Any visit to Ireland comes with stories, as is right and proper. This batch of stories has their origins in Edmonds, WA with me, Karen, Tracy and Rick Steves. We booked a two week Rick Steves clockwise journey around the Irish coast on a tour bus with 21 other people. “No grumps allowed.” Perfect, because you never know what you’re gonna get. We’d visit places like Dublin, Kinsale, Dingle, Galway, Belfast and all coastal parts in between. We bought the books. We studied up. There would be cultural sites, museums, whiskey, cider and Guinness. It was about to be brought.
Story Number One: The First Day/Night in Dublin.
We arrived in Dublin at 7am and were determined not to let the jetlag get us. Fellow travelers, this is a massive jinx, huh? Having flown all night with little to no sleep complicated things a bit, but hey, we were in Dublin!! We had a day before the tour began so we could go, see, do whatever we liked. We walked around the city, cycled our energy up, got some food. After starting strong, we dropped into a pub near the hotel for a pint about 5pm. You know, to “rest.” Tracy and I ran to the restroom and came back to find Karen with her head down on the table, resting pretty hard. We were blankly staring, no one was talking, we were essentially asleep. We made a decision. A nap was ok, but we HAD to get up and go to dinner. After that, we could come back to the hotel and go to bed at a normal hour. We were skeptical of ourselves, but we actually did it. We got up. We were all surprised.
We found a great little restaurant about a 20 minute walk from the hotel, had a yummy bottle of wine and some delicious lamb stew. It was really pretty perfect. On the walk back we were congratulating ourselves on sticking to our plan when we approached a pub with a red door with white molding. Above the door in black letters: Peadar Kearney’s. There was a single step leading in. Someone came out and the music spilled down that step and crashed right into us. That sound… That sound was the sound of fun and we were spellbound. We looked at each other. Eye brows were raised, heads were tilted, eyes were squinted, lips were pursed. We half asked, half stated, “We’ll just have one.” It was our first night in Dublin after all. In we went.
It was a deep, narrow, galley style room with a long bar on the right. This place was PACKED. It was the type of joint where all you can do is shuffle. Protect your beer and shuffle. After the bar ended, the room opened into a large square where a singer was standing with his back to the far wall. He had a guitar and a voice and everyone was into it. The energy in there could have made glass sing.
We managed to get some pints and rested them on whiskey barrels that served as tables in front of the one bench seat in the entire pub. Just as we set down our pints, the people in the seat left and we slid right in. We had front row seats to the show, and the show was about 10 feet away. The singer was singing Irish ballads and EVERYONE SANG ALONG. The singer sang Ring of Fire and EVERYONE SANG ALONG. People would shout out song requests and EVERYONE WOULD SING ALONG. Young Irish people would drape their arm over our shoulders and WE ALL WOULD SING ALONG. It was all very “This is so fun! Who are you? Isn’t this great?!”
There was a group of young guys who were resting their pints on the whiskey barrels in front of us. They were drinking Coors and Bud Light so we had to give them $hit. One of the fellas approached the singer, spoke with him a minute and then they both sang a song. AND EVERYONE SANG ALONG. We eventually shouted out a song request – can’t remember what it was – but the singer shouted back at us, “Where are you from?” We shouted, “Seattle, Washington!” The singer shouted back, “This is for the American girls from Seattle, Washington D.C.!” We looked at each other and went, “Well…. Close enough!” AND WE ALL SANG ALONG.
I have no idea how much time passed. It must have been a while, because the singer yelled out that he could only play one more song and it was time to close up. The crowd shouted song requests and the singer played. That little cycle went on for at least 30 more minutes. None of us were willing to let him or that night go.
Eventually we tripped out and down the one step at the front door of Peadar Kearney’s and somehow made plans to go clubbing with the fellas who were drinking Coors and Bud Light. So much for that, “We’ll just have one,” nonsense. Now, we were not in clubbing clothes. We were in one-and-done beer drinking clothes. The bouncer looked us over and begrudgingly let us in. The Irish girls were dancing primly in their pumps and sparkles and the American girls were sky punching, breaking it down and grinding it out in our jeans, sneakers and t-shirts. “It’s your birthday. We gon’ party like it’s yo birthday. We gon’ sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday. And you know we don’t give a fuck It’s not your birthday!”
