Travel Week One: Ireland

I had travel week one free for independent travel, and I spent it going around a loop in the center of Ireland. I had a few goals for the trip: I had wanted to do some travelling by myself, and love slow travel with scenic bus/train rides. I’ve also always wanted to see the Irish countryside, and I have a very good friend who is studying at the University of Galway, so this seemed like a perfect way to combine it all. I flew in to Dublin on Tuesday night and then traveled to Limerick and spent the night there on Wednesday. On Thursday, I took buses up the West coast of Ireland and made it to Galway, where I stayed and sightseed with my friend on Friday as well. On Saturday, my friend and I took a bus to Dublin and stayed for the weekend. It was exhilarating and exhausting and breathtaking and overwhelmingly full, in all senses of the word. 

What I remember the night I left Copenhagen was that the wind was blazing so hard I wondered if the plane would take off. But as we filed up the stairs to the plane with the wind threatening to blow us right off the tarmac into pitch black and sporadic neon, I realized it was happening and was thrilled. I got to my hostel in Dublin a little before midnight and went straight to bed in my “pod” (I’d booked one “pod” in a bunk of eight), just as planned. 

The next morning I had an 8:45 direct bus to Limerick, and saw the country in the daylight for the first time. I got a croissant in a deli near Dublin’s River Liffey for 1 euro and then boarded. After passing through the outer suburbs of Dublin, we got out to these green fields in central Ireland, some patterned into grids or dotted with sheep with dense off-white wool that sat like stones, and real mountains behind them that were dusted with snow. I hadn’t expected to see genuine mountains here. There was so much I didn’t know, the most embarrassing being that I didn’t know Irish is used on the street signs in addition to English. This is, I think, a well known fact, and is a source of pride in Ireland; it was only my ignorance to blame, and it would continue to be startled as I learned more about the history here.

View of the Thomond Bridge from King John’s castle

Limerick was wonderful, and my favorite city of the trip. After we pulled in to Arthur’s Quay, I immediately sat down for a full Irish Breakfast at The Buttery. It was delicious, and also a bit too much for me, but it came with the best black tea of my life (no joke). I spent the rest of the day walking around the city, on bustling main streets and quieter back ones. I stopped into some shops to escape the rain, which came and went so quickly that water was still falling from the gutters when I walked out with the sun shining in full. I did a loop around the thrashing River Shannon, crossing the Shannon Bridge, and then walking back up to cross the Thomond Bridge that led to King John’s castle, which I toured. The castle has been around since the early 1200s, and the number of sieges and battles and fires and political wars it’s endured makes me surprised a single brick remains. 

And then I kept walking, around the low one-story houses with a central door, and cats in the alleyways, stopped in St. Mary’s Cathedral and then St. Mary’s Church nearby. My Airbnb was just minutes away and I settled in for the evening. Later that night, I went to The Locke Bar for dinner, where musicians played traditional Irish music and did some occasional Irish dances, and I stayed for a while. 

Cliffs of Moher

On Thursday, I woke up early and walked through Limerick as it was just waking up, yellow-rosy above closed bars and church steeples. I caught an 8:30 bus out to Ennis first, passing by the rest of the countryside through the middle of Ireland and the Bunratty Castle. At the Ennis bus station, I got tea from the cart and waited for my next bus, the 350 bus to Galway, which took me up along the west coast. The flat open roads soon turned twisty-curvy, and this bus driver drove like a madman as they opened into soft hills covered with long grass, and went up eventually to the sea. I got off at the Cliffs of Moher and walked up to the lookout point by the tower first. All words have already been used to describe the views here but they are all true. In a miracle, the sun was out and the temperature mild, so you could see the long line of dark cliffs edging out, one after another, into the cerulean blue that thrashed into froth at the rocks, and occasionally the wind would catch this water and bring light sea mist up over the cliff edges where the white gulls were circling. I walked on the path southwards towards Hags Head, stood up on a grassy cliff alone, and then walked back, for a quick sandwich at the visitor center before my next bus out.

The Dunguaire Castle in Kinvara

I caught the 350 bus again and took it northwards, passing through Doolin and much of the Burren landscape, with long sheets of flat grey cliffs and striated stone behind fields, and stretches where grey stones seemed birthed out of the mossy grass. I got off at Kinvara, a small seatown, and walked to the Dunguaire Castle, which is small and crumbling but still upright, and went around its overgrown perimeter. Kinvara has this coastline that wraps around the bay, opening to sailboats beyond the buoys, and it maintains a quiet on the outskirts. On the way back I saw a man thatching his thatched roof (a first!) and passed the rest of my time walking the mainstreet and sitting at a quiet bar. The town was smaller than I’d expected so I made the quick decision to take the 16:55 bus out. I took the bus to the end of the route up to Galway, where my friend, Whitney, met me at the bus station, and then walked me back, with a quick pit stop at Supermac’s for fries. It was like coming back to an alternative-universe home (we are roommates back at my college). She made me dinner and then we did a quick jog around the city center, and then a long sleep.

