Green has been fashionable for centuries. It is the color of nature; it soothes, refreshes and heals. A strong energy that attracts positive power, green represents honesty and truth. How fitting that Southern Ireland is blanketed in green, and according to a song by Johnny Cash, forty shades of it.
Verdant valleys look like patchwork quilts laced with shrubs delineating farmland. Even sheep are dotted with green spray paint, along with others in pink, blue yellow and purple; a humane form of branding. Farmers raise mussels in emerald seas that also host dolphin, seals and a myriad of fish. Palm trees, as well as hibiscus, heather and hydrangea thrive.
We imagined Ireland to be cold, wet and rocky, a far cry from our sunny, Sarasota home. But here in the south of the country, we discover a pot of gold at the end of the Gulf Stream. The warm ocean current flows here from South Florida, bringing with it the balmy temperatures that cause this coast to flower and its fauna to flourish.
We arrive in County Cork at “Rush Hour.” One by one the cows amble across the narrow country road; the sun is setting and a farmer is leading his cattle back from the fields. We stop our car (we have no choice) causing a three, maybe four-car backup, while we all wait, literally, ‘til the cows come home.
Earlier in the day and not-so-fresh from an eight-hour flight and three-hour drive, we met with some Florida friends at a pub in Killarney. We planned this trip with them … Vicki and native Irish husband Tom McPhail, and friend Brian O’Connor, whose second home is in County Kerry. First order of business was a toast of Bailey’s Irish Cream in front of a roaring fireplace.
Next, a whirlwind tour of nearby 15th century Ross Castle, Muckross House and 25,000-acre garden estate (a sort of combination of Selby Gardens and Ringling Museum – but grander and hundreds of years older), and scenic Torc Falls at Killarney National Park.
We continued south, to the picturesque town of Glengarriff, our final destination. Vicki navigated while my husband Patrick drove the winding mountain roads. Now I know why the Irish drink. Not only must you drive on the left side of the road, but the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. The uninitiated passenger gets to bite her nails while looking down hundreds of feet over the cliffs, as the intrepid driver skirts them to avoid being hit head on.
Get an automatic transmission unless you have a death wish. And be wary of cars bearing a white sticker with a red “L” on their rear windshield. This means “Learner” (provisional license). It could be this person’s first day driving. It could also mean they’ve been driving for years, but keep failing their driving test, in which case they are merely issued another provisional license.
Brian warns us to “expect the unexpected – there are a lot of near misses.” To wit, signs along the roads simply state, “THINK.” Other signs read, “Leprechaun Crossing” and “Keep Ireland Tidy.”
When in Glengarriff, a stay at Casey’s Hotel is a must. As are visits to Bernard Harrington’s pub across the street, where we find ourselves about midnight. It’s now 27 hours since we’ve slept, but the drive here would have kept a narcoleptic awake. Which is great, because it feels like we are in a National Geographic television segment.
Young and old, locals gather with musical instruments — a fiddle, harmonica, bodhran (a large drum held and played sideways), guitar, Irish whistle and flute — and break into a jam session. Animated conversation, traditional music and Irish whiskey flow, and people spill out onto the streets. Someone calls out “Patrick,” and 30 guys turn around, including mine.
The villagers seem uncomplicated, thoughtful and welcoming, like characters from a Dickens’ novel. It’s Southern hospitality with a Celtic twist. Here, music, comedy and camaraderie are de rigueur.
The evening ends with Irish coffee back at Casey’s, where a “nightcap” launches a round of singing until about four in the morning.
Casey’s Hotel is in the heart of Glengarriff, a bayside village of three or four blocks of flower-lined shops and cafes sheltered by the Caha Mountains. It’s picture perfect and looks as if it were created for tourists. It was not. All of the villages in Counties Cork and Kerry vie for bronze, silver and gold designations as an official “Tidy Town.”
Houses and shops are painted in bright colors. Geraniums grace window boxes and the streets are immaculate. Here in Glengarriff, the police (“Garda”) station looks like a charming pink and white home surrounded by fluffy multi-colored hydrangeas.
