(delayed) Planes, (wrong) Trains, (hired coaches), and Snow!

Getting to Belfast this time proved to be an adventure.

Maybe it’s the post-pandemic travel period. Perhaps it’s the lack of a working cellphone. But definitely it’s bad luck as Marilynn and I set off on our Ireland adventure on Thursday and Friday.

The plan was to fly into Dublin, take an express bus to Belfast, then a train to Helen’s Bay along the coast, where our great friend Eileen would pick us up in time to hit the bank by 4 p.m. to straighten out our UK account. But nothing went according to plan.

The Delta flight out of Hartsfield Thursday evening was 45 minutes late because of bad weather delaying connections, then the plane sat on the tarmac in Dublin because we were behind another plane that had lost hydraulic steering and needed a tow. What’s the Irish equivalent of Bubba the (airplane) tow truck driver? Padraic?

Looking out the window as the plane approached Dublin, all one could see was snow. As many times and as many different times of year I’ve visited Ireland, I’ve never seen more than a smattering of snow. What should have been a patchwork of green fields, with more green hues than the human mind can contemplate, was, instead, a uniform white, punctuated by stone fences that separated one field from the next.

Every Step Is Another Adventure

In a positive post-COVID sign, passing through immigration and customs was a breeze, taking under five minutes. Collect the bags, hop on the next Aircoach to central Belfast, and let the adventure begin, right? Well, no. Most coaches require advance purchase these days, and the weather delays out of Dublin meant that people who paid for earlier busses were catching later ones.

Note to self: Get a UK SIM card ahead of time. We had a UK phone for years, but with the long delay between trips, I knew the SIM would no longer be valid and the phone likely was outmoded. But it sure would have come in handy to keep our friend Eileen informed about our delays.

We felt fortunate to get a bus to Belfast. Marilynn did some fast talking to the bus driver, and I could see his lips moving as he counted the empty spaces on the bus. So again, we’re good, right?

After arriving in Belfast and a quick pit stop, we purchased our tickets for Helen’s Bay, went to the correct platform and got on the train. We were home free … or so we thought. Come to find out, there were two trains on the same platform, and we got on one headed in the opposite direction.

The train’s wayfinding signs were out of order, so we didn’t discover our error until after several stops. A nice conductor told us to get off at Antrim, cross over the tracks and take the 17:14 train back into Belfast. But that train was delayed by 25 minutes, then 30, then 33, 35, and finally 39 minutes. There was WiFi on the trains, so I could keep Eileen apprised, but there was no WiFi in the Antrim station.

Finally, at 18:56, we alighted at Helen’s Bay where our friend was waiting for us. Twenty hours after our journey started, Marilynn and I were finally back where we belonged.

Bullocks Butt in on View of Bronze Age Standing Stone

Bronze Age religious symbol or bullock hindquarters scratching post? The Ardmore Gallan Standing Stone may have served the former purpose at some time during its 2,500-year history, but it’s definitely serving the latter purpose at present from its location in the middle of a field full of cattle.

The Ardmore Gallan Standing Stone is located a couple of miles outside a village with the great name of Muff. In fact, the stone is often called the Muff Stone. It dates from 2,500 BC, standing about six feet tall and half that in width and depth. Its distinct feature is 40 cup marks, or round indentions, about half of which are encircled by one, two or three rings. The stone evokes similar feelings to Newgrange, an ancient stone monument aligned with the winter solstice.

Finding the stone took a morning’s effort, several wrong turns and directions from a helpful older man cutting weeds along a remote roadside. None of us suspected it would be found a quarter mile off the main road, the concrete driveway winding behind a house before opening up in front of several farm buildings.

Grand adventure ahead

Declan read about the stone in a book our B&B host provided us, and it looked cool. We had no definite plans for Monday, and we all enjoy an adventure. Our host believed there was a historic marker that would make locating the Ardmore Stone a snap. But we didn’t see it on our way to Muff, so we inquired about the stone at a petrol station in town. However, no one there knew how to find it.

Heading back toward Moville, Marilynn remembered it was near Inishkeen, signs for which we’d seen along the way. So we left the main road and headed in that direction, only to wind up back on the main road at another sign for Inishkeen. So we’d basically traveled in a semi-circle.

A little ways back, an older man was weed-whacking his yard, so we turned around and asked him for directions. He was quite specific: pass the closed pub with the thatch roof, then a closed building supply company and take the next road to the right, a concrete driveway. He gave great directions, but it was obvious the concrete road was somebody’s private drive and not a public thoroughfare.

