A Travellerspoint blog

Day 8: A Cross-Country Drive and Crossing to Scotland

in which your author doesn't get nearly enough sleep, drives through his great-grandmother's hometown, and arrives in one of his favorite cities anywhere!

semi-overcast 40 °F

From what I recall of the morning of Day 8 – and do forgive me, as I must admit I’m now writing these posts from the distance of slightly over a week ahead! (the blog must be completed) – I awoke frustrated about the fact that I was granted fewer than five hours of glorious sleep in the quite comfy and large hotel bed. This would be an ambitious travel day of crossing the country in the morning and ending up in a different country by afternoon, and leaving at 7:30am would be crucial to making the day work as planned.

We stumble downstairs; I ask if we can grab coffee to go and am told plainly by the kind-but-not-messing-around man in charge of the hotel’s breakfast service, “No.” (I've forgotten we’re Americans used to breakfasting on the run and the Irish simply won’t have that!) I grumble about the time to Danny and Amy and we sit while Graci and Mark join us; Mark orders a veggie breakfast for us – by this point the breakfast man has told us leaving at 8am will get us to Dublin on time, though I do want to see a bit of Athlone on the way – and we’re all sitting and drowsily enjoying our last moments in Galway. As I guessed, we really didn’t leave enough time to spend in this town, and because it’s “the off-season of the off-season,” I fear we’ve missed out on the typical festive character of the town that I witnessed when I visited in 2008. Still, it was great to solidify the mental picture of the town I began forming almost six years ago, so when I visit next I'll have an even better idea of where I am!

We pack up the car – I’m flummoxed after somehow losing my Red Sox hat (which was later located in Stranorlar!), and say fond farewells to our serendipitous travel companion, Mark, The Pride of Magherafelt and Enabler of One of Our Most Fun Experiences Of The Trip. (Flights on the fly to Edinburgh were too expensive, but something tells me this isn’t the last we’ll see of our Irish friend. Perhaps next time we will watch some “American football” and eat some “MackDonald’s” with him?)

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I last only about 45 minutes behind the wheel and Amy kindly takes over, driving the remainder of the three-hour trip to Dublin. I had wanted to stop in Athlone, a small-ish town in County Westmeath, because it’s allegedly the town our great-grandmother Bridget Creighton came from in 1882. As the family history goes, she was only 5 and came over with her mother on a boat; she got deathly ill on the journey and her mother prayed she wouldn’t die so they wouldn’t toss her body overboard. Luckily (especially for us!) she didn’t, and raised a typically large New England Irish family. We didn’t get out of the car in Athlone, but drove through its downtown section, and it looked perfectly nice, if small. The midlands don’t get nearly the same tourist traffic as do coastal cities like Dublin and Galway, but there’s a charm nonetheless. I look forward to spending more time in Athlone on some genealogy-dedicated trip in the future!

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We get to Dublin with what feels like plenty of time, but Amy is a ball of stress, having not yet printed out her crucial boarding pass; RyanAir is very cheap to fly, but if you don’t bring a printed boarding pass they charge you 80 Euro to print a new one! We find our way (barely) to the hotel Amy has booked for our last night in Dublin and I repack my computer bag with essentials for a 2-day trip to Edinburgh. (RyanAir also charges lots for checked bags so we all made sure to slim down for the trip.) Amy wants to stay behind to try to get her ticket printed at the hotel, and the rest of us head to the airport on the hotel shuttle. I don’t have a good feeling about splitting up like this!

We manage to get on the plane (after forgetting to have our boarding passes stamped by Irish customs and encountering a sympathetic and very helpful gate agent who does this for us) but alas, no Amy. (We wouldn’t see her until much later that night, after she caught the next flight, unfortunately at a not insubstantial financial loss.)

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Arriving in Edinburgh, we take five or so minutes relaxing in an airport lounge; a poorly timed rest, as it turned out, because just as we are about to board our bus to the center of town, a frantic airport agent tells us to evacuate the area because the airport is undergoing an emergency closure! We wait for over an hour in a small room crammed with would-be passengers, and information is sorely lacking. (What kind of fire drill tells people they can’t leave the area?!) Finally I approach someone official and state that we’re not trying to stay at the airport, but leave it and go into town, and she matter-of-factly says “Oh, you can just walk out.” (Good thing I asked – we might still have been waiting hours later!) While we're waiting, Danny and Graci, ever in good spirits, entertain themselves with Mad Libs.

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Later we found out there was a false alarm based on a suspicious package, and the airport was in fact shut down for a number of hours. We walk over a mile to find a bus. Not the best way to drop into town but we at least feel better off than our dear, poor friend stuck at Dublin Airport! Here's the shot where I say "put on the face that represents your last hour"; somehow it comes out looking like the album cover for an indie band.

