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

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.

Later, as I drowned my sorrows at Cruise's Pub on Abbey Street, a sunburned redhead in a black tank top explained that drinking at games just isn't done. "It's not allowed, but nobody would bring beer into a match anyway," said Julianne O'Loughlin, a substitute teacher from the nearby town of Carron. "All these lads hurl and play football from the age of 8. It's total respect for the game." Of course, she added unnecessarily, the beer flows afterward, in the pubs.

Ennis is a low-key town, both welcoming and impervious to the odd tourist. It's the kind of place where the Farmers Journal shares equal space with the Irish Times on newsstands, where cheeky teenage boys hawk "winkles and dillisks" (snails and seaweed) beneath a towering statue of Irish hero Daniel O'Connell, where merchants selling everything from flowers to farm tools congregate in the town square on Saturday mornings as they have for centuries. We hated to leave, but this was a road trip.

The Dingle Peninsula, about 100 miles southwest of Ennis, is the ultimate road test: If you can keep from driving your car off a cliff while admiring its spectacular precipices, dramatic surf and soft green hills dotted with strategically placed sheep, you can drive anywhere. The scenic 8.6-mile Slea Head Drive feels more like 30 -- in a good way.

But it's not all about the views. Because of its relative isolation, Dingle is a strong Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region), and Gaelic predominates on signs, TV and radio. The peninsula is dotted with ancient stone structures: forts, igloo-like dwellings known as beehive huts and a cleverly constructed church known as the Gallarus Oratory, made entirely without mortar and completely watertight -- a triumph of engineering some 1,300 years ago.

Dingle Town is no quaint outpost; it has plenty of high-end craft shops, galleries, restaurants and music pubs, and the tourists to go with them. But there's also a vet, a supermarket and a hardware store that doubles as a pub by night.

Ah, the pubs. Many offer nightly music, and none is livelier than An Droichead Beag (that's "The Small Bridge" to you). It meets all the requirements: dark, smoky, a bench "Reserved for Musicians," and a combination of locals and visitors out for pure fun. When we stopped by, the locals were definitely outnumbered.

My guilt kicked in -- weren't we tourists messing up the local pub life? -- and when I said as much to the bodhran (drum) player he exploded with laughter. "God, no! You're our living! You're bucks on feet!"

The songs the quartet played that night -- Stephen Foster's timeless "Hard Times Come Again No More," newly moving in this context; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's great antiwar song "Wooden Ships"; an updated, plaintive "Galway Bay" -- did the impossible: They quieted the crowd.

Palm trees? Surfers? White-sand beaches? You'd be excused if the 40-mile drive up the coast, from Kilkee to Lahinch, left you thinking you were in California. Or maybe Nashville. In the seaside town of Kilkee, we had tea on the veranda of a Victorian hotel as the radio announcer played a Dixie Chicks song, then chattered on in Gaelic.

A few miles up the coast, at the wildly scenic Cliffs of Moher, gulls swooped in the wind and daredevil humans walked precariously close to the sheer, 700-foot drops. What's great about the cliffs is that they are as much visited, and cherished, by the Irish as they are by the rest of us. On the path to the top, dark-haired Tina Mulroney sang ballads to the passing crowd, accompanying herself on the harp, as a ruddy-faced gent in an argyle sweater and tweed cap hung on every note.

"Do you know 'She Moved Through the Fair'?" he asked.

"I do."

She began to sing in a high, clear soprano:

My love said to me,

"My mother won't mind,

And my father won't slight you

For your lack of kind."

Then she stepped away from me

And this she did say,

"It will not be long, love,

Till our wedding day."

He sang along, lost in the moment, till the notes died down.

Back on the road, we were soon in the heart of the surreal rocky landscape known as the Burren. Driving past an imposing ivy-covered hotel, I went a few more feet, then hit the brakes and put the car in reverse. Gregan's Castle Hotel, a classic Victorian country house with endless mountain vistas, was too good to pass up. Inside, a peat fire blazed and leather armchairs beckoned. Tradition demanded that we settle back with an Irish whiskey to admire the view.

