Oases Outside Dublin
Few countries are as pleasant and interesting for the traveler as Ireland, yet few places are so exasperating for anyone who likes to travel in comfort and ease, without wasting time or blindly rushing about in search of palatable food and restful lodging. For one thing, no Irishman is in a hurry about anything, and most travelers are limited in lime if not in money. For another, the guidebooks offer hardly any help at all. Oh, there are some lovely books about Ireland. Take The Shell Guide to Ireland by Lord Killanin and Michael V. Duignan, published by the Ebury Press in London in 1962; 478 large octavo pages, 17 colorplates, more than 200 pictures in the text, 6 maps — all for 45 shillings ($6.30). It has almost every archaeological, historical, scenic, and just plain interesting fact; but the arrangement is alphabetical by place, and by the time anyone but a native Irishman well versed in his country has worked out an itinerary from it, his holidays for the next three years will be over. And never a mention does it make of food or drink, roads or hotels, or of Ireland’s greatest product — the charming, confusing, irritating, and delightful people of Ireland themselves.
As my wife and I grew travel-wise in Ireland, we found that the best procedure was to use all the guides together, and 1 am afraid she missed as much scenery working cross-references through all the guidebooks as I did dodging cattle, sheep, bicyclists, and artificially elated pedestrians on the roads. But with long experience we found delightful driving, eating, drinking, and hotelslaying in every corner of the country. It would have been cheaper, and it certainly would have taken less time, had we simply booked ourselves on all the train and bus excursion trips organized by Coras Iompair Firearm (C.I.E.), the Irish transit company. Their trips are well organized and cheap, and accommodations are usually provided in the company-owned Great Southern Hotels, which are satisfactory imitations of the modern, impersonal American-type accommodations. We do not like being organized, however, but we do in Ireland like encountering the Irish, who, like their leprechauns, are elusive when strangers are about in large groups. In Connemara in August the cars all seem to carry “temporary importation” stickers; Killarney, like Bunratty Castle, seems exclusively occupied by Americans; and the lower Shannon gurgles in many tongues but never in Gaelic.
Ireland begins at Dublin, but it only begins there. That dear old dirty city is full of people from somewhere else, mainly civil servants and would-be civil servants up from the country to separate the jackeen from his money, and they are charmers all. But even more charming is a visit to the land from which these “culchies” came, the bogs and hills and people they left behind, whose charm is not edged with the hone of greed, the beautiful countryside they think of nostalgically when not adding up the receipts from the till. It is only 161 miles from Dublin to Cork, but to keep from passing from one city to another with only a good road in between, I like to start late, as the Irish always do, and spend the night in Roscrea, a little town in Tipperary. That way I have leisure the next morning to visit the Rock of Cashel, Ireland’s Mont-SaintMichel, now, like most ancient Irish monuments, a ruin. The Earl of Kildare burned the cathedral in 1495, excusing himselflater to Henry VII by saying that he would not have done it but he thought the archbishop was inside. Roscrea has ruins too — Ormonde Castle of the thirteenth century now’ houses the fire station — and it also has the Central Hotel, rated only B/C by Bord Faille but abounding in homely comfort and courtesy, where for two dollars I had a delicious full-course dinner, the piece de resistance of which was two filet mignons. They also serve the best Irish coffee I have had anywhere.
For all the nostalgia of Cork men in Dublin and New York, their city is simply one of the more favored of Irish provincial capitals: population 80,000, good hotels, even a restaurant — the Oyster Tavern — down a tiny lane just off the main street. For the few people in it, Ireland has more and better hotels than anyone has the right to expect, but some of the highest-rated ones are so “international,” the guest might as well not be in Ireland at all. There are seventeen hotels in Cork City, rated by Bord Failte right through the spectrum, but I would pass them all by to drive sixty miles further down the southwest foot of Ireland, past Bantry Bay, to Ardnagashel House, near Ballyiickey. Robert Gibbings once went to West Cork for a fortnight and stayed seven months.
