Bye Bye, Beara

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Ballynahowen wedge tomb, near the village of Adrigole.

It was time to push on today, my two weeks here ticking by far too quickly. A stiff wind blew and rain threatened as I drove north up the east side of the Beara Peninsula.

I feel my time here, even if far too short, was well spent. I got to know the area much better, although it’s a case of the more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know. You know? There really is so much to discover here.

So much in fact that I’m already thinking of adding one more day to the tour! Partly that’s because we will really need two nights in Portmagee, before and after visiting Skellig Michael, but also to spend one more day on the Beara. I want people to be able to slow down and feel the pace of life here; to walk the ancient paths and watch the sun set over the Atlantic off the wild rocky coast; contemplate the stone monuments left by the people who so long ago called this remote place home, and share a pint with some of the locals.

Healy Pass, built as a Famine project, connects the two sides of the Beara Peninsula.

I’m sure that, like me, the Beara will seep into their soul. Now I’m not romantic enough to think the Beara is the only wonderful place in Ireland — there are many, many more. But it is certainly one of the most wonderful, and one I am looking forward to sharing with others.

Tomorrow I shift gears and head to Cork, the second largest city in Ireland. We’ll see how much of a culture shock it is.

For those who want to see the Beara Peninsula on film, there have been two recent movies set here, both starring Colin Farrell. One is  a BBC two-part made for TV movie called “Falling for a Dancer” (which I mentioned before), the other is “Ondine.” Both are available from Netflix.

Locally Famous — That Red-haired American Lady

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It’s been said that two kinds of people live on the Beara Peninsula: those who are born here and those who chose to be here. Either way, everyone knows each other by name and all their sordid history. I’ve already found myself being drawn into that web.

It started with my stay in tiny Allhies, and meeting the man named “Mighty” in O’Neill’s Pub. At 57, Mighty, like many here, grew up just down the road. He lives not far from his mother, who was also born on this finger peninsula reaching into the Atlantic.

This morning I was in Castletownbere, a village about 20 miles down the road, and while chatting with a man about the ferry to Bere Island, discovered that he lived just around the corner from Mighty. And he had seen me in the pub the night before.

No doubt by morning they’ll be exchanging notes on that “red-haired American lady,” as the second gent called me, and her crazy idea to bring tourists to the Beara.

Actually all of the local people that I’ve talked to about my tour plans are enthusiastically supportive. They all think the Beara is the best place on earth, and they like that I share their enthusiasm. They all insist there is “loads to do” in whatever area they call home, be it Allihies, Castletownbere, Bere Island or beyond. I’m starting to think my tour isn’t going to be long enough! Maybe I’ll do a Beara, Part One in May and Part Two in the fall!

Bere Island ferry pulling into Castletownbere. People walk off, cars back on.

Today I went to Bere Island, which is just across the harbor from Castletownbere. As a passenger on the boat put it, “Beara is remote, but Bere Island is REMOTE.”

The ferry ride was . . . interesting — a boat just big enough to hold four cars, and you had to BACK your car down the boat launch and up the steel loading ramp on the boat! Once the cars were loaded the ramp was pulled up to enclose the bow.

The boat trip was expensive, about $35 round trip, and it only ran every two hours. So you can imagine my anguish when my camera battery died just as we docked on the island, and I didn’t have a spare. The ONE day I couldn’t turn around and go back for it!

I figured there must be some kind of karma at play, maybe the universe telling me to slow down and just be in the moment, instead of always trying to capture it to enjoy later. So I slowed down, watched the island’s treasures unfold, and took note of some of them.

Permit me to share these mental images with you:

In a small cove: Eleven open-mouthed black lobster pots with blue ropes stacked on the rock wall of the boat launch.

Dark blue water, white waves crashing and climbing dark rock cliffs.

Thin, black layers of slate upended like stacks of burnt paper washed up against the shore.

Yellow box with red life ring and a sign warning: “A Stolen Ringbouy — A Stolen Life.”

High on a hill: Steep climb up to round, stone Martello tower reigning over the landscape, narrow spiral staircase winding up to panoramic view. No pirates in sight.

