West Coast Story
Winter is just the right time to tour the beautifully rugged west coast of Ireland, says Turtle Bunbury, who samples its live music scene and legendary craic
One minute I'm having a quiet pint in a charming west Kerry pub, sprawled beside a flickering log-fire, my toes rattling along to an old fellow playing a polka on a squeezy box, thinking "ah yes, this is the only way to pass the long, dark winters". The next thing I know, I'm submerged in ice-cold seawater, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, repeatedly banging my head on a surfboard I can't control.
Well, OK, maybe there were more than a few minutes between the two events. And perhaps more than a few pints too. Which is presumably what "inspired" me to sign up to a late morning's surfing on the strand of Castlegregory in the midst of an Irish winter.
Despite my semi-aquatic name, I am not and have never been a surfing dude.
I always wanted to be, but my attempts to stand up on a board, let alone ride the rides, have been consistently futile. But the incentive to stay out of the water increases considerably once you find yourself surfing the sub-zero waves that rumble down the coast of the Dingle Peninsula. Aided by an inconceivably patient teacher (see www.jamieknox.com), and a hooded O'Neill Pscyhofreak winter wetsuit that keeps me miraculously warm, I am astounded to discover that, after two hours of solid surfing lessons, I can stand upright for several seconds at once. Not to brag.
Any trace of a hangover has long since been washed away when I make my way over the Conor Pass to Dingle town for celebratory refreshments. The journey, though precarious in places, is one of the finest in Ireland, leading me past snow-capped mountain peaks, plunging cliffs, meandering rivers and oxbow lakes. This is a landscape that needs to be enjoyed close up, so if you're here on the weekend of 18-19 February, give the Dingle Walking Festival (www.dinglewalkingfestival.com) a whirl. You'll discover why National Geographic Traveler described the Dingle Peninsula as "the most beautiful place on Earth".
The town of Dingle is perhaps one of the most fun places you can go in Ireland. It was not ever thus. Along the walls of Dick Mack's pub are a series of early 20th-century photographs recalling a time when this coastal enclave was little more than muddy roads and thatched cabins. But that was then. The town came to prominence when David Lean's Oscar-winning masterpiece Ryan's Daughter was filmed locally in 1968, and also garnered considerable attention through Fungie, a fun-loving Bottlenose Dolphin who swam into the harbour in the early 1980s and has been based here ever since. But it's the "craic" of the pub life, as the Irish call it, that makes Dingle a cut above.
There are stacks of wonderful pubs in this small town. J. Curran's bar, which doubles up as a general merchant and drapery, is a straight-up classic. Among its regulars are bachelor brothers Stevie and Timmy Kelleher, who have hit upon a canny solution to the drink-driving conundrum. Even though their farm is less than 3km from Curran's, they know better than to risk driving home after a few. And so they now have two houses - the farmhouse, where they spend most of their days, and a townhouse in Dingle, where they "rest" on drinking nights.
Down the road, Dick Mack's pub still has the cobbler's shoeboxes rolling up the walls, just as they did when owner Oliver McDonnell's father established himself as the town's foremost boot merchant. Oliver, who was born and raised here, has since converted the old family kitchen, sitting and dining areas into alternative drinking spots for his customers. By night, it seems as though every rattan stool, bentwood chair and scuff-resistant step is occupied by someone of a different nationality. Everywhere the banter is in full flow. When the music starts, all ankles stir. If these people are not Irish, they sure want to be.
From Dingle, I head back east via Annascaul, where one of the pubs is a veritable shrine to its one-time publican, the Antarctic explorer Tom Crean; Tralee, home to the world-famous Rose of Tralee contest; and Listowel, a major horse-racing centre that hosts a popular horse fair every year.
