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Day 5: Halfway Through+the Heart of the Great Atlantic Way!

in which your author returns to a classic trad pub and

semi-overcast 70 °F

Day 5 begins in Westport, at one of the nicer Airbnbs of the trip. It makes a big difference to meet and engage with a host, and Patricia is a great exemplar of the tradition of Irish hospitality. We head into the center of town, only about a 5 minute drive, where Dan gets out to grab us coffees; the traffic is substantial and street parking is impossible so we circle around, eventually finding a small lot. I go and get Dan, eavesdropping on a walking tour on the way (the charismatic guide tells the story of how the statue in the center of town was originally a British banker who the townspeople shot at) and we stop into an Irish tchotchkes store where I pick up some patches of Tyrone and Westmeath, my ancestral Irish counties. (Or at least the ones I know about.) Dan buys a mug that says “Irish seasons," each showing a sheep under a raincloud. We wander around a bit, stopping into a kitchenware shop, where I pick up some cocktail-making utensils, and a bookshop, where I pick up a discounted Liam Clancy CD. (I don’t need another, but it was only 5 Euro and knows what gems might be found!)

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We grab a specialty hot chocolate for the road, and make our way the short distance to Croagh Patrick, a grand mountain I climbed, through dense fog, back in 2008. It’s a legendary Catholic pilgrimage spot in Ireland, and I tell Dan and Dad that St. Patrick was said to have – well, in fact I forget what he did here, but it was something very important and religious! I recall fighting my way through fog to the top, and finding an actual chapel up there! Dad tells us how, at age 22, he climbed Ben Nevis, a similar mountain in Scotland. We park for a couple minutes in a driveway and look up at the imposing mountainside, too covered by fog to make out much of the upper reaches.

We press forward, passing through Louisburg, a sleepy seaside Mayo town where I stayed for a few days in 2008, courtesy of Peter and Moira, our friends who we will meet up with later this week.

Dan has a recommendation from a friend involving the coastal town of Clifden, another place I’d never been. The main part of town is packed and we luck out with a parking spot; I depart to go check out an antique shop and a music shop, and Dan and Dad head to Lowry’s, an inviting whiskey-focused pub. The antique dealer is a bit brusk, but I’m able to bargain my way into picking up this beautiful book on France between the World Wars for ten Euro. (Ergh, just realized I coulda picked it up for Amazon for less, but I didn’t have cell service to check, and there is something old school and support local-business-y about buying on object where you actually found it.) I didn’t find anything to buy at the music shop – CDs are terribly pricey these days, and I admit the convenience of Spotify has really taken a hit on my music purchases!

I join them at Lowry’s, where Dan asks about an alleged former bartender who used to date his friend Meghan, and a picture of Boston mayor Marty Walsh which she says was hanging in the front window, but the friendly bar minders don’t have any recollection of either. We get a recommendation for a food spot across the street, and sit down for soups, which are really terrific. Dad enjoys the rich seafood chowder and Dan and I order carrot-based curry soups. Two musicians start playing and they’re very good, singing acoustic covers in harmony vocals – sadly we must be on our way toward Galway, but we have a bit of chat with them before departing. Clifden is definitely bookmarked as a town to make a stop in for a day or two on a future trip, seems like one of those delightful Irish places halfway between a city and a small town.

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The drive to our next stop, Galway, reveals some of the most impressive scenery of the entire trip. This is the heart of the Great Atlantic Way! Eeking our way down winding, one-lane roads, the mountains and lakes are massive and lush. This drive is not for the faint of heart, as turning a mere 4-5 feet to the right of our lane would launch us over one of the cliffs. Along the way, we encounter many ambling sheep, grass munching happily on grass, and we shoot this fun interview with two of them.

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Dan leaves a sticker of his beloved dog Howie, who passed away last November (special thx to Jackie for the awesome specially designed stickers!), on a road sign looking out at one of the most dramatic views, and I leave one of Aeronaut Brewery. Wonder how long they’ll stay up? We stop at a rest center and Dad buys a beautiful Aran sweater; I pick up books on gravestone letterings and Irish traditional music, which are like, almost kind of the same thing.

