Going Back Home: A Visit to the Isle of Mists

By Greg O’Brien
Special to the BIR

“Ireland sober is Ireland stiff,” wrote James Joyce. And so we toast the Isle of Mists in throaty zest after the Shannon-bound Aer Lingus flight finally lifts off a rain-soaked JFK runway at 10:30 p.m. on Sun., Aug. 22 after a four-hour weather delay that featured boisterous thunder and angry bolts of lightening. It was an ill-omened beginning to a family pilgrimage to plumb the depths of our Irish ancestry and in the process rediscover one another.

Among the anxious passengers were my wife of 33 years, Mary Catherine of Dublin roots, and our children: Brendan, 27, named after the Irish abbot who, legend says, led a ragtag ban of Irish monks in a leather-hulled currrach across the Atlantic to present-day Newfoundland in search of land promised to the saints; Colleen, 25, a diminutive of the Gaelic cailín, “girl from Old Irish,” in this case one of remarkable beauty; and Conor, 22, named after Conor Larkin, the chief protagonist from County Donegal in the classic Leon Uris novel Trinity—an organizer in the late 1800s of the then fledging Irish Republican Brotherhood in the struggle for an independent democratic republic.
Conor is also the namesake of the present head of the O’Brien clan, Sir Conor O’Brien, the Prince of Thormond, the 18th Baron of Inchiquin, and a direct descendant of Brian Boru, the first and last king of Ireland. As for me, I’m a third generation man paternally and maternally with roots in Dublin, Wexford, Louth, and Clare. We’re all over the place.
Monday, Aug. 23
The skies are clearing as we land in Shannon, crossing a cerulean blue River Shannon. The tarmac is wet, but the heavens have opened. Inside the terminal, Conor looks up and points to a rainbow, a wondrous spectrum of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. “This trip is meant to be,” he declares. Today is my wife’s 58th birthday, and I didn’t bring a present. Luck of the Irish. The next week would bring the best swath of weather all season, as we plied the West Coast from Galway to the Ring of Kerry. Driving would be problematic; we’re a right brain family, so maneuvering on the left side was vexing—given the distracting lush green countryside, the ancient stone walls that define centuries, the serpentine narrow roads and wacky local driving habits. Evan McHugh was correct when he wrote in Pint-Sized Ireland, “When the Irish want to tempt fate, they play Irish roulette. No firearms involved—they just go for a drive.” We drew straws for the driver’s seat, and Brendan lost.

Immediately, we headed to the windy Cliffs of Moher in County Clare that rise 394 feet above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag's Head and reach a peak of 702 feet, just north of O'Brien's Tower, built on the cliffs in 1835 by then landlord Sir Cornelius O'Brien, a descendant of the king himself. On a clear day, the view extends as far as Loop Head at the southern tip of Clare and beyond to the mountains of Kerry. Looking north from the visitors’ perch at O'Brien’s Tower (a photo opportunity and suitable salutation), the Twelve Bens in Connemara (also known as the Twelve Pins) can be seen, and the Aran Islands sit off to the west.
We had lunch nearby at Gus O’Connor’s in Doolin by the sea (a few cold pints of wicked good Smithwicks for hydration), then a good family birthday dinner bash back in Galway on the River Corrib, across O’Brien’s Bridge. We stayed the night at the four-star Park House Hotel; before retiring, a few more pints for the family over traditional Irish music and step dancing, but who’s counting?
Tues., Aug. 23
Slept in. An apparent epidemic of Irish flu. We headed north by bus an hour and a half to Clifden in Connemara, a place that attracts writers, artists, film-makers, and naturalists. Clifden is a snug city on the harbor with more than 5,000 years of living history and enough shops, restaurants and pubs to delight the tastes of anyone. Before shopping and lunch at rustic E.J. Kings on Main Street, Brendan, Conor and I walked to the nearby harbor to take in the fishing fleet and watch an ancient mariner meticulously untangle his nets, while Mary Catherine and Colleen visited the stoic stone Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas. Built in 1323, it is the largest medieval church in Ireland, a place where Christopher Columbus is said to have prayed during a visit to Galway in 1477. In spite of all the history, life moves quickly in Clifden. On the way home, the bus almost hits a wayward sheep. Yikes! I’ll have the haddock for dinner tonight in Galway.
Wed., Aug. 24
We headed out early to Killarney, stopping off at pastoral Adare Village in County Limerick, widely regarded as being one of Ireland’s prettiest and most picturesque villages. Situated on the River Maigue, a tributary of the Shannon River, Adare dates back to the early 13th century—a strategic location for many conquests, wars, and rebellions. It is the site of the ancient Anglo Norman fortress Desmond Castle, ransacked by the Parliamentary forces of Oliver Cromwell. Off to Killarney late in the afternoon for a two-night stay at the restful Killarney Royal Hotel on College Street and fine dining Wednesday night at the landmark High Street restaurant Bricin (Gaelic for small trout). The conversation turned to golf. Tomorrow, my sons and I play at the magnificent Waterville Golf Links on the Ring of Kerry, considered among the best in the world. I’m bit uneasy about it; my golf score is an impressive IQ.
Thurs., Aug. 25
Up at first light, Brendan, Conor and I grabbed coffee and head to the Ring of Kerry under a brilliant sunrise. Mary Catherine and Colleen, a communications analyst in D.C. with a Homeland Security consultant, were delighted with a break from the men, shopping, hiking, and touring the day. We fared far better. The Ring of Kerry is a sculpted paradise of sea green hills, valleys, and some of the earth’s finest shoreline. The 6,320-yard Waterville Links is exquisite and as intimidating as it looks to the duffer. Brendan, a production assistant at Cramer in Norwood and an excellent golfer, had a great game, thanks to coaching from young caddie, Stephen Donnelly, who good-naturedly directed his charge after an errant shot with such encouragements as, “Lose that one in your skirt?” Conor, sports management major at Johnson & Wales in Providence, played well for a beginner, steady on his short game. My misdirected drives often took a Kerry bounce, but later Brendan confided that Donnelly, walking ahead, was kicking my ball back into the fairway. “I want your dad to have a good game,” he told my son.

