You know when you’ve been waiting for something for what seems to be your entire life, and the hopes and expectations grow and can’t possibly meet actual reality, can they? To paraphrase a catchy mantra from a certain soon-to-be outgoing US president: Yes, they can.Growing up in the northwest of England, Ireland was always a mere hop, skip and jump away. Manchester, after all, was just down the road from Liverpool and, in the pre-politically correct days of the Sixties and Seventies, when racist-tinged comedy was all the rage, the running joke in that neck of the woods went something along the lines of: What’s a Liverpudlian? An Irishman who can swim.Dublin may have been just across the Irish Sea but, for some reason, I never visited the Emerald Isle. Finally, after almost four decades in Israel, a few weeks ago I made it. It was the tail end of the summer, although, as we quickly discovered, my wife and I might very well have brought the more clement climes with us. “It’s been a terrible summer,” said one bed-and-breakfast owner just outside the village of Cleggan, over on the west coast. “It just rained and rained.”We hardly had any precipitation during our nine-day sojourn on the island, although we wouldn’t have minded getting the odd soaking after our Israeli summer, and I even managed a couple of swims in the Atlantic Ocean.Mind you, the dip off the coast of Galway was taken in the company of a handful of hardy seasoned bathers who appeared to be well into their twilight years. Not that I’m exactly a spring chicken myself...We began our Irish vacation, naturally enough, in the capital, although we didn’t hang around in Dublin too long.Of course, no visit to Dublin would be complete without dropping by the Guinness Storehouse. It is a quite stupendous visitors’ center that attracts a hefty 1.5 million patrons a year. To put that in geographic and demographic perspective, that is the equivalent of close to one third of the country’s entire population. It was evident throughout our guided tour that no expense has been spared to equip the enormous storehouse with eye-catching gadgets, exhibitions, historic exhibits, and providing a handle on how “the black stuff” is made. You finish your visit on the uppermost floor, hand over your coupon to the bar staff and are given a pint of Guinness to be leisurely supped while you look out over the whole of Dublin.By the way, while the brew was delicious, we were mightily disappointed to learn that the world-famous stout no longer entirely fits the yesteryear advertising slogan of “Guinness is good for you.” That was largely based on the high iron content – indeed, Guinness was served to postnatal mothers in maternity wards in Britain in the Fifties and Sixties. But, since filtration was introduced, around 20 years ago, a pint provides you with only 0.3 mg of iron.AFTER THE capital we headed south for the village of Gorey.Driving through the verdant countryside I began to westwards. We caught some of the scenic beauty of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, gently flowing streams with small waterfalls, rough vegetation and large grassy areas. We spent some time in Avoca, to the south of the national park, and took a walk through the forest there.More leisurely imbibing of the bucolic beauty, and a couple of country pub pints of Guinness down the road it began to get late and we realized there was no point in pushing on for the region of Galway, as we’d planned, and we decided to stay the night in Athlone, right between the east and west coasts. After a futile search for a bed-and-breakfast we opted for the default Irish solution – go to a pub and ask.We asked at the bar up the road, called Murphy’s Law. The genial barman there, Paul, promptly got on his cell phone and kept on calling bed-andbreakfasts and other accommodation in the area, until he nailed a delightful lakeside hotel called Hodson’s Bay just outside Athlone.
