Farewell to Ireland

Farewell to Ireland

Coyne tees off on the 17th hole in Waterville.
Patrick Spellman

Tom Coyne, author of Paper Tiger, made 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 wrote a travel journal for GOLF.com. The complete journal is here.

This story started over a year ago, when I began circling golf courses on a map of Ireland. By the time I was finished, there were far more circles than I expected, and the map started to look less like a map and more like a challenge. What I had laid out was a vast, wandering golf course of its own, one long loop to end all others. I would play it all, and when I was finished, I might have learned — nay, earned — something important about this country that the tourists, the golfers, even the Irish themselves didn’t fully understand. Did it work? Was it worth it? Buy the book and find out.

I suppose this story really began 130 years ago, when a great-grandmother and her sisters left Crossmolina in Mayo, packed up their lives and stepped on a boat and headed to Scranton, Pa., never to return. When the road has gotten too tough, the time away from home wearing me down to my last bit of resolve, I’ve thought of my great grandparents from Swinford and Foxford and Crossmolina, and the courage and character it must have taken to leave their homes and set out on these roads, risking their lives for something better. My rainy walk feels like a Sunday stroll in comparison.

When I set off on this trip, I wanted to know more about the connection between Americans of Irish descent and this country, if it was more than Guinness commercials and Riverdance, more than shamrocks and cliches and an excuse to throw up in your hat on March 17. I wanted to know why so many Irish once wanted to be called American, and why so many Americans now want to be called Irish. I think I’ve got some answers beyond telling you that the grass is always greener. And with this summer’s endless showers, the grass over here is greener than ever.

I designed my itinerary so that I’d be saving the best for last, and as I work my way through Kerry toward Ballybunion, I think I’ve done just that. This southwest swing is tremendous, the tourist standard for good reason. We were blessed with a dry day in Waterville, and enjoyed a morning at Skellig Bay, a new course that is certainly worth your time. Owned by one of the men behind Old Head, it is a dramatic cliff-side golf course with spectacular views of waves crashing on an idyllic beach.

Just a few years old, the course still needs to grow up a bit, but a tad more definition and it could be a real stunner. I’d certainly play it before Waterville rather than after, because it’s tough to stand up to one of Ireland’s supreme links. Not only is Waterville a superb course, but it also has a lot to love besides the holes — the welcome from the Irish links legend Liam Higgins, the Payne Stewart memorial, the plaques and remembrances of the men who made the course what it is. Basking in the week’s first bit of sun, it was love we were feeling.

I wasn’t planning on visiting Ceann Sibeal at the tip of the Dingle Peninsula (it was a week’s walk that I just couldn’t squeeze in), but thanks to my cousin’s arrival, and his rental car, we were able to cheat our way out to Ireland’s most westerly golf course, and I’m grateful that we did. Crawling my way up the uphill 18th, fighting stinging rain and a 60-mile-an-hour breeze, I felt like I had come to the edge of Ireland for a swift kick in the groin. The fact that I still enjoyed myself, that I would have come back for another kick the next day, was a testament to Eddie Hackett’s design, as natural and enjoyable as every course he touched.

The next few days in Dooks and Glenbeigh were an unexpected delight. I had played Dooks 10 years ago, and I remembered it being good, a sort of middle-of-the-road links. Changes to the layout have knocked down trees and literally lifted the course to dramatic new heights. It might now be one of Ireland’s most scenic links — the only place where you’re not staring at the sea is in the clubhouse. And I haven’t had a warmer reception than I received in Dooks, and in Favley’s pub afterwards. This past week was probably the toughest yet, so let me say thanks to my friends in Killorglin and Glenbeigh. You put the speed back in my step.

There’s plenty about this country that I’ll miss, beyond the links courses, which I still consider, and hopefully have proven, to be golf in its greatest, purest form. I’m disappointed that I’ll be missing the all-Ireland finals for both the Gaelic sports, that I won’t get to see if Kerry can do it again. The Gaelic games of football and hurling have the speed of a fast break spread over a soccer field. The fact that these brilliant sports are only played on this little island is incredible — and a real shame. I’m bringing a hurley home with me, so maybe we’ll get that changed.

I can’t say that I’ll miss the eats. I’ve had some great meals in Ireland, but the breakfasts have broken my heart, and if I ever see another goujon or toasted sandwich again, I might weep. Many thanks to Danno’s burger in Dingle, a patty so good I thought I was home. And let me send my love out to Abrekebabra, the planet’s greatest fast food chain. It’s called Abrekebabra because it’s magic. If I ever return to Ireland, it might be your doner kebabs that bring me back.

And I’ll certainly miss the people, generous and genuine in a way that still surprises me after four months. Traveling these counties, I’ve learned more than the differences between folks in Cork and Donegal and Belfast. I’ve discovered an incredible consistency at the core of this country, a consistency that gives Ireland its charms, and its challenges. Threatened by modernity and supermarkets and suburban sprawl, the fast-changing Ireland is still a community in an old feeling way, a place where there are no strangers.

But I’ve also sensed the claustrophobia of this sort of life. If you’re a butcher’s son from the blue house, you will be known by all, and known for eternity, as the butcher’s son from the blue house. If you’re born in Kerry and move to Cork when you’re 5, at age 50, they’ll still consider you a transplant, a “blow-in” as they call them. Memories are long over here, which can be comforting, and frustrating, I suppose. In the States, I don’t think we take the time to care as the Irish do, and I don’t believe we respect one another nearly as much. But what we do have is the opportunity to reinvent ourselves every morning, every minute. And that’s probably why those women got on that boat, for a chance at something new. And when I get on that plane in Shannon at the end of this week, I’ll be pretty damn happy to get back to something old.

So to all my friends, the folks that helped me along the way with a bed or a tee time or a pint, slainte to you all. You live in a special place, a country worth the walk. I won’t be back for a while, but if you ever want to golf your way around America, when you’re in Philadelphia, you’ve got a bed. Just don’t count on any breakfast.

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