Just down the street, a short ferry ride leads to the small island of Garinish, renowned for its Italian and Japanese gardens, De Medici house, Napoleonic Martello tower and Greek Sun temple. On our way, we glide past Seal Island, a rock formation in the water and a favorite sunbathing spot for seals.
Though one could spend a week or more in Glengarriff and not want for stunning views and a variety of activities (hiking, fishing, swimming, boating and golf), the surrounding countryside should not be missed. And while there are plenty of B&Bs in the area, Casey’s is our home base of choice.
Besides its popular pub, Casey’s boasts a gourmet restaurant serving three meals a day, with complimentary breakfast for guests. “You’ll have the Irish breakfast, you will?” our waitress inquires. Of course. Two eggs, bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes, white and black pudding, and homemade brown bread with creamy butter. Casey’s also offers porridge, prunes, grapefruit, cereal and fruit juices.
Then there’s the “lounge,” a living room set off the lobby with comfy couches and chairs, a large-screen TV, a gorgeous 18th century piano and other antique tables and accents, including original paintings from the early 1920s. This night, everyone gathers round the TV to catch the evening news.
Afterwards, Tom sits down at the piano and sings “Oh Danny Boy.” Children play and joke telling begins. (“What’s the best way ta get ta Dublin? Are ya walkin’ or drivin’? Drivin’. That’s the best way.” Barrumpum.) It’s where friends and families gather. Patrick says “It’s like being at Grandma’s.”
We are, in fact, at Grandma’s. Casey’s Hotel was opened in 1879 by owner Donal Deasy’s great grandmother, and has been in the family ever since. Wife Eileen is the chef, and their children tend bar and work the dining room. Margaret, a 30-year friend of the family, helps clean and adorns the hotel with fresh flowers from the garden in dramatically artful arrangements.
We review the register, which dates from 1903, and are particularly moved by a sentiment expressed by a guest in 1911: “We must all have our Garden of Eden – Glengarriff was mine! Love is anywhere grand, but is mostly divine, when we love with the tidbits of Earth, Air and Sea – all about in a cordon of sweet sympathy.”
“Many guests leave as friends and return year after year,” says Donal, a good man himself, whose warmth and quick wit endear us to him right away. He’s an expert in area attractions and helps us, along with our veteran friends, plan an ambitious itinerary that includes:
– Gougane Barra, Ireland’s first national park and home of a lakefront monastery dating back to the 6th century. We tour the tranquil grounds, visit the chapel, silently read headstone inscriptions, watch swans and anglers on the lake, and end with an Irish coffee. Alcohol served on holy grounds? “Of course … it’s their religion,” says my Catholic-raised husband. Vicki explains that in Ireland, an eating establishment need not have a liquor license to serve Irish coffee; nonetheless, this restaurant has a full bar.
– Market Day in the town of Kenmare. The streets are bustling with merchants proffering horses, ponies, donkeys, chickens and ducks. Other than that and a game of three-card monte, it’s like a flea market, where one can buy everything from reading glasses to CDs to household tools. Cathedral spires mark the end of the main street, a popular subject of local artists. Weaving our way through the crowds, we find art galleries, cashmere boutiques, clothing and gift shops and a jumble of pubs and cafes. It’s a short stroll to the banks of the Kenmare River, a veritable arboretum resplendent with everything from lavender, blue and pink hydrangeas to elephant ears, ivy, pine and palm trees.
– Sheen Falls Lodge, an elegant Relais and Chateaux resort on the Sheen River, overlooking a roaring waterfall. Just ten minutes from Kenmare, this is a lovely post-market respite. We sip cocktails on the terrace, served by a French wait staff, and watch foam-flecked tidal waters cascade over sandstone boulders.
– Healy’s Pass, a hair-raising but stunningly scenic route through the mountains to County Kerry. We see sheep, cows and horses graze as we drive on tree-canopied roads through rolling hills, green meadows and rugged misty-topped mountains.
– Baltimore, a seaside town resembling Chesapeake Bay. To get here, we drive through Bantry and Skibireen, both destinations in themselves. Bantry is famous for its mussel farms, where the mollusks are raised on lines that float on the water to prevent grit. (Restaurants serve them every style from marieniere to cordon blue.) There are lakes, inlets, ocean and sailboats everywhere. We lunch at a waterfront café, enjoying Murphy’s Stout (brewed in Cork) and a toasted special: A toasted sandwich of ham, cheddar cheese, onions and tomato … as common in Ireland as a hamburger in America.
