It’s hard to wake up very enthused about the prospect of an entire day of travel.

Nevertheless, we started out on Friday, September 20th is fairly good spirits. We feasted on one final Irish breakfast, bade our farewells to John & Cathy, and then wheeled ourselves down to a hotel near the harbor where we caught the Aircoach and rode it through the many winding streets to Dublin airport. We made a last-ditch effort to use up our Euros and I purchased several Cadbury chocolate bars for the road.

Flying from Dublin to London was uneventful. I took one final photo of the green patchwork fields of my homeland and shamelessly shed a few tears as it grew smaller and smaller beneath the uncompromising ascent of the plane. I can only hope that someday, I’ll be back.

Heathrow awaited. This time, we were ready for it and faced the many discombobulated hallways, shuttles, checkpoints, and security lines with our chins held high and our passports ready for inspection at any given moment. I digress that even the most seasoned traveler gets exhausted in that place. By the time they interrogated us at our gate, we were more than ready to fly far, far away from there.

Which is exactly what we did. For eight hours. The in-flight entertainment wasn’t customizable, so we were both subjected to an excruciating showing of “Iron Man 3” for the first two hours of the flight. We snoozed and when we woke up, they were playing “Life of Pi” and I decided that it was so good the first time I could definitely watch it once more. And for the record, it made me cry again.

You know the rest of the story; stiff-legged shuffling, dry skin, processed food, and the desperate need for sleep that cannot be granted due to the fact that no seat, no matter how well engineered, is a bed. We giddily disembarked at O’Hare and were promptly held up at Customs due to my husband’s very common name. Obviously, they let us back into the country.

Our journey didn’t end there. We napped on airport couches while we waited for the Coach bus to arrive and take us to downtown Milwaukee. More thwarted attempts at rest followed on the two-hour bus trip from O’Hare to our beautiful city. There is a blissful state that one achieves for maybe an hour, if you’re lucky, which allows you to sleep pretty much anywhere. However, anything beyond that is completely futile.

But then, there we were.

I knew these streets, could navigate them with my eyes closed. The late-night glow of Wisconsin Avenue’s lights was like a dear old friend, and I loved every face that I saw. We waited for the #30 bus to carry us over the final threshold of our journey. A beautiful homeless man had a conversation with us while we waited and made sure to tell us to be safe as we boarded the bus.

Milwaukee’s public transit is sufficient, but not at all efficient. It was almost another hour of travel before we finally, finally allowed our weary legs to carry us the rest of the way. Four long blocks, we listened to the clickety-clack of our suitcase wheels running over the dips in the sidewalks. I was turning my head this way and that, taking in the trees and the houses on our street and feeling completely safe and sheltered by the city’s welcoming embrace. Home waited for us with nary a word about our long absence. Our bed was just as comfortable as I had hoped it would be, our cat was ecstatic at the idea of us being back in the house again, and the leaves had just begun to highlight their tips in orange.

We end where we began: in a white cape cod on the north side of Milwaukee. Irish and Scottish dirt still lurked in the grooves of our shoes as they happily carried us up our driveway. We go halfway across the world to find pieces of ourselves and when we return, we hide them away in between the spaces in the walls and the floorboards and they become a part of what home looks like.

