Also the location in Ireland could not have been better chosen: County Kerry. Situated in the southwest of the country, it has been praised repeatedly in Irish folk songs – for its slow pace of life, green pastures and traditional – if not bluntly rural – setting. In short, it wasn't exactly New York. Given my mixed feelings about America’s buzzing megalopolis, I welcomed that.
The plan was to spend the weekend in the town of Killarney, within easy reach of Kerry airport. The town is conveniently located for such famous tourism spots of Ireland as the Ring of Kerry, Dingle peninsula and the Gap of Dunloe. The Ring of Kerry is a famous circular trail in County Kerry. It stretches for some 180 km around the Iveragh peninsula and is one of Ireland’s major tourist attractions.
Having been unconditionally obsessed with Ireland in the past, I had visited the proud nation twice before. During my first visit, I travelled around for about a week, stopping in Dublin, Cork, Cobh, Blarney, Galway and the Cliffs of Moher. My second visit to Ireland was focused on Cork, Cobh and Blarney and Kinsale.
Unfortunately, I did not make it to Iveragh then. Or it was perhaps a blessing, as, given Ireland’s whimsical weather, I would have probably missed out on most views. The famous Cliffs of Moher, for example, appear on my photos more like a thick cluster of first-class fog in torrential rain than cliffs per se. And, as much as I loved the wonderful Galway, its first association in my mind will always be – you say, the Galway Cathedral? Nope – raincoats and more raincoats. I had not been particularly lucky with the weather during my first two visits to Ireland.
And I was giving Ireland a third chance. A third chance not to be missed!
I rarely enjoy packing more than before a trip to Ireland. Firstly, the country shares the three-pin plug obsession with the UK, and I do not have to worry about converters. I can also forget about stocking up on food to last me through the "pay-for-your-food-yourself-please-sir" low-cost flight, as Ireland is not that far from England. Further, I can skip revising a foreign language, as the Irish commonly use English – albeit not in its most understandable form. What regards traffic, the Irish, too, stubbornly drive on the left. Going to Ireland from London is almost like taking a domestic flight!
The only thing I have to worry about is using a different currency: the euros replace the pounds. But even those two have almost become equivalent these days.
Kerry airport amazed me with its size. With barely two boarding gates, five check-in desks, a single luggage belt and a shared hall for departures and arrivals, it took me exactly one minute to march through. I briefly stopped to show my passport to a controller, who just about acknowledged the fact. With a sizeable Latvian minority casually hanging around Ireland these days, the Irish must be well used to our passports.
I then decided to take some photos around the area. First came the Irish flag flying nearby, of which I took about a hundred photos. I then spotted a herd of cows grazing in the fields and snapped them, too. My third point of attraction was a lone raven dancing in the skies overhead. Finally I gave up and just sat down on the bench. Being in any sort of rush in Ireland did not seem to be an answer.
At last in Killarney, I asked a man at the bus station for directions to my B&B. He promptly filled me in with detailed instructions, the most understandable of which by far was not to "talk to men with the horses, as they'll try to take money off ya". Intrigued, I further asked that respectable gentleman where North and South were, for my orientation with the printed Google map.
Shocked, he stared at me. "Did you really just ask me that, young lady? Don't you see where the sun is?" I looked above. There it was, shining up in the skies. I looked at my watch. It was noon. Sharp. Perhaps I really should spend less time on Facebook these days.
Having dropped my luggage at the cutest B&B ever, I returned to town. I fell in love with pretty little Killarney at first sight (view the full Flickr photoset here). If New York was largely an oversized version of everything else, then Killarney was the direct opposite: everything here was tiny. Little stalls, little shops, little doors and little signs. In short, absolutely irresistible.
I spent a good few hours taking photos around town – and about four hours more in Killarney National Park just a short walk from the centre. The town looked well cared for, and not too overcooked for tourists. The number of B&Bs was impressive, though. Killarney apparently boasts the largest number of hotel beds in the country, second only to Dublin. The hotels compete fiercely to survive and therefore all offer reasonable rates bundled with free wi-fi, hairdryers, full breakfast and complimentary coffee-making facilities. I didn’t complain.
Killarney's colourful facades
My plan for the evening was an absolute winner. The FIFA World Cup 2010 had finally kicked off, and England was playing the USA! There was no way I could miss that match – especially in Ireland, not the most neutral territory for either team.
The pubs in Killarney were a multitude, but most were pitch-dark like tombs and with room barely for a handful of people to breathe. I spent a while selecting the pub for the night – until I found Scotts. Located in a historic building facing a newly developed street, it had a large glass door and plenty of outside space. There was a big screen inside and England players were already lining up for the game. It was perfect. I had found THE Irish pub in Killarney and was ready to watch the football!
It had been a while since I last dared step into a pub on my own. I got myself a pint of cider (Bulmer's, of course) and wondered how a solo girl would feel watching football among so many loud inebriated males. I needn’t worry, however; the first problem was sorted in exactly 20 seconds. Perhaps helped by problem number two, I was spotted by a guy called Greg and offered a VIP seat next to his group of friends. The friends numbered about 20 and had all come down from Shannon for a stag night.