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We hop on a double-decker to town, sitting on top in front. (Why don’t they have these in the US? Apart from being fun, they seem an efficient mover of people. Then again if we did have them perhaps they wouldn't be as fun?) Approaching the center of Edinburgh, I start to recognize neighborhoods and landmarks from my trip in March, 2011. (Especially the Castle, which looms ominously over the entire city.) Edinburgh is an eminently “memorizable” city – after having spent only five days here I really felt I could “see” the layout of the city in my mind.

The bus lets us out on the North Bridge; as Danny gets out he hears bagpipes. We walk up through a neighborhood I remember, and pop our heads into a cute café where I remember eating some rather mind-blowing vegetarian haggis in 2011. They don't serve food for a couple hours, so we press on; Graci and Danny grab loaded baked potatoes from a neighboring shop with a friendly attendant. She has me take a photo of her in one of the trademark British style red phone booths. Welcome to Scotland, Graci!

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We make the rather long hike to our Airbnb, and are disappointed to discover that although the place is clean and the furnishings are nice, there’s only one large bed for the lot of us. After a fairly pathetic attempt at a nap, Graci and I decide to hit the town a bit while Danny is collapsed in sickness-recovery mode on the couch. First stop is the afore-mentioned Arcade Whisky and Haggis House, by now open for food. I thoroughly enjoy my veggie haggis, and also my first scotch back in Edinburgh, a Balvenie 15. (I think? I remember I wanted a fairly expensive one for my first scotch whisky back in town.)

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The area in front of Edinburgh Castle is completely deserted; when I was here in 2011 there were swarms of people about. Graci seems floored by it (understandably).

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Walking down to Grassmarket, it’s noticeably quieter than my last visit. (It’s also fairly early at night, but still the city seems pretty dead.) Speaking of dead (bad segue), we read the text at the raised circle where hundreds (thousands?) of religious dissenters were publicly executed; Edinburgh is a city that wears its ghosts plainly. (The ghost tours proceeding around us add to this feeling.)

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We stop at another pub (the Black Bear?) for more ridiculously-inexpensive-by-American-standards scotch on "malt of the moment" sale (Dalwhinnie 15 and Highland Park 12) – I think Graci is starting to get one reason why I love this town so.

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We walk up a street and I recognize where I am – right by what could be, apart from the Castle, the most famous landmark in all of Edinburgh: the beautiful statue of loyal Greyfriars Bobby, pilgrimage spot for dog lovers all over the world. (As detailed on my last visit.) I really like coming back to cities I love.

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We make our way over to a pub called the “Brass Monkey” which a few locals have recommended. It’s a bit more lively, and sort of fascinating in its low-light Brooklyn hipster vibe (doesn't really feel like a proper Scottish pub, but more student-friendly) but my social graces are exhausted so I retire to the back room where enormous mattresses are spread out (Apparently the bar plays movies in this space at 3pm every day.) I spend about an hour texting with a great new friend. (Wink.)

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After a while we head out and outside the bar I meet one of the friendly chaps Graci has befriended – a friendly intellectual type with a very cool handlebar moustache!

We get back to the flat and wait for Amy to arrive. Not the most exciting day, especially in comparison to our previous day of travel serendipity –although we did successfully execute (so to speak) a somewhat crazy itinerary of waking up in Galway, crossing over to Dublin, and going to sleep in Edinburgh! – but at least we all made it to this fantastic city, by hook or by crook, and we have the next couple of days to explore. I have such a soft spot in my heart for Edinburgh and can’t wait to revisit certain spots and show this town off to the crew! If only any of us could manage some decent sleep...

Posted by coolmcjazz 17:59 Archived in Scotland Tagged edinburgh dublin athlone galway Comments (0)

Day 7: Old Homesteads! Rainy Graveyards! Dan McCools!

in which your author traipses through ancient, muddy mccool lands, generally gets rained on all day, and fulfills a six-year old promise!

rain 42 °F

Day 7 began with the first legitimately early morning of the trip, significantly aided by our new Irish friend Mark practically leaping into the living room where Danny and I struggled to sleep (not out of lack of comfort but out of the fact that for some reason it felt impossible to sleep more than a couple hours at a time this entire trip). We have a quick breakfast (I am obsessed with Weetabix, which seems to be everywhere in Ireland – why cant we get this magnificent cereal in the States?), grab quick showers, and start out on our way. As Danny and I plan to do some serious cemetery visiting, Graci will go off with Mark and meet us that night in Galway. Perfect!

