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I'm a forest creature. My grandmother had an apple tree in her yard and I spent large swaths of my childhood living in that tree. There was a board wedged in the y of the branches for a floor, lashed in place with baling twine. A wire basket and rope raised and lowered bringing up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a cold glass of milk. There was even a branch shaped just so that - if you're six - it can be a horse to ride on endless quests.

I am a forest creature. I bought a tiny fig tree Saturday which has been named Violet since it's a violetta fig and I'm occasionally as obvious as my mother in naming things. I love figs. Occasionally, Pink brings me a tray whenever she stumbles across them at Costco. It's a pleasant thing to come home and find your friend has used their spare key to leave a glorious pile of fruit on your kitchen table. Roland is assuredly enthused that I've decided to upgrade from a wild tangle of plants to moving trees indoors.

Violet is about a foot tall presently, but I've given her a hugely ambitious pot along the west sunroom wall and we'll see what happens. Perhaps next year I shall have figs and move on to lemon trees. Galileo kept potted trees he would move indoors for the winter. It's not such an odd occupation for a rocket scientist.

Ireland Day 10: A bit with a dog

When we first arrived, I thought it would be difficult to leave Ashford, to give up Avalon, but three days was perfect. It's wicked expensive and we enjoyed every inch of it to the hilt, but we were content to motor eastward looking for new vistas to explore. Today, we were headed halfway-ish across Ireland to Kilkenny by way of Cashel.

Because, you have to see the Rock of Cashel, which is an immense, defensive castle dominating the local region. Again, our well-used OPW cards gain us entry too late to join the guided tour and too impatient to wait for the next - except we ran smack into the one that had just left because we were far faster than the average tourist going through the reconstructed rooms and out into the courtyard.

I think I liked the countryside view nearly more than the structure itself. Almost. The exterior view is a bit spoiled by the scaffolding wrapped around the exterior of St. Cormac's chapel to support an airconditioning effort that is literally drying out the building, saving it from the immense Irish humidity that has saturated the sandstone and will, unchecked, destroy the structure.

Seat of the kings of Munster for centuries, the Rock was donated to the church in the 12th century - a canny move to keep it whole by giving it a neutral party - and a series of bishops reigned here, often serving as church patriarch and King of Munster. I don't think that neutral party bit stuck. Besides the double dipping title, you can see the bishop's palace was built to be a remarkable maze of defense, almost a keep by another name off the back of the cathedral, with switchback stairs and murder holes.

Sadly, the age of Cromwell invaded Ireland and his troops did serious damage to our Gothic age structure. I really hate the 17th century - either they were busy making tacky decor, or overreacting and deciding all ornamentation was evil idolatry and had to be destroyed. The 17th century needed thorazine.

Cashel is glorious. Go see it. Then, since the rest of the town knows they have one of the top attractions in Ireland, escape, because it's a trap. Well, I don't know because we deliberately avoided what the rows of carefully constructed storefronts, all appearing to be to be what tourists would think were quaint Irish shops full of native goods, ducked away from the horse drawn carriage tours, and didn't try the mid-day pubs.

We motored on to Kilkenny and found the town traffic awkward, and our B&B as charming as expected. Built around a wide interior lane of a courtyard, the rooms have half circle doorjams almost like hobbit holes - a square door flanked by windows. Their rescue pup, Bo, greets you with mad enthusiasm, begging for belly rubs. Blind in one eye, the adorable mutt loves her new job as official welcome wagger. Roland eventually persuade me to stop petting the dog and we wandered to the Kilkenny Castle, which is amazing even if it was not my century.

But, let's be fair; while I prefer the look of Gothic architecture, if I had the choice of the impossible to heat defensive keeps of the 12th century or the luxurious mansions of the 18th and 19th, which would be more comfortable living? Clearly, the mansions were built after cannon made castles obsolete for defense so architecture shifted to comfort.

No pictures are allowed inside the castle itself, but they've done an incredibl3 job taking a building the noble family sold the town for 50 pounds in the early 20th century back to the glory days. And I mean this thing was a rotting ruin when it was handed over. Nothing left inside but collapsed timbers and stone walls. Now, it's a glorious three story 19th century mansion again, meticulously reconstructed. Again, it's wicked gaudy and I truly think the carefully reproduced mustard gas yellow wallpaper in the library and drawing rooms probably looked much better under candles than the modern electric light. Or, maybe the 19th century also needed thorazine. The extensive grounds are open as a public park with tidy signs reminding all that football is to take place only at the far end.

