I am aboard an Irish tour bus that is driving on what I am still convinced is the wrong side of the road. Our driver, Jo, a quiet photographer-type, has no problem shifting with his left hand while winding around the narrow passages of Northwest Ireland.
You have to wonder if the roads weren't constructed this way on purpose, forcing you to slow down and submit to the views of the Atlantic tides coming and going on one side and that of mountains and villages on the other. Unlike so many American shorelines and landscapes, these are not scarred with the overdevelopment of trophy homes, preserving the views for a select few. Thanks to stringent conservation and permitting laws, the sapphire and emerald brilliance of Ireland is unobstructed as far as the eye can see.
A typical Irish spring, the weather is cold and rainy - much like what I left behind in Boston. Pallid skies are the perfect contrast for the never-ending slopes of green countryside, accentuated with fuchsia rhododendrons and beaded with stone-walled corrals of grazing cattle. Fortunately, we Irish-blooded New Englanders know better than to store the Shetlands before June, so I'm not uncomfortable. I cannot say as much for the Floridian a few seats up, relying on a rose-colored fleece to get through the week.
Ireland is Europe's third largest island and is made up of the Republic of Ireland, better known as just Ireland, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland occupies one-sixth of the island on the northeast side along the Irish Sea. My trip was concentrated along the Atlantic seaboard of Ireland's northwest side, which is steeped in as much natural beauty as history - both factual and fictitious.
The region is also poetic. County Sligo, known as "Yeats Country," was home to the 1923 Nobel Prize poet William Butler Yeats. The locals take great pride in Yeats' work, offering visitors numerous opportunities to become more familiar with the great bard. I had the enviable occasion to attend a Yeats Supper, hosted by Damien Brennan, his wife Paula Gilvarry and their children Sarah and Paul.
While Paula, an acclaimed executive chef turned medical doctor, artfully prepared the multi-course gourmet dinner, Damien recited selected poems from his well-read 1970 volume of Yeats' works. Other guests and I sipped wine and dined on venison; salmon (caught that day!); winter bake, a mix of mashed potatoes and carrots; lemon pudding and cream puffs, as Damien explained which parts of the outdoor landscape inspired Yeats to write "Song of Wondering Angels."
The readings were as idyllic as the setting. Paula and Damien constructed a contemporary home, named Broc House, with a 40-foot wall that overlooked Loch Gill. The natural greens and blues provided the color scheme for the interior walls, which made me feel like I was sitting outside, when really I was warm inside by the fire.
Irish shores are home to some of Europe's most unsung beaches. "The waves hit the windows during a storm," said Paul Diver, manager of the Sandhouse Hotel on Rossnowlagh Beach, a peaceful resort near the border of Northern Ireland. "That attracts a lot of storm watchers." It also attracts the brass of the World Master Surfers short-board competition, who schedule the annual event outside the hotel.
Green, clean and sandy, Ireland's northwest coast is quickly becoming a magnet for families, prompting the construction of modest holiday homes, restaurants, pubs and resorts. Anglers will not be disappointed with the costs and the odds of hooking a long Irish fish tale. Beachcombers, too, will appreciate their finds. Golfers will love the view and smell of ocean air along the courses constructed in esplanades. Bathers prefer June, July and August, the only true summer months. After a memorable daybreak galloping through the low tide of Dunfanaghy's Killhoey Beach, I recommend taking in the surf via saddle.
Like New England beaches, the water here is cold, but not to worry; the Irish have devised a way to take the chill out of soaking up the surf. The Celtic Seaweed Baths are located in Strandhill, across the street from the Atlantic. This age-old Irish pampering ritual incorporates fresh seaweed, harvested daily, to bathwater. The heat of the water releases the algae's natural oils, reproducing the plasma makeup of the human body. After nearly an hour immersed in this brew, not only was my skin rejuvenated, but my soul as well. All was right with the world - for the next three days, at least.
Besides relaxing, the Irish like to have fun, as we all know, and have no qualms about padding their pasts with conjured plots. One example is Queen Maeve's tomb, a rocky cairn atop Knocknarea, a mountain in Sligo. The grave measures 55 meters wide, 10 meters high and can be seen from miles away. Maeve, as the story goes, was the mythical Iron Age Queen, whose father was the high king of Ireland. Supposedly, the monument was constructed for the battle heroine, who was buried standing and facing her enemies, holding her sword and shield, even in death.