– Johanna

Thursday, September 19th, 2013 – Dublin
On the last full day of our first ever overseas adventure, we decided to start off by multiplying our sensory intake and split up until lunch time. Then, we would meet up again and join forces for one last run in Ireland. Our breakfast at Ophira was once again lovingly prepared by our hosts, John and Cathy O’Connor. Today, I went for the “Full Irish Breakfast” (after already having a “Full Jason Breakfast” consisting of a bowl of cereal). The Irish Breakfast was more delicious black pudding, eggs, sausage and toast – always the toast. In every B&B we stopped, they were really intent on making sure you had enough toast. This suits me just fine since my first royal decree on the day I’m proclaimed King Jason is that there would be endless Toast and Sprees for all. I had to groan a bit internally when we were joined at our last breakfast by 8 or 10 other American tourists – the wrong kind of American tourists. In the end, though, it spurred us on to get moving and get off on the day’s adventure. 
 As I walked to the train station in Dun Laoghaire, I realized that I was to navigate downtown Dublin on my own and as the great 80’s metal ballad by Cindarella says, I learned that “You don’t know what you got…’til it’s gone”. Johanna actually was a marvelous co-pilot throughout our entire trip. Whether it was making our way through The Highlands of Scotland or the streets of Dublin, other than a few wrong turns, she really knew what she was doing. My first clue that I had to actually pay attention was when I got off the train one station too early. I decided right away that, before embarking, I would calm myself, sit on a bench, look at the map in the Rick Steve’s book and make a plan for what I was going to do. I knew generally that I wanted to explore the history of the fight for Irish independence so I started off by heading to O’Connell St. Along with the rest of the tourists, I took in the statues scattered about the median as I headed for my first destination – The General Post Office.
I was excited to visit the symbolic location of the start of Irish Independence in the early 20th Century because several years ago I had read “1916” by Morgan Llewelyn and the scenes from the battle at the post office have always stayed with me and I remembered reading that you could still see the bullet holes in the great pillars in front of the building – and you can.
Before going inside, I stood for a few minutes outside, looking up and down the street and to the tops of the buildings around, imagining the scene from almost 100 years ago. I had a sense of solemnity and humility looking at what Dublin and Ireland have become since those days and realizing what only a few individuals could inspire. Inside the Post Office, I visited a small museum they had to the events that took place there. Afterwards, I continued up O’Connell St. to Parnell and The Garden of Remembrance.
Here, I allowed myself time and space to think, enjoy the day and reflect on what I knew of this history. The Garden of Remembrance was established to memorialize those who died in the battles for Irish Independence. The centerpiece of the garden is definitely the most moving sculpture I have seen. Out of the backs and bodies of 4 dying people as they fall to the earth fly 4 glorious geese with wings fully extended and their beaks pointed straight into the sky. Knowing that Irish Independence may not have come to be without the sacrifice of those who were captured during the Easter Uprising, I felt this sculpture captured the essence beautifully. 
I lingered in The Garden for quite a while before moving on to my final stop – The Museum of Decorative Arts and Military History. Here, I learned even more about all of the people involved in the early days of Irish Independence and how those events still impact the nation today. The one piece of history that stuck with me most from this museum was learning about the Civil War that immediately followed the establishment of Ireland as its own nation. This was something I didn’t know and helped explain more about the history and the nation today. 
Leaving the Museum of Decorative Arts and Military History, I headed for Phoenix Park where Johanna and I were to be reunited.  Just before reaching the park as I was walking on the north side of Parkgate St, I noticed a beautiful dreadlocked Irish pixie walking immediately opposite me on the south side of the street. Since she hadn’t noticed me yet, I took a few moments to enjoy how beautiful she was before giving my best attempt at a Milwaukee ghetto “holla” to which she responded with more strutting. At the park, we fed the beasts clamoring in our stomachs and were sitting on the park bench when guess who appeared? The sun! Since we hadn’t seen much of him on our trip, it was a great blessing to turn our faces up and let the warmth spread over our backs surrounded by the vast beauty of the park. On our way out, we took a little stroll around and laughed at two European tourists chasing squirrels to take their picture. Johanna felt we should offer to ship them some of ours from back home since we have a healthy colony in our back yard. Leaving the park, we searched out a café where I enjoyed an Irish Coffee, a chocolate chip cookie and a few minutes to read.
From there, we wandered back to the train station following the River Liffey. By this point, we were ready to hop the train around the harbor and leave the bustle of Dublin behind. 
When we returned, I quickly changed into my running clothes for a jog along the bay. While in Glasgow, I had noticed that some of the men wore knee-high socks pulled all the way up while they ran (I think it’s a soccer-inspired thing) and I decided I would do the same.
Leaving Johanna’s laughter behind, I bounced down to the Dun Laoghaire harbor where I ran out to the end of the east pier and back. It was a fairly warm and windy day and I could see the city of Dublin off to the northwest as I ran out and back. From there, I followed the shoreline southeast to a point where the James Joyce Tower & Museum was located. Oddly enough, it was the very place where the man we had met at the museum the day before said he would go swimming. There was even a sign saying “Togs Must Be Worn” indicating it was a men’s swimming area and that naked swimming was not allowed – good thing! I’ve seen enough naked old Irishmen in Waking Ned Devine. It was an invigorating, windy and bright run and I found my steps full of a bit more bounce than usual. 
Returning to Ophira, we donned our best fittings and headed out for our last dinner and pint on the Islands of the North Atlantic (the name “British Isles” is a bit of an overstatement of the importance of one of the inhabitants of those these islands that have been our home for two weeks). We strolled around George’s Street until finding a sign in a friendly-looking pub saying there would be traditional music later that night. For dinner, I enjoyed a huge and delicious plate of roast turkey and mashed potatoes. Our waitress was a fair Irish lass who asked us about our trip and told us of her dream of one day visiting California (so far, she had never left Ireland). By the time our dinner was done, the band had arrived and was setting up in the back. It was just us in the pub so the waitress and the bartender took their time talking to us and we took our time with a few pints of Guiness. At one point, I asked the bartender whether there were appropriate times to use the word “Grand” vs. “Brilliant”. The bartender felt the band would be better able to answer and a lively conversation began about the Irish slang. One of the band members stated emphatically that “Grand is shite” apparently meaning that to call something “grand” is to say it’s little better than a flat American lager (my interpretation – not his). The bartender laughed and added that many things are “Brilliant” which are not, after-all, brilliant at all. He said that a truly worthy indication of something is to refer to it as “deadly” which brought to mind the slang I had leaned while living in Hawaii. Finally, the band concluded the conversation by divulging apparently the top phrase for giving something praise – “Cooly Duly”. I have to admit, I was a little underwhelmed but after verifying that they weren’t just feeding us naïve Americans a phrase while would later elicit laughter if used again, we accepted it and the band went on playing the most beautiful traditional Irish songs as they sit in a circle playing to their only audience of the evening – Johanna, myself and the young bartender. Before leaving, I paid our bill and added a round of pints for the band. As we stood up to go, the band thanked us. After waiting all night to use it, I told the band with a smile that they were “Grand”. The band and the bartender had a good laugh and I had my first good “craic” in Ireland. If you want to know what I’m talking about – look it up on Urban Dictionary. 
Johanna and I walked home arm in arm with lasting smiles. Back in our B&B, we looked through our pictures and went back through our trip day by day remembering as many little adventures and snapshots as we could to preserve their place in our history. We fell asleep and were ready to return home. 
– Jason

