Up early at 7 am to pack the bags up and shuttle to the airport to pick up the rental car. Sleeping went fairly well, except when I woke up at 2 am feeling extremely hungry (that’s 6 pm Seattle time; I guess my body was expecting dinner.) Breakfast was yogurt we picked up at Tesco the day before, and granola we snagged in Chicago (before realizing the need for a mad rush to the international terminal).
After Jason did a few loops around the parking lot to get a feel for the car (Fiat Punto!), we hit the road, heading out along the M6 toward Galway. I think Irish roads are somewhat given a bad rap, so I’d like to clear the air just a bit. The highways (prefixed with “M” or “N”) are a completely reasonable width.
About halfway there we turned south to visit Clonmacnoise, an early Christian ruin dating back to the 10th century. In order to get there, you must take the narrower countryside roads (prefixed with “R”, for “regional”), and that’s where things do start to get a bit more cozy.
Once at Clonmacnoise (which was, as an historic site, thankfully well signposted), we went inside to buy a Heritage Card, which at 21 Euro is a great deal as it grants access to tons of different historic sites across Ireland. Unfortunately for us, they were all sold out of the adult passes. At this point, we probably won’t end up getting a pass, to be honest; they’re only sold at a handful of the sites to which they grant access, and Clonmacnoise was directly on our path. They really are a good deal if you can get your hands on one and plan to go to more than 4-5 of those locations anyway. The woman at the Clonmacnoise visitor center felt terrible that they were sold out and was kind enough to grant us free access; certainly a pleasant surprise.
There were some interesting moments with large vehicles coming the opposite direction, and one point when Jason had a bit of a close call with a hedgerow on the left side of the car, but in general we’ve found that you can basically assume it’ll all work out. If in doubt, slow down and keep far to the left. Oftentimes the folks driving larger vehicles will pull off to the side as soon as they can if they’re slowing down traffic and have a few cars lining up behind them. If locals drive on these roads all the time, we figured we’d assume they know what they’re doing and that our job was to: a) Not get in the way, and b) Not doing anything stupid.
There was a 20 minute presentation on Clonmacnoise’s history playing in the visitor center, and while I am generally skeptical about such videos, this one was actually fairly interesting and primarily featured watercolor illustrations rather than (potentially hokey) live-action reenactments. It also had brevity on its side (a trait which I – or so I am told – do not).
The ruins were absolutely amazing, and are officially the oldest thing I’ve ever seen (aside from Jason – just kidding!) Weathered stone crosses were interspersed with more recent – though still aged – headstones. Two tall towers jutted into the sky, diagonally opposite each other on the grounds, and the oratory and other buildings were crumbling, roofless things, their innards jutting up from the greenery and ruthlessly exposed to sun, sky, wind, and rain.
Even before the elements were given their chance to do so, history took its toll on the area in the form of multiple fires, invasions, and pillages, the last of which robbed it even of its windows. It’s a pity, but adds an undeniable and tragic kind of beauty to the place. Mobile phone pictures do not, unfortunately, do it any justice. I can’t wait to show the photos we captured with the DSLR. (Edited to add: here they are!)
Stretching out in the distance were green hills and water – contentedly grazing cows on one side, and the remains of a castle slumped across the top of a nearby rise. The castle ruin was too far away to get any phone pictures, but the telephoto lens did the trick. (I know I keep teasing with the “we got great pictures of it, too bad you can’t see them yet!” schtick. It’ll be worth the wait, I promise.)
The plan was to get lunch in the town of Birr (south of Clonmacnoise) and visit Birr Castle, which is known for its expansive grounds (something over five miles of walking paths). Lunch was a success – potato leek soup and brown bread. Unfortunately, we ran out of time. We needed to be in Galway by 6 to check into our B&B. It’s a good thing we even left slightly early, because I proceeded to get us lost twice (as driver, Jason’s job is to make sure we don’t die. As navigator, mine is to make sure we don’t get lost. Clearly only one of us was doing their job correctly.)
Noteworthy: Irish cities we’ve been in thus far don’t have much in the way of street signs. Sometimes – sometimes – you’ll get lucky and there’ll be a street name on a rock wall along the street, but by then you’ve driven past and it’s already too late.
Upon arriving at the B&B later on, we asked our host if this is common, and apparently it is. She admitted that even as a native she has gotten hopelessly lost in Irish cities due to the unmarked roads, but that the Irish people have adapted remarkably well to this affliction (as she jokingly called it): they’ll happily give you directions, if on foot they’ll offer to walk you to your destination, and, moreover, if it’s a pub they might even buy you a pint or three.
For the time, however, I’d reached critical levels on the desperation-o-meter. It was time to try GPS. The unlocked phone we brought was mysteriously able to sync email on the previous day (after which I’d very hastily shut off all data for fear of incurring costs, not knowing how or where we were getting the data from). I thought it might have been a fluke at the time, but inexplicably we somehow still have data. This makes no sense, given we purchased a pre-paid Vodafone card which isn’t activated for data usage (and, might I add, leaves them with no way to actually bill us, as it was picked up for a flat fee from a shop at the airport, so they don’t have any credit card information). The phone’s unlocked, it’s on a non-AT&T network, and, yet, there it is – data, glorious data, and wondrous GPS to boot!
I’m certainly not complaining. It’s the only way we got back on the right path to the M6 and Galway, though I only snuck glances at it occasionally once we felt more on track, feeling as if I was somehow cheating myself of the “getting-helplessly-lost-in-Ireland” experience (and maybe also fearing a bit how and when this “free data for no identifiable reason” luck will end out, likely with the removal of the word “free” and the addition of some combination of dark ritual and demon worship. I hear the 3G gods are merciless.)
I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but the weather the last two days has been beautiful. Blue skies, partially cloudy, and much warmer than we expected – mid-70s, at the very least. I didn’t think I was actually going to need sunscreen in Ireland, but I thought wrong – good thing we brought some!