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And May the Sun Always Rise on Your Pig

I’ll admit it took me a bit to warm to Ireland. The gloomy, temperamental weather and its sad chronicles left me feeling blue. But the tinge of melancholy that gripped me during our first few days evaporated once we started hiking along the sea, and when our children arrive in Shannon for week two, not even a wailing banshee can dampen my spirits. We’re now a merry band of four and head straight for Dublin. We can’t be in Ireland without seeing it’s storied capital, so we spend just two nights and a full day there, all of us anxious to return to the countryside. We visit Trinity College, have a pub lunch in the Temple Bar neighborhood, make the much-anticipated visit to the Guinness Storehouse with its 365-degree views over the city and where Joe, Chris and Caroline create blond mustaches from the frothy brew. We then enjoy a delicious dinner on the third floor of a trendy restaurant along the recently rainbow-flagged River Leffey. The constant cries of seagulls punctuate our meal and we’re serenaded by the folk songs of buskers on the street below.

We say goodbye to Dublin and head south for a night in the colorful harbor town of Kinsale, known for its fine seafood, which does not disappoint. I must have imagined that the Emerald Isle would be all about corned beef, cabbage and boiled potatoes because its plentiful and varied seafood caught me off guard. You would think that the fact that the country is an island with hundreds of miles of coastline would have given me a clue. Over the course of our two weeks, we enjoy shrimp, oysters, prawns and mussels; hake, halibut, trout and John Dory; cockles, scallops, lobster and amazing Dingle crab.

Next up after Kinsale is the requisite stop at Blarney Castle where we ascend the corkscrewed stone stairway to kiss the fabled stone lying on our backs. The gift of gab bestowed by Blarney, Joe drives us across the hedgerowed countryside miles of Ireland on the left-hand side of the road and only swipes an unexpected village curb once, taking a nice bite from the tire. Fingers crossed that Enterprise won’t notice. In the evenings and while on the road, I resurrect what was a Bohr family vacation tradition when the kids were young: reading a book aloud. We have The Misremembered Man for this trip – a bittersweet story about the quest for love by two Irish forty-somethings to put us in the mood for rural Ireland. The characters and their quirky expressions have us alternately laughing out loud and on the verge of tears. “And may the sun always rise on your pig” declares Rose McFadden, one of the stories most colorful characters as she bids farewell to her neighbor, and thus we have our catchphrase for the balance of our week. We arrive in the idyllic town of Kenmare, a jewel on the Ring of Kerry at the head of the bay, for a relaxing two-night stay.

By the time we arrive for a six-mile hike along the towering Cliffs of Moher and then settle in at Gregans Castle Hotel (and where J.R.R. Tolkien once stayed while writing The Lord of the Rings), we’re fully ensconced in a bucolic, Irish mindset. We spend two nights at Gregans in the middle of the Burren, Ireland’s barren, limestone territory. The picture window of our sumptuous splurge hotel looks over a pink and purple garden, cows grazing in the meadow beyond and then the rolling, rocky hills. With its many fireplaces, warm, inviting bar area and country manor decor, it’s by far the nicest place we stayed on our trip. It’s one of those inns that make the decision of whether to stay and relax where we lay our heads or get out and explore the surrounding countryside so difficult.

Joe and I tell each other and the kids many times that we must return to Ireland just so we can stay at Gregans again. But we also must return for more than two weeks to drive the entire Wild Atlantic Way along the western coast, explore more of the peninsulas and hike the Blasket and Aran islands. On the day we planned our voyage to Great Blasket, the wind gods were too cross and the sea too rough to venture out in a boat. And of course, we must revisit to once again bask in the warm embrace of the Irish people who were uniformly kind, forever funny and always welcoming. Dear Ireland, may the sun always rise on your pig.

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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What’s a Bog Body?

