Let me pass quickly over most of our troubles in getting to Ireland. We had planned and expected to leave our home in Bemidji, Minnesota, early in the morning of Tuesday, June 27th, and to arrive in Ireland the following morning, having met with no beds except airplane seats in the meantime. As it turned out, we left Monday evening, and did not arrive until Thursday morning at dawn. In the wee hours of Tuesday and Wednesday mornings we did have hotel beds to sleep in, though only too briefly, and none of us slept much at all on the flight that started Wednesday at five p.m. and landed shortly after five a.m. at Shannon airport outside Limerick. After collecting our luggage, and walking through a customs area with no inspector yet on duty, we claimed our rental car and were on our way shortly after six, tired and happy that the first stage was over.
We stopped at a nearby hotel for tea (disappointingly weak, and brewed from tea bags--scarcely in the fine old Irish tradition), and for a chance to consult the map and get our bearings. Then we drove into Limerick to get some Irish money from an ATM, and doubled back a few miles to Bunratty, where we arrived just as the castle and "folk park" were about to open for the day's tourist trade.
Both the medieval castle and the nineteenth-century cottages and shops that make up the "folk park" are much reconstructed (and in some cases relocated) versions of their earlier selves, and the whole place is consciously and unabashedly a tourist attraction. I remembered it somewhat from my own visit over thirty years earlier, when I was thirteen; and I rightly guessed that it would be a happy starting point for the children, who had borne up so wonderfully under the stresses of travel so far.
In the old earl's
castle, we climbed two of the four corner turrets and admired the views
of the Shannon river valley. We encountered many interesting objects
scattered among the various halls and rooms: a sweet-toned Shinto
temple bell, a gift from Japan that predated the castle itself; numerous
representations of the original sin, various in period and medium; wooden
relief carvings; and several antlered skulls of Irish elk, a now-extinct
species whose oversized rack once posed a famous puzzle to theorists of
biological evolution (how could such disproportionate headgear possibly
be adaptive?). Among the most curious objects were a couple of carved
and painted mermaids hung from ceilings, with deer antlers unaccountably
sprouting from their flanks. In
the folk park, we poked into the dark interiors of assorted thatched cottages
where peat fires burned and smoked. In some of these, women in nineteenth-century
garb were starting to cook pies and things.
Outside, Trevor hugely enjoyed (and had to be enjoined from) flirting with danger
in the form of "killer ducks," as he termed the geese who hissed and threatened
when he came too near. I got into conversation with one of the costumed
cast members, a helmeted "peeler" (I guess that’s the apt term for a policeman
in this context). He lamented that so large a proportion of visitors
were too badly jet-lagged from their flights into nearby Shannon airport
to do the place any kind of justice. To judge from his account, we
were not doing badly at all ourselves, at least relatively speaking.
Our next tourist destination was Blarney Castle, by popular demand from the children. Only Trevor wound up kissing the famous stone, as I had done long before, in the ritual that's supposed to confer the gift of gab or eloquence. (Since I am now a professor of rhetoric, I figured that once had been enough for me.) The ritual on the high battlement is a little scary: it involves lying on and arching your back until your head is upside down, with perhaps a hundred feet of air beneath it. For this we had to proceed through a long queue, which snaked along the battlements, down all the spiral stone stairs, and well out the door of the castle; and we went through the whole queue right behind some rather embarrassing specimens of our compatriots, all too unmistakably from Brooklyn. Despite all this, though, one cannot miss or forget the striking beauty of the castle's verdant setting, and the views from its top.
On the way from Bunratty to Blarney, and from Blarney to our first two nights' lodging here outside Killarney, I began really to get the hang of the driving. Both the manual transmission and driving on the left were outside the run of my recent experience. I had mastered both of them at one time or another, but rather long before. I had not been in the British Isles in a quarter of a century, nor used a stick shift more than once or twice in the previous decade (and then only with my right hand). Both skills came back surprisingly readily, as did the rules of the road governing traffic circles or "roundabouts." What took longer to get used to was the narrowness of even major two-lane highways, tightly constricted by embankments, hedges, or stone walls on either side. Even fairly compact cars passing in opposite directions seemed to have scant room to do so, and having to pass a coach (tour bus) or lorry (truck) was quite hair-raising at least at first. Towards the end of that first day especially, the problems were compounded by my having to slap myself repeatedly in the face to keep awake at the wheel; we were all very behind on sleep at that point.
We arrived at Peacock Farm Hostel closer to seven than six. We all liked it immediately. Our room was so crammed with beds (two bunk sets and a single) that we did not want to bring more than one suitcase in from the car; but there was a spacious glassed-in porch that served for communal kitchen and refectory, and everything was thoroughly informal, friendly, clean, and cheery. There are delightful views of Lough Guitane below, and a mountain, called Stompa or Stumpa, one of "McGillicuddy's Reeks," beyond that; and all around is a green landscape dotted with sheep. There are peafowl there, too, as well as an artificial goldfish pond (the pond is artificial, not the goldfish). The peafowl make their presence known mainly by their voices, unfortunately, which are not their most attractive characteristic. I went out to buy bread and cheese and apples and so forth for a kind of dinner and the next morning's breakfast. When I got back, Stas was already asleep, though the children, having slept much in the car, were waiting and hungry.
In the morning we all slept late, especially the children. Between that and the novelty of clean bodies and clothes, we felt considerably more ourselves. I brewed us some pots of tea, strong and with the leaves loose, the way Irish tea ought to be. We got to know our hosts a little better. They are a family of three generations, including preschooler Aidan (who introduced himself to us as "Psycho Ranger"), his parents Paddy and Rowena, and her parents in turn, plus friendly dogs Fred and Charlie. London accents linger despite years of residence here, but in Aidan's case that will undoubtedly change as he mingles with Irish lads in school.
The children got to decide on the day's sightseeing agenda and opted for a marine aquarium in Dingle. On our way we stopped at Killarney to pick a few things up at the shops. Stas needed antihistamine, and I needed an electrical adapter for my computer, which item I found to be for sale at Casey’s shop along with Guinness and Irish whiskey (talk about your one-stop shopping!). This whole expedition, starting as it did after a late sleep-in, left no time afterwards for Muckross House, nor for the gardens and traditional farms attached to it, nor for driving any more of the famously scenic "Ring of Kerry" than happened to be on the way--though I had selected Peacock Farm Hostel largely for its proximity to these attractions. But the Dingle peninsula is wonderfully scenic in much the same style as the Ring of Kerry; and we plan to tour the spectacular gardens of Muckross house this morning--the best and most memorable part of the whole complex, if memory serves, and the one that's free.