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Dublin, Ireland
Rating :

Feb 18, 2003

Pros: Guinness
Cons: dirty place

DAY 18 SAT It only took us ninety minutes to drive from Chester all the way across northern Wales to Holyhead. While the view from the motorway was not at all breathtaking we did catch a glimpse of the peaks of Snowdonia National Park, through which we would be travelling in three weeks time. Helen took us to the ferry terminal as programmed, but we couldn’t see any Hertz signs. I was afraid that we were going to have to drive all over Holyhead looking for the depot so that we could deposit the car at the specified time. In an unusual display of good sense I decided to go and enquire within the ferry terminal. Imagine my relief when the first counter I came to belonged to Hertz Car Rental!

The ferry was scheduled to leave at 1.45 so we had several hours to kill. We walked through the enormous but deserted railway terminal, across a long, enclosed pedestrian bridge and into the town of Holyhead. What a terrible place! We were surprised that a major transportation hub for people travelling between Britain and Ireland should have so little to offer tourists. There were absolutely no souvenir shops! Margaret reckoned that the goods in the shop windows looked as though they had been there for years. An indoor market in the centre of town offered the only diversion to be found, though it turned out to be a typical local flea market containing nothing which interested us, not even a single rare Wedgwood figurine.

The ferry that was to take us to Ireland was more like a small ocean liner, complete with a restaurant and large duty free shop. We spent the two hour journey reading our books and checking out the toilets, the use of which was a bit of a challenge due to the rolling of the ship. At Dun Laoghaire (pronounced Dun Lo-he-ri) we caught the train into the city. I felt my age when a young Irish lass insisted on giving me her seat. On alighting at Connell Street Station we were approached by an American couple who had not booked accommodation and wanted to try their luck at our hotel. Margaret was tired so I gallantly carried both our large suitcases plus my hand luggage all the way down the street. I feared that I would suffer a heart attack but pride prevented me from showing any indication of my pain. Our hotel, the Celtic Lodge, was located at 81 Talbot Street which we had no trouble finding once we realised that the numbers ran up one side of the street and down the other.

Our American companions had no luck in securing a room at the Celtic Lodge and we left them worriedly discussing alternative accommodation with the desk clerk. We were rather dismayed to find that Dublin seemed to be extremely dirty, perhaps the dirtiest city we had ever visited. It may have been a little unfair to judge the whole town on Talbot Street. Our hotel, we soon discovered, was located in one of the seedier parts of Dublin. We walked all over town without a plan, which was probably a mistake as I became more than a little dispirited. Everything seemed seedy. It was Saturday night and the streets were teeming with people heading for the many pubs and restaurants.

After pausing for a pint of Guinness we managed to find an Italian place that could fit us in and we shared a pizza. We resolved to plan our itinerary for the next day with care. The exchange rate confused us for a while. What was the formula for converting euro to dollars? A man in the GPO suggested adding 50% to the euro price (e.g. 10 euro = 15 dollars).

We slept well despite the fact that the on-street carousing hadn’t died down by 11pm and the streetlights shining through the window meant that it was midday all night.

DAY 19 SUN Amazing! Our first Irish breakfast closely resembled our last English breakfast which was pretty much the same as all our Scottish breakfasts, minus the baked beans. We were told in Chester that English people rarely have a traditional English breakfast. We can understand this as two eggs, bacon, sausages and toast becomes a bit repulsive after the first few days.

After breakfast we loosely followed a walk recommended by the guidebook, though what made it worth taking was a mystery to us. One of the so-called highlights was the Bank of Ireland, which was a very big bank. The GPO looked very similar to the bank, as did the hospital. We didn’t know at the time that a famous gun battle had taken place at the GPO during the troubles early last century. That piece of knowledge might have prompted me to regard the building with more interest.

It was Sunday and Margaret was anxious to go to Mass, so we strolled down to St Mary’s Pro-cathedral, just around the corner. The sign outside advised that the next service was at 11am and would be in Latin. As an added attraction the Palestrina Choir would be providing the soundtrack. The famous tenor (perhaps soprano) John McCormack had started his career singing with this group back in 1911. Margaret disapproved of the Latinate Mass and decreed that we would walk a few miles to the more famous St Patrick’s Cathedral. Along the way we stopped at a smaller church and, while Margaret ventured inside, I was accosted by a middle-aged beggar and her son. She told me in an almost indecipherable Irish accent that she was saving up to take the little boy and his ten siblings to their home in London. After three weeks away from Denistone I could appreciate her homesickness and gave her all my money (three euro).

We found St Patrick’s Cathedral after several hours of searching and were pleased to find that a service was due to begin in only ten minutes. Margaret grabbed a seat while I shuffled around looking at statues and reading inscriptions. I began to feel a little puzzled at the abundance of family monuments and regimental pennants. Catholic churches don’t usually go in for secular adornment, they lean more towards gold crucifixes and brightly coloured statues of saints and angels. Margaret had also realised that something was not quite kosher. THIS WAS NOT A CATHOLIC CHURCH! With barely concealed grimaces of revulsion we scurried out the door. Luckily for our immortal souls we exited the front door moments before the choir burst into song.

Margaret was rather upset by this turn of events as she had her heart set on going to Mass in Dublin. I tried comforting her with one of her own mantras. “It wasn’t meant to be,” I assured her. “Let’s go to the pub instead”. It didn’t work. A short time later we stumbled upon a legitimate church (as evidenced by its extremely over-the-top gilt decoration) and were able to go to Mass. At least they don’t go in for the dreaded ‘Sign of Peace’ in Ireland.

