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On the road in Ireland: Country offers surprises, history, friendliness and wide vistas

Hore Abbey, dating from 1269, was the headquarters of a Cistercian Christian order. This view is from the Rock of Cashel, where St. Patrick baptized King Oengus of Munster in about 450. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron1 / 4
Doug and Molly Miron toast their 40th anniversary with a pint of Guinness for him and a pint of Smithwicks (pronounced "Smiddix") for her before supper at the Chester Beatty Pub in Ashford, County Wicklow, Ireland. Submitted Photo2 / 4
Newgrange, known as Bru na Boinne, or Palace of the Boyne, was built by Neolithic people about 5,000 years ago. The window at center lets in a ray of dawn light just before 9 a.m. each Dec. 21, as long as the sky is clear.3 / 4
Doug Miron prepares to enter a 4,000-year-old "beehive" stone hut on the Dingle Peninsula. The huts were residences for people between 2000 B.C. and 1200 A.D. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron4 / 4

President Barack Obama is Irish.

Yes, his father was Kenyan and his mother American, but a discovery in September at the 13th century St. Canice's Cathedral in Kilkenny, Ireland, directly links Obama to Bishop of Ossory John Kearney (1741-1813.) Consequently, the bishop's palace where Great-times-six Grand Uncle John died is the ancestral home of the president of the United States. Some members of the Kearney family immigrated to Kansas in 1847 during the potato famine and are Obama's Irish-American ancestors.

Kilkenny folks said they hope this discovery will stir up local interest, just as the late President John Kennedy's visit to his ancestral cottage in Wexford County did decades ago.

The Obama connection was just one of the surprises my husband, Doug, and I encountered during our trip to Ireland last month. We opted for a "go-as-you-please" package, which included vouchers and listings by county for bed-and-breakfast accommodations, a rental car with unlimited miles and a small satchel containing travel information, maps and recommendations of must-see sights.

Making contacts

We made first-night e-mail reservations with the Woodview Farmhouse near the town of Skerries north of Dublin hosted by Joe and Mary Clinton. As we traveled, we discovered that bed-and-breakfasts were all comfortable, offering "full Irish breakfasts" of eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, white pudding, scones, brown and white bread, yogurt, fruit, juice and tea. Some of our hosts were interested in making personal connections with their guests, so we now have real acquaintances in Ireland, people whose joys, troubles and interests we know something about.

For example, we arrived at the Clintons' home Friday, Oct. 9, soaking wet from a tour of nearby Ardgillan Castle and Demesne. As our clothes and shoes steamed dry in the heat of the Aga kitchen stove, Joe told us some of his family's history and entertained us reading short stories he had written.

Joe farmed, mostly market garden produce, and raised poultry, including 100 turkeys each year that he killed and dry-picked for the Christmas trade. Mary works at a juvenile facility something like Bemidji's Northwest Minnesota Juvenile Center.

In 1992, Joe developed bird fancier's lung, a malady that made the news recently when a Bemidji resident developed health problems because of her neighbors' flock of backyard chickens. Joe's condition keeps him on oxygen, but he maintains a sense of humor and interest in local, international and national issues.

For example, when we told him our trip was a 40th anniversary celebration, he noted that he and Mary had celebrated their 40th last year with special Mass and party. He said family and friends know that his health is precarious. So, when Mary was preparing party food and a guest asked her where Joe was, it was a shock to hear, "Oh, he's in with the priest."

No emergency, she explained. Joe was just working out the readings they wanted for the Mass.

Other examples of bed-and-breakfast hosts who engage personally with their guests are Paul and Breda Powers of Waterford. To our disappointment, Waterford Crystal shut down the glass factory in January, after the 2009 guidebooks were printed. There is a showroom with leftover inventory and crystal for sale from places like China and Bavaria, but nothing made locally. The Waterford City Council has vague plans to build a tourist attraction based on the crystal history on the River Suir (pronounced Shure) waterfront. I promised Paul and Breda I would write to the Waterford Chamber of Commerce to say we tourists aren't interested in a static exhibit. We want to see artists blowing and cutting glass.

Mary O'Neill, where we stayed in Tralee, told us of the sudden death of her husband a few years ago while she was at choir practice. She showed an old photo of the estate where her grandfather was steward for an Anglo-Irish family and how her father built the family home she now runs as her bed-and-breakfast business on part of the farmstead. She also told us they sent their children to live with Irish-speaking families on the Dingle Peninsula during the summers so the youngsters would grow up fluent in the national language. She said her daughters now teach at a school where all the subjects are in Irish.

Loose itinerary

We visited castles, palaces, abbeys, cathedrals and round towers for defense from Vikings and Neolithic sites. We didn't plan an overall itinerary, but paged through guidebooks each night to decide where we wanted to travel the next day.