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Mark’s father Leo volunteers to shepherd us around to all the historic cemeteries he knows in the region; starting with the McCool homestead just up the road in Toberhead, we plan to make stops in Dungiven and Stranorlar. Toberhead is only about 2.5 miles down the road from the Flax Inn, and I’m interested in seeing the McCool Homestead I mentioned in my last post. A number of McCools in America claim connections to this lineage: John McCool, born 1670 and his wife Olivia lived here in the early 1700s. (In my extensive research I’ve yet to make any definite connection to them, but establishing one eventually is certainly within the realm of possibility.)

Danny, Amy, and I pile into Leo's car and after a quick stopoff at a pharmacy.

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Danny realizes he doesn’t have pounds to buy much-needed cough medicine and while he's out hitting a cash machine, Leo very generously buys it for him!

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We head off to the farm where the homestead is located. We find the turnoff road with no problem, as there are two signs with “McCoole Road” planted at either end of the road – I remember seeing this sign in some of my online research. (Many of our 18th century ancestors spelled our last name with an “e.”)

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Leo pulls into a spot next to a farm, and a stumpy, elfish man with a thick rural accent gives him directions for how to get to the old building, which he claims dates to 1735.

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We wind around and end up in front of a rickety stone edifice blocked off by barbed wire and loads of mud. We manage to climb over and walk around the abandoned building.

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Danny and I grab small leaves and we take a whole bunch of photos. It starts raining rather furiously. I climb through the building and see that it’s used only as a storehouse for old tractors; clearly no one has used this building for a very, very long time. (Note: I need to check with the afore-mentioned genealogist Charles McCool about what this building actually was – I had been looking for a plaque that said “McCoole” but never saw it. Is what we saw not the actual homestead but the smaller house that John built for his son? Probably. Either way, it’s a fascinating place to drop by.)

We head back to the Flax to pick up the rental car – a meter maid is only feet away when I walk up to it – and follow Noel out of town toward Dungiven, about 30 minutes away to the west. Dungiven is interesting to me based on a photo I came across only a few weeks ago, that of the headstone of one Elizabeth McCool, "Born in the Parish of Dungiven, County Derry,” and wife to Adam McCool. There aren’t very many McCools in Rhode Island to be found in the early 1800s, so the fact that this grave is in Providence, RI, not far from where my ancestors would have migrated, means that a connection is at least somewhat likely.

We pull into an old cemetery and Leo asks the priest (who says “Good man” to me, one of my favorite phrases heard often in this region), who sends us to the secretary, who tells us to look on the list of family names in the cemetery. It’s raining steadily and quite windy at this point and the list of names reveals no McCools, so we battle the downpour and head on our way.

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We stop at one more old graveyard in town and while the others stay in the car I scour it for McCool graves. After 15 minutes or so I DO in fact find one, a very old grave on which the only legible writing reveals the name “John McCool.” Could this be the grave of the original Toberhead McCool, or someone related to Elizabeth McCool of Providence, RI? No way of knowing just yet, but it’s fun to imagine.

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Leo takes us down more windy roads and we end up at the ruins of a tiny 11th century stone church called Banagher Old Church. It’s pouring heavily but I make my way around the ancient house of worship, laden with grass and surrounded by graves made anonymous by the ravages of time and weather. There’s a grave of a 12th century saint (St. Muiredach O'Heney) which resembles a small gingerbread house, and Noel insists Amy and I both find the sands, which are renowned for their miraculous curative powers. (Alas, the sand has turned to mud on this day!)

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We part ways with Leo, who gives us directions for the turnoff toward Stranorlar. We follow him around windy roads and the landscape increasingly opens up to reveal Donegal’s trademark gorgeous green vistas. We’re so incredibly fortunate to have run into these people; without Leo's help there’s no way I would know where these potentially McCool-related spots might have been.

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We stop at a drugstore where Danny mentions we’re looking for McCools; the cashier prints out a Wikipedia page on Seán McCool, a local IRA hero and football player who died in the 1940s. (Is anyone not friendly and helpful in this country?) We pass a number of signs on which the "London" part of "Londonderry" is crossed out; Dan jokes about how one fella must traipse around Northern Ireland "crossin' out Londons" every day. I see a sign for Raphoe, which I recognize from my research, so we turn that way, about 6 km up the country road.

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We get out and use the restroom in a tiny bakery, where we chat up the owner, a big boxing fan whose boxing past seems a funny contrast to the apron he presently wears. He sends us on our way with free samples of buttered Irish soda bread which are fluffy and simply divine.

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Amy and Dan check out the simple old Catholic Church across the street while I breeze through the graveyard, finding no evidence of McCools. Dan asks two construction workers in the church lobby if they know of any McCools and they seem to quiz each other on the name : “McCool?” “Aye, McCool?” “McCool?” “Aye.” “No, don’t know any McCool.” It becomes one of our favorite referenced impressions for the remainder of the trip.