We wandered the town's main drag up to the cathedral, where there was - to Roland's immense joy - a round tower we were permitted to climb. There are only few rounds towers of this type still standing in Ireland - the roundness of the base structure made them prone to collapse. You're not allowed to climb the one at Cashel which stands only because the evolution of that architecture shored up the base - but this one you can take the 16? flights of ladders for a few euros to stand high over the town. Roland does love touring from the heights.

I'm still trying to work out the story of Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, one of the many memorials in the church proper. Born in 1831 with only the rudiments or arms and legs, this did not prevent his from horse riding, fishing, shooting, drawing and writing. Married with seven children, he was a High Sherif, member of Parliament, philanthropist and father of seven children. Still trying to picture 'rudiments of arms and legs.'

We wandered downward again the long way popping into the Dominican Black Abbey. Found by William the Marshal (yes *that* Marshal) in 1225; it evolved through the centuries and was most recently overhauled in the 1970s. Gothic outside, modern inside, it was a good balance. Also, the stray courtyard cat leg me play with him until he realized I had no snacks and therefore was of no use and stalked away to chase a bird for dinner.

Dinner was a basic tourist pub, for our day had been long and our ambitions were small. We were quite content to have a simple supper while the early Irish session entertained the crowds, then make an early night of it. After all, the quick pub grub was not going to match the glory of County Cong cuisine, so why try? Friday night, our hostess advised, is not the best time to visit Kilkenny. The truly local musicians plan there during the week, then rotate to the city for the weekend crowds, so the entertainment options were slimmer than most nights.

We wandered down our courtyard lane and snuggled in to play footsie and do something we hadn't taken time to do the entire trip - read for a bit. We'd simply been busy having too much fun.

Ireland Day 9: Strangers on foreign isles.

Ooooh. Your wedding! It'll be the best day of your life!

I roll my eyes at that rote saying. When I was a fiancee, I would reply, hopefully politely enough my mother didn't pinch me under the table as I spoke to my great-aunts, We're really looking forward to it. I know it will be lovely. But, if it's the best day of my life, that would be kind of sad, as it would be all downhill from there.

I swear, the castle staff was trying to kill me with their slippers. Turn down service, they'd close the curtains, fluff the bed, turn down the covers, leave the mint on the pillow (actually truffles in a fancy box). Then, a small rug was placed just next to the bed, where your feet would hit the ground, and plastic wrapped slippers matching the fluffy robes in the bathroom were laid out waiting.

I can dress myself up and take myself anywhere, but I am a barefoot girl at heart. The lovely slippers tripped me up ever night. Literally 'slip'-'her.'

It was hard to top our anniversary day, so we didn't try. We savored. We snuggled late in bed and skipped the luxurious breakfast in favor of a lie-in and a long walk to the village of Cong. Now, we took the time to ramble the town and Abbey we'd whizzed through on wheels biking two days ago. If you're ever in Cong, stop at the Hungry Monk Cafe. Amazing fresh and local cuisine. Hover or take a couple turns around the block till a table pops open.

We did pop into "The Quiet Man" museum, a very small affair, a replica of the cottage from the movie with replica movie props and old news stories framed. A very worn out video tape loops showing you the then setting from the film and the view today. (Well, not that recent a today as I did say video tape.) A slow walk about the town and river; everything is so scenic it's hard to stop taking pictures. My favorite is the cottage just next to the river Cong on the road to the castle. It was used as the vicar's cottage in the film, and we posed just at the spot where the tandem bike was leaning from John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara to make their madcap escape from the courting chaperone, a corner draped with ivy and red roses.

Ivy means fidelity, or it did in the overly complex Victorian language of flowers tradition. Ivy and white roses were our wedding flowers and the picture frames up so the red roses look like cartoon hearts popping over our heads. Not bad for a camera braced on the bridge wall, a bridge just handy for playing Poohsticks and perhaps a bit of necking before we walked back to the castle to catch the river cruise.

Oh, and a grand and random piper. I haven't an earthly why a bagpiper in full highland kilt and sporran was by the docks piping to the ship as it cruised to the pier - Ireland, not Scotland - but it was a moment of random enchantment, swans on the lake and pipes sounding over the Loch. I grinned as we waited in the next tour line while the passengers disembarked.

