Day Thirteen (9/26/18): Howth Your Shepherd’s Pie?
After a delightful continental breakfast served in our B&B’s dining room, Tim and I took our leave and set out to explore Edinburgh in the daylight. The weather proved to be overcast and windy for much of the day. In addition, our time was limited because of our approaching flight back to Dublin that afternoon. Still, we had plenty of opportunities to gawk at some old buildings and to enjoy the performances of several street musicians, including a kilted bagpiper. Our wanderings took us to Calton Hill, a prominent outlook with a panoramic view of the city. Sadly, the time quickly flew past, and we regretfully had to say our goodbyes to Edinburgh and make our way to the airport. Although, not in our original trip plans, Edinburgh proved to be one of the highlights of our vacation! We barely scratched the surface of what the city had to offer, and we hoped for a return visit someday.
Upon our arrival at the airport (which I was pleased to note no longer smelled like a barnyard), we hopped aboard a small Aer Lingus plane, and within an hour, we were back in Dublin, our home away from home it seemed. After collecting our excess luggage (and paying a steep price for leaving it at the airport), we picked up our third rental car, and drove north to Howth, a tiny village located on a small peninsula that jutted out into Dublin Bay.
Our final Airbnb host home was a private beach house that sat along the southern shoreline and had a stunning view of the bay. Our host welcomed us warmly, made us tea, and we sat together at her dining room table, looking at the bay through large windows, and having an enjoyable conversation. After all the walking and hiking we did throughout our trip (and in Tim’s case, biking and kayaking as well), our final stop in Ireland proved to be very restful. We learned that our host, her husband and daughter had recently moved to Howth from the south of England (which she strongly encouraged us to visit on our next European jaunt).
Upon our host’s recommendation, we had dinner at the Dog House Blues Tea Room on Howth’s main drag. It was a very unique place in terms of décor. The interior looked almost like a grotto with low, rounded archways, unfinished stone walls, and a rounded ceiling of brick. The waitress said that the building used to be a tram station, but wasn’t sure what it was before that. It was definitely an old structure repurposed for casual dining. As to the décor, the low-lighting and rather eclectic decorations left me feeling somewhat disturbed. Many of the paintings that hung upon the red walls of the dining room depicted naked people in varying degrees of anguish. I suppose this was supposed to be trendy (something I can never claim to be). And so, I mainly just kept my head down and ate my shepherd’s pie, which was good. And despite the angst-ridden artwork, the atmosphere was very genial. When asked how my shepherd’s pie was, I told the waitress that it was the best that I had ever eaten. What I didn’t tell her was that it was the only shepherd’s pie I had ever eaten (so technically I was telling the truth, right?). But she seemed really pleased by the compliment and promised to inform the cook, so I decided to forgo further explanation.
Day Thirteen (9/26/18): Nessie Searching, the Fate of Castle Urquhart, and Traveling “Diagon Alley” Through Edinburgh
We left Inverness and headed southward toward the legendary Loch Ness. The morning weather proved to be dreary and wet, with a low-hanging mist hovering over the choppy water, giving the surrounding area a sense of ancient mystery. Although Tim and I did a thorough search from where we had stationed ourselves along the west side of the Loch, we, alas, did not encounter Nessie (not that it means she doesn’t exist, mind you, only that she is introverted and enjoys her privacy).
I can respect that.
In looking over maps of the area, I had wondered why the shape of Loch Ness was so long and thin, almost like a stretch of river that had been capped off at both ends. It turned out that beneath the Loch, and running through the Scottish Highlands, was a pretty sizable faultline. I later learned that earthquakes were common in those parts, although most tremors were too light to be felt.
We continued our drive around the Loch and stopped off at Urquhart Castle, a medieval ruin situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking the water. Like many of the old structures we had encountered on our trip, the Castle had an interesting and bloody history to it, ending its role as a garrison in 1692 when the final occupants blew up the gatehouse to prevent their enemies from using the Castle. Despite its dilapidated state, Urquhart Castle was still an awe-inspiring site. Tim and I (along with legions of other tourists) explored the Castle from the ramparts to the cellars. A steady drizzle fell upon us throughout our visit, making the stones and ground rather slippery to tread on.
However, the real hazard came from the scores of visitors around us blithely welding their selfie sticks, trying to get just the right picture. I had never heard of anyone actually getting an eye poked out from a selfie stick, but I was determined not to be the first victim.
