In the fall of 2013 I was scheduled for my first trip to Ireland with a tour group organized by Celtic Tours of Albany, NY and hosted by Irish folk musician and artist Kevin McKrell. Kevin had been a founding member the Celtic group Donnybrook Fair, and the Celtic Bluegrass band The McKrells. He has appeared in Carnegie Hall and has shared stages with The Furey Brothers, The Battlefield Band, Altan, Mary Black, Solas, Travis Tritt, Lonestar, Allison Krause and Sam Bush. Kevin has showcased his musical talent all over the U.S. and Ireland and he still performs at many Irish, Bluegrass and Folk Festivals and clubs. Some of his songs have been recorded and performed by The Furey Brothers and Seamus Kennedy, Scottish favorites North Sea Gas, Hair of the Dog, Pat McKernan and folk giants The Kingston Trio. He is also an accomplished artist and painter. His work lines the walls of The Parting Glass in Saratoga, and is featured on Celtic Attitudes Clothing.
View Kevin McKrell Heart of Ireland Tour Nov 4-11, 2013 in a larger map
After a short jaunt on the bus from Albany to Logan Airport and a comfortable overnight flight on Aer Lingus, our group arrived at Shannon airport early in the morning, where we met up with Dave, our tour guide. He loaded our bags on to his tour bus and we began the 50 mile ride to Galway, occasionally pausing for photo opportunities in between periods of drizzle and then stopping for lunch on the way. Dave pointed out remnants of ring forts and a fairy fort that blocked the construction of a road. He noted that the Irish are one of the most highly educated populations in the world and certainly don’t believe in Fairies but….. they are afraid of them. Here are some photos from our stop at the Galway Cathedral on the way to our hotel.
Arriving in Galway around 1pm we checked into our hotel and against the advice of our driver Dave, I took a bit of an afternoon nap. Later that afternoon, refreshed from the nap, some tea and a shower, I took a stroll past Eyre Square to scope out the shops and pubs, before meeting the group for dinner back at the hotel. Everyone in the tour group was very open, friendly and hospitable. Some of us carried local connections back home and the conversation was a great addition to the dinner. After dinner, Kevin picked a spot in Elwoods and played for about an hour. You can catch a little of his performance here: Kevin McKrell playing at Elwoods, Galway.
When Kevin finished playing I was too wound up to retire, so I wandered around Galway city until I found a cozy little pub called E Brun that was not too busy but filled with the locals. I warmed up there and made a friend who took me to The Quays (pronounced keys), a multi-level bar with live acts playing on a Tuesday night. There are many pubs to explore in Galway. I stumbled on this website after the fact : http://www.galwaycitypubguide.com/. It looks like a great resource and may be useful should anyone ever get to visit Galway.
I must have found my way back to the hotel ok, because the next day I was alert and ready to catch the tour bus at 9am for a trip to The Celtic Crystal Factory. The craftsmen there are remarkable, training for years to cut and grind crystal to create one of a kind pieces. They explained their history, gave us a demonstration, and the ladies got a chance to marvel at the size of the crafter’s forearms.
We arrived back in Galway with plenty of time to explore the city on our own and shop before dinner with the group at the hotel again. After dinner, I made a repeat performance, warming up at E Brun, before running into some of the tour group at Monroe’s and unfortunately losing them at The Quays. I finished the night with a proper ‘lock in’ at a bar I can’t seem to remember the name of. Miraculously I got in to the pub after the doors were closed for the night to find the place packed and I’ll admit I did not make it back to the hotel until the sun was just beginning to rise.
The next morning we headed south to Rathbaun Farm, for a tour and to watch the farmer work with his dog rounding up the sheep. We were then treated to tea, coffee and scones, which I found along with the country morning air, to be a fantastic hangover remedy.
Next we saw the Cliffs of Moher, with plenty of time for lunch and to take it all in. It was mighty windy that day. I wished for heavier shoes or a tether and I found out that I don’t care much for heights, but I toughed it out and enjoyed the spectacular views.
We ended the day in Killarney, dined together with the group and spent some time at the hotel bar O’Donoghues, where Kevin played at the end of the night. I decided to take it easy that night, needing some time to recharge after the past two days in Galway, so I spent a quiet night having a few at Jack C’s, where I yakked it up with some of the local carriage drivers and found out the bar has been in the same family over the past 100 years. I knew it was my kind of place when I was greeted at the door by a dog.
The next morning our tour guide took us on the bus out to Slea Head for one of the most breathtaking and harrowing rides I had ever been on. Hats off to Dave, navigating our 50-passenger bus down the narrow, shoulder-less roads and nerve racking cliff side turns. We periodically stopped along the way for photos and to explore.