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Having found nothing outside of friendly folks and delicious soda bread in Raphoe, we head out toward Stranorlar, a town I had visited on my first Ireland trip in 2008. It’s one of my most piquant memories of that trip, mostly due to the characters we met and one outrageous night when a group of traveling people (locally called “gypsies”) came very close to assaulting my ex-girlfriend and I outside of our hotel, the window of which was all smashed up the following morning. We stop off at one cemetery holding the grave of Irish Free State founder Aaron Butt – a grave I remember photographing six years ago – and make our way into town, passing by Kee’s Hotel where I stayed those years ago, and parking outside the McCool funeral parlor. A helpful woman in the office next door gives us contact info for Gerard McCool, local undertaker, and for Dan McCool (his first cousin), a local sawmill owner who I met up with for a drink those years ago, and a fellow I very much wanted to introduce to my brother.

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The woman tells us Dan McCool will be found at his sawmill and she gives us directions. (This is the sort of town where everyone really knows everyone else.) On the way, we stop off at Sean McCool park, spelled in the original Irish of our forefathers.

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It’s pouring rain as we park and climb up a hill where I can hear the buzzing of a saw. I spot Dan McCool, age 71, wearing a bulky jacket, and approach him. He turns off his saw and I say “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me but I’m Jason McCool – I met you almost six years ago and I told you one day I’d bring my brother Dan back to this town to meet you. Well, here he is.”

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The elder Dan McCool’s face opens out into a gigantic grin and incredulously shakes my brother’s hand. We stand and chat with him in the rain for a good 25 minutes or so; he tells us about his son who passed away suddenly within the past year, and it’s very moving. He takes us on a short tour of the mill he has owned with his brother for over 30 years. My brother compares stories about what it’s been like to be called Dan McCool; neither of them had ever met anyone with the same name. It’s easily one of the highlights of the trip for all of us: for me, because it’s a completion of an idea I had years ago; just seeing the expressions on these guys faces made the trip to this town more than worth it.

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We part ways and head back into downtown Stranorlar, passing by many things I recognize better than I would have thought I might. We pop in at a betting parlor owned by another McCool – I had stopped in here in 2008 to find the owner not around but this time he’s there and we take a selfie with him, also saying hello to his son. (It’s a personal goal to shake as many McCool hands as I can in this country!)

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There’s one more thing I want my brother (and poor, patient Amy in the back seat, entertaining herself with her book this whole time) to see, and that’s a McCool sign that I photographed in 2008. I’ve told this story probably 50 times, about when I stopped into a random town in Ireland based on the preponderance of McCools in a Griffith’s Valuation census from 1857, and the very first thing I saw was a rickety old barn with “McCool’s” emblazoned on the side. It takes a few minutes and I’m not certain I’m going the right way, but eventually we find it. The sign, however, has been removed! The windows have been boarded up as well. Still, a special place and I've hit yet another place I wasn't sure I'd ever make it back to.

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I want to make one last stop, at the house of McCools which lies up behind this structure; the well-known local undertaker Gerald and his wife live here. (I had knocked on this same door in 2008 to no avail.) This time, his very pleasant wife May answers the door, and Danny and I explain our visit to her – shortly, her son Gary and her husband Gerard show up, and we have a really nice chat in their kitchen. Mary mentions that they’re big fans of the Kennedys, so I give her a JFK mass card that I picked up at the JFK Library in Boston on the 50th anniversary of his death last November. Gerard takes us out back to see the white metal sign I had photographed those years ago, and tells how his father had constructed it sometime in the 1940s. My photo of this sign has been passed around by dozens of McCools in America; just recently I noticed it used as a Facebook cover photo for a girl I had no connection to!

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It’s terrific to meet these nice people – possible distant cousins, who knows – and we eventually follow Gary toward his house where he will direct us to the main road out of town. At some point I lose my treasured Red Sox winter hat which has accompanied me on a number of European trips – but when I get back to Boston I find out it has been located on the driveway of Gary’s house! Am hoping to reunite with it soon. Gary draws us a map to get out of the area and we head out on our rather imposing long drive to Galway where we will meet up with Mark and Graci. I drive for about 45 minutes but am starting to drift, so Amy takes over for the rest of the trip.

We arrive in Galway and check onto the fine hotel Mark has recommended; this website “Laterooms” is really a good find for locating last-minute discounted hotel rooms. We drop our bags and stretch out and eventually head out to meet our friends in town, walking about fifteen minutes through rainy Galway, where I stayed in 2008, and recognize the general layout. We’re all very exhausted.

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We make our way through a few pubs and hear some music, and I drink a delicious "Galway Hooker" (local pale ale). The town is noticeably sleepier than how I remember it; January seems the off-season of the off-season in this country! Mark performs a hilarious impression of Americans in which he states "I love American football!" a qualification which of course no American would EVER say (haha!) and we eventually call it a night around midnight.

