Monday, August 18, 2014

Final Reflection

Now a few days removed from the Irish Adventure, I look back on the experience with a great sense of satisfaction.

In my initial blog post, I set a general rule that I must say "yes" to all new experiences and I believe I followed through.  The hurling experience and mountain climb come to mind as good examples of this.  I also predicted that traveling alone would undoubtedly lead to meeting new people and finding myself in unique situations, and I am more than satisfied with the way things worked out in this category as well.

Further, I gave myself a top five things I was looking forward to experiencing:

1.  Culture
2.  Family History
3.  Physical Beauty
4.  Surprises
5.  Pubs and Live Music

As I consider my experiences and compare them to that list, I'm confident that I got more than what I bargained for in each category.  Especially when it comes to the surprises.  Almost this entire trip was a surprise, which drives my satisfaction.

While the top five listed above are important and I'm happy with the way each of them were addressed,  I've concluded that the goals and objectives for this trip can be summed up more succinctly.  I'm not sure if it is a coincidence that the Irish seem to be the only culture that has a word for this, but as I look back on the adventure, I was constantly seeking a good "craic".  I've mentioned this word before, but in general terms, craic refers to a vibe, an energy, a level of fun, etc.  Irish people can often be overheard asking "what's the craic?" Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was constantly asking "where's the craic?" as I wandered the country, introducing myself to people, and continuously seeking some good craic.

So craic (pronounced "crack") is an important, overarching theme for the trip.  I also wonder if there is evidence of Irish culture on our own here in America, as we use phrases like "crack a joke", "crack a smile",  and "you crack me up".  I used to think this was some weird figure of speech, and that to make someone laugh meant to figuratively put physical cracks all over their face and bodies.  Seems to make a lot more sense to me with the Irish influence.

Similar to how I've reflected on other trips I've taken, I feel that this Irish Safari can be used as a metaphor and microcosm for life overall.  Oftentimes I was faced with a decision that would impact the rest of the trip, and often a decision to go one direction also meant a decision to NOT go the other (the Cliffs of Moher vs. Tully Cross, for instance).  There were no right or wrong decisions at these pivotal moments, rather a choice between two different futures.  Whether the choice I made turned out to be "right" or "wrong" ended up depending entirely on my attitude toward the decision.  I never made it to the Cliffs of Moher, but that Tully Cross adventure will go down in history (in my book, at least) as one of the more exciting days I've ever experienced.  

It honestly blows my mind when I think of all the generosity and hospitality that I experienced on this trip.   I met some downright wonderful people, and they each deserve a thank you (in order of appearance in this blog):

To Jenny Becker:  Thank you for providing me with companionship during those first uneasy days in Dublin, and for engaging me in a discussion of cultures.  You got my trip started in the right direction.

To Padraig Hourigan:  You were the one person on that island that I had any sort of connection with when I touched down in Dublin, and you singlehandedly provided me with experiences and connections that I otherwise would not have had (hurling, Tipperary connections, a place to stay in Dublin, etc.)

To Tina and Nina:  The unlikely Slovenian-American friendship continues, thanks to your efforts to come and join me in Dublin.  Let me know when you decide it is time for a visit to the United States, and I will roll out the red carpet to the absolute best of my abilities.  Next time I travel anywhere within range of Slovenia, I will make you aware.

To the Tralee Galvins:  Thank you for not calling the police on me when I barged into your pub on a holiday morning, declaring to be family while dripping with sweat. When combined with the following day's experience at Carrauntoohil, this two-day event is unforgettable, and is one of the most viewed stories on my blog (over 350 views!).  Don't be surprised if a wave of American Galvin's begins to converge on Gally's in the near future.

To Mary and Michael Hourigan:  I am still somewhat in disbelief when I consider how hospitable you were to me, and it makes me want to be a more hospitable person.  Much like the Tralee Galvins, please do not be surprised if other Benton descendants make the trip to Tipperary to meet you, visit Miles Grady, and drink your tea.

To the City of Limerick:  You got the best of me with that rainstorm.  I shall return for vengeance one day!

To Padraig (again!), Karen, and little Michael:  It was great to spend time with all of you, and I look forward to keeping in touch with all of you, and to watch Michael grow up and probably win the lotto a few times (that's an inside joke, sorry).

To Gerry Coyne and the entire population of Tully Cross:  Thanks for the hospitality and the memories.  I'll be telling that story for decades to come. 

To Padraig (one more time!):  Let's be in touch regarding your next trip to America.  Chicago seems like a good destination, and I'll line up more family for you to meet.

To the Cliffs of Moher, Dingle Peninsula, and other Ireland "must-sees" that I didn't get to see:  You haven't seen the last (nor the first) of Sean Timothy Galvin.  I shall return!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Post-Tully Cross and Return Home

Woke up in Tully (next town over from Tully Cross) with and unpleasant headache, but it was nothing a full Irish breakfast and stimulating interaction with yet another German couple couldn't overcome.  I biked back to Clifden with an amazing feeling of satisfaction, knowing that even if I sat in a hotel room and watched reruns of "Friends" for the final two days, the trip was now complete.

After a two-hour "sit and watch the world go by" session in Clifden, I boarded the return bus to Galway, then decided I had enough time to take a lengthy train voyage to Ballyhaunis, which is the birthplace of my great-grandmother(Bridget "Della" Judge, wife of Paddy Benton). I never bet Della Benton, as she passed away in the 1960s, but I felt it would be disrespectful to her if I didn't make the effort to see her hometown.