For lunch, we stopped off at a café in Spean Bridge, where I had the Scottish version of the English breakfast. The main difference in this was the introduction of haggis to the meal. I was well-aware of what went into haggis, and I was a bit wary of trying it. However, I was in Scotland, and well, when in Rome…Additionally, what would my friends back home think of me if I left the country without trying it? So, I tried it, and to be honest, it wasn’t bad at all. I notified some of my friends online about my bold undertaking, and the response was universal: yuck!
Our AirBNB house du jour, located in Edinburgh, was actually a B&B. We were welcomed by our hosts into a luxurious three-floor building. We didn’t stay indoors for long, as we wanted to explore the city. For several hours, we walked around, looking at churches, ancient cemeteries, monuments, and the Edinburgh Castle, which was perched high up on a bluff. We also toured Victoria Street, which looked very familiar to me, though I wasn’t sure why at first. Then Tim pointed out a shop that sold nothing but Harry Potter souvenirs. Of course, I couldn’t pass the store up! Soon after entering, I learned that Victoria Street was the model for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter movies. Among other purchases, I bought my second copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, this time written in Scot. The idea of purchasing the same book in different language was not a new idea. A friend of mine had made it a mission to collect a first edition copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone in every available language, which he succeeded in doing! https://www.harrypottercollector.com/ I wasn’t that ambitious, but after my second purchase, I was starting to enjoy the hunt!
For dinner, Tim and I went to Quattro Zero, an Italian restaurant in heart of Scotland, run by a Hispanic family. This was the perfect reflection of the Edinburgh experience; diverse, lively, surprising. We walked around the city some more after we ate, soaking up the energetic night life. There were a lot of people out and about, popping in and out of stores and pubs, and generally strolling along the sidewalks. In short, it didn’t take long for Edinburgh to become one of my favorite places on the trip!
As had become the custom with us, we got a late start to the day. We had a long lunch at the Hinterland restaurant in Perth’s city center while Tim and I began to tally up our trip expenditures, and just how much we had left in our budget. All the remaining major items, such as flights and housing were paid for. However, our spending money was starting to get pretty low. We would have to be more discerning with our expenditures during the last few days of the trip.
We spent the remainder of our afternoon driving north into the Scottish Highlands. Our ultimate destination was the city of Inverness. After some initial confusion, we finally located our host house in the heart of the city. After getting squared away, we did a walking tour of Inverness. This was no easy feat due to the continual gusts of wind that almost seemed to blow at us from every direction. Despite this, we tramped uphill to Inverness Castle, which, compared to some of the surrounding structures in town, looked positively new. Actually, for European standards (the existing castle was only about 180-190 years old), it practically was. Like a lot of the buildings we had encountered on the trip thus far, the castle in its many incarnations, had a long and bloody history of invasion and destruction. Unfortunately, the castle had closed for the evening, but the scenic overlook beyond the hill we were on was something to behold.. The beautiful River Ness flowed through the city below us, in much the same way that the Fox River curved through my hometown. The trees around us were just beginning to hint at the colors of the coming autumn. Ancient church spires and towers rose grandly from among the more modern buildings.
We next headed back into the city center, looking for a place to eat. However, Tim and I caught the faint mystic sounds of bagpipe music which drew us away from the High Street and down a side road, looking for its source. It turned out that the music was coming from the blaring stereo of a small souvenir shop, and like a couple of Pied Piper rats, we followed the music right into the store. The elderly, bearded Scot at the counter was a stoic fellow, quietly observing the utter chaos of too many tourists in his cramped shop. Nearly drowning out the music was the continuous chatter of some Germans who noisily tried on hats and scarves, checked their reflections in a nearby mirror, and had a grand old time. At one point during the mayhem, I caught the eye of the Scot. I gave him a slightly exasperated look. Without a change of expression, the man gave me a small wink as if to say “I do this every day.”
Day Eleven (9/24/18): Cheers, Ireland! Hi-ya, Scotland!
Now that the weekend had ended, it was time to decide what we would do with the remaining days of our vacation. In our pre-trip planning, Tim and I deliberately left our final few days open. However, before we could address our itinerary, there was the matter of purchasing a new tire for the rental car. The spare was serving us well, but we clearly couldn’t return the car in that condition. I would need to purchase a replacement. We located a place in town who not only changed the tire in about ten minutes, but didn’t try to browbeat us into purchasing an entire set. For all that, the cost was reasonable (I was afraid I would have to hand over my remaining vacation money).