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As Amy and Danny walk back toward the hotel, I decide to seek out a pub I had heard some great music at in 2008 (what is this thing I have with finding places I once visited?). A bouncer tells me that this pub, which I identify from a guidebook as The Crane Bar, was about a 15 minute walk, but I feel plenty safe as the streets are mostly deserted. I grab a caramel “twistie” (sundae) from a fast food place and cross a bridge looking over the furiously rushing river; halfway there it begins to pour but I’m undaunted in my quest! I find my way to the pub, which is closed, and snap some photos. It feels strange, like walking into a postcard memory from years ago; I pass by the street corner where my ex and I talked to the singer Gerry Shannon (by then quite intoxicated) who had sung solo in the pub, where I bought a CD from him and we realized he was probably sleeping in his car. It’s a bittersweet visit but I’m glad I made the solo, wet pilgrimage – it’s also nice to be on my own for a bit, and I’m reminded that pretty much all of the traveling I’ve done over the last few years has been alone.

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I walk back to the hotel, soaked to the bone, take a warming shower, and collapse into a too comfy bed. Tomorrow is a very early morning, followed by a cross-country drive to Dublin and a flight to Edinburgh. What a full, unique, satisfying last final day in this amazing country.

Posted by coolmcjazz 13:48 Archived in Northern Ireland Tagged donegal galway derry Comments (7)

Day 6: The Luck of the Irish Tourists

in which your author sleeps in, almost sees belfast, makes good new friends, and makes his irish pub singing debut!

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It’s never a good sign when the first two words out of your mouth on a given day are “Ahhh CRAP.” Up til 3am finishing a blog post, I sailed past my ambitious 9:30am alarm and woke up at 12:30pm, putting us pretty significantly behind schedule for what was penciled in (on the printed-out itinerary?) as “Genealogy Day” in Donegal. The others wake, grab quick showers, and pack up; Romy has left on the local radio and Danny and I hear some good tunes played by a singer of a local band who is guest hosting the show.

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We also wanted to pick up some cider for Romy in thanks for her hospitality, and at least drive around to see a bit of Belfast. Considering we don’t get out the door at about 2:30pm, the first half of the day was already spoken for. Trying to stay positive, I tell the others that the keyword of the day is “serendipity” – we don’t know what’s going to happen or what adventures we’re going to find, but we just need to stay open to the possibility!

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We amble into town (“toyun”) and grab some coffees (yay Starbucks), pastries and Mexican food, breeze past the famous Crown Bar and Hotel Europa (described to us earlier in the week as "the most bombed hotel in Europe") and naturally, get very, very lost trying to get out of Belfast. We can’t figure out how to put in town names on our rental GPS and we don’t figure out how to reach the highway until stopping in a residential neighborhood and asking for directions. Amy and Graci compliment the companion of the kindly direction-giver on her haircut.

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I’m frustrated it’s so late in the day – by the time we get on the highway out of Belfast, the sun is setting. We eventually get out on the big road toward Central Northern Ireland, driving through County Derry, heading toward my first stop, the tiny town of Magherafelt, about halfway between Belfast and Derry.

I’d come across lots of references to a branch of the McCool name called the “Toberhead” McCools, along with references to an old homestead that dated back to the early 1700s, all centered around this small town.

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As we roll up into Magherafelt, Danny spots a pub called “The Flax Inn” and we decide to pop in to hopefully make a phone call and start our search for McCools.

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We’re greeted by a young chap wearing a sports jersey setting up the bar; we're the first patrons of the night. Danny and I order pints of Guinness and Graci settles in by the fire.

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The friendly bartender, Mark, lets me use the office phone to call a fellow named Tommy Mccoole, whose contact info I received from Charles McCool, expert travel guru, overall nice guy and possible distant cousin. (Charles and I met up for lunch in DC last year, and he’s traveled extensively through this area doing quite extensive genealogy work.) I get Tommy on the phone, introduce myself, and ask him about visiting the homestead. Unfortunately, he lives about 30 minutes to the north in Coleraine, and because the homestead is located on a private farm, explains how permission to visit must be secured from the farm owners beforehand. Tommy invites us up to Coleraine but the logistics seem too difficult to manage. Further, the Couchsurfing place Danny has booked for us is hours away in upper northwest Donegal (possibly surrounded by storms), probably 2-3 hours driving away on windy, dark roads. That seems too far to reach given our present state of exhaustion. I try to book us an Airbnb in Derry while we shoot darts and get to know a few of the locals who have filed into the pub.

Slowly, everyone starts to loosen up and that familiar Irish craic starts to flow. Graci learns to pour a proper pint of Guinness, and is made honorary head bartender of "The Flax."

