Ross Castle at Killarney

Colm Hippo at Carlton Hotel

Our mascot, Colm Hippo, has made a mess of the room.

We woke up in the Carlton Hotel in Tralee at a reasonable hour and went downstairs for the complimentary breakfast. I had some cereal, a selection of fruit and a fat, watery sausage, and Rebecca had access to gluten-free toast with yogurt and fruit. She was in down spirits: something about the struggle to arrange a suitable room last night really affected her, and then she reread the car rental contract and discovered we had to drop it off in Dublin by 1 p.m. We had been under the belief we could return it in the evening, so this caused a small amount of panic. Packing up, we hustled out under gray skies and navigated to Killarney (Cill Airne).

The drive through the countryside was, of course, whatever you could want it to be from Ireland. Plenty of farming landscape, dozens and dozens of quaint little towns that exuded backstory and culture. Throughout these I frequently felt a twinge of robbery, that we simply did not have enough time to pull over and get acquainted with the location for a meaningful period of time. This, of course, was a futile and naive wish as to do any village justice it would surely require around 20 years of getting established and meeting all the right people to hear all the important stories, as well as letting the town’s vibe resonate with you and sink into your bones for true understanding. In this way, Ireland presents a lesson in cherishing what’s immediately around you as a bulwark against the fear and grief of missing out on all the amazing things going on everywhere else.

Ulick's Bar & Restaurant

Ulick’s Bar & Restaurant. Sherwood’s, at one time.

This is easier done in Ireland than in Minneapolis, I think. But perhaps an Irish resident would say the same thing of Minneapolis.

Anon, we pulled into the angular network of outer Killarney. I found the town to be narrow and lined with beautiful, classical buildings, the streets very strictly running at right angles. I don’t know why I was so impressed with how very sharp the right angles were here. Maybe that was because of how narrow the streets were and how closely the buildings pressed in on us, or that not every intersection was a four-way: sometimes you had to drive straight up to a wall of buildings before you discovered the street jagged sharply to the left, for example. It might also be because the streets and highways around it absolutely do not run at right angles: they run like the paths of a crayon in the hands of a frustrated toddler, oddly enough.

I wondered what it would be like to live in this town, in particular. We were clearly in the shopping district, surrounded by pubs all trumpeting their homeyness; stores for clothing, video games and souvenirs; cafés promoting their fresh-baked wares with quality ingredients; and more pubs. I was aware that the surrounding area was the residential district, but I wondered how many people there could possibly be to fill all the pubs every night, so that they could all stay in business. On the other hand, I know nothing about the turnover rates for pubs in any given location.

McKenzie's Cafe

Good coffee, lovely pastries. Cozy shelter from the rain.

We parked in a very narrow space and ran to the tourist office. A very friendly employee informed us about the tours in the area—namely, Ross Castle and Muckross House—and gave us enough literature to pursue these. The rain hadn’t let up so we stopped at McKenzie’s Café to get another cuppa and write some postcards. I insisted on postcards, as not everybody travels all the time and I still think it’s special to receive a pretty picture with handwriting on the back and exotic stamps from far-off locations. Some people think you’re just rubbing their face in the fact they can’t or don’t travel, but I can’t let that bleak interpretation influence my behavior, when my motivation is just to share something pleasant. I know I’d like to receive a postcard if anyone I knew roamed beyond the borders of my nation.

After postcards and coffee there was a post office across the street. One thing that always amazed me was how clean all these Irish cities are. That’s not to say that Minneapolis is filthy, but there is a difference between our tall buildings of dusty rose granite and these bright, bold coats of scarlet and royal blue and kelly green on carved wooden architecture. And despite the rain dripping off everyone’s coats, the inside of the post office was spotless, almost glowing. Sometimes I think if I had unlimited resources, I’d want to tour guesthouses, restaurants and post offices all over the world just to collect and compare notes on how different philosophies treat interior design. Standing inside an Irish or Malaysian post office feels a world apart from the classical and preserved Minneapolis Post Office or the more modern and convenient Loop Station, and I want to be able to say why, exactly, beyond the written language or the attitude of the workers.

Ross Castle on Lough Leane

Our business done, we carefully negotiated the city streets and headed southwest to Ross Castle, on the banks of Lough Leane, or “Lake Learning”. This tower was a scholarly edifice, as well as a keep for the local farmers and laborers and an Irish chieftain’s family… I won’t go into the history, because I’ll get it wrong and people will take great delight in correcting me, as some travelers do. Read about it on Heritage Ireland, Wikipedia and the National Park site. We were quite impressed by the beauty of this ruined tower, faithfully preserved and maintained on the inside, but we had just missed a tour group. The staff were apologetic and let us know when the next couple of tours were, so we were thinking about zipping away and returning for a later show. I took this opportunity to photograph the interior model of the tower, what it would have likely looked like with people in period costume, going about their workday in the maintenance and support of their chieftain’s messuage. I took a lot of pictures at this time because we were informed that photos were strictly forbidden inside the castle.