Galway isn't populated entirely by 20-year-olds; it just seems that way. In that buzzing, energetic town, crowds of young people wander from cafe to bookshop to restaurant by day, but they're really saving their energy for the evening. Dozens of pubs offer nightly performances. You can stick with one, or cram as many as possible into one night. Well, what would you have done?

At Taaffe's, I curled up on a red velvet bench and talked with the itinerant bodhran player, who complained that the euro would be Ireland's ruination.

At Tis Coili, a cozy place with a pressed tin ceiling, the entire room became quiet as a young woman with auburn curls sang "Dainty Davy" a cappella.

At the Quays, I found a spot in a second-floor alcove with a good sight line to the band and squeezed over to make room for a guy standing next to me. "Ah, you're grand," he said. "But stay put. I've seen these guys about 20 times in my home pub."

Home was Galway, he said, and he was a teacher. I asked what he taught. "Little brats," he said, grinning.

He began explaining the songs to me, so that I understood better the pathos of "The Town I Love So Well" and the fascinating U.S. connection of "The Lakes of Ponchartrain." He told me about the English nobleman named Richard Martin (a k a Humanity Dick), one of the rare landlords who was loved by the Irish, and said I had to visit his castle up the road, in Ballynahinch. He approved of my visit to Dingle, but rolled his eyes when I said I was headed to Clifden for two days. "Oh God, that's two days too many." The fishing village of Roundstone, he said, was much less touristy, the real thing, I had to see it.

Back in the car the next morning, I drove the rocky landscape of Connemara like an old hand, maneuvering around the odd sheep, loose chippings and stone walls with, if not abandon, at least a measure of confidence. Clifden, so disparaged by my Galway pub tipster, was a truly gorgeous town, only slightly marred by an invasion of tour buses. The Sky Road provided more scenery, as did a cruise of Killary Harbour, Ireland's only fiord.

At Kylemore Abbey, a madly picturesque 19th-century castle tucked beneath the Twelve Bens mountain chain, I wandered the lavishly designed rooms and pondered the sad story of its original owners. The castle was built by a wealthy London doctor as a wedding gift to his wife, on the spot where they had honeymooned. Six years later she was dead; today, you can visit the exquisite miniature cathedral her husband had built in her memory, a short walk from the castle.

The next day we made it to Roundstone, and it was everything my pub friend said it would be -- the kind of unspoiled fishing village a set designer might dream up, with nets slung photogenically over docks, pastel buildings perched on hillsides and endless vistas of the sea and mountains.

So here's to the teacher of little brats in Galway: Thanks for the tip. You're grand.

K.C. Summers will be online Monday at 2 p.m. to discuss this story during the Travel section's regular weekly chat. To see more photos from the author's trip to Ireland, go to www.washingtonpost.com/travel.

Details: Driving Western Ireland

GETTING THERE: Shannon Airport, 11/2 hours from Galway in County Clare, is well-situated for touring western Ireland. US Airways flies from Reagan National to Shannon, with a connection in Philadelphia, for about $550 round trip. Aer Lingus flies nonstop from BWI and is quoting a round-trip fare of $660.

DRIVING: Reserve a rental car from the United States before you leave; it's cheaper than renting abroad. Avis is charging $288, including all fees and taxes, for a one-week rental of an economy-size car with manual transmission, and $537 for an automatic, both with unlimited mileage. Gas is expensive, at more than $3 a gallon; I spent about $130 to cover about 700 miles.

A few points about driving:

* Roads are well-signposted, for the most part, but you'll want a good map. Michelin's Ireland 2003 is available at Shannon Airport for about $8.50.

* A compact car makes the most sense on Ireland's narrow, winding roads. Consider renting one with automatic transmission (one less thing to worry about), and make sure it comes with a working jack and spare tire -- and know how to use them.

* Allow twice as much time as you think you'll need to get anywhere.