We shut down Temple Bar.
Story Number Two: Buddies, Lavender & Cilantro, Ooo la la, and High 5’s.
If you have ever taken a Rick Steves tour, you know that on day one you get a Buddy. A buddy is someone on the tour who is not your friend or partner and whose job it is to check to see if you are on board the bus before it rolls off and abandons you at the Cliffs of Moher, for example. Buddies usually develop a bond or create a ritual. Buddy check means making eye contact. You are interacting with this person in a meaningful and playful kind of way multiple times a day. My buddy was a shit. ”Our tour guide, Declan, would yell, “Buddy Check!” and I’d look around for the back of her head. She would not look for me. No bonding, no rituals, no eye contact – just a view of the back of her head and a single wave. It was a running joke the whole trip. “Seen the back of your buddies head?” “Yep. There it is. I’ve buddy checked myself so we’re good to go.”
The first couple nights of the tour are spent in Dublin. One of those evenings, a group of us joined a music oriented pub crawl. Most of the people on our tour were older than us, but there was a couple from Sacramento who were our age. They came along on the pub crawl. At an early one of the many pubs we would visit, we found a spot at the bar, grabbed some pints and toasted, “Sláinte!” The young fella came over and asked, “Did you say cilantro?” Karen declared Cilantro to be his nickname for the rest of the tour, and so it was. Cilantro, a.k.a. Chuck, turned out to be a botanist. After that revelation, there was zero chance we would actually use his real name. Ever. He became Cilantro. TO THIS DAY. Cilantro introduced us to his wife, Jessica, who was also a botanist and would be given the nickname Lavender. TO THIS DAY. Lavender & Cilantro came up from Sacramento for my 40th birthday Elvis vs Freddie Mercury costume scavenger hunt karaoke party. Don’t worry, Lavender & Cilantro will be back for another story.
One of our first stops was the Guinness estate south of Dublin in the Wicklow Mountains. Remember being a kid and visiting your parent’s fiends’ house? Remember at the end of the visit, when you had your coat and shoes on (because your parents told you to put them on) and were standing in the entry way foooooorrr eeevvveeeeerrrr while your parents said the longest goodbye ever? Remember how you would eventually just lay down since you lived there now? There was a French family who was doing the Irish version of this while visiting the Guinness estate. The young boy was obviously frustrated. The look on his face was the epitome of, “You told me we were leaving 5 times and 40 minutes ago, and you have destroyed any trust I’ve ever had in you.” His crossed arms over his stained, stripped polo and his short-shorted jutting hip was a silent scream. One of the adults leaned down and spoke to him briefly. His head turned away slowly and he angrily, hoarsely and choppily breathed, “OOO LA LA!” It. Was. Awesome. We said it for the rest of the trip. AND TO THIS DAY.
Before we left on the trip, the three of us agreed on a “thing” we would do for the whole trip. We decided on making our own version of the Almost Twins Funny or Die High 5 videos. (Here; take a break, watch this so you’ll know and come back. It’s important. I’m not kidding: funnyordie.com/highfive-hollywood) Where ever we went, whatever we were doing – we were doing this. At the Guinness estate, at the Book of Kells, near the ruins at the Rock of Cashel, behind the bar at the pub called The Whitehouse in Kinsale, on the tour bus, at the Cliffs of Moher, while riding a bike in the rain and dodging horseshit on the Aran Islands, on the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, at the Bushmills Distillery…just to name a sliver of how much we really did. By the end of the trip, our fellow tour peeps and our guide, Declan, would join in the fun. Somewhere out there is video footage proving what goofballs we are. Surprise!
Story Number Three: Dingle
The tour bus rolled into Dingle and right down Main Street. We had two nights in Dingle, and Declan was pointing out pubs, shops, restaurants that he recommended. Declan made a point of saying, “Go to J. Curran’s pub.” 3 sets of ears perked right up, and indelible mental notes were taken. Declan also mentioned the little music shop right next to Curran’s. We all looked over to see what Declan was talking about and just then an older fella ran out of the music shop door, crossed traffic and ran at the bus. John, our driver, opened the door and the man ran up the bus steps and stood before us. We all stared at him. “I’m Mihail. That’s my shop. Stop by for a visit, listen to some music and have some whiskey.” Then he was off down the steps, running across traffic and back to his shop. We all stared at him. More mental notes were taken.
