It’s been a little over a week since we arrived back home… after a marathon twenty one day exploration of the Emerald Isle. When my younger brother informed us a year ago that he was marrying an Irish Lass – and that the wedding was going to be in Ireland, we knew our next summer adventure would be a memorable one.
Now before I dive right into our overseas adventure, I have to tell you I simply LOVE traveling. Just because I am a stay-at-home Dad who spends a majority of my time in the house, that doesn’t mean I don’t desperately yearn for a vacation from my daily routines. Some people may think staying home to be the primary caregiver is one big, lazy holiday. Hold up… that ain’t right. It’s true, I don’t have to deal with annoying office politics, the stress of weekly TPS reports, or the drudgery of endless meetings that only partially pertain to me. But, I do have the school lunches, laundry, groceries, cleaning, yard work, errands and endless hours driving kids to school, soccer, hockey, music, swimming, basketball and volleyball. I look forward to our yearly big family getaway probably more than anyone in our family. It’s my much needed vacation from my life of chores and child rearing, as Lianne and I split every and all responsibilities, kid-related or otherwise while on holidays. And with Lianne’s busy work schedule, it’s our only chance to finally spend some extended quality time together as a complete family. But enough about my love of holiday time… who doesn’t love it?
We’ve been fortunate that our kids are very good travelers, as we indoctrinated them at an early age. We traveled to Vietnam, (a 26-hour journey), with a one-year-old Daniel and a three-year-old Abby and were astounded at how easy the trip went. They’ve both been great world travelers ever since, and our trip to Ireland was no different. Now that you’ve heard how great they can be, let me now explain how awful they can be. The past four years, we’ve teamed up with my brother’s family for our summer vacation. That makes us a group of nine at 4 adults and 5 kids. Our two kids, ages 11 and 13, are lumped together with three more kids, ages 7, 13 and 15. After spending so many summers together, these kids have become more like siblings, rather than cousins. That’s really a double-edged sword. Yes, they’ve all become close friends – but they also know exactly how to get under each other’s respective skins and know precisely what buttons to press to get the biggest, baddest and most publicly humiliating reactions.
Because we’ve got three teenagers in the mix, we take full advantage of the “built-in babysitters” and would often throw the five of them into a hotel room together after dinner so the adults could enjoy some adult beverages, and precious adult time. One might think the kids would all simply watch TV, or quietly stare at their iPads for hours on end, but no… one would be dead wrong. There’s always some crazy made-up game going on, a game that is specifically designed to infuriate or alienate at least one or two of the party of five. We would often come back to the room to find one (if we are lucky), or many more of them crying, yelling, stomping their feet and causing a major disturbance. We coined the phrase: “Lord of the Flies” to describe the environment they faced the second we left them to their own devices.
The most embarrassing “Lord of the Flies” incident of all time happened just a couple of days before my brother’s wedding in Cork. We had rented a couple of apartments, and once again left the five of them to play their deadly games as we went pub hopping. It was around midnight when the call came in. The manager of the apartments was receiving multiple complaints about loud children, loud thumping sounds and possible homicides. My sister-in-law took the call in the middle of a loud, packed Irish pub and we were all mortified that our offspring were causing an international incident! The manager was polite, but stern: “we’ve gotten a call complaining about loud noise from your unit? Apparently it’s loud thumping and banging. Like people are jumping? So, if you could just quiet things down, it’d be much appreciated.” My sister-in-law assured him we would handle the situation.
My angry brother called the room, demanded some better leadership from the eldest cousin, and threatened them all with deportation back to Canada if they didn’t settle down. With that done, I relaxed and resumed my heavy drinking. I really hoped that our kids learned their lesson, and desperately hoped they didn’t notice how drunk I was when we stumbled home a few hours later. And speaking of pounding pints, I don’t think I have ever drank as much beer in a single three week period as I have on this trip. I have hard evidence to back up my bold claim.
In the past, I’ve managed to drink way too much on a single night, or maybe on a long weekend, or maybe even during a week-long binge at a Mexican all-inclusive. But this was different. For three long weeks, I always made sure to have my fair share of Irish stout whenever and wherever I could. It was my reward for making it through another long day of sightseeing… or more specifically, for surviving another incredibly stressful day of navigating Ireland’s god-forsaken back roads!
Oh my God the roads.
It’s been a week since I returned our rental car to the Dublin airport, but I am still waking up in the middle of the night… drenched in sweat… panting heavily after my body snaps upright to an agitated awakened state… shocked and shaken by yet another “driving in Ireland” nightmare. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating, but just ask anyone else who made the trip across the pond to Ireland to attend my brother’s wedding and you’ll get the same reaction. I had to laugh when I compared war stories with my fellow North Americans, as we all used the exact same phrase when describing the incredible feeling of returning a (relatively) unscathed car back to the rental place: “I felt the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders.” No word of a lie, I heard that phrase over and over again… and now, I’ll explain why in painstaking detail.
Right off the bat, being on the left side of the road is weird, but that’s not why I hated driving in Ireland. Sitting on the right side of the car, feeling like a passenger who is also allowed to drive, is also pretty weird, but that’s not why I hated driving in Ireland. Shifting gears with my left land is really weird, but again… that’s still NOT why I HATED driving in Ireland!
All of the awkwardness of driving on the “wrong” side of the road only took a day or two to get used to, but the one thing I could never overcome was the narrowness of the roads, and cringing and flinching every damn time an oncoming car made its way towards me. On those super-skinny roads that can really only fit one car, you had to find some place to stop and scooch over and let the other guy pass, with the respective side-view mirrors barely squeaking past each other. This would mean plowing into the side bushes and hearing the branches and brush scrape against the passenger door, scuffing it up to high heaven. (I was sure I would get some grief over this when I returned the car, but they didn’t even bat an eye when they did their walkabout at Thrifty). To be honest, the narrowest of roads were actually not the most stressful ones to navigate. At least they forced you to go really slow on them, and so driving super-cautiously was the obvious byproduct. I never really felt my life was about to end because I was never driving at terminal velocity. It was the marginally “wider” roads that scared the bejeezus out of me.