PACKAGES: Alexandria's Isle Inn Tours (703-683-4800, www.isleinntours.com) has one-week fly/drive packages that include round-trip airfare on Aer Lingus from BWI, six nights at B&Bs, a standard (shift) car with unlimited mileage and discounts to attractions, for $998 per person double through August; the price drops to $830 from Sept. 1 to Oct. 15, $585 Oct. 16-31, and $485 Nov. 1-Dec. 14. New York's Sceptre Ireland (800-221-0924, www.sceptreireland.com) has a six-night package that includes airfare from BWI, one night at a hotel and five at B&Bs, a standard (shift) rental car with unlimited mileage and other perks. Prices for travel through August start at $949 per person double. Add about $70 in departure taxes for both packages.

WHERE TO STAY: All rates include taxes and that culinary wonder known as the full Irish breakfast, which generally includes fried eggs, bacon, sausage, blood pudding (sausage made from, yes, pig's blood), white pudding (paler version of same), grilled tomatoes and Irish brown bread, which tastes like cake and will be your downfall. The hotels and B&Bs listed below all have private baths.

* IN ENNIS: The ivy-clad, 18th-century Old Ground Hotel (Station Road and O'Connell Street, 011-353-65-682-8127, www.flynnhotels.com/oldground) has doubles starting at $160. Grey Gables B&B (Station Road, 011-353-682-4487) is centrally located, with doubles at about $69.

* IN DINGLE: Benners Hotel (Main Street, 011-353-66- 915-1638, www.dinglebenners.com) is the perfect small hotel, with lots of character and charm, in the heart of the action; rooms start at about $160. Among the town's many B&Bs, Ashe's Guest House (Spa Road, 011-353-66-915-1197, www.ashes-bnb.com) stands out with its arty decor and six cheerful rooms; doubles start at $80.

* IN BALLYVAUGHAN: Gregan's Castle Hotel (011-353-65-7077-005, www.gregans.ie) is a classic country-house hotel in the heart of the Burren, with the requisite blazing fireplaces, leather sofas and attentive staff. Doubles start at about $227. At the other end of the scale, we also liked our room over O'Brien's Pub on Main Street, with its homey flowered wallpaper, Sacred Heart picture in the hall and thumping good time downstairs. Doubles are $57 -- the bargain of the trip.

* IN GALWAY: Achill House B&B (9 Whitestrand Rd., 011-353-91-589149) is within walking distance of the old quarter, with doubles at $69. You'll pay more at Norman Villa (86 Lower Salthill, 011-353-91-521131), but it's a special place -- a 200-year-old town house with a private garden, six antiques-filled bedrooms and superb modern art and pottery throughout. Doubles $115.

* IN CLIFDEN: The Quay House (011-353-95-21369, www.thequayhouse.com) is an 1817 waterside inn just a few minutes' walk from town, with large and stylish guest rooms (some with working fireplaces), a breakfast conservatory, piles of books and magazines, animal skins strewn about in a very un-PC way, and three of the cutest dogs you're likely to meet in Ireland. Doubles start at about $160.

* IN CONNEMARA: Ballynahinch Castle Hotel (Recess, County Galway, 011-353-95-31006, www.ballynahinch-castle.com) is a 40-room, four-star fishing hotel in an 18th-century castle set on 350 acres along the Ballynahinch Salmon River. Park yourself in front of the lobby fireplace or use the rods and reels in the hall. Doubles start at about $230.

WHERE TO EAT:

* IN DINGLE: Midi (Green Street, across from the church), serving Mediterranean-Asian cuisine, has the best deal in town: a three-course fixed-price dinner for about $17 per person. The wild mushroom and pork liver pate with garlic toast, prawn and mussel curry, and chocolate and pear tartlet were all first-rate.

The Old Smokehouse (Main Street), with exposed beams and a fireplace, lists the day's catch -- all caught in Dingle Bay that morning -- on a blackboard. Poached salmon fillet with peppercorn crust and lime butter sauce goes for $21, a plate of deep-fried salmon, pollock and mackerel $17.

The Gallarus Oratory Cafe, in a converted farm building on the grounds of the ancient church, is a great place to have tea on a rainy day, with its cheerful raspberry and yellow walls, and views of the sea and mountains. Tea and cake for two are about $6.

