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Old Ireland, especially the West, was known to be a place full of piseog… or, superstition. These included, ring forts, believed to be fairie forts which were left undisturbed by farmers plows or roads; a belief in little people, Banshee and fairies, or, “good people”; stories of changelings replacing human infants, ghosts wandering the countryside and holy well cures, to name a few. Though little, if any, of this superstition remains in modern Ireland, remnants can still be found. For instance, counting magpies to tell the future is still quite common, though I highly doubt that anyone doing the counting these days thinks of this practice as anything more than a fun poetic tradition, not to be taken seriously…

Two Magpies, courtesy of http://www.guardian.co.uk/

One for sorrow

Two for joy

Three for a girl

Four for a boy

Five for silver

Six for gold

Seven for a secret

Never to be told…

You see, I am superstitious enough to have searched for a photo of two magpies to insert here, just to be safe! Personally, I am not one to believe in anything 100%… nor do I disbelieve in anything 100%! I ‘knock on wood’ – religiously, and though I’ve never seen a ghost, I have a healthy respect for the possibility of their existence. In fact, during our final walk-through on the day before closing, I ‘jokingly’ asked our auctioneer (realtor) if he thought Rose Cottage might be haunted. Mossie quite emphatically assured me that it is not haunted, for if it were, he would know! Now… he may have had a bit of fun with the American, or was just ‘joking’ like I had been, sort of… or, perhaps he was being forthright and there remains a bit of piseog in West Clare afterall! However, for the most part I would say that today, any refusal to disturb ring forts, talk of ghosts or habit of counting magpies, is not based upon superstition but more likely, a respect for the traditions of the past with a bit of fun thrown in.

Traveling around Ireland, especially in the West, it is not hard to understand how people of long ago would have experienced blurred lines between what is seen and unseen; the present and the past; reality and the imagination. People walk daily past buildings far older than our country, drive past ring forts, witness medieval fortresses and church ruins dotting the skyline and stumble upon megalithic passage tombs and standing stones scattered all around the country. Add to these man-made structures, the natural environment of, not only forests and mountains walked upon by the likes of St. Patrick and Cú Chulainn, but dramatic, constantly changing weather and a sky that seems to hang much lower to the ground than any sky I’ve ever experienced in the Midwest of the United States. Clouds hover so closely at times that you can see them touching the tops of trees, their misty fingers almost within reach, mist and fog clings to the ground on cool, damp nights and an approaching storm can seem to swallow up the landscape in its path.

We saw a great example of the magic of nature in Ireland during our last trip when we made another visit to The Cliffs of Moher. On this particular day, the weather was changing by the minute and we left our car with the sun shining brightly and a soft breeze blowing only to have to duck into the Visitors’ Center minutes later to escape a downpour that approached from a distance like a towering, grey wall. Finally, when we were able to venture outside again, we made our way to the top of the Cliffs where, to our delight, we found O’Brien’s Tower open to the public and were able to climb the stairs to the top and look out at the surrounding view. While standing at the top of O’Brien’s Tower, Anton, Eóin and I watched another approaching opaque wall of grey move along the Atlantic and swallow up the Aran Islands causing a magical disappearance worthy of The Mists of Avalon! This was followed by a short downpour that ended with a rainbow, which came out of the heavens and landed directly on top of the Cliffs. It is no wonder that people exposed to such dramatic natural displays and surrounded by ancient structures and historical sites, would have an open mind to possibilities outside the realm of the everyday world, especially people who lived in a time before such modern wonders as air travel, television and computers!

On a small-scale, we had an experience at Rose Cottage during our last visit that illustrates for me just how the combination of very old, man-made structures and the strange West Clare weather, can create a haunting display. Due to the harsh weather during most of our trip, Anton was not able to spend any time clearing the weeds and brier growing around the outbuildings on our property. Not wanting to leave Ireland without at least tackling some of this job, on the last night of our trip he put on his new, Carhartt work gloves and got to work with some hedge clippers next to one of our two old, stone outbuildings. It was dark outside so we repositioned the car and turned the headlights on his work area. Within a half hour Anton had cleared a nice walkway next to the building and exposed an old stone wall that has probably been covered for years. Pleased with his work, and probably wanting proof that he did it, Anton took photos. Following are two photos taken in succession. Now… I am not saying that the second photograph shows anything more than a bit of misty fog floating past… but I think it is a good example of why the West of Ireland was at one time so rife with piseog!

Anton's last minute brush clearing completed...

