To see a map of this part of the route, click here.
The day began fabulously. I made it to Dzogchen Beara just in time for morning meditation and got offered a lift straight afterwards with a lovely woman who had been staying at the Centre after her car went on strike, forcing her to stay and heal from a crumbled relationship.
We chat the drive away, sharing stories of love, death and bitter experience. Sometimes I feel a stranger I just met has been a friends for aeons, and that’s just how this feels with this woman whose name I don’t even know. Driving into Kenmare, a colourful little town where we had agreed to part ways, we decide to continue our discussion over coffee in a veggie bakery-come-cafe. An hour or more later we finally say farewell, and it really does feel like a well-wishing.
I get another short lift and find myself on a quiet road at the start of the infamous Ring of Kerry – one of the most scenic driving routes in Ireland, which skirts round the whole of the Iveragh Peninsula. I draw myself a fancy “Ring of Kerry” sign with a smiley face, and wait.
A delivery van stops. “Where ya headed?” I ask him. “Oh, I’m goin’ round the whole ring.” “Really? Wow!” I chuck my pack in the back and climb in the van next to him. “Yep, just got about thirty stops on the way…” I groan inwardly. Well, at least it will be a scenic drive. John and I drive slowly – oh so slowly – around the picturesque (which, by the way, Irish people pronounce phonetically – “picture-skew”) Ring of Kerry, driving down each and every little road, delivering packets to businesses, stately homes, a golf course and a mink farm, among others. John starts out in a fine mood, stopping for me to take pictures and pointing out landmarks, such as Carauntoohill, Ireland’s highest mountain and various standing stones. By the time we’ve left Waterville though, he’s starting to lose his rag. Several of the packets don’t have proper addresses, no phone number, or the businesses are closed. He’s starting to swear a lot. “Jesus, that’ll be the health centre I’m delivering to now. She’s never there, like. You’d be better off crawling to Kilarney!”
John drops me at Castlemaine and I hitch a little further up the road before taking my customary coffee break at The Phoenix – billed as a “vegetarian restaurant”, but in fact it serves fish and the prices are higher than Carauntoohill. I “uhhm” and “ahh” about getting food anyway, texting my host in Dingle to ask what his dinner plans are. He replies that I should eat there, so I order a soup and head on up the Dingle Peninsula with Helen: my last lift of the day.
Breanainn accepted my couchsurfing request by text message. Since then we’ve been in contact several times and I’m looking forward to meeting him. I’ve never couchsurfed in a van before, but since I lived in one myself for a time, I figure at least we’ll have something in common. I ask how I’m to find him and he replies that he’ll be playing a gig in a pub later and should we meet there? Fine by me. I get into Dingle early and leave my bag at the pub while I explore.
Dingle is a small, jovial, multi-coloured town. I’ve been told it attracts people on the odd side, but then so does Brighton. After a stroll about, I sit and write postcards in the pub and wait for Breaninn. He arrives and goes straight onstage, murmuring a quiet hello to me on his way past the table. He’s playing guitar and the girl is singing, lyrics mostly in Irish. The music is excellent and far exceeds any ‘trad music’ I’ve heard so far in Ireland. There’s a nice atmosphere in the pub, a mixture of locals and tourists.
After the gig, Breanainn says he’s looking forward to talking with me. We sit down and begin a conversation, but a couple of minutes later he’s jumped up and made an excuse to go outside. He seems nervous and kind of jumpy. When he comes back, he says he wants to go and play music in the hostel over the road. It’s already half midnight and I’m totally knackered, but I say “fine” with as much enthusiasm as I can muster and he promises we won’t be out later than 2am. We go to a pub. I mistake this for the hostel bar and buy another pint, but no, we’re just meeting two stoned young guys here and then going to the hostel. The guys finish their pool game and we all go over the road. Breanainn still hasn’t said more than two sentences to me, including the proposal to play more music. We get to the hostel and it’s really just the four of us in the lounge. Breanainn asks to speak to me, so I get up and follow him to the dark kitchen, where he tells me this is his first time hosting in his van and he’s changed his mind. He’s very tired and he just wants to go to bed. Alone. It’s now around 1am. He says it’s ok, he’s sorted it out so that I can stay in the hostel for free. He hopes I’m not pissed-off with him. He sticks his arms out and says, “Can I have a hug?” I think this is totally weird, but I hug him – whereby he lifts me right into the air and down again, then says goodbye and leaves.