The ride home, completing the Ring of Kerry, was equally stunning until a rambling farm tractor forced us off the country road and into a bed of sharp rocks that pierced the front tire on the driver’s side. A life lesson: You fix a flat tire in Ireland with the same muscle and surfeit of expletives that you employ in the states. Plenty to talk about over dinner at the eclectic Gaby’s Seafood Restaurant on High Street back in Killarney.
Fri., Aug. 26
Up early for a trip to the Dingle Peninsula (Corca Dhuibhne, a Gaelic reference to its Middle Ages occupants, the tribe of Dhuibhne). It is considered among the planet’s most spectacular places. We stopped in Dingle Harbor, a sheltered town bedecked in quintessential Gaelic shades, then drove the dangerous Connor’s Pass, a Come-to-Jesus moment, on our way to Tralee Bay and Newmarket-on-Fergus.
Today is a homecoming of sorts. We’re heading to Dromoland Castle in Clare just outside Shannon for our last night. The castle grounds—the ancestral home of the O’Brien clan for 900 years – is now a luxury 375-acre estate. The Renaissance castle retains its old world charm with splendid woodcarvings, stone statuaries, hand-carved paneling, brilliant oil paintings, antique furnishings, a championship golf course, and gardens that look like Alice in Wonderland. The reception was majestic; the front desk took note of the name. The rooms were noble, with sufficient space for a king’s guard. Typically clumsy as an ox and not ready for regal prime time, I spilled a glass of good red wine in the gardens observing a turret outside the dining area. Upon asking for a refill, I was told, “This one is on your ancestors!” Later over dinner, the family was observing the stoic floor-to-ceiling oil portraits. “All O’Briens,” our waiter told us. “An ugly lot!” He apparently didn’t get the front desk memo.
Our final family fling was a night at Durty Nelly’s in the shadows of nearby Bunratty Castle. There we made good friends with the locals, likely for the draw of Colleen. I made sure to stand closely guard by her. In the meantime, Mary Catherine was having trouble finding the handle on her glass, dropping two of them on the stone floor to a raucous applause that echoed throughout. “My Gawd,” one of the older locals exclaimed, “she’s goin’ for a [expletive] hat trick!”
Sat., Aug. 27
We made our plane in Shannon in plenty of time—sad to depart, but brimming with Irish joy. As the Aer Lingus craft climbed out over the Atlantic, I kept looking back, feeling as though I had left something behind. I must return to reclaim it. Maybe it’s on O’Grady’s Beach, or the 18th hole at Waterville, in Murphy’s Pub in Dingle, or blowing through the hills of Kenmare. But I’m certain it’s there, and that Mary Catherine, Brendan, Colleen and Conor are sure to follow.