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Galway is of course one of the musical centers of Ireland, and its 6th-largest city by population (odd, I would've thought it ranked 2nd to Dublin!). This is technically my 3rd time here, but I don’t know the city very well save for a few musical and rainy memories. We locate our Airbnb, which is an actual Bed & Breakfast in a residential neighborhood about a 10 minute drive from the city centre; our hosts John and Anne and very pleasant. Though it’s quite expensive, our room is tiny (only two beds!) in comparison to some of our previous lodgings; not only is it a holiday weekend, but the annual Galway (Races (horses) is on this weekend, and (admittedly) I also booked the place on the late side.

We take a cab to the Crane Bar, one of the best known music pubs in all of Ireland. I first visited here in 2008, and met a man named Gerry Shannon, who sang these epic solo songs about Donegal and his hometown of Doolin. (Apparently he still comes in!) After stopping at a convenient pizza place next door, we walk into this famous venue – I recall walking here from our hotel late at night, during the pouring rain, during my last visit to Galway in 2014, just to see it. The upstairs music listening room lives up to my memory of it, as it’s stuffed with people focusing on the quartet of traditional musicians facing the bar. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage audiences with music in drinking establishments, it’s so impressive to be reminded how seriously and respectfully the patrons treat the music here. We find a table toward the back, and the folks sitting next to us are really the only ones talking at anything above a low-medium level. Our friend Leo (Mark Madden’s Dad) joins us with his friend Bernadette. I grab Dan and myself some whiskeys, which are priced ridiculously cheap compared to American bars, and I particularly enjoy the Jameson Crested. (I would pick up a couple bottles of this on the cheap later on the trip.) We swap pints with Leo, and fight to understand his thick Northern Irish dialect underneath the din of the music. Leo and his son are two of the finest people I know anywhere, and it’s cool to meet up with him again.

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Toward the end of the music, I consider asking to sing a tune, but chicken out, as it doesn’t feel quite the right vibe or timing yet. I know another chance will come up. Dad’s tired, so we part ways with Leo and offer a personal tour of Boston if he ever makes it over. I take a picture of the document attesting to the fact that the Crane Bar is a sister pub of DeBarra’s in Clonakilty, where we’ll be in a couple days.

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We grab a cab back to the Airbnb and experience one of our many friendly cab drivers, who hives us recommendation on fish & chips for tomorrow: “that place will blow the ears right off ya!”

I do wish we had more time to spend in this town, but we did experience some good craic and will have some time to explore a little tomorrow.

Posted by coolmcjazz 16:07 Archived in Ireland Tagged galway westport clifden Comments (1)

Day 4: The Top of the West, Westport & Dan McCools Pt. II!

in which your author does a wee bit of driving toward the wild wild west

semi-overcast 68 °F

The towns of the north of Ireland possess a certain dryness, a gritty, almost left-behind quality. Far off the familiar tourist routes, with nary an American to be found, the unspectacular, workaday-ness of these places remind any visitors who do pass through that Ireland isn’t all boisterous energy and reckless vistas.

We wake up at the Kee’s Hotel in Stranorlar, on the late side, with a fairly substantial travel day looming ahead. After a pop-in at fine café/bakery (about as close to Brooklyn as this town gets), we have one more important stop before heading down along the northwest coast of the country.

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During my first trip to Ireland in 2008, I stopped into Stranorlar in search of McCools; an old Griffiths Valuation land survey ca. the 1840s indicated there were a bunch here. Along with a fantastic old sign (seen by pretty much every McCool in America) on the side of a rickety barn (actually a decades-old funeral parlor/pharmacy), I met up with a 60-something man named Dan McCool and his wife Patsy. I promised him I’d return one day with my same-named brother, and I did this back in 2014. We thought it would be fun to stop in say a quick hello, especially as Dad knew the story well and had never met the man. And, sure enough, there he was, sawing away at his sawmill! He instantly recognized my brother and I, greeting us with a warm handshake, then met Dad – two mid-seventies fellas, most likely 7th or so cousins, chatting in a mild Irish drizzle about the sordid state of American politics. Elder Dan has a meeting to get to in 20 minutes, so we say our farewells, with Dad pledging he’ll be back with his fiancé some day. It’s a nice thread connecting three of my Ireland trips–one of many similar threads on this trip. On the way out, Dad remarks he doesn’t think he’s ever seen an actual sawmill before.