It was steadily raining in Ballyhaunis as I got off the train around 9:30pm, and I had a sense of urgency to find the city centre.  Much like my experience in Cork, I had no accommodation for the night and was concerned about a lack of vacancies.  The population of Ballyhaunis is about 3,000, which made the odds of finding a place much slimmer than Cork (population 120,000).

Long story short, as I walked toward town, I was picked up by a friendly young girl and her father, driven to a B&B to see if they had a vacancy, then my new friends (literally knew them for 60 seconds) waited for me to give the thumbs-up that I was all set before they drove away.  What a country.

I crashed hard that night, got up the next morning and did some marginally interesting research on Ballyhaunis.

I then boarded a train for Dublin, where I met up with Padraig for one last pint, stayed at the same hostel as I did the first few days, then got up early and flew home.

Now I head off to a "stag party" for my good friend Ben Wielechowski and need to run off.  I hereby vow to do a final reflection on the trip when I get back.  You have my word.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Indiana Jones Adventure to Tully Cross

On the Monday morning train from Dublin back west to Galway, I gave some thought to how I would spend the next few days. My flight is Thursday at 11am, meaning that the least stressful way of dealing with my departure would be to return to Dublin on Wednesday. Padraig and I have loose plans to meet up for a drink on Wednesday evening and, considering his hospitality, I would like to honor that.

With that in mind, I gave myself Monday and Tuesday for adventuring, but needed to pencil Wednesday in as a travel back to Dublin day. How to spend Monday and Tuesday? I gave myself a few options: Galway is a happening city and, to quote Padraig, "there is always something on in Galway". The Cliffs of Moher, which have eluded me since Tralee, are another possibility as tour buses leave from Galway much like they do from Limerick. Another possibility, which I hadn't given much thought to until now, was to voyage to a town called Tully Cross, where my good friend from Michigan Rory Hughes claims to have been, and believes that there is a picture of his father hanging in a pub called Paddy Coins. Rory mentioned this to me as something he would like to see me do, and even mentioned in an email to me last week. I had googled the location over a week ago, and determined that Tully Cross was located in a very remote area, was inaccessible by train, and might even be inaccessible by bus.

I arrived in Galway around 10am, got a quick lay of the land by walking around the city centre, and thought more about what to do with myself. Somehow in my wanderings, I ended up back at the train/bus station, and decided to look into how I might get to Tully Cross. I asked the woman behind the ticket counter:

"Hello, I'd like to get to Tully Cross today. Is this possible?"

She had never heard of it before, and had to look on a chart to see if a bus went there. "Hmmmm...yes there's a bus that leaves in about 45 minutes that will take you right there. It will take 50 minutes to get there."

"Great! Thank you!"

I was surprised that Tully Cross was so accessible. Now, I thought, I'd be able to get to Tully Cross, snap a picture of me with the picture of Rory's dad, take a bus back to Galway, and still have time to figure out a way to get to the ever-elusive Cliffs of Moher. 49 minutes later, I boarded the bus and went to purchase my ticket from the bus driver.
"Hello, I'm trying to get to Tully Cross," I said confidently, like I've been there before.
"Hmmmm..." the bus driver looked perplexed. "Which Tully Cross are you trying to get to? There are two, you know."
Uh oh. The possibility of two towns with the same name in the same county hadn't crossed my mind, but from what I have learned about Ireland since I've been here, this did not come as a surprise. I needed to think long and hard about this, but considering the queue (line) of travelers lining up behind me to get on the bus, I was forced again to think short and soft. It was a 50/50 shot.
"I'm going to whatever Tully Cross you're going to," I responded, and handed him my money. This drew a chuckle from passengers within earshot of the interaction, and a cautious grin from the bus driver.
"Are you sure?"
"Yep, I'm feeling lucky."
I sat down on the bus and quickly pulled out my phone to do some research. Most buses have WiFi in Ireland, but the service is hit or miss. In the ensuing minutes (and kilometers), I frantically tried to figure out where Paddy Coins was, and whether or not it was in the Tully Cross that I was speeding towards. Think of the times that you've been impatient with a slow-loading web page, and that was me. Each moment that passed, and every "page failed to load" screen that I got (son of a B!!!), may very well have resulted in me being in an increasing distance towards nowhere.
After about 15 minutes and who knows how far, I figured it out. And I was indeed going to the wrong Tully Cross. Crap. I walked up to the bus driver and informed him of my folly. With that, he brought the whole bus to a stop and quickly tried to explain how I might get a different bus back to Galway so that I could try again. The route he explained sounded complicated, and I stopped paying attention.

"Ok, I'll do just that. Thank you!"
I got off the bus and looked around, feeling surprisingly delighted with how things had unfolded. The other Tully Cross is situated right on the Galway Bay, and the scenery around me on my hour long walk back to Galway was brilliant:

As I walked back into town, I pondered why I was so happy with my predicament, and why I wasn't more frustrated with the mix-up. Although I was initially pleased that Tully Cross was so accessible, I realized a part of me wanted to have to work for it. Getting bused directly there seemed almost too easy. Then I thought about why I wasn't more disappointed with the Cliffs of Moher trip being in jeopardy, and I realized that riding in an air-conditioned bus with other tourists wearing fanny-packs and Reeboks just wasn't what I was in the mood for. Perhaps it was because I knew my Irish Adventure was drawing to a close, and perhaps it was because I had been pampered by the Hourigans in Tipperary and Dublin for the past few days. Whatever the reason, I was hungry for one more more challenge. And now I had found it. This picture of Rory's dad, however irrelevant it seemed earlier on in my trip, had now become the Holy Grail and I was Indiana Jones in a Detroit Tigers hat. I decided that I simply must get to the other Tully Cross, find Paddy Coins, meet Gerry Coin (the owner of the pub who Rory says is a great guy), and find that photograph.

