Skibbereen, on a wing and a prayer

Special to The Times

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're 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 B&Bs; 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 special blessing. And every member of our group had faith it would work. Any country that can produce a woman who radiates such warmth and love -- and who serves a breakfast so divine -- couldn't possibly let travel stress ruin perfectly good friendships and marriages.

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'd 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.


Putting things in 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 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, 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 for me, French toast with scrambled eggs for Emily, potatoes with a side of potatoes for Allison.

When we said goodbye to Joanna, 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."

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 or why the water is so much warmer than the Atlantic 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. "Mom, look!" said Erin. "Totally awesome!" boomed Hayden, marveling at the dazzling display of phosphorescence.

The Tinkerbells followed us as we paddled back to home base. Halfway there, Kennedy stopped our flotilla. "I want you all to close your eyes and stay totally quiet for three minutes. Just listen."

We stayed quiet, no mean feat for the exuberant 11-year-olds. I heard a barn owl. Then a heron. A cow lowed, far in the distance. Suddenly a fish jumped.

Kennedy said softly, "Remember this, how you feel and what you hear. When you're back home and stressed, close your eyes and come back here."

The next day, while Michelle took three of the kids to the Model Railway Village in nearby Clonakilty, the rest of us rented bikes from Roycrofts Cycles and set out for the harbor village of Baltimore. We took a back-road route, getting lost only twice. It was longer and more difficult than we expected, but the payoffs were tremendous: flying downhill on a barely paved lane past walls of dripping red fuchsias; discovering a little shrine draped with beads and offerings, in the middle of nowhere (later we learned it was St. Brigid's Holy Well, a tiny natural spring long credited with curative powers); cresting a rise to discover the fishing boat-dotted bay of Baltimore sparkling below.

Skibbereen locals recommended a pub called the Paragon, so that evening the adults settled into a cozy nook with our pints and listened to the low-energy musicians. Thirty minutes later, emboldened by the Guinness, our friend Jim whispered in the ear of one of the two guitar players and then vanished, returning shortly with his accordion. Jim played with reserve and respect, adding richness to the guitar-and-pennywhistle tunes. But just the presence of a newcomer, an American no less, invigorated the room.

Over on the barstools, two mismatched companions who seemed to be regulars -- a massive young man who looked like a "Sopranos" goombah and a tiny, white-haired gent -- let it be known that they'd like to try a tune, and much to our amazement, the huge fellow sang a cappella in a wonderful, booming baritone. Then his elderly friend gave us a tune in such a sweet, pure tenor that all the women at my table started to cry.

Now the musicians really hit their stride. Jim sang a Mexican folk song; the little white-haired man led the entire pub in singing "The Galway Shawl," which is to sentimental Irish what "Danny Boy" is to sentimental Irish Americans. As the hour grew late, the musicians jammed, mixing jazz and Dylan and Irish riffs. It was the perfect Irish pub music night in the perfect Irish pub in the perfect Irish village, and I will keep it with me as long as I live.


Royal ruins

OUR route back to Dublin took us through Tipperary to the town of Cashel, home of the Rock of Cashel, a magnificent pile of 4th century church-fortress ruins on a hill overlooking miles of farmland. The Rock was home to kings and bishops, and St. Patrick is said to have baptized royalty here. I've seen my share of medieval stone piles, and this one is worth a considerable detour, much more rewarding than the schlocky Blarney Stone.

While the younger kids scrambled around the ruins and grounds, the adults and the older girls followed a tour guide with a gift for communicating his love and knowledge of the Rock. He showed us the finest Romanesque chapel in Ireland, pointing out the richness of detail in the faded frescoes. He brought the cold, ruined cathedral to life with his stories, and he showed us the evidence of rebuilding projects over the centuries, necessitated by repeated attacks from invading forces.

Cashel's other claim to fame is Bru Boru, a cultural center dedicated to preserving Irish music and dance. Seven of us decided to try the performance, put on nightly in summer in its theater.

Our hearts sank when we saw the tour buses out front. Jim said, "If the music is canned, I'm out of here." Our fears of Lucky Charms-style Irishness, however, proved unfounded. Vocalists sang a cappella, dancers displayed amazing skill, and musicians played only traditional Celtic instruments (flutes, pennywhistles, fiddles, bodhran drums, accordions and harps, but no guitars or mandolins).

After the show, we moved to a pub-style room, where the performers teach guests Irish dances. It was Nora's 12th birthday, so the whole place erupted in a rousing "Happy Birthday." Emily and I attempted a jig, a middle-aged man from Ohio sang "Danny Boy," an elderly couple from Michigan danced a polka, and Emily Muldoon, an American teenager who looked as though she should be in the cast of "The O.C.," stunned the room by playing a pennywhistle with incredible passion and talent.

We stepped out of the theater into the dark summer evening. The Rock loomed above us, stars blinked, and Nora and Emily hummed Irish jigs and danced down the stone street. Joanna's blessing was still with us.



A rousing time on the Emerald Isle


From LAX, Aer Lingus offers nonstop flights to Dublin; Delta, American, Continental and Lufthansa offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $418 until April 30 and $548 during May.


To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 353 (the country code for Ireland) and the number, omitting the initial 0.


Ashbourne House, Slieverue, County Waterford, 051-832037, A quirky but comfortable B&B; in quiet horse country just outside Waterford City. Doubles $85, including breakfast.

Garnish House, Western Road, Cork City, 021-4275111, This welcoming B&B;, near the university and within walking distance of the old part of town, serves a world-class breakfast. Doubles from $134, including a superb breakfast.

Eldon House, Bridge Street, Skibbereen, 028-22000, A comfortable small-town hotel with quiet rooms but a dreary breakfast. Doubles from $107, including breakfast.

Kilronan House, 70 Adelaide Road, Dublin 2; 01-475-5266, This inn, an easy walk to St. Stephen's Green, makes up for its cramped quarters with a fine breakfast, a peaceful neighborhood and the kind-hearted helpfulness of owner Terry Masterson. Doubles from $184, breakfast included.


The Thirsty Scholar, Western Road, Cork; 021-427-6209, A lively pub with an old interior and a young clientele drawn from the local universities. Music ranges from the traditional to college-party bands.

The Paragon, 29 Main St., Skibbereen; 028-21772 A relaxed, friendly pub that often showcases terrific traditional live music.

The Tzar, Bridge Street, Skibbereen; The dining room above this popular pub has surprisingly good food -- try the wild Irish salmon on a bed of leeks.


Famine Ship Dunbrody, JFK Trust, the Quay, New Ross, 051-425239,

Atlantic Sea Kayaking, the Abbey, Skibbereen, 028-21058,

Bru Boru, Cashel, 062-61122,


Tourism Ireland, (800) 223-6470,

-- Colleen Dunn Bates

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