The Great Irish Road Trip: Part 1

by Britta on 3 February 2010

in European Adventure

It turned into a beautiful, sunny Irish day when I headed from my Dublin hostel down to the car rental place, near the city’s secondary train station. I figured I’d be spending the rest of the day in the car, so it wouldn’t hurt to walk across town beforehand. I was, however, hurting when I arrived, thanks to the apples and car trip food I’d already bought in preparation. My road trip began in earnest as I drove through the crowded streets of Dublin, taking wrong turn after wrong turn and trying to stay on the left side and coordinate the shifting with my left hand. Eventually I found the highway I was looking for, and sighed, relieved, when the lanes widened and traffic thinned out.

Self-Portrait at Brittas Bay

Self-Portrait at Brittas Bay

I had seen a place called Brittas Bay on the map, and decided I couldn’t miss that, so I turned off the highway onto a narrow coastal road. I had to stop first in Wicklow, though, and dash like mad around town looking for a bathroom, which I found at a pizza place. The WC was reserved for customers, of course, and the irony was not lost on me when I bought a cup of coffee just to use it. Wicklow was pretty small but the people were friendly enough, though I only spent about 20 minutes in town (the minimum time I could put on the parking meter).

Brittas Bay was probably a popular beach in the summer, and the place where kids went to make out at night. The crescent of beach was wide, and separated from the highway and town by a range of grass-topped sand dunes. A few people were out strolling or walking their dogs, so I did a little beachcombing and then went and made myself a peanut butter sandwich in the car, and sat and decided where to go next.

I ended up in Kilkenny that night, at a hostel that was apparently the party center of the town. I wasn’t too impressed by the town — the city center was quaint and historic, but traffic was congested and the roads far too narrow for my taste (which has so far been true for every other town I’ve driven through), and by the time I had parked and checked in and was able to go out and take a walk through the town, everything except for the clubs and pubs were closed. I found a sandwich shop still open, so I ate a panini for dinner and then as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out.

Day two was a Sunday — not a bad one for driving, as the roads weren’t as crowded, but not a good one for finding breakfast in the morning. I ended up at the same sandwich shop as before, but they made a decent coffee, so I sat there and decided to head toward southwest Ireland and County Kerry.

Kissing the Blarney Stone

Kissing the Blarney Stone

Blarney Castle, and the Blarney Stone, is just outside of Cork, and was on my somewhat circuitous route to Killarney, where I ended up that night. The castle was built by an Irish nobleman, Cormac McCarthy, who, according to legend, helped Robert the Bruce fight the English in Scotland. In gratitude, McCarthy was given half of the Scottish Stone of Destiny, upon which all their kings had been crowned. Later, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, she sent her emissaries to take the castle and demand the McCarthys’ allegiance. She received such eloquent responses, flattering and deferential and all but glossing over the non-subjection of the McCarthys, that supposedly she exclaimed in frustration, “This is all just blarney!” Hence, the origins of the famed Blarney Stone. I did indeed kiss it — time will tell whether I am granted the gift of eloquence or not.

I stopped off a few more times to take pictures on the road and finally made it to Killarney. It’s not a big town, so I did eventually find my hostel, but not until after I had driven around for a while and cursed the European habit of either foregoing street names on corners, or placing teh signs so high or in such obscure places that you can’t see them from a car. The hostel manager had told me to park in a free lot near the cathedral, but it looked a bit sketchy when I arrived. I saw a man standing next to a car when I drove up and parked. He moved around to the trunk and it took him a couple of minutes before he got it open. I thought maybe he was trying to jimmy it open, until he shut it and moved to the drivers side, and I saw a ring of keys in his hand. I parked as close to the cathedral as I could, figuring potential thieves and vandals would think twice before breaking the law in front of a church, and fortunately the car was still there intact in the morning, Monday, and by then the lot was packed.

Skellig Islands

Skellig Islands

Monday I drove the Ring of Kerry. It’s a loop around the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry. It’s a little over 100 miles long, and stunningly beautiful in sections, but very difficult to drive if you’re used to U.S.-wide lanes and driving on the right. But I did it, managed not to hit anybody or drive off the road, and even managed to drive the Ring of Skellig, a smaller loop off the Ring of Kerry that involved steep roads and dramatic views. I could see the Skellig Islands from the top of the promontory at the tip of the peninsula, and was amazed to learn that on the larger island there is a monastery, founded in the 7th century. There doesn’t appear to be flat ground anywhere on the island.

