Hard to believe it was 2013 before we finally got around to visiting Ireland, especially as we lived so close to it for nearly thirty years. Living in England, we preferred to visit countries that were hotter and drier, which Ireland definitely is not. The Emerald Isle has been on my bucket list for a long time.
We weighed up the pros and cons of taking a bus trip or renting a car, but eventually decided on a six-day hiking holiday with Ramblers (a U.K. organization) and a three-day rail/bus tour with Royal Irish Tours, plus a few days in Dublin. We managed to cover about half of Southern Ireland in a fortnight and also got a feel for the way of life.
We left Toronto on Friday, May 17th and arrived at Dublin Airport the next morning. The first thing that impressed us was the free sample of Jameson whiskey, which was handed out in Arrivals. I was surprised how smooth it was, compared to Scotch. “I like this place already”, I said to Bryan.
A shuttle bus took us to the Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel in Killiney, our home for the first week. We were impressed with the hotel, which seemed to be a popular place for celebrations. A movie was being shot there for a couple of days.
We did not have to meet the Ramblers group until 6 pm on Sunday night, which gave us plenty of time to adjust to the new time zone, by drinking coffee and doing lots of walking. On one of these walks we passed a real estate office and decided to check out prices. We were shocked to discover that if we sold our Milton bungalow and moved to Killiney, we could only afford to buy an apartment. (Prices may have changed since then). The town is ideally situated - on the ocean and close enough to Dublin, and surrounded by beautiful countryside. Bono of UT and Inya both have homes there.
There were twelve of us in the Ramblers group and what a diverse bunch we were, but all friendly. Our leader, Graham, who leads several Ramblers’ Holidays a year, was excellent and handled every situation with common sense without ever getting ruffled. He was easy to talk to and enjoyed a joke.
The Australian couple were academics. Olge was there doing research on Irish women emigrants for her PHD. Andrew was eighteen years older. It was their second marriage.
The other couple was Bernie and Ted, who looked like brother and sister because they both had podgy faces resembling rubber. She was from the West of Ireland and had a strong Irish accent. She must have kissed the blarney stone because she had the gift of the gab. Trouble was I couldn't understand what she said. Her sentences seemed to trail off, leaving you guessing. Ted was English so I could understand him.
The two lads were as different as chalk and cheese. Robin was a lawyer. He wore thick bottle-end glasses and was very organized and rather quiet. David was a Geordie from Newcastle. I had a hard job understanding him, because he had a strong accent – or was it a speech impediment?
The four single women were all English and had grey hair. That was the only thing they had in common. Margaret and Jennifer were avid hikers so they were always in the lead. Jennifer, a retired schoolteacher, was the chatty one. She had no relatives other than some cousins, which made her very independent. She gave us all a scare when she passed out after dinner the first night and fell on the floor. When she recovered she told us that it was something she ate, but I think Graham was a bit worried that it might happen again on the walks. Fortunately, it did not.
Then there was poor Margaret, who lived with her mom. With her hair tied in a bun, she reminded me of an old-fashioned school ma’am. Her rotten teeth did nothing to enhance her appearance.
Carol was the “cookies mother”. She had a typical English rose complexion and was always smiling. She had several grandchildren, whom she adored, and I'm sure they loved her.
Last was Sheila, and she was always last - on the hikes, because unfortunately she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. We had to keep waiting for her to catch up, which meant poor Sheila never got a rest.
Each night, we would all meet up in the bar at 7 o’clock and Graham would fill us in on the details of the next day’s hike. After that, we enjoyed a three-course meal without any feelings of guilt, after all the exercise.
Every morning we had to meet in the lobby at 9 am. A bus would pick us up or we would walk down to the train station, which was about 2 kms away in the town of Dalkey.
After walking all day, I couldn’t wait to take off my boots and have a long soak in the six-foot bath, while drinking a glass of wine. I have a theory about hikers: I think we are masochists. We like to abuse ourselves by day so that we can mollycoddle ourselves in the evening.
Most of the hikes averaged about 15 kms and most were in the Wicklow Mountains, which are south of Dublin. Many of the trails are made from two connecting railway ties with staples for footholds, which form steps and paths. The temperature was considerably colder in the mountains and so windy that Bryan was blown off on one occasion.
One day he decided to just wear a long-sleeved shirt and pack his lightweight jacket plus his rain pants, as well as mine. When we got off the bus, the cold wind seemed to go straight through you. We all donned our jackets and gloves if we had them and Bryan looked for his jacket. He opened the first plastic bag, which contained his rain pants; the second contained my rain pants and the third…..another pair of rain pants, but no jacket! (That will teach him to leave the packing up to me!) Fortunately, Andrew the Ozzie lent him his spare one. He was glad of it, especially when half way along the ridge, the rain turned to hail, which cut into your face like needles. With no shelter, there was nothing to do but keep going. After the vigorous climb, we were rewarded with impressive views of lakes and rivers and the distant vistas of the ocean between mountain ranges. On the Glendalough walk, which was our favourite, we walked alongside the Glenealo River, as it cascaded via a series of waterfalls into the valley below.
Yellow gorse was everywhere and in full bloom. So were the bluebells and the rhododendrons, which are considered a weed because they crowd out any other plant. This artist’s palette of colour provided a stunning contrast to the forty shades of green.
