Ever wanted to go somewhere far away, somewhere different for a long weekend? You’re apt to nix the idea by convincing yourself it’s too much hassle for too little time spent away. But what if you just went with no other effort than booking a flight to somewhere you always wanted to go, then letting the chips fall where they may? That’s what I did with a friend a few years ago and the results more than surprised us. The choice was Ireland. “We’ll turn it into an adventure”, he said. “Nothing planned, no fixed schedule, we’ll just wing it and get to meet the people.” Both our wives endorsed the suggestion. His wife worked for a major airline and said she would arrange for the flights. All we had to do was pack lightly and go. Little did we know that allowing a little chance into our lives could have such a favorable impact.
Early on a November morning, we landed in Dublin. The sun played hide and seek through grayish clouds, the air crisp and cool. Overall, the weather didn’t look promising; off and on rain. Clearance through customs went quickly and we were soon in line at a car rental desk studying a regional map of Ireland. Driving on the wrong side of the road and sitting in the wrong seat, in traffic, conjured thoughts I didn’t want to entertain but John proved adept. The M-50 loop took us out of Dublin. He was just beginning to relax his death grip on the steering wheel and I was getting used to cars passing at high speed on the right, when I saw the sign : “Kilkenny/Cork.” We exited left on to N-7 south just as the skies darkened and it began to rain. In a short while, what I had pictured to be lush pastures of Ireland, would become more than evident.
About seventy miles south of Dublin, we were on back roads breezing by hedge rows, when the sun broke the clouds and the green countryside came to life, at least for the moment. The sign said, “Ballacolla 6 km” and we turned right on to a pleasant country road that became quaintly remote after a few miles. No sign of commerce, or hustle or bustle, which was all right with us. Another sign read: “Traditional Farm Hostel”, just down the road. Actually, it was at the end of the road, or seemed that way. We turned into the courtyard of a quaint hostel of old fashioned European architecture. Outside was something else that was quaint, a welded iron skeleton structure of a dinosaur seemed a bit out of place yet an interesting piece. Across the road were grazing sheep and a few cows, no humans in sight. We had found exactly what we were looking for but it looked deserted. We were about to leave when a car pulled into the drive. A young woman got out and asked if she could help us.
“I saw you comin’ down the road from the house above and got in my car. Sorry for the delay, are you looking for a room?” Those were welcome words.
She invited us to go inside and sign the register. Way beyond their busy season, it was apparent we were the only guests. She said her name was Elizabeth, the owner’s daughter. “ Would you like tea, crackers and perhaps some goat cheese?” She apologized that the place was a little cool but it was off season and they kept the heat low. No sooner had she served us appetizers, however, before she had a peat fire going in the hearth. It warmed the place considerably. Her next words were a total surprise:
“Would you be eatin’ here tonight? I can fix you a real Irish dinner. We’ll be havin’ Irish ham, boiled potatoes, some cabbage and the desert is apple crumb cake.” The price was more than reasonable.
The same thought ran through our minds-this couldn’t possibly be a hostel. It was, and a fine one at that. An actual working farm and hostel in the middle of green Irish pastures.
We thanked Elizabeth, said dinner sounded more than great and- would seven p.m. be OK? That would give us a chance to see the area. She said it would be ready by then. We couldn’t believe our luck as we headed for the nearby village of Abbeyleix a few miles away. Abbeyleix was quaint, clean and, to us, appeared like something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The two story buildings were painted in different hues making for a colorful scene, the pub was inviting, the locals more than friendly and eager to converse. All too soon it was soon time to find our way back to the hostel, wondering if we could remember where it was now that darkness had set in.
Promptly at 7, Elizabeth had the table set, ham sliced and plenty of it, boiled potatoes and cabbage, steaming hot; Irish butter for the rolls, a kind of white gravy for the potatoes. The apple crumb cake topped off a memorable feast. Afterward, we were quite content to relax by the peat fire to digest the sumptuous meal prepared exclusively for us.
Around 8:30 Elizabeth left and we had the entire place to ourselves. Almost 24 hours had elapsed since either of us had slept and, after several yawns, we agreed it was time for bed. The day had been better than expected, but we were soon to learn it was far from over. That’s when Martin walked in and introduced himself as the owner, just returned from Australia where he had visited a sheep ranch that he had an interest in. He was the kind of guy who, after ten minutes, you felt like you had known for years. Rugged, Irish brogue, he was a great conversationalist and well versed on just about anything you wanted to talk about. So, we forgot our tiredness and talked with him by the fire. He asked what we hoped to see in Ireland during our short visit.