At long last, I got back to the Galway bus/train station (it's about 12:45pm now), and explained my story to the woman behind the counter. She had to look up the other Tully Cross on a map.

"I'm sorry, but we don't service that area. There's no bus that goes to that Tully Cross." Great, I was hoping for this.
"How close can you get me?" She paused, almost thinking it was a ridiculous question.
"There's a bus that leaves for Clifden in about 20 minutes...and you would probably have to hire a taxi from there."

I couldn't have been more pleased with this, and there was no way in hell I was hiring a taxi (in Ireland, you don't rent things, you hire them). You ever see Indiana Jones in a taxi? I quickly decided I'd take this bus to Clifden (wherever the hell that was), and figure it out on the fly.
"Perfect. Clifden it is!"

I boarded the bus to Clifden, chose a seat by the window, and pondered how I would cover the remaining ground to Tully Cross when I got off the bus. I carefully opened my now-dry, but severely damaged map of Ireland, and was pleased to see that the County Galway section was largely readable. I could tell that the land between Clifden and Tully Cross was mountainous, and it appeared that the windy roads I'd be navigating went through a Connemara National Park. By my calculations, the distance from Clifden to Tully Cross was about 20 kilometers (that's 12.4 miles to you Americans), so if all else failed I'd be able to spend the night in Clifden, then get up at the crack of dawn and walk (maybe even run) to my destination. As the bus meandered through the lonely, mountainous region north of Galway, I snapped a few pictures of the landscape:

IMPORTANT: Before reading the next few paragraphs, please open this link in a new tab and crank the volume. It will help you to feel the energy.

As I got off the bus in Clifden, I asked the bus driver if he had any recommendations for how to get to Tully Cross. He told me about a "City Link" bus that could get me to Letterfrack, which was 15km closer to where I wanted to go. I checked the bus schedule, and determined that I would have to wait around in Clifden another four hours before that bus departed. I put that option on the call-back list, and wandered around Clifden, hoping another option would somehow find me. At some point in my wanderings, passed a bicycle rental shop and considered that option. The only problem with that was, the roads in Ireland are amazingly narrow, with two-lane roads about as wide as a single lane in the states, no shoulders, and thick hedges often on both sides of the road. My initial thought on the bicycle: Might be too dangerous (but I kinda wanted danger).

After a less than fruitful walk through the rest of town, I sat on a bench to consider my options:

1. Wait for the bus to Letterfrack, then cover the remaining 5km on foot

2. Face my fear of narrow lanes and potentially distracted drivers and rent a bicycle

3. Hitchhike (which I had heard is commonplace in Ireland, but had yet to see any hitchers on this trip)

I then asked myself, "What would Indiana Jones do in a situation like this?" While a stolen Nazi motorcycle with Sean Connery in the sidecar wasn't immediately available, I decided that renting a bicycle was the next-best option. It was late afternoon at this point, and I needed to make a move. I went into the bike shop, explained my mission to the chap behind the counter, and he helped me determine the best route to Tully Cross.

Couldn't get this....

So I got this!

My father is an avid cyclist, and has seen (and been involved in) his share of bicycle accidents and otherwise unfortunate encounters between bicycles and automobiles. His advice to me (aside from "wear a helmet") was to "own your lane". In other words, when cyclists try to get as far to the edge of the road as possible to let cars pass is when accidents happen. It is safer to ride in the center of the lane, let the cars wait behind you, and let them pass you like they would another car (when oncoming traffic is clear). So that's what I did (thanks Dad), even if it meant that cars were lining up behind me as I climbed some of the mountainous sections at a snail's pace.

I got rained on a few times, endured some tough climbs, but rolled through Letterfrack en route to Tully Cross otherwise unscathed. And my, was the scenery breathtaking:

As late afternoon became evening, I rolled into Tully Cross, briefly doubted myself (what if it really was the OTHER Tully Cross??), and saw the sign for Paddy Coyne's (not Paddy Coins, as I had initially spelled it). I had made it! Now the question was, would the picture of Rory's dad be there, and would Gerry Coyne, the man who Rory told me owns the place and would know the picture I sought, be there as well?

I got off my bike and stood outside the pub for a moment. I was covered in sweat (and rain), and I wondered what I would say when I went in there. I realized this was the exact situation I had been in in front of Gally's about a week before.

I walked inside to find a handful of locals, who all turned at looked at me. I could tell from their expressions that they could tell that I was not from around there.

"Hello, everyone." I received a less than enthusiastic greeting back from them.

"I'm thrilled to be here...I've traveled a long way to get here." Still very little response.

"I started in Dublin this morning, and I've traveled by train, bus, and now bicycle to come here and see a certain picture that I'm hoping is on one of these walls." I tried my best to smile and look them all in the eye. Finally, a young female bartender addressed me. "Really? What picture are you looking for?"

"Well, I'm not really sure. It's a picture of my good friend's father. I'm from the states, and I when I told my friend I was planning a trip to Ireland. He requested that I come to this pub to see if the picture of his father is still on the wall." Now I had her attention, and the attitudes among the locals seemed to be shifting in my favor.

"Is your friend's father living?"

"Yes. I've met a him a few times. Jim Hughes...good dude." I could tell the bartender wanted to help me, and she quickly disappeared into a back room for a moment. She reemerged with a thin, white haired fellow who introduced himself.