When we woke up on September 18, we noticed one very important thing: it wasn’t raining anymore. It wasn’t exactly sunny, but the high winds and horizontal downpours had moved on. We were looking forward to taking in Dublin on foot, so this was a welcome sight. I’ve never been so happy to leave my raincoat behind.

The hosts of our B&B, the Ophira, had e-mailed us ahead of time to let us know that they had to attend the funeral of the husband’s mother. They were apologetic about the fact that they couldn’t cook us a hot breakfast, but we were used to continental style and thoroughly enjoyed our yoghurts and pastries.

I was feeling particularly chipper as we boarded the DART and gazed out the window at the ocean. The sun was making a momentary appearance, and it made the sea look very blue. I maintained my upbeat attitude for approximately four wrong turns once we got off the train and tried locating Trinity College. We were using my phone, and like I’ve already mentioned, this stresses me out. We did finally locate it, and as fate would have it, we happened to be visiting during freshman week. The entire city seemed to be crawling with over-eager packs of 18-year-olds. In fact, the city crawled regardless. Dublin was a much more crowded city than I had realized when I was researching it. It actually reminded me of visiting New York City. Combined with my navigational anxiety, this got to be a little overwhelming at times.

However, we eventually found ourselves striding through the front gate of Trinity College and purchasing tickets for the first tour of the day. Another couple noticed our very boring, flat accents and asked where we were from. When we told them “Milwaukee” they got very excited and said that they were originally from Milwaukee, too. When we asked them what part, they indicated that, in actuality, they had lived in one of the less-than-authentic suburbs. In our book, this does not mean that they lived in Milwaukee. In fact, it’s one of our biggest pet peeves – people who say that they “lived in Milwaukee” but really lived in Greenfield or Mequon or something like that. They kept trying to talk to us about very tourist-ey things and we kept trying to smile nicely through our teeth at them. When time permitted, we scooted away into the crowd and didn’t encounter them again.

The tour of the college was conducted by a first-year graduate student who kept us entertained to no end by his quick wit. He explained that one perk of being a Trinity grad is that they are allowed to utilize the college chapel for their wedding for up to one year after they finish their undergraduate degree. He said that he is currently single, but his mother is hopeful that he will find himself a nice bride in the next few months so that he can take advantage of said perk. I half-thought about giving him my sister’s e-mail address. He was a handsome Irish lad, if I may say so.

If you haven’t seen the movie “The Secret of Kells”, well, you really ought to. Shame on you. But if you have seen it, you can understand how exciting it was for us to see the Book of Kells on display. There is a fascinating exhibition at the college that’s included in the price of your tour ticket, and it ends by funneling everyone into a room where, beneath a glass case, you get to look at two pages of two of the Gospels. One of the pages is text, the other is an illustration. There’s also two other illuminated manuscripts from the same time period. “The Secret of Kells” being an animated movie, I wasn’t sure if the actual Book of Kells would be that fantastic. But it was. In every way.

The next destination on the Trinity College tour was the library – a cathedral-like room in it’s own right, but one dedicated to learning. They arrange the books not by author or subject, but by size. It’s aesthetically pleasing, but I can imagine it’s also a nightmare to locate a particular book.

The tour spits you out in the gift shop. We hightailed it away from the throngs of tourists and bumbled our way through busy Dublin to the next stop on my list: The Museum of Archeology. All of Dublin’s major museums are free to the public, which is awesome. Particularly interesting about this museum was the bog mummies that they had on display. Actual mummies! The descriptions alongside them gave us more details than we really wanted to know about their gruesome deaths. Jason kept eying me with suspicion – I suppose that he had no idea I came from such a brutal people. Don’t worry folks – I’m also part stoic German and romantic French. I didn’t get any violent aspirations.

The smells from the overpriced museum café were driving us crazy, so we set out along more of the narrow streets in search of some lunch. We ended up purchasing huge cardboard boxes of Thai food and sitting on a bench in St. Stephen’s Green, eating our curry and pad Thai in the watery sunshine. We walked around the Green for awhile after that.  The canal had a native flock of swans, along with scores of aggressive ducks and greedy pigeons. A young boy was feeding the fowl his entire bag of popcorn, and we stopped to take a few photos and make conversation with the lad.

Feeling refreshed, we set out for another museum – the Museum of Natural History. The locals refer to it as Dublin’s Dead Zoo, and really, it is just that. It’s two huge open floors of dead animals on display. I mean, not like slaughtered animals. Stuffed animals. But real ones. Never mind.