Despite the increasing rainfall, we walked around the grounds a bit and got some silly photos (I posed the “wall rat” I borrowed from work). We saw a swan. Rebecca found a man training his hunting dog, a handsome, lean beast of glossy short brown fur, leaping and sprinting with great joy despite the weather, which was building up into a respectable storm.

Model of Ross Castle

The construction of Ross Castle, back in the day.

There were a dozen of us tourists absolutely sodden and dripping in the waiting room of the castle. The guide was quite adamant that no recording devices of any sort be brought in to the tower, and this was a small heartbreak for me as there were many wonderful things we saw on the tour, but I suppose I can sympathize with their need to keep it special. Amazingly, most tourists seem to be respectful of their request for privacy, as I can’t seem to find any interior photos of the building. I think that’s marvelous: people really should go there in person and experience it, rather than peruse it online. It’s not the same to glance at it from a distance. Regardless, I would have loved to document every little detail for myself, for my personal reference, just to keep it all straight in my head. I know that many of the props and furnishings inside the castle were not the original property, but they were still antique and authentic unto themselves, they all had their own stories and explanations. I only wish I had a better memory so I could have annotated every single little thing our guide shared with us.

And what made it all the more real was the intense storm that was whipping up outside while we climbed the circular staircase and toured each of the rooms of the tower. Rebecca thought it was a beastly day with horizontal rain and biting winds, but inside that tower, I was reaffirmed with the human spirit’s quest to survive. The O’Donoghue clan must have experienced similar beastly days as this, and they must’ve appreciated the stout walls that kept the gale force winds out. They must’ve appreciated their warm and dry shelter, such as it was, when you could look outside and see the abusive force of nature pelting at the landscape. I admired that technologically primitive people then, their ingenuity in using local materials for insulation and weather-proofing, the modifications they installed to redirect the water from leaky windows. They did the best they could, and on days like this when the winds blew faster and harder every hour and the rain dumped in limitless quantities from the sky, they must’ve been proud and grateful, as I was to stand in that tower, looking out over the whitecaps quilting Lough Leane, watching the pines wave and bow.

Heavy oak castle door

Heavy studded door and a “murder slit.”

The tour was astounding. Defense-wise, it was an exercise in implementing every tedious little trick to frustrate and confound the enemy in a worst-case scenario. The doors were built of two layers, planks running horizontally and vertically, to slow down a brute with an ax; they had spikes built in to pain anyone pressed into them; they had a half-foot riser behind them for additional reinforcement against battering; and there was only just enough space for the door to swing out in front of them, making it impossible for forces to bring in and swing a battering ram. All those little things conspired to make one of the most secure doors the world has ever seen. The circular staircase ran up clockwise, so right-handed defenders had room to swing their swords down, but attackers had a very awkward striking window in swinging up. Moreover, the stairs were not built evenly: without pattern, there were tall and short steps, broad or shallow steps. People who lived and worked in the castle were used to this, but attackers rushing up the stairs would trip and injure themselves, halt everyone’s progress, and for this reason they were known as “stumble steps” (I hope I didn’t make that up). I had a sudden inspiration and asked our guide whether the seemingly irregular measure to the steps correlated with a popular hymn of the time, perhaps, so that castle workers could hum prayers quietly as they negotiated the treacherous staircase. The guide gave me a tired look and said he did not think so. I resolved to shut up for the rest of the tour, but I almost immediately failed in this resolution. There was just so much to know and learn!

Every single detail and aspect to this castle, from martial architecture to luxury and comfort spoke of limitless human ingenuity. Were it not a health hazard, I could have happily lived in this tower, but everything from the whitewashed plaster walls to the tallow candles had disabling side effects for the O’Donoghues and the Brownes after them.

After the tour, we braved the storm (Rebecca danced in place, facing into the wind, to show how strong the winds were. She did this for me and then for some of the other tourists, which I thought was adorable) and carefully wended our way back to the car—now the grounds were pooling with rainwater and our path from the castle to the parking lot was washed out. We sat in our car and breathed for a moment, letting the overpowering energy and stimuli of the day organize themselves, cargo-like, in the capacity of our minds.

Muckross Victorian House

Alley behind Muckross Victorian House.

We drove south around Lough Leane to Muckross (Mucros) House, a lovely Victorian estate with many admirable buildings and very proper folk working the front desk at reception. They were of the brand of proper that makes you wish you knew more about etiquette, but regardless, you stand up straight and clear-eyed and hope you’ve made a good impression, such as you are, all things considered. They explained to us in prim and proper manner that we’d just missed the tour group for the house, but if we wouldn’t mind hanging around for another 90 minutes, maybe we could connect with the next group.

Victorian herb garden

An elaborate Victorian herb garden.

