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A Return to Ireland

I’d been to Ireland three times before, but this would be the first for my brother, so it was an opportunity for me to show him around a bit and also show off my worldly travel skills. For the first time in Ireland, I rented a car so we could drive the south and southwestern corner of the country. On previous trips, my wife and I navigated the island by train, taxi, and the occasional tour bus.

Having your own car makes it a whole new experience. No delayed trains on this trip, no views out a dirty bus window. This trip felt looser, more wild. I’d balked at renting a car in Ireland before because of the driving-on-the-left thing, with the steering wheel on the left as well. I didn’t feel confident in that. But after renting a car in France and then in Iceland last year, I felt ready for the challenge of international driving, even if it was on the “wrong” side of the car and road (I had even booked a manual transmission, but chickened out at the airport when the guy at the car rental desk offered me the automatic).

We drove south a couple hours to Cobh, once known as Queenstown, the final port of call for the doomed Titanic, and also the launching point for countless Irish leaving their homeland for the unknown. Jeff and I have ancestors who hailed from county Cork, Ireland, so there is a high chance, if not a certainty, that they departed from this very port. Jeff and I stopped to walk the harbor and get coffee and egg sandwiches, take some pictures, settle my nerves from two hours of narrow and winding road driving. Jeff kept barking at me for steering the car too far to the left, the unusual sight of oncoming traffic coming at me from the right side off-putting. Branches from trees continuously scraped the left side of the car.

From Cobh we drove to our base for the first night, Kinsale, where we walked some more and had a terrific first meal. We stayed at a B+B minutes from the town center and a lovely Irish breakfast the next morning, chatting with several other American travelers and taking turns refilling each other’s coffee.

On our second morning the trip shifted into another gear. After a pit stop in Kenmare for coffee and an apple pastry, we headed out onto the iconic Ring of Kerry. The shimmering Atlantic’s steady presence on our left, impossible green expanses on our right, the peninsula is impossible to overhype. The last time I’d been on the Ring of Kerry had been back in 2013 via tour bus, and sitting down low to the road in our rental car gave the experience a more hands-on, immediate feel that I’d missed the first time. It was hard not to pull over onto the shoulder of the road every four or five minutes to better take in the views, and that’s what we did. A five-mile stretch of driving sometimes took forty-five minutes after four or five pit stops. On one, we sat on a stone wall aside the road, looking down over a greenscape of farms and villages, the sea beyond it dancing with sunlight. We sat, side by side, in mostly silence for nearly twenty minutes. At one point, Jeff exhaled and said, “This might be the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen.”

We stayed that night on a farm. It felt like the middle of nowhere, in the best way. Outside our sliding glass door, sheep grazed and called out, a couple mules bickered and nipped one another, and three beagles wrestled excitedly. The air smelled clean in a way that’s hard to explain. We had a 360 degree view of everything—and nothing: the distant sea beyond the farmland, the Kerry Cliffs looming far behind us, hills to the south and the north, open sky above. We felt small.

Marie, our host, recommended a restaurant and a dish in Portmagee, the port town just a couple miles from the farm. This might have been my favorite village of the trip. Tiny, remote, quiet, barely a village at all in fact. There were two restaurants, one small store, and boats galore. The air was warm and we ate outside, toasting our second night in Ireland. The jet lag was wearing off, the Irish air working its way through my lungs like an elixir. I’d enjoyed Ireland on my previous trips, particularly outside the cities of Dublin and Belfast in Northern Ireland, and even Galway, but on this trip—maybe it was the remote isolation of Portmagee, or the private room on the farm, or the freedom of driving the country ourselves—but this time, I was in love.

After dinner we returned to our room and realized the king bed actually separated into two beds. I walked over to Marie’s front door to ask for another set of bedding so that we could make up the second bed. It was late—after ten—but she insisted she come over to do it herself despite my plea to just hand me the sheets. “That’s what I’m here for,” she said. A few minutes later she appeared at our door, arms full of new bedding. Clearly we should have straightened all this out hours earlier, but she smiled and chatted her way through the late-night adjustment. Jeff helped, copying what she was doing with one bed—fitting the duvet with the top bed spread, etc.—with his bed. I mostly stayed outside with the sheep during this, but popped in once or twice to see the progress. Once I told Marie, “Be patient with Jeff, he’s never made a bed in his life.” To which she replied, “It’s a lesson.” There’s a saying in Ireland about visitors being treated more like friends than tourists, and that was certainly true at Marie’s place.

The next morning we had an early appointment down at the Portmagee harbor for a boat out to the Skellig Islands, seven miles offshore. The sea was slate gray and choppy with froth, making for a rocky voyage. We weren’t even certain the trip was going to happen until the night before, since the excursions are very much weather dependant, the hitch being whether or not the surf is too rough for boats to be able to land at Michael Skellig. Our trip went off as scheduled, leaving me to wonder what kind of seas it took to cancel.

Michael Skellig, from a distant, looks a little like to approach to Kong Island, a dramatic, spiking presence alone in the smash and crash of the Atlantic. Closer, we see that the island is checkered with thousands of dramatic stone steps, cross-stitching up and down the island’s green expanse. Michael Skellig was home to Irish monks as far back as 60 A.D., and was a monastery for over 400 years. Standing at its apex, it’s hard to believe that each stone step was laid by hand, each stone of the beehive huts placed individually, hauled here from afar across treacherous, deadly seas.

But for Jeff and I, the real draw of the island is much dorkier than its historical significance. In 2015, the island was used as the site of Luke Skywalker’s self-imposed exile in the film The Force Awakens and then later in The Last Jedi. On this late July day, we saw no Jedi but did encounter about 10,000 puffins, clearly the inspiration for Star Wars’ equally cute and goofy porgs.

Later that afternoon, a little wet and salty but inspired, we left Portmagee and the Ring of Kerry and headed northwest onto the stunning Dingle Peninsula. We stayed two nights in the lively town of Dingle, our first two-night stop of the trip. Dingle is beautiful in the way that many Irish coastal towns are beautiful, with their colorful structures, energized streets, and Gaelic signs. The next day we drove the Slea Head Drive around the very tip of the peninsula. We hiked to a stunning outcropping of islands in a driving rainstorm—what trip to Ireland would be complete with one such excursion?—and then returned to Dingle to change into dry clothes and celebrate the accomplishment.

Dingle is built for celebration. It reminded us a little of an Irish Nashville, every bar lively, fun, and bursting with live music. We spent the evening bar-hopping, each bar with a different vibe and equal in their energy. Every last musician was incredible. You couldn’t go wrong in any of them, but we were left in an odd conundrum: we wanted to stay in each, settle into the night and the music, yet the pull to have just one and then leave to see what the next place offered was real, and strong. In the end, we did our best to take each place in, but also hit as many as we could—a tough balancing act. We made it to four that night, and we loved them all. Each had its own identify, its own fingerprint, rich with history and story.

On our final full day we drove back east to Killarney and did some hiking in Killarney National Park, then into town for our final, farewell meal. I ordered one final Guinness and we toasted the success of the trip and our appreciation for the moment and our close brotherly friendship despite a fifteen year age difference. With Jeff living in California and me in New England, we only see each other a couple times a year, so to be able to reconnect on this road trip while also connecting to our ancestral roots, was special, and we knew it then, in that bar with our Guinness and our Smithwick’s Ale (“Smitticks”). I love when I can appreciate the significance of a moment in real time, as it’s unfolding—not just looking back after the fact—and that’s what the best travel experiences can do. Sláinte.

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