I know you’re not expecting this, but yes, we stopped by the music shop on our way to Curran’s. Please, contain your shock. I’m telling a story here.
So Karen, Tracy and I drop in to Mihail’s place to say hello. And drink a little whiskey. Mihail immediately welcomes us in and asks if we can play an instrument. We break the news that none of us are musical. He shrugs that off and hands us a bodhrán (drum) and some wooden spoons. We make some noises. Mihail watches. We make some more noises, and Mihail announces that it is time for whiskey. He pulls a bottle of Jameson from the shelf below the cash register and plinks down 4 little shot glasses. We gather near the cash register, sip our whiskey and chat. Then a fella walks in. Mihail greets this new guy and asks if he can play an instrument. The new guy says yes, the bodhrán. Mihail gives the new guy the bodhrán, then picks up a concertina. They begin to play. We all stared at them.
Then a new new guy walks in. Mihail asks him if he can play an instrument. “Yes,” he says, like he’s not surprised at all by this question, “the guitar.” And his girlfriend, who is just outside, can play the fiddle. This guy pops out to ask his girlfriend to come in. Mihail sets them up with their instruments and again grabs his concertina. Out of nowhere there is a god dang impromptu jam session in Mihail’s music shop. We all stared at them.
The jam session winds down. Mihail says it’s time for whiskey, and gives Karen the head nod. Karen steps behind the register, grabs more little shot glasses from the adjacent storage closet and sets up the shots. This is all totally normal. This is Dingle, man.
We ramble out of Mihail’s and right into Curran’s. Curran’s is cool. Go there. It used to be a mercantile, and it shows. The right half of the pub is filled with a big wooden bar, bottles & taps and 2 snugs. The left half is filled with a mercantile counter and floor to ceiling box shelves jammed with Wellingtons of all sizes, fedoras, wool shirts, random items & papers… It’s no longer a mercantile so you can go right behind the counter and sit on the long wooden bench while you down your pints. And we did. Under the counter were these old, large leather ledgers from years & years ago. If you wanted to, you could muscle one of those ledgers out from under the counter and flip through years of transactions and accounts. And we did.
We spent both of our evenings in Dingle at Currans. Declan and John joined us the second night. We set ourselves up behind the counter, amongst the Wellingtons and fedoras, and really tried our best to drink Curran’s dry. Karen was wearing one giant Wellington on one foot, a tiny baby Wellington with no match that we could find (and we looked) on a hand and a fedora while trying to sell a crayon drawing we found under the counter to a German couple who thought this whole scene was hilarious. There’s a picture. I have proof.
Story Number Four: Loughrea. We’ve done this to ourselves.
Our good friend Susan’s Dad had a pub in a little town called Loughrea, 35 minutes east of Galway. Before we left, Susan called her Dad, Mr. Mitchell, and let him know that three crazy Americans might drop by his pub, The Arch Bar. We had a free night in Galway so… We totally went. We really tried and nearly succeeded in talking John, our tour bus driver, into giving us a ride to Loughrea. When that didn’t fly, we bought city bus tickets out to Loughrea. Lavender & Cilantro’s arms were twisted (without much force, I must say), and they joined in the adventure. The bus ride out was a piece of cake. Hopped off and walked right over to The Arch Bar.
We walked in to find 3 people sitting at the bar and Mr. Mitchell behind the bar. Everyone looked at us. Mr. Mitchell says, “You must be the Americans.” Yep. Introductions were made, meaning we met everyone in the bar. There was Christy, a fella who invited all the ladies back to Ireland for the Lisdoonvarna matchmaking ceremony, John, a big guy who used to be a policeman, and a silent guy who was very moody.
