"What you up to?"
"Shall we go to Ireland?"
"Aye, go on then."
I’m not daft. I knew the main reason Kev specifically wanted to drive round Ireland was that I’d just bought a 1972 racing green MGB. After a decade of bangers, it was my first grown-up car and was a little cracker. Kev used to be a semi-successful rally driver so he offered to do most of the work behind the wheel. It was his not-very-subtle plan to get his hands on my car and thrash it. I didn’t care, a few restorative days away would do us both a world of good.
I love Ireland and at that time had seen much of the east side of the country (Dublin, Belfast, Portaferry, Strangford Lough and the Mourne Mountains) so I suggested we travel round a bit to parts I hadn’t seen, the south and west — the Atlantic coast. We packed a couple of tents, shoved some T-shirts in our bags and set off from Yorkshire to Swansea to catch the ferry to Cork.
Such friendliness from a soul we’d encountered just minutes earlier was not to be refused so we said our farewells to Donal and set off in the general direction of Bantry.
The plan was so simple as to be non-existent; without a map, we’d travel somewhere that took our interest, stay a while and then move to another. Amazingly, even this humble scheme almost failed as soon as we reached Cork. We were walking down Oliver Plunkett Street — one of the main shopping streets — because Kev wanted to buy a coat but, easily bored, I declared that I’d see him in whatever was the next hostelry on the left. This took me up a set of stairs to a one-room pub – above a hairdressers – called the Hi-B Bar. I now realise the significance of the Hi-B (it’s recently been voted one of the best 5 pubs in Ireland), but back then I just knew that I never wanted to leave. Hang the drive round the coast; here was everything I expected from Ireland — a cosy pub, a pint of the dark stuff, a whole roast suckling pig on the bar, a fella playing Stones tunes on a piano in the corner and happy, chortling Irish folk ready with a quip in every nook of the room. Bliss.
Kev eventually arrived and, after another few hours, convinced me we should move on. Mainly because we hadn’t yet found anywhere to sleep that night. After waking in a hurriedly found but fabulous B&B — with a full Irish breakfast — we set off west down the N71 with the top down and the stereo up.
Because I’m a sucker for ancient sites, we stopped for a look at the stone circle at Drombeg and then, after just an hour or so of ooh-ing at the lush greenness of the views, we found ourselves in the lovely little town of Skibbereen. Too early for lunch, we took a toby down the way for a paddle on the glorious beach at Tragumna. The place was deserted save for one old bloke in waders, beach-fishing for gilt-head bream. After chatting a while about all the fish he was plucking — seemingly at will — from the sea, he asked our destination. We told him we were just travelling up the coast with no real plan. "Well, if you make it as far as Cahersiveen, look up the Bonnán Buí and ask for Kathleen. Tell her Donal sent you and she’ll put you up for the night." I told him thanks very much but how does he know? "She’s my daughter. I’ll ring and tell her to expect you." Such friendliness from a soul we’d encountered just minutes earlier was not to be refused, so we said our farewells to Donal and set off in the general direction of Bantry.
On a previous trip to Ireland, I’d had Bantry Bay mussels and wanted them again, so we soon found a guesthouse in the town, had a swift pint in the marvellous Ma Murphys (half pub, half shop, all Irish) and settled into O’Connors restaurant for an afternoon of their famous mussels in white wine and cream. And then, somewhat inevitably, we rejoined the gang in Ma Murphys for an evening of singing and storytelling.
The next morning we were determined to see more countryside so we headed inland to the small but perfectly spectacular Killarney National Park. A walk round Lough Leane to take the air, a visit to Ross Castle (because you can’t beat a good machiocolation) and a slow drive through the miles of forest to take in the views and then we awayed to Cahersiveen. That you can see so much so quickly is one of the joys of Ireland and, because the scenery is amazing every step of the way, it never feels like you’re simply travelling between locations. The journey is just as enjoyable as the arriving.
At Cahersiveen, we found the town in the middle of their annual music festival. For three days a year, the thousand or so permanent residents are joined by many thousands more and they all dance and sing in the streets. Needless to say, every bed in the town was taken so, when we entered the Bonnán Buí and asked for Kathleen, hopes weren’t high. "Kathleen," yelled the barmaid we’d asked, "the lads your da sent are here." And from round a corner appeared Kathleen. "You’ve picked some time to make pals with me da," she laughed and bade us follow her out of the pub.
Kathleen showed us round the corner to her house. "You have tents, lads?" We nodded."Then the garden's all yours. Here’s a key for the back door in case you need the bathroom." And then she set off back to enjoy the festivities. We’d known her under five minutes, and we had the key to her house.
Some of them I’m still in touch with and some I’ve been back to visit.
After throwing our tents up, changing clothes and washing, we wandered back to the village square to see how the day was going. Obviously, it was fabulous with all types and ages enjoying the festivities with smiles on every face. While we stood and ate local cockles while watching Terrier racing and having an "only in Ireland" moment, I spotted that the headline band was one I knew. Not just in a "I’ve-heard-of-them" way, I actually knew them. I’d toured with them in Germany a few years before. We found them unloading their equipment just after they arrived and there was much rejoicing. They even pulled me onstage during their set to shake a tambourine and sing backing vocals on a couple of songs.
After the gig, we retired to the pub where the party continued through the night. Kev volunteered to go to bed early so he could drive the next day, and I stayed with the band and our new friends from the town. The next day around mid-morning, Kev picked me up from the pub, and we set off further up the coast.
Before travelling back across country from Galway to Dublin and our ferry back home, we spent another three days travelling in a similar style; we drove round the Shannon Estuary as far as beautiful Inch Beach, where we watched the spectacular sunset as we made camp. We woke to the sight of mist and clouds enveloping the nearby Slieve Mish Mountains. We borrowed some clubs and hacked our way round Tralee Golf Course, and we found the Blackrock diving board at Salthill and fell from it into the sea. Every day we found adventure and every night we found new friends. Some of them I’m still in touch with and some I’ve been back to visit.
The moment that lives with me when I think of that trip to Ireland, though, is when we met the band at the festival in Cahersiveen. It was one of the most magical things; if we hadn’t met the old man on the beach, if he hadn’t been so friendly, if his daughter had not been so accommodating, then I wouldn’t be reunited side-stage with the lads in the band. It was partly fortune but mainly the goodness of Irish people that had brought us to that spot at that moment, a load of Yorkshire lads reveling in the amazing, friendly atmosphere of a small Irish town.
I’ve been back to Ireland many times, and next year I’m planning to return to the south-west coast, this time with my kids in the car, a tent in the boot and no thought of once looking at a map.