A few days ago, I was sitting on a low stone wall by the side of the river in the little village of Cong, in County Mayo. As I was sitting there enjoying the rare Irish sunshine, I saw two ducks hurrying along the bank towards me.
The first duck said “Quack! Quack!”
And the second duck replied, “I cannae go any quacker!”
This is my favourite joke of the many told to us by Michael O’Malley, bus driver and tour guide extraordinaire, with the Galway Tour Company (he told this joke as we were leaving Cong by way of a road which passed the aforementioned low stone wall and river). But I am getting ahead of myself.
Before Galway and our lovely bus tour through Connemara, we were in Killarney, touring ourselves through the beautiful Killarney National Park on rented bicycles. In 1932, Arthur Bourn Vincent donated Muckross Estate, which was comprised of his parents’ 19th-century mansion and extensive property, to the country of Ireland. The mansion, Muckross House, has been restored and the public can tour inside for a fee (we didn’t do this but we did eat our lunch and take a walk through the massive and well-maintained gardens). The grounds were eventually substantially expanded through further land donations to create Killarney National Park, Ireland’s first national park.
The bike tour suggested to us by the tourism office in Killarney had us on a nice day trip around Muckross Lake and down then south of Killarney town for a detour to Ross Castle. In total we probably put in about 20 km, occasionally on the roadway but mostly on the bicycle/walking/jaunting car trails in the park. Though the park as a whole is quite hilly (with mountains I’m sure would be gorgeous to explore by car or on foot), our trip was quite easy and relaxing. We stopped several times for pictures, to eat, and to look around. Apart from having a sore behind at the end of the day, the fact that I don’t cycle much in Vancouver didn’t seem to matter much–the bike paths are not hard and the bikes we rented were great.
Though there are nice walking paths accessible from the town of Killarney (Ross Castle and the jaunting cars there are not far away if you want to take advantage of them), if you don’t have a car and want to see the park I really recommend renting a bicycle. There are bicycle rental shops all over town and most give out free maps (the one we used also gave us helmets). As I mentioned before, you don’t need to be a hardcore cyclist, but it does help to make the couple more boring patches (when you’re on a roadway, for example) go faster. It’s a fun and relatively inexpensive way to sight see around Killarney.
After spendy Dublin, we decided to do Killarney on the cheap and booked a couple of beds in Neptune’s Hostel. We were in a 6-person dorm room in a brand new section of the hostel. As hostels go, I thought Neptune’s was pretty great. The room was clean and comfortable (with real duvets, a hostel first for me). We had a big kitchen in the hostel and a Tesco supermarket across the street, so apart from some late-night fast food after a night at the pub, we didn’t eat out in Killarney.
What we did do was go to a pub for a couple of pints and to take in a session of Irish music. Of the live music we’ve managed to catch on our trip to Ireland, this was the first session and probably the most casual. Three musicians sat around a table, drinking pints and playing on a guitar, fiddle, and accordion. When the fiddler got up to go the restroom, a local in the pub took over his fiddle for a song or two (the same thing happened with the guitarist as well). There were some traditional Irish tunes but also songs that people in the pub seemed to know and could sing along to (like You Are My Sunshine). It was relaxed and homey and musically great. And I got drunk without meaning to because in Ireland, the pints are really pints.
After Killarney, we were on a bus and off to Galway on Ireland’s west coast. We stayed in the Forster Court Hotel, just off Eyre Square. Galway itself is a very pretty albeit touristy town (like Killarney in that way), and it was here that we finally did some shopping (great High Street for that). I was tempted to buy a Claddagh ring since they originate in the area, but apart from the rings related to my marriage I’m really not much of a ring wearer so I was able to resist. I was not able to resist a tin whistle.
Our/my real reason for visiting Galway was to see if we could find a day-tour into Connemara, which our Lonely Planet refers to as a “kaleidoscope of rusty bogs, lonely valleys, and shimmering black lakes.” This beauty was surrounded by grey and red-tinged mountains and stone walls, and liberally dotted with old stone cottages and sheep. As it turns out, there are several options for tours and we decided to go with the Galway Tour Company. Our guide/driver was sweet and funny, and kept the landscape alive through his funny and knowledgeable commentary. I learned how peat bogs were formed, what happened to all the trees in Ireland (they were cut down, which is why people started burning peat), where the fairies went (underground), and a plethora of jokes with which to regale my friends and loved ones.
We stopped at the impressive Kylemore Abbey, the cute village of Cong, and the ruins of an old friary, but for me the best part was just the drive through the interior of Connemara. The beauty of this region cannot be overstated. As the clouds (and there are so many clouds in Ireland) pass overhead, the sun dapples the green and red valleys. The mountains with their grey peaks and empty slopes encircle the landscape and create an effect that feels at once spacious and cozy, timeless and firmly rooted in the passage of the seasons. I highly doubt the farmers who live in these valleys have an easy life, sheep’s wool being an almost zero-profit industry at the moment, but I do envy them the beauty in which they live and work.
Sadly, we did not really enjoy dining in Galway (we ended up in an underwhelming and expensive tourist trap the first night and in a pub for basic pub fare the second), but our night at the pub did give us a chance for TC to watch Chelsea beat Burnley in the English Premier League (on the TV, obviously) and for us to listen to some more live music (two fiddles and two mandolins, three or so tables over). It’s so nice to watch people who are really good at what they do in such a casual setting. The musicians seemed quite young this time and I began to become terribly jealous of anyone who can play an instrument well enough to make such satisfying music. Oh well. I’ve got my tin whistle.
My biggest regret about our time in Galway is that we did not give ourselves more time enjoy the area. What we saw was only a small fraction of the amazing scenery and experiences Ireland’s west coast has to offer. We also needed to get from Galway up to Northern Ireland, which meant a lot of our evenings spent planning this leg and an early morning after our second night. Luckily, Northern Ireland had more than enough to offer.