The museum was actually quite interesting. While making our way along the large carnivores on the second floor and stopping to admire the stuffed Alaskan Grizzly Bear, a middle aged gent stopped to make conversation with us. We ended up standing there talking to him for twenty minutes. He told us his life story – growing up in Dublin, taking his own kids to the Dead Zoo when they were small, working in the shipyards, swimming in Dun Laoghaire, and his recent separation from his wife. I told him my maiden name, and our non-successful quest to locate other O’Boyles. He looked the two of us over with approval and said that we both looked like locals. As we said our goodbyes and prepared to move on, he hugged both of us and leaned in to kiss my cheek.

“Always keep your best side forward.” He said wisely.

Something about that encounter stuck with me. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe it was that I let a total stranger kiss my cheek and it felt completely appropriate. Maybe it was the beautiful way he described his life as a Dubliner. Or maybe I saw something of my Irish father in the man.

Once we had exhausted our capacity to take in any more history, we wandered around downtown Dublin for awhile looking for souvenirs to bring back to the states. I wanted to track down a bodhran for my dad but wasn’t having much luck. It was fun to wander around some of the markets and see the various stalls run by immigrants.

A bodhran was eventually tracked down, at an Irish gift shop, of all places. We made our way back to the train station, more than ready to relax back in Dun Laoghaire. However, there was a Roger Walters concert going on in the city, and it just so happened that our train was right along the route to the venue. Once again, we had a very crammed ride. However, the train emptied out like a cattle car at the venue stop and we sighed in relief.

Back in Dun Laoghaire, I was in need of a good run. I headed out onto the pier and reveled in the wind and ocean and the rising moon. I had many beautiful runs on this trip, and this was another one to add to memory. As I ran out to the end, I could see the Irish flag whipping in the sea breeze. I took some time to walk slowly along the shore and be thankful.

Then, I jogged back up the hill to our room and ate a delicious peanut butter and banana sandwich for supper. Life in Ireland is good.

– Johanna

Our time in Donegal had gone by too quickly. Upon waking on September 17, we had another long day of traveling ahead of us: a stop in Derry, dropping off the car in Belfast, navigating to Belfast Central Station, taking a train from Belfast to Dublin, and then utilizing some form of public transportation from downtown Dublin to our B&B in Dun Laoghaire. We had every intent of being on the road by 9am. It didn’t happen, but it didn’t happen because we took a little extra time to walk around Sabine and Gisene’s land and say goodbye to them. They were such lovely people! I only hope that I can someday go back and see them again. Our stay in their cabin was more like meeting new friends than a rental arrangement.

Our first drive from Belfast to Donegal had taken us on a more northern route. This time, we took a southern path so that we could drive through Derry on our way out. One of the locals that we had met the day before had grown up in Derry and highly recommended taking a tour of the walls with a walking guide, if possible. Unfortunately, by the time that we got on the road, drove the couple of hours east, and parked ourselves, we had just about 45 minutes to see the town.

We walked along the walls for a little while. I really wish we would have had time to go with a guide; the information signs were certainly interesting but I think I would have gotten a better idea of the history of Derry with a real person leading the way.

On the north end of the walls, we climbed down and made our way to the Bogside Neighborhood to look at the murals from the Troubles.

I won’t go into the details of what the murals look like, but I highly recommend reading about them. I will say that I walked back towards our car with tears in my eyes. Many of the museums or galleries that you visit talk about conflicts that are so old that they seem very far removed from where you are today. The thing that moved me most about the murals was the fact that they were painted on the side of apartment buildings that looked very much like apartment buildings that I see every single day in Milwaukee. It felt like a very familiar neighborhood. I was standing in a city that could have been any city, on a corner where a child was shot and became the 100th victim of the conflict.

In reality, I know very little about the history of Ireland, and I definitely don’t know enough to take sides about anything that happened. But perhaps the Irish in me will always identify with the desire for people to have freedom, justice, and hope. I don’t embrace violence, but I can embrace these things and do my best to create them in my own world.

We pressed on and made good time to Belfast. The car was due back at 3:00pm, and our train was set to leave at 4:30pm. We took a bus from the airport and then walked a few blocks and found ourselves at the train station a bit earlier than necessary. We passed the time by shelling out a few of our remaining Pounds for coffee and chocolates.

The train ride from Belfast to Dublin was relaxing after the full day in the car and then hopping on buses. We played cribbage to pass the time, and eventually both of us fell asleep. When we pulled into Dublin Connelly, we crabbed at each other for a few minutes about which line of the DART to take to the suburbs, proceeded to board the (correct) train, and spent the next 25 minutes on a very crammed commuter car. It was rush hour, after all. The nice thing about riding the DART to and from Dublin is that you go alongside the ocean almost the entire time.

When we arrived in Dun Laoghaire, it was raining hard. Somberly, we dragged our suitcases and world-weary selves along the pretty little streets and checked into our B&B. It was a relief to be under a roof. After laying out our wet clothes and relaxing for a little while, we set out on foot to find some supper.

We decided to stay in the suburbs versus Dublin proper because staying in the city itself is pretty expensive, both for lodging and food. Dun Laoghaire was a great choice. We ended up eating at an Indian restaurant with the nicest waiter I think I’ve ever had. The food was delicious, too.