Back in the lounge I mention this to the guys, who agree that he is actually a very strange person. It seems like they don’t know him very well. One of them asks if I want to stay in the hostel.. “but.. didn’t he sort it out? I mean, he said I could stay here for free..” “Ohh noooo,” the ginger-headed guy rubs his face in his hands. “Oh god, I’m always letting people stay here – shit – I’m gonna get in so much trouble!” “No no, hang on, it’s not you who ought to be in trouble, this is Breanainn’s fault!” I call Breanainn before they have a chance to stop me and tell him – “hey, you didn’t ‘sort it out’ in the hostel – these guys want money!” “Ok, I’ll come right now with money, ok?” “…ok.” I’ve been drinking a bit while waiting and feel my inner emotional drunk trying to unleash herself. I go to the toilet to push back tears. When I come out, the ginger guy is clutching some notes – “Woohoo! You can choose whatever bed you like!” he grins. “You can have breakfast! You can have whatever you want!” “You should give her some of that money for food or something.” says the other one. “No, I don’t want it,” I tell them, “I just want a place to sleep.” I don’t want to know how much money he’s given them and I don’t ask, but the ginger guy puts me in an eight bed dorm on my own, with an en-suit shower and toilet.
Just before Breanainn left, he offered me a lift to Tralee the following day and we arranged to meet at a petrol station at 1pm. I wait for him for precisely fifteen minutes before sticking out my thumb. I haven’t even finished making my “Tralee” sign when a nice old couple pull over. Jean and Eileen introduce themselves. “Have you seen the Conor Pass yet?” Jean asks. “No”, I tell him. “Right!” he says to his wife. “We’re going over the Conor Pass!”
The Conor Pass, John tells me, is the highest navigable pass in Ireland. He stops at the top for me to take a picture and continues his tour commentary as we drive on. “That there is Mount Brandon – that’s the second highest peak in Ireland – and that there’s the Slieve Mish mountain range.” We pass a beach. “There was a surfing championship here three weeks ago. When they arrived, there was not a wave. Then three days later, there was a storm!” He looks out over the ocean. “Oh, it gets pretty wild out there!” he says.
Later, at my friend Rob’s house, I leave a neutral reference for Beanainn on his Couchsurfing profile, trying my best to explain what happened objectively. I receive a NEGATIVE one in return:
“With Couchsurfing you win some you lose some. I lost on this occasion.
It didn’t help that Jo was a day late, I had a gig on the night she arrived
and she more or less insisted we meet at the pub.
30 secs into conversation I sensed I didn’t want Jo in my small space.
Though I would be an accommodating person I did not want this woman in a
confined space with me.
I felt couchsurfing to Jo was about getting things for nothing. I paid for
her hostel though, as I felt it was my mistake for having accepted her
request, but I also learnt an important lesson about hosting in my van.
There are some people I won’t want to host as ‘cabin fever’ could set in.
Regarding the lift the next day, it’s unfair of Jo to say I didn’t turn up,
she never confirmed she would take the lift.
I wish Jo the best in her learning and journey.”
He later changed it to a neutral one after I wrote to him seeking an explanation. I’m still not sure what happened.
Round Ireland with a Limp, Episode 3: Cork to Cahermore
Monday 16th April 2012
It’s impossible to say “Cahermore” in an English accent and have people understand you. “Ohh – Caa-herr-mohrr” – locals roll it through their mouths like wind rolling through a tunnel, when they finally work out where it is you want to go.
We pass over onto the Beara Peninsula. Just before Glengarriff, the landscape changes instantly. Gone are the lush green fields and hedgerows that have so far characterised my experience of Ireland. Here we have deep greys and dry browns; crags jutting into swashling waves on our left; boulders rising up into barren hills on our right.
I’m with a guy named Marcus, who lives in Glengarriff. He’s one of a series of short lifts I’ve had since Skibbereen, where I found the Heritage Centre I was aiming to visit closed on Mondays. Once again I’m reminded of how disorganised I am.
I left Cork city several hours late this morning after a rip-roaring few days, which my liver will no doubt punish me for in later life. The late start was not, however, due to self-induced brain curdling, but a mission to settle a wee dispute between my father and his sister Mary.
An email from my father, dated 5th August 2010, says:
You have at least two relatives who were in some way instrumental in bringing about the Irish Free State :-
John Thaddeus Harrington born 25/1/1898
IRA activist in the run-up to the Partition of Ireland, survived into the 1960s and I remember him well.
Daniel V Harrington born between 1898-1899
IRA activist along with John Thaddeus, died of pneumonia while on the run from British forces.
His grave in Cork bears the legend “Daniel V Harrington IRA aged 19 yrs died 23/11/1918.
Mary thinks this is load of old bunkum. Still, thanks to a spot of grave hunting this morning, I think I can settle things.