After a brief look around, I realised I was sitting next to the cutest guy in the pub (and possibly the whole of Killarney). Lucky me! Greg turned out a seriously cool conversationalist, too. I barely noticed the football as the two of us immersed in a deep discussion covering, in no particular order: (i) the geography of Ireland; (ii) William Butler Yeats's poetry; (iii) the symbolic meaning of the Irish flag; (iv) “Angela's Ashes”; (v) Irish mythological characters; (vi) Gaelic language; (vii) the Easter Rising of 1916; (viii) Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and (ix) the IRA.
Excited by my knowledge of Ireland – acquired during my flaming obsession for that country as a teenager and lovingly preserved to date – Greg hurriedly pointed a couple of friends whose relatives were apparently once members of the IRA. Unflustered by my confused look, he then confessed that his grandfather was in fact a member, too. Was that easy or what. In case anyone there is still after the IRA, make sure to dress up as a (pretty) girl and walk into the first pub on your way! I'd also recommend carrying a huge camera for a bit of diversion.
What more amazed me was that work didn’t appear once in our conversation. Not one question about what I was doing for life! When I meet new people in London, on the other hand, the “where do you work” often precedes the "what's your name". People are classified by what they do; what they are underneath the job title matters less, if at all. In Ireland, I was just a Latvian girl with a camera. My work, my education and other social stigma acquired over the years were suddenly less relevant. I loved the feeling.
My attention intermittently switched to the football match. I was not being particularly loyal to my country of residence – and could not have fitted in better with the Irish. England’s misses were welcomed with sighs of relief and whistling. The US goal though was greeted with utmost joy; the lads hugged, high-fived their nearest neighbour, ordered multiple rounds of drinks and loudly recited "USA!" The atmosphere was great. Coming to that pub to watch the game was the best idea of the month! With that in mind, I fell asleep that night. The Ring of Kerry was waiting.
My morning awakening could only be sweetened by, ahem, a pill – for headache, as last night's five pints of Bulmer's still reminded of themselves. I briefly checked my memory card for any off-licence photos. There was no evidence of irresponsible behaviour. What about my mobile phone? “I had a great time with you last night”, said one of the messages. “You’re a sound girl”. Sound, eh? The best compliment I have ever been given! I set off for the Ring of Kerry tour in an elevated mood.
Seven hours of the tour went by in a flash. We made several stops along the way: among others, Cahersiveen, Waterville, Sneem and two panoramic lookout spots, the Coomakista Pass and Moll’s Gap (view the full Flickr photoset here). My best memory was a shepherd's demonstration of the different breeds of sheep and trained shepherd dogs somewhere between Killarney and Cahersiveen. The dogs looked right experts at assembling, guiding and sub-grouping a flock of sheep. Impressive! I must be wasting time with my financial models in London. Why bother when I'll never master the professional excellence to match this respectable gentleman, a shepherd for many generations? Respect.
That kind Canadian lady, Ring of Kerry tour
Sheep demonstration again
Coomakista Pass, the Ring of Kerry
The weather in Ireland was as bad as a teenage girl – changing mood every 7 minutes or so. From rain to bright sunshine, from umbrellas to short sleeves, from low-hanging black clouds to spotless skies – Ireland just couldn't make up its mind. In the end, we all gave up and just nodded obediently to yet another whim of a spoilt little princess.
Our final incident was a "traffic jam" Kerry-style. The Ring of Kerry is known for its narrow roads, which make it difficult for two buses to pass when coming from opposite directions. Bus drivers are therefore instructed to move around the Ring of Kerry in a counter-clockwise fashion – while private cars often choose to go clockwise not to end up trailing behind buses. Just before we returned to Killarney, however, we faced not one but TWO buses moving towards us. About a dozen of cars were already caught up in front of us. Trying not to look left (where a steep slope smoothly led on to a lake), we eventually left both buses safely behind. They'll know better next time.
A "traffic jam" in County Kerry
An Chríoch ("The End")
It was time for me to return to London. My flight was around 10pm, but there were no buses to Kerry airport after 6pm. A taxi ride would have been expensive; arriving to Kerry early by bus with four hours to spare there seemed boring to tears. Luckily, a lady at my B&B recommended an alternative route: there was apparently an evening train to Farranfore, a mere 1.3 km walk from Kerry airport. A bit of research revealed that Farranfore station was in fact the ONLY railway station in Ireland which connected to an airport! If you can call that runway in the middle of a cow field an airport, of course.
The thought of walking 1.3 km to the airport with my bag amused me to bits. I don’t think I ever reached any airport on foot – but nothing could surprise me in Ireland anymore. When I got off at Farranfore station and walked on, I even noticed another traveller behind me, rolling a bag and obviously heading the same direction. I couldn’t have been totally crazy to walk. And it wasn’t raining, either!
By the time the boarding began, the skies had mostly cleared up. Before entering the plane, I glanced back. The sun was setting quietly behind me, lighting up the few remaining clouds with its soft pink glow. The ground, still wet from earlier showers, echoed the sunset colours. Gentle wind was stroking my hair and cheeks. The night was setting in.
Goodbye, Ireland. I will be back soon.