With that task completed, we next turned to planning the rest of our vacation. We decided that we would fly to Scotland for a few days, visiting Edinburgh, Inverness, and Loch Ness along the way. Over breakfast, we purchased plane tickets, arranged for Airbnb housing, and reserved a rental car. We had hours before we had to be at the Dublin airport, so we took the time to make the return trip to the Titanic Belfast Museum. The museum itself was incredible! The exhibits were state-of-the-art and interactive. A portion of the vast museum was seen on a traveling cart that lowered and turned us through a recreation of the inner workings of the Titanic. It really gave you a good indication of just how vast the ship was! There was also an alcove where guests were surrounded on three sides by large screens. The digitally rendered film gave us the impression that we were on an elevator which started at the very bottom of the ship. After a slow 360-degree spin to see what each room looked like, we would be “lifted” to the ship’s next level, and so on until we reached the top. There were so many things to see and exhibits to linger at, that after two hours, we still hadn’t reached the end. However, our time was up, so with regret, we had to hurry past the remaining exhibits, hoping that some day soon, we could pay the museum another visit.
While on the road to Dublin, I had time to consider the beauty of the Irish accent, and how it was ever-so slightly modifying our own. The strange thing I noticed was that Tim and I were responding differently to our linguistic immersion. Tim was incorporating slang terms and idioms better than I was. Without thinking about it, he would sprinkle his speech with such things as “Cheers!,” “Good on ya, mate,!” and “That’s grand!” among other things. For me, I was more self-conscious about using the lingo. However, a noticeable Irish accent had definitely started creeping into my voice. To say that I was developing a proper Irish accent would be a bit deceiving though. The Irish accent is as varied as you might find with English or American. In short, my muddled form of an accent would never fool a true Irish person. Still, I was having fun with it!
Upon our arrival at the Dublin airport, we stowed some of our luggage at the excess baggage claim, and hopped a flight on Ryanair, bound for Edinburgh. It was a short flight (about an hour), and considerably more comfortable than WOW Air. One of the first things we noticed at the Edinburgh airport as we traveled along the terminal to our rental car was the smell. There definitely seemed to be a strong odor of…livestock around us. I knew that herders tended to let their flocks of sheep wander around in Ireland, but here? At an airport? After a bit of internet research, Tim and I discovered that the odor came from emissions produced by local breweries (https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/edinburgh-world-s-smelliest-city-says-thrillist-1-3146868). Fortunately, once we left the vicinity of the airport, the smell went away as well.
After a late dinner, we made our way to our reserved hotel room in Perth. We had considered reserving an Airbnb home for that evening, but thought that it was too last minute.
In the end, no one came to throw us out of our room, and Tim and I passed a comfortable night.
We stopped for breakfast at a little Irish restau…okay fine, it was McDonald’s again. Down the street from said restaurant was a church that Tim had previously scouted out online called The Village. And as it was Sunday morning, we walked there to attend the service. The Village was a contemporary church that I found similar to my church back home. The speaker (I don’t recall if he was the pastor) was a good-natured, bearded Scot, who, in greeting me after service, highly recommended a local pub that my brother and I just had to visit to make our experience in Belfast complete. Tim and I were then invited by some of the church members to join them for lunch at one of their homes. We accepted the invite and had a wonderful time getting to know our Irish brothers and sisters in Christ. Learning that I was from the Chicago area, several of the group displayed an impressive knowledge of the Cubs. Some were also making plans to visit Chicago next year for St. Patrick’s Day. Apparently, Chicago does a better job of celebrating the holiday than the whole of Ireland. Yay us!
After saying farewell to our new friends, Tim and I next paid a visit to the Titanic Belfast Museum, an impressive, gleaming structure situated along the River Lagan. Unfortunately, the museum had closed just before our arrival. However, there was plenty to see outside, such as the docking area (slipway) where the Titanic was constructed. We made plans to return tomorrow for a tour of the museum.
Around dusk, we drove to a section of Belfast’s Peace Wall, a heavily-graffitied length of concrete originally erected in 1969 to separate the city’s Catholic population from its Protestants. Although, people could travel freely between the two sections in daylight without much endangerment to themselves, the tensions between the two factions still remained just under the surface of civility. You could feel it.
We concluded our day’s exploration with dinner at Maggie Mays Belfast Café, an establishment highly recommended to us, along with their Ulster Fry, Northern Ireland’s answer to the English breakfast. Oh, I was going to have a hard time being satisfied with breakfasts once I returned home. I was being spoiled rotten on this trip!
Mark Twain once wrote that “Providence protects children and idiots. This is really true. I know because I have tested it.” Not merely content to heed these words, on this particular day, I put them to the test, and I came to the same conclusion: God loves stupid people (perhaps that’s why He made so many of us, but I’m getting ahead of myself).
