Wednesday, May 26, 1999:
We left Tralee in the morning and drove to the Dingle Peninsula, one of the prettiest places in all of Ireland, and one of the most scenic places I’ve ever visited. The peninsula sits in the southwestern corner of Ireland, and is just about as far west as you can go in Europe.
We started our visit with a quick trip to the quaint and picturesque town of Dingle.
We never saw Fungie the dolphin, who is the big celebrity in Dingle. But we would at least get to see a human celebrity the next day...
From the village, the tour bus set out on the old and narrow roads along the peninsula. The roads weren’t really built with tour buses in mind, so it gets a little crowded there. Tour busses like ours got stuck behind this kind of traffic - herds of sheep getting moved from one field to another.
The scenery out there was amazing. Rolling hills of the deepest green dropped down into the Atlantic Ocean, while low clouds skirted overhead. This was taken from an overlook, while a light rain fell. A few in our group weren’t happy with the weather, but I loved it. It just seemed like the weather went perfectly well with the landscape. Or I’m just weird and like rainy weather.
We drove by the house owned by the lead singer of the Cranberries, and then ended up at a visitor center. It seemed like most of our group went there to take shelter from the weather, but a few of us headed out to enjoy the view.
Before this trip, I always thought that the expression of something 'taking your breath away' was just a cliché. But as I stood on the edge of the cliff, the view did indeed take my breath away. I was standing high above the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by hills that had a layer of fog that resembled the icing on a cake.
I’m lucky that I’ve been able to go see some great scenic spots, but I’m not sure how many of them can compare with that view. The pictures do not even come close to doing it any justice.
I could have spent the rest of the trip perched on that cliff, looking off into the ocean.
Someone got my camera and snapped a shot of me on the rocks. This was ten years ago, so I’m much younger looking, skinnier and with no gray hair.
It seems that we developed a pattern on this trip, where a small number of us would separate from the rest of the group and slow everyone down because we were always late getting back to the bus. It was like that again at this magical spot, it was hard to turn your back on this view. But we got back in the bus, and headed off to some more spots along the Dingle Peninsula.
Our next stop was an old church building, called the Gallarus Oratory. Of course as soon as we drove into the nearby parking area, three other tour buses pulled up and dumped out tons of people. I heard our bus driver curse the crowds, even if we were a bus full of tourists as well. But one thing about big tour groups is that you don’t have to wait too long for them to leave. Most of them just seem content to walk around a bit, take a few pictures, ask each other what it is they are looking at, and then tromp back into the bus. After a few minutes of chaos, it was relatively quiet after that.
The Gallarus Oratory was built sometime between the 6th and the 9th centuries. The church wasn’t made with any mortar, yet the inside is still water tight. In fact the old building has stood up amazingly well after centuries of Irish weather and tourists.
Again I was amazed at the history here. This building has stood for centuries, oblivious to the changes going on all around it. To this great old building, the passage of years must be like the drops of rain on the rocks.
From there the bus rumbled further along, passing by this amazing view of a beach called Inch Strand.
We were able to go out onto the beach, but it was cold out - not really the best weather to make a bunch of sandcastles.
There was still a lot more things to see on the Dingle Peninsula, but our tour had come to an end. It was time for us to head back to Tralee. But I'm eager to head back out to the Dingle Peninsula again, it is an amazing place.
Thursday, May 27, 1999:
We left in the morning and made our first stop at Bunratty Castle.
The Vikings first settled this spot, around the year 970. The current castle was completed around 1425. You can go in and explore the different rooms and chambers, and then head out to the top of the towers. This is the view of the Ratty River (gotta love that name), which flows into the River Shannon.
And the view of another tower, flying the Irish tricolour (another tower was flying the flag of the European Union).
And one more view of Bunratty Castle:
From there we headed on to the Cliffs of Moher.