We spent the remainder of the day walking the streets. Neither of us found Dublin to be as interesting as other cities we had visited. Our only other stop of note was at Trinity College, where we saw the Book of Kells. The exhibition was mildly interesting, though I preferred to walk through the old library and its collection of two hundred thousand ancient books. For several hours after visiting the famous book I found myself singing a variation of that famous doo-wop song of the Regents:

"Tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me, Who, who, who wrote the Book of Kells? It’s written in the Book of Kells
That ours is the one that’s true, etc, etc."

Or words to that effect. I was almost as irritated by my sotto-voiced singing as Margaret was but I couldn’t stop.

At 10.15 I thought I had better go look for her. The pub was packed with people. The room was dark and smoky but I could just make out Margaret’s slim form parked at a table with a group of young people. She looked very merry and had made a lot of temporary friends, among them a young man who was paying her a lot of attention. Too much attention, for my liking. My first reaction was to invite him outside for a lesson in correct social behaviour, however my deeply ingrained cowardice quickly overcame my primitive urge. This was a good thing as Margaret later told me that he was an amateur boxer. Three small glasses of Guinness took their toll on my spouse and she confined herself to bed until lunchtime the next day.

DAY 20 MON Leaving Margaret in bed to recover from her night of partying, I set off with the intention of exploring every music shop in the city. The weather was terrible and the rain and wind made the city appear even grubbier than it normally did. I had little luck in the music shops, most of which were located in the Temple Bar area. The hours sped by nonetheless and I even managed to take my first pictures in Ireland.
By the time I returned Margaret had pretty well recovered. She wasn’t there. I hung around for a while then went off to County Car Rentals to get some information for tomorrow’s trip. She turned up shortly after I got back and we spent the rest of our day in our room doing nothing. We could have done with one less day in Dublin.

DAY 21 TUE We picked up our red Opel Astra at around 10am. Margaret had been elected as driver due to her superior skills behind the wheel. I was left with the onerous responsibility of navigating us through the city and in the correct general direction. The traffic through the centre of Dublin was very heavy, due to the fact that the council had closed off one lane of O’Connell Street so that they could remove the Floozie in the Jacuzzi. Apparently the notorious statue was a magnet for drug addicts and simply had to go. In its place the council was erecting a silver needle statue which, they reasoned in a peculiarly Irish way, would be less likely to attract people intent on injecting themselves.

It took us some considerable time to find the road to Enniskerry, but once we did and were soon out of the city and into the countryside. The scenery was nearly as attractive as England in parts, certainly better than the lowlands of Scotland. We drove through forests which almost joined across the narrow road and beside sparkling, black creeks which trickled in the valleys.

Our only intermission during our journey from Dublin to Lismore occurred when we drew into the village of Avoca. Avoca had been the setting of the Ballykissangel series and, with the added attraction of a cotton mill, had become a tourist Mecca. We spotted at least a dozen Rolls-Royces and believed, for a short time, that the villagers had all become rich through tourism. We later learned that the presence of the grand cars was related to a rally of Rolls owners, all of whom had come from Yorkshire (if one were to judge by their emblems).

We bought nothing in Avoca but did manage to lose my camera case. After less than a week we were to realise that every town and village in Ireland sells the same souvenirs, all arranged in categories such as ‘Jolly little green leprechauns’ and ‘Lucky wishing stone/candle/ashes’.

Our escape from Dublin had taken longer than expected and we were forced to stop for the night in Waterford instead of Lismore. Waterford was a large town famous for its crystal, which we ignored in favour of a very comfortable B&B managed by a friendly South African lady.

DAY 22 WED We left Waterford very early this morning on our way to Cork. The weather was miserable and, not far out of Dungarven, we found ourselves driving through the heaviest mist we had experienced in many years. Margaret was forced to reduce her speed to 90mph! Once out of the suburbs and into the country the scenery becomes quite beautiful. We would not have known this had the skies not cleared at last.

We drove around the outskirts of Cork and headed for Blarney, where we were joined by busload upon busload of Americans. The grounds of Blarney Castle were very picturesque, full of trees and bisected by a swiftly flowing stream. We joined a long line of Americans climbing the 105 steps to the top of the castle. We knew that there were 105 steps because an American gentleman proudly told us that he had climbed them twice. I felt quietly superior as I had climbed the 305 steps of the William Wallace Memorial in Scotland.

Margaret was the first to kiss the famous Blarney Stone, an event, which I recorded on my faithful Olympus. I hoped that we would recognise her by her shapely legs and striped jumper as I couldn't quite catch her head, which was hanging over the precipice in front of the stone. There is no evidence that I kissed the stone because Margaret pressed the wrong button on the camera. She thoughtfully suggested that we go to the end of the queue and have another ago but I couldn’t face the long wait.

We drove into Cork with the intention of parking in the city centre and exploring. It was not meant to be. The signs directing us to the centre never actually took us there, instead we drove round and round the outskirts, criss-crossing the city until we gave up in disgust and aimed the car toward Kinsale. We were fast learning that, no matter how evocative the name, large Irish cities were better left ignored.

