We’ve been here three months now, and people have been asking what Ireland’s about. Do you like it? Is it what you expected? Do you like the people? Somehow it’s hard to reply. I’m not really sure exactly what the place is yet – I feel like I can’t properly answer.
The beating heart of Ireland is not in Dublin. I’m inclined to think it’s in the grass, or the wind – or maybe the sheep. Countries often seem to have this problem: the city, where everyone lives, doesn’t represent the world they identify with, the way that they picture home. Just like in Dhaka, that huge city of rural immigrants, the people here seem to often have a second identity: ‘I’m from Cork’, ‘I’m from Galway’, or ‘I’m from Port Laoise’. Born-and-bred Dubliners are common as well, of course, but there’s a pervading feeling that much of the city has been imported form somewhere – that real Ireland is outside the ring-road freeway that circles the city, that it only starts once you reach the hills.
It’s possible I’m bringing my own touristy romanticism to this first impression, and that none of this represents how the Irish feel at all. But I can’t help it: like people everywhere, when I play image association with ‘Ireland’, I don’t see the harp-like Samuel Beckett bridge over the Liffey, or the neatly Georgian streets of Dublin, but hills so green, round and rolling that they seem to come from a child’s drawing of what hills should look like, dotted with shaggy, damp sheep. I picture brooks and glades where dark pools of clear water collect and old patron saints and even older celtic spirits live side by side. I picture rugged coasts, specked with lonely whitewashed cottages, huddling against the hills with their hats pulled firmly down over their brows. Winding roads, squeezed on each side by dry stone walls. Slate grey Atlantic water under a slate grey sky. This is the Ireland I hadn’t found yet, and it was the Ireland we went in search of over the Easter weekend.
Armed with the keys to a rental car, two Aussie friends visiting from the Netherlands, and an AirBnB booking without a street address (only GPS coordinates which seemed to indicate that we would be staying in a field), we set off down to the famous Ring of Kerry. We’d planned to stay in Dingle but somehow, when browsing all the historic cottages available for rent, I got distracted and ended up with one in Cahersiveen – a place that I’d never even heard of, 1 1/2 hours’ drive away and on entirely the wrong peninsula.Despite initial dismay, my increasingly Irish-accented interior monologue reminded me that getting upset just wouldn’t be in the spirit of things, now would it, while passing me a metaphorical cup of tea. I put the mistake down to serendipity and the others cheerfully forgave me. To be honest you really can’t go wrong in this part of the world.
(It’s worth mentioning at this point that in the 5th Century a man later dubbed St Brendan ‘The Navigator’ sailed all the way from Dingle to Valentia island, just off the coast of Cahersiveen, where legend has it that he scaled the cliffs, met two dying pagans and converted them. It truly was a miracle. Buoyed by his early seafaring success, he decided to sail to America, and was never heard from again. He was assumed to have made it.)
Our cottage was a thick-walled stone farmhouse across the water from the town, with a view right into the crumbling kitchen hall of Ballycarbery castle, a 16th century tower on a small hill overlooking an inlet. Bombed and ruined centuries ago, it’s since grown furry with photogenic ivy. Some of the stairs are still intact, meaning you can scramble up on it and play the world’s best game of Attack the Fort.
It must have been a good place to spot raiders coming, because right behind the castle there are two even older stone forts – Cahergall and it’s more ruined twin, Leacanabuile – built roughly 1000 years ago. With two concentric circles of beautifully constructed dry stone walls, they would have provided a safe haven to a central homestead and animals. The two forts are so close you could practically lean over the wall and throw clods at the other. Which I suppose they did. It would be Pythonesque if it wasn’t so bleak.
The weather changed while we were out, and decided to try to kill us. After being almost blown off the top parapets of the castle, pelted with hail and soaked to the skin, we retreated to the farmhouse to throw ourselves into the peat fire.
Deciding that it might be better to drive (‘wear the car as a coat’) than explore on foot, we headed out to do what we came for. The Skellig ring is a short, windy and stunning coastal section of the Ring of Kerry circular drive. Taking the ferry over to Valentia Island, we walked around the lighthouse headland and then drove up over the spine of the island to explore the flat, boggy fields facing the open Atlantic.
O’Shea’s pub warned ‘Next pint, New York’ – sadly, it looked like it had been a while since they were able to pour one.
The hills from Valentia give you a good view of the tiny, craggy Skellig islands. Little Skellig is apparently home to a large population of gannets, while Skellig Michael was once populated by monks and now appears to mostly attract dragons.
Always finding time to nerd out, before we left the island we took a few minutes to walk down a steep path to find the Valentia Tetrapod tracks – the world’s oldest and largest in-situ evidence of an animal that walked on land.
Back in Cahersiveen, we made the most of the incredible local seafood at QC’s, and chose a place for a cosy pint or two. Because everyone knows everyone in this country (it seems to be an Irish trait to remember names and faces), we go to Keating’s Corner House, where we meet Ollie’s colleague’s aunt, who owns the pub. Josephine inherited the pub from her grandfather, and it has been in the family for nearly 100 years. She sits with us for a good long chat. Josephine knows everyone who comes and goes while we are there, greeting them by name, asking about mutual acquaintances and advising them to stay for another pint. ‘Jesus Mary and Joseph, ye can’t take the child out in weather like this. Stay for a little while longer, near the fire.’ Eammon, a retired history teacher, sits with us and wants to talk about Mussolini, and the quality of the Thai restaurant down the road. This isn’t really a pub – it’s a communal living room. Cahersiveen is a quiet place, Josephine tells us. She’s not a city person – she likes ‘the slow life, the good life’. She nods once, gravely, certainly.
The town itself is small, and when we leave the pub to head back to the farmhouse it’s only a few moments before we’re driving through total darkness again, the shine of the headlights bouncing off the rain and the hedges that line the narrow road. Maybe it’s not the foreigner looking for the ‘real Ireland’, after all, but the country girl in me: there’s something about it that feels familiar and comforting – a world where there is real darkness, no street lights, and we are buffeted by the wind, not protected by tall buildings. It’s nice to feel Ireland breathing. Out here, where the humans are quieter, you can hear the place speak.