Driving on a fog-moistened slippery dirt road, perched precariously on the side of a mountain, is not everyone’s notion of the ideal vacation. Nor is it ours either. Yet for some reason here we were doing just that, while driving the Ring of Valentia on the far west coast of Ireland.

A wizened old billy-goat with a long gray beard, who had obviously seen it all before, watched us with a sense of amusement as we tried to keep our tires on the treacherous path. What we would have given at that moment to have that goat’s sense of sure footedness.

Lord of the Rings

49128650 - fogher cliff; valentia island; ireland

How did we get here? You see, for us the Ring of Kerry was a bit mundane. Everyone we knew who visited Ireland had been there and done that. The more remote Ring of Skellig, just beyond the Ring of Kerry, sounded intriguing . . . until we saw a note on our map that the even more remote Ring of Valentia, a circumnavigation of Valentia Island, was just beyond the Ring of Skellig off the coast of the Kerry Peninsula. The narrowness of the road precludes the tour buses which famously clog the Ring of Kerry, particularly in summertime. While not as famous as the other rings, the Ring of Valentia is no piker in the “sights to see” department.

So off to the Ring of Valentia we went, which is how we ended up in our present predicament, perched on a narrow path on the side of a cliff. The last signpost had stated “Slate Quarry 1 km.” On reflection I wasn’t sure why we were bothering to risk our lives to see a slate quarry in the first place. Then I remembered . . .

Heeding the Kerryman

We had been to a Vodafone store earlier in the week to pick up a SIM card for our phone. Upon learning we were heading west, the young salesman proudly piped up with “I’m a Kerryman myself” and recommended some of the less touristy sights. “You should definitely go see the slate quarry,” he said. Apparently it provided the slate for the Paris Opera House and the Houses of Parliament in London. It was hard to see what all the fuss was about, we had lived near one years ago in the Philly suburbs. We used to pass it on the way to the mall, and that quarry had seemed pretty unremarkable. But this was a recommendation from a Kerryman after all, so who were we to argue?

As the car wheels slithered along and kicked some gravel down the mountainside I thought to myself, “this is less touristy all right.” Probably because mounting deaths of visitors would be bad for tourism. Rarely have I felt in such imminent danger of dying on vacation. As my life passed slowly before my eyes, I realized Larissa was as terrified as I was. She didn’t have to tell me, her silence was enough. Rarely is my extremely chatty wife this quiet.

Cliff driving

Driving in Ireland

Note: This road in Ireland is not the road by the quarry. But I liked the sign.

To bolster my confidence I recalled prior challenging drives outside our comfort zone: like the time we drove on Route 1 overlooking the California coast; the road for which guardrails are shunned. At the time I kept reminding myself, “I never drive off the roads at home and there’s no reason having a massive drop next to the road should make me do it here.” But I hadn’t taken into account the logging trucks and RVs whizzing around every curve that had no regard for staying on their side of the centerline. Yet we somehow managed just fine. Or anytime driving in France, which I am told has the highest highway fatality rate in Europe. (Surprisingly it’s not Italy, the land of my ancestors.) Or even Boston, where rotaries (most people know them as traffic circles) are an invitation to anarchy . . . Which brings me back to our precarious situation clinging to a cliffside path in Ireland.

Here the danger wasn’t another car, but whether our own vehicle would continue to grip the slippery road or go sliding over one of the famous windswept cliffs of Ireland. Way down below us we could see the waves creating five-story high flumes as they crashed against the rocks of a lone lighthouse guarding the treacherous coast. As I navigated the next precarious turn, not far from my thoughts was the hope that I wouldn’t soon be seeing those waves up close.

It was essentially a one-lane road that carried trucks in both directions. The fact that at any moment a heavy rig laden with several tons of slate could come careening around at us only added to the drama. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, back up. It was a curvy road and (did I mention this part yet?) I was sitting on the opposite side of the car to what I am used to. I didn’t like my odds of backing up safely.

Your place or mine?

We finally made it to the end of the road and almost drove into the aforementioned slate mine. We were still under the illusion that the road connected to something, that by staying on it we could continue winding our way around the island. We didn’t realize it was a dead end. (A term we hoped would just be used metaphorically.) As the road got smaller and narrower and tighter we gradually realized it wasn’t a road anymore. The guys walking around wearing miner’s hats with lights attached to them should have been a giveaway at that point. Their faces strapped underneath the lights wore the same amused expression as the billy-goat a mile back. Eyes that had seen it all before.

At that point we realized that there was no other way out and we would have to turn around and traverse the treacherous way we had just barely made it in on. I thought of calling Hertz and telling them the car had broken down, but it was hard to picture a tow truck pulling the car to safety. So back we went. On our return journey it was worse for Larissa, as she was now sitting on the outside staring into the void, and crashing waves, below. Come to think of it, it’s probably always worse for Larissa.

Driving the Ring of Valentia

Ring-of-Valentia-Island-map

Despite our heart pounding experience we highly recommend driving the Ring of Valentia on Valentia Island, as long as you stick to real roads. From the west end of the island, off in the distance the craggy peaks of Skellig Michael loom over the Atlantic Ocean. This vista is familiar to anyone who saw the closing scene of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens when (spoiler alert) a grizzled Luke Skywalker finally makes his appearance. (Note the helpful Star Wars logo on the tourist map above.)