Kinsale was a small tourist attraction situated by the sea. Despite its small size we still had trouble getting around. Our first choice of accommodation, an attractive B&B overlooking the harbour, was full so we had to settle for a rather basic establishment almost on the water’s edge. At least it was in the middle town and we were not far from the souvenir shops. The most exciting thing to happen in Kinsale while we were there was the arrival of a large Army jeep which disgorged several machine gun toting soldiers who walked in a very alert manner up and down the main street. We never learned what was going on, but we did see an armoured car being escorted out of town by two jeeps and a police car.

DAY 23 THU The drive from Kinsale to Kenmare was entirely along country roads. Margaret drove as far as Skibbereen but had to hand the keys to me as her nerve had broken. She confessed that at one point on the narrow road when we had met a huge truck heading towards us and taking up both lanes she had simply closed her eyes and prayed as we squeezed past (which was why I insisted on taking the wheel).

We stopped briefly at Clonakilty, a brightly coloured town which had been created by an English Lord as a Catholic-free area a long time ago but which was now very Irish and very Catholic. The Anglican Church is now the town post office. Not far out of Bantry we crossed the Caha Mountains by way of a pass, the name of which I have forgotten. What neither of us will forget was the naked fear we felt as we crawled along the narrow road, enveloped in a mist which mercifully concealed the sheer drops on either side of us. Margaret found this pass even more terrifying than Hardknott Pass in the Lake District.

We survived (as we always did) and had almost recovered our composure by the time we drew in to the main parking lot in Kenmare. Our B&B was the Rose Cottage, originally the home of the Poor Clare sisters before they built their mansion-like convent down the road. Rose Cottage was nicely appointed but lost marks severely for possessing neither a TV nor coffee making facilities.

A walking guide obtained from the tourist office took us on a tour of the significant sites of the town. This would have been an extremely short tour except that the guide was a bit ambiguous in its directions and several of the attractions had apparently ceased to exist. We did spend a little time talking to a cow about her calf and, in Margaret’s case at least, offering up prayers at a certified holy well. A little later a group of young boys gave us directions on how to reach a nearby castle. The “castle” turned out to be an overgrown tower built in the nineteenth century as a folly. If we hadn’t known better we would have assumed it to be a fortification built by a medieval baron.

Tomorrow is election day in Ireland. If I were Irish I certainly wouldn’t vote for the candidate who drove past our window at 9.30 broadcasting his election speech!

DAY 24 FRI Margaret rose earlier than I did this morning so that she could go to Mass at the nearby parish church. I gathered that it was not as rewarding an experience as she had hoped as she could not understand a word that the priest said.

We left as early as possible to ‘do’ the Ring of Kerry. We were anxious to take advantage of the good weather and get ahead of the tourist coaches. My planning was brilliant as usual. Coaches always travel around the Ring of Kerry in a clockwise direction, as do most tourists, whereas we did the opposite. As a consequence we met at least a dozen busses trailing convoys of delayed cars behind them.

Some of the villages along the road had colourful and even weird names. Sneem (pronounced Shreem) was one, oddly named but not all that interesting. Somewhere along the way we took a side trip to Staigue Fort, built in 200AD. It was a pretty basic fort made of rocks and with walls fourteen feet thick. An honesty box at the bottom of the path requested the deposit of one euro per person for the privilege of trespassing. I thought this was a bit much and felt justified in restricting our donation to whatever copper coins I had in my pocket.

The Ring of Kerry was not worth seeing if you were only interested in its villages. What really made it worthwhile was the scenery, which grew progressively more wild and untamed the further we got from Kenmare. We saw plenty of sheep grazing on the hillsides. Hardy creatures they must be to flourish on those craggy peaks. We parked in the middle of Killarney with a view to seeking accommodation but decided that it was a large and unattractive city we should leave behind us as soon as possible. Tralee was much the same, despite its evocative name, and we decided to begin our tour of the Dingle Peninsula a day early. Margaret had had her fill of mountain passes so we skipped the drive across Connor Pass in favour of the safe road between Camp and Annascaul.

Annascaul was a tiny village containing four pubs. We found a B&B (The Four Winds) at the top of a lane in a position which looked over patterned fields and on to stark, rugged mountains. We walked down the lane to the South Pole Inn (the only pub which served food) and ordered the healthiest dinner we’d had for quite a while. The pub had been built by Thomas Crean, one of the explorers who had travelled to the Antarctic with both Scott and Shackleton. You could tell that the village of Annascaul was very proud of its famous son by the fact that the pub was decorated with his newspaper clippings and photos.

DAY 25 SAT We rose to a fine sunny day, which was good as we were planning to drive around the Dingle Peninsula. When planning the trip nearly a year ago I had allocated two days to touring the peninsula. It was now obvious that I had over estimated the time required as the entire circular drive was only about twenty-five miles.

From late May the country roads become clogged with peak season tourists. While we didn’t have the road entirely to ourselves we didn’t have much competition. We made good time to Dingle through green and hilly country which almost rivaled the Lake District. Dingle was a small town filled with brightly coloured shops, the bulk of them featuring a wide display of leprechaun souvenirs and four leaf clover key rings. Dingle’s most famous attraction was Fungi, a tame dolphin who was also featured on many t-shirts. We gave both Fungi and his shirts a miss and resumed our journey.

After Dingle the villages were of little consequence. The real attractions of the peninsula were its breathtaking ocean views and historical buildings. Near Slea Head we examined, stone by stone, the remains of Dunbeg Fort and, just across the road, we paid a couple of euro to walk around some beehive huts.