I might not have stopped there at all were the roads of Ireland not as tiring as they are fascinating. There is little traffic except in the towns and cities, but the roads are narrow and winding and open to grazing animals. The sheep and the goats and the cows and the dogs have the right-of-way, according to Irish law, and the bicyclists and pedestrians act as if they did. Moreover, there is no examination for a driving license in Ireland: I am entitled to drive anything up to and including a steam locomotive, all for the spending of a pound. I never saw a highway patrolman. The theory of motor-code enforcement is that after there is an accident the one found at fault, if surviving, pays. In a few months such conditions are easy to get used to, but near lunchtime of my second day on these Strenuous roads, after climbing to the top of Blarney Castle and steering anxiously through the mountains of West Cork, with the Ring of Kerry, where the road is often above the clouds, before me. I was willing to take my chances on following a sign down a little side lane to Ardnagashel House.
The narrow dirt road bumped and twisted deep into the woods, in the direction of the cliffs over the sea. and at last came out by a pleasant big house overlooking a cove. Two boats were moored down there — the property of the hotel, I later learned — and the girl who came to answer my wife’s query if we could have lunch was barefoot. This, I soon saw. was the way of the proprietor’s family: I almost took my shoes off myself. We waited in the bar until lunch was ready, and not wanting strong drink that time of day I asked if they had a light, dry wine, something like a muscadet. They would have had anything 1 wanted; Ardnagashel House keeps a stock of 176 bins, and the prices are the lowest I have seen in the British Isles. I ordered a bottle so that 1 could have the rest with lunch. Audray Kaulback, the proprietor’s wife, stirred around and put salmon on the menu, and that and the rest of the meal were up to the best country French standards. Lunch for two was $2.80, the wine something like another dollar. Rooms run about $3.00 a person. I here are only three with private bath, but Bantry Bay is just out the front door.
Killarney is purely for tourists, and anyone who goes there had better accept the classification and enjoy himself just as he would at Rockefeller Center or the Grand Canyon. Ride a jaunting car and then a pony over the Gap of Dunloe, and be rowed back over the lakes. Buy postcards and souvenirs, including the toy leprechauns marked in Gaelic “made in Japan.” There is good food in Upper East Side French style at the Grill Room ol the Great Southern Hotel, but the dining room there, as at all the other hotels, is geared to guided tours, i was a Killarney tourist until I got tired ol it (that did not take long), and then I went around the Ring of Kerry, seeing little but fog and sheep, through Tralee and up to Listowel in County Kerry, where there is a pub worth visiting for the sake of the owner. John B. Keane.
Keane is one of the best-known playwrights in Ireland. In 1959 his play Sire was produced by the dramatic society of this little town of 3000-odd population and proved such a success it became the first play ever to be given by an amateur group in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Since then he has been turning out a play a year — in addition to keeping bar — and they are getting better and better. He is no Brendan Behan, although in the work AH the Young Men of Twenty he is nearly as critical of contemporary Ireland and sometimes funnier. He seems mainly to be swaying the Irish folk play away from its former nationalistic purpose. He also runs a good pub and is an interesting and accessible man. Literary figures are yours for the price of a drink in Dublin, but Keane seems more deeply rooted than they. Besides, he sells the stuff.
Limerick is worth a visit, if only to see the walls still scarred by the cannon of the seventeenth-century siege. Twenty-three miles farther along the wide waters where the Fergus enters the Shannon is Ennis, County Clare, an old town of narrowstreets, one of which leads to the Old Ground Hotel. This, like many of the private hotels of Ireland, had been one of the “big houses” of the landlords before Irish independence. Many of these, for all their beauty, were destroyed during the “Troubles,” when the motto was “burn everything English except the coal”; and that ire was sometimes well deserved. At the nearby Cliffs of Moher is a monument raised to one of the landlords by his tenantry at his request, and in the central square of Westport, up in County Mayo, is another such monument, now surely the most defaced this side of the former Stalinallee. But the Old Ground stands, its name supposedly derived from the retainer’s welcoming his absentee master, a century or more ago, back to the “old ground,” and it is well managed by a very personable young man. Jack Donnelly. who, unlike most hotel and restaurant managers, was around when I wanted him and out of sight the rest of the time. I encountered him one day showing some clients the sights of Clare in his own car — so far as I could see, just because he enjoyed it.