A coffee-stop later, an English guy takes me another 5km up into the Ring of Beara. He has a copy of ‘Notes From Down Under’ by Bill Bryson on his dashboard, which we have time to discuss briefly before I get out. When I grow up, I want to be a travel writer just like Bill Bryson, only more political – is that possible?
I find myself standing outside the garden of a short, wide white house on a long straight road – the only house within eyesight. I love hitching small country roads. For me, they’re second only to remote mountain passes, where locals reckon a car might come along once a week. On this occasion cars are coming every ten minutes or so but, strangely, they aren’t stopping for me. This may or may not have something to do with my companion: a nervous and bedragled border collie who has fallen in love with me.
After 20 minutes or so a man comes out from the house. “That your dog?” he asks me. “No, I thought she was yours!” “Never seen her before in me life.” The dog runs behind the nearest hedge as another car approaches and drives straight past my outstretched thumb. The man goes back inside.
More time passes. My compañera is growing more gutsy by the minute and has taken to chasing and barking at cars briefly, then running back and cowering behind my pack.
A woman comes out from the house. I shout a jovial “hello!” and she nods in my direction, looks at the dog and goes back in. After a time, she comes out again and loads up her car. I cross my fingers behind the “Castletown” sign I’ve written on a page of my notebook. She gets in the car, rolls a small way down the drive and calls over to me – “I’m only going up the road, but come on.” I get in the car, thanking her profusely. The dog looks very unhappy about all this, but there’s nothing I can do for her. The woman drops me outside a small shop 6km further on.
This road is even quieter. A few cars drive down to the shop, buy milk and a paper and drive back up the road away from me. The one man going my way waves as he drives past.
A 40 ton truck grinds to a halt in front of the tiny shop. The guy calls out the window – “Where’re ya headed?” Alan is from Belfast and has been on the road since the early hours. He’s not supposed to pick people up, but I won’t tell if he won’t. This is my first – and will be my only – truck ride in the whole of Ireland.
My host Iris meets me by the Dinish Bridge just outside Castletownbere, the local name for what my map calls ‘Castletown Bearhaven’. We stop for chips in town on the way out to her place; there are no shops out there at all.
Iris lives in Cahermore: an area of a few scattered houses near the end of the wild and barren Beara Peninsula. It’s my favourite place in Ireland so far.
By coincidence, there is a Dzogchen retreat and meditation centre up the road. While browsing couchsurfing hosts in the area I noticed it mentioned in another woman’s profile and it cemented my decision to come here. There are 9am and 3pm meditations daily, so I rise bright and early to a beaming sunny day. Ten minutes later it’s pissing rain, but has brightened up again by the time I’ve had breakfast. I open the door with my camera poised and a storm hits as soon as I set foot outside. Crazy, crazy Irish weather.
Cars drive past my soggy thumb every few minutes. Why, oh why won’t they stop? There’s only one road and they can’t be going anywhere but past the Centre. Finally, at ten to nine, a woman stops. I get into the large spacious meditation room exactly as the session starts, positioning myself on a cushion opposite one of two walls of floor to ceiling windows looking straight out to sea. The weather has brightened again and the waves froth happily below us. Coloured prayer flags line the small peninsula running out to the East. I exhale and settle into my body properly for what seems the first time in eons.
After hitching into town for coffee and a look around I’m back at the Centre in time for the big communal lunch. It’s €10 and not very vegan, but they’ve made a separate “special diet” version for people like me. No pudding though. I get confused by Buddhist centres advocating the use of dairy and therefore animal torture – seems a little out of step with the principle of “non-harm”. Perhaps they just don’t understand how Western food production works?
The second meditation is in a different space on the same grounds. I pass time before it in the Dzogchen Beara coffee shop, on a window-seat of cushions and a view to steal one’s breath. I’m reading through a pamphlet about ‘Harriet’s Death’, bringing up a few tears and residual emotion – from Dad I suppose. Harriet was one of the co-founders of the Centre and she had a particularly moving and supported death, which has since inspired the Centre to focus on death and terminal illness, working with healthcare proffessionals through seminars and training; creating the ‘spiritual care centre’ Dechen Shying – a space welcoming ‘those who are facing life challenges, such as ill health, life-limiting illness or loss’. I am all admiration.
Evenings in Cahermore are stormy and bleak, the waves crashing at the rocks along the coast. I can watch them from the large windows that line the conservatory that Iris uses as her lounge, a cat on my lap for company. It’s the perfect place to darn the holes in my gloves, write postcards I’ve carried for weeks and chat with Iris about life out here in the wild west of Ireland. The jaunty bustle of Cork seems a far-away memory now.