A little later we walked down a path to a small bay to view the plaque commemorating the filming of Ryan’s Daughter back in 1971. Much to our disappointment the plaque had been stolen and we had to be content with watching the waves hurl themselves upon the rocky beach. Margaret was quite taken with the ocean and we made many stops at lookouts on the side of the road. Most of the faces we encountered at each lookout we had earlier waved goodbye to at an earlier lookout. We would have had a excellent view of Great Blasket Island from the top of the peninsula if the sunny skies hadn’t given way to a deepening mist.

Our last stop along the way was at Gallarus, famous for its oratory (the Gallarus Oratory). This was an early Christian building made entirely of stone (what else!) and perfectly preserved despite its age. A sign nearby boasted that the little house was totally waterproof even though it had been built twelve hundred years ago. I carved my initials next to those of an ancient Viking and we struggled back to the car. The struggling was due to the fact that a powerful wind and light rain had augmented the mist.

The Dingle Peninsula had taken us a lot longer to circle than I had expected and it was obvious that we wouldn’t reach the day’s destination, Adare, before five. Instead we settled for a very nice B&B just outside the town of Abbeyfeale. While it looked pretty fancy it only cost a modest seventy dollars so were well pleased. At teatime we drove into Abbeyfeale town for dinner. We walked the length and breadth of the town before realising there was only one place to eat.. Though there were at least a dozen bars, only the hotel in the main street served meals. No restaurants either! Margaret was ashamed when I asked for and received a souvenir pint glass and shocked when I didn’t give the young barman a hefty tip. I thought that to do so would have cheapened the generosity of his kind act.

DAY 26 SUN Adare, the next stop on our itinerary, was a very small village which had been made to look pretty for the tourists. As it was Sunday just about everything was closed. Pausing only to ring Alex and Jeremy we were soon on our way to Cashel. Limerick, which I had been told was not a place of interest for travelers such as we, was but a blur in our rear vision mirror as we left its ring road and sped on to Tipperary. Back in Sydney I had made a point of placing towns with evocative names on our itinerary, however Tralee, Tipperary, Limerick and others had proved to be just large towns.

The Irish still take their Sundays seriously and we found Cashel to be just as moribund as Adare. The Rock of Cashel was worth visiting, however, and we spent a considerable time being awed by its ruined majesty. We were tempted to walk a kilometre through overgrown fields to explore a nearby abbey but turned back when we saw that we would have to climb a couple of walls and cross a busy road. There were no pubs serving food in the immediate area so we were compelled to eat at an alcohol-free restaurant named, rather originally we thought, Ryan’s Daughter.

From Cashel we drove to Thurles, which we cannot remember at all. The day was drawing to a close so we skipped Roscrea and drove along a country road to Nenagh. Nenagh was one of the most depressing towns we had yet seen. None of its buildings was painted mauve, yellow or violet as befits an Irish town and all were finished in basic cement. After a pleasant drive through the countryside we arrived at Portumna. The first B&B we tried was a very plain little place on the edge of town. The surly man who greeted us at the front door showed us a cramped room and told us that the price was fifty-five euro. For the second time in Ireland we knocked a room back . Some way out of town we found a much more acceptable place for five euro less, though the manager could hardly tear himself away from the hurling game on TV.

Dinner at the local hotel was rather expensive and the servings were enormous. I had pork and salad with a side serving of potatoes and vegetables. We had asked to share the side serving, but I had to eat the lot as Margaret could barely finish her trout and salad.

DAY 27 MON The gusting wind, which greeted us as we left Portumna was a mere foretaste of what was to come. I had completely overlooked the Cliffs of Moher when I planned our itinerary back in Sydney but we were still a day ahead of ourselves and I was able to insert both the cliffs and the Burren without putting us behind schedule.

By the time we paused at Ennistymon it had become obvious that we were going to need hats of some sort. We couldn’t find anything there and after having a quick look at a raging stream, which ran behind the town we set off for Lahinch, a village which, we were assured, definitely sold beanies. Heads warmed by newly purchased headgear we left Lahinch for the Cliffs of Moher. By now the winds were gale force and it was all we could do to force ourselves up the path to the top of the cliff. At one stage a particularly strong gust swept me over the stone fence. For a few seconds I hung suspended over the raging sea, saved from certain death by another gust, which gently deposited me back on the path.

The cliffs were indeed magnificent, rising vertically from the storm-tossed sea. Taking a photo was difficult as the wind made it almost impossible to stand in the same spot for more than a second or two. We paid a small fee and climbed O’Brien’s Tower. The winds seemed even stronger at the top and we didn’t linger long.

We left the Cliffs of Moher as a fierce rain joined the wind to make life even more unpleasant. Margaret was keen on taking a ferry from the village of Doolin to the Aran Islands. I was not so enthusiastic as the Atlantic looked like the sea in that movie in which George Clooney and his co-stars go fishing in a storm and drown. Much to my relief the ferry station was closed and we had to content ourselves with gazing at the ocean and getting soaked. I think Margaret took my lack of disappointment as a sign of gross cowardice rather than good sense, but I was not ashamed.