Galway, particularly the western part that is called Connemara, is one of the most famous wild-beauty spots of the world. The roads, although not up to the standard of the French routes nationales, are much less trying than those of Kerry and Donegal, and the drive over the mountains by a chain of lakes, from Galway City to Clifden, is full of fascination, natives tell me, in seeming never twice the same. My second trip I kept wondering if I were not on the wrong road, but the first time was on a gloriously sunny day in July, while the second was in an autumn storm. The trouble with Connemara, in addition to the nearly constant influx of not always congenial tourists, is its lack of accommodation for the reasonably exacting traveler. Clifden has a few country hotels not adequate to the demand. At Cashel Bay, down a side road some fifteen rough miles away, is the Zetland; and five absolutely beastly miles beyond Clifden is Renvyle House. Both are in the wilds, and when I was there they were geared to the needs of large families — filled with squalling brats. I stayed in Clifden at the mote! and had a sandwich in Eddy King’s, a pub run by Frank Kelly and his wife, daughter of the late Mr. King. Frank and his wife close the public bar at nightfall and conduct the festivities in the lounge as if every night were worthy of a special celebration.
The finest hospitality I have experienced anywhere in the world was at the Yeats Country Hotel, at Rosses Point just above Sligo, but the manager, Dan Gannon, whose collection of Yeatsiana and wdiose charm and generosity will never be equalled, is no longer there, so I haven’t the heart to return. Instead, on my last trip to Sligo I stayed in great comfort at the Imperial, the Garavogue flowing beneath my window from Lough Gill, where you can visit Rat Island, William Butler Yeats’s Lake Isle of Innisfree.
It is astonishing what a few hotelkeepers in Ireland accomplish by careful and knowledgeable supervision. There is no tradition of hotel and restaurant apprenticeship in Ireland to compare with that on the Continent, and trained people tend to leave the country rather than be attracted to it. Therefore the management must get good work from ignorant and unambitious girls, who, as they have often been the first to tell me, “couldn’t care less"; thus the manager must watch every step of as many of the workers as possible while making the rest feel they are being watched even when they are not. A good indication of what a customer can expect in a hotel dining room (there are virtually no real restaurants outside Dublin, and one each in Cork and Belfast) is if he can order dinner, including wine, before entering the dining room. If not, things tend to fall into a routine convenient for tlie waitress, with the soup on the table before he gets a good look at the menu, and the wine, the red cold and the white lukewarm. served with dessert. At the Imperial the girls must think Mrs. Movies and her dining room manager have eyes all around their heads.
North of Sligo travel becomes very trickly. With a triptyque you can wander back and forth across the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, but the first time I went over that route my car was not bonded, and I am glad of it, for otherwise I would have gone from Donegal Town to Derry (or Londonderry, as you call it if you are loyal to the Crown) and missed one of the most interesting tours and one of the friendliest hostelries of all Ireland. The roads of the Donegal coast are unspeakable; they are hardly roads at all. So from Donegal Town I headed off across the mountains to Letterkenny, population 4178. The first hotel I came to was Gallagher’s, and I parked under the No Larking sign while my wife went in to inquire after rooms. In a moment out came a man the size of Derryveagh, who took the bags and told me to leave the car right where it was. “Sure if the sergeant conies along he’ll know where you are.” Chewing on that logic, I went in, and in an hour or so found myself in the bar in the front of the house, where this man-mountain, with the improbable name of Hugo, was presiding. I hadn’t been there long when he said, “There, sir, there’s a grand place for you.” What he meant was, he had been keeping an eye on my car, and he had just noticed an opening among the parking spaces by the municipal building across the road — not just an opening; one that left only one side of my car vulnerable for when the pubs closed.
The proprietress had been a Gallagher; her husband’s name I have unfortunately forgotten, but they have no mind to change the name of the place, so there’s no harm done. On meeting her I opened my mouth and put my foot in it: in explaining my pleasure at Hugo’s courtesy I compared the place with Roscrea, and at a loss to exemplify the intangible feeling of being welcome, mentioned the two steaks a serving. A bit later, going out for a walk, I put the other foot in my mouth. “Would you be having dinner at the hotel?” she asked me, and when 1 said yes, she wanted to know what I’d like. “Fish,'' I said, but there was no fish to be had. “Well, then, filet steak,” and I was halfway up the street before I realized what I had done. Sure enough, at each of our plates that night were two filet mignons: but good as the steak was, it did not come near the bread, rolls, and the other baked goods of the house—so many I could not put names to them all.