– Clear Island. Dolphins leap alongside the crowded ferry from Baltimore Harbor to this anachronistic island village. It’s not a luxury cruise; in fact, it’s just short of having livestock on board. But the destination is well worth the journey. An invigorating hike up purple heathered mountains leads to a small heritage museum and a tiny, centuries-old Gaelic church.
– The Ring of Beara, a road that loops around the Beara Peninsula, presenting ever-changing, astonishing views, and as such, earns our designation as a life highlight. We stop halfway at the garden terrace of Windy Point House on the Atlantic shore. Fishing boats sail by, waves crash against the rocks, and passengers ride a rickety cable car across to Dursey Island. On the way back we drive through Allihies, home of many famous artists, and stop in Eyeries, a tiny Tidy Town that makes Glengarriff look cosmopolitan. A televised hurling match beckons, so we pop into O’Shea’s for a pint of Guinness and watch the game. The name O’Shea is one of a seemingly finite set. Others we often encounter are O’Sullivan, O’Connor and O’Leary.
– Sunday morning mass in Glengarriff, even if you’re not Catholic. As we walk out of Casey’s, Margaret gives us a sendoff with a twinkle in her eye, “Say a prayer for all the sinners, and you can presume I’m included.” The congregation sports jeans and tennis shoes, jackets and umbrellas, and there is standing room only. Altar girls assist the priest, whose moving sermon lasts just 30 minutes. “Peace be with you,” we repeat to each other as we turn left and right with outstretched hands.
The pace is non-stop, but coming “home” to Casey’s is always comforting. A late afternoon pub visit becomes a family affair as moms, dads, babies in strollers and children of all ages pour in to watch a soccer match. Interesting mix.
Because Irish families are so large, there are actually more children here than adults. And they’ve all got round white faces, red cheeks and big blue eyes. In Ireland, the pub is the center of social activity, family and political life. We drink it all in while devouring beef and Guinness pie.
Besides pub food, which, in contrast to ours, is neither fried nor fast and may include salmon pate as well as salmon sandwich, haute cuisine is prevalent. In recent years a culinary awakening has occurred in Ireland that has won international accolades. Classically trained chefs choose to work here because of the ready availability of superior raw products from this largely green, unpolluted land. These chefs are also guardians of Irish culinary heritage, so they include traditional dishes on their sophisticated menus. Casey’s restaurant is no exception. The daily changing menu might include anything from wild fresh salmon steak to honey roast duckling served on an apple and hazelnut stuffing with orange and kiwi sauce.
Our final night finds us dining on poached native lobster in champagne sauce, following the chef’s complimentary chicken consommé and lemon sorbet with mint spring. We’re dining at Dromoland Castle Hotel and Country Estate, a 16th century castle turned resort, and member of the prestigious Preferred Hotels and Resorts of the World. We decide that every gourmet candlelit dinner should include the lilting sounds of the harpist just a few feet from our flower-topped table.
A three-hour drive north from Glengarriff, we reluctantly left our friends, old and new, to spend the night closer to Shannon airport for the morning flight home. We have a nightcap in the castle lounge, a room that resembles Sarasota’s Ritz Carlton cigar bar. A pretty lass sits near the fireplace and plays guitar and sings Irish folksongs.
Through her romantic, sometimes political lyrics, we overhear one couple speak to another at a different table. “We live in Clearwater, Florida.” Their response, “We’re from Sarasota!” Then from across the room, “We lived in Bradenton but just moved to Tarpon Springs.”
We are the only couples in the lounge and like a rainbow connection, we meet “in a cordon of sweet sympathy” on the Gulf Stream’s Emerald Isle.
For more information contact Cork Kerry Tourism: Phone, 011-353-21-42-551-00; Website, www.corkkerry.ie, and Casey’s Hotel: Phone, 011-353-27-630-10; E-mail, CaseysHotel@Yahoo.com.
Reprinted from Positive Change Magazine