Prior to starting our trip, Tim had registered for an adventure race, hosted by a group called Gaelforce North. Participants had to endure 62 km of running, biking, and kayaking around the mountainous Glenvagh National Park. Now, I’m not opposed to athletics, as such (though my ample physical profile may call me a liar). However, I do believe that like in all things, exercise is best in moderation. The more moderation, the better.
In short, I thought my brother was crazy.
The adventure race would begin that morning, meaning that I had to drop Tim off at the starting line. This also meant that I would finally have to get behind the wheel, then proceed to the finish line at Inishcoole Beach, near the town of Bunbeg. With careful coaching from the passenger seat, my brother helped me to navigate the narrow roads to the national park. Once I dropped him off and saw him start his race, I was on my own. For me, driving on the left side of the road quickly became a harrowing experience. With hedges and rock walls pressing in to the left of me, and the oncoming morning traffic to my right, I was in a perpetual state of terror of hitting something or someone. However, the strange thing about my fear was that, after a while, I began to get used to it, and my rigid concentration to my surroundings began to wane with the miles. This
would abruptly come to an end as I rounded a narrow bend in the road and nearly ran head-on to an oncoming car. It turned out that, in my inattentiveness, I had drifted over to the right side of the road. To the other driver’s “What are you doing?” gesture, I grinned cheekily and yelled out the window, “It’s okay, I’m an American.”
I can’t imagine why they hate us.
After that, I became hyper-vigilant and tried to stay as far to the left side as possible. This also proved to be a mistake as I had a hard time judging just how close I was getting to the rocks and hedges along the side of the road. The first clue that I had overcompensated came with the large bump I felt somewhere along the left side of my car (I never did see what I had hit). My second clue came with the quickly deflating left front tire. So there I was on the side of a road on an overcast Irish morning with the annoying task of changing a tire (or tyre as it was spelled in those parts) instead of finding breakfast and desperately needed coffee.
Not to brag, but I’ve changed a few flats in my time, and I figured that this would be an easy 1-2-3 job. I assembled everything I needed and began to put together the jack. Well, I tried to put together the jack. Actually, thanks to my native stupidity spilling out all over the place, I couldn’t figure out just how to put the jack together. It required the attachment of a handle (which it came with), but I was at a loss as to how to correctly put it together. As I was fighting a losing battle with the stupid contraption, a car pulled up onto the shoulder behind me, and out popped two women, offering help. They were from Australia and they said that they recently had the same problem. In an obscenely short amount of time, they had the jack figured out, and we were able to get the spare tire on with little fuss. I thanked my two Aussie helpers, and with my wounded pride (I swear, I’ve changed tires before!), I made my careful, anxious way to the beach.
Meanwhile, while I was getting schooled in basic auto repair, Tim was getting more than he bargained for in his race. In total, the event lasted five and a half grueling hours. He later told me that he had wanted to quit the race about 100 times and there were points were his leg muscles refused to work. However, through the use of a few salt tablets and the encouragement of his fellow participants, who frequently cheered him on with “Good on ya, mate!,” he managed to cross the finish line, and with a smile on his face. It was an impressive accomplishment, and probably something that Tim would not repeat for a long time to come.
Despite the delays, I arrived at Inishcoole Beach well before the first runners crossed the finish line. With the morning tide out, the swath of beach was massive, and I had to walk some way before reaching the shoreline. Taking my shoes off, I stepped into the frigid Atlantic waters for the first time, crossing out one more item from my bucket list.
An interesting site nearby was the decaying wreck of a ship, seemingly stranded in the middle of the beach, far from the water. However, as the hours passed, the tide turned and I watched the beach slowly being overtaken by the surf. For a Midwestern boy who had always lived near bodies of water that didn’t experience tidal shifts, I found this natural wonder fascinating. Rocky outcroppings that I had climbed and sat on hours before soon became small islands. The skeletal ship also began to look more at home as the water rose beneath it.
Once Tim had staggered across the finish line, the plan was for me to drive to Belfast while my brother recuperated. However, I was so unnerved from the morning’s misadventures that after a few minutes of tense driving (and much flinching), Tim graciously offered to switch places with me. We stopped for dinner in Londonderry before moving on to Belfast where our next host home was located. As we drove, we had discovered that we had crossed into Northern Ireland almost by accident. Without Google Maps, we may never have known. Tim and I both found it strange that we never come across anything to indicate that we were in another country. No checkpoints, no “Welcome to Northern Ireland” signs. Just a quiet transition into the United Kingdom…and the fact that the numbers on the speed limit signs now referred to miles per hour, not kilometers. Surprise!