Preternatural bovines

As we wound up the road, we could see the stone in the middle of a field, looking like it was being protected by a herd of cows. The road wound uphill, past a residence and opened out to three large outbuildings, a truck with its door open in front of one of them. We got out and were immediately met by a large dog that, fortunately, turned out to be friendly.

The farmer then appeared from the building, and we asked permission to see the stone. He graciously agreed, cautioning us to watch out for cow patties and assuring us the bullocks would be no bother.

We couldn’t escape the feeling that the cows felt some sort of connection to the stone. They watched us intently, moving away from us in ones and twos, then en masse, but never getting too far away. As we approached the stone, they continued to watch us from turned heads. We spent a few minutes examining the stone and snapping a few pictures before making our way back to the car.

The cows started walking back around the stone as we moved away, again with intent stares that seemed preternatural. They gathered around the stone as if protecting it, one rubbing his butt contentedly across its face.

Farmer Dermot explained that he gets visitation requests quite frequently and is happy to share the stone. Apparently more happy to share than the cows appeared to be.

Donegal Beauty Is Like No Other

There’s Irish beautiful, and then there’s Donegal beautiful. County Donegal is in the Republic, but it abuts the north, like Michigan sticks up into the Great Lakes. We spent a four-day weekend in Derry and Donegal, exploring the wonders of the coast.

But first, Derry and thereabouts

Marilynn attended a conference in Derry most of last week, while Declan and I entertained a guest from Tennessee. On Friday afternoon, we drove the couple of hours to join Marilynn in Derry, where we stayed with our friends the Pynes, who own two wonderful B&Bs in the central part of the city.

After visiting with them on Friday evening and early Saturday, we set out to briefly explore Derry, which we’ve all visited many times before. Declan especially wanted to sit on the Lord Mayor’s throne in the Guildhall, which he’d done on a previous trip. We also walked the walls of Derry, a unique feature of the city that dates back hundreds of years. Derry’s walls are among the finest in Europe and should be part of any visit to Northern Ireland.


We descended the walls to the Bogside, the nationalist part of the city that features many murals to fallen protesters (especially victims of Bloody Sunday and those who died on hunger strike during the Troubles).

On our way out of town, we visited the Grianán of Aileach, a restored stone fort from the 8th or 9th century. Marilynn and I had visited here years ago, but it was Declan’s first time. From its hilltop perch, the Grianán offers fine views of the surrounding countryside. But having driven there directly from Derry, we now want to know how Seamus Deane walked there as a child, as he describes in his book “Reading in the Dark.”

Onward to Donegal

But the main event of this trip was County Donegal, where many from Belfast go on summer holiday. Fortunately, high season wasn’t in full swing, so we had many sites to ourselves. With a car, we could explore at our leisure.

We stayed at the Inishowen Lodge near Moville, where our host Irwin was extremely helpful with directions, a book on the area, general advice and the use of a detailed map and pair of binoculars during our two-day stay. The lodge is high above Lough Foyle, and the view from our room was truly spectacular. It almost rivaled the fantastic and varied breakfasts we enjoyed during our visit.

The first day, we visited the Cooley Cross, a cool Celtic cross allegedly put up by Saint Patrick. The high cross sits right along the roadside just outside a small cemetery with a small stone structure that formerly contained human bones, the skull house. During Druid times, marriages were supposedly performed here, with celebrants lifting the bride on one side of the cross and the groom on the other, the bride and groom joining hands through the hole at the top of the cross.

We also viewed the remains of the Green Castle and saw what we believed was a pod of dolphins frolicking in the waters off Shroove beach.

After a sumptuous breakfast on Sunday, we made straight toward Malin Head, the northernmost point on the island. We wound our way along back roads and country paths, guided by signposts and our desire to see as much nature as possible. A highlight Sunday was a walk along Kinnagoe Bay, a remote beach and the site of a 16th century wreck of a Spanish Armada ship. The color of the hills changed by the minute, the result of the late afternoon sun peeking out from behind clouds and the ability of Irish grass to change color as if on whim. On the way back, we discovered several fields where peat had been cut into logs and left to dry—teepee style—in the field.

On Monday, after staggering away from another great breakfast, we did a little more local sightseeing before heading to the Seamus Heaney Homeplace, a new museum in Bellaghy that celebrates the life and work of the late Nobel Prize-winning poet.

Then we made our way toward home, full of new memories of the beauty of Donegal.