Nearby there’s also an interesting display that commemorates the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. It started out from this spot in 1866. Back in the day, this event was as significant as the modern-day birth of the internet.

 

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

 

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Maybe it seems unusual to visit a dusty old library on vacation. But because my dad was a dusty old librarian himself it doesn’t seem odd to me at all, particularly when it’s the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin. Dating back to 1592 it’s the largest library in Ireland with over 3 million volumes.

Pride of place is given to the Book of Kells, an illuminated gospel manuscript dating from the 9th century. (The library building itself was built between 1710 and 1732 so it’s almost a toddler in comparison.) While the Book of Kells would be justly famous for its age alone, it’s renowned for its spectacular artwork.

It was painstakingly written by a group of Columban monks around the year 800. After a Viking raid which killed many members of their community they moved inland to Kells, County Meath about 70 kilometers northwest of Dublin and continued work on the book.

The Book of Kells is displayed at the end of an exhibit titled “Turning Darkness into Light” which provides historical context for the manuscript.  The famous manuscript is actually four separate bound volumes of the four gospels. Two of the books are always on display and open to show a particularly resounding work of calligraphy. (These rotate throughout the year so you’ll see different pages if you go at different times.)

Trinity College Long Room bigger Irish Welcome ToursThe Long Room. Photo courtesy Irish Welcome Tours

Considering how the Book of Kells is such a national treasure, if there are no large tour groups present you’ll get to spend a fair amount of time perusing the Latin scrollwork and curlicued art.

Visitors stroll along the Colonnade and the appropriately named Long Room (it’s over 65 meters long) where 48 marble busts of notable historical figures including Aristotle, Shakespeare and Irish satirist Jonathan Swift mark the way. The Long Room also holds over 200,000 of the most revered books in the collection.

Manuscripts aren’t the only thing to see though. There’s a 15th-century harp, reputed to be Ireland’s oldest, and a rare copy of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which was read outside the General Post Office during the Easter Rising.

In addition to the Book of Kells, there are always a few temporary exhibits. A current one called “Emperor of the Irish: Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf (1014)” relates the tale of the first king who ruled over the entire island of Ireland and the Battle of Clontarf in which he vanquished Viking invaders. It sets the tone for Ireland’s long tumultuous history.

Visitor Information

Location: On the campus of Trinity College. Enter the campus at Nassau Street near Sraid Dasain Street.

Website: Visiting the Trinity College Book of Kells

Admission: You must purchase a ticket to visit the Old Library. Adults €10; students & senior Citizens €8; children under 12 free. Tickets may be purchased online.

Hours: Monday through Saturday 9:30 am to 5 pm; Sunday (May through September) 9:30 am to 4:30 pm; Sunday (October through April) 12 noon to 4:30 pm. Closed the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Note: Most guidebooks recommend going early to avoid the crowds. As usual we offer the opposite advice, go later in the day when you are more likely to avoid groups tours and all the people who got their early to avoid the crowds.

If you don’t want to get tossed out of Irish pubs in Dublin (or anywhere in Ireland, really) then don’t order a Black and Tan. I wish I had read that before we went there. Brush up on your Irish pub etiquette before visiting the Emerald Isle. Unfortunately I learned this lesson, as I so often do, the hard way.

What is a Black and Tan?

Black and tan--Guinness and Bass Ale

In America a Black and Tan beer is a popular drink poured with equal parts dark Guinness Stout and lighter colored Bass Ale (which is an English beer . . . we’ll get to that more in a bit). Despite its heavier taste, the Guinness is actually slightly lighter in weight and, if poured carefully, will actually “float on top of the lighter-colored (but more weighty) Bass. Black and tan drinks are an eye-catching display in the glass–one that tastes pretty good, too.

Real artisans will even use a special Black and Tan spoon. You turn the spoon upside-down, which helps the Guinness pour gently over the surface of the heavier ale.

What is a Black and Tan in Ireland?

In Ireland, though, Black & Tan drinks do not exist. The term has very negative connotations. Black and tan were the colors of the uniforms worn by the British paramilitary troops that were formed around 1920 to put down the Irish after the failed Easter Uprising. Their uniforms were a hybrid of military khaki trousers with dark (often black) jackets and black socks or boots. These soldiers, known as the “Black and Tans,” had fought in the bloodiest trench battles of World War I and were not about to be put off by rebels wielding rusty hunting rifles and pitchforks.

English Black and Tans harrassing the Irish locals in the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley

To get a better idea of what things were like back then, watch the film The Wind that Shakes the BarleyThe movie takes place when the Black and Tans were wreaking havoc on the Irish countryside. They responded to attacks from the newly formed IRA by burning houses, brutalizing the populace and engaging in all sorts of pillaging type activities. The movie features a young Cillian Murphy (most recently seen as the tough-as-nails crime boss in the Netflix series Peaky Blinders) in one of his earlier roles.