The rain had slowed down to a refreshing drizzle as we made our way back to our room. Tomorrow, the great grinding city of Dublin awaited us.

– Johanna

Upon waking up on September 16, or Day 11, I had full intentions of stretching my legs and taking a long run on the winding gravel lanes of our Donegal haunt. However, the rain was still coming sideways in violent bursts and I opted to snuggle deeper down beneath my blankets for another hour. When we finally did emerge from our loft, we made another breakfast that couldn’t be beat, donned our rain gear, gathered up our maps, and set out for the northwest coast, aiming for an area known as Horn Head, with the intention of taking our time and enjoying the coastal route.

Our first stop was a small town called Bunbeg, where our Rick Steeves book advertised “a fine sandy beach.” We looked for said beach and thought it would be located near the pier, but after walking a few blocks, hiding behind a landed fishing boat during another freak rainstorm, and spying some crabs shuffling around in their crab traps, we found no beach.

We returned to the car in slightly dejected spirits, but hope springs anew. Just a few blocks up the road, we knew we had hit the jackpot of all Irish beaches, and the tide was out to boot.

We frolicked our way out towards the ocean (well, I frolicked. Jason doesn’t frolic), being careful not to touch the hundreds of tiny jellyfish that were scattered all around from the weird weather. I looked for shells. We came across a decrepit fishing boat and took photos of it.

A rainstorm blew through and Jason graciously stood with his back to the wind and let me hide behind him so I would stay dry. We took photos and videos. We went out as far as the water would let us, and then we hid behind some of the rocks waiting for another rainstorm to blow through.

I imagined passing the long dark days here by the sea, so far away from everything. We only saw one other couple walking a dog, and they didn’t go out as far as us.

We headed back to the car to thaw out and continue our journey north. Our next stop was a fairly unglamorous pee break, which ended up being exciting because we could watch a group of windsurfers from the car. I am both terrified and amazed at their bravery, because the ocean was no joke on a day like that.

From there, we climbed higher up the coast and finally found a very bumpy, narrow dirt road that lead up to the top of the Horn Head cliffs. I’m sure they are magnificent on a normal day, but they are completely and utterly insane on a day like the day we visited. I literally struggled to stay upright at times. You can hike down closer to the edge of the cliffs, but I wanted to keep several hundred yards between me and the steep drop off, and we enjoyed the view from where we were.

As I sat huddled in the shelter of the old lookout tower, I thought about this wild land and the possibility that it may be in my blood. It’s strange how something can be both hostile and enchanting; how you can want to see everything there is to see yet be held back by the sheer ferocity of the landscape and climate.

By then, we were two hungry travelers. We continued up the highway towards a sprawling metropolis of a fishing village that boasted one long main street, three pubs, one chippie, a sandwich café, and two surf shops. The town is called Dunfanaghy. Little did we know how familiar and comfortable we would become with this out-of-the-way little burb…

We first stopped in at the surf shop, because Jason, although he is not a surfer, will always feel a sweet sense of nostalgia in surf shops from his days as a Hawaiian. A young lad who looked part hobbit chatted up a storm with my husband about Irish surfing, and I browsed the tiny store and pretended to be interested in the wetsuits.

From there we set out to find some grub. We stopped in at a Rick Steeve’s recommendation with an intensely loud band playing. After sitting for two minutes, we decided it wasn’t what we were looking for and sheepishly walked out. We tried another pub up the road. This one also sported a band but they weren’t nearly as loud and the atmosphere was overall much more festive. They didn’t actually serve food there, but had a great relationship with the chippy across the street and sent us in that direction. The owner even brought our food over to us when it was ready. I ate a huge portion of the best chicken nuggets I’ve ever eaten, along with a steaming pile of chips (French fries) that tasted as if they had shared a basket with fried fish. I didn’t mind. I like fish.

I should mention that as we were walking into the chippy to order, three local gentlemen waylaid us due to my bright red rain hat. We ended up standing on the sidewalk and talking to them for a good fifteen minutes. They explained how Dunfanaghy had spent the past weekend hosting a blues and jazz festival, and the bands that we were seeing all over town today were the “after party” of sorts. Nowhere else on earth does one stop in for chips and a pint at 2:30pm on a Monday and catch a local blues band playing the music that you grew up listening to.

Needless to say, we felt quite at home and decided to stay put for some time. The weather was absolute crap anyway, the bands were phenomenal, and everyone in the town came by our table and wanted to chat with us. Most people were fascinated with my red hat, and equally fascinated when I removed said hat and shook out my red dreadlocks. Jason let a drop a few times that we were novice musicians, and before I realized that was happening we were being invited on stage to play a song. We chose “Jackson” because it’s a good boy/girl song and most people go crazy over it. Unfortunately, the bright glow of the stage and the terrifying reality of having a microphone shoved in my face meant that we completely forgot what key we normally played it in and instead played it in a much lower key. This resulted in me feeling like a complete amateur because I was basically singing tenor and I’m a high alto. Yeah. If I ever get a chance to go back and do that over again, I will have to make up for it by showing off my best June Carter impersonation in the key of C.