Of course, we went straight for the top deck, front row, where the wind whipped off the water and across the bow chilling you enough to snuggle tight with your sweetie as the boat motored across Loch Corrib. Our once Avalon still waters were choppy today, a stiff breeze stirred up the foam. Our captain's family has been sailing these waters for decades, and he brought along a first mate - who mostly served drinks downstairs for those shivering out of the air, and an accordion player who tucked himself behind the sheltered wheelhouse, showed us his stills of being on set for "The Quiet Man" (he was an extra) and played haunting and unadorned tunes. He sang "Danny Boy" just as we docked at the island. Danny Boy goes one of two ways - it either makes you weep or sinks into overly familiar background music. I was teary and the Captain was sighing: Och, what are you doing to me, boyo? They'll listen to nothing I say now.

But, the Captain was wrong. Inchagoill - Gaelic of Isle of the Foreigner - is a layered place. You can feel the centuries lightly woven together. St. Patrick was exiled to this island, mewed up by the local druids out of the way, and the remains of his 5th century church - Teampall Phaidrig - stand today. We all know the legend, how St. Patrick converted all of Ireland, so he eventually moved on from this place but his navigator stayed, tending the small sanctuary and eventually being laid to rest under a unique gravestone in the shape of a ship's rudder. From the 5th century on, this was a place of Christian retreat. On the mainland, Cong Abbey became one of the 'universities' of renown, in the years with the Irish Saved Civilization, and study took place in the church's houses of learning, but the faithful would retreat to Inchagoill for reflection. Just down the path from St. Patrick's is a 12th century church Teampall na Neave.

You can feel the deep and dappled peace of the place, which somehow sits lightly on the visitor despite the centuries. Another turn in the path and you'll find one of the ruined cottages of the local families. There were families on the island until middle of the twentieth century. It was an isolated life, especially before motorboats, when it's a food ten mile row out to Inchagoill from the Cong dock. Eventually, all the families moved away, but The Guinnesses - owners of Ashford castle in that era - established a caretaker, a World War II vet and bachelor who enjoyed the isolation. Beloved patrons, the Guinnesses supplied him with the first wireless in the county so he wouldn't be lonely.

There's a local story that hundreds of people rowed out to the island to crowd around his tiny cottage and listen to the championship football match over that radio. And, to this day, on the feast of St. Patrick, all the locals row out to the island for mass. The last child born on the island grew up to be a priest, and even though he was posted to Australia, each year he made the long trek home to say that yearly mass at Teampall Phaidrig.

On the sail home, the Captain told us of new adventures into antiquity of Loch Corrib. Recent sounding had found Viking era ships on the bottom of the Loch, cause for much excitement. Someday, we'll have to go back and find out what was discovered. But today was enough to watch the clouds chase sky across the water as we sailed back to the castle docks. Chilled and happy, we tucked into the warm lounge and wallowed while Thomas fetched us drinks. For dinner, we tried the third of the Castle restaurants "The Dungeons" which was hilariously kitschy, a bit like a dignified medieval times in decor, but the food was spot on and the service superb.

They have live music nightly in the lounge, so after dinner we curled back up to watch the sunset and listen to the singing before drifting off to bed.

Ireland Day 8: Twenty years

We always do exactly what we're in the mood for on our anniversary - sometimes that's binge watching movies on the couch in PJs.

Today, that was a trail ride through the Irish forest (slowly; I've ridden for years but Roland has been on a horse twice and I'd rather the anniversary adventure didn't end with him broken). A kitty was waiting for us at the stable so a fluffy fix was had before we legged up. My mount, Guinness, was a bit spirited - as requested - and Roland was given a sweet tempered horse and was almost not frustrated as the guide and I spent the next hour trying to coach him into gathering his reins properly. It took about an hour to walk through the ancient forest and through the castle grounds.

After we dismounted, a little dog brought us sticks to play with and followed us all the way to the trap range. Dottie puppy belongs to the shooting instructor so, as we took turns at the clays (Browning 525 is a lovely shotgun - I might need one for Christmas - and the instructor decided we knew what we were doing about three shots in when I'd starbursted each clay), we'd feel a tap on our foot and find Dottie had dropped the stick on your boot waiting for another throw. How can you resist that springer spaniel cuteness that so reminds you of Giacomo? Ahroo. Must. Chase. All. The. Things. AHROOOOO.

The afternoon hours we spent wandering the formal gardens, a different direction than the lake path we'd taken last night, diverting along all the forest paths and watching participants in the falconry school. Eventually, we went back to the castle and lingered in the lounge for drinks. The glass topped tables show off the various guns from the castle's collection, which greatly intrigued us, like a museum where they bring you fine cocktails.