A Touch of Celebrity on Our 16th Anniversary

My wife, Marilynn Richtarik, and I will always remember what we were doing for our 16th wedding anniversary—launching her book in Dublin and talking football with Northern Irish actor Stephen Rea.

People younger than we are may not be familiar with Rea, who earned an Oscar nomination in 1992 for his role in “The Crying Game.” He’s a prolific and highly regarded actor on both stage and screen who agreed to read from the Stewart Parker novel that Marilynn edited, “Hopdance,” because he and Parker had been good friends and moved in the same theatrical circles. More about that later.

Scenes from ‘Hopdance’

In a strong yet understated performance, Rea nailed the reading of four scenes from “Hopdance,” a vignette-driven, semi-autobiographical work about the amputation of his left leg at age 19 that Parker first completed in the early 1970s but never published during his lifetime.

The final vignette, a crowd favorite, described the protagonist, Tosh, listening in as several other amputees chat in the waiting room at the limb-fitter’s shop. One man, a welder, tells of how his artificial leg gave way on the job and was patched by a riveter, who the welder said “done a right fine job” of repairing the leg, much to the consternation of the limb-fitter.

The four dozen or so gathered at the Workman’s Club for the launch were mesmerized during the reading. Marilynn is a fine reader, but the final passage Rea read requires the right accents and a man’s touch to create magic out of a tale of several blokes sitting around in their underpants waiting for their artificial legs to be fitted.

Talking Arsenal football

Marilynn knew from her past dealings with Rea that he supports the English Premier League team Arsenal, the team Declan and I also support. For the occasion, Declan wore one of his many Arsenal jerseys, which immediately caught Rea’s eye. When we asked for a picture with the family, he readily agreed “as long as the Arsenal supporter is in it.” And, as you can see, we all were there.

We told Rea about watching Arsenal play rival Manchester City to a tie at the Emirates in April, and he said he had tickets to the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea later this month. We also talked about embattled manager Arsene Wenger, who Declan and I both wish would quit after 20 years (including 13 years without a league title). However, Rea believes he should be allowed to stay beyond his current contract.

Anyway, who’s to argue with a celebrity?

A little history, please

Nearly 40 years ago, Rea and the late Northern Irish playwright Brian Friel founded the Field Day Theatre Company that aimed to bring plays and literary works to both sides of the sectarian divide during the Troubles. Field Day was the subject of Marilynn’s first book, and she interviewed Rea for it.

Stewart Parker, who died of stomach cancer at the age of 47 in 1988, wrote his final play, “Pentecost,” for Field Day, which it produced in fall 1987 with Rea in a starring role. Marilynn didn’t become familiar with Parker’s work until 1989 but spent the next 20 years researching his life and work for her 2012 book, “Stewart Parker: A Life.”

Stephen Rea and Northern Irish actor Frances Tomelty, who appeared in several TV films that Parker wrote the scripts for, hosted a public event that was part of a conference at Queen’s University Belfast that commemorated the 20th anniversary of Parker’s death.

When Marilynn’s publisher, The Lilliput Press, was working with Rea to find a date, he picked May 12, our anniversary. Again, who’s to argue with a celebrity who’s giving freely of his time? So that’s how Stephen Rea came to help us celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary.

My Wife, Breaking the Law

Cue the theme song from “Cops” because Marilynn got picked up on Friday by the Irish po po, the Garda.

Anyone who knows my wife surely must be thinking this is impossible. English professors who are representing their countries internationally as Fulbright Scholars surely don’t merit police scrutiny.

So was Marilynn smuggling contraband crisps to Dublin or perhaps running guns for the Real IRA? No, she was visiting her publisher in Dublin and didn’t bring her passport. She had her BRP (biometric residence permit) from the UK, but that wasn’t enough for the Garda who stopped the Belfast-Dublin bus she was riding in Friday morning just over the border. They also picked up a Chilean national who is married to a UK citizen and speaks fluent English with a strong Belfast accent, who was on his way to the Chilean embassy to apply for a replacement passport.

The passport-less scofflaws were taken in a squad car to the police station in Dundalk, photographed, given letters denying them entry to Ireland (and then letters allowing them to come into the country for the day) and taken to the train station, where the Irish government paid for their fare to Dublin.

If you haven’t traveled to Ireland before, you may not realize how significant Friday’s incident actually is. This level of scrutiny has not been seen since the Troubles, which ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. Marilynn readily recalls security forces boarding a bus or train during the Troubles but not after. I certainly haven’t experienced this in the half-dozen or so times we’ve crossed that border on previous trips.

