Get out the map
Get out the map and lay your finger anywhere down
We’ll leave the figuring to those we pass on our way out of town…
- Indigo Girls
Before I left, Sally, one of my favorite lawyers that I worked with at my old firm, told me a story about how one time her and her husband just got into the car and drove without a plan. There is something romantic about meandering about aimlessly. I’ve always daydreamed about going to an airport and picking the next flight out of town, no matter what its destination.
As much as we have more flexibility on this trip than most Americans have when they travel, we still typically have some semblance of a plan, even if we end up changing it later. As romantic as travelling without a plan sounds, I can’t bring myself to do it completely. To truly travel freely, you need to not care where you go. You need to not care how long you stay somewhere or what you see. You also need to not care how much money you spend. We probably planned less than most; I always dreamed of going somewhere, but never the specifics once we got to somewhere. We used all of our pre-trip planning time just to have a rough idea of the countries we wanted to visit. People kept asking me before we left, so, where are you going to visit in Japan? In South Africa? In Spain? I never had an answer. This means we do most of our planning on the fly. Although we usually procrastinate in making our plans, eventually we always come up with something. It is too hard otherwise, especially if you want to find efficient, low-cost flights, or go somewhere in certain seasons, or sometimes to even get into a country. I still have not shed my anxious, perfectionist self enough to truly throw all plans out the window.
But sometimes it is fun to truly not care where you will be for the next few days, to pick your next destination by where your finger lands on the map. The first time we didn’t really have a concrete plan was when everyone left us in Kilkenny to fly home. Our friends kept asking us where we were going after they left. It is a foreign concept to not have a planned itinerary for travel to Americans who are used to making the most out of limited time. Compared to our friends, and compared to our pre-trip selves, after four months of travel, we were now becoming somewhat used to not knowing where we were sleeping that night (even if there are some days I am not entirely comfortable with that concept). Sitting in the car in Kilkenny, we kept asking each other, so, where should we go? We had just shy of two weeks before we had to return the rental car in Dublin to travel wherever we wanted in Ireland, with our only goal of wanting to eventually head up to Northern Ireland. We hadn’t even booked our tickets to South Africa yet (or really decided exactly where we wanted to go in Africa).
We decided to head north straight away through a mountain pass marked as scenic on our map, and then make a detour over to the part of the penninsula past Galway we hadn’t seen. The sad truth is, going someplace random means that, more often than not, you end up in towns like Birr. Situated square in the middle of Ireland, Birr, and the surrounding areas, lack the dramatic scenery of the coasts. Best I can tell, Birr’s claim to fame is that the first automobile fatality occurred there when an early model car collided with a horse and buggy. Our options for dining on a Saturday night were Indian or miscellaneous Asian food. Birr would have been a good town to check out local pub life, because surely there were no other tourists there, had we not been detoxing after the ten days with our friends from home. Birr is a perfectly fine town, but sometimes there is a reason why certain areas are touristy and others are not.
Sean’s going away party from work was a combo lunch/happy hour that began around 1:00 p.m. and ended with a rousing duet of Take This Job and Shove It at a karaoke night at a dive bar in Millvale. We made a promise to Ellen, a friend of Sean’s from work, that night. Ellen probably thought we forget, but fear not, Ellen, we remembered. Ellen requested that we toast to her in Ireland, and toast we did. Only there was one small problem. We saved the toast until other current and former co-workers joined us in Ireland. In our last night with the group in Kilkenny, Sean, Matt, Jason and I prepared to gather round for a toast to Ellen, complete with a picture to document the event. What we didn’t count on was two very drunk Irish girls interrupting our toast:
The two girls lept in front of the camera and inserted themselves into our toast. So, Ellen, cheers to you, from Sean, Matt, Jason, me, and two random drunken Irish girls.
It was immediately apparent that the Irish love to talk. And not just, hi, how are you, where you from types of exchanges, but actual, real conversations. (Although the economy and the weather were still definitely the most popular topics). After months of having only brief stilted conversations in whatever English someone could muster, it was refreshing just to shoot the breeze.
The Irish even have a name for what Americans would call b.s. The Irish call it craic, which I understand to mean the art of pure conversation just for conversation’s sake.
Some touristy pubs try to capitalize on the Irish love of craic. Anytime I saw a sign saying Live Traditional Music Every Night! Lively craic here! I knew that was not where we wanted to go. Something tells me that you can get the best craic in places that don’t advertise it.
You never know where you’ll get your craic fix in Ireland. For me, the best extended craic fix was in Doolin. Doolin is a tiny village, by the sea, at the outer point of County Clare. It is reportedly known for its local traditional music. The guidebooks report that there are only three pubs in the village, but a local told us there are actually four.
We heard that Gus O’Connor’s was the best, but we never made it there. We started at one in the upper end of town and listened to the band there for a while. Matt and Tony left ahead of us to head to Gus O’Connor’s while the rest of us finished our drinks. Knowing Matt and Tony like the four of us do, we had the foresight to stop in McGann’s, the pub right down the road, before walking to the other side of town. Sure enough, there were Matt and Tony, who had decided to stop for a quick pint before heading up the road. Except we never headed up the road, and somehow a quick pint ended turned into Tony, at 1:00 a.m., trying to pay the bartender 50 euros to keep the bar open.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself. When we got in the pub, the boys started watching the band. For some reason, Danielle and I hung back by the bar, and somehow got wrapped up in conversations with a colorful cast of characters. I started talking to a man named Patrick. Patrick introduced me to a dairy farmer (who was amused by my interest in his work, but I had lots of burning questions about the cows). Somewhere along the line, I started chatting with a guy from Dublin, while Danielle carried on talking to Patrick. At some point, a very drunk Irish/Australian guy jumped in, and the craic just continued from there.