We rounded out the day in formal style, retiring upstairs to change for dinner into full black tie because if a thing is worth doing it's worth overdoing. They do require coats in the dining room, but when we strode in, Roland in a tux and I in a little black dress, most of the patrons were skating by, collared shirt and sports coat. The waiters were quite enthused by our attire and when they looked up our booking I smiled at the maitre'd and said, wistfully, Oh I do hope it's the table by the window.

Why, yes, ma'am, we love to say yes. We were seated in a cozy nook with one other table, a couple from Canada celebrating their 8th anniversary. No one believed it was our twentieth. Roland's Dorian Grey powers and my fitness efforts make us look young.

The food was amazing. I ordered the chef's tasting menu which was superb. After, our waiter followed us out into the garden to take pictures of us and we lingered out there with the moon rising over the still daylit lake. The chill eventually motivated us back to the warm lounge where there were more drinks, lovely music entertaining and the staff smoothly brought us cake, "Happy Anniversary" written around the rim in chocolate.

We were floating when we finally wandered off to bed, hand in hand.

Ireland Day 7: Finding Avalon

Mrs. Doubtfire watched us tuck in breakfast, then kissed the darlin' children goodbye and we headed out of Galway towards Cong by taking the long loop through Connomara. Before pulling out, we popped across the street for the makings of a picnic and that's when I discovered you can't buy wine in Ireland before 10am. How arbitrary.

We headed west with a random turn at Aughnanure Castle, which means "the field of yews." Here, the dining hall had literally fallen into the river one evening, a strangely similar story to the Dunluce Castle which overhangs the edge of the Antrim Coast, where on night the kitchen fell into the sea mid-banquet, tragically before the pudding could be served. The towers had been somewhat restored - at least whitewashed inside and the floors and some balconies rebuilt.

So many ruins visited, and you can still see the shape of the past dimly outlined in their remains.

A bit further east we found "The Quiet Man" bridge where strong silent American (John Wayne's character) first spotted the local Irish redhead (Maureen O'Hare's part). You'll hear a lot about that movie in this part of Ireland. The stars once commented Ireland was the true star of the film, splashed across the screen in vivid color and cinemascope definition. Of course, I made my beloved quiet man pose on the bridge with his redheaded wife. Conveniently a lorry load of tourists turned up just in time to be pressed into snapshot service.

We went the back way into Cong, approaching from the east, through wild and breathtaking country. We stopped several times simply arrested by the views. Also, occasional sheep in the road. They're herd animals, congregating in the middle of traffic to gossip and ignoring all around them. It's like a white hole, I quipped to Roland, referring to the phenomenon where a group of SCAdian knights keeps attracting another knight, then another ...

... Knights. Sheep. Hmmmm.

We arrived at Ashford Castle, accidentally drove in the back way past the helicopter parking. Well, hmmm said Roland, Helicopter parking blinking at the interesting contrast of three copters tied down looking oddly out of place against the castle vista.

The reception sat us down and sorted out our three days schedule while the bellman found a trolley for our luggage. Dinner reservations in their several restaurants, booking a horse back trip (So do you prefer English or Western? Shane cautiously asked the American. English. I far prefer English. He brightened considerably.) and some time on the shotgun range.

While they verified our room was ready and sorted the cases, we settled into the bar for drinks. Eventually someone fetched us and we settled into the St. Louis room (of course the rooms have names) with a breathtaking view of the Loch Corrib behind the castle, sherry and truffles waiting in the room, unpacked and changed into tees then called down for them to bring around a couple bikes.

(Makes me giggle. Called down to have them fetch. Ah, spoiling ourselves for our anniversary.)

(Also, the bathroom wall paper had some remarkably homo erotic cherubs capering across the classic formal pattern.)

We biked the extensive grounds then into Cong past more of "The Quiet Man" locations - we meant to stop in the monk's fishhouse, but it was, imagine, full of fisherman using it for it's original purpose. We turned past the abbey and through the forest trails getting ourselves not quite lost. After a couple hours, we turned in the bikes and tidied up for dinner at the Cottages, their medium formal restaurant, then took an endless stroll through the gardens and along the Loch. It turned glass still at sunset and looked like you could walk across the water and straight to Avalon.

We rounded out the evening with a leisurely nightcap before sinking into the fluffy bed.

Ireland Day 6: T'Will settle into shape

We slept snuggled tight in our efficient little B&B with its small bed. Perhaps less than a double? Anniversary trips are about love and togetherness, especially in an efficient and tiny room.