More fallout from Brexit

We blame UK Prime Minister Teresa May, who last week triggered Article 50 to leave the European Union following last summer’s Brexit vote. The EU supposedly recognizes the unique relationship between the countries on this island (and the 30-year conflict where more than 3,600 people died), as evidenced by the response to May’s Brexit letter late last month.

I’ll let Marilynn pick up the story, from her email to the American consul in Northern Ireland:

“The garda told us that ‘the European Union’ had demanded that they start treating the Northern Irish border as an ‘international border’ and that they had been receiving extra training. Much, apparently, is left to the discretion of individual officers. This one gave each of us a letter saying that we were forbidden permission to enter the Irish state because we did not have a valid passport with us, and then gave each of us another letter saying that, at his discretion as an immigration officer, he was giving us permission to enter just for the day (luckily I was only planning to go for the day, anyway).

“He took our photos and made a record of the incident, and then put us both on the train to Dublin (courtesy of the Irish state). He kept saying, however, that some of his colleagues would have been happy to send us straight back to Belfast, and he expressed relief that his sergeant wasn’t around when we got to the station, since he probably would have taken a harder line.

“I knew, in the back of my mind, that I was supposed to carry my passport in the Republic, but I can’t remember being asked for it since at least 1998. I had gotten a bit blase about it, as (I’m sure) have many foreign nationals living in Northern Ireland. So I thought I’d better let you know about this so you can spread the word to other Americans living here to be sure and bring their passports with them when going to the Republic, even on day trips to Dublin!”

And I can’t stop singing the Beavis & Butthead version of the Judas Priest song “Breaking the Law.”

A Room with a View (and Culinary Delights)

This ain’t your Irish grandma’s fry-up. During our recent trip to Cork and thereabouts, we were very surprised by the quality of the accommodations and the food. Even at the B&B we were least impressed with, we had options beyond the traditional Irish breakfast, which usually includes fried eggs, sausage, bacon (the Irish kind), black and white pudding, stewed tomato and/or mushrooms and soda bread. If there’s a hint of baked beans on the plate, run like hell, because that’s not part of the Irish breakfast.

Fine dining in Cork

In Cork, we stayed at Garnish House, a guesthouse right next to University College Cork, where Marilynn gave her talk. The food was, in a word, sublime. After the four-plus hour drive to Cork (wrong side of the road/roundabouts/time crunch because of when Marilynn’s talk was scheduled), we were ecstatic to be offered afternoon tea, with scones, biscuits and other delights. What a refreshing way to be greeted.

During tea, we also had a chance to peruse the breakfast menu. Traditional fry-up? Or how about one of about six fish choices? Omelets? Porridge? Fruit? Pancakes? Several of the above? I had a half fry-up one day and an omelet the next. Marilynn had an omelet, then poached fish. She also had a bowl of porridge spiked with Bailey’s Irish Cream. Declan had pancakes both days.

While in Cork, Declan and I went for pizza one night while Marilynn was being schmoozed by the university folk, but the next night we all walked in the pissing rain to Feed Your Senses, a tiny tapas restaurant on the main drag that only has a half-dozen tables. It was the best tapas we’d had since a trip to Spain in 2015. A plate of Iberian ham, cheese and bread, an order of olives, one of patatas bravas (fried potato cubes, topped with spicy sauce) and a bottle of wine filled us to great satisfaction. Fortunately, the rain had (mainly) stopped on the way home, so my somewhat drying trousers didn’t get any wetter.

Dingle was great, while Doolin was so-so

And in Dingle, we were treated to not only an ocean view room at the Dingle Harbour Lodge, but also some fine vittles the next morning. The photo at top was the view from our room. We hadn’t booked in advance, so snagging a primo room (for under 100 Euros, nonetheless) would have been an impossible dream during high season. Again, breakfast did not disappoint. Declan and I had delicious waffles made from the lodge’s own recipe and Marilynn had a bagel with smoked salmon.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all high living and fine dining during our Ireland journey. The final stop, in Doolin, was supposed to cap a fine trip. The standard for fine B&B lodging and dining, for us, was set in Doolin in 2002, when we took Walker to the Cliffs of Moher. We still recall the American-style pancakes with delight, amid all the fry-ups we had that journey. The fry-up, while an all-time favorite of mine, loses its appeal as your waistline gains circumference. But that B&B was closed for the winter.