Before we knew it, the music was over, and the bartender locked the doors and began pulling the curtains. Best we can figure out, once you are in, you are in, and you can continue drinking in a bar as late as the bartender keeps serving. At some point, they try to kick you out. If you’re Tony, that’s when you get out your wallet, tell Matt to get two drinks and give the bartender the rest if they’ll keep serving.
Before getting the boot, Danielle and I were talking to a woman from the band (we think, because we never really saw the band), and she declared that we must have our pictures taken with the owner. She grabbed my camera from my hand and told us to smile, but then realized that she had the camera turned around to point at herself! She then insisted that Danielle and I take our picture with her. She thrust my camera towards Matt, who happened to be standing there. Here, the woman barked at Matt. Take our picture! Being the usual smartass that he is, Matt started taking pictures of the ceiling instead of us. The woman grabbed the camera out of his hand and exclaimed, Oh, for fuck’s sake!
Thus, sometime between 1 to 2 a.m. in Doolin (who can be sure?), our new Irish catchphrase was born. Although in general we tried to keep our fake Irish accents to a minimum on this trip, it really is necessary to say this with as much brogue as you can muster.
The Ireland most people think about is the reason it is called the Emerald Isle: the miles and miles of nothing but green hillsides and valleys. (And sheep). The green rolls all around you, on all sides, often straight into the sea. From time to time, you find crumbling Gaelic ruins.
The green grasses are intense and vibrant. I try to think of the correct hue from the Crayola box, but can only come up with shamrock green. You know the green always associated with St. Patrick’s Day? That is the color of County Clare and County Kerry. Only it is real, not manufactured.
You can’t get the true sense from the pictures of what it feels like to be surrounded by all of that vibrant green, so you’ll just have to take my word for it and go there yourself someday.
Many of the small Irish towns share the same characteristics of being based around a a main street lined with bright multi-colored shops and pubs. They all have that look – that Irish look – but none more than the towns in County Clare and County Kerry.
There are lots of other special places around the Republic, but County Clare and County Kerry were our favorites (with County Donegal as a runner-up).
After being surrounded by the wooly critters at Mont St. Michel, I developed a certain affinity towards sheep. Driving around the Ireland countryside turned my affinity into a full-blown obsession.
You can’t avoid the sheep in Ireland. They are EVERYWHERE. Real ones, wandering around the green grasses. By the sea. Inland. Up the hills, out on cliffs, on flat land. Ambling across the road. Even black ones. Fake ones, in every Irish gift shop. On t-shirts. As stuffed animals.
The sheep are really what make the Irish countryside, in my opinion. Their shaggy off-white coats provide the perfect contrast to the vibrant green grasses. On the rare sunny day, the sheep mirror the fluffy white clouds in the sky. Sometimes, all you can see for miles is shades of blue in the ocean and sky, shades of green grasses, and shades of white in the clouds and sheep. Other times, the gray takes predominance over every other color. Even then, the wooly white still dots the landscape.
More often than not, the sheep add even more colors to the mix. The vast majority of the sheep are painted with some sort of bright color. I assumed the paint was some sort of marking system for the farmers, but I didn’t understand why some of the markings were so extensive. I later learned that the paint is washable and not permanent, and subsequently saw the proof in the window of a vet clinic:
I am sure that the branding spray is a practical solution to wandering sheep, but it interfered with my quest for a photo of the quintessential Irish landscape.
You would think by looking at my sheep photos that the sheep do something else besides eat. That would be a lie. Sheep are really just wooly, fuzzy pigs in disguise. They eat, constantly. It took hundreds of pictures of sheep to come up with ones where you could actually see anything other than there wooly butts. Their heads are always downward. They are worse than ostriches.
In order to maximize the opportunities for the best sheep photos, we had to develop the sheep rules. We were travelling in a two-car caravan without cell phones. As we learned the hard way, it is impossible for the second car to stop on its own accord. Thus, the sheep rules were born:
Somehow, although there was much talk of the sheep rules, no one ever really enforced the failure to follow the rules. Besides, no matter where and when we stopped, there were some kind of sheep to be found.
Initially, we mistook certain sheep as goats. We thought horns were an indentifying feature of a goat, but it turns out that it is the tail. Sheep have tails that stand straight up, and goats have tails that point downward. Or maybe it was the other way around. Who knew? We didn’t. Standing on the side of the road on Conor’s Pass, a one six-foot lane pass through a mountain covered in sheep and fog, the six of us tried to remember our farm animals. I actually think they are goats, not sheep. No, they’re sheep! Wait, are sheep and goats the same animal? Not sure, but what’s a lamb? Baby sheep, right? Hmm, what’s an alpaca? I should be an alpaca farmer. Being the city folk that we are, we had to turn to The Google for answers.
One thing we didn’t ask The Google was why the sheep were being raised. Naively, we all assumed the sheep were there to shaved and shorn and later worn as one of the million wool sweaters sold all over Ireland. Then they would go on living their happy little sheep lives grazing by the sea while the owner of the sweater was nice and toasty warm. It was a sad day when we learned that may not be the case. As our last stop on the island of Ireland, we stayed at a beef and sheep farm to get up close and personal with the sheep. There, the farmer told us that he only gets 1.00 for the wool, but it costs him 1.50 to have the sheep shaved. So, what do you raise the sheep for? I asked, not wanting to hear the answer. Meat, he answered, simply. I paused before I asked the next question. You said you mostly have lambs. Do you raise them for meat, too? Yep, he said, cheerily. We kill everything!