August 12, 2013. Dingle, Ireland — Day 4 didn’t start well. A balky navigation system and bad directions from someone at the hotel sent us in the wrong direction,
north towards Killarney rather than west to Portmagee on the far edge of the Ring of Kerry.
I caught the mistake in time, changed course and drove as fast as I could on the narrow roads to get to Portmagee in time to catch the boat to the island of Skellig Michael, a steep, jagged pyramid of rock jutting from the sea where a small group of Christian monks lived over 1300 years ago.
The boat was small and open, and I had the worst seat, catching almost every wave that broke over the side of the boat. The one and a quarter hour trip was very rough. Katherine got sick on the way and by the time we got to the island, I was soaked (truth be told, I could have dressed better — i.e., rain pants and waterproofed hiking boots).
Despite our misery, the trip was worth it. Skellig is one of the most dramatic sites I have ever visited. It’s hard to believe that people actually chose to live there. It says a lot about spiritual commitment and the desire of some to be “close to God.” Once we got there, the guide warned us about the steep, exposed climb on ancient steps made of slabs of stone to the top where the monks lived and worshipped. People have fallen and died, she added. Several of the group on our boat decided to take a pass.
One thing you can say about exposed, steep climbs is that the views are incredible. The other thing you can say is that you’re crazy to look. I kept my eyes on the steps in front of me and peeked at the views only when I reached the occasional wide, flat turns in the trail.
It’s very eerie at the top. The remnants of monastic buildings and large crosses in the cemetery are framed against the grey sky. Great white sea birds swoop around you, impervious to the cold, wet bipeds clinging to anything they can get their hands on.
I didn’t stay long at the top. I was cold and wet and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be that close to God if it meant freezing to death or falling. I made my way down carefully and headed back to our boat. The return trip wasn’t quite as rough or wet, but I was still pretty chilled by the time we got back.
We dashed to our car and drove the short distance to the Moorings, our accommodations for the night. Before we could get out of the car, the proprietor, Ger Kennedy, came up to us with a smile that warmed my chilled body. He grabbed our bags, took us directly to our room, ordered hot tea, and put all of our wet gear and clothes in the hotel’s drying room.
After a hot shower, we climbed into Ger’s car for a tour of Portmagee and the surrounding countryside. Its easy to see why this charming fishing village won Ireland’s first ever Tourism Town of the Year award in 2012. I don’t know if it was the town or Ger, but I felt at home from the moment we arrived at the hotel. I could have stayed for days.
We ate dinner at the Moorings, which included the best seared blue fin tuna I have ever eaten, then went to the bar for an evening of traditional Irish music and dancing performed by the residents of Portmagee. They were not a band of professional musicians, though some had professional music experience, but they performed as if they were.
The warmth and spirit of everyone in the bar – Ger, the musicians, the patrons – was infectious. They all knew and clearly cared for each other and treated us as if we were old friends, not tourists passing through. As I sat there, it all came back to me, the feelings from my visit 44 years before — the welcoming warmth and the spirit of community.
That is what I most remembered about the men who lifted our car out of the ditch on that dark back road, or the guy who approached me in the bar at the Puck Fair to inquire about my ethnic persuasion, or the family of tinkers who passed me one drink after another later that same evening.
That is why I wanted to return to Ireland this year. I may not be Irish, but I chose to interpret “The Gathering,” the official tourism promotion inviting people of Irish descent from around the world to visit Ireland, more liberally. For me it was also about bringing back those who have been touched by the Irish in earlier trips. I was happy to return.