Anton's last minute brush clearing completed, with 'ghosts' parading past, perhaps admiring his work...

Monks Pub in Ballyvaughan... if you look closely you can see Eóin standing by the door.

While on holiday in Ireland, between all the sightseeing of castles, caves, beaches, cliffs, dolmens and the odd ancient church and grave yard, one of my favorite things to do is to stop for tea. “Should we stop for tea?”… is a common question asked during our journeys and rarely receives a negative response. By the time the question is asked, everyone is usually feeling the need for refreshment. Although there are the usual stops for lunch or dinner, “stopping for tea” most often means a shorter, less disruptive break and, for the most part, literally means a pot of tea and perhaps a delicious dessert, which if you’re lucky, is the house specialty. These specialties may be a mixed-berry crumble, homemade scones, a simple apple tart, or a lovely slice of Banoffi… all offered accompanied by fresh, thick cream. However, you can have your tea without dessert… but never dessert without tea! Tea offers comfort from the often cold, damp weather and the slight stimulant needed to regroup and move along on the journey. As I mentioned in an earlier post, tea usually consists of a good-sized pot of fully brewed, piping hot tea, accompanied by a pitcher of milk, never cream, on the table.

A break for tea provides for replenishment of energy for the next adventure, but equally, allows travelers an opportunity to discuss the sites and occurrences experienced up to that point and to plan the next step of the journey. In addition, stopping for tea often includes a bit of conversation with the servers, proprietors and/or other customers, which enriches the travel experience, and very often can offer an opportunity to learn about a nearby site that might have been otherwise overlooked. Sometimes stopping for tea is the highlight of the day, but mostly it is just a welcome and enjoyable punctuation between the larger experiences.

Below is a photo I took during one of these “Should we stop for tea?” breaks. On our way to the Aillwee Caveafter a lengthy drive north from Kilkee, past Doolin and up along the scenic Coast Road, which included a couple of windblown walkabouts on the Burren along the way – we enjoyed a wonderful respite at Monks Pub in Ballyvaughan at around 11 a.m.. Notice the lone tea-pot on the table – my idea of “stopping for tea”. Anton and Eóin had different ideas… but we all had a great time and departed with the energy we needed to forge ahead!

Tea, hot chocolate and Guinness at Monks Pub on a very cold, windy day!

Somehow I managed to miss posting a photo of the funniest and most startling signage we came upon in Clare… and, not one to hesitate continuing a conversation beyond necessity, here it is!

A welcome to Doolin, this sign did not exaggerate the road ahead... but at least it warned drivers to slow down!

Up until my recent trip to County Clare, which just took place the week before Easter, I had not driven in Ireland since my very first visit in 1999. In the years since then I happily let Declan take on driving duty. So it was with trepidation that I took possession of the keys to the blue Nissan in Shannon Airport and began my journey to Kilkee and Rose Cottage. Thankfully, when booking the car we remembered to ask for an automatic transmission because, though I do know how to drive a stick shift, I did not want the added challenge of doing so while also driving in the right side of the car and on the left side of the unfamiliar and often winding roads of County Clare.

In the driver's seat with Eoin in the back, somewhere on The Burren, photo taken by Anton

After I made sure the scratches on the boot (trunk) and the bonnet (hood) were well documented before accepting the car, Anton skillfully loaded all our luggage into the boot and we were on our way. With Eoin perched on his booster seat in the back and Anton in his co-pilot seat, map in hand, I drove white knuckled the hour journey to Rose Cottage. Having just spent many sleepless hours traveling by air, this was no easy task. However, we made it to the cottage without a hitch, no wrong turns and always remaining securely on the correct side of the road! Our journey to the cottage was greatly enhanced by the mild, sunny weather that greeted us upon our arrival in Ireland, weather that changed drastically the following day and gave us almost a full week of howling wind, cold temperatures, rain, hail and snow! But while we had it, that sunny arrival day provided Anton and Eoin with a good opportunity to take in the beauty of the countryside and our pretty little town of Kilkee. I was too busy concentrating on the road and the car to chance my arm (or our lives) with any sightseeing of my own. Although I became more comfortable and self-confident driving as the week progressed, it never got to a point where I felt anywhere near the ease I enjoy when driving at home. So driving in County Clare took my full attention and whether driving through towns, along narrow country roads or when dealing with roundabouts, I was never able to let my guard down and relax completely.

