A stranger close to home

A road trip of Ireland is something that I had been planning to do for years. Yet lured away to foreign shores year after year with the promise of uninterrupted sunshine, I had never made much of an effort to make it a reality. Finally, the embarrassment of people exclaiming things like, ‘You’re from Ireland? Oh, isn’t the ring of Kerry so beautiful?’ and me having to admit that I had never seen most of the things on my own doorstep, drove me to put my plan into action. It was settled; summer 2011 was going to be the year of the low-cost, local holiday. I bought a camping kettle, dug the old Duke of Ed tent out of the roof space, and recruited a travelling companion. Our aim: to drive down the east coast of Ireland taking in as much scenery as possible along the way, and hopefully to have some of that elusive ‘craic’ that everyone keeps talking about. What could possibly go wrong?

Day one of our road trip was mercifully dry and bright. We loaded up the car, programmed our destination into the sat nav, and set off. Our first port of call was obvious: Dublin. It boasts lively theatre and music scenes, and its streets are steeped in history (the bullet holes from the Easter Rising are still visible on Dublin’s General Post Office). Although admittedly its main shopping streets have fallen prey to the usual chain stores, there are plenty of departures from globalization. We were surprised by the sheer concentration of so many great buskers in such a small area. There seemed to be a different kind of live music going on around every corner, from celtic groups to talented classical musicians, to pop and rock bands, many of them drawing large crowds.

Along the way, we stumbled across one of Dublin’s larger parks, St. Stephen’s Green. It’s filled with statues of some of Ireland’s literary and historical greats, including W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Wolfe Tone. Despite the memorial aspect, it was a great place for a leisurely wander since the atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant, with people lounging everywhere on the grass. After a few hours of exploring, we had to leave Dublin behind and to head for our camp site.

Apparently it’s a long way to Tipperary, but I think that depends on where you start. If you’re coming from Dublin, it takes less than two hours. The roads down the east coast of Ireland are surprisingly good, with new motorway making the journey a lot easier than expected. The difficulty came in finding the camp site. Sat navs become a bit redundant when you’re trundling down unnamed country lanes looking for a particular field a few miles away from civilization, and the problem is compounded by the fact that addresses in the south of Ireland don’t have postcodes. If it hadn’t been for a chance encounter with a helpful local woman out riding her horse, I don’t think we’d have found it at all.

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However, the uniqueness of our camp site, ‘The Apple Farm’, made it worth the extra trouble. As the name suggests, it was set on a small family fruit farm and the facilities were even built into an apple storage barn. We were attracted to it by the low price and the offer of a complimentary bottle of the farm’s award-winning apple juice on arrival. Ours didn’t take long to disappear, and really brightened up our slightly pathetic dinner of instant noodles. That evening, a bus load of tourists from the Czech Republic appeared, complete with guitar, and started a very enthusiastic jamming session in the apple barn. I had certainly never planned that my exploration of Ireland would include a late night conga line in an orchard to Czech traditional music, but somehow it did.

Having managed to get the tent up with little hassle, and the first night passing with no leakages, we congratulated ourselves on having come up with an easy way of touring the country on a student budget. This camping lark was a great idea. The next morning, buoyed up by our incident-free stay, we packed up our tent and started on the next leg of our journey; Co. Cork.

Cork is a rather beautiful city, with a pleasing blend of both modern and traditional. What drew us there was its reputation as ‘food capital of Ireland’. We stopped to have lunch at its ‘English Market’; rather like a bigger version of the Covered Market, and even more foodie. It’s been there since the eighteenth century serving the people of Cork with the best fresh produce. It served us with a very delicious take on a cheese toastie, made all the more exciting by our seat up in the wooden rafters with a great view of the food vendors down below.

Not long after our arrival in Cork, the heavens opened. Rained out of the city centre, we headed for the car and our next camp site, one we had picked out on the coast at Bantry Bay. Bereft of motorways, it took a long time to make the hundred kilometer or so journey to rural West Cork. We refused to concede defeat on the camping front; despite the driving rain, we had decided to do this the hardcore way. We booked in at camp reception, which turned out to be a small pub where everyone was speaking Gaelic, and had a few drinks. What followed was one of the most miserable nights of vacationing I can remember.

By the time we set up camp, we discovered that both our tent door and my sleeping bag had broken zips, rendering them un-shuttable. We had to curl up into a tight ball to prevent our head or toes touching the inner lining of the tent for fear of leakage, and our clothes and shoes were completely waterlogged. Next morning, putting on our wet and muddy boots, we wondered how long one had to live like this before developing trenchfoot.

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Not even this could dampen my excitement about what we had planned for that day; the whole reason we had come to Cork in the first place; we were going whale watching. The Cork coastline is a major feeding ground for many species of whale in the summer months, including fin whales (the second largest species on the planet) and humpbacks, and there are a few companies which organize boat trips. Ours departed from a tiny pier in what felt like the middle of nowhere, and was captained by a charismatic seaman and wildlife expert named Colin. In contrast to the tourists, who arrived kitted out in North Face jackets and wellington boots and held on to the rails of the rolling boat for dear life, Colin was wearing old jeans, a thinning jumper, and climbed all over the place with one hand occupied by his cigarette. He spent the entirety of the four hour trip staring out at the open sea looking for whales, shadowing schools of common dolphin until they played with the waves on the bow of the boat, and showing us colonies of seals and sea birds. He was fantastic, and we were all a little bit in awe of how badass he was. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a single whale. Colin was apologetic, and lamented the fact that this was the worst summer he had seen for thirty years. I had certainly picked my timings well.

By the end of the day we had suffered too much of a soaking to face another night in a sodden tent. We had a hot meal in the first pub we found, and stayed in a B&B nearby. The weather the following day was even worse than before, with no hope of respite. The rest of our plans had included sightseeing around the Ring of Kerry and the Cliffs of Moher, but with the terrible conditions we couldn’t see ten feet either side of the car. After much agonizing, we made the difficult decision to turn around and head home.

Yet despite the disappointment, I cannot not bring myself to regret the decision to attempt a camping holiday in a place where terrible weather is an inevitability. After all, that is what makes the emerald isle so green. We finished our trip with very little having gone to plan, but still having had a surprisingly good time. I fully intend to go back again – not out of embarrassment that I haven’t kissed the Blarney stone, but because I had a taste of rural Ireland and I want more. The cities and countryside of Ireland really are not to missed. Just do yourself a favour and stay in a hotel.