Before you set out to walk The Burren Way in Western Ireland, you are entitled to a bit of self-indulgence. Some good food and drink, some music, some flat terrain to walk, some shopping, perhaps.
Self-indulgence doesn’t get any better than bookending the Burren with Galway and Dublin.
That’s the plan: Live it up in Galway and Dublin, walk it down on The Burren Way.
Spending only 10 days in Ireland can be tricky.
You can rent a car and run around like a crazy person seeing all of it and yet experiencing none of it. You can hire on to a tour bus and hope that your fellow travelers are as convivial as you are and that your guides know their stuff. You could buy Rick Steves’ “Ireland” and slavishly follow his every suggestion.
Two of my favorite ways to see Ireland – ways I’ll never personally attempt– are found in books.
Tony Hawks’s “Round Ireland with a Fridge” – the result of a one hundred pound bar bet, Hawks gave himself one month to hitchhike the circumference of Ireland with a small apartment fridge.
Pete McCarthy’s “McCarthy’s Bar” – a tour around Ireland that mandates stopping in every bar that bears his name. Can you imagine how many McCarthy bars there are in Ireland?
Never underestimate the value of a snoot-full of Guinness in determining your best way to see Ireland.
Pubs, stores, and restaurants in Galway:
There is a saying that came vividly into relief as Rose and I walked from Porto, Portugal, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, just before Covid struck: “Everyone walks their own Camino.”
You might also say, “Everyone discovers Ireland in their own way.”
This is ours.
The overnight flight from Dallas lands in Dublin at 10:30 a.m I am so grateful to have spent the extra bucks for Economy Extra seats, which ought to be subtitled “Normal-size seats, circa 1979.” American Airlines has cleverly convinced me to upgrade by generating a chart showing the two remaining Economy seats to be middle ones, several rows apart. The image of being boxed in by two unwashed sumo wrestlers on a world tour was too much.
Getting out of Dublin Airport is a breeze, find Zone 13 and the Eireann express bus to Galway. No sweat, really. It leaves hourly. Miss one, catch the next.
Arriving at Zone 13 with 15 minutes to spare, we cleverly claim the front bench with its bay window and 180-degree view of all that we shall see as we traverse Ireland. But …
… The window is a fabulous smear of dead bugs from previous express runs (ten or more, I’d say) so our first impressions of Ireland are filtered through a muzzy gauze of bug juice. I lack the courage to ask the harried bus driver for a stepladder and Windex, so off we go through the heart of Dublin.
A raised bridge detours us oh, so, slowly along the River Liffey – past Trinity College, past the Ha’Penny Bridge, past one or two of the Temple bars, past the Guinness brewery, past the courthouse complex, past the Irish War Memorial National Park, and many more landmarks, I’m sure.
Soon enough we reach the M4/M6 open highway to Galway and after remarking several times about how incredibly green and bucolic the scenery is, we fall asleep. Miles and miles and miles of lovely, unbroken scenery. Lovely. Unbroken. Scenery. Save for the occasional pods of sheep.
Stepping out of the Coach Station, our first impression of Galway is … slightly overcast with a hint of rain in the air. This should pass … That impression stays with us for most of our trip. It isn’t an impression after all. It is simply Western Ireland weather.
This does not deter the many optimistic sun worshipers in Eyre Square, which we cross to reach the Skeffington Arms Hotel, our base for the next two nights. John F. Kennedy was welcomed to Galway at this park on June 29, 1963. There is a monument on the spot where he was designated a freeman of Galway Borough. By November, he would be assassinated in Dallas, the city from which we just flew.
Eyre Square, Galway:
Not far away is a bronze statue of the impish-looking writer Pádraic Ó Conaire, a son of Galway much as Dublin identifies with James Joyce. He was born in Galway in 1882. He was a leader in the movement to revive Irish as a spoken and literary language.
The Skeffington Arms overlooks the park and is adjacent to The Skeff, a pub and restaurant with great sidewalk seating from which to watch the passing human parade. But that must come later.
First, we do what all travel-weary tourists must do: Stroll down the pedestrian-only High Street in the Latin Quarter to the Quay and take in all the trinket stores, buskers, jewelers, pubs, wool apparel shops, and restaurants.
Buskers on High and Quay streets, Galway:
We grab a sidewalk table at Freeny’s because it seems to be the only open table anywhere on High Street at this moment and order up two beers, one is a local dark brew that is definitely not Guinness. Buskers across the street are playing a rousing number that fits perfectly into the late-Sunday afternoon tableau. But we’ve been sitting for 24 hours and Galway pulls you up and forward.
