Ireland 1996

The last day of July consisted of 10 hours driving 453 miles - from Wallington to Portpatrick. Straight up the M6 it was - aren't motorways exciting? - and turn left after the Lakes. By 5am the following morning we were leaving our comfortable hotel room overlooking the bay, and driving to the ferry at Stranraer; thence from Belfast to Portrush, our first port of call.

Michael, an old friend of Selwyn's from Cambridge days, lives there during the summer in his family home, near the Giant's Causeway. Since there is no electricity or hot water, we experienced true Victorian living - hot water off the Aga into the washbasin, and Wee-Willie-Winkie style candles to light you to bed.

On our first evening with Michael, we visited the local amateur operatic society as they performed One Hundred Years of Song - an assortment of wartime music, Irish ballads, songs from the shows and the desperately bad puns of the compère. Truly marvellous stuff - everyone on stage was completely relaxed, meaning that the audience enjoyed themselves whatever the cast did - which mostly they actually did exceptionally well. The chap who sang Danny Boy (yes, really - and when did you last hear the other verses?) and Love Changes Everything got those top notes with no problems, and he must have been 70 if he was a day. They could teach some Societies of my acquaintance a thing or two!

Thursday afternoon was gloriously sunny - the rain hadn't stopped for the previous 48 hours - so we visited some beautiful places along the coast. The Giant's Causeway is famous, of course, for its curious pillar formation of rocks - quite stunning. We also visited the village schoolhouse, where we bought the very edifying 1872 Rules for Teachers. Those of our congregation who are members of this noble profession might enjoy the notions that Teachers each day will fill lamps and clean chimneys; Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed... and after ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.

On Friday, we left Portrush and stopped off in Letterkenny in a wonderful hotel. Lawns like a bowling green, the friendliest service, and yours truly playing Lady Muck with her feet up while somebody came and took her ironing away... and it wasn't the Rector.

Saturday took us to our first long stop: Pontoon, a beautiful spot between two lakes in County Sligo. It was on the way there that we encountered our first typically Irish signpost. When we were thinking that morning coffee might be a good idea, we saw a sign saying "Coffee and Crafts - 4km". Great - that'll do just fine. We followed the sign, turned left, and 400m up the road, there it was.

Our room in Pontoon overlooked the lake; absolutely quiet, with stunning blood-red fuschias in every hedgerow - these became a familar sight. Having unpacked, we went down to the bar beneath the hotel for a drink; Selwyn's first real pint of Guinness went down very well, and I foxed the barmaid completely by asking for a Spritzer... Our meals were delicious, and the evening walks in the late twilight afterwards a necessity as a result!

Our place of worship on Sunday was St Patrick's Cathedral, Killala - there seems to be a cathedral in every village over there. This was a lovely service, though the box pews were a little worrying - they were evidently new... There was a carillon in the bell tower, judging by the spirited rendition of Morning Has Broken that we were treated to before the Eucharist.

We took a drive out to Belmullet, which is through some quite amazingly empty countryside; Belmullet is about as far out on the top left hand corner of the coast as you can get. On arrival, Padden's Family Fayre Restaurant was rather like the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The staff were singularly unphased by the party of some 20 Americans, none of whom were a day under 65 but had the energy and appetite of your average primary school pupil. After a rather good corn-on-the-cob and giant ham sandwich, we made our way back via Bellacorick - which took us down the only other road in the area - in about 20 square miles, there are two roads.

Heading South on Monday, we visited Galway. A good town to explore - but not on an Irish Bank Holiday in the rain! However, on the way there we had called in at the abbey at Cong - an extraordinary mixture: a simply beautiful area of lake, ruined castle and leafy paths; with the local Roman church in the middle of it all, bearing a striking resemblance to the least inspiring of DSS offices. Square grey concrete - some pretty stained glass inside, but plastic flowers on the altar - and when lighting a candle, you put your coin in the slot and the light bulb comes on...

The Church of Ireland parish church in Galway yielded some interesting experiences. We were a little surprised to see that the church had a separate Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament - bearing in mind that the Church of Ireland specifically denies any 'Catholic' interpretation of Anglican doctrine. However, on entering the chapel and finding only the cross on the altar, the guide book explained that the chapel was thus named as a reference to the "medieval custom" of reserving the Blessed Sacrament. We were also treated to another carillon - this time it was Abide with Me - but this particular tune needs, in the phrase Lord, with me abide, an A natural - which the carillon evidently didn't have, judging by the A flat we kept getting instead, in each of the five verses which pursued us down the street!

We bade a fond farewell to Pontoon, and drove the 263 miles to Schull - about as far down in the bottom left hand corner as you can go. A beautiful sunny day, along the coast to our hotel ("perfect for a quiet and secluded holiday")... which proved to be more appropriate if your tastes were for pitch-and-putt, and rooms which faced on to the dustbins at the back rather than the glorious view over the bay. The following morning, we headed north again! Incidentally, en route we had stopped at a village called Halfway - we never worked out between where and where...

