Date of Trip: January 2001
My college buddy and I decided we needed a long vacation in Ireland. We decided to rent a car and explore the Emerald Isle on our own – stopping at B&B’s along the way as the mood hit us.
Upon arrival at our first destination in Ireland, Dublin, we were hit by foul weather – or “soft days” as they call the most miserable cold, windy and misty gray days that sometimes hit Ireland. We immediately bought big bulky wool sweaters when first we saw a shop, and then picked up our much abused rental car (it refused to go into reverse gear). We started our trek to find our first B&B that was located in a pretty suburb of Dublin called Ballsbridge.
We had what we thought would be an excellent map of the city to get us there – it was chockfull of helpful features like icons for historical locations, and bits of trivia about the city. Outmatching those strengths was a lack of directional arrows on the map indicating which streets went only one way. I was driving, as my friend did not want to struggle with the combination of wrong-side driving along with manual shifting and no reverse – so she became the navigator. By the way, it was also rush hour in Dublin as we left the rental car lot at the airport…
“Turn left at the next light!” Oh dear, one way street facing us. “OK, turn right at the next light and circle back!” Not to be. Somehow we ended up at a traffic circle around Trinity College that must have had 6 spokes coming off of it as road choices. “Which one?!” My friend was now turning the map as we circled the college a number of times just like that National Lampoon European Vacation movie. “Just pick one!” Off I flew, banking the car to the right. Lost. “Go back!” This repeated a few times, with us always strangely returning to the Trinity College roundabout. We even started calling it the Vortex. After a number of attempts, we finally chose the right exit and found our B&B.
Our hostess at the B&B served us a huge traditional Irish breakfast – eggs and bangers, sauteed mushrooms and tomatoes, and the most dense multi-grain bread one has ever tasted (which we affectionately named Mr. Ed bread given its oaty grainy-ness.) We asked the hostess if she knew of Jerpoint Abbey – a picturesque ruin in the middle of Ireland. She did, but advised us it was a long journey and we should plan the days in between. This struck us as odd, as one can drive across the whole Isle in 4-5 hours, so how far could it be? We later were to find out that many Irish have never travelled more than a few miles from where they were born – and the thought of going further is a strange concept to them.
We thanked our hostess and left the B&B in Ballsbridge with the scary prospect of driving through Dublin once more to reach the Western provinces. Amazingly, we avoided the Trinity College Vortex – but in our attempts to leave the city, ended up driving into a lane that had been changed to be a pedestrian walkway. Much hilarity from the Dubliners at our expense – and imagine how many turns it took to inch the car forward in a circle to get back out of the walkway, given no reverse gear. In a way it was fated, though, as we did end up seeing the bronze statue of Molly Malone with her wheelbarrow of cockles and mussels on the sidewalk near us. I said to my friend “look over there, it’s…um…”, and a little Irish girl – replete with flowing red hair and freckles – hearing our conversation yelled out “IT’s MOLLY MALONE!”
We drove for a while through suburbs of tidy houses, and then into countryside filled with patchwork fields of green and yellow. We had to ask directions a number of times to find Jerpoint Abbey – and inevitably became lost. Signs in Ireland appear to be optional at certain intersections, and hooligans delight in turning them the wrong way. We finally seemed headed in the right direction when we found a vast field filled with sheep and what appeared to be a new building near the edge of the field. We knew we were looking for ruins, so we figured this must be some kind of tourist information center for the ruins. I parked the car and walked up to the building, pulling the large rope doorbell by the wooden door. The door opened, and a monk stood there in full regalia – brown robe with rope belt, sandals, hood – the whole traditional monk look. “Hi, we’re interested in seeing the Jerpoint Abbey ruins”, said I. The man handed me a card – it said “WE ARE A CLOISTERED NON-SPEAKING ABBEY. THIS IS A FUNCTIONAL NEW ABBEY. YOU WANT THE OLD JERPOINT ABBEY WHICH IS LOCATED APPROXIMATELY 2 MILES FROM HERE.” On the back of the card was a little map of how to find old Jerpoint. Not knowing how to thank a non-speaking cloistered monk, I just sheepishly backed away from the door and whispered “thank you.”
It actually took us a couple of tries to find the ruins, even with the map. But find it we did, and we enjoyed wandering the ruins along with our companion sheep from the fields – who were less impressed with the ancient abbey. Sheep are marked in Ireland with circle of fluorescent paint spray – green, pink, and yellow dots fleck the flocks.
We had a full day by that time, and decided to find a B&B. We found one a few miles away, and were lucky that they had room for us. (I learned years later after this trip that my companion thought I was able to just “tell” if a house was a B&B – she never noticed the Board Failte green shamrock sign at any of the places we stayed that marked the location as an approved B&B!) Our host at this B&B was loquacious, and we spent the evening with him and his family talking about American customs versus Irish ones. Dinnertime approached, and our host asked us if we wanted dinner. We told him we’d seen a nice looking pub down the road, and was it a good choice for us to eat there? The host said “you could walk down to the pub, yes, but you won’t be having dinner there as it is closed for the evening.” (Ah, the Irish wit.) So we asked where else we could eat, and our host offered to make dinner for us for a nominal extra charge. Great, we said.
“What do you want for dinner?”, our host inquired. We were not sure how to answer, as we did not know what was in our host’s larder. “What might we have?”, we said. The host said, well, you could have salmon or meat pie, or lamb. We chose the lamb. “All right, I will just go take care of that”, said the host.
Well, the living room of the house had a large picture window that afforded a lovely view of a hilly field dotted with sheep. We were sitting in the living room when we see our host – now wearing large sheep dip covered boots – walk by the window carrying a large axe. “Oh my gosh”, said I, “he’s going to kill one of the sheep!” Which was, of course, the effect he was going for – of course it was a joke at my expense, but we all had a good laugh. Dinner was excellent – the lamb tender and juicy. Our host brought out a huge bowl of boiled potatoes – there must have been 20 of them in the bowl – so we said “oh, will you be joining us in dinner?” “No, those are for you, he said.” So the Irish potato lore is true.
By the end of our trip, we stayed at 15 B&B’s. Each one was unique, all were spotless, and our B&B hosts were always friendly, intelligent, and good company. We were mystified at how each always had provisions on hand to create the huge Irish breakfasts when we did not have advance reservations. Talking with our hosts at their B&B’s gave us a feel for the Irish people and their country that could never have been possible by staying at a city hotel, and we would never have it any other way.