We talked and laughed with everyone but the moody guy. We tried and tried to buy a round for the house, but every time we went up to buy the round, another round was brought out courtesy of Christy, John or Mr. Mitchell. We had 5 Guinness each. We REALLY tried to buy a round. Somewhere during those failed attempts to purchase a beer, we got hungry. The Arch Bar didn’t serve food, but Mr. Mitchell had heard us talking about finding some dinner. Unbeknownst to Mr. Mitchell, we had sent Cilantro over to the SuperMac (like Burger King) for burgers and fries. Right when Cilantro got back, Mr. Mitchell brought over some ham sandwiches he made in his apartment, located just over the bar. He even cut the crusts off. It was the sweetest and most pure thing to happen to us the whole trip, and we visited some churches. We made poor Cilantro eat most of the ham sandwiches so we wouldn’t be rude. 1 SuperMac, 1 Fries and 5 Guinness barely fit into this tummy. Thanks, Cilantro.
Around 10:30pm, Mr. Mitchell asked how we were getting back to Galway. We told him the bus, and everyone in the bar gave us the “good luck with that” look. Mr. Mitchell picked up the phone and called someone. He was checking on the bus to see if it was on time. I guess you do that by phone in a small town in Ireland. The last bus was at 11pm, he told us, and we had better be out there early just in case.
We said our good byes and rambled out to meet the bus. This town was asleeeeep. The only light came from the glowing SuperMac down the way. We waited at the bus stop. And waited. And waited. We made some High 5 videos. Lavender & Cilantro got in on the act. Multiple takes of a Kung Fu Fighting High 5 video. Multiple takes of a Thriller High 5 video. All in the middle of the street in the middle of this town.
It was way past 11pm and we were officially nervous. Thoughts of missing the tour bus in the morning began to creep in. During a filming break, a black car approached us. The window rolled down and the driver, a guy named Terry Flowers, told us that Mr. Mitchell called him to let him know that a bunch of Americans might be stranded in Loughrea. Terry was a diver for hire, but he had clients until 4am. He wished us luck with the bus, but we exchanged numbers just in case it was 4am and we still found ourselves stuck in Loughrea.
We wandered over to the SuperMac…5 Guinness get awful heavy on a bladder after a while. Karen talked the kid at the SuperMac, who was from Galway, into giving us a ride. The catch: His shift ended at 2am. It would be the 5 of us and the SuperMac kid in his Honda Civic. Not super comfortable, but at least we wouldn’t miss the tour bus in the morning.
Just then, as we were milling about the SuperMac, a bus approached. We raced out of that SuperMac like a pack of crazed maniacs: yelling, waving hands in the air. We ran straight at that bus and then onto the sidewalk to get ready to board. The driver slowed, looked down at us and shook his head as he sped up and drove away. We. Were. Floored. And some other things.
It was easily after midnight by this time. As we gloomily shuffled back to the SuperMac, reconciling ourselves with our fate of riding in a sardine can back to Galway, another bus came. We were a smidge less maniacal in our approach this time, but we still ran right at him. This time the bus actually stopped, and the door actually opened! We clamored on, grateful and giddy. We were laughing about the mess we had got ourselves into and out of, the High 5’s and the multiple rounds of Guinness. Just then, Terry Flowers called. He was glad we caught the bus, but let us know that 2 busses pick up at that stop. One goes to Galway (good) and one goes to Dublin (bad.) Tracy went up to ask the driver which bus we were on. After talking to the driver, she turned around and gave us the thumbs up from the front of the bus – whew – and walked back to sit with us. The bus shimmied a bit, causing Tracy to fall into one of the four other people on the bus. She walked up to us with a funny look on her face. “What,” we asked. “I just fell on a nun,” she said. It was that kind of night.
The next morning, I ambled down to the breakfast area in the little B&B we were staying. [Side Note: Steel cut oats with Bailey’s was on the menu. Yes, of course, I ordered that. If you have not had Steel Cut Oats with Bailey’s yet…now that you know about it, what on earth are you waiting for?] I was the first one down for breakfast, but soon enough, the other tour peeps came trickling in. Everyone knew that we were going on a field trip the night before. They all wanted to hear how it went. “Well… we got to Loughrea without a problem…”
P.S.: Rest in Peace, Susan. You were a hoot, a great friend and an amazing person. I’m sorry I missed you when I passed through Tahoe. I think of you often.