We stayed until evening, taking breaks from the festivities to get a cup of coffee or walk around the tiny little town. Many amazing conversations were had during our time there, and my little Irish heart swelled with kindred feelings when the band closed out one of their sets with “The Weight” by The Band. I have a theory that on any given day that I hear that song, I’m having the best day of my life. I do hear that song at least on a monthly basis, so I have quite a few best days. But that one may have been one of the very best. There are only two times that I think I’ve ever enjoyed hearing that song more; one was at my wedding when I sang it with my dad and sister, and the other was during a particularly good breakfast on a summer day in one of our old apartments.

Well, anyway. The darkness was gathering on the country roads as we headed back to our cabin. We stopped in to see Sabine and Gisene so we could let them know what time we were leaving in the morning, and ended up talking to them for a good two hours about Germany, the States, Ireland, Catholicism, Lord of the Rings, and life in general.

After that it was all just packing and laying things out for our journey back across the country the next day. Jason abhors packing the night before, and I abhor packing the morning of so we usually pretend to argue about it. We moved on and settled down for one more night under the moonlit skies of Donegal.

– Johanna

Sunday, September 15th, 2013 – Donegal, Ireland
Overnight, while we slept in the loft of our cozy and stout little cabin, the Irish night turned wild and the Banshees began to wail while winds of 70mph rose and whipped rain against the skylight over our heads. In spite of the furor of the night, I felt not a single tremor in the walls (well over one foot thick) of our white plaster home. The first autumn storm had arrived on the western coast of Ireland and would stick around for the rest of our time in Donegal. The protective instincts passed down to us from our eldest human ancestors must have told us it was time to stay inside because we slept past 10 am the next morning. When we finally arose, we made another hearty breakfast of French toast, eggs, Irish sausage links, black pudding and orange juice.
Afterwards, we were once again excited to find another French Coffee Press furnished as part of the kitchen accessories and enjoyed a warm cup ‘o jo.
While Johanna showered, I couldn’t resist the laughter and impish delight of the faeries carried to and fro on the wind outside so I began exploring the grounds of our cottage with my “bunnet” or “flat cap” and my camera. Up on the rise behind the cottage I bounced on the springy peat and heather between the granite bounders strewn about.
Atop the boulders, I stretched my arms out and let the wind whip me and felt life and a not a few of the pixies filling my lungs.
Back down by the cottage, I strolled through the garden of apple trees to sample a few of the delicious ornaments and take pictures of our cottage. When Johanna joined me outside, we walked up the driveway to visit the Marian grotto our hosts had built before leaving for our day’s destination – Glenveagh National Park.
The drive to Glenveagh in the blustery wind challenged my growing confidence on the Irish roads. They must have also played no small part in an accident we came across near the park where a small lorry had caught a tire in the peat that bordered the road and flipped on its top just off the road. No one was hurt and the road crew was already pulling it back over while we passed but it reminded me of how little room for error there was on these roads. When we arrived at Glenveagh, we hopped out, zipped our rain jackets, pulled our hats tight and began hiking into the wind through the glen along Lough Veagh to Glenveagh Castle. It was a beautiful walk through the boggy end of the lough. Not far into the walk where we had a long view across the lough, we saw a fierce rain squall approaching like a freight train on the winds. The wall of water rushed towards us and I whipped out my camera to catch its approach. Only seconds into filming, it hit us and we had to turn our backs and wait it out which required only as much time as it did to reach us in the first place. I don’t recall ever seeing such a distinct curtain of water approaching me so quickly. I had the apprehension it would actually meet me like a soft but solid piece of fabric stretched from the earth into the sky above.
The rest of the walk to the castle followed the mountain slope on our left that carried hundreds of temporary waterfalls down to the lough. Some leaped out from rocky ledges above, the more jubilant diamonds catching the intermittent sun as they fell back to rejoin the greater body of their kind below. Some trickled through the peat and filled cavities where peat had been dug in the past.
A few times, I filled my hands with the curious half-breed of earth and wood to take the smell into my memory and crush it between my fingers.
We reached the gardens of the castle first and were treated to the most beautifully landscaped grounds I have seen.
Johanna was inspired by the Kitchen Garden that sloped up the hillside and was filled with hundreds of herb, vegetable and flower varieties, all separated by apple trees with their arms stretched out along fence-lines, their farthest finger tips reaching those of the their neighbor also grasping for them.
From a viewpoint that overlooked the lough below, we waited for the strongest gusts to lash the water into such a frenzy in spots that it carried mist forty or fifty feet into the air and filled the narrow between two arms of land also reaching out toward each other from each side of the lake. Some of the gusts actually created brief cyclones like ghastly creatures attempting to take physical form before our eyes.
As the next rain squall came in upon us, we went into the castle itself for the next tour. The tour was given by an Irish woman who, though she could probably describe the castle in her sleep, infused it with a dry and smoldering sense of humor that managed to reach the surface after its long journey from what I felt was likely a playful heart hiding under many layers she removed when at home with her old man and the maids at the pub. When describing how the female guests of the castle were treated daily to a full breakfast in their beds she said “Gentleman, pay attention.  This is how it’s done.” The castle itself, while beautiful has had a bit of a shady history. For one, it’s not a “real” castle.  More like a castle-like mansion. Second, the man who built it, Captain John Adair, is not remembered fondly with the Irish people. After buying up vast tracks of land surrounding the castle and throughout Donegal and the Irish famine, he evicted 224 tenants primarily to improve the aesthetic qualities of his castle lands. After his death, his wife entered a period of mourning and had many items in the house painted black. One such item was a table that was only discovered fairly recently. After uncovering several layers of paint upon paint, the table revealed some of the most beautiful and intricate woodwork of any item in the entire castle. Later, a more welcome tenant purchased the castle named Henry Plumer Mcllhenry who was an exception to the rule of absentee landlords and cruel employers. One of his hobbies was art collection and from my memory had a special interest in paintings showing the gruesome deaths of deer and elk. After the tour, we walked back out the way we had come in and ran through the final parking lot with the next curtain of water chasing us and slammed our doors as the rain and wind slammed our rental car.