We wandered downstairs to Mrs Doubtfire's front room and settled into the cozy breakfast table. A trio of sisters from America joined the crowd as our hostess bustled about bringing us tea.

Roland started drinking tea overseas. How odd.

She refreshed the buffet, took our order and turned on the music which started playing "The Pirates of the Caribbean." We were impartially mothered by Mrs. Doubtfire and the sisters as we all chatted about our days' plans. We were headed to the Cliffs of Moher and our hostess rustled up pamphlets to aid our quest.

Galway to the Cliffs is a well trodden route, infested with tour buses on barely two lane roads. The day was Irish overcast with spattering rain. We impulsively stopped at a Woollen Mills where we found a couple sweaters (probably enough to make half her day's sales) and the nice lady sold me a flat cap in a proper size: I've always thought a hat is like life: It has to stretch a bit, then t'will settle into shape.

The thought made me smile as we rolled down the narrow lanes to the Cliffs parking lot. Unlike Slieve League, the walkways were smooth and wide. Buskers were scattered about - a harper on the steps (must be awful to keep that tuned in the wild winds), a tinwhistle at the turn of the path. I have a rule with street musicians - if they make you smile, you should toss a coin. If they make you stop and listen, you should toss a bill. We spent a good hour on photo safari, cliffs and vistas, birds and crashing waves and posed for endless smiling shots in the scarce sunlight.

We mixed the map with Mrs. Doubtfire's pamphlet of interesting spots and drove through the Burren which is like an alien landscape. Also, apparently cairn building is an issue here. There were signs posted in "Move not stones, build no cairns."

For no particular reason other than the building to the right looked interesting, we wound up a Concomroe Abbey, wandering through the ruins and cemetery and spattering rain. We dived for the car just before the heavens truly opened and drove onward till we diverted to a small batch chocolate shop and secured truffles for an afternoon snack, then back to Galway for shopping. Most of the time we spent in O'Maille's a sweater and woolens shop that's been in business long enough to have costumed "The Quiet Man." I bought a gorgeous hand-knit Arran Isles sweater and yarn for my favorite knitters. (It's actually hard to find yarn in Ireland as so much of it is exported.)

We lingered over a quiet dinner in an interesting maze of a restaurant - six buildings or so grown together. I think I had to go through five doors to get to the women's restroom before we wound up in a skylight lit upstairs dining room. We wandered home for by way of a pub with a final drink before curling back up in our snug little room.
It was tough leaving Shola Coach House, with the soft beds, ivy draped garden and rubber ducky in the tub. Antrim Coast is my kind of place, from the Giant's Causeway to the skerries off the coast. But we had to get from Northern Ireland to Galway, a long day's drive, and we were going to divert through Donegal County to hike Slieve League.

[Since I'm writing this retroactively, I'll give away the plot a bit and say while the Cliffs of Moher were fantastic, if I had to choose one, I'd choose Slieve League, taller, wilder and more breathtaking.]

There's two places to start the ramble. There's the lower parking lot. If you choose to begin there, as we did, you walk about thirty minutes up the road to the upper lot, then start climbing the mountain terraced path. There's a gate blocking the road to the upper lot simply because sheep graze the Slieve, but we had to admire the enterprise preteens who'd were opening the gate and filling their lunchbox (old fashioned metal clasp type) with Whatever you'd like to pay.

The clouds parted and we had sunshine just as we reached the upper lot.

The sheep coexisted with the tourists in laconic indifference, shuffling off whenever one of us got too close.

Roland: Look, a sheep in the middle of the road.
Me: That one we shall call Cuan; the small lamb that it's leading astray we shall call Benjamin.

It was hard to leave, but we did have to get to Galway, and the rain descended just as we did, pelting onto the windshield just as we started the car and turned south and east again, away from the wild west county and towards the second largest city in the Republic.

This B&B was utilatrian and a bit dated; but it had location three minutes from the tourist hub of Galway, it had (sort of) off street parking. Our charming hostess - who was much like Mrs. Doubtfire with a brunette rinse and insisted we were Darlin' children because she has children that are older - explained the historic laws forbid them from changing the sizes of the room. The decor was more dorm room than ducky luxury, but it was all comfortable and quite cleverly arranged to make the most of the space. (Ah, yes; me husband did that himself. Designed and built it, he did.)

We arrived too late for anything but dinner and pubbing. Roland agreed we could go to McDonagh's for fish and chips.