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Mark makes us an offer we can’t refuse – we'll stay at the house he lives in with his Dad, just up the road! I ask him about hearing good local music – a pretty big request on a random Sunday night in January – and as he gets off at 7pm, says he’ll take us out to the perfect spot. Serendipity seems to be extending us a big hand! We decide first to go to a local Indian restaurant Mark recommends (he wasn't wrong) and we stuff ourselves with the first sit-down restaurant meal we’ve experienced on the trip.

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We drop our bags at Mark’s house – first thing we see walking into the house is a piece of art with the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, so Danny feels at home – and Mark puts us in a cab he has thoughtfully called ahead to reserve.

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The cab, driven by a cheerful older fellow named Robert, takes us to Bryson’s Bar, where music and fun await. The place has only 5 or 6 patrons when we walk in, and we're greeted with handshakes and helloseveryone seems friendly. This is your typical small town Irish bar]], big enough to only fit about 25 people, a place where stories and good times past seem to seep from the walls. The band playing – we later find out they’re called Altagore – is quite good, and they start to tailor their set toward “our American guests.” Danny goes up to sing with the band, and decides on “Dirty Old Town.” He’s still sick so doesn’t have his usual vocal chops, but it’s fun to see him rocking out in a real Irish pub. Graci also takes a shot behind the guitar.

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I approach the bandleader about singing Raglan Road, my go-to Irish pub song which I first heard all over the country during my first Ireland trip in 2008. It’s one of the most popular Irish pub songs, so I’m a bit intimidated to sing it in a real Irish pub, especially as an American tourist, but the atmosphere is festive and relaxed and supportive. It went better than I could have hoped – I remembered all four verses without a problem, which was a bit of a first – and I found out afterward that Amy had captured it all (save for the first or so 10 seconds) on video! So happy to have documentation of this, as its easily one of my trip highlights and something I’m sure to remember well into the future, even more so given my potential ancestral connection to the town. As I’m leaving later that night, both Tom the Postman (who I attempt to accompany on the Dubliners’ hilarious “Seven Drunken Nights”) AND one of the band members tell me separately that it’s their favorite song and they had never heard it done better. Could I be any more ecstatic about how this went over? (Note: can't seem to get the video to auto-load below. Here it is.)

Our cab driver Robert arrives at 12:30 to take us back to Mark’s place, but we’re not ready to leave! Mark invites him to join us in the bar, where he dances with Graci and sings a song. (File under: things that would never, ever happen in America.)

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After what is easily our most spontaneous and serendipitous night in Ireland, hours of dancing and singing and loads of craic, we leave the pub and are escorted back to our Mark’s cozy house. We can see about a billion stars in the sky. If a roving band of Americans had a professional tour company put together a tailor-made evening out in an Irish pub, it wouldn't match the fun we had that night.

Amy and I greet Mark’s father in the kitchen, and he offers us tea and hears about our plans for the morning. As a former truck driver he knows the local roads and sights as well as anyone, so he offers to accompany us! We stay up even later talking about the area and genealogy and Irish history and so many other things.

After a few years experience as a traveler, I’ve come to realize the best, most memorable experiences, are the ones you don’t see coming. the excellent people you meet and the ways locals extend themselves to ensure visitors have what the folks around here would call a “grand time.” Like the stars above Magherafelt, it’s people are just brilliant!

Posted by coolmcjazz 18:23 Archived in Northern Ireland Tagged belfast derry magherafelt Comments (0)

Day 5: A Perfect Pint and Trip Up to Belfast

in which your author discovers untold powers of willingness to let an itinerary shift, almost certainly annoying his travel companions on the way!

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Due to the previous evening’s shenanigans – is it appropriate to use clichéd Irish slang when describing things that occur in Ireland? – Day 5 began with its front end significantly lopped off. Dan and I walked down the Liffey to put change in the meter at 6:15am and he would venture out twice more over the course of the next six hours to add time. We’re not sure what getting a parking ticket with a rental car would entail, but we’d rather not find out.

Graci and Amy join us and we’re faced with our first daytime group decision – should we visit Kilmainham Gaol, Trinity College/Book of Kells, or the Guinness Storehouse? Give ya one guess.

We make the not insignificant walk to the factory, pausing for a few group shots along the way.

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I’d been to the Storehouse on my first visit in 2008, and as an amateur brewer myself am pretty familiar with the brewing process, so Dan and I whip through all floors fairly quickly while the two ladies relax in a cafe.

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We all meet up in the famous Gravity Bar at the very top, where one will find one of the finest views of the city of Dublin. (It’s even more impressive during the day.) We all enjoy a “perfect pint” – which somehow, is a true claim; the pints at the factory ARE perfect – and plot our next move.