* IN BALLYVAUGHAN: Tri Na Cheile (Main Street) has a two-course prix-fixe dinner for about $20; the sea bass with mango and garlic butter sauce was tasty.

* IN GALWAY: McDonagh's (Quay Street) is the place for fish and chips, with locals and tourists alike lining up for fresh fish at great prices: $5 for a huge slab of cod, $4.60 for whiting. Pay $1.90 more for chips (fries), then doctor them up with the vinegar and salt set out on the picnic-style tables. Nimmo's (Long Walk Street), near the Spanish Arch, serves contemporary Irish food in a converted smokehouse with river views; dinner for two, with wine, runs about $50. Goyas (Kirwans Lane) is fun and casual, with inventive soups, pates and salads (a smoked bacon and avocado salad is $8.50), and the best baked goods in Ireland, according to one local. If the warm apple and pear crumble is any indication, she's dead on.

* IN CLIFDEN: Mitchell's (Market Street), in a century-old building with wide planked floors and a fireplace, is popular with locals for its seafood, including grilled cod on a spring onion mash with soy butter sauce ($22.50) and sea bass with fennel butter ($26).

PUBS:

* IN ENNIS: Cruise's (Abbey Road) is one of the oldest buildings in County Clare, dating from 1658, with stone floors and walls and a lively clientele dominated by locals. Traditional music nightly.

* IN DINGLE: An Droichead Beag (a k a the Small Bridge, at the bottom of Main Street) has the best trad music in town, and the crowds to prove it. An Conair (a k a John Benny's, on Spa Road just up from Main Street) is also recommended by locals.

* IN BALLYVAUGHAN: O'Brien's Pub (Main Street) is actually several bars that flow into one another; follow your ears till you find the one with the music (traditional and country).

* IN GALWAY: There's great music and a hip crowd at the Quays (Quay Street), a multilevel pub with stained-glass windows, arches and ornate wooden trim taken from an old Scottish cathedral. Monroe's (Dominick Street) is a large, boisterous spot known for good music and set dancing. Taaffe's (Shop Street) has a cozier feel, with a pressed tin ceiling and red-velvet banquettes, but the music is just as lively.

* IN CLIFDEN: E.J. King's (on the Square) packs the tourists in, but locals head to Mannion's or Lowry's on Market Street.

WHAT TO DO:

* IN DINGLE: The Gallarus Oratory (Smerwick Harbour, about $2.80) is a 1,300-year-old engineering marvel, a watertight church constructed entirely of standing stones, without mortar. The Beehive Huts and Dunbeg Fort (Fahan, Ventry, both about $2.25) are among the many ancient stone structures on the peninsula that are worth a stop. The Famine Cottage (Fahan, Ventry, about $2.25), a rough stone dwelling, gives a graphic picture of 19th-century hardships.

* IN THE BURREN: Burren Hill Walks (011-353-65- 7077168, http://homepage.tinet.ie/burrenhillwalks/tours.html) offers walking tours of the Burren, with an emphasis on the botany, history and archeology of the region. Cost is about $17 per person for a half-day walk, $28 for a full day.

* IN GALWAY: The Nora Barnacle House (Bowling Green, 011-353-91-564743, about $2.80), the smallest museum in Ireland, is the childhood home of James Joyce's wife, who was the inspiration for Molly Bloom. Dunguaire Castle (Kinvara, about $4.75) was built in 1520 and is available for tours and banquets; great view of Galway Bay from the turrets.

* IN CONNEMARA: The Connemara Heritage Center (Lettershea, Clifden, about $8) has fascinating exhibits on the history of the region, as well as the Dan O'Hara Homestead, a re-created cottage that shows the tragic history of one farm family during the Potato Famine. The Killary Harbour Cruise (on the N59 about a mile west of Leenane, 011-353-91-566736, www.killarycruises.com, about $19) visits Ireland's only fiord. Kylemore Abbey (County Galway, about $3), a 19th-century castle in a beautiful mountain setting, is now a boarding school run by Benedictine nuns.

INFORMATION: Tourism Ireland, 800-223-6470, www.discoverireland.com/. Ireland West Tourism, www.westireland.travel.ie.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company