We had not intended to stay in Letterkenny at all, but we spent two nights at Gallagher’s, and we would probably be there vet had I not had urgent business in Dublin. At breakfast we were told that it would not be fair for us to stay and pay their exorbitant prices ($3.15 apiece for double room and bath with superb breakfast, with even more kinds of breads, rolls, crumpets, scones, right out of the oven; and that double steak dinner for $1.75) without seeing Malin Head. With such a recommendation we spent the next day touring the Inishowen Peninsula, the northernmost point of Ireland, and totally pleased, we drove back, disturbed only by the car that hooted impatiently at us along Lough Swilly. But as we learned at dinner that night, the hoot was not impatient but triumphant, for we were served the Lough Swilly salmon only a few hours out of the water — the proprietor had driven to Moneyhaughly to get it for us.
The six counties of Northern Ireland can be very dismal, with everything, it seems, a shilling clearer; a smaller measure for a drink; and on Sundays no drink at all. and little else. Of all the places I do not mention in this article, because I would not go back to them again — places where food is served at restricted hours and where, if I was not present for the first dash into the dining room, I had to argue for my victuals; where the soup came before I was given my choice between the ubiquitous “lamb, or chicken and ham” (euphemism for rank mutton or a scrawny joint of fowl in bacon grease); and where they didn’t have any red wine but had dinner w ine or port, served in time for the “genuine process cheese” — the greatest proportion were in Her Majesty’s loyal province of Ulster. But I must confess I was guided while there by a native, and the one place I chose by myself is almost up to Letterkenny or Roscrea, even though it could never be an Ardnagashel House.
Political considerations, I understand. prevented President Kennedy from crossing the border to visit the Giant’s Causeway during his visit to Ireland in the summer of 1963. And the Giant’s Causeway is a pretty strenuous visit. But he should have stopped at the Causeway Hotel, run by Colin and Noreen Kane, the fifth generation of Kanes at that spot. The hotel overlooks the sea just at the entrance to the Causeway walk, and its appearance and comforts are fitting to its beautiful location. But the Kanes’ aptitude at their work is truly remarkable. Every day they handle, with courtesy and excellent service, a multitude of visitors, most of whom simply go into the bar, some of whom stay, without reservations, for meals, and a few of whom are residents. They also cater weddings and the like. The only thing to be said is they know how to do it. Far more even than at Letterkenny or Sligo, good service conies only from the management’s exercise of will, for the nearest town is the distilling village of Bushmills, and the metropolis of the region, eight miles away, is Portrush, just the same size as Letterkenny. Having any servants at all in such a remote spot, let alone having good ones, is little short of a miracle in a land where nearly all a girl can do is emigrate or find a husband.
There are many fine places yet to be found in Ireland. A solid drinking commercial traveler I know always stays, when he is in Belfast, at a temperance hotel, the Kensington, in College Square, because he is well treated there. Experienced Irish travelers can tell you. as I have, their favorite spots, but the only one I have found up to the reports about it is Reynolds’ in Rooskie, a place where Mrs. Reynolds’ spontaneous cry. “You’re welcome,” is as warm as the turf lire on the hearth. It is a place you would not look at twice from the road, except perhaps the time the road crew put up a large direction sign backwards near it on the Dublin-Sligo road. By the side of the Shannon, right up against the highway, it is a low stone building, partly bar (no lounge or snug here) and partly living quarters. Reynolds’ of Rooskie is a simple pub, not a hotel or restaurant, but you can count on it: if you were hungry they would feed you. and if you were tired they would find you a bed. The simple places of Ireland are the best, but it must be said that if they are bad, they arc bad beyond understanding. It is easy, for those preferring not to take chances, to find American-style hotels in Ireland; the government is subsidizing them! In such places your money is more welcome than you. But the Central of Roscrea, the Ardnagashel House, Gallagher’s of Letterkenny, Kane’s, Causeway Hotel — long may they thrive!