The trip home in the dark was (thankfully) fairly uneventful. When we reached home, I made a frozen pizza and Johanna started our first ever peat fire in the stove that stood in the living area. The peat smoldered more than it burned but produced enough heat and sweet, pungent scents to make our night feel like a real Irish night while the wind and rain continued to buffet the world outside.

There was a case of CD’s provided on the bookshelf. Since we had seen his face and name nearly everywhere we went in County Donegal, I had to play an album from Daniel O’Donnell. He felt a bit too much like something that I would find in a Las Vegas lounge and didn’t last long. I replace him with a cd of traditional Irish music. We then started pulling out the games from the next shelf for a rare “night in” on our vacation. I found a game called “Crazy Jacob” which involved matching smaller triangles and cats to form a larger pyramid of triangles and cats. I failed. Johanna tried a came of making various figures out of black shapes. We’re pretty sure these were games for people more intelligent than us so we followed the gravitational pull down to several fun games of pick-up sticks. Exhausted from all the mental and physical strain of the day, we let our peat fire smolder out and climbed up the steep wooden stairs up into our sleep loft and looked out the skylight into the wild Irish night.

– Jason

Day nine, September 14, was the record for transportation phases. The plan? Take the subway to Glasgow Central Station, take a train then a coach to a ferry port in southern Scotland, take a ferry into Belfast Harbor, take a bus (or two) to the Belfast City airport, and then pick up a rental car and head west into Donegal. We should have somehow fit a ride in a blimp in there…

Anyway, we were up early heading to Glasgow Central and fumbling around with checking in for our train ride. We did finally get it figured out, purchased some much-needed coffee, and then sat waiting to board the train. I get somewhat giddy and nostalgic about train rides, and I think I did more bouncing in my seat than waiting patiently. We boarded, and were off along the tracks, leaving Glasgow behind us for good.

We had actually purchased a rail-sail ticket through the Stena Line (one of the main ferry lines between Great Britain and Ireland) so thankfully there wasn’t much figuring out of things on our end once we boarded the train. We got off the train right at the station our coach departed from, and the coach took us right to the ferry terminal. Although not quite as much fun as the train ride, I enjoyed our time on the bus following the coast and zig-zagging through the little Scottish towns. Eventually, the winding roads started to get to me, and I was more than happy to tumble off the bus and head into the ferry terminal to await our journey across the sea.

If you are even needing to get from Scotland to Ireland and have the time, I highly recommend taking the sail-rail option instead of trying to get a flight. It is a long journey, but in my opinion it was completely worth it and a really relaxing way to see the country. The prices are pretty decent as well – better than taking a plane.

After waiting around in the ferry terminal for a good hour, writing an e-mail to my co-workers, and taking a short snooze, we began boarding. I’ve taken ferries from Door County’s mainland to Washington Island before, and I’ve taken even tinier ferries from Washington Island to Rock Island. But I wasn’t sure what to expect on such a big ferry. It had somewhere around 8 or 9 decks, lots of restaurants, private spa suites, video games, and in general was a giant floating money trap. On the inside, at least.

It also had a very nice sundeck on the outside, which was where Jason and I parked ourselves for most of the two-hour journey across the water. We happened to have a beautiful, sunny day that made for perfect traveling weather. The breeze off of the sea was cold but the sun was warm enough that it wasn’t unbearable. I did go inside at one point to warm up with a latte and make use of the free WiFi to send a Facebook message to my family. I think I was feeling somewhat inspired by the fact that I was chugging across the ocean to Ireland, not unlike our Irish ancestors chugging on their much longer journeys across the ocean to the US.

Scotland’s mountains gleamed behind us, and gradually disappeared out of sight. We watched the jellyfish bobbing on the surface and kept our eyes open for signs of land to the west – Ireland.