I love fish and chips. When Long John Silver's - with their mass produced fried seafood - arrived in my hometown, it was sophistication embodied. Fish came in a shape not the McDonald's patty. And there was *vinegar* for the fries. I'd only seen that once before, at the Ohio State fair, oh wonderful and exotic malt vinegar.

These days I severely limit the deeply fried food consumption and I promised myself I would not eat fish'n'chips every night in Ireland. I would save it for the truly perfect chipperies and this was indeed it.

Roland shares neither my fondness for fish nor vinegar, but was content enough with a bit of fried chicken and chips with salt. Marriage is about compromise.

We strolled Galway - Window shopping and ungifts were procured, then we settled into a pub for a traditional session.

Several observations:
I pass for Irish - until I talk.
I'm apparently quite good at hawking seats through the ebb and flow of traffic.
I like the pay-as-you-go, no need to run a tab. Much easier for the casual strolling in and out.
I like vocal music better than all instrumental, or at least a mix skewed towards vocal. But here at traditional session meant 97% instrumental. Then, once, a lady rose to sing and the bartenders pounded on the rail yelling for silence so she could be heard. I leaned over to Roland and whispered: I agree with Cuan. If you cannot command the attention of the hall, you don't deserve the attention of the hall. Her song was wispy and difficult to hear even in the forced quiet.

Also, I cannot build a tower out of Guinness drink coasters - though I tried.

We tried all their whiskies we hadn't yet (not a huge selection), watched them build Guinness properly (a skill I'd learned to appreciate by now), chatted with many of the locals for an hour or so before wandering home. We had a quick stop in a second pub, but it was dead quiet and we were tired so we went back to Mrs. Doubtfire's and tucked ourselves into bed.
Roland: Well, I didn't get my ass grabbed at the pub tonight.
Me: I just wanted to ask where she bought those tights. And I didn't get assaulted by a guy with striped wrapping paper.

Let's back up.

Shola House is achingly restful. We had to set an alarm to be up for breakfast at 9 am. Forget worrying about mermaids stealing my husband; our hostess, Sharon, made Roland pancakes. That man is a sucker for pancakes. I had a full Irish breakfast of sausage, pudding, fried egg, potato cakes and bacon. The bacon is much more like country ham; the sausage is clear. I know that's an odd thing to say, but it tastes like pork, delicately spiced and not greasy, no filler. They save that for the pudding, which is much more like an American sausage patty.

I didn't bother eating until 2pm after all that and then only a snack bar after coming up the Causeway.

But, let's back up.

First, we went to Bushmills, the oldest licensed distillery in the world, granted license by King James in 1608. The tour was lovely - the guide well trained, but she clearly had a script. She kept mixing up the terms 'marry' and 'blending.' Trust me, as both a whisky geek connoisseur and an old, married woman, those are very different things. Happily, the barman at the end answered all our questions once I convinced him to stop treating me like I needed the term 'malt' defined.

It was bucketing and I was immensely grateful that, as I'd stood in REI last week considering two different jackets, I settled on the 'waterproof' not 'water resistant.' I looked like an ad for either Thompsons water seal or REI with the water beaded and shedding off my coat.

We made it to Giant's Causeway by noon, which is one of the coolest and eeriest things I've ever seen. Naturally formed columns of hexagonal stone of all types, all the same size, form a mad hopscotch board partway between Northern Ireland and Scotland's isle of Islay. Legend says that Finn MacCool built the causeway, caber tossing stones into the sea to form a bridge so he could attack the angry Scottish giant on the far shore. When he made it across, he realized the giant was 10 times his size and ran home where he dressed as a baby. The giant, seeing how huge the children of Ireland were, cowered away in fear and smashed the causeway bridge to keep the adult giants of Ireland from coming after him so now only the Irish end of the bridge remains.

Or maybe lava cooled and fractured into columns. Believe what you want. It's insanely, eerily beautiful.

We rambled all over the rock for two hours and nixed the longer hike because I was damp and Roland was getting soaked. (Water resistant pullover not the same as waterproof jacket.) ALso, I was tired from being up too late so we went back to our B&B for some quality time with dry socks, the soaking tub, teapot and rubber duckie. I had a long nap and a good workout before our host dropped us off in town for dinner at Jackman's and Pye. After a pile of local seafood, we wandered down to the Harbour Pub (#1 pub in Northern Ireland) which I give a thumbs up for the sign "No WiFi. Talk to Each Other." except it was so crowded you literally couldn't move, couldn't approach the bar and couldn't start a conversation with anyone. We wandered back up the street to the Kiwi bar - a local craft brewery - and had a lovely time chatting with the locals.