"Hi there, I'm Gerry Coyne." Yes! This was the guy I needed! I explained to him the story of my travels, of my friend Rory Hughes, and of the Holy Grail of a photograph that I was hoping to find.

"Rory Hughes?" He responded. "Never heard of him." Over the next few minutes, I learned that Gerry Coyne was quite the joker. He let me sit with that last statement for a few seconds, then gave me a soft punch to the shoulder. "Yes, I know Rory. But it isn't a picture of his father. It is a picture of his grandfather, and it's right over here."

Evidently, I hadn't listened to Rory very well. I had remember a few important parts of his story (name of town, name of pub, name of guy who owns it), but had missed quite a few details (an ensuing text conversation with Rory also determined that he had warned me of the two Tully Crosses. I need to work on my listening skills).

Nonetheless, I was thrilled to find the pub, find Gerry, and find my Holy Grail. I couldn't wait to take a photo of me and Gerry by the photo and send it to Rory. I made it!!

Me with Gerry Goyne. The Holy Grail is just between and above our heads.

After I told Gerry of my journey to get to his pub, including the part about the wrong Tully Cross, he told me to sit down and poured me a pint. I had so many questions for him. Who was Rory's grandfather? Was he from Tully Cross? Why had Rory asked Gerry to hang the photo?

After Gerry explained it to me, everything started to make sense. Rory's grandfather, H. William Hughes, was an Irish American who always wanted to visit Ireland, but passed away before he could ever make the trip. To honor his late grandfather, Rory had come to Tully Cross, fell in love with Paddy Coyne's, and asked Gerry to honor his grandfather by hanging the photo in his pub. That way, he could finally see Ireland. Gerry went into the back room to get some work done, and I returned to look at the photo more closely. I recognized Rory's handwriting on the photograph:

I sat back down, and allowed this new information to sink in. The Holy Grail was much holier than I had initially thought. As I began to understand what this pub and this picture meant to my friend and his family, it made sense to me why he would want me to come here, and my emotions swelled. In that moment, all the emotions I have felt throughout the trip--the generosity, hospitality, family connections, friendships, beauty of the land--everything rushed to me at once. It was overwhelming, and I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, and I knew I wouldn't be able to blink them away or put on sunglasses like I'd done a few other times earlier in the trip (it's been emotional, man). I mumbled something like "I'll be right back" to the locals, walked out of pub, sat down on a bench, and sobbed.

I hadn't had a good cry like that in a long time. I mean, I let it ALL out right there in front of Paddy Coyne's. Then, as my tear ducts ran dry, I looked up and realized this was the first time I'd seen the sun setting over the Atlantic.

Once I pulled myself together, I realized that I had a half a pint to finish back in the pub, and I still didn't have a place to sleep that night. I walked back inside to find that Gerry had already handled my accommodation for the night, setting me up with a friend of his who owned a B&B 2km down the road. I could see why Rory liked him. Gerry implored me to come back to the pub that night, telling me that he'd have live music going on, and that it would behoove me to come back. I promised him I would.

I rode my bike down the hill to the B&B, checked in, and took a shower. When I returned to the pub an hour later, the energy had picked up and the place was packed. By that point, the story of my adventurous day had circulated through the pub, and I was welcomed like some sort of a celebrity. It seemed like everyone in the pub wanted to buy me a pint, shake my hand, and hear the story first hand. I got better and better at telling the story as time went on, and when I explained to people that I had chosen to come see a photograph in this pub over the Cliffs of Moher, everyone wanted to see the picture. I was like a tour guide. Rory, you'll be pleased to know that, despite live music and some American bloke who claimed to be Indiana Jones, the picture of your grandfather was the biggest attraction in the pub that night.

I didn't pay for a single drink at Paddy Coyne's. My biggest problem was that I had a hard time keeping pace with the frequency in which locals were buying me pints. I'd only get a few sips into a Guinness before a fresh one was set down next to me. At one point, the bartender told me that there was a backlog of pints with my name on them, he didn't want them to get warm, and to just let him know when I was ready for another. It was surreal.

Mixing it up with the locals at Paddy Coyne's

At a certain point in the night, the fresh pints started to become fresh whiskeys, and I knew that was trouble. I went to the men's room, had a mirror-conversation with myself (out loud), and decided to quit while I was ahead. If I stayed any longer, the night and the next day would be shot. I told Gerry thank you for everything, but it is time for me to head down the hill and live to fight another day. He had witnessed the festival of pints that surrounded me that night, and understood.

But he didn't want me riding my bike home in the dark, and didn't want me walking my bike either. He insisted on driving me down the hill with my bike in the back of his Jeep.

Tough to make it out, but that's my bike dangling out the back of Gerry's car

What a guy!

You might expect that I crashed out as soon as I walked into my room, but I was so amazed at how the day went that I stayed up for over an hour. I was pulling up maps of the Connemara area, retracing my journey, and re-reading all the posts on this blog. Also, I drank about 4 liters of water in an effort to minimize the next morning's headache.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sunday in Dublin

I awoke Sunday morning to find the majority of my belonging still soaking wet from the previous day's disaster, and had no choice but to load it all into my still-damp rucksack (backpack) and head for the train station.  After a leisurely stroll through town, I was surprised to find the train station jam-packed with rowdy sports fans dressed in green jerseys, waving flags, and toting cases of beer under their arms.  I asked a small group of them what was going on, and they enthusiastically explained to me that it today was a national Hurling semifinal, and Limerick was playing Kilkenny later that day in Dublin.  Further, I learned that Limerick was an underdog who rarely made it this far in the playoffs, and Kilkenny was the perpetual contender with the iconic coach and multiple championships.  For my local buddies, imagine if the Lions were playing in the NFC title game vs. the Packers in Chicago, and we were all boarding a train to go to the game.  It was that kind of vibe.  As I type this, I am kicking myself for not taking any pictures of this scene.