In some cases, we took the advice of our hosts, such as when Breda said we should go to the Rock of Cashel where in about 450 A.D. St. Patrick baptized Oengus, the King of Munster. We climbed the rock where St. Patrick and Oengus stood for the ceremony, during which St. Patrick stuck his bishop's crosier into Oengus' foot. The king didn't say anything because he thought a pierced foot was part of the Christian ritual.

St. Patrick also designed the Celtic cross, which includes a circle. The people he was converting to Christianity had worshipped the sun, so he merged their symbol with that of the new religion.

Ireland is small enough that we covered much of the east coast, central plains, eastern mountains and western peninsulas in short days' drives with time for touring.

Neolithic remains

Early in our visit, we traveled from Woodview to Newgrange, a 5,000-year-old massive temple situated north of Dublin and excavated beginning in 1962. Older than Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids, the mound is surrounded by 3- to 5-ton "kerbstones" ferried up the River Boyne on rafts. The mound, which features a narrow passage leading to a small central chamber and 18-foot-high dome, is faced with white quartz hauled from 70k to the south interspersed with granite river-rolled "egg stones" from a source 50k to the north. The ancient people who built the temple were such clever engineers that in all the millennia since, the unmortared rock structure hasn't leaked. The builders also constructed a window that lets in the dawn light for 17 minutes each Dec. 21, and at no other time. More than 30,000 people sign up each year for the lottery to be among the 50 admitted during the winter solstice to witness the phenomenon.

We also toured Neolithic "beehive" stone huts on the Dingle Peninsula. These residences were built using the same dry-stone spiral construction technique as Newgrange.

Also on the Dingle Peninsula, we stopped at the Celtic and Prehistoric Museum housing the private collection of an American, Harris Moore. His exhibit of Stone Age and Bronze Age tools, weapons and jewelry, along with fossils of large extinct animals is amazing. He even opened cases and pulled out tools so we could heft ancient hand axes and feel where the stone knapper put in finger and thumb grooves for the user's comfort.

Dingle was also interesting because Irish, not English, is the first language. Elsewhere, signs are in Irish with English subtitles. In the west, much, including traffic directions ("mall," I figured out, means slow) is solely in Irish. We listened to kids talking among themselves in their native language, or complaining to parents about some children's issue. (We can understand the tone, if not the words.)

Perhaps our favorite tour was at Glendalough ("Valley of Two Lakes") in the Wicklow Mountains, the site of St. Kevin's monastic village. St. Kevin - died in 618 at age 120 - arrived in the valley sometime in the sixth century to live as a hermit. However, he soon attracted other early Christians, and eventually a cathedral, abbey and center of scholarship developed. Like St. Francis of Assisi, Kevin was said to be good with animals. He asked the king of the area to give him some land for his monastery. The king said if Kevin could cure a sick goose, he could have the land the goose flew over. Kevin performed the cure, and instead of flying a few yards as the king expected of a recently ailing barnyard goose, the bird flew all around the valley.

Road challenges

I was right to be apprehensive about driving on the left in a right-hand-drive car and working the gear shift with my left hand. Although the car rental people assured me "It's not difficult," I was shaky for at least two days.

Keeping left wasn't so hard, and the clutch and transmission were nice and tight on the 2008 Peugeot. Gasoline is sold by the liter, but works out to about $6 per gallon. The Peugeot is so efficient, we were able to drive around the country on two tanks of gas costing less than the equivalent of $100.

But road conditions are real challenges.

The M roads are rated at 120kph, a reasonable speed limit for four-lane highways. But the N roads, which we traveled most of the time in the countryside, are an amalgamation of widths ranging from two-lanes with comfortable shoulders to tracks offering about one-third of a lane each way. To visualize the narrower roads, think of our "minimum maintenance" lanes, the kinds that have weeds growing down the middle. Plant a 6-foot-high, 4-foot-wide, bull-strong, pig-tight hedge on one side and build a similar size stone wall on the other. No shoulders. For added adrenaline rushes, add plenty of traffic, including buses, semi-trailers and dump trucks. I plinked my left side mirror on hedges and bushes so many times the first couple of days that I just asked Doug to fold it in unless we were on a multi-lane highway.

Last stop

We only spent one afternoon in Dublin because we find the countryside more interesting. But we did take a walk on the Hill of Tara where 142 High Kings of Ireland are said to have reigned. We stood by the Stone of Destiny and traced the earth circles that once formed mystic areas and building foundations. Unlike Newgrange, Tara seemed more a pleasant meadow where children were racing and rolling down banks and less a holy site. We did make the trek to one of the holy wells, basically a spring bubbling out of the hillside and routed by pipe to a livestock watering trough.

Everywhere we traveled, people were friendly, helpful and interested in us as we were in them. When I seemed lost during the early days of driving, another motorist told me to follow him because he was going to the town I was trying to find. When I had a flat tire (puncture) the woman at the house where I stopped after dark offered her husband's help if we wanted to wait until he returned home.

And other drivers were patient with my lack of expertise, such as when I took up more than my lane negotiating the roundabouts clockwise. A few reminder horn toots, but nothing more.