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Approaching the town of Sligo (new to me!), where we plan to stop for lunch, we fortuitously happen upon the ancient grounds of Drumcliffe, once a monastery and now site of the final resting place of W.B Yeats. Adjacent to the parking lot is a Celtic cross dating to the 900s, and across the road is a tower almost as old, struck by lightning in the late 1300s. We stop into the guest stop and I pick up some gifts (including some witty Irish magnets and this splurge) before walking over to the graveyard which abuts the church. Last year, I played W.B. Yeats at a party commemorating the 110th anniversary of his marriage, so it’s good to be here to pay my respects in person I also realize that my Dad’s sister (our Aunt Betty) stood here years ago (she once gave me a book of Yeats poems with a photo of the grave inside) so that’s a nice remembrance.

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The massive Ben Bulben looms in the background. A congenial clergyman gives us a brief tour of the church and chats with Dad. He mentions he’s from Tyrone so I tell him about our likely family history in Clougher, and he repeats a short rhyme along the lines of “Clougher, Augher, Fivemiletown… six miles around and seven to town.” It’s a nice little stop on the way.

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I attended Eastman with violist and (future) travel writer Zeneba Bowers, who along with her husband published two “Little Roads” books on travel in Ireland and Italy; these are really terrific sources for anyone who wants to experience things the more touristy guides might miss. Zeneba recommended Hadagorn’s in Sligo, an expansive Victorian-era gastropub dating back to the late 19th century. The place has a sort of layout that would never be constructed today – the old goods counter by the entrance, adjacent to a tiny snug room that fits maybe 6 people, followed by a long hallway of tables and two larger rooms and bustling backroom bar. Our meal is lovely, though we’re beginning to feel the creeping effects of covering so much daily distance.

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Before departing, we pop into a pub called Shoot the Crow, recommended by Dan’s friend Sarah, where some gents are fixated on the women’s field hockey match. We have some fun banter with them, and they give us a hard time about ordering half pints. On the way back to the car, I take a few shots of a very slender W.B. Yeats statue.

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With soft serve ice cream in hand, we press forward toward our next stop, the delightful music-saturated, seaside town of Westport, where I visited in 2008, and haven’t been back since. We’re running on the late side, and roll into our Airbnb, on the outskirts of town, around 9pm. Our host, Patricia, is a warm and welcoming as could be (the "Welcome Jason & family" chalk sign is a nice touch!), gets us set up, then drives us into the town, giving us the lowdown on Westport, which was named as the best place to live in Ireland by the Irish Times; the town seems to have it all: water, great food, history, and easy access to Galway and the gorgeous west coast.

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Patricia leaves us at Matt Molloy’s, one of the more famous music pubs in all of Ireland. Matt Molloy was a founding member of The Chieftains, and this place is packed continually with some of the finest Irish musicians in the world. (My Vice President (and hopefully future actual President?) Joe Biden stopped by here a few years ago. The band is lively, featuring a mix of friendly, crowd-pleasing songs and more “pure drop”-style traditional music. We manage to score a few stools near the door; the back room is just as packed with tourists as I remember it was in 2008. Live music was the only thing Dad specified he wanted to experience on the trip, and this is our first exposure. We walk around a bit after the bands wraps up – it’s Saturday night of a holiday weekend so this town is nearly overrun, but it’s a refreshing change from the barrenness of the last few days.

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We grab a cab back to the Airbnb, I do a bit of catching up on the blog, and call it a night. We’ve launched into my favorite part of the trip: joyful, live Irish music for four nights straight!

Posted by coolmcjazz 15:09 Archived in Ireland Tagged yeats westport sligo stranorlar Comments (0)

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