“Old castles and a few pubs.” But we weren’t sure where to find them.
“Put on your coats and come with me.” He replied.
It was a deciding moment. We could give in to our tiredness or accept his invitation. Luckily, we chose the latter and so began an unforgettable evening, never to be experienced had we not stumbled upon Martin’s farm hostel.
This was not your everyday farmer. He owned a Beamer that might have given any NASCAR entry a run for its money. We got in and he quickly accelerated to 60 on a narrow, dark country road as I held my breath and pressed my right foot to the floor looking for a brake pedal. Abruptly, he down shifted and applied the brakes, the headlights shining on the rear end of a meandering cow in the middle of the road. He advanced slowly, gunning the engine. After nudging her to the side, we continued on at breakneck speed.
A few miles further and he stopped once again.
“So, it’s castles you’d be seein’? Hop out then.”
As if the scene was staged, night clouds broke to a full moon. Martin pointed and there, outlined in shadow against the moon, castle ruins rose into the night air, ramparts at least 120 feet high. In the middle of a field, was a structure at least 800 years old, forgotten in time, an everyday sight for the locals, but an unusual one for those who might stray from ordinary paths. Suddenly, we were transported to a time of kings, princes and Templar knights as he related stories about the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 10th century. We looked at the moonlit scene somewhat in awe, until Martin said the night was gaining on us, there was much to see, and plenty to choose from if you knew where to look. It was on to the parish of Aghaboe and the floodlit ruins of the Abbey of Saints Canice and Virgillius, built in the 13th century. By moonlight, Martin showed us the careful restoration of the abbey walls, done mostly by volunteers from the surrounding villages, including him, then a lone country church whose tower had been partially destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s canons in the 16th century.
We had a view of history that one could only imagine, along with a running commentary by a true native of the land who knew its past. But it was time for some fun, Martin said, so we left the quiet abbey, the church tower, a Cistercian monastery and the Norman castle behind and set of for town. There, he took us to Kelly’s Pub, Roscrea, where he was greeted warmly by the patrons who obviously knew and respected him. Two men played billiards in the corner as he bought a round of stout talked about subjects from nuclear technology to sports. He held his own in all, but it was nearing midnight, he still had more to show, and so we were off once again in the Beamer for another white knuckle ride on narrow roads.
We came to a village, this one far smaller. He parked the car and we walked over cobblestones to a building that once was a train station, now converted to a tiny pub. The only sounds were our footsteps and a dog barking in the distance. Two windows offered an inviting orange glow from the now chill air. As we opened the door, the inrushing air rippled the peat fire on the far side of the room. Heads turned and, once again, the patrons recognized Martin as an old friend and he introduced us to them. There were only a dozen or so in the pub, but it seemed the place was filled to capacity. What struck me was the lack of loud talking, just the low murmur of subdued conversation. An old TV in the corner was on but no one paid any attention; a grudging concession to the times, it wasn’t wanted or needed. We warmed ourselves by the fire and, once more, because Martin introduced us as friends, we were accepted immediately. I wondered what such a man had done to gain that kind of friendship and respect in so many places. I thought also that these quiet villagers didn’t need television to entertain them. It was the place itself, the familiar faces, old stories, new stories that contented them.
“One more place to visit.” Martin said, and we were off to Mary’s Place, finishing up with a rousing sing along by the locals. New friends that seemed like old friends by the time we left.
It was nearing three o’clock when we thanked Martin for his hospitality and for showing us what we had come to Ireland for. He said good night and headed home. We weren’t to see him again. The day that had come close to ending in an early bedtime, turned into a really memorable evening.
The next morning we planned a jog along the country roads we’d traveled the night before with Martin, but not really seen. Over the years, John and I had many runs together but this had to be one of the most scenic, something out of “The Quiet Man.” A mile into the run there was a slight rise in the road ahead. The sun was in our eyes as we reached the crest, but both of us saw it at the same time. Sitting regally in a green pasture in morning mist aglow from the sunlight, was the “mooncastle” from the night before, found quite by accident. We crawled under an electric fence without incident and two hundred feet away was the medieval tower. At the top where the stone had crumbled, shrubs and vegetation grew. Elongated, narrow openings appeared high up, allowing archers from another time to shoot arrows at any would be invaders. At ground level was a cavernous, rock strewn room while nearby, a flowing stream wended its way through the meadow. The land seemed untouched from a thousand years before; the castle, an overlooked treasure.