A remarkably drunk Irish man walked over and popped Roland on the shoulder with a roll of stripped wrapping paper he was carrying. It was either wrapping paper or the largest hard candy I've ever seen and the paper idea makes me much more comfortable than strange drunk men asking Roland if he wants to hold their candy.

We meet several of the Bushmills distillery crew. Under lies told to women in bars, one stillman tried to convince me he was the master distiller; however, I knew far too much. I think it was the intricate question about racking whisky and knowledge of the Jim Bean tornado tragedy that convinced them to wave off. It did, however, get the attention of the senior Bushmills rep for Europe, who remembered my name immediately (same as his ex-wife's) and is fascinated by the free tee shirt bribe Kentucky Bourbon uses to get tourist to hit all the distilleries.

Then, I slid a stool over to a shared table and this lovely blond smacked me on the bum to get my attention, which is how she learned I was from American and how I learned where to buy the fantastic tights she was wearing and that she was engaged to the band's lead guitarist; she introduced me to her former babysitter/drummer's girlfriend who shares a love of Johnny Cash and Glenn Miller. It was like an episode from Brigit Jones's diary, especially the bit where they refused to believe I'd been married twenty years. Are you fucking kidding me? What, are you from Utah? yells the blonde and I nearly fell off my stool laughing at the obscure Mormon joke.

And Roland shakes his head because I can talk to anyone.

Ireland Day 3: Climb against the slime

Even when we're on vacation, we think of our friends often - who would be amused by what. This week, we've been thinking a lot about Rich and Genie who are headed once more into the breach with complications from the odd and evil ooze that invades Rich. We hates it, we do. There's green everywhere in Ireland, and much moss and, well, slime, so we keep taking pictures to send Rich and Genie, hoping they'll provide ten seconds of distraction from the awful and illness.

I took a run from the B&B, around the castle barbican and down the riverwalk to the old cathedral ruins, then back again, stopping to catch my breath and pet the donkeys a last time before packing up. After a last delicious breakfast, we left Trim today. ; in fact, we left Ireland for Northern Ireland - I mean the U.K. - taking the scenic route up the coast from Belfast and into the mountains. Roland plotted out a stop at Glenariffe (genius!) where I put on two jackets and Roland's warm wool hat.

Me: What a great suggestion it was to bring the warm ski hats. I wish I'd listened to myself.
Roland, who did listen to me (marriage points!) and did pack his. Do you want mine?
Me: No, I couldn't. You need it.
Roland rolls his eyes and throws me the hat, because I'm much colder and more pitiful about it at 100 pounds lighter.

We went for a couple mile hike along the waterfall trail and I was grateful for the weekly sets of evil squats and awful lunges and we went down, down, down the glen, played Poohsticks along the bridges (left with the score tired - again, best way to run a marriage) and taking endless pictures of the world drenched in green and punctuated with wildflowers. I froze on the way down and sweated through my layers on the way up, took endless pictures of slime things hoping to amuse Genie and Rich and had a marvelous time.

We left the forest and drove back to the coast road, through sheep and fauna and miles of pink bike sculptures (Italian road race theme) stopping at Dunluce Castle which we thought would take a quick thirty minutes but was an enjoyable hour plus where I again froze to death despite two jackets while the native Irish wandered about in short sleeves enjoying their summer. I firmly said no to climbing 150' cliff trail down to the cave of the mermaid, so Roland, after a three second pout, piled back into the car and went to find our B&B at Portrush.

We're in the Buttercup room, Roland said, having been the one that booked this particular hotel when we spent a long Saturday planning this trip.
I blink. On purpose?

Yes, on purpose. The Buttercup room has a soaking tub, perfect down to the tiny rubber duckie lurking on the rim and perfect after all that climbing up and down today. Shola guest house was just named the best B&B in Northern Ireland, and I've only been here a few hours, but I'll go with that. The host and hostess are charming, organized and completely relaxed. Sharon brewed us two pots of tea to take the edge off our chill and chatted with us over a plate of her aunt's recipe for shortbread and this lovely Bushmill's cake. Dave offered us a ride into town in case we wanted to spend all night at the pub drinking and get a taxi home at our convenience. We declined, because I wanted quality time with that champagne Sharon had left chilling in our room and the soaking tub.

I always thought skerry was a word Neil Gaiman made up for "A Game of You," [Sandman novels. If you don't know them, round out your education immediately.] but there they were, a string of skerries out the window of Bistro 55 North as we ended our day with a credible dinner and a pint of Magner's Irish cider.