We had watched the film just before we left for Ireland. The Black and Tans are pretty much the villains of the piece. So mixing Guinness with an English ale might not be the best combination. After seeing yet another barn burning in the film I said to Larissa, in a rare moment of clarity, “maybe ordering a Black and Tan at Irish pub isn’t such a good idea,” so I forgot about it.

A lesson in Irish Pub etiquette (sort of)

But then, in a bit of good luck, (or so I thought at the time) on the flight over to Dublin I sat next to a talkative Irishman named Keith. Well, “talkative Irishman” is a bit redundant. I learned first-hand (for 7 hours—on an overnight flight) about the legendary Irish gift for gab. Keith has what many would consider to be a dream job. He works for Guinness and is a quality assurance inspector. This means he travels around America inspecting pubs to make sure that Guinness is being poured properly. Yes folks, you can get paid to drink beer.

I figured that someone who works for such a historic brewery in Ireland could shed some light for me on the whole “Black and Tan” thing. Keith assured me that it was okay to order the drink at an Irish pub in Ireland. He said that it referred more to a time period of Irish history and not the actual soldiers. I was a little skeptical but I was getting the info pretty close to the source, wasn’t I? (Spoiler alert: We should have done this VIP Guinness tour of the famous Guinness Storehouse first .)

A Black and Tan in the countryside? Maybe not.

So a few days later, after renting a car and brushing up on driving on the left, we found ourselves in a remote town on the Irish west coast. As we walked the streets we even heard locals speaking Gaelic. (Which they call speaking Irish but that’s another story.) I had worked up a bit of a thirst searching for rainbows, leprechauns and all things Irish, which is how we found ourselves in a a pub filled with afternoon revelers watching an intense game of pool. With Keith’s words in my ears I confidently strode up to the bar and ordered a Black & Tan.

Crickets.

The pub got deathly still. All heads turned to look at this interloper. The jukebox went mute and even the billiards balls stopped in mid-carom. The bartender gave me what my Uncle Charlie would call the hairy eyeball. “You want what?” he asked.

cow in ireland
Even this Irish cow grazing nearby couldn’t believe I’d tried to order a Black and Tan at a pub in Ireland

I stammered out another request for a Black & Tan. At this point, Larissa decided to abandon nearly 25 years of marital togetherness and started edging away from me. I heard a few murmurs in Gaelic, which made me wish my parents hadn’t burdened me with such an English sounding last name. I wanted to shout  “I’m 1/8 Irish!”, but fractions were never my strong suit.

Oh Bono, where art thou?

Like a slick politician on election eve I even tried pandering. “I really like U2,” I blurted out. This didn’t help. One of the pool players, who was wielding an inordinately large cue stick, came right back with “Bono should go save Africa already and leave us the feck alone.” “Wow! Tough crowd,” I thought. They don’t even kneel at the altar of St. Bono.

I realized then that the advice Keith had given me on the flight over was woefully wrong. Yep, that same guy who worked for Guinness!  (Come to think of it, his directions sucked too.) Ordering a Black & Tan at an Irish pub in Ireland is like walking into a bar in Warsaw and ordering an “SS Storm Trooper.” NOT a good idea. Suitably chastened I slunk towards the beckoning door, where my loving and supportive wife was already waiting outside, well away from the fracas.

I take some (small) solace in the fact that I’m not the only American to make this gaffe. In 2006 Ben & Jerry’s (yep, the ice cream guys) had to pull a new Black and Tan ice cream off the market in the US after an outcry from folks in Ireland. And the product wasn’t even being sold in the Emerald Isle–that’s some far-reaching bad feelings for the term Black and Tan!

What SHOULD you order in an Irish pub in Ireland?

Black and tan beer with shamrock

Okay, we now know the term “Black and Tan” is taboo. But what DO you order? Opinions vary here. As a result, there’s no clear answer. Some people suggest using the term “half and half,” which will be half Guinness and half a lighter Irish lager, such as Harp (remember, we’re not using English ales now!) One bartender we spoke to said that a “half and half” to him means 100% Guinness, with half of it chilled and the remainder poured at sightly below room temperature (more to the Irish palate). Hmm. You could also hedge your bets and order a “Guinness and Harp.” Either tastes great, and you can enjoy them without risk of your face getting rearranged.

But me? I’m staying away from the fancy stuff and just ordering straight Guinness from now on.

Bonus Irish Pub tip

I do give myself credit for having the good sense not to get an “Irish Car Bomb.” This is a concoction made up of Baileys, Kahlua (optional) and Jameson Irish Whisky. We saw someone order it at an Irish pub in Dublin. The bartender stopped in his tracks and told the offender he was lucky that he had asked for it in Dublin and not in one of the more contentious sections of Ireland. Needless to say, that drink order was refused. (So don’t be cute–don’t order one of those either.)

Don’t make our mistake . . . take a Pub Crawl tour and learn to do things the right way!


Or, to really understand Guinness, sign up for the VIP Guinness Tour at the Guinness Storehouse!


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It's just as important to know what NOT to do while visiting a Pub in Ireland!

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