Normally, I like to update this blog while riding on the trains.  WiFi is reliable, it's normally quiet, and I can get some quality writing and reflecting done.  Not the case on this train ride, and I didn't mind one bit.  It was a lot of fun to watch these people party and to feel the energy of their big day.  

I arrived in Dublin (sweet home, Dublin), and Padraig picked me up from the train station.  We drove to his house, where I got to meet his wife, Karen, and his two year-old son, Michael.  We got to know each other over some tea (surprise, surprise!), and Karen was more than willing to allow me usage of her washer/dryer so that I could remedy my wet/stinky clothes situation.  Looking back, this was huge.  After an hour or so of chatting, the Hurling match was about to begin and we sat down to watch.  What a fantastic sport to watch.  I was amazed at how riveted I was by the action, how I quickly aligned myself with Limerick (because of my train experience, Padraig was pulling for them, and long live the underdog!), and how I loathed those bastards from Kilkenny despite knowing almost nothing about them or their town.  In the end, Limerick lost a heartbreaker that went down to the final seconds.  

After the match, we had dinner, got to know each other a little more, and went over the highlights of this here blog.  I think they liked it. Then we took a few pictures to commemorate this visit:

Padraig, Michael, Karen, and me

Padraig and I...for some reason, I started taking a lot of "thumbs up" pics from this point on

Karen and I

In yet another act of hospitality and generosity toward me, Padraig had set me up with accommodation that night in Dublin.  As I mentioned in previous posts, he runs an international school for college students, and had a hookup on a vacant dorm-style room in the city.  He dropped me off there, introduced me to a few students, and I was set for the night.  I considered a visit to the pubs, but decided instead to get some sleep and catch the early train to Galway the next morning.  

Saturday: Limerick

Saturday morning, I packed up my things and cleaned my room to the absolute best of my ability.  Mom, you'll be proud of me:  Not only did I meticulously make my bed, I even went as far as to get a broom and dustpan and sweep the floor in an effort to make the room cleaner than how I initially found it.  After a full Irish breakfast and, per usual, consistent reminders that there was more bread, more tea, more porridge,etc.., Mary and Michael dropped me off at the Limerick train station.

I had gotten a text from Padraig saying that Sunday would be the best day for me to join him, his wife, and his two year-old son for dinner in Dublin, so Saturday would be a day to adventure while staying within range of a morning train to Dublin.

I decided that Saturday would be ideal for a day-trip to the Cliffs of Moher, a beautiful coastal area near Limerick that has been recommended to me by just about everyone who has advised me on things to see in Ireland.  There are bus tours of the area that leave from Limerick seven days per week, and I arrived at the bus stop a few minutes before the bus would leave for the day.  Seats on these bus tours are normally booked days in advance, but I arrogantly assumed that everything would work out, that I would get the very last seat on the bus, and that I would make a few lifelong friends along the way.

I got to the bus, and asked the tour guide if they had room for one more on the trip to the Cliffs of Moher.  He told me he was pretty sure the bus was full, but he would check with the driver.  As I awaited final word, I gave myself a 100% chance of getting on the bus, and honestly started to believe that some sort of external force was making sure that I always got my way.  I had no plan B.

"Sorry mate, all full for the day," the tour guide said to me.  I was stunned.  For the first time all trip, the ball had not bounced my way.  Instantly, I was humbled and forced to face the fact that I am, in fact, just some dude.  Ouch.

I didn't know what to do with myself.  I wandered through the medieval part of Limerick, snapped a few pictures, and waited for fate to intervene:

Amazingly, fate intervened a mere 30 minutes after my bus failure.  There just so happened to be an international rugby tournament beginning that day in Limerick, with teams from Fiji to San Francisco to Dublin participating.  Munster, the local team and host of the tournament, is known throughout the global rugby community for its smashmouth style of play and rabid, drunken fans.  Had I had my choice between this and the Cliffs of Moher, it honestly would have been a toss-up.  

As I arrived at the stadium to purchase my ticket, I realized that I had no accommodations for the night and that this might pose a problem if I'm watching rugby all day, probably enjoying a few pints, and with the city largely overrun by rugby enthusiasts.  Not to worry though, as a few helpful locals were more than happy to make a few phone calls on my behalf and book me a room in a hostel just south of town (a private room for cheap, no less).  Perfect.  I entered the stadium, introduced myself to the two locals sitting next to me (big Munster fans), and attempted act like I knew what was going on in the game.  It took me about three full games to finally understand the rules and strategy of rugby, but I get it now.

The local Munster fans were friendly to me, very patient with me when I asked questions regarding the rules of the game, and even started to include me on their many trips to the concession stand for pints.  I found this interesting:  A pint of Guinness at the stadium is exactly the same price as a pint of Budweiser...and people actually buy Bud like it's some sort of import!  Another noteworthy tidbit, the rugby fans I was sitting with are also into the NFL, and have their favorite teams.  One was a Cowboys fan, and another was a Jets fan for no particular reason.  Further, when they learned I was from Detroit and therefore a Lions fan, they knew enough to pity me.

