Driving in Ireland is a treat. The black, shiny Audi A-4 rental was pretty slick-looking, but getting inside was a little tricky. It is one thing to say, “They drive on the left side of the road”; it is entirely different remembering the steering wheel is situated (and remained so for the duration of our visit) on the right-hand side of the car. Leigh and I instinctively went to the “wrong” side of the car up to and including our final drive to the airport on departure day. It was also a bit smaller than I am accustomed to; it has been a long time since I needed a shoehorn and a jar of Vaseline to squeeze into a car.
Did I mention this car had a manual transmission? Yes, a stick shift: A left-handed stick shift. This may be the cure for texting and driving: Drive on the left side of the road from the right side of the car while shifting gears with the left hand. Easy peasey, lemon squeezey! Despite early challenges, the combination of my interminable patience and Leigh’s quickly acquired skilfulness as a mobile GPS device (“Stay left. Stay LEFT. STAY LEFT! STAY LEFT!!!”), we covered over 1,350 miles with no dings or dents. One of the keys to successful driving in Ireland is to remember there is no shame in taking multiple laps around the roundabout until you decide which exit is really yours.
The close calls I did have were due to my staying ‘lefter’ of left. The reason rumble-strips were invented were to remind the drifting motorist to get back on the road. An added twist on the Emerald Isle is many of the narrow country roads are not wide enough in some places to accommodate two cars to pass. This requires patience, courtesy and good old common sense. Often bushes, wildflowers, fences, and an occasional sheep (collectively known as Irish rumble strips), serve to remind the occasional driver (i.e. me) of just how far off the path one has wandered. A collapsible side view mirror can be helpful as well.
The rugged grace of the Irish countryside and coastline is beyond breathtaking and beautiful. It is hypnotic. Our touring started with a drive through the Connemara Region. The roads to and beyond Kylesmore Abbey are purely magical. In every direction a thousand shades of green greet the eyes, interrupted only by the crooked lines of randomly spaced stone walls, thatched roof cottages with peat smoke whispering out the chimney, grazing cattle and wandering sheep, and the sporadic remnants of stone forts and castle ruins. An occasional splash of red from either a distant delivery truck or a painted door, is both stark and warm in the same moment.
Aranmore, the largest of the Aran Islands located in Galway Bay, is accessible only by ferry. From the dock we rode our rented bicycles to the old circular stone fort, still standing guard overlooking the Atlantic Ocean since the Bronze Age. Even at the circa 2000 B.C. structure, the Catholic influence is evident: “Next Parrish – Boston”, one sign read. Like the ride out, the ride back along the coast is picturesque and iconic. We quickly came to appreciate the site of old men with woolen plaid hats riding bicycles and sheep-caused traffic jams on narrow canopied-covered country lanes are not just props for an independent film; it is the reality of the Irish countryside.
On the southern side of Galway Bay, the Cliffs of Moher proved to be more of the same: Magical, mystical, mysterious. It is difficult to feel anything but awe and gratitude as the warm Celtic winds blowing off the Atlantic Ocean both push you back yet draw you to the edge.
A guilty pleasure I indulge in when visiting an English-speaking (or some variation thereof) country is morning TV. While nothing quite compares to waking up in Canadian for raw entertainment, Ireland’s RTE state-owned broadcasting company did not disappoint. We were in Ireland when Paul Ryan was announced as the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate. RTE commentary declared Ryan as the “next great Irish Catholic President of the United States”, and wondered aloud why Ryan was playing second fiddle to this virtual unknown Romney. Priceless.
Following our weekend in Dublin, we traveled country roads south along the Irish Sea passing through Bray, and down to the Southern coast and across through Cashel, Blarney and Dingle Peninsula. In every county, the mountains, the sea, the green: Stunning, stunning, stunning!
12 days in Ireland is simply not enough. I hope to return one day to experience again the awe and gratitude I felt by feeling at home in Ireland’s natural beauty.
And as I am reminded by my friend Marilyn, this life we have is precious and should be enjoyed each day we are given. Yesterday is history, tomorrow – a mystery; but today, THIS DAY, is a gift – which is why we call it the present. Sometimes we need to feel the rumble strips to remind us when we’ve strayed too far from our path.
Thank you Marilyn:
May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be ever at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And the rain fall softly on your fields
And until we meet again, May God hold
you in the hollow of his hand.