Along the way: Abandoned, crumbling stone cottage, one of many, ivy tearing apart what man labored to build.

Stone cottage with boarded up windows, one painted with a smiling cat sitting on the sill.

Ancient standing stone on a hill marking the center of the island, facing the later Martello tower across the valley. Who’s watching whom?

Overheard between two boys: “So he says, how can you be so ugly with only one head?” Now there’s an image to ponder.

After I returned to my B&B I replaced the battery and headed back over to Allihies, where I had left my jacket at the last place I stayed. This is what I was greeted with on the main street. I love this place!

Note the farmer herding the cows by bicycle. The pace of life is slower on the Beara.

Silent Sentinels Guard the Beara

Ballycrovane ogham stone towers at 17 feet.

Yesterday was a monumental day. And my feet got very wet.

The Beara peninsula bristles with stone circles, wedge tombs and other megalithic stone monuments left behind thousands of years ago by prehistoric people. Most of them are estimated to be at least 3,000 years old. Many are just a short walk from the road, but the Beara Way walking trail yields many more.

I had the rare privilege of having an expert on the subject give me a personal tour of a few sites that are not marked at all, plus I visited a few that are very well known but little visited.

Connie Murphy is a retired schoolteacher in Castletownbere, and the chairman of the Beara Historical Society. He knows virtually every one of the more than 900 stone monuments on the peninsula, and has a master’s in archeology based on his research of the area. He has agreed to lead an exclusive half-day lecture and tour of the Beara’s history and archeology for my tours.

In the way of rural Ireland, all I had to do was ask my innkeeper in Allihies, John O’Sullivan, for suggestions on a local tour guide for my Celtic Heart Tours. He suggested Connie and set up a meeting.

Under sunny skies we started with a tour of Dunboy Castle, where he explained the architecture of the castle, and the story of the 1602 battle that signaled its demise. Standing on what is now a grass covered low stone wall, he brought it back to life for me. Like most Irish history, it’s a sad story of battles lost and villagers massacred by the conquering English.

(Note: The newer Puxley Mansion, adjacent to the original Dunboy Castle, is also sometimes called Dunboy Castle.)

Beara historian Connie Murphy explains that a boulder burial stone was meant to cap a burial urn, or perhaps several.

From there we drove to just outside Castletownbere, hopped a low wire fence and stepped on grassy hillocks across a swampy field to check out a boulder burial stone. Connie explained that the massive stone was actually perched on four smaller stones, with enough space underneath to hold a cremation urn. He estimated it was in the 3,000 year old range and had never been excavated. Incredible to think there could still be a pottery urn under it.

From there we tromped across a peat bog to visit a holy well, originally used by pre-Christians, but co-opted by the Catholic church to become “St. John’s Well.” Modern stone had been laid around the two natural springs and a small, plastic Madonna lay between the two.

Derrintaggart stone circle, one of the better known monuments on the Beara.

On my own I visited the stone circle, Derrintaggart, just outside Castletownbere, and several sites back on the west coast of Beara.

What look like random chop marks are actually "ogham," ancient writing. (pronounced oh-ahm)

In a small field on Ballycrovane harbor, near the village of Eyeries, is the tallest ogham stone in the world. In the world! Ballycrovane ogham stone stands 17 feet tall, towering over the hilly countryside. It’s accessed by going through a small gate near a cottage and climbing a winding cow path. No bus parking lot, no visitors’ center or gift shop, no admission booth. Except for the addition of a small metal plaque, it is virtually unchanged from when it was erected during the Bronze Age.

Chop marks along one edge are ogham – ancient writing – which has been interpreted to roughly say “son of Deich descendant of Torainn.” While the stone still stands, there is no written record of Deich, his son or Torainn.

A short ways down the road is the ruined church of Kilcatherine, which has a unique claim to fame. Set in the stone over the arched doorway is a curious, cat-like stone face. It is believed to pre-date the Christian presence, another example of how the Catholic church in Ireland incorporated pagan beliefs in order to convert the locals.