But Lynda Hart, our guide at Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, politely quashed that account. "The monument predates her by 3,000 years," said Hart. Scientific data concluded that the cairn was constructed around 3,000 B.C.E., probably for a Neolithic king. Maeve didn't go about her rampages until the Iron Age. Therefore, unless the early Irish were psychic, the tomb likely was built for someone else. Could the Iron Maid Queen of Ireland's remains may have been placed inside later. We'll never know. The tomb is considered a sacred burial site, so excavation is prohibited.
Piling stones to mark graves has been an Irish ritual as old as the hills they grace. We toured about a dozen sites at Carrymore, some that date back to 4000 B.C.E. and as recently as 90 A.D. Much research has been conducted on these megalithic tombs, which number about 200. Skeletal remains, tools dating back to both the iron and bronze ages, and other artifacts, such as Carrowkeel-style pottery, have been unearthed during various excavations over the years.
Many of the tombs, however, were first disassembled by grave diggers in search of gold, then again in the 19th century by neighboring landlords complying with a new law mandating defined land markers. Thus, the abundance of stonewalls. The site is now protected and managed by the National Heritage Sites of the Office of Public Works.
The Irish seem to be equally fascinated and respectful of their ancestors' graves. Small stones mark enclosed Famine cemeteries, memorials to those who died during the Irish Potato Famine. Also known as the Great Hunger, the Famine took place from 1845 through 1849, a result of a potato fungus that destroyed the main crop and catastrophic farming practices mandated by the British. Unofficial records say it claimed more than 500,000 lives. I visited one out of respect for my many ancestors, who were among those numbers.
Fairy trees, which Irish lore tells us is the homes of fairies, are also the true burial sites of Famine babies, who died before baptism. Some of these trees have raised controversy lately, as the government seeks to build more roads through Northwest Ireland to accommodate the new clusters of primary and holiday homes. The public gathered round these fairy trees scheduled for the axe, forcing the rerouting of planned roads.
Castles are another Irish bastion. Though Ireland hasn't had a monarchy in nearly a thousand years, many of the former royal residences, or remnants thereof, still stand. Lack of blue blood, however, did not deter wealthy clans from building stately mansions with similar blueprints. I visited two castles, both in Donegal, (pronounce it Dun na gal if you want to be taken for a local.)
Glenveagh Castle, located in the scenic Glenveagh National Park in the highlands, is a must-see, featuring 27 beautifully landscaped acres surrounding Lough Veagh, set against a mountainous backdrop. Black and green thumbs alike will get lost in the splendor of the multi-varieties of rhododendrons, dogwoods, herbs and hundreds of other shrubs, trees and plants. The castle itself is a four-story granite structure designed after Balmoral, the Scottish residence of Queen Victoria. As an aside, the population of Donegal speaks with a brogue that sounds more Scottish than Irish. The castle was built in 1870 by John George Adair, an Irish born businessman, who made a fortune in the United States. After his sudden death, Adair's New York-born wife, Cornelia Wadsworth, softened the interior décor, which was dominated by images of large animals. She also worked the grounds. Her fabulously maintained gardens and homestead are popular daily tours.
Donegal Castle was built overlooking the River Esque in 1505 by the O'Donnell Clan, which ruled the area for one thousand years. Sir Basil Brooks moved in later, adding turrets, fireplaces and windows for viewing - once considered a liability, as windows in high-rent residences were designed to accommodate weaponry. The river, which once flowed along both sides of the castle, but has since ebbed away from the fortress, created a water-tight defense at high tide. The Republic now owns the castle and has been busily renovating it to look like the active household that the Brooks clan kept. Tours are offered daily. They are quick, no more than half an hour, and rather enjoyable.
While in Donegal, visit Magee's Tweed factory, which features the scent of quality garments made of fine tweed, produced since 1866. Though much of the wool is imported from Down Under, the processing technique of cleaning it by hand in the River Esque, remains the same. Good buys on fine apparel can be had in the factory's store. You may even find yourself fighting with Sarah Jessica Parker for a one-of-a-kind herringbone sheath. The acclaimed actress, better known for her sexy silks than gabardine garb, shops here while staying at her Donegal home. (The staff says she is lovely, very unassuming and is often accompanied by her child.) But no need to worry if you can't shop with the stars at this clearance rack this week. You will find this superior cloth in garments made by Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Burberry, just to name a few.
For more information:
Carrymore Megalithic Cemetery Sligo:
Golfing and horseback riding on the beach
Celtic Seaweed Bath