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Exploring Ireland's Routes

By M.E. Hirsh
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 2, 1998; Page E01

Summer in the west of Ireland. Palm trees dot the coast, carried up by the Gulf Stream along with smaller exotic flora whose blossoming transforms the eerie moonscape of the Burren. In Connemara, black-faced sheep crowd the road, droll with their punky streaks of Day-Glo dye. Daylight lingers past 10 p.m., wild Dingle salmon are in season, and music unravels insistent as the roads in their endless turnings. Off the shore of Dunquin, the Blasket Islands rise up like stone ships at sunset.

No wonder so many British "planters" in the west went bush.

Ireland in its history has been invaded by Vikings, Normans and Anglo-Saxons, and, since the relentless marketing of Riverdance and other Celticiana, by increasing hordes of tourists--Americans, Germans and French in search of their Celtic heritage. Nature inspired Celtic art and religion, and if your wish is to escape urbanity (including the hazards of driving in Dublin), turn to the living land and language of Ireland at its Atlantic fringe. Go west. Fly overnight into Shannon Airport near Limerick and explore three very different prospects along the coast: the sweeping limestone hills of the Burren, the startling headlands of the Dingle Peninsula, and mountainous, mysterious Connemara and Mayo.

For a celebratory trip, my husband and I wanted pagan delights: natural wonders during the day and revelry by night, with unusual lodgings offering plenty of character and full Irish breakfasts. We planned our eight-day week as a figure-eight loop, renting a car and heading north to the Burren, then southwest to Dingle, and north again to Galway and Westport.

We knew it would be impossible during our short visit to do little more more than caress the Gaeltacht--the Irish-speaking Atlantic coast--of my maternal lineage. Map distances are deceptive here, and can often take three times longer to cover than it might seem. Driving is on the left side, and many country roads are like corkscrews. So get a map, survey some guidebooks and tailor a route to your taste, adding or subtracting abbeys, fishing, literary or island excursions. Pack a poncho, a small pair of binoculars, two pairs of walking shoes and a copy of Seamus Heaney's "Poems 1965-1975." And go.

THE BURREN, County Clare

Bounded on the west by the Atlantic and the north by Galway Bay, the Burren (from boireann, "rocky place") is an astounding 100 square miles of fissured limestone karst--pale, reflective, seemingly barren hills, terraced in giant glacial slabs called pavements. But along with wild thyme and hazel and blue moor grass, its crevices harbor a rare mix of Alpine and Mediterranean flowers, early orchids and spring gentians luring every kind of butterfly as well as naturalists from all over the world. And under this rock face runs a maze of vast caves, streams and turloughs--transient lakes that come and disappear. It's an uncanny, haunted landscape befitting County Clare, which was decimated by the great famine of the 1840s that reduced Ireland's people from 8 million to 5 million in a generation.

But evidence of far older life is strewn among the hills. The Burren has been inhabited since prehistoric times, as its tombs and ringforts testify--and many of its secrets have come to light only recently. Pick up leaflets at the Burren display center at Kilfenora.

Now ponder your choices over lunch in Ballyvaughan, a fishing village overlooking Galway Bay. We stopped for lunch at Gregan's Castle Hotel, a gorgeous country house hotel in a green oasis. Arriving late, we had the place to ourselves except for the cryptic humor of the barman, whose service had only one limit. I asked if he'd noticed the giant wasp buzzing at the window behind us. "I have," he said. "And I'm not going anywhere near it."

After a spectacular drive around Black Head on the bay, check into the Ballinalacken Castle Hotel at Lisdoonvarna. Situated on a promontory overlooking the Aran Islands and Cliffs of Moher, the 1840 castle is the former home of one Lord O'Brien--built just below his family's 15th-century stronghold that we explored in happy solitude. We had reserved the front window table in the dining room for 8:45 p.m. so we could watch the sun set over the islands--but the sun refused to go down. After feasting on the matchless local seafood, we reposed on the lawn to savor the last light of day.

Those with remaining energy may want to drive four miles into Doolin, a coastal mecca for traditional music. O'Connor's pub is the most famous, but ask the locals. Waitresses are often the best source of tips on which place to go for music on a given night.

Depending on time and inclination, you may also wish to visit the nearby Aillwee Caves, 2-million-year-old caverns lit to more than 3,000 feet of its depth and featuring an underground river, the ancient sleeping hollows of brown bears, and a waterfall. Or, for a quick taste of the Aran Islands, take the ferry from Doolin to tiny Inisheer.

