Like many Irish-Americans, I'm curious about my roots. Unlike most Irish-Americans, my surname, Nephin, gives little hint that I am of Irish descent.
But I have proof. In County Mayo, in Ireland's rugged west country, sits Mount Nephin, a half-mile-tall peak.
It was here, 18 years ago, that I'd proposed to my wife Kathleen. But bad weather and lack of a road had prevented us from reaching the top that day. After driving as far up as safety would permit in the fog and rain, I'd opened the car door, plucked some small flowers and presented them and the ring to Kathleen.
Now we were making a return trip, and this time we were determined to get to the top. And as long as we were back in Ireland, we also planned to sightsee, celebrate our wedding anniversary, and run a marathon together.
First stop was Dublin, where we would run the Adidas Dublin Marathon. We curtailed our pub time, not wanting to run the 26.2 miles hung over. Besides, thanks to the weak dollar, pints cost about $8. A bottle of whiskey that would retail for about $25 at home was $35 here.
Then we visited Trinity College to see the "Book of Kells", an eighth-century rendering of the four gospels of the New Testament that attracts a half-million visitors annually. "The Book of Kells" is kept under glass and is known for detailed and brightly colored images.
We strolled about and ate in Temple Bar, a popular tourist area. Besides traditional Irish fare like Guinness stew (made with beer and beef), a diverse range of ethnic food is available, from Italian to sushi. We hammed it up with a street performer who portrayed a living James Joyce "statue" near the original, and we tooled around the city on double-decker buses.
The marathon was also a good way to see Dublin as it wound through the city, Phoenix Park and various neighborhoods before ending near the start line not far from Trinity.
But the race left us depleted and we repaired to the Clontarf Castle Hotel, located several miles from the city center, for long, hot showers and a sound night's sleep.
Then we picked up a rental car and headed off to sandwich our visit to Mount Nephin with more sightseeing. Scenic stops on our trip included, in County Clare, The Burren, a haunting rocky landscape marked by mostly limestone slabs in otherworldly patterns, and the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, which tower more than 650 feet as they jut out into the Atlantic Ocean.
We also traveled to Northern Ireland to visit Giant's Causeway and the Old Bushmills Distillery.
Giant's Causeway is a geologist's and photographer's dream. Tens of thousands of basalt columns jut out from the land into the sea. Most are hexagonal and many tower more than 20 feet high. The columns are the result of volcanic activity, but according to legend, a giant warrior named Finn McCool built the causeway to walk to Scotland.
At Bushmills, we learned that we were in the oldest licensed distillery in the world, first licensed in April 1608. The word whiskey derives from the Gaelic term "uisce beatha," meaning "water of life." At one time, hundreds of Irish distilleries made whiskey, a liquor made from malted barley, yeast and water. Now, only a handful remain. Irish whiskey differs from Scotch whisky (no "e" in the Scotch term) in that it's distilled three times, instead of two, and that its barley is dried over hot air. Barley for Scotch is dried using peat, which imparts a characteristic smokiness.
Neither major brand of Irish whiskey, Bushmills and Jameson, are Irish-owned anymore. London-based drinks giant Diageo owns Bushmills and French-owned Pernod Ricard owns Jameson. After a tasting at the end of our tour, I bought a few bottles anyway.
From Bushmills, we drove back into the Republic of Ireland through Donegal and Sligo counties and stopped at the church where the writer William Butler Yeats is buried. All our driving outside Dublin and Belfast was through postcard-perfect small towns and villages and verdant landscapes dotted with sheep, cows and stone fences.
From here we headed to Mount Nephin.
Before our trip, I'd contacted as many people as I could to find how we might climb to the top. I'd gotten some advice, but the mountain is in a rural area and try as we might, we couldn't find a decent route.
We couldn't even find out how the mountain got its name. Local phonebooks revealed no Nephins. There didn't even seem to be an agreed-upon pronunciation. (My family says NEE'fin, but we also heard it pronounced NEF'fin and NAY'fin.)
Eventually we stopped a passing car and were directed to a farmer who lives at the base of the mountain.
His advice was something like, "Go down the road a half-mile 'til you see a fence ..."
After many half-miles and many fences, we stopped at another house to ask for help. We were offered walking sticks and invited to walk through the property and up the mountain's northwest side.
This route took us over ground the consistency of a maple syrup-soaked sponge, amid grazing sheep. The mountain soon steepened to about 45 degrees. A thick fog — again — settled in. We could no longer see the top. We were about two-thirds of the way up when we decided to turn around.
We returned to the house where we'd gotten directions and were fed hearty homemade brown bread, cheese and tea. Our hosts told us that the mountain is a popular climbing destination, but hikers are advised to allow two days in case weather doesn't cooperate.
I said I'd have to return to try it again some day.
"Well, one t'ings fer sure," our host said in a thick brogue. "The mountain will still be here."