I get my first proper glimpse of the broad, majestic Shannon from a pier at the back of Finucane's pub in Ballylongford. This is the longest river in Britain or Ireland, its earliest waters rising from the sphagnum mosses of faraway County Cavan. Finucane's once belonged to the entrepreneurial and prosperous O'Rahilly family, one of whom became the only rebel leader of the Easter Rising of 1916 to die in action. They owned a pub, two creameries, and an enormous corn mill that ran along the riverbanks. At one end of the bar counter is the yardstick once used by the pub's in-house tailors to measure arm lengths. Customers would sit at the bar and drink a pint or two, while their tailor proposed different colours and cloths.
Onwards to Glin, famous for its charismatic Knights of Glin - the 29th and last of whom passed away in 2011 after a lifetime in which he promoted the wonders of Georgian architecture in Ireland, as well as Irish furniture and art. His home at Glin Castle has an epic history. Many centuries ago, a son of the then Knight of Glin was captured during an assault by an English fleet. A message was sent to the Knight stating that if he did not surrender, his son would be blasted from the ship's canons against the castle walls.
He boisterously replied: "Fire away, there's plenty more where he came from!"
Back a little west of Glin is the small town of Tarbert, with its handsome but eerie gaol, from where I take a short ferry across the Shannon to Killimer in south Clare. Clare is known as the Banner County on account of all the flags and banners unfurled in support of Daniel O'Connell, the emancipator of Irish Catholics, when he was elected to represent the county in Parliament in 1828.
As legendary Irish songwriter Christy Moore puts it: "If it's music you want, go to Clare." From top to bottom there's no shortage of marvellous musical venues in the county. The town of Doolin, gateway to the Burren and Aran Islands, hosts the Micho Russell Memorial Weekend (www.michorussellweekend.ie) on the last weekend of February (24-27). Innumerable kindred souls will gather for recitals, workshops and sessions - prearranged and spontaneous - in honour of one of Ireland's finest musicians.
Nearby, Kilfenora is rightly considered one of the finest places you could be on St Patrick's Day (17 March), with a splendid parade and a lively session, starring the Kilfenora Ceili Band. It runs until the small hours of the morning and attracts musicians from all over the world.
Just be careful, because you might think you're supping safely on your drink, listening to the band play with no place else to go, only to awaken abruptly in a bracingly cold ocean with a surfboard attached to your ankle.
Traditional music, or "Trad" is a massive part of life on the Dingle Peninsula. If you want to get in on the act you can attend the Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh (www.scoilcheoil.com), a traditional music school that takes place in Ballyferriter from 15-19 February.
North of the Shannon, Sixmilebridge (www.wmw.ie) in County Clare is the place to be on Friday nights, when the Greyhound Bar hosts a traditional session from 10pm onwards. It's also worth keeping an eye on the line-up for Glór Ennis, the main stage in the county town of Ennis, offering a hearty array of music, theatre, comedy and more (www.glor.ie).
Hit The Traditional Music Shop on Fisher Street in Doolin to buy recordings of local musicians, sheet music and traditional instruments (www.irishmusicdoolin.com).
Take the Father Ted tour
If you're a fan of Father Ted, the hit 1990s TV sitcom about bumbling Irish priests, consider a trip with Ted Tours (www.tedtours.com). You'll be dressed up as a nun or a priest and escorted on a grand tour of the locations in County Clare used in the programme, from Craggy Island to the Very Dark Caves. "Go on!" as the show's Mrs Doyle would say.
The best way to get to Dingle is to fly to Kerry, served by Frankfurt (Hahn) and London (Luton and Stansted), then pick up a hire car at the airport from Hertz (www.hertz.com). Ryanair's exclusive rental partner offers special rates for passengers when you book your flight. Alternatively, you could do this trip in reverse starting in Doolin, in which case it's worth flying to Shannon.
In Dingle, try the inexpensive Hideout Hostel, which caters for independent travellers and families with its mix of dorms and private rooms (www.thehideouthostel.com). In Doolin, try the moderately priced Ballinalacken Castle Hotel (www.ballinalackencastle.com), a gorgous manor house with an award-winning restaurant and amazing views of the Aran Islands.