Traveling Ireland’s back roads is like joining a big, raucous family on a lengthy vacation in a camper van. It’s tons of fun, relaxing and exhausting, and the pace and unpredictability demands that you pay attention amid the chaos and laughter.
Our three-week stay on the Emerald Isle gave us a long look at the people, places and customs of this fun-loving culture with a fascinating, often tragic history. Some say the Irish get their sense of humor from their strong families and communities and a need to offset the misery of invasions, conflicts and plagues that have best the island over the centuries. There are few boundaries here – either physical or philosophical – so travel is best approached with an open mind and schedule, our favorite mode of visiting.
We were stunned to silence by craggy mountains and rugged shores, moved to hysterics by stories and epic doses of the legendary Irish blarney, serenaded in pubs, and both amused and terrified by the narrow roads that snake village to village, often sharing the tiny roads with onrushing buses and tractor-trailer trucks.
We edged close to the ocean along Ireland’s legendary cliffs, most of which need no warnings. They are places people do not venture without serious risk. The steep, crumbling chasms require careful approach from land. The pounding, unpredictable waves and rocky coastline make an ocean approach equally dangerous, so the coastline is mostly left to itself, uninhabited, ever-changing, and gorgeous.
Birds nest in abundance, clinging to the rocks, but little other life intrudes. It is a coastline reserved for wind, wave and sun, stunning vistas on a pleasantly sunny day, but assuredly a nightmare during storms or during harsh winter months.
We wound through “SuperValu Tidy Towns!” with pristine streets and village greens that surely looked that way centuries before the supermarket chain came along with a marketing ploy to celebrate civic cleanliness. We roll down the windows and delight in the sweet smell of burning peat, cow and sheep dung, and fresh-cut, absurdly green grass.
We drove our rental car along the edge of peninsulas feet from the ocean, up and down the narrow roads of the Beara Peninsula, through the Ring of Kerry and into Dingle, across a small ferry in Talbert to County Clare. We carefully traversed mountain passes at Moll’s Gap, Cannon Pass and others.
Brilliantly painted cottages stand shoulder to shoulder alongside harbors, hillsides, and on main village streets, always centered around a pub or six to keep the locals well lubricated and, as if they needed it, in good spirits.
We rolled past brilliant green hillsides dotted with fat sheep spot-spray painted red, green, or blue to mark ownership, most of them staying close to the season’s gift of tiny offspring who cavort in the sun or fill the air with their high pitched bleats.
We stayed in Airbnbs, ate at local joints, and bellied up to the bar in the most remote pubs we could find, always rewarded by the love of the Irish for talk, humor and teasing. One place – The Blue Light, perched high on a hill overlooking Dublin – is a locals-only haunt friends took us to, where the Guinness pints are lined up on the bar in anticipation of demand and a guy showed up with a raven on his shoulder.
Ireland’s a tribal place linked by common history, packed with lovely people with wonderful, colorful stories they’re eager to share. The love of spoken word, song and Guinness is the real deal, and we happily indulged in all during this amazing stint.
Laughter is epidemic, and the Irish penchant for blarney is the perfect antidote for the stress of the road, or the news of the day. Irish can get away with stunts that would most mortals would pay dearly for, like the guy in the pub in Killarney who drunkenly threw his arm around Gabi, asked her name, and then shrieked, “Aye, and that’s because you’ll never shut up!!!” with a roar of laughter soon echoed by his mates. And my wife as well, somewhat to my surprise.
We had spirited encounters with people who can only be described as lovely. Welcoming, open and fun, the Irish have lived up to their reputation among the world’s friendliest. They tell stories in abundance, and with great pleasure. Whether they’re true or not is another matter.
Local Ballybunion lore: in the late 1800s, the local priest, who ruled the community with an iron will and stern countenance, was strolling the division between the men’s and women’s beaches one day, making sure there was no fraternization or “untoward behaviour”. He spotted a woman dressed in a two-piece bathing gown that exposed her midriff and was, by his estimation, immodest. “Madam,” he addressed her, “I think perhaps a one piece would be more appropriate.” “Very well, Father,” the woman is said to have replied, “which would you have me remove – the top, or the bottom?”
Renting a car is the best way to explore Ireland, as you can chart your daily route on well-marked and mostly well maintained roads. Self-driving means you get closer to Ireland by visiting the off-the-beaten-path villages, and by screeching to a halt on a narrow road to avoid a head-on with an ongoing motorist or farmer driving a tractor.
We savored the buzz of Kenmare, with its parallel streets of restaurants and pubs, and wound our way around the Ring of Kerry from Caherdaniel to Cahersiveen, stopping to admire the seashore, quaint villages and beautiful vistas.
We meandered the perimeter of Dingle and walked the loop around Bray Head, with its views of Skellig Michael and the open Atlantic. We stopped twice in Dingle (once for coffee, a second visit for ice cream) and fell in love with the town’s quaint vibe. It’s the only sizable town on the peninsula, yet it’s managed to retain its charm and easy feel.
True story, according to our Airbnb host in Ballybunion. When Bill Clinton was planning a golfing trip to Ballybunion, County Kerry, his advance team noticed a hair dressing shop named Monica’s on the street where his motorcade was to pass. Someone asked the owner to cover the name so it wouldn’t be visible to the president as he passed by. They did, and all the town still talks about it. There’s a life-sized statue of Clinton, in golf garb, a driver in hand and grin on his face, in the village square.
The Irish are quick with the wit and easy with the jokes. What might be construed as an insult elsewhere is fair game in normal dialog here. It didn’t take long to pick up on the game.
Exchange with a waiter in Narim’s, a restaurant in Ballybunion, County Kerry:
He: How was your dinner?
Me: Great. This was a wonderful little find.
He: Excuse me? Find?
Me: Find. You know, discovery.
He: Oh, it’s the accent.
Me: Or is it trouble with English?
He: No, it’s the voices in my head.