Driving: On an Irish road trip, it takes courage -- not to crash into the scenery.

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By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2003

Loose chippings. That's what finally did me in on my road trip through western Ireland. Not driving on the left, not rain-slick streets, not sheep in the road, not hairpin turns, not distracting vistas, not tour buses hogging roads the size of sidewalks -- although I certainly encountered all of the above during my nine-day, 700-mile drive last month. No, it was the pointy little rocks on the side of the road. Signs warn you about these "loose chippings," with helpful pictographs of blown-out tires in case you miss the point. Heed them.

But after I had my flat, a half-hour into the trip, everything went great. Here's the thing about driving in Ireland. Keeping to the left isn't difficult -- your brain easily makes the adjustment. It's the narrow roads that pose the biggest challenge. More often than not there's no shoulder, just low stone walls and the dreaded chippings. That combination is what will keep you rigidly clutching the steering wheel, your travel companion providing colorful commentary as you first venture onto the lanes of County Clare.

"Yeesh!"

"Careful now."

"You're too close! You're too close!"

We were headed for the market town of Ennis, 25 miles northwest of Shannon Airport, which we had chosen as our first stop for the simple reason that most tourists don't go there. From there, the plan was to drive south to the Dingle Peninsula (where tourists do go, but which is so extraordinarily beautiful that you happily join them), then up the west coast to the rocky landscape known as the Burren, the hip university town of Galway and finally the rugged Connemara region, known for its lakes and mountains.

Not exactly a restful strategy, but our motivation was simple: to see and experience as much of the country as we could in a little over a week. And if there was perhaps too much emphasis on packing and unpacking, gas stations and guidebooks, it was also a trip where serendipity played a leading role -- where wrong turns led to castle hotels and 13th-century churches, the humblest neighborhood pub served up soul-stirring music along with pints of Guinness, and a flat tire resulted in an unexpected encounter with an Irish charmer.

That would be Nicky Cahill, a rosy-cheeked (all Irish are rosy-cheeked) twentysomething in a T-shirt and purple track pants, who bounded out of his house, unbidden, to help. "Ah, it's not your fault," he consoled, wrestling with a lug nut. "It's the road. Between the lorries and the tour buses, it's all torn-up, like." This was the kind of cheerful altruism that went out of style in the United States somewhere in the 1940s.

"At least it's sunny," Nicky observed as we bundled the ruined tire into the trunk. " 'Twould have been awful if it was rainin' for ya."

'Twould, indeed. But the sun remained shining, and we pushed on to Ennis. The atmosphere in the little market town was electric, the narrow streets thronged with locals decked out in the yellow and blue of County Clare: It was the day of Clare's big hurling match against Galway, the All-Ireland championship qualifier.

Hurling? I wasn't sure what it was, but I followed the crowd past shopfronts painted acid green and eye-popping blue, through a turnstile and into a stadium filled nearly to capacity with 18,000 extremely vocal fans. And proceeded to get my heart broken, as the scrappy Clare team ended up losing by one point in one of the most exciting sports matches I've ever witnessed.

I'm still not sure what hurling is -- it's played by guys in shorts with a ferocity that makes your average U.S. football team look like the ladies' auxiliary -- but it's intense, fast and physical. The crowd was the same revved-up, banner-waving, team-jersey-wearing, air-horn-blasting, junk-food- eating bunch you'd find at any big-league game in the United States, with one big difference: They were swilling bottled water instead of beer. That's right -- no drunks.


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