Although this B&B had Doolin in its name, it was nowhere near town. There would be no going to hear local music in the pub, then walking home pleasingly buzzed, as we did the last time. First we had to find it, since there was no address associated with the booking. Up through the main part of the village, down the next … nothing.

So we go into pub and ask the barman, who knows where it is and gives directions. I won’t bore you with the details, but they involve signs that got turned around in the wind; nearly driving onto the beach as pavement gave way to gravel gave way to a muddy mess; turning the car around more times than I care to remember; asking directions at another B&B (bless that woman); and a near meltdown by someone in the car—all in the dark—before we arrived.

OK, so it was me who was close to a meltdown. I tell the proprietor about the signs, and he says something to the effect of, “Aye, it’s been windy lately and that happens.”

What I wanted to say was, “You feckin’ idiot!! If that’s a problem, don’t you think you should have checked that before your guests arrived!” But we were staying in his house, so I kept my mouth shut.

I’ll save those comments for the booking website I used to make the reservation.

A Soggy (Though Glorious) Time Had by All

When we last parted, gentle reader, it was pissing rain in Cork. While bouts of rain continued to pelt us over the next several days, we soldiered on with single-night stays in Dingle and Doolin, before hitting Newgrange on the way back to Belfast on Sunday.

I never thought I’d think this, but the Cliffs of Moher could have been a bit more overcast. While the UNESCO heritage site is among the most beautiful things I’ve ever laid eyes on, it’s even more stunning through a bit of cloud. Marilynn and I last visited here with Walker in 2002, and it was on our short list of things to show Declan during our trip.

Back in Cork, though, the rain was driving down amid 20-plus mph winds when we headed out to eat Thursday night. We waited as long as possible before leaving, but hunger prevailed. By the time we got to the restaurant, our trousers were soaked from jacket bottom to knees. I tried to dry my trousers using the hand dryer in the bathroom, to little avail. The tapas meal was among the best I’ve ever had, but that’s fodder for a future column.

The Ring of Dingle

Hiring the car allowed us the leisure to explore after Marilynn’s talk in Cork. Rather than drive the Ring of Kerry, which I hear is beautiful but is also too touristy for our tastes, we went to the Dingle peninsula, staying in Dingle Friday night.

The drive along the ocean was stunning, and very, very treacherous. At least the road was paved, in sharp contrast to our last vacation to Flagstaff when Marilynn wanted to take the Apache Trail from Phoenix instead of the interstate. As the single ribbon of increasingly rough asphalt turned to gravel and sand (for the next 23 miles, the sign said), two things happened simultaneously: 1) the mountainous road became more twisty; and 2) the dualie pickups hauling boats started appearing around what seemed to be every bend.

So, pavement good. But straining to see around every curve from the wrong seat in the car while grasping the steering wheel with enough force to bend iron (and in the rain, nonetheless) not so good. However, we arrived in one piece and even managed to snare an ocean view room at a local hotel.

On Saturday morning, we drove the “ring of Dingle,” which is what Marilynn called it. Officially, it’s the Slea Head drive, a 50-kilometer loop that goes through Dingle. Our name is better, though. The ocean views were gorgeous, and in most cases we had the road (and the sights) to ourselves. One of the highlights was the Gallarus Oratory, a 1,300-year old triangular stone worship building that remains watertight despite the lack of mortar between the stones.

Natural, man-made wonders await

Then we drove to the Cliffs of Moher, a dramatic cliff face worn away by millions of years of ocean wind and rain. It’s truly beyond words, as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon in its own way. So I’ll shut up about it.

And then yesterday, we stopped by Newgrange, also a UNESCO heritage site. It was built an estimated 5,200 years ago and features intricate Irish swirls and patterns that still inform art today.

It’s only a guess what went on there, our guide says, although a few sets of bones were discovered when the site was excavated, strengthening the argument for religious temple. The most distinguishing feature of Newgrange is its alignment with the winter solstice. A light box above the entrance is perfectly aligned with the horizon, allowing sunlight to enter the temple at sunrise for about six days around the winter solstice. When that occurs, the chamber is awash in light, our eager guide says, shining off the walls in the alcove farthest away.

Newgrange is a feat of neolithic engineering for not only the know-how required to move massive kerbstones from more than 12 kilometers away and create a watertight structure but for the precise measurements required to capture the morning light of the winter solstice.

Two awe-inspiring, renowned ancient wonders in two days. Not a bad way to end a trip to the south and west of Ireland.

About the photo: Cliffs of Moher, nearing sunset on 1/28.