Roundabout image courtesy StarskyandClutch.co.uk

Roundabouts, an inventive solution for avoiding the back ups that traffic lights can create, made our week in Clare virtually traffic light free. Although roundabouts don’t work as well for the high volume traffic found in a city like Dublin, the light to moderate traffic we experienced in Clare this time of year allowed its roundabouts to work quite efficiently. However, for a novice like me even the most efficient roundabouts in the lightest traffic took some getting used to and required my total concentration! The thing to remember with roundabouts is to stay in the outside lane if you plan on exiting at the first or second exit but move to the inside lane for any exit after that. These instructions were conveniently given to us during a Clare Talk Radio program we tuned in to a couple of days after our arrival that focused entirely on roundabouts, because apparently, even the natives struggle with roundabout etiquette!

Notwithstanding roundabouts, I have to say that the greatest challenges of driving in County Clare occurred on the winding country roads, which posted speed limits from 100 km/h on the open roads down to 50 km/h through the towns. This translates from kilometers per hour to miles per hour to roughly, 62 mph on open roads and 31 mph through towns. These speeds may sound reasonable enough except when you consider that those roads posting 100 km/h were for the most part narrow, winding, two lane country roads. With no new speed indicated, narrow 100 km/h roads would suddenly curve to nearly a right angle or turn into a snake with rounded curves or a lightening bolt with jagged curves. When we weren’t gasping in fear we had to a laugh at some of the absurd signs we passed with curving black lines depicting roads, which hardly seemed possible, but always proved a reality. Although we managed to photograph a couple of these wild Clare road signs, the wildest ones were on roads far too challenging to allow us to stop for a photo, so they will be left to the imagination!

Signs along the road on the way back to Kilkee from Doolin, notice the speed limit.

However, winding roads and all, I would say we navigated our way around County Clare and its Burren quite well, aside from a couple of instances of becoming lost inside little villages where a junction would contain at least a half-dozen signs pointed in different directions, usually indicating a site or a town but rarely indicating the name of the road. And as far as actual driving safety goes, there were a couple of close calls, but for the most part the driving went smoothly.

The final challenge in our blue Nissan came during the 4:30 a.m. journey back to Shannon Airport to drop the car off and catch our flight home. After only a couple of hours of sleep the dark, foggy and still unfamiliar roads made getting to the airport on time a bit stressful with my knuckles as white as they had been on that first drive out to Rose Cottage a week earlier. However, we made it on time and again, without incident, though I don’t know that it would have been possible without Anton there to watch for road signs in the dark that led us back to Shannon. At best, if I had been on my own, I would have circled those roundabouts more than once searching for the correct exits along the way – looking like the typical tourist and very likely arriving at the airport with little time to spare!

A particularly interesting and well-prepared sign.

photo courtesy TBO.com

When making the long journey across the Atlantic, or taking any long flight, be sure to bring along a person of height, say 6 foot 7 inches, as well as a person of limited age, in this case a 7-year-old.

My recent flights to and from Ireland for our seven days in Kilkee last week, were probably the most enjoyable and comfortable of all the trips back and forth across the pond I have made in the last eleven years. This is true, in spite of the fact that my 7-year-old succumbed, yet again, to air sickness on the trip over. First of all, having a son along for the trip who is 6 foot 7 inches tall and who, following my instructions, stretched upright to his full height while standing next to me as I requested bulkhead seats, gave us the leverage we needed for the best seats economy class has to offer! However, I must add here that it is paramount to arrive early to the airport to acquire this much sought after, bulkhead seating. I am not 6’7″, but at 5’7″ I am tall enough to suffer within the usual seating offered and cannot express fully my joy at being able to stretch my legs out completely on the two flights, which ranged from 6 3/4 to 8 1/4 hours in length. Also, being able to stand upright in front of my seat when rummaging through my carry-on case for a squashed Luna bar or my neck pillow was a real delight!

But my oldest son wasn’t the only person who provided the leverage needed to upgrade from the usual discomfort that comes with flight travel these days, my 7-year-old served his purpose as well. “Those traveling with young children” is music to my ears and allowed us the VIP treatment of being at the front of the line when boarding, a privilege that cannot be taken lightly on a long trip. Boarding first guaranteed all the overhead space we needed directly above our VIP seating that made access to our carry-on luggage all the more convenient as we stood upright in front of our roomy seats!

As I mentioned earlier, I still had the misfortune to hold a “barf-bag” on yet another trip to Ireland. However, I have become such a pro at this task that I managed to carry it out with such finesse, that I nearly expected the thankful flight attendants to applaud!

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