Although our reservations had been confirmed well before we left the U.S., I found it odd that our Belfast host had yet to get in touch with us. After all, we had been contacted by all the other hosts via the Airbnb website. I didn’t start getting nervous about this fact until we were about an hour away the city. I began to send a stream of messages to our silent host, keeping them appraised of where we were, and when to expect us.
We pulled up at the given address around 10 p.m. and still we hadn’t heard from the host. What was worse, all the lights of the house were off, and repeated knocking at the front door produced no results. We checked and rechecked our information, and began calling the number listed on the host’s Airbnb profile—nothing. As Tim and I were trying to figure out what to do next, a taxi rolled up, and a young couple got out with their luggage. It turned out that they had also booked one of the rooms from our host, and like us, couldn’t get a hold of him…or her. Honestly, we weren’t even sure of our host’s gender at this point.
As it turned out, both sides of the street we were on were lined with bed and breakfasts. After knocking on doors and asking around, Tim and I were directed to a building a few doors down where there was a vacant room. However, the host for this particular building was nowhere to be found either (we wondered if this B&B was also operated by our AWOL host). As it was then approaching midnight, we didn’t care whose room we were in. Hoping that we hadn’t inadvertently stolen someone else’s room, we bedded down, yet prepared for flight if need be.
You know it’s going to be an amazing day when you throw back the curtains in the morning and find yourself staring at a rainbow outside your bedroom window. This would prove to be the first of many rainbows that my brother and I came across during our day’s journey.
We started our first morning in Letterkenny with a hearty English breakfast at a nearby café; a heaping plate of sausages, bacon, baked beans, eggs on toast, and both black and white pudding. This was my introduction to this high-protein fare, and would forever set the standard for good breakfasts in my mind.
Our first non-culinary stop of the day was, believe it or not, another library. However, Tim and I had a specific goal in mind—genealogy research. Through previous searching, Tim discovered that some of our ancestors had lived in County Donegal, somewhere in the northern reaches of Ireland. He even managed to find the very plots of land that our ancestors rented. For a time, we camped out at the Central Library, and with the help of a couple of librarians, Tim and I tracked down some new information, particularly on that of our great-great grandfather Edward McLaughlin and his wife Sarah Diver. In addition, Tim uncovered information about the church that the two were married in.
And so, we recommenced our travels and drove north to the little town of Buncrana, where we paid a visit to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which was still in operation. We had hoped to find someone there to guide us around the building and the vast graveyard surrounding it. However, we were alone, so we took our own tour. As you would expect, the church was beautiful with a mix of the traditional and contemporary in its style. So, I thought, this was the place where Great-Great Grandpa and Grandma McLaughlin tied the knot. There was a sense of belonging that crept over my brother and I as we stood, gazing down the church’s center aisle. Though in a different country and time, there was an almost mystical tie to this place.
We felt at home.
Our exploration of the graveyard proved to be less fruitful. Despite a helpful sign indicating who was buried where, we couldn’t track down any family members then known to us. As McLaughlin was a popular name in that region, every other plot in the cemetery resided an ex-person by that name. It would require further research, and most likely a future visit, or two.
Tim and I continued our northward journey until we reached a quiet tree-lined road in the midst of sweeping, hilly pastureland. On maps, the road was simply known as Hillside. We pulled off, and decided to walk down the remainder of the lane. Using maps found by Tim, we were able to pinpoint the plots of land where our ancestors had lived. Once again, there was that overwhelming sense of belonging and homecoming that came over us. No words of mine or pictures taken could truly do justice to the awe-inspiring landscape that surrounded us.
To the north loomed the reddish-brown mountains that separated us from the nearby ocean. The land to the south was a patchwork of green, hilly pastures, bordered with darker green hedgerows, trees, and dotted with grazing white sheep. Around the road that we walked, several small streams burbled their hypnotic song and several ruins of ancient stone cottages stood sentinel, a testament to a bygone era. Meanwhile, rain showers would periodically pass over head, dumping their load on us before moving off, to be replaced by blue skies and a number of large rainbows. There was such a dreamlike quality to our surroundings and I couldn’t imagine a place more beautiful. This was a place I could live in. Tim mused that life must have been pretty bad that would prompt our ancestors to uproot from this idyllic land to come to the New World.
We concluded our day’s touring, with a visit to Dunree Head, a beautiful outcrop of land jutting into the ocean. However, with what Tim and I had experienced that day, the view proved to be rather anticlimactic.