And then there it was – giant cliffs dropping down into the ocean, green fields broken by tumbling stone walls, and small fishing villages with their brightly-painted stucco houses bordering the sandy beaches. I stood and looked at it for a long time, paying attention to what I was feeling in that moment. Because after all these years of longingly looking at photos and watching Irish movies and constantly feeling like there was a part of myself I had yet to find, I was facing it.

Now, I should clarify – I am not 100% Irish. My maiden name was O’Boyle, but I am in fact maybe only ¼ Irish. The rest of me is a mixed bag of German, French, Native American, and English. But perhaps because I spent most of life trying to phonetically explain my very Irish last name (“Capital ‘O’, apostrophe, capital ‘B’….) I think I’ve always chosen to identify most with the Irish part of my heritage. Multiple times, I’ve had people tell me that I “look” very Irish – from complete strangers to uncles.

And so it’s always been sort of a dream of mine to visit the shores that were looming up ahead of me and rapidly approaching. I didn’t know exactly what I was hoping to find there, or what I thought I would feel. But I did feel something as we pulled into Belfast harbor – something akin not to coming home but to finding a piece of the puzzle and understanding better where I come from. It was a reverent sort of feeling, and I think I’ll leave it at that.

We made our slow docking in the harbor and tumbled off the boat with the throngs of other passengers. Eventually, through conversation with a very helpful bus driver, we got a ride downtown, transferred, and rode the bus out to the City Airport, where we picked up our second rental car. This one was a true manual transmission. The rental in Scotland had been labeled as a manual but was really just an automatic with the shifter located in the center console. Good thing Jason had driven a manual during his days as a Hawaiian.

One of the things that struck me the moment that we got off the boat was the intense friendliness of the Irish people. I’d heard about this – Irish people in general love to talk with anyone about anything. Not that the Scottish people had been rude, but they had been much more reserved in their interactions with us. Not so with the people in Belfast. The women at the bus stop clucked and chuckled over our “lovely accents”, the clerk at the rental car desk talked with us animatedly about her fond memories of Donegal.

Traveling road-trip style once again, we settled back into our roles: Jason doing his best to mind the different driving style and the manual transmission, me awkwardly navigating us across the northern half of the island by map and occasionally by phone when we felt a little uncertain of our location. I only managed to get us absurdly turned around once, when we stopped for groceries somewhere in Northern Ireland before crossing the border into the Republic of Ireland. For some reason, I kept getting my left and right turns confused. Granted, left and right are the same no matter what country you’re in, but because you take different actions with your right and left turns over there, I kept getting things turned around. Well, we made it to the grocery store regardless and then continued on our way.

We crossed into the Republic of Ireland not long after the grocery stop. This, for me, meant that we were truly on “Irish” soil. It looked the exact same as Northern Irish soil, for the record.

On we drove, over little rivers and past Irish mountains and green pastures. The landscape slowly became more rugged, and eventually the signs were entirely in Gaelic. We knew we were nearing our destination: a tiny little cottage in the hills of Donegal near the town of Kincasslough. I successfully navigated us along the winding, narrow roads until we came to a gravel lane and took that for a mile or so.

It was getting dark as we pulled up next to a white cottage with bright green windows – our home for the next few days. We drove a bit farther up the lane to check in with the owners, who welcomed us into their house warmly and had us sit down in the living room. Our short-term landladies were completely delightful. They were two German sisters who had immigrated to Ireland some twenty years ago. Not only that, but they were huge Tolkien fans and the majority of our conversations ended up circling back to hobbits and elves and New Zealand.

We sat and chatted with them for over an hour, and then Sabine (the younger sister) walked us back up to our cottage and showed us around. I’ve stayed in a handful of cabins, B&B’s, and hotels since marrying Jason and embarking on our various adventures, but nothing compared to this little haunt. It was so adorable I almost couldn’t stand it.

Now, the lady at the rental car desk had advised us that, if we wanted to meet people, we should park ourselves at the most “local” looking pub that we could find. We had no objections to this, except for the fact that we had forgotten to exchange our pounds for Euros and weren’t sure if a small local place would take a card. We attempted to locate a cash machine, and to give you an idea of how rugged Donegal is, it was impossible to find one after 9pm on a Saturday. We even tried the tiny airport up the road and found the gates locked up tight. Eventually, we decided to chance it and stopped in at Leo’s Tavern, up near Gweedore.

Now, if you know anything about Leo’s, well, you know that Leo’s daughters are Enya and Moria Brennan. It floors my mind to think that both girls got their starts in a tiny, humble pub somewhere up in remote northwestern Ireland. Needless to say, Leo’s Tavern has now become fairly well-known for its live musicians, and we were treated to a couple hours of driving Irish music played by two young lads from Dublin. They did take a credit card, by the way.

The band referred to themselves at The Shenanigans , and well lived up to their name. They picked Jason and I out of the crowd straight away, saying that we looked “exotic” and then continued to rib us from stage all night long. I think the only people they picked on more was a couple from Belfast…it was all in good fun though, and many laughs were had by all.

Completely content with our first night in my homeland, we made our way back to our cozy cabin and snuggled into bed up in the lofted sleeping area, under a skylight that revealed a half-full moon peeking out from the clouds as the wind picked up and pushed them along.

– Johanna