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All the Places We Cannot See (Yet)

Doolin, County Clare
Words and photos by Peter Lawler
Published on August 21, 2020

Doolin, County Clare

Last summer, I took a trip to ‘the lonesome West’ of Ireland, as the playwright Martin McDonagh would call it. In these articles, I look back, which seems like an optimistic and roundabout way of looking forward to a time when we are free to travel again very soon.

Last summer, I took a trip to ‘the lonesome West’ of Ireland, as the playwright Martin McDonagh would call it. In these articles, I look back, which seems like an optimistic and roundabout way of looking forward to a time when we are free to travel again very soon.

‘Doolin? I don’t know now. It’s a bit… Irishy Irishy. Ya know?’ my wife’s Kilkenny-born aunt says with a frown as though you’ve just introduced something so disdainful into conversation that it’s barely worth consideration, like, say the ugly fact that Kilkenny has not won the hurling championship in every single all-Ireland ever. [Only 36 times in the last 133 years – ed.]

‘Uh… what do you mean “Irishy Irishy”?’

I’m pretty sure I know, but I want to hear her say it.

‘Ah you know,’ she wiggles her fingers and scrunches her face in frustration as though she’s just very quickly knitted the answer in the air. ‘Like all… cable knit jumpers and quaint cottages and… (with special contempt) diddley-ai sort of stuff!’

I get it.

She’s contemptuous of the fact that Doolin captures a certain traditional essence of old Irishness that for many Irish people of the 21st century no longer exists. Like many, she would rather Irish people not be known for tin whistles and trad music and be asked what’s at the end of the rainbow.

And she’s also probably tired of the idealised, ossified picture we often get of Yeats’ ‘Four Green Fields’ Ireland, one that immigrants came to American shores with in droves from the 19th century onwards and their ‘Irish American’ descendants stick with to this day. It’s an image of Ireland that’s peddled tirelessly to tourists and one that Irish people themselves have great difficulty with reconciling with their liberal, modern nation.

But I take my wife’s aunt’s words with a healthy dose of salt because another major element of the Irish character, particularly outside of Dublin, is local pride and we are after all, not headed to Kilkenny.

So we head to Doolin with an open mind and an eye out for all things ‘Irishy Irishy,’ whatever form that may take.

Sunset Doolin

But what an epic, Tolkien-esque trek it is to get there.

We travel from Dublin to Doolin and although you would spend less time on a flight from London to New York than you would taking public transport from the East to the West Coast of Ireland, the journey would not be a fraction as magnificent.

We move from Heuston station and through the lush green aforementioned four fields for a three hour journey from the capital to the port city of Galway, the now very trendy city of the tribes, which has whole tribes of hipster cafes serving poached eggs and avocado and flat whites as smooth and delicious as you would get in Brooklyn or in N1, with the added twist of local Burren smoked salmon and the scent and view of the sea.

After feeding at the delicious and friendly Ard Bia, near the Spanish Arches, we board a coach for the coastal village of Doolin in County Clare. And if there is a verdantly beautiful character to the east coast, which after all is resident to Wicklow, ‘the garden of Ireland,’ there is a stormswept, desolate and poetic beauty to the west coast and The Burren, a vast (250 km2), craggy, karst landscape spanning much of the county and formed thousands of years ago from ancient glacial movements over massive deposits of limestone. Traversing through the slate grey countryside like this engenders an uncanny sense of the sublime, a connection to the ancient and awesome power of the land that is moving and stunning.

Accompanied only slightly by a dizzying sense of travel-sickness as we ascend and descend these gravelly roads, a view of the azure waters of The Wild Atlantic Way always in sight.

And after this public transport odyssey, we come to Doolin, and the essence of the west coast. Doolin is cute and it is quaint with a surprising number of American connections. Almost every single one of the guesthouses that I contact in arranging this trip is either partly or wholly owned by Americans.

Have we re-translated our own version of ‘Irish Americanism’ to this lovely spot in Clare?

A little.

But it only adds to its unique charm.

Mary Jo O’Connell is our hostess in this first leg of our journey west. We are here in August after all. So busy are the guesthouses in this corner of the world that we need to book two separate establishments for each leg or our journey back and forth from Doolin to Inis Mor.

Mary Jo has been in Doolin for over 30 years, which is long enough to remember when it had neither phones nor electricity. Like myself – and so many others including our hostess on the way back for that matter – she came here to travel and stayed for love. She is now the proprietor of the warm and welcoming Seascape Guesthouse with stunning views and a comforting and fortifying breakfast along with some very diverting conversation in the morning before exploring Clare and making our way to the pier for our ferry further west to The Aran Islands (more on that next instalment).