Back at the hostel we thanked Elizabeth for her hospitality, asked her to give our special thanks to Martin then said good bye. For their trouble, we paid the princely sum of about 35 Euro each including dinner, offered more but it wasn’t accepted. If you discover The Traditional Farm Hostel in your travels, you won’t go away dissatisfied.
Tipperary was a name familiar to both of us, so we got on N-8 heading south from Abbeyleix, deciding to stay the night in Cashel before heading back to Dublin. Martin had recommended O’Briens Hostel on Dundrum Road and that would be our destination. It turned out to be good advice; the place was clean, private, most rooms with a kitchen and fireplace, all for 55 Euro and the owners were very hospitable. The hostel is centrally located, close to downtown and a very short distance to the Rock of Cashel. Perched on a high precipice over- looking the town, it is the essence of medieval life; castle, castle wall, magnificent cathedral ruins in the process of restoration. It is one of Ireland’s greatest tourist attractions and well worth the visit. It was in stark contrast, however, from the lonely ruins we had seen that morning.
Come dinnertime, we had an appetite for Irish stew. The folks at O’Brien’s recommended Jim Hannigan’s, down town, a place where the food was good and you the people friendly. We did just that and had a fine conversation with a couple, parents of six, out together for a Friday night meal and probably a well-deserved rest. The stew proved excellent and we asked for the recipe, not really expecting to get it.
Saturday morning dawned brightly and our luck held with the weather, cool but perfect for another early run. Leaving the hostel we headed toward Golden Road. In a green glen to our left, stood Hore Abbey. The sun was coming up behind it, morning mist enveloping the low lying ruins. Again, we were struck by the sheer beauty of the land and the magnificent structures that had survived the centuries. So far, Ireland had proven to be much more than we had expected. I had seen, firsthand, why people speak so highly of that country. More importantly, we had gone to the heart of it, talked with real folks, sang their songs, drank with them, ate with them, enjoyed their hospitality. It had given more than we expected. One last experience, however, remained in the short time left us. That was Temple Bar, O’Connell Street, the downtown district of Dublin. So we drove the hundred or more kilometers back to the city founded by Vikings and conquered by the Normans. Saturday afternoon, however, found us bogged down in heavy traffic, so close to downtown, but on the wrong side of the River Liffey that runs through the center of Dublin.
After what seemed like an hour, we finally came to the bridge taking us to Abbey Street leading on to O’Connell. I spotted the Bloom s Hotel, Dublin, Temple Bar, with its own parking garage and just about the location we had in mind. A three star hotel, reasonably priced, in the heart of the famous Temple Bar area. What more was there to ask?
We didn’t spend much time in our rooms, anxious to walk the narrow streets of Dublin in search of the perfect pub. There were many that fit the qualifications but one stood above the rest, St. John O’Gogarty’s where famous Irish authors and playwrights would gather in the twenties and thirties. It was Saturday night and downstairs was standing room only, packed to the four walls. A sign promised lively Irish music upstairs beginning at 9 pm. Unfortunately, it was only 7 pm and the likelihood of getting close to the downstairs bar to order a Guiness, seemed remote. It was then we made a wise decision; go upstairs, secure a table and wait out the two hours. Once again, luck was with us because upstairs there were only a few people, also an uncrowded bar.
We spent the next two hours drinking Guiness stout, smoking cigars and waiting for the evening’s entertainment. Time passed quickly talking with John M. from London who described in detail his annual vacations to a special place in Scotland. Meanwhile, the band was taking forever to tune up but, at last they were ready and the upstairs filled to capacity. We were front and center as the group swung into traditional Irish music, the best I had heard in a long time. That night, we met people from South America, Asia and Europe and not an unfriendly face among them. Music filled the air until the early hours of Sunday morning when we returned to The Blooms, Dublin and a short sleep. There was an early morning flight to catch.
We had squeezed a lot into four days and I don’t know if I’ve offered an apt description or feel of that experience, but I can say this: you can make a short trip to Ireland into something that’s unforgettable, if you stray a bit. It may take a little luck, but luck seems to abound there. Besides, you can make some of that yourself. If you have a willingness to go without a plan, the right places will find you. Ireland is a special land to begin that kind of an adventure.