After about 5 hours of rugby, I decided I had had enough, and I should probably figure out where my hostel was.  It had been raining on and off all day, and I felt it was a good idea to get moving before any nasty weather blew into town.  Turns out, I had grossly underestimated how long it would take me to get where I was going.  I ended up walking through an industrial park just in time for a downpour, the likes of which I hadn't seen since Belfast.  This was, without a doubt, the low point of the trip for me.  I had no map, no Wifi, little idea of where I was going, and little chance of encountering any other pedestrians who might be able to guide me to my destination.  Further, the only shelter I could find was under an occasional tree with foliage gaps as porous as the Detroit Lions secondary (that's two Lions jabs in one blog post for those scoring at home).  Finally, I encountered a randomly-placed pub and figured that the travel gods were telling me it was time to eat and have a pint.  I walked in, drew more than a few stares, apologized to the wait staff for how wet I was, and asked if it was ok for me to sit down.  It was.

While I learned a hands-on lesson between "waterproof" and "water-resistant" pants and jackets last week in Belfast, I further learned that my North Face backpack was merely water-resistant as well.  All my worldly possessions were completely soaked--including (but not limited to) my passport, the very Chromebook I'm typing on right now (still works!) and my maps of Ireland and various cities.

I figured out where my hostel was, got into my little private dorm room, and proceeded to empty my backpack and hang clothes and things all over the place.  A few hours later, I was satisfied with the condition of my pants and one of my shirts, put them on, and hit the Limerick pubs for a few hours before calling it a night.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Friday: One More Day in Tipperary

When I first met Mary and Michael (on Wednesday afternoon in Limerick), there was no discussion of how long I'd be staying with them.  From my point of view, these were distant relatives who had at least a small interest in meeting me.  I wasn't sure how we'd get along, what we would have in common, or how long it would take for me to wear out my welcome.  I figured I'd get at least one night with them, snap a few pictures, and in the end, I'd be able to tell my grandmother that I'd met her cousin in Ireland.

From Mary's point of view (she told me all this Thursday night), the sentiment was similar.  She felt that it was worth meeting me, but she was uncertain how she would entertain this American whipper-snapper on her Tipperary farm.  Her son, Padraig, had met me only for one hour, so she didn't have much of a recommendation on my character.  Further, I could have ended up being a jerk or, as she put it, "a raging drug-addict".

As things unfolded Wednesday night with the singalong, we mutually decided that we would do some Birdhill explorations on Thursday, and that me staying the night Thursday night was a good idea.  As we sat and had our midnight tea (and my second dinner) Thursday night, Mary requested that I stay one more night and told me she would really miss me when I was gone.  While I still had quite a bit of adventuring to do, more of Ireland to see, and a decreasing amount of time to do it, I was touched by her kindness and appreciation of our relationship.  I couldn't possibly say no.

Friday ended up being a day of rest, reading in the back while watching the cows graze, consistent WiFi access, catching up on the Tigers (this bullpen...), and washing my socks (probably should have brought more than two pair).  Mary and Michael had a few errands to run after breakfast, and left me alone on the farm for about two hours.  Ever concerned about me getting hungry, here is a picture of how Mary left the kitchen table for me while she was out:

Yes, that is today's local paper so I can read while I eat

When they returned home, I helped Mary hang new curtains in her bedroom (the VERY least I could do to show my appreciation) while Michael built a fire in the sitting room (old school-style with a real fireplace and wood from their farm).  We looked at old photo albums, drank a few drops, and marveled at how well we all got along.  The mood was bittersweet, as we would part ways indefinitely in the morning.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Thursday/Friday: More Good Fortune in Tipperary

Thursday began much how Wednesday ended, with tea and great concern whether I've had enough to eat.  Mary made me porridge (yes, porridge is not just a Goldilocks thing) and a host of other Irish breakfast items.  The plan for the day was to take a drive to Birdhill (a couple towns over), which is where my great-grandfather lived from from about 1892 until he emigrated to America around 1910.  My great-grandfather (Paddy Benton) was also Michael's uncle, so he had a decent idea of where to go.

Although the scenery in Birdhill is nothing short of spectacular, our attempts to find Benton-related landmarks were coming up empty.  We saw a school that he may have attended, but it had obviously been redone in the past few years, and I wasn't feeling much history.  Oh well.  I sat in the back of the car, took some pictures, and was appreciative of their efforts to show me the land.  We drove down a few back country roads, got a little lost, and ended up stopping in front of a house that Michael thought he recognized.  After a minute, a younger man (and by younger, I mean about 70 years old) by the name of Miles Grady came out and recognized Mary and Michael.  As luck would have it (and damn was it good luck), this guy knew of the Bentons, knew where the remains of their house was (no one has lived there for 70 years), and was willing to take me on a tour later that night.  BOOM!  More than I bargained for!

Mary, Michael and I went out for "a bit of dinner" (translation: dinner), went home for a nap (we all napped), and returned to Miles Grady's place (I kept wanting to call him Giles Corey...still do).

A bit of dinner before nap time

Me and my tour guide (I think I was talking while this pic was taken)

After a nice little stroll through an area where cattle were grazing (there's got to be a name for this that I just can't think of right now), we arrived at my great-grandfather's old house.  Here's a brief interview with me and Miles:

And I got some photos at the house as well:

What's left of the Benton's "sitting room"

This was main entrance

In short, I learned a great deal about my great-grandfather and where he lived.  While I understand that he made the move to America (Chicago, to be exact) due largely to a lack of opportunity in Ireland, man did he leave some magnificent views behind:

Newport, Tipperary

Birdhill, Tipperary (on the Benton's former land)

At this point, the sun was setting and I told Miles we should hurry back to the house.  I didn't want to make Mary drive home in the dark, and figured she would appreciate my thoughtfulness.  Turns out I didn't learn my lesson from the previous night.  As I entered Miles' house, all excited about my new discovery, I was promptly offered a drop of whiskey...which, of course, I accepted.  To refuse would have been blatantly rude.  

