The Joys of Ireland in the Off-Season
After strolling the wooded grounds of Lough Rynn castle, a 19th century gothic manor in Ireland's heart, we dined in a stone-walled dining room on wild boar, red wine, and cheese before wending our way through narrow halls to the bar for a nightcap. The castle, perched on a hill above the nondescript town of Mohill in County Leitrim, has many modern touches that contrast with the idyllic moments Ireland ladles out so unsparingly. Lough Rynn, former seat of the Earls of Leitrim, is now a luxury boutique hotel, complete with Ireland's only Nick Faldo-designed golf course. The waiter who dished up that boar hailed from parts of Europe more Mediterranean than Celtic. And the Audis parked in Lough Rynn's lot bear a faint resemblance to the country below that's digging out from a bitter recession. A 12-day trip in March from Dublin, through Ireland's often overlooked center, and up its western coast with my friend Carmel from County Limerick, revealed a country that hews steadfastly to its folkways. The road trip took our intrepid Saab through barren borderlands of undulating hills and rocky bogs. Strangers followed us out of pubs with quirkily homespun directions. The endless inky pints of Guinness, toasted sandwiches, and breakfast plates laden with fried meats had me marveling at the Irish constitution. Friendly and TrustingSpend enough time on Ireland's byways, and in its towns and cities, and it's possible to see the country with less sentimentality. Your bartender is more likely to be Polish than Irish, fleeing even worse prospects back home. The recession has swelled unemployment and battered real estate prices, and crept into conversations at a wedding reception, a home-cooked dinner, and at the pubs. Yet the folksiness, friendliness, and on-your-honor trust that governs daily life in Ireland isn't there for tourist display. It cinches people tight and eases their burdens. We began in Dublin, where a couple of hours after flying in from San Francisco I found myself munching a toasted sandwich chased by Guinness in a small, dim pub. That was followed by several hours and a half-dozen more pints in the Temple Bar, situated in the district of the same name. We sat at wooden tables as a fellow who billed himself as "the Guitar Man" spun Van Morrison covers and other tunes. We capped the day with dinner at Chapter One, an upscale dining room below the worthwhile Dublin Writers Museum on the city's Parnell Square. The next morning we set out for the two-hour drive to the country town of Adare, where Carmel's sister was to be married. We spent four days in Adare, at the Dunraven Arms hotel. It features a cozy bar room where the wedding entourage logged many hours. The rooms range from modern and tasteful to careworn. A superior room goes for about $255. The hotel is also popular with equestrians, and offers foxhunting trips on its list of amenities. From Thatch to TurretsAdare is a quiet spot to while away a few days in County Limerick amid thatched cottages and the turreted Adare Manor atop a hill. The hotel, now a five-star hotel, is the former seat of the Earls of Dunraven. The wedding ceremony took place in the gray stone Holy Trinity Abbey Church, which dates from 1230 and was restored in the 1800s. Afterward the wedding, we repaired to the Dunraven Arms, where the party lasted long into the night. The next day we trekked up to the Manor for a winning dinner of fish and chips. On Monday morning we pointed the Saab toward the Dingle peninsula, a rough jut of land off Ireland's southwest coast in County Kerry. Dingle town exemplifies the packaged Ireland: We stayed at the touristy Dingle Skellig Hotel, which charged too much (about $175 for two people on a weeknight) and delivered too little. The purposefully quaint town is a bit over the top. But a few miles outside town a desolate road wound along the cliffs to Slea Head, one of the peninsula's outermost points. At dusk, the barren beauty of the grave-lined roads, the sea below, and warm twinkling lights on the highlands above imbued the drive with a reverential stillness. Plying Ireland's roads reveals much about the country's character. You're on your honor at an Irish gas station; you pay after you pump. At another petrol station, a friendly attendant showed me how to inflate metric tires and top off the fluids, and Carmel chided me when I proffered a tip. The Irish help one another without compensation, I learned. Narrow RoadsThey also navigate by the names of towns rather than road names or exits, so we often plotted our course by picking up "the road to Galway," or some other far-off spot. It takes some getting used to for those from less close-knit corners of the earth. I contemplated these customs during the few spare moments when I wasn't alternately skirting oncoming traffic or keep from careering into the ditch as I navigated the impossibly narrow roads. Forget about rapid thoroughfares—seemingly every road in the country bisects a series of small towns where drivers slow past a parade of pubs, churches, and the people who inhabit them. At one stop, on the way to the outpost of Clifden on the western edge of County Galway, I stopped in a pub to ask directions to a small hotel. A patron described the course in the curiously parochial Irish fashion ("drive down that road a ways, past the rugby pitch—you know where that is?"). Five minutes later he emerged, found us at our car, and told us he'd thought better of it and had new information to impart. Four days of driving up Ireland's western edge gives a sense for just how pastoral the country remains, while sitting squarely in the modern era. At Eugene's pub in Ennistymon, County Clare, the business cards of patrons past festoon the walls, including a few from Google. Up the road, Lisdoonvarna is known for its annual matchmaking fair and a song about it by the folk singer Christy Moore. Out in the HinterlandsWe drove the lowlands through Clare's rocks and marshes, then through the bogs of Connemara along the coast of County Galway. One night we passed far-off fires burning in the fields—and engaged in a mostly fruitless search for a vacancy—before bedding down in the small, family-run Carna Bay Hotel, where we watched the Irish-speaking hostess of a musical variety show on Gaelic TV. The simple, clean rooms go for about $120 a night, The Carna Bay revealed itself through a combination of repeated inquiries and blind luck. If we'd been in front of a computer instead of wandering the hinterlands of Ireland at night, the hotel's helpful Web site includes an extensive "how to find us" section that features a zoomable Google map and the inn's GPS coordinates. The next morning, we pointed the Saab through farmer's fields stocked with fat cattle, and rocky rolling hills with nary a soul among them. After stops in some of Ireland's less trafficked towns (we drank coffee under a strong March sun in Westport, and ate Indian food in Ballina), we ended up at Lough Rynn castle for a night before departing for Dublin, less than two hours away. As we walked through manicured gardens at dusk and shot photos of the castle keep and gates, I began to see how Ireland's constancy runs at a level more fundamental than the myth-making that keeps beckoning travelers to return.