A cat-like pre-Christian stone head welcomes visitor to Kilcatherine. Or maybe it's Kil-CATherine. Sorry.

On the wild Beara Peninsula the locals seem just fine living with the ancient, pagan past all around them.

To Boldly Go Where No Rental Car Has Gone Before

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You can just hear him saying "That's a baaaad idea."

I’m always amazed that Irish rental car agreements put no restrictions on where you can take their vehicles; like yesterday’s adventure.

Several months ago, while browsing Irish real estate online (one of my hobbies) I found a quaint “fixer upper” on the Beara peninsula. It’s been the desktop photo on my computer since then, and I thought, why not try to find it. I showed it to John Sullivan, my innkeeper, who of course knew where it was. He also said it was the house used in the 1998 BBC movie, “Falling for a Dancer.” Bonus! I had seen the movie and thought the house looked familiar.

"Fixer upper" on Cod's Head peninsula, Beara peninsula, County Cork.

The house is at the end of the road on the side of the Cod’s Head peninsula, a rocky point on this rocky peninsula just north of Allihies. John mentioned it might not be a good road if one was afraid of heights. As in, sheer drop off past the tire track.

A gentle rain fell as I drove up the increasingly steep and rocky road, through two gates, past sheep, then down a long incline and I did doubt whether this was a wise move. But there was nowhere to turn around, so I pressed on. I stopped before the final climb, where the road was muddier and grass covered, and turned around in a dime-sized spot.

The house was now surrounded by several small, newer cottages, but there was no one around. The views were incredible from this lonely vantage point, looking north and west along the peninsula and out to sea, the twin skellings in the misty distance.

The old house was in bad repair, and as I looked in the windows at the mold climbing the walls and the ceiling caving in from the leaking roof, I was cured of my desire for an Irish “fixer upper.” I think I would prefer central heating and insulated windows. And electricity would be nice. And maybe neighbors within five miles.

As I looked out over the view a car slowly crawled up the road below me, and stopped at a seaside cottage tucked in a tiny cove. Good, I thought, if I get stuck they can tow me out. And I did have my cell phone, outfitted with an Irish sim card so I could make local calls.

This road will NOT be on the tour.

Going back up the steep, grass-covered road I needed to drive fast enough to keep the tires from slipping, but slow enough to stay on the road. Fine line there, but obviously I survived. After that the narrow main roads were a piece of cake.

Dzogchen Beara, the only Buddhist retreat center in Ireland.

Another highlight of the day was a stop at the Dzogchen Beara, a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center, built virtually into the cliffs on the west side of the peninsula. The parking lot was packed with cars, from dented VWs to a Mercedes, and I learned it was a big week for the center – Tibetan monk His Eminence Garchen Rinpoche was making his first appearance in Ireland.

I wasn’t able to check out the meditation room, with again, killer views, but the tea shop was open. There I had tea with two men from Cork, who would have looked more at home at a hurling match than a Buddhist retreat. But both had been coming to the center for years, and said it really helped them cope with daily life.

It was my second chat over tea that day, as earlier I had paid a visit to a man I met in O’Neill’s pub in Allihies, a character who goes by the name “Mighty.” My first night here he invited me to his home, and said when I was in the area, near the Dursey cable car, to just ask for him. Sure enough, a local B&B owner directed me to his house.

Sitting in his little cottage overlooking Garinish Island, with books by Noam Chomsky and Annie Proulx littering his table, he expounded on politics and American Imperialism, while offering me locally made cheese and his mother’s brown bread.

He pointed to a lovely pink stone cottage across the road and explained that the farm there had been his, but he had to sell it when he divorced his English wife, whom he called “the war office.” You just never know who you’re going to meet here.

Today I’m meeting with the head of the Beara Historical Society, Connie Murphy, who has agreed to be my tour guide for a day when I bring groups in May. He’s a retired schoolteacher and knows the area inside out. Should be fun!

The Road Goes on Forever

The coast road on the Beara Peninsula. Very scenic, but you need to pull over to take in the views!

At least that’s the way it seemed yesterday. Distance in Ireland is deceptive, and tourists always underestimate how long it will take to get from point A to point B. I know better, but still it took me all day to go just about 100 miles.