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On the ground floor of the factory, Graci and Amy take mini-naps next to where the original 18th century lease for the building lies encased in glass.

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Our itinerary had us going to Belfast that afternoon and I push to keep this intact even though we’re behind where we wanted to be. As I drive us the 2 ½ hours north, the car resembles a mortuary – everyone is passed out in deep slumber and I supply music of gorgeous Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird as background. (I packed both CDs, an iPod, and an iPod cord, and all were used at various points. Yay for that!) The driving presents no difficulties on the highway, but navigating the numerous roundabouts (back home we call ‘em “rotaries!”) coming into Belfast are challenging and rather frightening. I'm beeped at at least four or five times, usually for driving too slow!

We arrive in Belfast at about 9:00pm, staying at a house owned by a woman named Romy whom Danny has found via the Couchsurfing site. As we drive in I play some Van Morrison, native son of Belfast. Romy greets us outside her house in a packed residential neighborhood and based on a claim on her profile, I shout out “Are you the Queen of Belfast?!”

Romy is a Belfast native of the town (pronounced here something like "toyun"), as is her fifteen-year old daughter Seren. She sets out a delicious feast of vegetarian stew, and though we’re all exhausted there’s a lively conversation at the table, comparing Irish and American school systems and hearing about what makes Belfast tick. In 2007, I performed in a Solas Nua-produced play set in Belfast called Scenes from the Big Picture – a production Peter Marks of the Washington Post called “One of the 10 Best Plays of the Decade” – and so I’m really interested to hear the distinctive Belfast upward twang we worked so hard on – and probably still never got perfect. The dipthing for the vowel sound in "house" and "town" is closer to how Americans would pronounce "ice" – Romy and Seren humor me by demonstrating a few of these sounds, which really don't exist in American English. All the while in Belfast, I'm reminded of Daniel Day-Lewis's magnificent performance as falsely accused Belfastian Gerry Conlon in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father.

Unfortunately we’re all too tired to go out and explore the city, so I write a bit and the others pack in to sleep at various locations around the ornately decorated house. We particularly fancy the “One Direction Sucks” scrawled on the living room wall.

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Probably our most crunched-in day overall due to our late start and ambitious travel plans, but we’ve met more good people and I’m excited to see at least a little bit of this city in the morning!

Posted by coolmcjazz 13:57 Archived in Ireland Tagged dublin guinness belfast Comments (0)

Day 4: A Castle, A Pub, and Finding The Craic in Dublin!

in which your author describes watergate, finds a long lost pub, gets treated like a celebrity director, and welcomes his brother and a new friend in the irish capital

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I woke up on Day 4 feeling much better – there’s some sort of magic craic in Corey’s hot whiskey – and we make our way downstairs for a wonderful breakfast and lively conversation with Corey and Nadia. These guys are utterly pleasant human beings, natural talkers who endearingly finish each other’s sentences. They've gone out of their way to do up a breakfast for weary travelers; we sample some local orange marmalade, Corey’s sweetened porridge (recipe closely guarded), and of course, tea. We’re there chatting for at least an hour, and they’re excited to show up a photo of themselves a with Barack Obama cutout. We get on talking about American politics and out of the blue Corey says “Jaaayson – his Irish “a’s” are delightfully long – “I have a random question. What was the story behind Watergaayate?” Amy goes back for a nap (what she later called “one of the best naps she’s ever had in Europe”) as I write my second blog post. I should note that it’s even more challenging than it normally is to keep this blog together while traveling with others – I have to grab little pockets of anti-social time whenever they present themselves.

Corey is on his way out but before he leaves treats us to a marvelous solo rendition of a Christy Moore song.

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We walk toward Kilkenny Castle and see a bit of the very charming, typically Irish town.

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I had seen the Castle in 2008, but didn’t remember anything about it until I walked in the side gate. It was closing so we didn’t stay for long, but we still take some photos; it reminds me (on a smaller scale) of the medieval castle I visited at Carcassonne in the South of France in 2011.

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We grab some take away food (potato & leek soup) at a small cafe by the castle and sit and eat – I realize later that I took the exact same shot out a window that I took in 2008!

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There’s one last pub Corey had mentioned which might be a match for the one I was seeking but had yet to find. It’s called Cleere’s, and it’s on High Street, quite a bit further away than the others we had peered into the night before. We stop in a pharmacy to stock up on sick meds and Amy has a pretty hilarious conversation about the morning-after pill with the local pharmacist (called a chemist here). Kilkenny is one of the prettiest towns in Ireland – it’s big enough to contain interesting shops and a festive atmosphere but at the same time feels like a traditional small Irish town.

