Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Midlands and Slieve Bloom

My Nissan Micra parked in the city of Birr
I have been preparing for this day since I first landed in Ireland:  today I am going to take to the road. More specifically, to the wrong side of the road.

For last year’s trip to New Zealand, I had planned our itinerary carefully so that Nancy and I would not have do any driving, hoping to avoid any unnecessary personal tension as well as conflicts with others—or between ourselves.  That was the right decision for that trip: we were able to travel around New Zealand’s North Island with the much-appreciated service of our personal chauffeur, my sister DeEtte, and all over the South Island on buses and planes.

Ireland, however, is a different story. Once Nancy arrives, in order to see what we want to see in the time we have to see it, we’re going to have to rent a car and drive.

So to prepare, I have been purposefully and mindfully observing traffic. I’ve consciously allowed my mind to make its own natural shift. Now, at the end of my first week, I find that watching cars move along the left side of the road is no longer startling. It definitely does not appear “wrong” or even “cute.”  It just is. So I guess I have become accustomed to it—at least mentally.  The proof would come when I got behind the wheel myself.

After checking out of the hotel and leaving all my things (except a small traveling bag and the backpack with my computer) with the bell hop, I walked to the Budget car rental office, which is across the street from where I catch the bus every morning.

Since the car was parked at the top of a parking garage just a few blocks away, the first “traveling” I did was around and around the top level until I felt comfortable sitting on the right side of the car and shifting with my left hand.  Fortunately, there was no one else on that level who might call the police about some crazy guy driving in circles around the garage.

6th-century Abbey of Clonmacnoise
When I began to feel relaxed and confident, I headed out onto real streets.  I had planned my route for exploring the Midlands ahead of time and, fortuitously, found that I could take the same route my bus takes to get me to work in the morning. I had originally thought I would not get on the expressway, but decided that that would actually be the best place to be for a while.

My first stop was at Clonmacnoise, the ruins of a sixth-century monastery with some of the best high cross sculptures in the country. 

High Cross at Clonmacnoise
Clonmacnoise on the Shannon
It is situated on the banks of the Shannon River, which adds somewhat to its allure. I actually was quite impressed, especially trying to fathom how old the structure really was. 

After walking about the grounds—which were a little wet from a recent rain—and watching a short movie, I headed toward Birr. Along the way, I passed acre after acre of peat moss farms. They were laid out like conventional farmland, but very, very dark and damp.
Peat Farm near Shannonbridge

When I had planned to pass through Birr, I had thought I might want to stop and visit a castle there.  Instead, I was content to park across from a little town garden and eat the sandwich I had cobbled together that morning from the breakfast bar in the hotel.

My primary destination of the day was the Slieve (pronounced Schleeve) Bloom Mountains.  I had read about the Glendine Route that goes over the range, and thought it would be a good way for me to experience the mountains without having to do a lot of hiking. (Due to some ongoing sciatic nerve issues, I am not able to hike very much right now.) The driving directions I had copied from the Internet were a little sketchy, so I missed the turn for the Glendine Route and didn’t realize it. When the road started taking me away from the mountains, I turned around and headed back. I stopped at a B&B to ask directions, but when no one answered the door, I headed back the way I came. Finally, I saw a sign that said Glendine Way and, thinking it was the road I wanted, turned and headed down it.  The further I went, the narrower the road got. Though the scenery beautiful, I was dismayed at the amount of logging that I could see going on. Whole hillsides had been cleared. I am sure the industry is regulated and that new trees are being planted, but I couldn’t see any evidence of that.  It was just sad.
Slieve Bloom Mountains

When I came to the end of that road and was not where I thought I should be, I determined that I had not been on the Glendine Route, but on a logging road. It had taken me through the Slieve Bloom Mountains and offered some wonderful views along the way, but I was very relieved to get off it before meeting any oncoming vehicles, because if I had, one of us would have had to go in reverse for several miles.

Logging Road through the Slieve Bloom
Try to imagine my situation: a white-haired American man driving an unfamiliar small car, first using a road atlas he had just purchased at a book store to figure out where he wanted to go, then switching to a cell phone with its GPS to determine where he actually was, and then trying to match the configuration of roads on the cell phone with those on the map to figure out which way he should be going. I had not yet figured out how to get Apple Maps to chart out directions, but at least it would tell me where I was. I could get Google Maps to give me directions, but not where I was at any given moment. So I had to keep going back and forth between the two apps, then check the atlas—the whole procedure was a little comical, but it worked!

The next stop was Emo Court and Gardens—well, the gardens, anyway, since the house was closed for the winter. Begun in 1790 by the first Earl of Portarlington, it was donated to the Irish people in 1994. It wasn’t that impressive—a little rundown on the outside, anyway—but the grounds and garden offered a nice respite from traveling in the car.

Emo Court
The final destination of the day was Tullamore, which right in the center of the country. The Sea Dew B&B was very nice and comfortable, so I was able to relax and do some blogging before dinner. Later I walked into town with a list of restaurants recommended by my hostess in hand.  At the first one I was told, “Sorry, but we’re completely booked.” I got the same response at the second. And at the third.  Apparently, every table in town was already reserved because it was Valentine’s Day. So there I was, tired, hungry, and alone—and to make matters worse, it was cold.

The hostess at the last restaurant on my list gave me directions to another place I could try, saying that if they couldn’t seat me, to come back and I could do take-out. No luck, so I went back. The hostess must have taken pity on this lone man while I was looking at menu, because she finally offered to let me have a table upstairs. It was nice to get out of the cold and to sit down, though I felt somewhat out-of-place as the only party of one in the whole restaurant.

After the good dinner I checked out a few pubs to see if I could find some music, but being too tired to stay up past 10 pm, I decided to call the day successful and head back to the B&B.

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