I stopped in Waterville, the southernmost village on the loop, for a pub lunch of fish and chips, and the bartender told me not to miss the village of Kenmare, on the eastern edge of the ring, because it was so quaint and picturesque. He never missed an opportunity to get up there himself, he said. So I followed his advice and found myself following a narrow, windy road, passing heavy equipment that were apparently working to clear land for a new homestead down the road. Once I found myself in Kenmare, though, I wasn’t so much disappointed as bewildered as to why the bartender found it so charming. It seemed like most of the other Irish villages I had been through on the ring, although by that time I was just ready to be out of the car, so I sort of just breezed through in my haste to get to my next stop, on the Dingle Peninsula. I passed through Killarney National Park on the way back, and past some of the most interesting scenery on the whole ring — windswept trees clinging to cliffs, bare rocks sloping gracefully into lakes perfectly reflecting the green of the hillsides and the gray of the sky.

I arrived that night in Anascaul to find I was the only one at my hostel. The girl who ran it was Canadian, and we went out together for a drink. We went to a pub that was once owned by one of the crewmen on Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition to Antarctica, and was covered with photographs and paraphernalia of the trip. The Canadian girl had only been in town for a few weeks, but she was already treated like a local. Everyone at the bar knew her, and her business, and she hadn’t figured out yet whether she loved that, or hated it.

The Real Cliffs of Insanity

The Real Cliffs of Insanity

The next day saw me heading toward Doolin, a little town near the Cliffs of Moher, which involved a ferry crossing of the Shannon River Estuary, and the several requisite wrong turns due to lack of street signs. I had been taking it all in stride, as a quirk of European street planning, but today the lack of signs and the inexplicably windy roads — where American engineers would have made a straight road through an apparently featureless plain, Irish engineers added several S-curves and impossibly narrow lanes — served to frustrate and unnerve me, and I knew I had to be out of the car right away. So as soon as I made it to my hostel, I parked the car and didn’t get back in until my hunger won out over my resolve and I had to drive to the store.

I slept late the next morning, but my laziness paid off and the sky was clearing by the time I headed toward the Cliffs of Moher, the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride. They are apparently Ireland’s most-visited natural attraction, and with good reason: They are spectacular, rising 210 meters straight out of the ocean. I could see the Aran Islands through the distant haze, and could only imagine Fezzik or Westley climbing the walls below me.

My Ride

My Ride

Just beyond the halfway point of my week-long road trip, I suppose my early intention to return the car early has wavered. It does come with its annoyances and frustrations, like the narrow, windy roads, the trucks and coaches that don’t fit in their lanes, and the missing street signs, but driving on the left doesn’t feel quite so unnatural anymore (except that I automatically go to the passenger’s side to get in, every time). Though I could have taken the bus to some of the places I’ve visited, the car has given me a few opportunities I wouldn’t have had on the bus or train, like staying in small, out-of-the-way places, and not having to plan and time my connections just right, and — this is the biggie — not having the carry my gear everywhere. Part 2 could be my European highlight — or it could tip me over the edge!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat Perry February 4, 2010 at 12:05 am

Great posting – I’m really turning into a new verison of travel junkie devouring up each one of your writings. Can’t believe you did it and are driving on the opposite side… it’s hard to wrestle into your mind and when you’re doing it alone and without a navigator in the passenger to help look for landmarks. I’m TOTALLY impressed! Looking forward to the next posting….and smiling your direction. love you, pat

Cindy February 5, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Congrats on “mastering” the roads!!!! Looks like magnificent scenery….Aunt Cindy

Iman February 8, 2010 at 4:04 am

Hey Britta,
Just popin-up to say hi …we meet in Allie’s River…Love your blog. ;-)) See you in Alaska sometime…

Donna Grosso February 8, 2010 at 9:34 am

Britta, What an instigator of wanderlust you are! Cindy tipped me off to your blog & I’m enjoying it immensely. You certainly are a pilot’s daughter, and the highs & lows of your travels are heightened for me by that intrepid spirit of yours and seemingly effortless writing style. Surely your Blarney Stone kiss sealed an eloquence already bestowed. Love the photos! Vivir la vida libre! :))) Love, Donna
P.S. Your entire website (& its design) is a delight!

Britta February 9, 2010 at 11:53 am

Thanks all! Thanks for keeping up with me (or being patient with me as I write my next post)! Glad I’m able to impart a little wanderlust — there’s not enough of it in the world, I think!

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