The Irish propensity for helping out once again came to the fore when a Murphy’s Law client gave us explicit instructions on how to get to the hotel, several times. The day after, we were drawn to the feral beauty of the cliffs along the Atlantic coast that face the seemingly infinite expanse of the ocean. Of course, at the other side of the sea lies New York, the destination of millions of Irish men and women who searched for a better life in the New World. It is estimated that around 4.5 million Irish people, which is about the current population of Ireland – left for the States between 1820 and 1930.As we moved ever westward, leaving Galway behind, the vegetation became hardier as we moved into the peninsula to northwest and made the 80-km.drive to Clifden in good time. Suitably fortified by a late Indian lunch, we drove a few more miles along narrow country lanes, between farms, pastures and various livestock munching blissfully away, to the village of Cleggan, which was small and tranquil enough, but we had booked a couple of nights at the Ocean Wave Bed and Breakfast. The establishment was well named and faced directly out to sea. One morning we took advantage of the proximity of a pristine sandy beach and took a dip in the refreshing ocean. If you are used to getting your beach time in Tel Aviv, it is hard to imagine walking along a luxuriantly grassy trail, complete with fresh looking flowers of all hues, and simply stepping off the grass directly onto the sand – with not a matkot-playing duo in sight anywhere.We wanted to spend as much time with Mother Nature and we devoted half a day to the nearby Connemara National Park and climbed Diamond Hill. The weather was largely overcast and it was a somewhat challenging trail, especially the latter stages of the ascent to the peak. But make it we did, and were rewarded with a refreshing shower, blustery conditions and a wonderful view of the dovetailing coastline, with its bays, inlets and islets.
Just down the road we came across Kylemore Abbey, a charming lakeside Victorian estate house built by 19th-century doctor, industrialist, politician and pioneer Mitchell Henry. His wife, Margaret, died young, as the result of a trip to Egypt where she caught dysentery.The distraught widower commemorated her by adding a gently proportioned neo-Gothic church on the abbey grounds.OUR NEXT port of call, further south along the west coast, was Doolin. Again, we drove through verdant landscapes – naturally, visiting the odd bar here and there en route – and popping by Dungaire Castle, a pint-sized edifice, but no less pretty for it. Doolin was a lovely wee place, complete with half a dozen or so pubs. It was close to the famed and evocative Cliffs of Moher, with their striking grass-topped rocky outcrops casting a steady eye across the gently lapping waters of the Atlantic. We were bombarded by mosquitoes, awakened by the milder weather, which left us with some itchy mementos of our clifftop stroll.Some years ago I was told by an Israeli player of Irish music that, today, there are very few pubs in Ireland where you can hear traditional music played live.Thankfully, the musician in question got that very wrong. We heard some fabulous musicians, of all ages, in bars in Doolin, Clifden and elsewhere.
Our next stop was Killorglin, further east, where we holed up for a couple of days at Coffey’s Rivers Edge, which nestles on the bank of the River Laune.The small town is just down the road from Killarney National Park, where we headed and enjoyed a hike by towering trees with moss-coated bark, up to the Torc Waterfall. We got a taste of some less than perfect weather as we motored on through the region, driving gingerly up the narrow Connor Pass road which was completely enveloped in thick mist. We still caught some snappy views and the odd waterfall en route.Killorglin is where the annual Puck Fair takes place in August, which we missed by a couple of weeks. The event has been celebrated for over four centuries with one of the highlights being the crowning of a mountain goat as king of the town for three days. WE NEATLY rounded off our Irish trip by spending the last night with the brother of a friend from Jerusalem, and his Irish wife Dolores, at their gorgeous rustic home not far from Cork near the south coast. On our way we popped by the Irish Whiskey Experience in Killarney, where they have over 1,000 bottles of the amber nectar, distilled all over the world. We also visited the Jameson Experience, an Irish whiskey tourist attraction located in the Old Midleton Distillery in Midleton, in County Cork.On our last day we drove through Waterford, yet another aesthetically pleasing town, dropping by a mostly vegan eatery in Dublin, called Cornucopia, for some pre-flight sustenance. One of Dolores’s daughters told us that she studied Gaelic at school, but that she forgot it practically as soon as she left. However, there are still quite a few Gaelic speakers, in the west of the country, and we picked up some Irish-language radio stations on our travels.The odd anti-British comments notwithstanding, the Irish are a warm hospitable people, and many pubs sport the legend Céad Mile Fáilte – “a hundred thousand welcomes” – near the entrance. We went to Ireland largely for natural landscape, but we found the human landscape just as endearing, and already cannot wait to go back.