We’ve just returned from a 12 day trip to Ireland, and very nice it was too.
Our travels began at an eye-watering hour on Wednesday 4 April, having mustered about 4 hours’ sleep in the wake of the previous night’s Passover meal. We flew from Southampton to Dublin, picking up a hire care at the airport for the onward journey to Galway.
After a lavish brunch, I left Sarah to explore the delights of the city – which were rather less extensive than hoped, it transpires - and headed for the Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail) station in Castlebar. My target: the branch line from Manulla Junction to Ballina which had eluded me on a previous visit. It’s a short but strange line, not least because Manulla Junction is only accessible by train. That, combined with a frustratingly sparse timetable, required wit and cunning to ensure it was achieved.
Mrs Giles had exhausted the shopping potential of Galway long before I returned, so a couple of train-free days were appropriate to restore equilibrium. Our B&B just outside the city was comfortable and the breakfast was more than ample to fuel us for two days exploring Connemara and the Burren. Of the two regions, Connemara was by far the more picturesque – we enjoyed pootling around the single-track lanes and stopping off at various remote spots, villages and bakeries. ‘Ireland’s best scrapbooking shop’ proved to be something of a disappointment, however. Unusually, no purchases were made.
Saturday’s journey south involved various forms of transport. Firstly, we drove to Athenry station where Sarah deposited me for the 1005 train along IÉ’s relatively recently-reopened Western Corridor route. She took the almost-deserted M18 (also new) and met me an hour later at Ennis. We continued into West Clare, catching the vehicle ferry across the River Shannon from Killmer to Tarbert and stopping in Listowel. Here, Sarah waited patiently while I ventured into the surreal world of the Lartigue Monorailway. ‘Bonkers’ doesn’t really do the monorailway here justice. The original system ran for 16km or so from Listowel to Ballybunion, although the ‘preserved’ system is a 1km return trip. The track is an A-frame, so the specially-built locomotive and carriages straddle the running rail. This means that, to avoid toppling over, the carriages have to be balanced by distributing the passengers evenly. (This was even more awkward when originally used to convey livestock to market. A farmer wanting to sell a cow would also have to take two calves along for the ride, so that they would counterbalance the heifer on the outward journey and then shuffle around to balance each other out on the return. Mad.)
The other main drawback of A-frame monorailway is that the usual method of using points to allow the train to switch tracks doesn’t really work. Instead a bizarrely complicated turntable system is needed. This meant that Sarah’s patience was tried to the limit as I was stuck on the train 50 metres away from where she was parked but unable to disembark until an arcane series of shunting manouevres was conducted. The visit, which I’d predicted would take about 20 minutes, ended up taking over an hour.
Once free, we drove on to Tralee (for provisions) then via the staggering beauty of the Gap of Dunloe to Sneem on the Iveragh peninsular. We first visited Sneem on our honeymoon, and I’d booked the same cottage that we stayed in then – a traditional stone-built cottage overlooking the tidal river, formerly used as the harbourmaster’s residence. It was still as beautiful as it had been on that first visit. The owner had lit the peat-burning stove for us and left some fresh local milk in the fridge. We unpacked and snuggled in for a wonderfully relaxing week.
The ever-changing view from the cottage – and antics of the resident otter - meant that it wasn’t really necessary to do too much travel to experience County Kerry in its fullness. That said, we did enjoy excursions to nearby Killarney and Kenmare (both having branches of our favourite café, Jam). We took a couple of invigorating walks – one up a hill and over a waterfall in Gleninchiquin and another along the beach in Derrynane.
On the Thursday, we embarked upon a full-day trip to Skellig Michael – an uninhabited rock ten miles out into the Atlantic. This involved travelling in a very small boat in sea conditions which can only be described as tumultuous. For the first ten minutes, this was quite exhilarating. For the next 80, it was more a case of fearing for our lives. Even disembarking at the tiny quayside on Skellig was not for the faint-hearted – the boat was rising and falling by more than a metre so it was necessary to time one’s leap to safety with precision. This was made even less easy when the boatman was trying to ‘help’ by unceremoniously pushing one’s posterior in the direction of dry ground.
The two hours on Skellig was very special. Ours had been the only boat to make the journey across, so the 12 (fool)hardy passengers had the place to ourselves. First and foremost, Skellig is a haven for seabirds and within a couple of minutes there were puffins flying past our ears. There is a rough-hewn 600 step staircase cut in to the rock, and many more puffins had burrowed in underneath where we were stepping. Some of them appeared almost unaware of our presence, and we got surprisingly close to them. We spent much of our time admiring them and their comical expressions.
At the top of the rock, there was an abandoned monastery with bee-hive shaped stone cells and sanctuary. I’m all for a bit of solitude from time to time, but actually living on Skellig would have been something else. The monks would have had no running water, no mains electricity, not even a source of firewood without having to brave the Atlantic again. The views are breathtaking though – definitely a place where you can sense the presence of God.
The boat returned us to the mainland where we changed our soaked-through clothing and headed to the Skelligs Chocolate Factory. Situated right on the coast overlooking the Skelligs, it has got to be one of the least likely locations for a chocolatier in the world. But they do very good hot chocolate (amongst other things) and it was the perfect place to recover from our oceanic ordeal.
Cork was the destination for our final night in Ireland, revisiting a Mexican restaurant that we’d enjoyed on honeymoon (and getting in another bit of track that IÉ had helpfully opened since our previous trip). Checking into the hotel was a curious experience, as the lobby was full of seven-year-old ballerinas, young people dressed in SpongeBob Square Pants costumes and half the cast of Riverdance. It was apparently to do with a regional heat for the Irish equivalent of Britain’s Got Talent (presumably Ireland’s Got Talent).
Our journey home was via the scenic narrow-gauge Waterford & Suir Valley Railway from Kilmeadan to Grace Dieu, on which we had a carriage to ourselves. From there, we continued to Avoca (aka Ballykissangel) and the Wicklow mountains back to Dublin airport.