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Less Than 12 Hours in Ireland and I’m Already Drunk

October 29, 2007

From the Top

Ireland was amazing. I enjoyed almost every moment of it (aside from one pain-in-the-ass travel companion out of our total 6). The photos, all 15 pages of them, are up on my flickr site. There are a couple that I really like and the rest are the best I could manage to shoot quickly through the window of a moving bus. Coach tours are not designed for photographers, but maybe someday I’ll go back and stay in a B&B, rent a car, and actually have time to thoughtfully and artistically compose my images.

So I’ll start from the beginning…the dreaded airplane flights. I pretty much knew what to expect having taken similar flights last year and having flown on the same types of planes. Our first flight was a commuter hopper from BWI to Newark, NJ in a ERJ-145 (ER4). These are tiny planes with one seat on one side of the aisle and two on the other side. You cannot raise the armrests at all so no matter where you sit you will be uncomfortable. I give this a hip-bruise factor of 9 out of 10 on Weightless One’s hip-bruise factor seating scale (I have a goal to add more venues to this list and completely define what each hip-bruise factor means as I go forward here). A rating of 9 means definite pain and discomfort with visible bruising to the hips. I tolerate it as well as I can for the 40-minute flight.

I actually stumbled upon a seatbelt extender while stowing my backpack so I didn’t have to ask for one. We had a 5-hour layover in Newark (well, actually much longer because no flight ever arrives or leaves Newark airport on time…ever) while waiting to unite with our friends traveling from Maine so that we could all take the same flight to Shannon airport in Ireland. We flew on a 757 for this flight and I’ve never liked these planes (hip bruise factor of 7 with the inside armrest up, 9 with the armrest down). There are three rows on each side of the aisle and the plane is incredibly long. These are the planes I seem to get stuck on each time I travel to Alaska and back. The seats on these planes are very narrow and you’d better be prepared to kiss the back of the seat in front of you. My mother is always gracious on these flights as she is about a size 12 and I’m a 32. She takes the center seat so that I can sit on the aisle and we raise the armrest between us so we have more room. She also lets me use her tray table as I find it impossible to put down any tray table.

I asked for a seatbelt extender on the plane—I’m not shy in the least about requesting one—and I had to chuckle a bit as the flight attendant stealthily slid it to me. I spent some time trying to get the aisle armrest to raise up because I knew that it did even though a male flight attendant told the four people around me that it did not. He later came back and whispered in my ear that he would raise it for me once we were in flight. Fucking liar. I’ll be sure next time to learn how to raise it without the help of anyone else and to teach everyone around me how to do it. Luckily this flight was not full (yay for traveling in the off-season) and the flight attendant came back and let my mother and I share 3 seats in the next to last row. That gave our 4 other traveling companions much more room as well.

When we arrived at Shannon airport we met our tour director, Joe, who was hacking up a lung. So I continued taking the Airborne that I started taking before the flight (to no avail). I must say that Shannon airport is incredibly passenger friendly. I highly recommend flying into Shannon if you are going to Ireland. The alternative is the chaos that is Dublin. So if you can, fly into Shannon.

Buses are always a little cramped to me. My mom lets me have the window seat because I’m such a shutterbug and she doesn’t take many photos. We got a little tour of the Shannon area on the way to the Bunratty Castle Hotel in County Clare. One of the things that I liked about this tour was that we could walk to attractions and stores and such from our hotels. I’ve been on tours before where your hotels are out in the boondocks and once the coach drops you off you’re stuck. So this was a definite plus.

Once we settled our bags in our room and freshened up, five of our group met in the lobby and headed to the Bunratty Folk Park, which includes Bunratty Castle. Think Colonial Williamsburg, but a few centuries earlier with a castle and in Ireland. We went to the castle first and squeezed our way through the entrance. Most castles were built so that only one invader could enter at a time, which gave the occupants the best advantage when it came to fighting them off and dousing them with boiling oil. So, in general, castle entrances, passages, and stairwells tend to be very narrow with low ceilings (people were generally shorter than we are now). If you are claustrophobic, like my mother, I don’t recommend visiting too many castles. Still, we both managed to climb up to the turrets on those worn, uneven, stone steps and the view was fabulous.