[What it is with Irish and the no vegetables on the menu? Honestly, you can hardly get a salad or vegetables with a meal. Potatoes, do not count. The sugar snap peas I procured at the grocery yesterday for snacking came from Zimbabwe.]

Must dash; the squeak of the rubber duckie calls.

Ireland Day 2: Antennae down!

West of Trim is the Valley of Boyne, rife with the passage tombs built by Neolithic man. Older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids, built before man invented the wheel, the engineering is incredible sophisticated. The passages are carefully aligned with either the solstices or equinoxes. Like cathedrals, they took generations to build. The central chambers were built first and the tomb raised around the interior basin stones.

You start at the visitors center and take a bus along the narrow Irish roads to the sites where a guide meets you and keeps you entertained and out of trouble. While the farm girl is looking at flora and fluffy sheep, the comm engineer sitting next to her is distressed by the broken antenna, a ten foot mast sloped downward at a 45 degree angle. He may look pained and tug on your arm, pointing alarmed and muttering Antenna down! Antenna down!

That's also what he says to me when my weird space alien tendencies are showing and he'd like me to curb my nutty tendencies, so I was, initially, a bit confused. Marriage is like having your own language.

It's quite jarring to walk up to Knowth, as the weight of the age of the place settles on you - realize that the guide has to yell over the weedwacker the staff are using to trim down the green green grass of Erin. Knowth is blocked. You can walk a bit of the way into a room built by 20th century archaeologists during excavation, but the neolithic passages are barred from visitors thanks to the medieval Christians, who settled the site and dug their way into the tombs, causing instability on the east side and blocking the west passage entirely by trying and failing to remove one of the ceremonial basins from the central chamber, wedging it immobile in the passage.

Did I mention they're quite sure the basins were put in place first and the chambers raised around it?

The bus loops us back to the visitor's center to swap to a Newgrange tour group, giving us two more opportunities to pass the beleagured antenna and for Roland to whisper Antennae down!

Newgrange is smaller yet more imposing. The front retaining wall of sparkling white quartz was rebuilt per one archaeologist's vision. I don't know if he was right, but it is gorgeous. They forbid pictures in the interior, but you do get to enter the central chamber and they do a lovely job of herding tourists so the clueless tall men don't block short people's view, so everyone can see all angles. Then, they turn off the lights and simulate winter solstice.

I can see why people enter the solstice lottery in the thousands, hoping to be one of the fifty people chosen to stand in the tomb for the 17 minutes light illuminates the inner chamber in the five days around the shortest day of the year.

The vaulted ceiling holds 200,000 tons of earth. Again, built before man invented the wheel, and has stood for over 5000 years without maintenance.

Like Stonehenge, the materials came from fifty or more miles away, floated down rivers and drug along log rollers. The effort to build such places is staggering, and what would inspire neolithic man to put all that work into a house for the dead? A place of ritual? (Or, as our guide said When archaeologists don't know what to say they say 'Probably used for rituals')

We tried to stop at Monthmeith Abbey, but it was closed until next month, so we went on to Tara, which I was almost entirely wrong about.

Too many years of fantasy novels left me expecting the Hill of Tara, the place of the Ard Righ, the High King of all Ireland, to be a settlement, but they've found no evidence of habitation. So much for all the novels describing elaborate hill forts at Tara. In story and records, it is a place of ritual. The five ancient roads of Ireland meet at the foot of the 'banqueting hall', which is theorized as a ceremonial road, where the nobility of Ireland road up the hill, smack into the raths (walls) which enclosed the interior of the Hill. Then, the procession circled widdershins around the walls, eventually entering the opening just before the mound of hostages (another passage tomb) and proceeding on to the mound of the king where the Lia Fáil or Stone of Destiny currently stands. Legend has it if you were the rightful High King of all Ireland, the Coronation stone would cry out at your touch.

It didn't say anything for me, so I suppose I have to go home eventually. Just as well. Ireland would be a mess to run.

We returned to Trim and had a lovely dinner at Franzini's (good food; nothing particularly Irish but the waiters. Certainly not the Jackson Pollack like sperm on the ceiling decor) before wandering up to James Griffin's pub where we snuggled down on a bench and listened to a very chill traditional Irish session - well, perhaps traditional. They did play John Denver's "Country Roads." Roland discovered another good Irish whisky - Middleton, and I discovered White Russian's made with Guiness instead of cream is fantastic.

There was still light in the sky - welcome to summer in the north latitudes - when we wandered home before midnight.