We opted to forgo driving the Ring of Kerry on Day 2 of our trip along the Wild Atlantic Way, leaving it instead to O’Connor Autotours. This smart decision gave us more than a respite from the rigors of the road. There were lullabies and legends and local lore to listen to, and history recounted with much passion and humor. Our driver John O’Neill, dapper in his cap and tweeds, could ease the bus around hairpin turns while reciting poetry and naming wildflower-strewn headlands.
We expected an older crowd on the bus tour, but found independent travelers of all ages and countries of origin. What we all shared was a relief to have a day off from driving on the left, a chance to relax and laugh and leave the planning to someone else.
Who knew we’d become expert at identifying rare breeds of sheep at Kells Sheep Centre, where local farmer/trainer Brendan Ferris whistled commands to his border collies. They’d race up the steep slope in the morning sunshine to round up the herd and bring them bounding down the hill, where we attempted to distinguish a Wiltshire from a Hampshire from a Herdwick sheep, and learn whose coat was destined to become a sweater or a carpet.
We sipped Irish coffee through the whipped cream, ate seafood chowder at a cliffside restaurant 700 feet above sea level, and posed with a statue of Charlie Chaplin in Waterville, a favored holiday retreat of the legendary actor/filmmaker.
We looked out at Valentia Island, whose slate is said to cover the roofs of such notable landmarks as Parliament and the Paris Opera House. Farther offshore we could make out the Skellig Islands, where the closing scenes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens were recently filmed.
Driving past cultivated plots, an emerald patchwork carpeting barren slopes, brought forth stories of the terrible Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49, a watershed in Irish history that still resonates dramatically over a century and a half later.
We returned to Killarney, gateway to the magnificent 26,000 acre Killarney National Park and wished for an extra day or two to explore the park and its landmark historic sites like Muckross House and Abbey, its waterfalls, hiking and bicycle trails.
But we enjoyed the lively and welcoming town of Killarney, where we devoured the best fish and chips ever at the legendary Quinlan’s Seafood Bar to which everyone in town had sent us. It was worth waiting on line with other visitors, and the locals who advised us that the best fish to order was the hake or haddock (I can’t remember!) We were sent next door for dessert at Gaelic Gelato, which turned out to be another significant stop. Clive, the charming owner, designed for us the best driving route for the next leg of our Wild Atlantic Way journey. He mapped out our drive to Clifden in the Connemara, even giving us the schedule for the short ride on the car ferry that would cut significant time off our trip.
The warmth and sheer delight in our encounters with the locals continued at The Grand, one of the happening pubs known for good “trad” music. No sooner had we entered than I was whisked onto the dance floor by a jovial Killarney lad, and after a pint of Guinness, worried no more how well I followed.
Later that evening at Murphy’s, a duo on guitar and accordion sang the heartbreaking “Fields of Athenrye,” an Irish folk ballad of love and exile set during the Great Irish Famine. The song, which has become a popular anthem sung at sporting events, was new to us that night, but what an impact it had. We were to hear it several more times during our trip, and each time it opened for us a small window into the poetry and politics of the Irish soul.
Click here to read about Day 1 of our trip along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way
Click here to read about Day 3 of our trip along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way
Click here to read about Day 4 of our trip along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way
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