Our tour started in the dining hall. It is a huge room with long wooden tables and benches. They still use this room for medieval feasts and the tables are original. It just so happened that the table I chose to sit at was the oldest in the room and it was made from one solid piece of oak that stretched the entire length of the hall—no lie, this was easily a 50-foot table and I was absolutely drooling. I’ve been looking for a long, rough hewn, but finished table just like that to put in my basement for a studio/craft table. Okay, so it would never fit in my basement, but I’ve seriously been looking for a smaller table just like that.

We climbed the stairs again and ended up in the throne room. It was a rather dark space and the wooden ceiling was replaced with a replica in the 20th century. There was a peat fire burning directly in the center of the room on the floor and the smoke was escaping the room through a hole in the ceiling. The room was decorated with tapestries—the kind that would make a textile-loving friend of mine swoon.

I was excited to spot a sheela na gig near one of the windows. I had hoped to spy one during the trip that wasn’t located in the National History Museum. There were some great relief carvings on the walls as well and in the queen’s bedroom you could take a look at a dress from the castle’s hey day.

The rest of the village had what you would expect: a school house, a potter, a weaver, a pub, a rich farmer’s house, a poor farmer’s house, several thatched cottages, and the ever-present aroma of burning peat.

We headed back to our hotel for showers and a short siesta (since we hadn’t slept in about 30 hours) and then to the hotel bar for a welcome drink with our other travelers, our tour director, and bus driver. So mom and I got nice big glasses of merlot and I sat back to relive some awful high school memories as each person on the tour got up to introduce themselves. We did our bit and we all finished our drinks and staggered out to the bus. I did mention it was a BIG glass of wine, right? Once in the bus we had a 45 minute ride on dark and winding back roads to our medieval feast at Knappogue Castle.

I’ve been to plenty of medieval feasts before, you know, Medieval Times, Medieval Manor, you name it. But this was the first time the medieval feast was held in an actual medieval castle—so yeah, cheesy, but totally cool. When you first walk into the castle you are greeted by a lady and a squire. They usher you into a ‘waiting’ hall where there were some rather talented musicians playing the harp and flute. They push a mead-filled cup into your hand so you have something to do while waiting and enjoying the music. So, we’re already buzzed from the giant welcome drink and we haven’t really eaten anything in about 8 hours and now they’re handing us more booze. Mmmmmm mead. So I finish my drink and my young traveling companion L finishes her drink and next thing we know there’s a wench with a pitcher refilling our cups. By this time we are all making good use of those sturdy stone walls to keep us upright and the harp music seems to be emanating from every cold surface.

Finally, they let us into the dining hall—a real medieval dining hall just like the one I described at Bunratty Castle. We got seated at those long wooden tables and benches and lo and behold, what’s on the table but a pitcher of white wine and a pitcher of red wine—actually, I should say that there were two pitchers of wine on every 5 feet of table, which broke down to 2 pitchers of wine for every 4 guests. And at this point I still hadn’t finished my second cup of mead.

The meal was pretty much what you’d expect at a medieval banquet, but we did have utensils for everything except the soup. You could choose melon or salmon to start. I don’t eat food that comes out of a body of water so I had the melon. Then the soup, which was a totally yummy heavily seasoned tomato soup—think just a step below marinara and you have what it tasted like—which we had to drink out of the bowl. Then the obligatory chicken and root veggies (after last year’s cruise I swore I’d never eat another turnip). And for desert, some lemon cheesecake.

And this is where I warn you that if you are lactose intolerant like me, take along those lactase pills ‘cause you’re gonna need them. There was just no way to avoid dairy in Ireland. There’s no Lactaid or soy milk. And while I tolerate yogurt and cheese well (especially aged cheese ‘cause there’s hardly any lactose left after it has aged), I do not tolerate milk, ice cream, and young cheese like cream cheese very well at all. Before the famine, the regular Irish breakfast, lunch, and dinner was potatoes and milk three times over. Ireland is a land of dairy and potatoes…be prepared.

So the singing of traditional Irish songs and the stomping of traditional Irish dancing followed dinner. Since everyone was incredibly drunk, we all sang along and clapped and were loud and generally enjoyed ourselves.

We stumbled back into the bus after the show and mom and I sat slightly white knuckeled in the front seat contemplating how the British drive on the left side of the road, the French drive on the right, and the Irish drive straight down the middle.

*Stay tuned for our next episode… The Cliffs of Moher and The Killarney Mafia

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