Located in County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher is another amazing spot. The cliffs here stand 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. You’re so high up that you can’t even hear the waves crashing below you. Before we stopped here, our bus driver warned us that a few tourists are “lost” every year at the cliffs. I scared myself while standing and taking pictures, I wasn’t even near the edge of the cliffs, but I slipped and stumbled some. I think my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. I didn’t bother getting too much closer to the edge after that.
Check out how small the people at the top of the bluffs are:
This was another example of me and a two other scragglers being the last ones to make it to the bus. Walking down the sidewalk towards the bus, I was distracted by the ocean and the cliffs. Suddenly one of my friends stopped and said “did you see who that was?” I wasn’t paying any attention and had no idea. He got a bit excited - “I swear we just walked by Bill Maher.”
I took his word for it, and the three of us hurried back up the sidewalk. This was easier said than done since this was all uphill. But we finally managed to catch up with who did indeed turn out to be Bill Maher. We stopped and tried to talk to him, clearly getting on his nerves. It didn’t seem like he really wanted to be approached like this. But if you are a celebrity, and you don’t want people to recognize you, it’s probably best not to wear a jacket with the logo of your television show on it.
Bill Maher made some small talk in a bored voice, ready for us to move on. He asked us where we were from, and we said we were from Arkansas. Just then the woman he was walking with immediately lit up. “You’re from Arkansas?” she asked, and then said that she was from Pine Bluff. Woah! So we had a nice little visit with her about places we had visited in Ireland, while Bill Maher stood silently off to the side. We soon made it back to the bus and bragged about our celebrity sighting and showed off the autographs. Oddly enough, it wouldn’t be the only the only time we saw a famous person in Ireland...
We then drove up to the north, past the eerie and forlorn landscape of The Burren. At first glance this is a desolate and rocky area. Everywhere there are massive limestone rocks, laying about like broken pieces of pavement. This area was famously described by the English commander Edmund Ludlow as "a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him." Ludlow served under Oliver Cromwell, who is perhaps one of the worst villains in Ireland's long and sad history.
But as sparse as it looks from afar, there is life among the rocky landscape. Between the limestone rocks are cracks that support a large number of plants, including arctic, alpine and Mediterranean species. We stopped and got to explore an area right where the Burren met the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Our next stop was Galway, and we were able to walk around some before we were taken to meet our new host families. I was excited to be in Galway, since we are able to trace our branch of the Cormack family history here. I'm the descendant of a Cormack who left Galway in the 1700s and immigrated to America.
Looking back now I wish I had looked up how many Cormacks there were in the Galway phonebook.
Friday, May 28, 1999:
We woke up early in the morning and caught a ferry to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. The three Aran Islands (Inishmaan, Inisheer and Inishmore) lie just off the coast of Ireland, and were once one of the most isolated places in the country. Now they are one of the most well preserved enclaves of traditional Irish culture.
The ferry stopped at the village of Kilronan, where we would travel in a little rented van that was driven by an older local man. He was a good tour guide, he even taught us some curse words in Gaelic. For example, Póg mo thóin means "Kiss my arse."
We stopped at a few old ruins. This place is Na Seacht dTeampaill, or the "Seven Churches." This used to be a monastic settlement built between the 9th and 15th centuries.
From there we traveled over to Dún Aonghasa, a fort that dates back to either the Iron or Broze Age. There probably was a fort here as early as the second century BC, and it has been called "the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe."
The fort sits right on a cliff that overlooks the ocean, and is made up of four concentric walls of stone. Outside of the fort is the chevaux-de-frise, a ring of stone slabs set upright in the ground that acted as a defensive measure for the fort.
This is the view looking down at the Atlantic Ocean, from Dún Aonghasa.
A path near the old fort ruins:
We were able to spend the rest of day walking around, and eventually made our way back to Kilronan. I saw this while walking past a few buildings on the way into town.
Then we took the ferry back to Galway. After a few days of visiting some amazing areas, it was sad that our time in Ireland would soon be coming to an end...