There wasn’t much to the village of Doolin, just a pub and a couple of houses. On a day like today the pub was reason enough for its existence. A plate of soup for Margaret and fish chowder for me warmed our chilled bodies and a glass of Guinness dulled the senses. We continued to drive along the coast road, through tiny villages with names like Murroogh and Ballyvaughan. The landscape was bleak and barren and we wondered who would choose to live here in the little clumps of habitation. Somewhere along the road we encountered our first bits of the Burren. The Burren is made up of land covered with limestone blocks formed when the ground rose two hundred and seventy million years ago and displaced the sea. Margaret wanted to stop and take photos but I assured her that we would find even better parts of the Burren further along.

The limestone-covered hills appeared almost snow-covered in the distance. It was a sight we knew we would not be able to capture on film. We left the Burren behind us as we drove inland and I began to worry that Margaret wouldn’t get the chance to examine it at close range. Much to my relief it reappeared many miles on and we stopped to walk on it. At the same time we examined a five thousand-year-old lean-to (the Poulnabrone Dolman), also built of limestone. We didn’t hang around for long as the wind and rain was not abating.

We found a B&B in the countryside just outside Kinvara. It was pretty basic (no tea and coffee-making facilities!) but it only cost us forty-eight euro.

DAY 28 TUE Miserable weather again this morning. We thought that it would be nice to spend an entire day in the one place, especially since we were running ahead of schedule. Unfortunately we chose Galway. Perhaps we had been to too many towns and cities, for Galway was pretty much the same as all the others. Margaret drove right into the city (fourth biggest in the Republic) with total confidence. The tourist office girl found us accommodation in Salthill which, she assured us, was only ten minutes walk from the centre of the city. We specified tea and coffee-making facilities and were most displeased to find that we didn’t get them.

We spent the best part of the day walking around Galway. In reality this meant walking up and down the same street many times. We covered all the major tourist attractions (all three of them) in about ten minutes. The medieval church (official title The Collegiate Church of St Nicholas Myra) was strictly second rate and I felt even less guilty than usual in not making a compulsory donation.

The second attraction was a remnant of the ancient city wall which had been tastefully turned into the central feature of the town’s largest shopping mall. Last and perhaps least was the Spanish Arch. We had to walk up and down the path along the river’s edge a couple of times before we realised that this structure now formed part of the Spanish Arch Hotel. I got a few years off my Purgatory time by donating a couple of euro to an ancient crone who needed money to feed her babies. It is amazing how many aged crones in Ireland have large families, most of which are babies. Tubes need to be tied, one would think.

If the day was otherwise uneventful, at least I was able to buy a new case for my camera. That this was the high point of my day gives some indication of how unexciting the city was. Dinner was as disappointing as the rest of the day. We couldn’t find a pub serving normal pub dinners at normal pub prices and were forced to dine at a restaurant, the prices of which were a bit more than we were accustomed to. Even worse, they didn’t serve beer! I was forced to drink red wine. Once again I was less than pleased.

DAY 29 WED We bid adieu to Galway with little regret. I was nursing a headache, probably a result of my two glasses of red wine the night before. The countryside opened up a short distance out of Oughterard. We were in Connemara, also known as Joyce’s county. The landscape was rather different to Kerry, Dingle and the Burren with flat, open fields dotted with mountains. The dots were quite large for the mountains were more than just big hills.

Just outside Letterfrack we paused at Kylemore Abbey. Built by a millionaire for his wife, the abbey is now an expensive private girls’ school run by the Benedictine nuns. What a setting! The mansion is situated on the edge of a beautiful lake and has a huge mountain towering behind it. We lunched on soup, scones and coffee before resuming our journey. Leenane, and Maam were just two of the tiny villages through which we passed. The tourist busses chose to stop at Cong, the village still living off the fact that John Wayne filmed The Quiet Man there back in 1951.

I had expected Knock to be a very big town crawling with pilgrims. Usually places which have been visited by the Blessed Virgin quickly grow into little cities. Knock had its own international airport but was itself just a small village. Admittedly the basilica had been built to hold twelve thousand people but even so it didn’t look particularly imposing from the outside. I was fascinated to see the long line of taps outside the church which I initially took to be public urinals. In reality they were there to allow the devout to fill their containers with holy water from the magic spring (shrines where the BVM has appeared are inevitably located near a sacred spring). Margaret made the Sign of the Cross on my forehead with the special water before we joined a large crowd of Americans for Mass.

The little church was packed with worshippers. The elderly priest gave long and detailed instructions to the sick and infirm on how to go about getting an official annointment. He then called for those wishing to be anointed to form an orderly queue in front of the altar. No one did. The conditions he had imposed were too onerous.

After Mass we spent ten minutes walking around the town of Knock, which was comprised mainly of seven or eight souvenir shops. I was disappointed to find that they were not as tacky as I had hoped. Sure there was a Jesus statue whose eyes opened and closed as you walked past, but I’d seen one of those in Eastwood. The statue of Mary ringed with lights was rather understated tackiness and the best Knock could do was a selection of rosariums which would have been impossible to fit in our luggage.

DAY 30 THU During breakfast we decided to make an unplanned detour to Achill Island before driving to Donegal. My migraine had vanished overnight, thanks to the application of Knock holy water, two Disprin, two Mercyndol and a good night’s sleep. I was living testimony to the miraculous healing powers of the sacred spring running beneath Knock.