On the last day of the holiday, we had an option of sightseeing in Dublin or climbing the Great Sugar Loaf and Little Sugar Loaf, two mountains, with an estimated time of five hours for both. Seven of us decided on the Sugar Loaves, and I think most of us lived to regret that decision. As it turned out, it took us nearly six hours to do just the big mountain. There were three reasons for this: First off, Sheila slowed us up. Secondly, we had to wait for Margaret and David to be rescued by our leader on the descent, because they both decided to come down the steepest slope, slipped and lost their nerve. Last but not least was my fault. After I had successfully climbed down, I tripped over a rock and fell splat on my hands and knees. I knew I had done something serious, because I felt really weird. As I started to hobble back down, my right knee started to swell. Our destination was a hotel on the road, which looked so tiny and so far away. The guide bandaged my knee. Unfortunately, he did not have a stretcher in his backpack and no one offered to carry me, so there was nothing else to do but grin and bear it. I hobbled down the rocky path with the aid of my hiking poles. It was the toughest walk I have ever had to do. I finally arrived at the pub after what seemed like eternity, but was actually about an hour. I plunked myself on a seat, removed my boot, rested my leg on a chair and ordered an Irish coffee.
It was fortunate that it happened on the last day of the hiking holiday and not the first, but it meant that during the next week I had to walk around with the aid of a cane, because I didn’t want to miss anything. I know I abused my knee, and ended up paying for it later on.
On Saturday, we said our Goodbyes after breakfast and shared a taxi into Dublin, where we checked into our hotel, the Ashling. We had to pay $191 for Saturday night, $111 for Sunday and $128 for the following Wednesday. The hotel was ideally situated close to the train station.
We bought a two-day ticket for the hop on/hop off bus, stopping off at the jail and Jameson’s Distillery. Bryan was lucky enough to be chosen to do taste testing of twelve-year old Scotch, five-year-old Jameson’s and one-year old American. Of course, everyone preferred Jameson’s. They distill it three times, which gives it a smooth taste. I bought a twelve-year-old bottle of whiskey for $80 for my brother Fred. It travelled back to Canada with us and on to the UK later in the year. I think my brother appreciated it.
On 6:30 am on Monday, we walked to the station, where our Rail/Bus trip started. At Cork, we got off and boarded a bus, which took us to Blarney Castle. We had to climb up some narrow stone winding steps to reach the blarney stone and then lie in our backs and kiss the stone, which is embedded in the castle wall. A good way to catch mono!
The bus took us Cobh Heritage Centre, where there were displays and information about the great potato famine and the subsequent emigration of three million Irish from there, as well as the Titanic, which sailed from the same place. The weather was very unsettled that day: one minute it was raining, the next the sun was out. Fortunately, it didn’t rain much when we were outside.
We had to take three trains to get to our destination hotel in Killarney, the Fairview, where we arrived at 7 o’clock. For some reason I was craving lamb (probably had something to do with all the sheep we had seen in the fields) It was delicious.
On Tuesday, after another hearty Irish breakfast, we joined several other guests from our hotel at 10 o’clock and waited on the main road for the bus tour of the Ring of Kerry. Because the roads are so narrow, all buses have to travel counter-clockwise round the Ring of Kerry and clockwise round the Dingle Peninsular.
The weather was still unsettled, but fortunately it was fine when we stopped off to see sheep dogs at work. The farmer told us that he owns 4000 sheep. He said the dogs have a natural herding instinct and amazing hearing. Fortunately, sheep have no predators in Ireland.
The only crop we saw growing was corn, which they said was six weeks behind schedule. The soil there is mainly peat, which some cottagers still dig up, cut and dry and use as fuel for their fires.
The next morning, there was just the two of us waiting for the Dingle Peninsular bus tour. After half an hour, the hotel owner across the street came and asked if we needed any help. He kindly phoned the bus tour company and told us to wait there. The bus would be along “any minute”. “Any minute” turned out to be another half-hour. The publican’s help was typical of the Irish people we met. They were all very friendly and helpful and more laid back than Ontarians.
It was a small bus, and the bus driver was also the guide. He was funny, like most of the Irish guides. He had us laughing at his witty one-liners. We loved the Dingle Peninsular. With its narrow winding roads hugging the cliffs, it was not for the faint of heart. From one mountain lay-by we could see the beach where “Ryan’s Daughter” and “Far and Away” were filmed. We spent most of the day on the bus, which was good because I was feeling a little delicate, having partaken of two much liquid refreshment the night before.
We caught the 5:30pm train from Cork back to Dublin and arrived back at the Ashling hotel at 9 pm.
On the last day, we walked to the Guinness Brewery, did the some sunbathing in the park and caught the 3:30 airport bus and a taxi to our airport hotel. We flew home the next morning.
We really enjoyed the food in Ireland, because it was mostly homemade. The efficiency and affordability of the public transportation (the trams, buses and trains) is also pretty impressive. What impressed us most were the Irish pubs. Most of them have a small group entertaining the customers with Irish music.
Being in Ireland is like going back in time. Now, we can’t wait to visit Northern Ireland as well as the rest of Southern.
In 1959 Johnny Cash wrote a song about Ireland called “Forty Shades of Green”. I think he exaggerated. I could only count thirty-six. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful country, begorra.