I frequently tell my students that for so many reasons, they’re lucky to be learning French. One I dwell on is that it’s more difficult than Spanish because you don’t pronounce so many letters. Imagine the workout your brains are getting, I insist, and of course, they just groan. When I return to school at the end of August, I’ll suggest that if they really want to put their minds through the paces, they study Gaelic, which has even more letters you don’t pronounce. Our introduction to this (for me) indecipherable language is when we meet our hiking guide for week one. “Dool-ta,” he said as we shook hands. “I’m Dool-ta.” I do my best to square this pronunciation with the name written on our trip paperwork: Dubhaltach O’Colmain. He chuckles when I tell him there are at least five letters that disappear when he says his name. Joe has to ask twice for him to repeat it. We stumble a couple more times but finally, by day two – or maybe it’s three – Dool-ta practically trips off our tongues. He translates the Gaelic signposts we pass: the Pit of Sadness, the Glen of the Mad, the Barren Place, the Swamp of Despair. His recitations lead Joe to question with a laugh, “Doesn’t this country have any places with happy names?”

Wanting to hike as much of Ireland’s west coast as possible before Chris and Caroline arrive for week two (when we’ll fill our time with village strolls and pub crawls), we book our first week with our adventure travel company of choice, Boundless Journeys. We did the alpine Tour de Mont Blanc with Boundless on our Gap Year, so we know they’ll help us do Ireland right. Right as rain, in fact (although, I must admit that Ireland’s drizzle and inescapable downpours are atmospheric and can be utterly charming). Often when we hike solo in unfamiliar territory, we waste incredible amounts of time selecting “the best” route, futilely searching for an elusive trailhead, and if we do manage to find it, are stuck covering the same terrain twice on an out and back trek. Hiking with Dubhaltach, on the other hand, is an efficient, beautiful breeze that leaves us exhilarated, worry-free, and with miles of Irish trails behind us. Having explored the Emerald Isle for years, our 33 year-old naturalist knows the most scenic trails like the back of his hand and drops us at the trailhead, drives to the end, and then hikes back to meet us about two-thirds of the way to the car park. Our route is always easily found and there’s no doubling back with Dubhaltach.

We walk up green hills beside ancient stonewalls, at the top of ocean cliffs and then down limestone stairways to the beach. We circle the lakes of Killarney and pass through the Torc Mountain pass. With the sweet, gentle soul of a nature-loving renaissance man, Dubhaltach keeps us entertained with tales of Irish history, lore and mythology, and enlightens us about the flora and fauna of his beloved country. He educates us on all manner of animal and insect habits, including the mating ritual of slugs. I will never, ever look at a slug in the same way again. (Trust me on this. Google it.) He describes potato-faced farmers who wed young, freckled colleens, the lopsided couples remaining happily married for decades. His stories inspire me to watch for faeries in the mist and for trolls under mossy trees and broad, leafy ferns. Fleet of foot hares, a darling baby fox and dozens of sheep, white lambs with feet like little black booties, bearded goats, and cows laden with milk cross our paths and we do our best to avoid stepping on delicate beach cactus and tiny wild orchids.

I have a soft spot for stiles. One figured prominently in a favorite childhood story about an old woman and a pig and so I take great delight in the many we scramble over while clomping across farmland hills. Joe takes multiple pictures of me sitting on top. After one farm animal-filled day, I wake up in the middle of the night to incessant baas ringing in my ears, swearing there are sheep in our room. The next night I dream about bog bodies, the mummified cadavers, which fascinate Dubhaltach. Hundreds have been unearthed in Ireland’s thick peat bogs, and several are almost intact — skin and all — the cold, acidic, oxygen-free conditions perfect for preservation.

On a particularly narrow but busy coastal way, Dubhaltach spies a cluster of tiny black and white fur balls waddling tight along the hedgerow as we drive by. “They’re poor little ducklings,” he groans, “probably separated from their mother hit by a car.” And sure enough, twenty yards beyond is the lifeless mother duck. “Oh, I have a pain in my heart,” laments Dubhaltach, “I have such a pain in my heart.” Visibly upset, he briefly considers going back for them. But the road is too treacherous, he decides and it would lead to a futile effort. “I don’t think they’ll make it no matter what we do,” he sighs, and it’s clear he’s taking the demise of this duckling family quite hard. We remain quiet for many minutes until just before the turn into a parking lot, the start of today’s beach walk. I notice a washed out, no longer legible signpost and wonder what sad place it might have announced.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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