Achill Island was connected to the rest of Ireland by a small bridge. Like all the villages on the island, Achill itself was made up of uniformly white cottages. People were thin on the ground (whereas in Los Angeles I found people to be a little overweight) and there were few cars. Apparently Achill doesn’t come alive until summer, when people from all over the country flock to the beachside resorts. We drove through a number of sparsely populated hamlets with names like Dooega, Dooeagh and Doogost. Kiel, described by Lonely Planet as the liveliest village on the island, was as quiet and deserted as all the others.

At the very end of the road, at the very end of the island, we found a little cove containing a sandy beach. I was sorely tempted to don my Speedos and plunge into the roiling surf, however the lack of lifesavers and my innate cowardice restrained me. On the way back we took a side road so that we could visit the deserted village of Shievemore. People have been leaving the island in droves since the potato famine and this small collection of derelict stone huts was sad evidence to that effect.

All over the island and onwards to our evening’s resting place, Inniscrone, we drove through marshy fields of peat. The peat was hacked out of the ground and placed in long rows to dry. Signs by the roadside warned of the danger of throwing cigarettes out of the window as peat is highly flammable.

The manageress of our hotel in Inniscrone suggested that we walk down to the seaside and take a seaweed bath in the seaweed bathhouse. I won’t pretend that I was as enthusiastic as Margaret was, but it would have been churlish to refuse. We took it in turns to sit in a steam cabinet before lowering ourselves gingerly into large baths full of warm water and slimy seaweed. What luxury!/what luxury? Twenty minutes later, slick with slime, we stood under a very cold shower. In my case it would be more honest to say that I stood beside a very cold shower and splashed myself lightly.

DAY 31 FRI Sligo was a middle-sized town which closely resembled every other Irish town. Its most notable feature was a very fast running river which rushed through the middle of town as if spilt from a large bottle of Guinness. Not far out of town we drove through the village of Drumcliff and pulled into a small churchyard to pay our respects at the grave of WB Yeats and his wife George. This really was the name of his spouse, at least according to their shared tombstone.

As usual the skies were grim and a steady rain fell. We wouldn’t have minded had we been driving, but the powerful rain made leaving the car more than a little unpleasant. Just after noon we reached the northernmost point of our journey. Donegal was quite a pleasant town, quite small but bustling nevertheless. After a beer and soup we crossed the road to Donegal Castle. As we were standing in the entrance debating whether or not to pay the entrance fee the attendant interrupted to ask what he could do to tempt us inside. Not wishing to make him sad we bought tickets and entered the keep, which was all that remained of a once-famous fortress. The castle was OK but not one of our best. In the visitors’ book I wrote “thickest walls we’ve seen yet”.

In the Tourist Information Office a very helpful girl looked up Shane’s Castle on her computer. This was said to be the place from which Margaret’s family had originated. The castle existed, but was located in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Despite Margaret’s pleas that we make a side trip to the far north of a completely different country I remained strong and told her that she would probably never see the home of her ancestors.

From Donegal we travelled south along the coast to Rossnowlagh. The lady at our previous hotel had recommended the Smuggler’s Creek Hotel as a great place to stay. It certainly had a great view of the ocean. From our window we could watch lines of waves rolling in for half a kilometre or more before spending themselves on the golden-sanded beach. While the weather outside was cold, windy and wet, inside it was 40o due to the roaring fire and the central heating. At this point I would like to make an observation which was brought to mind when I glanced at the hotel clock. During our drive from the bottom to the top of Ireland we did not find a single town hall clock, church clock or any clock in the open air which showed the correct time. Why is this so?

We finally got our room, which almost had a breathtaking ocean view (visible if one leant out the bathroom window). I was a bit disappointed that there was no TV and, worse, no tea and coffee making facilities. I strongly believe that if you pay big money to stay in a fancy hotel you should be able to watch Wheel of Fortune while sipping a cuppa.

We never did walk down to the beach because before we got there we came across the entrance to a Franciscan friary. I was a bit hesitant about entering the grounds but Margaret assured me that Franciscans were Catholics, she was a Catholic, the Catholic Church is its people and therefore, ipso facto, the friary belonged to her. I bowed to her knowledge of Canon Law and followed her inside. Thank goodness I did! This little adventure proved to be one of those occasions of serendipity that make a holiday memorable. We wandered along a path bordered by rhododendrons and fuschias which traced the Stations of the Cross and wound up a hill to an altar overlooking the bay. On the downward stroll we came upon a forest of firs with a sign proclaiming it to be the site of Jacob’s Well.

I went to dinner in my jeans and woolly jumper (without any shirt) and died of the heat. This was most unpleasant as I not only sweltered but also had to endure extreme itchiness. In the end discomfort conquered laziness and I changed into my cowboy shirt (which Margaret had located) in the toilet.

DAY 32 SAT From out of our window we watched a car drive across the beach through the surf far below to save a couple of kilometres. I wasn’t tempted to try the same thing as I’m sure we would either have become bogged in the sand or swept out to sea. I’d had a particularly bad night, thanks to the music which blared from the restaurant until midnight. It would have been bearable if the songs were to my taste rather than country rock from the seventies and Elton John. I have found to my surprise that my enjoyment of our accommodation seems to correlate with its costliness. The more expensive, the less the enjoyment. The Smuggler’s Creek was quite dear.