The canal in Galway

Whitney very kindly acted as the world’s best tour guide through Galway, and this day was my favorite of the trip. After breakfast at her place, we did the grand tour: first the Galway Cathedral, a city landmark, and then a walk along the popular canal, lined with nice homes and vines, that pours out violently to the sea. We walked next to Salt Hill, the shoreline in Galway. There was a tropical storm coming the next day, and the rain-wind was so bad it made Denmark’s seem mild. After fantastic waffles and gelato at The Creamery, we walked back along the coast. We stopped along the Famine Walk, made in commemoration of families who had died during famine. At the very end of it is a lookout of the Mutton Lighthouse, the last light seen by those leaving Ireland from the famine. 

We spent the rest of the day in the city center, stopping in a tea shop and looking around stores and restaurants. News started coming in about Coronavirus outbreaks and friends of ours that were being sent back home, and it all started to seem very real. On my bus rides up, I’d watched the green pass with radio coverage of its rapid spread in Italy playing in the background, and it felt like the start of something terrible. It’s a surreal time to travel through a country, with the media storm that’s going down. But what can we do, other than keep up basic flu-season hygiene practices, and hope our governments prepare? I was at least glad to contemplate with a friend. That evening we stuffed ourselves with pizza and garlic bread at Galway’s famous Dough Boys, and I was very glad to be there.

Through my whole trip, the weather kept putting out these minor miracles. There was a tropical storm set to hit at noon the day we were leaving Galway, with wind warnings so severe that the university was shutting down. We’d happened to book our bus out at 8 am, and we missed the start of it by just a few hours. This was a direct bus straight across central Ireland, through all those fields flashing by in the truest green. We stumbled into Dublin dead tired and checked into the hotel, which was such a luxury to me after the hostel/airbnbs. After some Korean food on Dame Street, we walked in the rain to the EPIC Irish Emigration Museum and learned about the sheer quantity of people that have left Ireland over the centuries, and the strength in culture that continues overseas. I think we had implicitly decided to prioritize food on this trip, so after some wandering through churches and shops, we splurged on fish and chips at Cafe en Seine, and then went immediately afterwards to a crepe shop near our hotel. We were so tired and so full, and decided to take the night in, which was a wise move.

The Christchurch Cathedral

My culinary highlight of the trip was actually our brunch at Dublin’s Queen of Tarts on Sunday morning. I got a very basic (but still very good) avocado toast with poached eggs and chili oil, and Whitney got a sausage roll, which was my favorite dish of the trip. We also split a huge scone with Belgian chocolate chips and slathered it with whipped cream and raspberry jam, and it was really one of those things that reminded me why life is worth living. Scones!

The day was perfectly clear, and we toured the Christchurch Cathedral and its gothic interior arches and chambers for worship, and saw the heart of St. Lawrence in a stone casket. This is the church where Handel’s Messiah was first sung and where knights were often knighted, and in the back, they had on display the table where William Gladstone had plotted the destruction of the Irish church. We walked next around Stephen’s Green, with ducks and gulls flapping around the ponds, and then carried on to Grafton street and briefly to Trinity campus. We sampled a lot of food that day: my favorites were a cone of Murphy’s ice cream (I got sea salt and Kieran’s Cookies) and this dense hot chocolate at Ladurée. We also did Temple Bar that night, and found it a tad overrated. 

We were out early the next day. We packed everything up and had breakfast together at a little cafe nearby before parting ways. I was planning to catch a bus to the airport in a few hours, so I walked around, saw an old thrift store and then ate lunch at the Brother Hubbard cafe. Then I was back to Ormund’s Quay on the River Liffey, and on my double decker bus to the airport. The loop was complete. I wondered when I’d be back, then realized prospects were low with impending climate change and student loans and decided not to think about it.

My last meal in Dublin

It was somewhere on the bus ride to Limerick that I fell in love with this country. It took less than a day. The fields hold the truest green I’ve seen, and the people who live here seem to know it, but aren’t really precious about it or any of the incredible landscape or culture they have. I loved the lack of pretension, and the way the rain clouds just take a dump on you and then quickly get bored with it, and all those purple doors. The history, too, is so dense. I finished Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on the flight back. (Did I mention that Dubliners changed my life?). 

I can’t claim to know much about Ireland. I knew nothing when I came and still know very little. I started to understand last week that the current culture is shaped by its history, and it has included tremendous loss and endurance. All the beauty and friendliness it is known for does not hold back a weight. But my favorite thing about Ireland is that they still play Oasis on the radio, which played on all my bus rides between cities. Something about that made me very achingly happy.

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