We declined to wait, which was funny because we actually did kill an hour touring the grounds and another at the national park. At any point we could have turned around and taken a tour of the mansion. I don’t even know why we didn’t, really. But we wandered around until we found a large sculpted herb garden—this resonated with me because I’ve harbored a secret fascination with such a layout, after seeing what bored monks with primitive technology had done with them. Yes, I harbored a fantasy that involved owning property, building a brick grill/smoker, and having a tiny sculpted herb garden for cooking. I haven’t made a single step in that direction, however, so wandering through this lovely patch of soil was only a reminder of my inadequacies, perhaps.

Muckross Textile Shop

An on-site textile shop, purveyors of lovely garments.

The gift shop was a prominent feature of the nearby facility, so we had to check it out. I had, of course, two goals in mind: I had to pick up a football (read: soccer) shirt from Ireland, to enhance my collection of international football shirts—they’re excellent for cycling, and once upon a time I convinced myself I was a cyclist, but at least clothing is a practical souvenir—and I hoped to pick up a nice sweater. Now, I already have two Irish sweaters: I have one bulky white fisherman’s sweater that’s very fine and of high production value. It’s so nice it doesn’t seem authentic, but of course it is, it’s just really, really nice. I don’t recall where I got this. The other is a plain olive green sweater of fine wool, and this I purchased in Cork the first time I was in Ireland, on our Royal Caribbean cruise of the U.K. and Norway back in 2009. I just wanted a sweater and this was a very nice one, though now I’m afraid a small and cunning moth has discovered it. So anyway, long story short: I got a very lovely dense and worsted grey sweater made by hand at this very location, connected to the gift shop. Rebecca couldn’t find a sweater to fit her (I won’t post the picture of her in an oversized fisherman’s sweater, as her dour expression is less than flattering), but she did discover a cute little hat, and it also was made right here by hand. The rest of the time we just meandered around and shoved our way through a class trip of French teenagers, I think they were.

Lunch at Muckross

Time enough for a hearty Irish lunch.

The building also had a cafeteria, and I went for the fish ‘n’ chips, and now I remember it being quite tender and flaky but with lots of tiny little pin-bones I had to nibble out and wipe on my paper serviette. It was quite a hearty meal and I told myself it was practically what the locals were eating, so I was pretty much entrenching myself in the local spirit, more or less. Food’s very important to me when I travel, you see, though in some nations it’s easier to target the national dish and indulge in it than in others. For instance, in Iceland it was quite difficult to find a restaurant that identified itself as a traditional eatery, though I ended up finding a rural lamb stew, kjotsupa, at a gift shop on the Golden Circle Tour; I never did locate a place that served hakarl. On the other hand, lok lak and amok were easily had anywhere in Cambodia.

Stone hiking steps

Stone steps to assist hikers at all stages of life.

Anyway, we drove further south to Killarney National Park to see the Torc Waterfall there. The weather had barely improved, mind, but we had our rain jackets and insulation, and there was little wind to speak of so it was quite manageable. I posed Colm Hippo, the “wall rat,” in various locations and got cute shots to present to my office back home. I hoped they would appreciate these, but in the meantime, I was rather bonding with the furry little guy and Rebecca fully accepted him as part of our tour group. I simply stuffed in my my Swiss Gear book satchel and brought him everywhere.

This may seem beside the point, but I actually enjoyed traveling with my niece’s “Flat Maggie” throughout SE Asia. I thought it was a fun exercise, certainly a tool for shifting one’s perspective. Not that I really needed that, here in Ireland: there was already so much to think about, a spectrum of topics from my murky heritage to how similar this country was to my own, or vice versa. Going through Asia is a shock to the system because it’s so very foreign, the day-to-day philosophy is so far removed from anything familiar; here, in Ireland, I was presented with a matrix of nuances and subtle differences. Everything was familiar, but there was still a distinct spin on everything from negotiating a roundabout to passing someone in the hall. So I think that’s where Colm Hippo stepped in: in a sense, he was my surrogate narrator as I observed the tourist-in-Ireland experience. With this stuffed hippo I was able to play up my naivete and stare at things in a less than adult-like wonder, I was permitted to be a little silly and engage with my environment on a different level. I think so, anyway, and a placebo effect is still an effect.

Torc Waterfall

Torc Waterfall.

The scenery, of course, was breathtaking. There really is something magical about the vibration with which Ireland resonates, out in the rural regions. It’s quite easy to believe in a parallel and simultaneous universe or kingdom, feeling the earth beneath you and studying the particular growth of all the trees and bushes around you. I don’t know what it is, but it is quite charming. My wife insisted all that lush greenery revitalized her in a way she hadn’t experienced in a long time. I tried to focus on the Irish fraction of my muddied and tangled heritage, tried to feel the land calling to me or to catch any whiff of familiarity on an ancestral level with this territory. And then, spiritualism aside, I simply enjoyed the beautiful waterfall and took in the rigorous and rewarding hiking.

We climbed up to take in quite a few breathtaking views of the countryside—as one can’t help but do, and there are no better words for it—and then we trotted back down to the car. The trail started to thicken with tourists and our timing was spot-on to depart the area, not to mention the rain was picking up from a mizzle to pissing. We started up the engine and headed east to County Cork.

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