Partly that was because the roads are not conducive to speed, particularly on the Beara, but also because I had to keep stopping to take pictures! I kept telling myself I would not stop at every scenic beach, lake, house and rocky point, but the lure was too strong. Plus the weather was cooperative, with the sun peaking out from the clouds to shine alluringly on the water and hills. Oh Irish weather, such a tease.

Eightercua stone circle and rainbow, near Waterville on the Ring of Kerry.

The photographic highlight of the day was the miraculous juxtaposition of a rainbow and a stone circle along the Ring of Kerry. I learned the stone circle was Eightercua, with the tallest of the four stones standing nearly 9 feet tall. Driving in Ireland has its drawbacks, but being able to stop at sites like this is definitely a plus. Apologies to my friends who have already seen this picture on facebook.

Loher stone fort, actually a farm enclosure, from the 9th century. Amazing stone work!

I was also able to seek out a stone ring fort which was several miles down a narrow, winding road. But then, they’re all narrow, winding roads in these parts. Anyway, Loher stone fort, from the 9th century, was impressive and tourist-free. There aren’t many tourists about this time of year anyway, but places like this are definitely off the beaten path.

From there I pressed on the Beara Peninsula, with a stop in lovely Kenmare for lunch. I opted for the coast road on the Beara, and it wasn’t long before I questioned that judgement. The roads here are literally like poorly paved driveways. In some places they pass right through farms, with the house and barns so close to the sides that if a farmer stepped out on his porch with a cup of coffee a driver could take it right out of his hand. A passenger could get fresh milk for it from the cow on the other side.

The posted speed limits are insanely fast — 100 KM, or 60 MPH, on one lane roads. I managed to get up to 60 KM and felt like I was on a road rally. Plus you have to be ready to pull over onto the non-existent shoulder when another car (or truck) approaches. Somehow it works. I think Ireland has harnessed the ability for two solid objects to occupy the same space at the same time. It’s the only explanation.

Finally I arrived at my destination, the colorful village of Allihies, population 600. I’m the only guest at the Sea View B&B, a lovely small hotel-like accommodation run by the O’Sullivan family, who also run the store downstairs. The inn faces the sea, with views across the country. It’s just the balm I need after that drive!

On the Edge of the World, Portmagee, Co. Kerry

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Little Skellig, left and Skellig Michael as seen from Valentia Island.

It may not be the edge of the world, but as they say, you can see it from here.

Portmagee is on the southern tip of the Iveragh Peninsula, better known as the Ring of Kerry, and the hopping off point for Skellig Michael. The monks who inhabited the austere, rocky island for 600 years truly did think they were on the edge of the world. The “New World” wasn’t even discovered until 200 years after they left the rock. From their lofty vantage hermitage, 714 feet above the crashing sea and 8 miles from the nearest land, the west held only vast ocean.

I won’t be going out to Skellig Michael this trip. (The blog header photo was taken on Skellig Michael last May when my partner and I made the pilgrimage.) I’m here to look at accommodations for my May tour. Hands down the best choice is the obvious one: The Moorings, directly across the street from the harbor where the boats gather to ferry passengers to the island. The owner showed me the room where the president of Ireland stays when she visits! There is also a pub and restaurant on site, so all the basic necessities of life are under one roof.

One of the drawbacks of driving alone is that you miss a lot of great photo ops. The best one yesterday, which I missed, was when I passed a slow moving tanker truck which was labeled, and I swear I’m not making this up, MOLASSES HAULER. Priceless.

As I neared Portmagee the sun came out and played across the hills in a way that seems uniquely Irish. I know, the sun shines everywhere, but somehow it’s ….different here.

I took advantage of the fine weather to drive over to Valentia Island, across a short bridge from Portmagee. Note: There is a ferry from Caherciveen, which stopped running for the winter on Sunday. Darn.

The "dotted line" across the middle of these seaside rocks connects us to the past - footprints of a Devonian sea creature who made the leap to land.