Despite my best efforts we still remained a day ahead of schedule so we decided to depart dramatically from our itinerary and drive half way across the country to Blacklion. Father John, the parish priest, had stayed with our local parish priest during the Olympics and we had met him when we watched the closing fireworks in North Sydney. For the first time I had to navigate on the fly as we drove down tiny country roads through areas not frequented by tourists. We found the small village without any difficulty at all, though locating the church proved a little more of a challenge as it was situated a few miles out of town. When we finally arrived we found that a funeral was in progress. It was a major funeral with six priests and hundreds of people whose cars occupied almost every available space within a square mile. Apparently the deceased was an old lady whose enormous family had turned up from all over Ireland. We resolved to return once the crowd had dissipated.

Many of the funeral attendees were staying overnight in the village and there were no lodgings to be had. Much to my alarm Margaret suggested that we seek accommodation in Belcoo, a small town just over the border. We were strictly forbidden from taking our car into Northern Ireland and if we were to have an accident it would be extremely embarrassing to say the least. Margaret overrode my reluctance and we took the risk. We took a reasonably classy and somewhat expensive room at the Custom House Hotel and were grateful to both our Higher Powers that we managed to find a place to stay. Whilst Blacklion had been full of people staying over for the funeral, Belcoo was full of people celebrating First Communions. Our hotel was swarming with families intent on partying into the night.

In Blacklion the Garda station was a small, barely noticeable building. In Belcoo, a kilometre away in Northern Ireland, the police station looked to be a mixture of fortress and prison with elaborate wire fences atop its walls and close circuit cameras aimed at the street. I surreptitiously took a picture, half expecting to be overpowered by armed police.

The afternoon was still fairly young so we drove to the Shannon Pot. Father John had suggested this as an interesting place to visit while we waited for the funeral to conclude. That it was some way across the border only added an extra frisson. We drove carefully down a long and narrow country road, enjoying a short delay when we encountered a herd of cows and their minders. We parked in the Shannon Pot parking area which was deserted except for about twenty motor bikes. As we walked own the trail to the mysteriously named Pot we met the leather-clad bikers coming the other way. They were mainly middle aged men and women and were just as polite as the average Irishman.

The Shannon Pot was a small round pool, black as stout and quite turbulent. It was hard to believe that this little pool was the source of the mighty River Shannon. Apparently water from the mountains filters through the limestone and bubbles to the surface at this single point before somehow growing into a river which provides water to a large part of the country.

Leaving the Pot we called in at the Marble Arch Caves. Having explored our own Jenolan Caves we weren’t about to pay the entrance fee and restricted ourselves to a brief examination of the museum. More interesting (and free) was the Cloddagh Glen a few miles towards Belcoo. Undeterred by the rain which was now pouring down, we donned our waterproof jackets and strode determinedly down the forest track. Trees bordered the path, many clad in luminous green moss. A stream tumbled beside us with a muted roar; we never saw moving water in Ireland that wasn’t in a hurry to get somewhere.

Twenty minutes along the path we found the Cloddagh Cascades, a very fast flowing mini-waterfall. Any delusions we might have had as to the purity of the mountain water were dispelled by a sign which warned against drinking from the waterfall due to the danger of slurry or industrial toxins. By the time we returned to the car the rain was falling in torrents and we were both saturated.

Our hotel in Belcoo was so hot that we were completely dry within minutes of walking through the front door. The bar area was still filled with noisy First Communion people but the restaurant had been reserved by another Communion group so we had to make do with a dinner from the First Communion menu served to us in the bar.

Round about 8pm we went to Mass in Blacklion. Afterwards we met Father John who took us over to the parochial house for a chat. He was supposed to attend a town meeting but insisted on sharing tea and coffee with us first. He finally tore himself away and left us to watch the final scoring of the Eurovision Song Contest. Some time later he returned (I think the judges were up to Poland), anxious to continue our conversation. We had intended to get away pretty quickly but it wasn’t until after midnight that we were able to extract ourselves. A very nice man, Father John, but what a talker!

DAY 33 SUN After nearly four hours in Father John’s overheated, smoky lounge room we were both feeling a bit off colour when we woke at 7.30 next morning. Our itinerary was in tatters. The only requirement was that we be in Dun Laoghaire by the evening of 28th May. Once again I navigated on the fly, taking us along obscure country lanes towards Boyle. Visibility was almost zero at times as we drove through the heaviest rain we had yet experienced.

The weather in Ireland had been erratic throughout our trip. One moment the rain was torrential and the next it was sunny and dry. On one particularly flat road we could see a complete hemisphere of sky. I counted at least three separate sectors in which heavy rain poured from black clouds. Each rainy area was separated from the others by either light clouds or blue sky. I’d never seen anything like it before.

We arrived at Boyle Castle at the same time as a large group of German tourists. At the entrance we borrowed a couple of umbrellas and went on a self-guided tour of the ruins. It was not a particularly big castle as castles go and we were in and out before the Germans had finished listening to the introductory talk by their tour guide.

Carrick-on-Shannon was a medium sized town on the banks of the Shannon. We parked down by the riverside and walked up the main street to see the smallest chapel in Ireland. It had been built by a wealthy local for his wife; I bet she was thrilled! I can imagine her rather scathingly comparing his little gift with Kylemore Abbey (the somewhat larger present bestowed upon the wife of that fellow a few pages ago). After having our picture taken by some obliging local ladies as we sat by the river we hopped into the Astra and drove on.