Or visit William Butler Yeats's beloved Thoor Ballylee. In 1916, Yeats bought a ruined Norman tower house three miles south of Coole and repaired it. The Nobel Prize-winning poet lived here by the Cloon River on and off until 1929. It has now been restored with some of his own furniture--and the addition of audio-visual displays and other amenities that may not delight purists.

THE DINGLE PENINSULA, County Kerry A day of amazing driving takes you from County Clare to the glorious Dingle Peninsula, which has all the drama of the oversold Ring of Kerry, minus the traffic and with antiquities to spark the imagination.

Start with the decidedly not overrated Cliffs of Moher, just seven miles south of Ballinalacken. Performers and craftsmen are scattered along the approach. The cliffs rise as high as 700 feet along a six-mile stretch of coast, plunging straight down into the Atlantic with no scree at the bottom--a combination of vertical drop with serpentine undulation that is hypnotic to the eye. Their stripes are layers of shale and sandstone and ledges white with birds--puffins and razorbills and guillemots. O'Brien's Tower up to the right is an overlook built for Victorian tourists. To the left, the cliffs uncoil to a signal tower at Hag's Head--a five-mile walk round trip.

Back on the N67 south past Lahinch, it's 15 miles to Quilty. (Anglo conquerers simply gave an English-sounding equivalent to the Gaelic original, in this case Coillte, meaning "woods.") For maximum time on the peninsula, turn inland at Quilty on R483 for 16 miles, south to Kilrush, a 19th-century market town. From Kilrush, it's six miles south on the N67 to the Killimer/Tarbert Ferry across the broad estuary of the Shannon River.

The N69 from Tarbert winds a beautiful, if strenuous, 28 miles through open fields and past the truck traffic at Listowel down to Tralee. Turn right at N86 onto the Dingle Peninsula--a spine of mountains sloping to a sinuous coast of cliffs and sandy beaches.

The town of Dingle is 30 miles farther, and the weather may dictate which route to take. As we were cautioned by a friend who hikes here often, this peninsula must be taken seriously. Rains can be long and torrential, the roads treacherous; bad weather will mean forgoing otherwise heavenly drives and walks past the town out to Slea Head. But the town offers many pleasures of the harbor: shopping and terrific restaurants and music.

If rain is boiling up on the ridge, stay on the N86 to Dingle, with its folding emerald valleys, white farmhouses perched high above rock-rimmed uneven fields pitched at such an angle that it seems the sheep and cows must be wearing crampons to stay upright. The sky races. A wild donkey appears, munching some grass. Hedgerows of red and purple wild fuchsia bloom as if in tribute to the "hedge schools" where children were taught when British laws denied education--and most other civil rights--to Catholics. In better weather, climb Mount Brandon or explore three-mile-long Inch Beach.

The busy town of Dingle is built on a rise around a sheltered harbor--pleasantly viewed from the slight remove of Milltown House, a large white country house hotel west across the bay. After dinner in town that night, our waitress steered us up the hill in a downpour to Small Bridge for music, the best of the week, played with passion to an enthusiastic audience. After a pint or two, the walk back to Milltown is fun even in rain. West of Dingle, Irish is the first language--the only one on many road signs.

From Milltown, the Slea Head drive around the tip of the peninsula is magical both in its scenery and antiquity. Just outside Ventry, the next town, visit Dunbeg, an eerie ruined promontory fort right at the water's edge that may have been inhabited from 580 BC. Within its walls stands a single clochan--a prehistoric beehive hut. A tunnel to the hill above offered an escape route in times of attack. There are clusters of clochans farther along on working sheep farms on the southern slope of Mount Eagle. These cells of unmortared stone were used by anchorite monks in the early Christian centuries, and from within their solid domes a sense of isolation is real in spite of the proximity of others.

The narrow road climbs to towering cliffs at Slea Head and stunning visions of the Blasket Islands. No longer inhabited because of the great hardship of survival there, the Blaskets were famed for their storytellers. Here the mystic pull of the peninsula can be strongly felt. Locals who decide to approve of a visitor will ask, "Have ye been out to the Blasket? It's a place all of its own."

Depending on the weather, Great Blasket may be reached by boat from the village of Dunquin. A ferry runs in the high season, but ask at the pier if a boat is going out. Dunquin is a draw for students of Irish folklore, and an artists' colony. (David Lean filmed "Ryan's Daughter" here in 1970.)

One other must-stop: the Gallarus Oratory near Ballynana, a 7th-century Christian church and fine example of corbeling--tiers of stone layered inward to meet at the top as a roof.