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When we make it to the end of High Street my heart skips a beat as I recognize my surroundings – this was definitely the place I had heard that great music over five years ago! It looks exactly how I remembered it, though far less crowded. I explain to the bartenders and the handful of patrons at the bar about how I had been there and recorded video that I played for probably 40 semesters worth of classes and everyone seems to get a kick out of it. I ask about whether Jimmy Rattigan, the singer who performed the Stephen Foster songs that night, was still coming around; “oh yes, he’s still here, sings every Monday night!” “Please tell him the American music teacher says hello?” "Oh yeah, he’ll definitely remember!” We sit by the fire and have a nice pint.

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Amy takes a nice shot of me by the fire:

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In the back of the pub there’s a room which I hadn’t remembered from my last visit – all sorts of laughing and shenanigans seem to be coming from that direction. I open the door and there are about a dozen high-school-aged kids rehearsing for a play. I tell one of them that I’ve worked as an actor with an Irish Arts organization interested in what’s going on in contemporary Irish theater, and they swiftly invite Amy and I to come and watch their rehearsal. I grab another pint from the bar and when we walk into the back room, the director immediately tries to free up some space for us to sit – we try to make ourselves invisible in the back.

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We start laughing fairly quickly, however, as what we’ve happened upon is a rehearsal of some broad comedy sketches, mostly set in a prison. Everything is played for laughs and it’s fun to be a supportive audience. It’s really the first unusual and creative experience which that we’ve found via serendipity. After about 30 minutes, the rehearsal ends and we exchange information and ask them about their fledgling group, called Dramatic Irony. They explain that they’re all about to enter college and forming a theater group seemed to be the best way to have some fun. Very inspired by the pluck of these talented young thespians!

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As I exit the main pub I wonder if I’ll be back within another 5 years? Amy notices a Watergate Theatre directly across the pub – did that prompt Corey’s inquiry? We pop into a convenience store and I grab some Guinness chocolate:

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We say a very fond farewell to Kilkenny – a city we entered with a fair amount of organizational frustration and leave with satisfying smiles – and start toward Dublin, where we will meet brother Dan and new friend Graci in Dublin.

The drive is much more straight-forward (in more ways than one) than the backroads roller coaster of the previous night, and we pull into Dublin at around 9pm, far later than we had originally intended but with plenty of time to find some craic. It takes us over 45 minutes to find a parking spot along the River Liffey, and we gather our bags and walk up toward Temple Bar where Dan and Graci were hitting up the pubs.

We finally meet them on the street outside the original Temple Bar, and they take us back to the Airbnb flat, conveniently right over the Ha’Penny Bridge.

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We unpack and relax and head out as a new 4-piece unit. We stop into the Lebanese place where Amy and I grabbed late night food on New Years and I get the same delicious, garlicky baba ganoush I had that night. What does this sign mean?!

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I figure Brogan’s Bar would be a nice place to kick off the night given that we know where it is and it tends to have a relaxed energy. I pick up a round and show my brother where my Facebook picture was taken.

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Dan and Graci had already made two friends the prior night – a young Dublin girl named Jessie and her boyfriend Dan from Birmingham – and they join us at Brogan’s. (Apparently Dan got off the plane in Dublin and said "Everyone here looks like Dad!")

A woman stands at the bar near us with an unfortunate remnant hanging from her jeans – Graci names this #TPSmoochfest2014.

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We head back toward the busier part of Temple Bar and go into a place where a local guitarist Cormac whom Dan and Graci had met the night before was playing.

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I find a scarf outside the pub and I claim it as my own; I've already lost a much-beloved scarf on this trip, a long blue one I'm fairly sure I left on the plane to Dublin.

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We enjoy some pints (a fellow from Finland buys me a Caol Ila scotch, which tastes rare and delicious) and we dance and have a blast.

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After that place closes, the guitarist leads us into a posh subterranean speakeasy cocktail bar where I order a delicious drink called a Shoe Shine. It's a gorgeous old speakeasy-type bar and I walk around and take some shots of the interesting layout:

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We link up with a bunch of locals and I talk about Keith Jarrett’s work with a local pianist named Tom who’s a big fan of Sun Ra. Amy sketches him:

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We close that place down and find ourselves standing on the sidewalk at 5am and it’s raining and I’m ready for bed.

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Graci and Amy depart with some new friends and Dan and I walk back to the Airbnb. The introduction of the two new folks has definitely changed the energy but we’re all looking forward to the jam-packed week we have ahead of us! (I really want to note for the record that although I typically don't like to skip ahead, I’m finishing this entry – now about four days behind – in the Elephant House in Edinburgh in the very same room where J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book. I could use some wizardry – or a flight back to the US and some good rest – to kick this cold which neither my brother nor I has been successful in kicking this week!)

Posted by coolmcjazz 03:55 Archived in Ireland Tagged dublin kilkenny Comments (2)

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