Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Ireland Extravaganza

I’m back! I’m going to try to keep this post shorter than the rest because I’m not sure anyone will read these now that I’m home and I still have another one or two to post with my summary and thoughts on the trip.

For my last weekend in Scotland I chose to head over to Ireland and do a 3 day tour of the country through an amazing outfit called Shamrocker Tours. I had originally wanted to stay away from a trip like this because I thought it would be more expensive than it was worth and would only take me to the big touristy venues and not to the real parts of the country I wanted to see. Neither of those two worries turned out to be true. The trip actually cost less than if I had tried to piece the travel together on my own, and on top of that gave me a great group of 23 other people to travel with. My only regret through my entire trip is that much of my traveling was done solo, which is ok during the summer tourist season when it’s easy to meet other people who want to travel, but is much harder during the school year. The trip also went through some great “in the middle of nowhere spots” that I otherwise would not have been able to see.

The night before the trip actually turned out to be a highlight as well. My fraternity brother Kawa had traveled a bit in Europe this summer and met a great kid named Lorcan who lives in Dublin. When Kawa heard I was planning a weekend in Ireland he put me into contact with Lorcan who turned out to be a wonderfully generous host. Lorcan is a freshman at Trinity College in Dublin and his family agreed to let me stay with them on Thursday night. I was anticipating getting into Dublin a bit late and just being assigned a couch to sleep on, but my visit couldn’t have been further from that. I didn’t get into the city until around 7 but Lorcan met me where the bus dropped me off and then his Dad showed up to give us a ride back home. His family had delayed eating dinner until I could be there and his mom cooked me an amazing meal of roast beef and real Irish potatoes (I had gotten a very intense education in the different types of potatoes by an Irishman in Edinburgh earlier in the week, apparently there are as many different varieties and tastes as there are with apples, and these were Donegal potatoes, apparently a highly sought after variety). After dinner we were chatting in their living room and I mentioned that the last time I was Dublin we had gone to a great trad music session at a little pub called the Cobblestone. Lorcan’s father’s ears perked up at that as it is apparently one of his favorite places and he decided he would drive the two of us, as well as two of his friends, out there for the music session that was going on. Several hours and 5 Guinnesses later I still had not paid for a drink and was being scolded by the older guys for even trying. I got to sleep in the family’s guest room that night, and Lorcan’s dad got up to drive me into the city the next morning to start my tour. I was amazed at how hospitable the entire group was, especially since none of them had ever met me before, and it turned out to be a great kick start to a phenomenal weekend.

The tour left Dublin on Friday on its way to Kilarney. Of the 24 of us about half were American’s that were studying abroad, 8 or so were Aussie, 2 were Kiwi’s, and 2 were Canadians. Most of the group were single travelers which made for a great experience as we all bonded quickly. In fact 2 of the American’s were from a little school close to home (Lebanon Valley College for those who know it) and we spent most of the first day reminiscing about central PA. Our tour guide was a native Dubliner named Sean who turned out to have a great sense of humor and knowledge of history as well as an extensive Irish music collection, so we became fast friends. The first big stop of the tour was probably the most “touristy” of the stops for the entire weekend and we went to Blarney castle. It’s actually pretty small castle as far as they go, especially in comparison to Sterling or the Tower of London, but was beautiful none the less and is an experience everyone visiting Ireland needs to have. The Blarney Stone is actually positioned at the top of the castle but on the underside of an overhang, which is the reason you have to lay down and lean backwards to kiss it. The space you lean over is a solid 100 feet in the air and is guarded by 2 metal beams which even I could have easily fallen through. My only thought as I leaned down towards the stone was “Seriously, how has some stupid traveler not died here yet?” The top ledge is staffed by a creepy old man who has a reputation for having a bad temper as well as hitting on every young girl that comes by, and he certainly proved why he earned that reputation. Every girl on the tour earned a comment like “Oh you are a great kisser, its too bad they don’t also make you kiss my Blarney lips” or “oh I remember the old days when all the girls wore skirts to do this”, making it hilarious for the rest of us but a bit embarrassing for whoever was at the stone. That night we stayed in a town in western Ireland called Kilarney, which is a nice little town with one main street and a handful of restaurants and pubs. After dinner with a bunch of the Aussies I went with most of the group to hear a long running one man show by a guy named “Pa”. It’s about a man who is closing his pub for the last time after he has had to sell it to pay off debt, and runs through a great series of stories about his regulars. Pa is a one of a kind man which I will never be able to describe. He’s more of an experience than a person, and something I wish I could have taken you all to see. After the performance he holds a “3rd act” where he sings a bunch of songs and tells some great jokes, none of which I can remember well enough to retell.

Day number 2 of the tour was composed mostly of things going wrong, but was still a blast. We spent most of the day driving up the coast road that runs right on the western coast of Ireland. We stopped in a tiny town named Dingle (which we would get much more exposure to later) before stopping off at a set of cliffs that you could actually walk down. Apparently the local legend is that if you put your feet into the ocean there then Ireland steals your soul and you must return in 40 years to get it back. Despite the fact that it was 45 degrees outside and was just pouring rain I decided to get into the ocean (along with 2 other brave American girls). I figured I was already wet, why not stand in the ocean? The pictures from that day don’t do the weather justice, as we were driving through as bad of a storm as I’ve ever seen in Pittsburgh (Cheezer, think the day that we got stuck in your flooded car on Rodi Road). Unfortunately it was during this storm that our bus decided to break down. It was still drivable but the hydraulic shocks on one of side of the bus collapsed and couldn’t elevate the bus far enough to get it onto the ferry we had to take. We got to spend an exciting 3 hours drinking in Dingle waiting on a new bus to take us to the ferry, walked onto the car ferry (lots of weird looks here) and picked up a 3rd bus on the other side. It actually turned out to be a fun adventure and besides, who can complain when they are drinking Guinness? We got into Doolin’ late but still in time to catch a few of the trad music sessions, which might have been my favorite part of the trip.

Day 3 started with a trip to the beautiful Cliffs of Moher. They are some of the most photographed cliffs in the world as they sit on the west coast of Ireland and drop straight down, over 200 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. The wind at the top of them is so fierce that people were honestly leaning at a close to 45 degree angle to stay upright, and I watched 2 girls fall over when the gust of wind they were leaning into suddenly disappeared. We were fortunate that it wasn’t raining that morning and the sky was relatively clear. Apparently the fog can get so bad that you can’t see down to the ocean from the top of the cliffs. After that we stopped by a 10th century monastery and a whiskey distillery before heading back to Dublin. All in all it was a great trip and I’m glad I went!

Last post will probably be up tomorrow with a few summary notes about my trip as well as the things I loved/hated about Scotland.

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