We came out into flocks of children biking home from school who gave us the tart ribbing that is verbal play here, asking to be returned. Our mild query was met with a dry "Don't panic," and several ironic detours were made before the answer was given. In almost every contact, some awareness is expressed, an acknowledgment if only by glance or gesture. The Irish don't pretend you're not there. Mainly they want to know if you've got a sense of humor--even these kids wearing Celtic jewelry who glow with health and soundness.

North again now, to Galway, by whatever route you choose.

GALWAY CITY, County Galway

In the 12th century, Pope Adrian IV granted King Henry II of England the right to rule over Ireland, and from that has come 800 years of woe.

Today's Galway, roundly judged the finest city in Ireland, is a bastion of Celtic culture and a magnet for students from all over the world--as well as for weary Dubliners lured by its charms. But the remaining town-castles and large Protestant church here are remnants of a past when "native Irish" were barred by edict, "That neither O nor Mac should strutte ne swagger thro the streets of Galway."

The River Corrib runs through the center of town into Galway Bay, and its banks are a delightful place to walk or lounge and watch the show. (A drug bust we saw was discreetly handled by two young men in casual clothes.) Youth from the hostel on the corner are in each others' arms, and a fleet of mute swans sail up from Claddagh Quay, where the thatch-roofed "Irish town" used to stand outside the English walls. Across from it, Spanish galleons once unloaded precious cargos of liquor. You can almost hear the creak of sails and see the Claddagh women passing in their red skirts.

The main business of modern Galway is conducted around Eyre Square, its sloping grassy park dedicated to President John F. Kennedy. Friendly drunks around the park give good value in jokes for any contribution made.

But the hip action in town is in the vibrant narrow streets between the river and square. Quay Street, High Street and Shop Street are home to brightly painted galleries, book and craft shops, pubs spilling patrons out onto the sidewalk, street performers and a passing parade of equally colorful foot traffic. Galway has three theater companies, and there are pubs of every description--trawl for music at your leisure.

Literary homage can be paid at the Nora Barnacle house, home of the wife of James Joyce, who visited here often. It's in Bowling Green next to St. Nicholas Cathedral.

Time permitting, the Aran Islands can be reached by ferry from Galway City Docks. The crossing takes three hours.

CONNEMARA AND MAYO, North to Westport

Instead of the more-traveled coastal road north, turn inland to the green lake country and haunted mountains west of Lough Corrib. From the ring road circling Galway, follow signs for the N59 to Oughterard. Connemara, the western reach of County Galway, lies between the lake and the sea, a windswept scape of rounded crags, moorland and the turf bogs that Seamus Heaney calls "kind, black butter."

Oughterard (pronounced Ook-terawrd) is halfway up Lough Corrib, the second-largest lake in Ireland. On its verdant shores stand castles of modern business barons like the Guinness family.

West of Oughterard, a dappling of small lakes along the road mirrors an ever-changing sky. Connemara in full sun is unimaginable. The peaks now looming float in mist and somber majesty. Then a break in the clouds and entrancing patterns of light play along a vista--gone again before you can lift your camera.

Maam Cross is just that--a crossroad offering a high-quality if expensive craft shop, a thatched cottage where a turf fire burns, and a restaurant playing John Ford's movie "The Quiet Man," filmed hereabouts. John Wayne on endless loop. The cashier, in classic understatement, admitted knowing "a fair bit of the script by heart."

From Maam Cross through Recess, the scenery insists on frequent stops to climb a hill or follow bleating sheep down to a stream where trout and salmon beckon anglers. Smooth granite hills, like sleeping giants, give way to the quartzite peaks of the Twelve Bens. (The name is from beann, "peak.") The highest, Ben Beola, is more than 2,000 feet. Green Connemara marble is mined at their feet. And all around is mossy bogland giving up its ancient turf, bricks of it cut with a spade called a slane and set in stacks to dry. Natives own or rent a turbary, a patch of bog, and their horse-drawn wagons and trucks ply the hotels.

The town of Clifden on the coast stands in noisy contrast, with many shops and restaurants. At Guy's pub, a local favorite, the young woman sitting next to us bent to quietly opine that David's lunch of Guinness and a ham sandwich might be ill-advised, "For isn't Guinness much weaker in the States?" Our chat revealed that she had never traveled much beyond Galway, but from her pocket she pulled, with her bus schedule, a program of plays at the Druid Theatre, each one of which she had or was planning to see. Art is intertwined with life here, inscribed on the humblest objects--like the metal utility cover in the pavement outside Guy's, bearing a Celtic endless-chain design.