Valentia is a sleepy little island now, but it has several hefty claims to fame. It was the site of the first transatlantic cable crossing in 1865 and recently scientists found fossilized footprints of the first fish to come ashore, the tetrapod.

I drove out to the “fish footprint” site, and I have to say, it was pretty impressive. Once you knew what you were looking for, there they were: a “tetrapod trackway” of frozen tracks imbedded in what was once Devonian mud, estimated to be 350 to 370 million years old. Gives a whole new meaning to tracing your roots in Ireland!

Celtic Odyssey, 2011 Begins

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Morris Minor van at the Creamery Bar, with Bunratty Castle in the background. Photo by Marcie Miller

There’s not much to do in Ireland at 6 a.m. Found that out when I arrived at that ungodly hour yesterday morning. Actually sat in my rental car and napped in a dark parking lot at Bunratty Castle, waiting for the day to dawn. Then I spent a little time practicing my “hedge kissing” skills — driving on the left side of the road, just close enough to the edge of the narrow roads to lightly brush the shrubbery, but not so far over that the car meets the rock wall hidden behind the hedge. It’s a fine line, let me tell you. My car, a tiny Toyota Yaris, is already missing the left front hubcab. The rear one is held on with a zip tie. I’m not kidding.

But what a day it turned out to be: started with a free hot breakfast at Bunratty Manor Hotel, one possible Celtic Heart Tours venue, followed by a drive to lovely Adare and a private look at the amazing Adare Manor, which is now a hotel. We just don’t have places like this on the Olympic Peninsula, complete with turrets and gables and gargoyles and stained glass  windows and hedges cut into celtic knotwork.

Adare Manor, the kind of place that makes you just say "holy sh**!" It's huge. Photo by Marcie Miller

The manor is not open to the public, and signs on the long drive warn “guests only,” but I ignored them and drove in. Hey – I might be a guest. Someday. When I win the lottery. Besides, I had business there.

I met with the manager, who agreed to give my group private tours, usually reserved for guests of the hotel. This is a rare look at the “to the manor born” style of living in Ireland, once the bastion of the ruling English class. Many of the big estate houses were burned during the Irish civil war in the 1920s, or left to decay when the owners packed it in. The few remaining have become national treasures and highly lucrative tourist draws. Adare Manor also has a sprawling golf course; the first green is right up against a crumbling abbey.

I stayed at the humbler Adare Country House, a highly rated B&B right in town which is tops on my list of prospective places to stay. It’s new yet traditional, very clean and cozy and in easy walking distance to the main street in the village.

I had my first Guinness of the trip at a quaint pub called “Auntie Lena’s.” With an 8-hour time difference, I was so jet-lagged I was literally falling asleep in my beer. Still, the creamy tumescence was just as good as I remembered. Guinness really does taste better in Ireland.

Today I’m off to the Iveragh Peninsula, aka the Ring of Kerry, to check out accommodations in the village of Portmagee, hopping off point for Skellig Michael, UNESCO World Heritage site and once home to a colony of lonely monks. After holding off yesterday, it’s raining, or as the Irish say, “the weather is a bit soft today.”

I will arise and go now…

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Official Irish Guinness taste tester.

Those words were penned by Irish poet W.B. Yeats in his “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” and I feel them now as I prepare to go back to Ireland for the sixth time, this time to set up small group tours for women.

I would not be able to follow my dream of Ireland without the unwavering support of my partner/very significant other, Chris Grant (the “Haggis” of “Guinness and Haggis.”) Thank you, sweetie – I love you!

I will be in Ireland from the wee hours of Oct. 11th through Oct. 24th. During that time I’ll be looking for the best places to stay, eat, shop and play. I’ll focus on the counties of Limerick, Cork and Kerry, with emphasis on the remote Beara Peninsula.

The theme of the first tour is “The West Less Traveled,” and that is what I will be looking for; the places not trammeled by tourists, still pristine and remarkable.

I am excited to be able to share my love of Ireland with other women travelers, and invite everyone to follow along as I chronicle my trip on this blog.

Here is “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in its entirety. Enjoy

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

W.B. Yeats