I buy a Kevin Barry novel, “Nightboat to Tangier” at the Drury, which smells like the honest-to-god book store that it is. Mmmmm. Fresh books. I’ve wanted this one and it is kind of exciting to buy it in Barry’s native land. Such a fine writer, and now, this book, my first Irish souvenir.
I fantasize about meeting Kevin Barry, a Sligo resident and one of the country’s finest writers. We’d meet in a pub as Rose and I walk about the country. I’d say nothing. I’d keep my mouth shut as he talks and we sip pints together. This journey could end right there, me, a happy man.
An hour passes as we check out lots of earthy scented wool sweaters and caps in the Aran Islands shops – hardy sheep, raised on hardy islands, make for hardy wool sweaters. It is all so intoxicating.
Or was that the beer? No, but it occurs to us that we are starving. The lightheaded intoxication is not a sheep wool high; it is hunger. Our last meal was courtesy of American Airlines and it was – Oh, god, don’t remind me! Find me something to purge that memory and the growl in my stomach!
And there’s the answer, right near the bottom of Quay Street: McDonagh’s Seafood House, serving fish and chips to happy Galwayans since 1902. And just like that, we’re sitting in front of two plates of fresh batter-fried cod with daunting mounds of fresh Irish potato fries, and a chill Pilsner to wash it all down. Heavenly.
An hour later, strolling along the Galway Harbor waterfront, we discover that the daylight hangs in until around 10:30 p.m. And we get our first taste of the western Ireland wind. Fierce and cold. A turn at the Spanish Arch and quiet streets abound where people watch the sunset from sheltered door frames and on green grassy patches beside still waters bespeckled with swans.
At the arch, a troupe of dancers is trying to execute airless leaps and clicks of heels for a photographer. Getting them to leap and click simultaneously is tricky but the hunter is patient and the prey is pliant and somewhere in all that jumping there must be a pretty impressive photo
Circling around the Latin Quarter and again navigating toward Eyre Square, we land at a curbside table for two at the Skeff for a nightcap.
Everyone remembers their first one, don’t they? Where it happened, who you were with, how long it lasted, and the feelings you had as it was going down?
Sure you do.
Mine was at the Skeff: My first Guinness in Ireland.
I’m not going to lie to you, it was memorable. Better than I imagined.
I want to turn that nightcap into a doubleheader.
But, damn, we are tired. It is a long, long way from San Miguel de Allende to Galway but with that first sip, the travel dust, fatigue, and grime fall away, the lids grow less heavy and my heart feels like it is syncing up with the rhythms of the city.
“We’ll drink up and get some sleep after the first famous person walks by,” I say. We settle for the first famous-looking person, as we while the time applying the proper Spanish names to everything we saw. Practicing our craic and Spanish simultaneously.
I go to bed with the taste of Guinness still on my lips.
Morning comes and I can think of only one thing: How will we get to Hag’s Head, the starting point for our five days of hiking the Burren?
There’s a local bus, that I know. So, simple: 1. Find the bus depot. 2. Get tickets. 3. Get on with the day.
Two hot cups of hotel room coffee, two packets of Robert Roberts Coffee Biscuits (since 1905 but these are fresher), and we’re on our way. Not the fabled full-Irish breakfast we crave, but it’ll do. Besides, how long can it take to find the local bus depot?
In my tried and true way, we head out with only the vaguest idea of where we are going, get lost, find two wrong bus depots, get sidetracked numerous times, discover cool places, and pretty soon it is time for lunch.
Archeological dig of The Hall of the Red Earl:
On Druid Lane, we pass a clear plexiglass wall where a storefront or two ought to be. On the other side is an archeological excavation. Above it, an officious-looking building rises several stories. The excavation, we find, is The Hall of the Red Earl. The 13th-century ruins are the earliest known within the medieval walls of the original city. They were discovered in 1997 during a Customs House expansion.
The expansion was redesigned to be built over the remains.
Today, you can just stroll about the ruins on a walkway and have an invigorating chat with the onsite docent who also knows good bars for music, good places to eat, and the location of a certain historian pal in the Fisheries Watchtower who “will talk your head off” while serving up rich Gallway history. Preservation at its finest.
We skip the tower, cross the River Corrib at the Wolfe Tone Bridge and opt instead for beef stew and brown bread at the sprawling music and pub mecca, Monroe’s, where it is all Bruce Springsteen on the sound system, all day.
Monroe’s Tavern, 14 Dominick St Upper, Galway:
“The bartender picks the music,” explains the young waitress with a slight roll of her eyes. “He’s a big Springsteen fan.”