Sky Road, at the west end of town, is a circular three-mile drive high above the fringed shore of Clifden Bay, rounding to Streamstown, where you'll rejoin the N59 to Leenane in County Mayo and the winding 18-mile climb toward Westport.

Nearing Westport, look to the west for the conical peak of Croagh Patrick, called the Reek, the most-climbed mountain in Ireland. Pilgrims come from all over the country on Garland Sunday, the last in July, to reach its summit, where St. Patrick is said to have spent 40 days and nights in prayer. People used to climb at night, carrying torches, until the church banned this, er, pagan custom. The path to the top is signposted across from Murrisk Abbey, a three-hour round-trip walk.

Attractive Westport has the distinction of being a planned town, designed in the 18th century by architect James Wyatt. Its streets, with interesting shops, radiate from an octagon featuring a statue of St. Patrick. The quay of granite warehouses is finding new commercial life. And then there is the Mall.

No, not that kind of mall. It's the part of town along a picturesque canal of the Carrowbeg river, lined with lime trees. And here's where you'll stay in the oddest hotel and room of your trip.

Built in 1780 as a coaching inn for guests of Lord Sligo, the Olde Railway Hotel was described as "One of the prettiest, comfortablist Inns in Ireland" by William Makepeace Thackeray, who stayed here in 1834. We went over budget to book Room 209, the Thackeray suite. The hotel is crammed with Victorian relics--a six-foot teddy bear, a collection of stuffed owls in Victorian costumes. After dark, with soft light glowing from the old silk pleated lampshades, you can almost see Bill Thackeray sitting up in his nightcap, writing, under the tufted overhang of the bed.

At dinner that night, in the unpretentious Urchin, we were seated next to an extended Irish-speaking family and had the pleasure of hearing the language in lively form throughout a good meal.

From Westport, in good weather, you could drive 20 miles northwest and explore Achill Island, reached by car across a bridge from the village of Mulraney. Or journey up to Sligo for more of Yeats Country. Buried at the foot of Ben Bulben, Yeats wrote his own epitaph for his headstone in Drumcliff Churchyard:

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by.

Irish and Welsh literature, author Frank Delany says, stand as the last Celtic monument. But Yeats himself was Anglo-Irish--and Ireland was no more empty when the Celts invaded, circa 300 B.C., than the Americas were before European conquest. Stories of Erin's distant past tell of other races of people. The influence of their languages, including traces of North African Berber, along with those of later Norse, Norman and English arrivals, explain why Irish is different from British or Continental Gaelic.

The population of Ireland is now more than 3.5 million. Yet from the great Irish diaspora, 44 million Americans cite some Irish ancestry, and all of Europe can claim Celtic descent.

Even my entirely Irish mother is a mutt. So are we all, and so can anyone be wild--and at home--in the west of Ireland.

M.E. Hirsh is the author of two novels, "Kabul" (Atheneum) and "Dreaming Back" (St. Martin's Press). She has just completed a third, "The Holly King," whose title is taken from an Irish Celtic legend.

Details: Ireland's West Coast

GETTING THERE: Aer Lingus offers nonstop service to Shannon from Newark and JFK airports and is quoting a round-trip fare of $648, with restrictions and including add-on fare from Washington.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT: For those wishing to ease into driving on the left, or simply wanting a first or last night of pampering, Dromoland Castle Hotel (Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare, telephone 011-353-61-368144) is an easy eight-mile drive from Shannon Airport. This beautifully restored castle offers fine dining, tennis, golf and fishing. Rates start at $310 per room, double.

Other options:

In the Burren: Gregan's Castle Hotel, Ballyvaughan, County Clare, telephone 011-353-65-77005, rates start at $84 per person, double; Ballinalacken Castle Hotel, Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, 011-353-65-74025, starting at $50 per person, double.

In Dingle: Milltown House, Dingle, County Kerry, 011-353-66-51372, starting at $50 per person, double. The pretty guest rooms have trays with restorative fixings for tea, and host John Gill will gladly make dinner reservations in town, an invigorating 20-minute walk away.

In Galway: Atlanta Hotel, 14 Dominick St., Galway, 011-353-91-562241 (a favorite haunt of touring actors), starting at $56 per person, double; Norman Villa, 86 Lower Salt Hill, Galway, 011-353-91-521131 (a beautiful Victorian house with great food, beloved by scholars visiting the Celtic archive at University College), starting at $42 per person, double.

In Westport: Olde Railway Hotel, the Mall, Westport, County Mayo, 011-353-98-25166, starting at $63 per person, double.

INFORMATION: Irish Tourist Board, 212-418-0800, http://www.ireland.

--M.E. Hirsh

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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