On to Dingle, where I got lost in the back streets in a spell of rain and hail. I had my rain jacket, so I was no worse for the wear and recovered as quickly as the sun came back out from behind the clouds. I lunched at Herringer’s following Dave’s advice, and I could immediately tell it was a local favorite by how busy it was. I took my reasonably priced fresh fish and chips out on the pier and lunched with the crows, who were polite, until the gulls started showing up picking fights and causing a general riot. I find it hard to convey the serenity of that pier that day, but it was calming and peaceful enjoying my lunch out there.
On our way back to Killarney I took this picture at one of the stops. It reminded me a lot of my home back in Lake George, NY.
Back in Killarney, I got my hair cut and freshened up for dinner with the group followed by another performance by Kevin in O’Donoghues. It was Friday night, the people were lively and Kevin drew a great crowd. Here is a video from that night: Kevin McKrell at O’Donoghues in Killarney
After Kevin had finished playing, a good portion of the tour group banded together and we all went to down the road to ‘ The Grand ‘. They had traditional Irish music up front until about 11:30pm, then a live band in the middle of the bar at midnight. There was even a foggy dance club in the back towards the end of the night, but the details on that get a little hazy for me.
Day 6 took us to the Woolen Mills and Blarney Castle, where yes, I did kiss the Blarney Stone but the whole experience made me feel like I was assaulted by it. The narrow spiral steps of the tower and my new found fear of heights had me weak with nervousness by the time I had reached the top, and the attendants had me on my back and hanging upside down facing the stone before I had time to think. I have no regrets though, as roughed up as I was from the past night in Killarney, I still had fun climbing through the castle like a kid and exploring the caves.
We headed onward to Dublin, where we arrived in the afternoon. We were free to dine on our own for our nights in Dublin and I found a great place on Abbey Street for some food and music. I had a perfectly portion plate of fish and chips with peas and greens on the side. There was traditional Irish music, just two men, one with a guitar and the other with a banjo and I passed the time conversing with a nice local couple who had taken the train into Dublin for a night out. A bit worn from the night before and after the long day we had already had, I finished the night closing Madigans, a pub close to the hotel and then, followed the advice of James Joyce, walking it off along the River Liffey until I was ready to retire.
The next morning in Dublin we were taken out for sightseeing to White Friars Church, and then my church, The Guinness Storehouse. Seven levels of absolute heaven. I was excited to go but I had no idea how awesome it would be. I received a certificate for pouring a perfect pint together with a few other members of the our group and then lounged in the Gravity Bar at the top floor, where the bartenders poured Guinness two at a time with one hand and we had a spectacular 360-degree view of Ireland’s capital.
Dave then took us to Trinity College to view the Book of Kells. I didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I would have had I not been storing the three pints of Guinness that I had for breakfast at the storehouse, but luckily I managed to find a bathroom in an adjacent building where I set a new personal best. We were on our own after that and I had lunch at the National Museum before viewing the exhibits. The museum contains a wide range of items from ancient Irish history, The Bog Bodies being the most memorable, unearthed from the farmlands and preserved in their final grotesque moments. A must see for any CSI fan.
I then wandered into Saint Stephens Green and found a pond with some ducks to feed a hunk of bread I had left over from my lunch. I walked through the park until closing, viewing as many of the monuments as I could before the guarda kicked me out.
That evening when I returned to the hotel I was invited out to dinner by a few members of the tour group. We wound up at Madigans, the pub I had closed the night before, where we met up and joined tables with even more people from the group. It was a great way to spend the last evening of the trip, everyone relaxed and happy from our travels, feasting, drinking and laughing in a warm pub on that rainy night. The next day some would be heading on extensions of their vacations but most would be heading to Dublin Airport and flying home. I am grateful for the people in the tour group, they had all made the trip that much more enjoyable. I have no better half to keep me in check, so having the schedule and the tour group definitely helped keep me grounded. I believe I would not have experienced as much as I did if I were on my own, or had as much fun with out them.
My summation: if you’re thinking about travelling to Ireland… GO!!! I could have never imagined what an experience it would be, or how much of an effect it would have on me. In the dreary days of repetition and drowning in the workforce, I am so glad I went on this trip to break the monotony and remind me why I am alive. I am not a religious person, but driving under rainbows in those rolling green mountains and hills, speckled with sheep grazing in the patchwork walled fields that looked like stained glass, it made me think that if there was a heaven, it would look like the countryside of Ireland. The trip taught me a lot about myself ,and I will always hold my experiences there and the people I met close to my heart, and hopefully someday I will get the chance to return to Emerald Isle.