We pulled into Athlone in the mid-afternoon. Athlone Castle was in very good nick and looked as though it would have been impregnable. After exploring the free sections and using the facilities we left to have a very nice lunch at a nearby restaurant. The girl at the castle’s tourist office had recommended a few good B&Bs nearby, though she warned that they might be full due to the day’s First Holy Communion festivities. We eventually found a place with a vacancy but had some difficulty locating it as the layout of Athlone was rather complicated, The nearest pub serving dinner was in Glasson, a village five miles away. As luck would have it their restaurant was closed for renovations. The manageress went to some considerable pains to detail the route to a couple of pubs which she thought would serve meals but we decided to make do with peanuts and pints.

DAY 34 MON We had intended to return to Athlone town to explore its streets but decided to move on. By now we were not as keen on visiting cathedrals and castles as we once had been. Once you’ve seen a hundred churches you’ve seen them all, or so we felt at the time. Most of the day was spent on the road as we continued on the final leg of our Irish adventure. The weather was as variable as ever, raining one moment and clear the next.

Kells was a small town where the Book of Kells was written more than fifty years ago. Once again that irritating song which had run through my mind in an endless loop back in Dublin began issuing from my lips. “Tell me, tell me, tell me, who wrote the Book of Kells?” The only interesting thing we found in Kells was an old graveyard and a pub.

From Kells we drove through Navan to Trim. Trim’s Castle was grand, though not much more than the keep remained standing. The keep was very solid and impressive, so much so that part of Braveheart had been filmed there a few years ago. We paid a small fee to walk around the grounds of the castle rather than a large one to tour the keep itself.

The lady in the tiny tourist office suggested that we seek accommodation in Tara, which she said was very pretty. Despite the complexity of her instructions we managed to find the sole B&B on the Hill of Tara. Unfortunately it was full. We were very disappointed as it was situated in a very attractive country setting. The grandmotherly proprietor very kindly rang a colleague in Dunshauglin to arrange accommodation for us. One look at the place convinced us that it was way below our standards and we decided to continue towards Drogheda (pronounced Drawda) as per my original plan. We must have been tired because we found it impossible to locate the correct road and drove in completely the wrong direction.

We were both becoming more than a little tense by the time we reached the village of Virginia. If we had continued on the N3 for much longer we would have crossed the border into Northern Ireland. This would have been a bad thing for many reasons, not the least of which was that we were supposed to be heading south rather than north. The Lakeland Hotel looked ominously upper class and I approached the reception desk with a great deal of trepidation. As I had feared, the cost of a night’s accommodation was one hundred and twenty euro. I think the girl could tell that I was a poor Australian because she lowered the price to a mere hundred euro ($200). We had little alternative but to take it. Our room was the best we’d had yet; spacious, comfortable, big-bedded and boasting large windows which framed a large, serene lake.

After an hour enjoying my first bath since we arrived in London I opened the bathroom door to find the same tape playing. Around 11pm Margaret decided that she had had enough and rang reception to complain. The girl apologised, claiming that she had forgotten to turn off the music. She didn't switch it off even then, just turned down the volume.

DAY 35 TUE We drove non-stop from Virginia to Dun Laoghaire (Dun Leary), mainly because there was nothing to stop for. The journey to the ring road around Dublin was comparatively short, it was only when we began looking for signs towards Dun Laoghaire that the going became complicated. We hadn’t expected to find ourselves on a toll way and it was only by pure luck that we were able to find the right money. The signposting in Ireland is reasonably good while you are in the countryside but once you get close to a large town the system starts to break down. At one point we encountered a sign instructing us to turn right towards Dun Laoghire. Margaret took the sign a little too literally and turned into the wrong side of a motorway. Thank Zeus a man in a van tooted his horn frantically, otherwise we would have driven straight into the oncoming traffic. With great presence of mind and breathtaking sang froid Margaret made a dramatic U-turn so that we were facing in the right direction.

Following the signs to Dun Laoghaire Ferry Terminal would have challenged even a maze-trained rat, but we did it. Our luck continued when the lady at the tourist office was able to book us the last available room in town. While the B&B had no TV, it did have tea and coffee making facilities and our room was opposite a cupboard which held limitless supplies of tea, coffee and milk. As an added bonus it was only a couple of minutes from the centre of town. We spent the best part of what was left of the afternoon rearranging our belongings so that both suitcases weighed approximately the same.

DAY 36 WED While our B&B had scored heavily for its beverage facilities and the thickness of its pillows, it lost points for the tinyness of its bathroom and the poor performance of its power shower (the worst we had yet experienced). At the breakfast table we chatted with a quartet of Americans newly arrived from Indiana, Texas and Louisiana. The Texan husband was of enormous girth and we wondered how on earth he had fitted into the tiny tower stall. The woman from New Orleans had obviously been rebuilt from the toes up and sported an alarmingly bright blonde wig as well as a Deep Southern accent which seemed almost a parody. The four elderly folk had arrived in Ireland, collected their van in Dublin and then spent five hours driving the ten or so miles to Dun Laoghaire. At first we were amused by their adventure. We even sneered inwardly. Then we remembered the hell we went through trying to escape the grasp of Rome a few years ago.

After breakfast we returned the Astra to County Car Rentals. Imagine my horror when I learned that we were supposed to have brought it back the day before! I’m sure the man behind the counter would have overlooked my mistake if the computer had allowed him, instead I had to hand over thirty euro.