Miles, me, and Micheal.  Some say that whiskey makes you red in the face...

We returned to Newport where I was encouraged (darn near forced) to eat another dinner, have a spot of tea (probably 4 cups), and called it a night.  

Wednesday: Cork into Tipperary

I wasn't particularly worried about lodging when I got to Cork, but I had a sense of urgency as I set out to find a place to stay.  After a full week of hostel living, I had even mentally justified spending a little extra for a private room at a bed and breakfast.  I entered the first B&B I found as I exited the Cork train station, turned on the charm (at least I think I did), and spoke to the lady behind the counter.  As friendly as she was, she had no vacancies and seemed uncertain whether or not I'd be able to find a place to stay at this hour.

Thankfully, she took pity on me and started making phone calls to other B&Bs on my behalf.  While I could tell she was speaking English to those she phoned, I had a difficult time understanding the one-sided Irish phone conversation.  I chose instead to focus on her body language, which continuously suggested "no dice" for ol' SG.  At this point, I contemplated what my "worst case scenario" was, and decided I would sleep in the train station as a last resort.  The lady said she would make one more phone call to a friend of hers who owned a B&B, but had recently stopped advertising and wasn't really in business anymore.  Wouldn't you know, the friend was awake and open to the idea of helping a desperate American.  I jogged down the street and checked in.

Helen had owned this B&B with her husband, Tom, for decades.  While they were no longer in business, she was more than willing to accommodate me for the night.  I was beyond starving as we made small talk for a while, but it would have been rude of me to cut her off and head out.  Although I made it clear that I had no intention of taking a bath, she took an extraordinary amount of time to explain how the bath worked and dismissed my repeated (although courteous) inquiries as to her WiFi password.  I told her my intention was to get up early, see as much of Cork as I could see in a few hours, then hop on the 12:00pm train to Limerick station, where I would meet up with Padraig's parents (Michael and Mary Hourigan).

"Ok then," Helen said.  "What time will you have breakfast?"
"Hmmm...I'm a bit of an early bird.  How about 7am?"
She laughed at this, telling me 7am was far too early for her.  When I suggested 8am, she shook her head.  "I'll have Tom make you breakfast at 9.  That work for ya?"  At this point, I realized that a 9am breakfast was the plan all along, and was not up for negotiation.  Although this would no doubt whittle my envisioned four hours of seeing Cork down to, at most, two, I didn't see any other way to play it.
"9am sounds great, Helen. Thank you."

I considered a jogging tour of Cork before breakfast, but I woke up sore as hell from the mountain climb and decided to sleep until breakfast.  Contrary to the lackluster breakfasts I had at the hostels, Tom cooked me up a three-course Irish breakfast, entertained me with stories the whole time, and kept my coffee cup full.  My two-hour tour of Cork was down to about 30 minutes.  On my way out the door, I introduced Tom and Helen to the concept of a "selfie":

First-ever selfie for Helen and Tom

As I walked out the door, I checked the time:  11:35.  I was coordinating with Michael (age 92) and Mary (age 78) through text messages with Padraig (busy at work) that I could only access with WiFi, which meant that missing the 12:00pm train to Limerick would be disastrous.  I scrambled up a hill to get a view of the city, asked a local to snap my picture (below), and rushed to the train (in flip-flops).

Hurry up and take it!

Once again, luck was on my side as I made it to the train in the nick of time.  I got to Limerick, took a taxi to the University of Limerick (per Padraig's directions), and looked around for two people I've never met before.  Turns out, they found me as Padraig had instructed them to look for "a tall American fella with a backpack getting out of a taxi".  We sat down to have tea at a nearby restaurant, and Mary insisted I order a meal off of the menu there.  I tried to explain Tom's gigantic breakfast to her, but she wasn't listening, choosing instead to order a BLT and chips for me.  We got to know each other for about an hour, and during that time I was encouraged to keep eating 20 times, offered more tea about 50 times, and constantly reminded that my chips would get cold if I didn't start on them.  Any onlookers fortunate enough to witness this would have seen a man trying to eat quickly, chug tea, make conversation, and mind his manners all at the same time.  I think I did pretty well.  

On the way to Michael and Mary's farm in Newport, Tipperary, Mary insisted we stop off at the market to get more food for me in case I got hungry later.  We then proceeded to the farm and I got to witness them bringing in the cattle:

Shortly after this, we had tea, then dinner (with tea), then had some after-dinner tea.  I figured that, given the age of my host and hostess, we would make Wednesday an early night.  Not the case.  I wasn't sure what I was in store for as Mary poured us each a "drop of whiskey" (translation: glass of whiskey), then proceeded to pop in an audio cassette of Michael singing Irish songs in 1981, and handed me a booklet with the lyrics to all the songs (about 20 of them). As you may have guessed, I was in store for a good old Irish singalong!  I couldn't believe how much fun it was, and I learned a great deal of Irish history from the songs. 20-some songs and a few drops later, we went to bed well after midnight.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Tuesday: Carrauntoohill and Back on the Train

After a few pints with my new German friends on Monday night, we returned to the hostel to get some sleep.  Somehow in all the melee of meeting family, getting excited, hugging, and driving around with Tim, a plan was made to climb to the top of Carrauntoohill, the tallest peak in all of Ireland.  Honestly, I don't recall agreeing to this, or weighing the options of whether or not it was a good somehow just became the plan and I never questioned it.  Well, I didn't question it until halfway up the mountain, that is (more on this in a minute).