I like this place already.
Outside our bay window seats, high school kids crowd the narrow sidewalks as they stroll back to class in tribal clumps of fours and fives. They are full of innocent laughter and taunting jibes at pals across Dominick Street.
Our stroll through this part of Galway feels mystical and yet, more real than the Latin Quarter. More shops that sell second-hand clothes, tasty tart shops, coffee houses, produce stands, shops for manicures, adult videos, freshly made keys — all sprinkled between pubs.
Walking up the River Corrib and canal paths, around Nun’s Island:
Later, well-sated on Monroe’s beef stew, we follow the pathway beside the canal that defines the western edge of Nun’s Island. I don’t know where the nuns are these days, but it looks like a lovely tree-filled and canal-laced place to live in the heart of the city. At the top of the island is the handsome granite monolith, Galway Cathedral, built on the grounds of the old jail and opened to the faithful in 1965.
Galway Cathedral, also known as Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St Nicholas:
If ever an edifice was designed to encourage humble devotion and quiet awe of a higher force, this would be it. A high-soaring fortress of stone and stained glass, there is little ornate distraction to come between the congregant and her God here.
An organist and student are performing on the Trevor Crowe-built 59-stop organ in the gallery. The force of the sound from these pipes is stirring, uplifting, and exalting in the near-empty cavern.
It is enough for now. Heading back to the hotel, we pause for a while on the Salmon Weir Bridge to watch the fly fishermen upstream, just below the dam. Each is like an industrious island unto himself, lazily looping their rods back and forth before dropping flies into the black stream. And repeat. And repeat. And the sun is warm. And the breeze is cool. And the water chills the waders. And repeat.
I wonder for a moment “Who is Salmon Weir” A city founder perhaps?”
The dam that controls the water level, above the fishermen, is a salmon weir. Now you know how my academic career fared. The bridge is the oldest over the River Corrib, built in 1818. Prisoners from the Court District were transported to the county gaol, which once stood where the Galway Cathedral now rises.
Just the same, Salmon Weir shall be my nom de plume for future writings.
We do our own looping back, through the court district and again to Eyre Square and again to home.
Hardly two hours later, fresh and rested, we step out for dinner to find that a heavy misty rain has cleansed Galway’s streets and parks and trees and has changed the scent of everything to something rejuvenating and hopeful.
All the restaurants are packed on Quay and High streets and even the hotel maids and the barmen we meet smile and say the tourism trade is back in full.
A sidewalk table opens up in front of Tigh Neachtain pub at Cross and Quay and we grab it instinctively. A beer and a glass of wine before dinner, watching the festival of global humanity parade up and down Quay.
Across the street, above the Ember Firehouse, four prominent Irish writers peer from painted windows by Ciaran Dunlevy. We sip and try to suss out who they might be. Pádraic Ó Conaire, of course, lower right. And, naturally, James Joyce to the left. Upper right, surely William Butler Yeats. The gaunt and haunted fellow at left? Samuel Beckett, I’ll wager.
Sipping and sleuthing build up a serious appetite. Any of a dozen different pubs and restaurants look good for dinner but we return to McDonagh’s for more batter-fried cod and shrimp. It’s just that good. And it has been so long since we’ve had fish & chips this good.
This time we snag a table outside and Rose joins the line to place our orders.
A stout woman strolls up to our still uncleared table and plops a plastic bag on it. If I were casting a period-piece movie, she would be Randy Irish Fishmonger No. 1, all “dearie” and “sweetie,” and “gives us a euro, hey?” She picks up a half-finished plate of fries and pours them into her bag.
She nods, winks, and rolls on down the Quay.
I’m left wondering, “Is this just good Irish theatre or real life?”
Hot tips on two good pubs for live music, beyond the town center, are tempting but we must pass. Out of time and it’s time to pack.
Seen on Quay Street, Galway:
Just time left for a quick stroll around the grounds of Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church which is celebrating its 700th year and a peek in the windows of Sheridan’s the Cheesemongers to oogle its wheeled bounty. The small sign above Sheridan’s own says “Hawkins House.” Many questions, but on a Sunday night, nobody to answer them.
Some sidewalk musicians slow our walk up High Street with their plaintive songs, an evening nod to Paidric’s statue in the square, and to bed.
After one last Guinness nightcap at the Skeff.
This much we know for tomorrow: The 350 Eireann bus at 8 a.m. takes us south to the coast so we can begin hiking the Wild Atlantic Way and the Burren. Five days on the trails. We’re ready, I think.
And we think we know, now, where to pick up the bus. We think.