Tom Coyne, author of Paper Tiger, is making his way across Ireland on foot this summer, playing every links golf course in the country. In Fall 2008, he'll publish a book about his adventures, A Course Called Ireland. In the meantime, he'll be writing a travel journal for GOLF.com. This is the ninth installment; the rest are here.
Nine weeks on the road and I'm finally playing the back nine of this course called Ireland. All downhill from here. It hurts to know how untrue that is.
The last leg of the trip provided a nice boost of unexpected scenery and solid golf. The Antrim coast in Northern Ireland is relentlessly beautiful, and the road I walked took me along the water's edge for days, through rock tunnels, sending me out to viewpoint after viewpoint. The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge was as cool a tourist thing as any I've done in Ireland; it's not to be missed. After having made my way to Belfast, I can say that if I take one more picture of sea-splashed rocks and rolling green cliffs, my camera is going to explode. But if you've done the Ring of Kerry and think you've seen Ireland at its most beautiful, Antrim might have something to say about that. And in season, I still found the roads and the sights pleasantly uncrowded.
As was the golf course in Ballycastle. I had heard from friends that Ballycastle was a favorite town in Ireland, and I was eager to find out why, particularly after the pleasant but underwhelming reception I had received in places like Portrush and Castlerock. The people weren't rude, but I hadn't had a conversation with a stranger since arriving in Northern Ireland. Traveling solo, you really start to rely on a chat here and there.
The Ballycastle golf course was a bit confusing, a tad uneven, but the views were spectacular. From the clubhouse, you spot golfers off in the far distance, on top of some unreachable mountaintop, and you say, "We're going there?" And it is breathtaking once you finally get there. The first five holes are a bit sleepy, plain parkland holes winding their way around the ruins of Bonamargy Abbey, circa 1500, which keeps you interested enough until you work your way out to the wind. In the case of my brother-in-law Tim, who joined me along with my sister for four days, the Abbey provided a different opportunity, a stone wall off which he might play his tee shot on the fourth hole, ricocheting his ball out of the ancient graveyard and back into play.
I don't know what it is about Ireland, but it has been tough on my brothers-in-law. Brian has just recently recovered back in New Jersey, so I hear, and Tim had a tough enough time of his own. He nearly gave up and made camp along the A2 during our three mile walk to his B&B (this walking thing takes another newcomer by storm), and he white-knuckled it along the rope bridge over the Atlantic (Tim has a nasty fear of heights). But he also found himself braving ice cold showers (a tip when in Europe: electric showers, don't forget to pull that cord), and we all had to laugh when we heard that Tim had fought his way across a busy Ballycastle street, dodging traffic and jumping into the driver's seat of his car, only to find that, once again, someone had switched the damn steering wheel on him.
But I think his few days in Ireland became well worth it, when, on the sixth tee in Ballycastle, he hit a drive that went so far right it was almost traveling backwards, bouncing off a lovely white cottage that, in the 116 years of the golf club's existence, had probably never been struck by a golf ball. So after a week of tireless touring, it was nice to see Tim make some Irish history of his own.
And Ballycastle my friends were right, the town was brilliant. The members at the golf club tried their best to buy the visiting Americans a pint, and the publicans were friendly and forthcoming, lots of "Welcome to Ireland," "Enjoy your holidays." The fun Ireland, I was back. And the experience was repeated in my next town, Cushendall, where the bartender started me a fire, and I got in on a good game of hearts. So I came to wondering about this weird part of the world up here in the North. As you make your way around the coast, you can sense the temperature changing from mile to mile, from a polite indifference, to what, in contrast, feels like a hug. I asked my bartender in Ballycastle why this town was such good craic (fun) as opposed to the towns where I couldn't buy a conversation. And rather unabashedly, the young man explained, "The difference between those places and this place? Simple. Religion."
I happen to subscribe to my father's Navy days credo: talk of women, politics and religion are not allowed in the officers' club. So, I left it there and went back to my pint. And I think I'll do the same here.
But that does bring us back to the pub, and having made the turn, halfway to home, it seems time to touch on a pastime that can be as fundamental to an Irish golf trip as losing golf balls: the frequent and sustained enjoyment of adult beverages. Or, as they call it here, getting pissed.
Amazingly, I have somehow found my way into a few pubs during these last two months traveling Ireland. And in those visits, I've been delighted, disappointed, and sometimes, a little drunk. The pub scene here is changing, and it seems to be changing fast. Now part of big Europe, I've had as many Polish bartenders here as Irish ones, which sort of ratchets down the authentic old Irish family pub vibe. It's really no matter to me who's pouring the pints, though I did seem to be getting all the eastern European bartenders on their first day I'm still waiting for some of those Guinness pints to settle.
I've also gotten the sense that the rural pub in Ireland is fighting for its life. I've been told that a pub closes every day in Ireland, a crisis akin to global warming for a thirsty traveler like myself. The smoking ban and the more stringent drunk-driving laws are said to be the cause neither of which is a bad thing. Considering the time I spend dodging traffic, I'm particularly grateful for the latter. But the scene outside the cities, where folks are too anxious to drive to their local, is a little quieter these days. And when you've been on the road all day, walking into an empty pub, stuck with another night scouring a tabloid newspaper for an evening's entertainment, it seems something of a shame.
There is also no doubt that the finest place to enjoy a beverage in the world is still in an Irish pub. I've tasted the freshest Guinness of a lovely scarlet hue (good Guinness is red in its heart, not black) and haven't even had to tip for it (not because I'm cheap; that's just the custom). I've seen a dozen spontaneous sessions of Irish music pop up, friends and strangers passing around a guitar, new faces stepping into a pub to sing a song on their way home. Kids that can play the accordion and old men using their stool for a drum it's a great tradition, one I wish we had in our country, music made by the guests rather than the jukebox. Karaoke just doesn't cut it.
I've made too many friends in the pubs to list here, overheard a dozen arguments, even seen a few friendly fists thrown which isn't an oxymoron, at least in Killybegs, where I watched two lads slug each other in the chin before splitting a plate of chips. I've shaken with laughter, collected journals full of jokes, anecdotes to fill volumes. The pubs here aren't just a place to get pissed, though they seem to serve that purpose effectively they're a place to talk. And I'll leave you with my favorite bit of pub chatter yet. When I sat down next to a man named Michael in the Central Bar in Cushendall, we got to talking about my holidays, and I explained that I was here to play a little golf. And he turned to me and asked, "Have you heard about this American who's playing all the golf courses in Ireland? And he's walking his way around between them?"
And then came my favorite kind of beer in all of Ireland. The free kind.