You don’t need to see his identification. These aren’t the sheep you’re looking for. Move along, move along…
Ireland doesn’t reveal it’s stone history easily. It takes some effort and a little luck to experience the fantastic beauty of this island’s geologic treasures.
Our travels began in Dublin to a rocky start (no pun intended) with all of our luggage lost by the airline. Nothing worse than going out for the night in the same clothes you’ve been traveling in for the last twenty hours. Actually, even worse is putting on those same clothes the next morning. But in the nick of time, the bellman knocking on the door was music to our ears, and I’ve never been happier to see a piece of luggage before in my life. I may have seen Sheri actually hug her suitcase, but I was still too delirious from the jet lag and one too many Guinnesses the night before to be completely sure.
Getting out of town to the countryside, away from Dublin’s omnipresent Guinness logo, we set our GPS for the Rock of Cashel. Driving on the “wrong” side of the road, the “wrong” side of the car and shifting with the “wrong” hand comes easy enough, but it’s those narrow rural roads that continually fuse your white knuckles to the steering wheel. No shoulder whatsoever and bound by stone walls and thick hedgerows, passing cars is an intimate ordeal. Throw in ridiculous 100 kpm speed limits, poorly marked one lane bridges and suicidal sheep, close your eyes and pray that you have the Luck of the Irish. Let’s not even get started on the slightly wider tour buses barreling toward you with reckless abandon. You can forget about enjoying the breathtaking scenery as you keep your eyes firmly fixed to the winding road ahead. It’s no picnic for the passenger either, or so I am told, and I was told often.
(Photo-Pam Holland Designs)
Rental car “Super Cover” insurance? Yes please. Probably should have increased our life insurance while we were at it as well.
I did find some of the rush hour grid-lock to be rather enjoyable, though.
After a brief visit to the beautiful, albeit touristy Blarney Castle, we took a scenic drive around the Ring of Kerry. (No, we did not kiss the Blarney stone because, well, we weren’t hungry for the disease du jour.) The next rock on our agenda were the remote Skellig Rocks. I reserved a spot for Sheri and I to go months in advance, but was told not to get our hopes up, as the ocean conditions around these tiny, rocky islands are very temperamental, and more often than not, the very limited number of licensed boats can’t go there due to the rough seas.
We allowed a three day window of opportunity to attempt a visit. The first day, no way. In the words of George Costanza, “The sea was angry that day, my friends.”
The second day, the sea was even angrier, “Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.”
They say in Ireland if you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes. Nonetheless, the morning outlook for the third day looked just as grim, and just as we were about to accept defeat, our charming bed and breakfast owner Bridie O’Connor (how Irish is that!) told us “Hurry and eat. The boats are going today. I got you on.”
Luck of the Irish, indeed.
The minuscule Skelligs lay about six miles off the southwestern shore of the mainland’s Inveragh Peninsula. The smaller of the two, Little Skellig, is off limits to visitors, as it is a totally protected bird sanctuary, with one of the world’s largest populations of elegant Gannet seabirds. They own the island. Every inch of it.
The larger island, Skellig Michael, is where we’re heading, piloted by a quintessential salty sea captain, his Irish accent so thick he might as well been speaking Swahili. Like the smaller island, Skellig Michael is also a protected UNESCO World Heritage site as well. Despite its protected status, they do allow for limited visitation up the 600 steep steps to the ancient monastic ruins at the top of the island.
Skellig Michael is incomprehensibly beautiful. Words and pictures don’t even come close to describing it, nor the severity of its vertical Stairway to Heaven, a self-given label which I deemed appropriate while I was climbing. I’m sure the monks who once lived here felt the same way.
On the day of our visit, the island was shrouded in an ethereal mist, and the incessant clamoring of thousands of seabirds added a mystical and surprisingly loud soundtrack for the morning’s climb.
You are given a mandatory briefing and stern warning before climbing, the guides words sticking like glue: “Fatalities have occurred”.
The steep ascent up the slippery and narrow pathways are not for the faint of heart. With no guard rails, a slip in certain spots will easily send you tumbling to an early demise in the icy sea below. Think positive, at least your last moments of life will be spent seeing the thousands of adorable puffins that you’ll pass on your way down.
Skellig Michael was used recently under the watchful eye of the Irish authorities as a filming location for the new Star Wars movie currently in production. The residents of the little fishing village of Portmagee, the departure point for the Skelligs, were pretty tight-lipped on who and what transpired there. Smells like Jedi mind tricks to me. Still, it doesn’t stop them from riding the merchandising machine already in motion in the local trinket shop. I couldn’t resist the “Skellig Wars” t-shirt with the little puffins in the Vader helmet. I got the last one in my size. The Force was with me.
The area around the Skelligs and on St. Finian’s Bay where we were staying is a certified “Dark Sky Reserve”, reportedly the darkest in the Northern Hemisphere. A perfect location away from city light for optimum star gazing. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter as it was densely overcast the whole while we were there. Had it been clear, I most certainly would have succumbed to the power of the Dark Side to try some star trail photography or just admire the view of the Milky Way.
Slowly working our way north, up the scenic Wild Atlantic Way, we made the obligatory stops at the usual landmarks like the Cliffs of Moher, along with some remote beaches (displaying the increasingly popular, man-made stone cairns) and a few trad pubs for some local craic before arriving at the Connemara village of Clifden, home to its famous, semi-precious green marble.
I contacted the quarry owner several months prior about a visit, with the response being, “Thank you for the interest in our marble, due to insurance reasons, we cannot allow visitors into the quarry at this time.” Which of course I took as a lazy, canned answer. I figured I’d snoop around once I got there, and when I did, I got very guarded and elusive answers to my questions from several people associated with the operation. I found out later from others that the family that owns the rights to the quarry are very stand-offish like that.
I tried sneaking around two of the quarry locations for a few photos, to no avail. With no shortage of forbidding signage, I cut my losses, and decided it was better not to spend my remaining days here in an Irish jail. I had to settle for a visit to the company’s retail outlet to satisfy my curiosities about this gorgeous marble. Not what I had in mind. Sheri wasn’t complaining though. She got a nice Connemara marble bracelet out of the deal.
After putting over a thousand punishing miles on our rented Mini Cooper, and becoming a somewhat proficient Irish driver in the process, we made a last stop in the desolate Burren region of the island to see one last rock, the Poulnabrone Domen. Like a mini Stonehenge, this ancient stone formation leaves you with more questions than answers.
Returning home, I look forward to seeing Skellig Michael in all it’s IMAX glory this December. Hopefully Hollywood captures it’s beauty better than my meager photography skills ever could.
A word of advice: If you decide to visit the Skellig Islands yourself, wear a hat. With thousands of avian X-wings flying over your head, being bombed by their proton torpedoes is inevitable.