Our choice was much happier on this occasion. Kenmare is a wonderfully friendly little town - popular with tourists, but not spoiled by this - and we had, purely by chance, happened on the most wonderful bed-and-breakfast, run by a lady called Maura O'Connell Foley who is something of a Delia Smith to the Irish, judging by the guide books. The breakfasts were out of this world (the rector's wife might refuse point-blank to make rock cakes, but she's being badgered to try her hand at soda bread) - and the restaurant, Packies, which Maura also runs, is simply brilliant. And if you're ever in the town, find The Bean and Leaf Café, which does the best coffee and most imaginative sandwiches in the civilised world.

The legendary green of Ireland is most in evidence in the South West, and nowhere more so than round the Lakes of Killarney. Our day there gave us brilliant sunshine, dark cloud and resulting rainbows - wonderful. The Ladies' View was spectacular - this was Queen Victoria's ladies, who seem to get everywhere (you may remember last year's report rhapsodising about the Queen's View between lochs in Scotland). We found another waterfall and spent an idyllic lunchtime eating our sandwiches, writing postcards and watching rainbows in the water. Stunning.

Valentia Island is at the far end of the Ring of Kerry - a superb drive round one of the west coast peninsulas - and this was our plan for Friday, as recommended by a member of the congregation. Unfortunately the weather was against us, and after an exciting time fighting the driving rain along the coast, we found an excellent wine bar (The Gallery Kitchen) on Valentia - spent about three hours "sheltering" - and decided to cut our losses and return to Kenmare. Not before, however, we had spotted one of our favourite signposts - directing us "the way the fairies went"... we declined to follow them! Incidentally, another favourite, at the top of the main street in Kenmare, directs you to Killarney - on two signposts pointing in opposite directions.

We headed now for Baltinglass, a small village about 30 miles south of Dublin, to the self-catering cottage which was our last main port of call. We spent the next week in this lovely entrance lodge to the main estate house, still inhabited by an extremely English Lord of the Manor, who took a great deal of trouble to make sure we were comfortable. Particularly when a certain back started giving trouble again, and a board under the mattress was required - and he insisted on the Rector spending an hour sanding down an old barn door for the purpose!

Church on Sunday happened slightly by mistake. We rushed in at the last minute to what we thought was the Anglican home, having overslept - only to find the candles and statues. Fair enough; so we joined in with the most time-efficient service ever. Three readings, an address and communion for 200, all over in exactly 32 minutes without a note of music.

This was when your humble scribe started to do her meek-and-mild-patient impression - the back went completely and she spent the next 48 hours flat on it, variously on the floor and the aforementioned stable door, giving a not very convincing impression of bearing her particular cross of affliction. With the use of a classic literary device to indicate the passage of time - tune in next month...


So we pass on rapidly to rejoin our travellers some 48 hours later, in Kildare at the Irish National Stud - in improved health and frame of mind. The horses at the Stud are stunning; and the most notable player of the day was the tiny Falabella - no, not a new variety of pasta, but the foal of a miniature pony, smaller than a Shetland - about the size of a Springer spaniel, and once he realised he had an audience, he played up for the cameras in true Hollywood manner.

The Japanese Gardens are situated on the same estate as the Stud, and designed beautifully as a journey through life - from the Gate of Oblivion, through the Tunnel of Ignorance, via the Hill of Learning to the Island of Joy and Wonder, and so on, through twenty different stations. Fascinating and quite beautiful; we had to smile, however, at the final sight. Whilst standing romantically at the Gateway to Eternity, we held hands and looked out of the gate... to the sign which read Gift Shop and Restaurant.

We drove through the stunning countryside of the Wicklow Mountains to Glendalough on another beautiful day. The lake at the end of the walk from St Kevin's Monastery is a renowned beauty spot, and rightly so - absolutely clear water, reflections of mountains. The photograph of yours truly standing in front of this idyllic scene does rather infer that I was about to burst into a rendition of The hills are alive... (I promise that I didn't).

Our last two days were spent (of course) in Dublin. This is a fabulous city (I'm running out of superlatives) - with as much to explore and enjoy as London, in my opinion, but friendlier, less commercial and on a smaller scale. One particular favourite of mine was the Children of Lir sculpture in the Garden of Remembrance, with the lovely We Saw a Vision inscription on the wall, both in Gaelic and English; including In the winter of bondage, we saw a vision - we melted the snow of lethargy - and the river of resurrection flowed from it.

We spent our last evening in Dublin at an early concert in the National Concert Hall, watching a compilation of orchestral music, songs and the spoken word by, based on and about Shakespeare - great fun, although we could have cheerfully strangled the baritone, who was possibly the most arrogant performer we'd ever seen. Judging by the expressions on the faces of his fellow artists at certain moments, they felt the same!

We then followed this with an excellent meal at Pier 32 - a cellar bar where we felt as though we were honoured guests. This reflected the most enduring impression of our visit; all they say about Irish hospitality is true. Whoever you are, you're worthy of a chat, a drink and - best of all - a smile. You don't need to be Irish to come into the parlour - everyone's welcome. Maybe the crazy road signs and the rain have something to do with the overwhelming impression that I was left with: nothing's worth taking seriously except happiness.