It’s Savage Craic: Western Ireland by Richard Bangs

It begins, as all good Irish stories, in a pub. Sitting, Guinness in grip, with old friend Karen Coleman, a radio and television host in Dublin, she effluxes: “You’ve got to go to the west of Ireland. It’s good craic??” So, a spell later a road trip ensues, with traveling pal (and erstwhile Everest summiter) Didrik Johnck. We recruit Ciarán Ganter, 16-year-veteran local guide, as escort, and in rented silver Mercedes Viano set out to craic the code.

It’s a bit of a haul from Los Angeles to Shannon, so arriving in the pearly light of early morning Didrik and I are a tad rattled and in need of a pick-me-up: something to sooth the nerves, yet keep us awake. So, Ciarán wheels us over to the Foynes Flying Boat Museum, where the original Irish Coffee was invented. Foynes, it turns out, was once the center of the universe, the original server farm for the world wide web, as from 1935 to 1945 it was the terminal for the first long-haul planes, the flying boats. “It was a mini-Casablanca,” pipes director Margaret O’Shaughnessy, whose grandfather was the communications manager for Foynes, meaning that, like Paul Revere, when a plane skid in he rode around town on his horse alerting folks to come and offer up food, drink and services. This was the hub, the vital link, as planes radiated from here to Newfoundland, New York, Africa, Brazil, Bermuda and the good of the Continent. But the flights didn’t always go as planned. In the winter of 1943 a Pan Am Clipper was nearing the half-way point to North America as a storm over the North Atlantic tossed the plane around like a cork in heavy seas. The pilot decided to turn around, and arrived back at Foynes in a wee hour of the night, with passengers cold, damp and unnerved. Joseph Sheridan, the local chef, was asked to concoct something for their condition, and splashed some Powers Irish whiskey into cups of coffee, dolloped on some heavy cream, and served ‘em up. “What is this? Brazilian coffee?” a delighted passenger asked. Joe thought for a moment, then, “Nope…Irish Coffee”….and a wicked neologism was born.

Grainne Walsh, the museum accountant, is our barista, and she shows the technique, and offers up that Irish Coffee provides in a single glass all four essential food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat. Ever seeking good health, we each order two more glasses. Buzzed yet groggy we make our way to our motel, a little Renaissance roadside attraction called the Dromoland Castle, ancestral home of the O’Briens, Barons of Inchiquin. My word. Even in the dungeon, where I bore down to find my room, the accommodations are bloody royal, though the wallpaper you would not wish for your home, or Oscar Wilde’s, whose last words reportedly were “Either the wallpaper goes, or I do.” And there’s no cell service. I overhear an American guest in the lobby, “Why did they build the castle where there aren’t any cell towers?”

Motel Dromoland

But sleep is not yet a companion, so we make a visit to tweedy flat-capped fellow Dave Atkinson, the on-grounds falconer. Dave has his head in the clouds, literally. He’s taller than Big Bird, and as such is an ideal beacon for raptors, a name derived, he informs, from the Latin word rapere, meaning to seize or take by force.

Dave is a kind of raptor wrangler, and as such takes us on a hawk walk, across a swath of the 410 acres of castle grounds, introducing Limerick, a female peregrine whom he plucked from a seaside cliff overlooking County Limerick at 4 weeks old and has nurtured into adult hood. And of hoods, Limerick wears a tidy leather one over his head, “where the term hoodwinked comes from,” so says Dave, as he lifts the cover and off to the treetops wheels the bird. Then when Dave swings a rope with a dead mouse attached in a wide circle, Limerick comes swooping, winged lightening, precision predation. “Eyesight is six times better than ours. The fastest living thing in the world, 240 miles an hour,” Dave crows as I evoke a more considered avifauna, and duck.

Which brings us to dinner, a recherché affair with a menu of fish, fowl and hearty viands, from pot-roasted guinea fowl to grilled paillard of swordfish to duck confit in the Earl of Thomond restaurant. I indulge in the loin of glazed suckling pig, and afterwards make my way through the labyrinthine hallways lined with mullioned windows and portraits of the O’Brien clan, down the dank stairs, and fall, bloated yet unshackled, into bed.

What is Ireland but an ever greenway? We take to the links this first morning, wearing two pair of socks, not just because it is nippy, but in case we get a hole in one. We steer into the Lahinch Golf Club, the “St. Andrews of Ireland,” as much for its beastly weather as its dunes, which wave to a sea supple with surfers. The weather is actually quite agreeable, though with some blust, sending balls to the far end of the links, where graze a couple of oblivious goats. Back at the clubhouse we find why the blessed skies, as a sign in the locker room instructs: “See the goats for the weather. If goats near the clubhouse, bad weather. If at the dunes, good weather.” We ruminate on that for a moment and then pile in the van and continue up the road.

Swinger at the Lahinch Golf Club, photo by Didrik Johnck

It’s a lonely and treacherously beautiful road roving under a big sky, lined with flagstone fences, showered in chiaroscuro and ethereal northern light. We pass the Submarine Café, across from which John P. Holland invented the submarine; and then we come upon a figurine of Dusty the Dolphin, after Dusty Springfield, as when her ashes were tossed into the sea near here, a female dolphin appeared, and witnesses dubbed the marine mammal with the eponymous tag. And we pass a string of shuttered pubs. “A good puzzle would be to cross Ireland without passing a pub,” James Joyce quipped. But with the fall from Celtic Tiger to Celtic Kitten in the past years, and with new indoor anti-cigarette laws and stricter laws on drunk driving, folks are staying closer to home. Ciarán refuses to even take a sip of Irish Coffee at lunch for fear the consequences. Pint-sized Ireland just got smaller. “But the craic stays big,” promises Ciarán.

Later, we head downtown to a proper Irish pub, and quite providentially turn into the bright blue doorsill of The Quays, reeking with age, as the interior is the transept of a medieval church, complete with stained glass, Gothic arches, and pews. Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder here, so we belly up and order a pint of Irish mothers’ milk, aka Guinness. The verger-barkeep Simon Powell asks, “Want to see how I pull a perfect pint?”

He first double cleans a dry glass, and then holds it at 45 degrees under the spout. He slowly pulls the handle and allows the beer to flow smoothly down the side of the glass. As the glass fills, he straightens the glass. He then stands the glass on the counter and allows the gas to surge through the beer. To create the fabled head, he pushes the handle backward slightly, topping off the brew as the head rises just proud of the rim. Then he adroitly swirls the glass to etch a shamrock in the foam. For the denouement, he picks up his stout, holds it up to the light where a gleam steals into his eyes, and with an economical nod says, “That’s savage craic!”

In the footsteps of history

Yet the pièce de résistance of the trip comes that evening, after Karen Coleman, who inspired this quest, calls and says she is in Galway visiting friend Dr. Frank Sullivan, and asks if we would we like to join for a dinner of whelks and home-made Irish stew. We spend a few delicious hours sipping, feasting and recounting the wanderings and encounters of our rove through western Ireland. As the night winds down, Karen lathers the summary question, “So, all in all, how was it?”

What else could ever be returned? “Karen…it’s absolutely impossible to describe. But I’ll try….We had great craic!”