In the short time I got to know Tim Galvin on Monday, I learned quite a bit about him and his hobbies.  Great dude.  Turns out, his father was a relatively famous footballer in County Kerry (known as "Gally" in the football world, which is where the pub gets its name), and so was Tim.  Further, he has skydived over 700 times, has climbed mountains all over the world (planning on Everest in 2016), and even raced a greyhound for charity back in the 90s  (victory!).  He told me that Carrauntoohill was just over 1,000 meters tall, so I figured out I was in for a decent hike to the top.  If I learned nothing else on Tuesday, it was that there is a big difference between a hike and a climb.

Tim picked me up promptly at 7am, providing me with coffee, water, bananas, energy bars, and even a delicious chicken wrap sandwich for after the climb.  He had been up since 5am getting things ready.  I marveled at his hospitality, and the fact that I was ready to make this climb on an empty stomach and figure it out nourishment later.  We drove about an hour to the trail head, steadily chatting away about our respective lives, ambitions, and families.  Our familial link was still unproven, but damn did we have our similarities.

After about 800 meters of a leisurely incline, we arrived at Carrauntoohill's rocky slope and I realized this was not going to be a walk in the park.  Tim was moving quickly, and I hustled to keep up with him.  He paused every now and again to take my picture and tell me stories about the history of the area (British brutality in the early 1900s, an American WWII plane that crashed into the side of the mountain--possibly assembled in Wayne, MI, etc.).  I listened, hoping that he would keep talking so I could catch my breath.  In all, Tim talked 95% of the time to my 5%.

The rain picked up a bit, and we got to a point where the HIKE became a CLIMB.  "Up this way, plenty of grips here." Tim said, casually.  Grips?  What had I signed up for?  I have seen rock climbing on TV and in pictures before, but I've never experienced it.  Not even at those indoor facilities in American suburbia.

"Wait, you mean I have to scale this rock wall?"

The first wall wasn't that tall, and was actually kind of fun.  Had I fallen off, I would have probably ended up with some scrapes, bruises, and a funny story to tell.  Not so bad.  We continued up and found ourselves at a point where three distinct routes to the top appeared before us:

Tim: Ok Sean, there are three ways to go from here.  I wouldn't want to go to the left without climbing equipment, and the middle route is probably to slippery because of the rain.  We'll go to the right here, it's called O'Shea's Gully.
Me: Why do you call it that?
Tim (nonchalantly):  Because a man named O'Shea took this route in 1968 and slipped and fell to his death. Same year I was born.

With that, Tim chuckled and started up O'Shea's Gully.  At this point, I decided I had three options:
1.  Tell Tim thanks, but no thanks and head back down to safety
2.  Yell to Tim and ask him how many people have perished on this route since 1968 (less than five and I'd feel better)
3.  Say nothing, follow along, and hope for the best

I needed to think long and hard about this, but Tim was moving quickly and the rain was coming down.  So, after thinking short and soft, I chose option three.  

This is the look of a man smiling through fear.

At some point along the way it crossed my mind that, if there were ever an opportune time for someone to kill me and get away with it, it was Tim and it was now.  The only mention I made of climbing a mountain was to the Germans the previous night, I didn't know where I was going, and they probably didn't understand me anyway.  Fortunately, Tim either never thought of it himself, or chose to let the opportunity pass.  As you may have guessed, I survived the ascent up O'Shea's Gulley and to the top of Carrauntoohill.  Great experience, great views, and a great guy Tim is for taking the time to guide me all the way up.  

New cousins on a mountaintop

Above the clouds atop Carrauntoohill

As I believe is common with most mountains, the descent is far less strenuous than the ascent.  This allowed Tim and I to talk (with a ratio approaching 50/50), crack jokes, and take pictures.  We stopped at an area known as Heaven's Gate, and took in a view of the countryside:

Back on the ground, Tim had to hustle off to work at Gally's, and was kind enough to drop me back in town so that I could plan my next move.  I had gotten a text from Padraig, informing me that his parents (my grandmother's first cousin and his wife) would welcome me at their home in Co. Tipperary the following afternoon, and I needed to figure out transportation.  

Before I left Tralee, Tim and I went to the church in an effort to analyze baptism records and prove whether or not we were related.  The lady at the church knew Tim well (as does everyone in Tralee), and informed him that she could not allow us open access to the records room.  The reason, she explained, was that too many people (mostly Americans) had physically cut records right out of the pages of the books in there, and people needed to make supervised appointments.  Damn Americans.  Tim made an appointment to do his own research a few days later, and told me he'd let me know what he found out.

Tim gave me a lift to the train station, bought me a coffee, and bade me farewell.  It would have been premature to head to Tipperary, so I decided to squeeze in a quick visit to Cork, which is located on the southern shore of Ireland.

As I rode the train toward Cork, I found myself wondering why Tim had been so good to me.  Sure, we have the same last name and a legitimate chance of being related, but I was still just some dude who walked into his bar on a holiday and started asking questions.  Based on that, he adjusted his whole schedule to take me to a mountaintop, feed me, look after me the whole way, and drive me around to places I needed to go. 

I arrived in Cork at about 10pm with no accommodations, no food in my stomach, and no worries whatsoever.  My plan was to find a place to stay, find something to eat, get some sleep, and tour Cork for a few hours in the morning before meeting the other side of my Irish family.  

Oh yeah, and I was covered in mud from the hike.  This drew a few stares at the train station.