These roads allowed for two lanes of traffic, but had absolutely ZERO shoulders, and sometimes ZERO centre line. The locals would whip around the corners at top speed, and I would lurch over to the left, grip the steering wheel ultra-tight, and hear the branches and bushes brush past the passenger side of the car. This is when Lianne would yell: “You’re drifting too far left!” And I would yell back: “I know! I know!”
Fortunately for my sanity, I did get better at negotiating the narrow roads and tight curves… and we did get to drive on a few “M” roads, which featured multiple lanes, real shoulders and smooth asphalt. Those days were an absolute godsend, as I could actually feel my pulse rate lower and my shoulders drop as we drove on those sweet, sweet M’s. And drive we most certainly did! In our three week stay, we cut an impressive swath right across Ireland and Northern Ireland. With the exception of staying four days in Cork for my brother’s wonderful wedding, we were always on the move… staying one or two nights maximum at any given stop. Huge kudos to my sister-in-law Dona, who planned the sightseeing itinerary that has become iconically known as “the dossier”, and to Lianne who handled logistics, mapping and was navigator-in-chief. My brother Mark and I were simply the drivers, but as it turned out… that was more than enough responsibility for us to handle.
I won’t bore you with the finer points of our entire trip, as you can check out my Facebook page to see a day-by-day photo montage of our entire three weeks. But I will offer up the cliff notes. We landed in Dublin, and started our adventure with a couple of days exploring Ireland’s largest, and most touristy city. The Guinness tour was great-just-great. Next, was a one day stop in Kilkenny, where we ended up staying the night during a civic holiday long weekend, and we witnessed the usually sleepy small city transform into New Orleans at Mardi Gras. Party central! After that, our four day stay in Cork, the location of David and Gaeil’s nuptials, and the real reason 50 Canadians and Americans made the trip to Ireland.
The wedding was a wonderful cerebration. I was the best man, my brother Mark was the worst man, my sister Angie came, my parents came, a whole whack of friends came. It was a truly awesome party, with Gaeil’s family and friends showing us all what true Irish hospitality is all about. I was also asked to be the Master of Ceremonies for the reception, which is something I had done before… but this time was a bit different. In Ireland, they really don’t use MC’s, so I had to win the crowd over with our Canadian wedding traditions and my world famous “wit”. Thankfully, luckily… I succeeded. The reception was held thirty minutes out of Cork at the seaside resort town of Kinsale. Again… lovely. After that, we headed out to Dingle with a party of 20 people, all family and friends. Try keeping a six car convoy together! Trust me, it’s not easy.
After a couple of days in Dingle, and after I dropped my phone in the North Atlantic Ocean, (don’t ask, but trust me when I say it was all the kids’ fault), we moved on to the Conor Pass, Cliffs of Moher, Poulnabrone Dolmen, and Dunguaire Castle – staying overnight in Kinvara.
After that, we broke up our band of trusted travelers, hitched a ferry ride to the remote Aran Islands to visit to the spectacular Dun Aengus Fort and Cliffs. Then, we made our way to Connemara, a very rainy Kylemore Abbey, made a neat stop at the Ireland School of Falconry where actual hawks landed on my actual arm. We spent the night at a place that reminded us of a weird Irish-Disney resort hotel. Too. Many. Kids.
We then bid the Republic of Ireland goodbye and drove to the tippy top: Northern Ireland! Derry was very cool, and offered up so much history. We learned a lot about the “Troubles” and why the city needed to employ hundreds of police officers, riot squads, armoured vehicles, and police choppers… all to make sure there were no incidents during the Orangemen parade that we watched march past us. Crazy stuff. After Derry, we made our way towards Belfast, stopping at the Bushmills Distillery Tour. Finally, something to drink other than beer!
After spending the night in Ballycastle, out next stop was the Giant’s Causeway, a super-cool volcanic rock formation, and then on to the slightly nerve-wracking Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Then, onwards and upwards to one of the most spectacular look-out points in all of Northern Ireland: Torr Head. The only problem with Torr Head was Torr Road, which was probably my least favourite drive of the entire trip.
Belfast was our next stop, and after an incredibly scenic drive, we really enjoyed the sights and sounds of Northern Ireland’s largest city. We rented a house for two days and saw the massive Titanic museum, took a black cab tour of the city and had a very fun night out at one of the city’s best pubs. Because we rented a house, it didn’t matter how loud and unruly the “gang of five” got while we were out. Bonus! We then bid the north adieu, and headed back to Ireland proper, where we stopped at Trim Castle, checked out the ancient ruins of Newgrange and Knowth, and found our way back to Dublin, where we spent the day shopping, walking and yes… drinking at the Temple Bar, another famous pub. The only thing left to do was check into our airport hotel and return the car. I was convinced I was going to crash it just minutes from the rental place, but as you already know, I made it there in one piece.
Would I recommend visiting Ireland? Absolutely! It’s family friendly, the people are warm, funny and helpful, the landscape is stunning, and it’s really not that big of a place. You can certainly see a lot in two or three weeks. And while the Republic of Ireland certainly has more than its fair share of tourists from all over the world, Northern Ireland definitely feels slightly unspoiled in comparison, offering a different feel and pace.
Just don’t bother bringing sunscreen, and be prepared to age ten years if you do decide to rent a car. Thank you for reading this entire massive blog entry. It took me almost as long to write it as it did to live it.