Tara. As a result, I got a lovely tour of dark, windy roads, scary drivers, and finally figured out how to work my highbeams.
I arrived at Tara around 7:20, and the rain was still dripping down rather hard. This was the only really rainy day of my trip, but it was getting to me since I was out and about all day. There were a couple cars there already, and I got out to chat. I met JP and Orla. JP had little umbrellas attached over his driver door and over the back – evidently he chatted in parking lots a lot. He was an aliens and ley lines pagan, and was quite fascinating to talk to – I did a lot of nodding and smiling. Another gentleman heard me say I climbed Loughcrew that day, so went and got me a postcard of Loughcrew during Beltaine, and gave it to me.
Red John, the person running the ceremony, finally arrived shortly after 8pm, and we went up to the hill. He decided to do the ceremony under one of the large trees rather than up the top of the hill itself. It offered a little shelter, but there weren’t many leaves, so the rain just dripped in larger drops rather than finer ones. The ceremony was interesting – I had only participated in Wiccan ceremonies before, and this was Druidic. It lasted about 2 hours, and we were all feeling the cold and the wet, though we were all well-bundled. About halfway through we did some walking around the circle to keep our circulation going. The moon did shine through a thin spot in the clouds briefly at one point.
We did a meet and greet afterwards a bit, and I met a young lady from Brazil who was living in Dublin. I mentioned to her that there was a social group called ‘New and Not So New in Dublin’ that had welcomed me in their group on my last trip, when I encountered them in the Aran Islands. We then all parted ways and I made the dark, wet trek back to Kem’s house.
I warmed up watching TV with Kem and Peter, and talked some more. Never Mind the Buzzcocks was on, with Michael Bolton as the guest host. It was rather bizarre and surreal. We then watched some funny videos, and I was exhausted, ready for sleep.
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OK, here's the start to my trip report. Photos will be gone through when I'm done, and I'll post a link to them later. I've just started, and will add to this as I go on.