And Doolin is cute and quaint and storybrook like, which I suppose is what kindles some resentment from adoptive Dubliners like my Aunt-in-law. It is all vibrantly pastel coloured cottages and knows how to perform the Quiet Man routine for the tourists, including nice details like collages of NYPD, Philly FD, LAPD and a whole collage of other badges signifying the – especially now in the era of Covid – great first responder services from an array of other American cities and towns.

But none of that is to take away from Doolin’s absolute charm and allure. Quite the contrary. They know the value of tourism and its vital contribution to the modern local economy and I have long resigned myself to the discreet and important continued existence of Irish American as opposed to Irish culture, the former, tending to conserve an old DeValera-era picture of Celtic identity. If anything, Doolin deserves more credit for making the effort and striking an admirable balance in order to survive in post-Celtic tiger Ireland.

So we enjoy light and crispy Doolin cod and chips and rich and creamy slow poured Guinness and soak up the atmosphere in McGann’s, Irish speaking couples and families (that’s right, Irish speaking. No one over there says they speak Gaelic. I’ll explain another time) dotted around us, their voices swimming around the parapet of their shrill, brash hard edged American vocal counterparts that expand, as through an aural frontier west to every nook and cranny of the pub.

A black and white sketched portrait of my favourite Irish writer, that most international of abstract postmodernists, Samuel Beckett, who, like his former teacher and predecessor, James Joyce, had a difficult relationship with traditional Irishness at best, a sardonic regard for it at worst, hang over a window at the end of the bar. I’m put in mind of his famous lines from ‘Worstword, Ho!’, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Does that sum up one American’s attempts to reconnect with his Irish roots when, like Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy in ‘The Dead’ he decides to rediscover that part of him and strikes out west? Does it capture Doolin’s attempt to find a place for itself in modern Ireland? I wonder if it’s fair to ascribe it to either but it certainly feels like a poetic thing to mentally float on this summer evening.

Two days later we return to Doolin through the wettest, most tumultuous and stomach churning storm I’ve ever seen on Irish waters in 20 years of going back and forth from London to Dublin. I should caveat that my family has mostly seen the tumult of the Irish sea, which seems no match for the Atlantic between the west coast and the three Aran Islands at its moodiest.

Sodden as dogs, we trudge from the pier to our second stay in Doolin, West Haven Guesthouse on the outskirts as you’re coming to Doolin from Galway, run by Liz Shannon – also American, sensing a theme? Has the charming Doolin character drawn us here and helped to make it what it is today? I’d like to think so – and Cormac, whose establishment is country cottage accommodation par excellence and a warm and dry oasis as we enter in from the cold and wet Irish… summer?

Rooms are spacious and luxurious, staff are welcoming and it is a perfect place to dry out and watch Jurassic Park on the telly before heading out, feeling refreshed and like Hibernian royalty, to a dinner at McDermott’s, justifiably claiming to be Ireland’s cosiest pub, with earthy tones, candles lit and the band setting up just as we are leaving – Doolin’s reputation as a centre of trad music is one of the best in the country, but part of the charm is their laid back attitude towards the suggested start times to beginning their sets.

Liz, with whom we also have a long and lingering chat late into the morning about all things American and Irish, including the magnificent dance school she has set up locally, Broadway Dance Ireland, serves up a scrumptious, locally sourced, farm fresh breakfast, which is exactly what we need as we set out like hobbits on the well trodden road back east to wait for the coach to Galway. The generous portions could also probably fill a hobbit, which is the quintessence of rural getaway indulgence and I would highly recommend West Haven should you pass through this corner of the world in a post-lockdown future, which of course we all anticipate in the not too distant days to come.

We explore the village, buy fudge, my 12 year old charms the shop owner and we even buy a tin whistle because it feels in generally keeping with things and my son already plays flute so he feels it wouldn’t be a vast jump in terms of a learning curve. We stop to take pictures. The view of the valley and the surrounding mountains is breathtaking.

I have to stop myself from singing ‘The Road Goes Ever On and On’ in emulation of Bilbo Baggins as I fill my lungs with as much of the pure Western air as possible before heading back to the city. Not that I would mind singing with a lusty air but I’m tone deaf and the local wildlife, residents and my family might take umbrage.

Back in Dublin, when we see my wife’s relations, they ask.

‘How was Doolin? What did ye think?’

You know the look. When someone warns you not to go somewhere because it’s a horrible place, but you ignore their advice and go there anyway.

I smile.

‘Ah you know. Irishy Irishy… which is to say, magnificent, charming and enchanting.’

And I mean it. See for yourself.

To see part 2 of this article mini-series click here.


Road, stream and Frey

The American

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