Enjoying the charms of southern Ireland

Destination Europe

June 04, 2006|By COLLEEN DUNN BATES | COLLEEN DUNN BATES,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DUBLIN, IRELAND / / My family went to the far reaches of southern Ireland just so we could say "Skibbereen" as often as possible.

OK, that's an exaggeration. That's not the only reason we drove from Dublin to Skibbereen and back again. But go ahead, try it: Say "Skibbereen" out loud. There. Didn't it make you happy just to say it?

It wasn't easy, this road trip we undertook with two other families. Now that we are all back in our big American cars and houses, I marvel at how we managed to stuff six adults, four teenagers, three 11-year-olds and a week's worth of gear into two minivans -- not to mention into some of the bed-and-breakfasts we took over.

How could 13 people caravan from country inn to village hotel, wind-swept beach to music-filled pub -- while driving in crowded cars on the left side of the road -- and emerge on the other end still speaking?

I'll tell you how: Because Joanna Lucey, innkeeper at the Garnish House bed-and-breakfast in Cork City, gave us a blessing. And every member of our group had faith it would work.

Our traveling companions were friends made, as often happens in middle age, through our children. The Lang family consists of Jim, a composer and musician; Michelle, a therapist; Garret, 15; and Nora, 11. The Cook family is Jennie, a restaurateur and caterer; John, a landscaper; college student Allison, 19; college-bound Lindsay, 17; and Hayden, 11. Besides me, my family is Darryl, a TV editor; Erin, 14; and Emily, 11.

At Dublin Airport, we picked up the two minivans we had booked, which Europcar had said would each seat eight. In fact, they seated seven and had luggage room for three leprechauns, so we had to ditch some of our gear or a couple of the teenagers.

Tempting though the latter choice was, we winnowed down our gear to essentials, and Dublin's Kilronan House, where we would stay on our last night, was kind enough to stash the stuff.

Finding perspective

We headed south from Dublin in the afternoon rain and made it to the "famine ship" Dunbrody in New Ross just in time for the last tour of the day. A replica of the original Dunbrody, which ran aground in 1875, the cargo ship was modified to haul Irish emigrants to New York during the great famine of the late 1840s.

Unlike many of its fellow famine ships, the Dunbrody was not a "coffin ship" -- only a few people usually died onboard, compared with as many as half the passengers on some others. A guide took us below to the first-class and crew quarters, which looked painfully cramped by today's standards.

But that was nothing compared with steerage, where the vast majority of Irish emigrants were stashed. Each bunk, about the size of a king-size bed, held either an entire large Irish family or half a dozen single women or men who had never met.

The teenagers' complaints about the cramped B&B accommodations vanished after touring the Dunbrody.

We continued south to Cork and checked in late to the Garnish House. When we trooped in for breakfast the next morning, the lovely Joanna Lucey was waiting for us.

"Ah, my prayer was answered!" she said, radiant with happiness. "Last night, I was so worried about breakfast -- we have so many guests, you know, and if the 13 of you came in at the wrong time, I don't know what we'd do. But you came at just the right time."

Indeed we had. There were just enough seats in the two small dining rooms to accommodate us, and the sideboards were laden with wild strawberries, smoked salmon, fruit salads and muesli. On our tables were baskets of scones, croissants and brown bread. Then came the cooked-to-order feast: among the offerings, a full Irish breakfast and French toast with scrambled eggs.

When we said goodbye to Lucey, she handed a bit of pink ribbon to me and the other two mothers, Michelle and Jennie. "These were blessed on the feast day of St. Gobnait," she said. "I've asked her to make your way easier."

On to Skibbereen

After a lovely drive southwest through County Cork, we found the village of Skibbereen, where the buildings are as colorful as the flowers crowded into every window box. Later that evening, we set out for nearby Lough Hyne, the only inland saltwater lake in Europe and a marine nature reserve beloved by biologists -- and by kayaker Jim Kennedy, who leads nighttime excursions onto the water.

While we zipped into waterproof jumpsuits, Kennedy told us the mysteries of Lough Hyne. Despite years of intense research, scientists still don't know why its sea life is so similar to that of the far-away Mediterranean Sea or why the water is so much warmer than the Atlantic Ocean that feeds it. As dusk ceded to darkness, we launched our kayaks onto the lake.

We paddled while Kennedy told tall tales. By now it was deep night, with light coming only from the stars. That's when the magic began. We were paddling through seaweedy water when dozens of Tinkerbells began dancing around each paddle in a dazzling display of phosphorescence.

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