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Day 1: An Adrenaline & Jetlag Cocktail Back in the Auld Sod!

in which your author returns to the mother country with the brother and the father

semi-overcast 70 °F

A fond hello again, travel blog! It's been a minute. This portends to be a particularly challenging trip on which to pause and compose travel blog entries; I begin tapping out these first few words while stopped in a loading zone in Athlone, County Westmeath, while waiting for Dan and Dad to come down with the suitcases after our first full night together in Ireland.

There are many collective hopes for this trip – we’ve been planning the logistics for a few months but I suppose I’ve been imagining bringing Dad over here since my first trip here, now a full ten years ago. (I had an epic time here with Dan back in 2014!) Our itinerary is ambitious, and we’re basically circumnavigating the perimeter of the country in ten days–mostly as there are so many good folks to try to see, and certain stops that feel mandatory–some related to genealogy, some past highlights, plus a few unfamiliar places where it will be nice to set down a few good memories. Always, I hope, with comfortable accommodations.

All went according to plan leaving Boston, where I packed my bags set to LPs of JFK speaking in Ireland and notable speeches from Irish history, and after lunch at The Burren – the closest one gets to Ireland in Somerville – Mom and Jackie (Dan’s fiancé) dropped us at Logan Airport.


On the flight, I reviewed syllabi for my pending courses at Merrimack and Boston Colleges, watched The Post, and caught up in adrenaline, was mostly unsuccessful in my desire to get some sleep and ward off the first inevitable wave of jetlag. We land and I welcome Dad to Ireland – his first trip here since 1970!


The plane arrives 40 minutes ahead of schedule, at 4:15; our first interaction with an Irish person here, the 60-something female customs officer, a pleasant breeze. Our arrival at the rental car counter inspires the first of an endless wellspring of terrible Dad jokes: “It only Hertz a little.” We end up swapping out the first car given to us for one with a roomier back seat; Dan will be spending hours back there.


We lurch out onto the Irish highway and the wrong (right)-side-of-the-car-left (wrong)-side-of-the-road adjustment takes everyone for a loop. It’s exceedingly early (6am) and we don’t have our first planned visit for another four hours. We drive to Celbridge, circling around Castletown House, site of my second trip here back in 2011 (the Swampoodle development week), and I take Dan and Dan down the long dirt road which ends at the tiny castle I called home during that stay. Although it’s late July, it’s freezing cold!


We make a stop at the nearby University of Maynooth, where I gave an academic paper as the first stop on my last trip here; Dan stays in the car napping and Dad and I take a few minutes to explore the beautiful campus, stopping into the main building and walking the long hallways which display the portraits of many priests dating back to the early 19th century.


We press on to visit my good friends Jo and Tom, masterminds of Swampoodle, gracious hosts during my last visit, co-founders of creative theatrical dynamo The Performance Corporation, and in general fantastic and fascinating human beings. We spend the next few hours (could have been many more) deep diving on the sorry state of American politics and the horrifying spectre of Tr*mpism; Dan’s expertise (now manifesting as chief architect behind Blue Revolution, which recently passed 30,000 members and raises around $5,000 a week for progressive candidates around the country) is always an inspiration, and Jo and Tom catch us up on how our horrifying President is going over locally, and how Ireland is progressing on social issues. As their three well-behaved and adorable dogs fidget with their new toys, Jo and Tom lay out coffee and breakfast foods, including our first Kerrygold spotting! Dad feels at ease and as I imagined, this makes for a perfect first stop; we share a toast with some cocktails I’d premixed in tiny plastic containers (probably my favorite travel hack) and Jo and Tom draw out some recommendations for our itinerary on a map. Someday, I will get these two to Boston and we will produce immersive theater out at Ft. Warren if only someone would donate at least a quartet million dollars to make it happen.


We swing back around to Castletown House, and our Collective weariness opts us out of taking the full tour. We do walk across into the courtyard and into the back end of the building, and I talk about about our inspiring week spent here back in 2010, really one of the most creative highlights of my life. It's nice to be able to share a bit of this place and that time.


We’re only driving a little over an hour to Athlone, County Westmeath, in the center of the country, and yet the jetlag has kicked in like a dull hammer to the part of my brain charged with not getting us in an accident. After 25 minutes or so I have to pull off and shut my eyes for a few, which helps, as does chatting with Dad for the rest of the drive.

I passed briefly through Athlone during my third trip to Ireland, pledging one day I’d make it back, and thinking at the time that my great-grandmother Bridget Creighton was from here. (It turns out that was one of those “if you repeat it enough times it becomes a fact” things–Bridget was from Country Westmeath, but I discovered about a month ago was actually from a tiny place called Togher, in Westmeath but close to the border of Country Cavan, over an hour away by car. Still, Athlone seems worth seeing, and is also the boyhood home of the great https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McCormack_(tenor) (< ERROR: the link title is too long!), the famous Irish tenor; I’ve been reading a delightful book about him printed in 1918, within which he speaks fondly of his hometown. Dad jokes that if I go for a run in this town I’ll be running A(th)lone.

Our Airbnb host is away in London but her brother lets us in; the apartment is far beyond our expectations and one of the nicer Airbnbs I’ve stayed at over the years, mainly because the view over the river is so spectacular. From the tiny balcony, we see the River Shannon spread out in much glory, bisecting the city; we can see the back side of the oldest bar in Ireland, Sean’s Bar, just beyond the banks of the opposite side of the river.


We take an hour-long nap and although every cell in my body wanted to keep sleeping (it feels like 1pm for us), I force myself to get up and I wake the others. We get ourselves together and walk across the bridge, lazily ambling through winding, abandoned streets, finally deciding upon an Italian restaurant. Dad gets his favorite: the Spaghetti a la Carbonara, which is surprisingly good for a random Italian restaurant in the middle of Ireland, Dan the Bolognese, and myself a Margherita pizza. It’s all we can do to keep our heads up from the jet lag; I feel like my brain is coated in mashed potatoes. We resolve to have one beer at Sean’s Bar, which is well worth it.


The bar is quintessential old Irish pub: tightly packed tables and small stools, musicians lazily checking sound, sawdust coating the floor. The barman tells me the history of the bar dating back to the year 900, and how the nearby Clonmacnoise monastery produced possibly the first whiskey; priests created perfumes which after they imbibed realized they enjoyed quite much. There’s an exposed section of the original straw walls preserved behind glass; Dan buys me a black t-shirt.


After one, we make our way out – I ask the same bartender if he knows the name “John McCormack,” and whether folks in the town still know the famous tenor’s name. (They do.) When I ask him where McCormack lived, he walks me outside and down the street to point me in the direction of the place. It’s such a consistent characteristic of this place: when asked for directions, the Irish will, to a man/woman, always stop and offer help effusively.

We stumble (not from the beer from lack of sleep) back to the flat and konk out like sacks of bricks. After but one day, our trip has already featured a whirlwind of new sites, experiences, and excellent people, and we sleep soundly on good Irish vibes. Here’s to what we McCools can do after a full day of rest!

Posted by coolmcjazz 03:46 Archived in Ireland Tagged athlone Comments (1)

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?)


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!


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.)


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.


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.


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!


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.)


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).


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.)


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.


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.


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.)


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)

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