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. The complete journal is here.
Mr. Gerry and Paddy Spellman left me in Kinsale, but the rain was kind enough to stay with me for my walk to Timoleague and on to Rosscarbery and Bantry, as I worked my way through West Cork. It was a week without golf as I climbed the hills and dodged the buses en route to Waterville. The stretches where it’s all walk and no play are a little tough at this point. Ireland from the roadside? Yeah, I get it. Where once I stopped to photograph every sheep and donkey, now the donkey would have to be caddying for the sheep for me to bother reaching for a camera-and the sheep would have to be going pretty low.
But the camera did make its way out of the pack last week for a few shots of a feat that made this week’s miles seem a little shorter than the rest. Close to the village of Ballydehob, I officially crossed the 1,000-mile mark. A thousand miles in Ireland, on these two stumps of mine. I reached the milestone near a small stone church by the side of the road. I went inside, thought a few private thoughts about the last four months, and even said a prayer, asking for just a drop of sunshine. And a scooter. And then I headed down the road, humming that excruciating, “And I would walk” song for the next hour, a ditty I had never really liked until the walk to Ballydehob.
It’s tough to not get sentimental with just two weeks remaining. Fourteen more days, a hundred or so more miles. But it’s not the hours or the miles that I’m counting down until I’m back in Philadelphia with my dog on my lap and a cheesesteak in my face. Fourteen more days means fourteen more mornings, and good Lord, that means fourteen full Irish.
More than being an authority on golf courses, of which I might only visit a few each week, I have become a qualified expert on the condition of Ireland’s secondary roads, the pitfalls and possibilities of pub fare, and the ins and outs of the institution that is the Irish bed and breakfast.
Back when Ireland was Europe’s poor cousin, before it became a land of five star hotels and home to the wealthiest population on the continent (seriously!), taking strangers into one’s home was a way to make a few extra bob in towns that certainly couldn’t sustain a Hilton. The B&B is a part of the Irish experience, and after having visited north of fifty at this point, I’ve been more than impressed by the pride and effort and the openness of my hosts. There is a bit of a potluck element to bed and breakfasting-there are no real guarantees, and maybe that’s been part of the fun, wandering into a town and wondering-will there be a TV? A toilet of my own? A proper shower, not one of those electric fountains that feels like a lukewarm tinkle on your forehead? But I can honestly say, in close to sixty B&B’s, I’ve encountered just one filthy bathroom, and less than a handful of mattresses I hope to never meet again. So it’s not the bed that’s beaten me down. Sorry, Ireland, it’s the breakfast.
Now bed & breakfasting isn’t for everyone. It’s a sort of participatory vacation that, for an American accustomed to the anonymity of hotels and do-not-disturbs, can be quite overwhelming, particularly at the end of a long walking day. At a B&B, you’ve got to bring something to the table-a chat, a few questions, and certainly some manners. This ain’t the Ramada. I’ve gotten the arrival routine down pretty well: knock knock, hello, I’m the American, there’s my room, there’s the toilet, here’s the key to the front door, and here’s that antique key I’ll be jangling in my room’s door for a good twenty minutes come midnight. And then the unavoidable question, “What time would you like breakfast?” This is where I get a little dizzy. And a little sheepish. “Thanks, but, I don’t want breakfast.”
I doubt if you can utter a more profane sentence in an Irish B&B. And I’ve been mumbling it all over this country.
“No breakfast?” horror in my host’s voice, like I told her there was a dirty bomb in my backpack.
“Well, maybe just some cereal.”
And this is even more offensive. Now I’ve admitted that I will be hungry come morning, but that I want absolutely no part of what the lady of the house might be preparing for me-which is, inevitably, the infamous full Irish.
“The full Irish,” as it were, is not a paralyzing wrestling maneuver, nor is it some sort of embarrassing salon treatment-it is the staple B&B breakfast, and it is full in every way. Full plate, full belly, full of regret and future promises to go vegetarian. At the start of this journey, I was fully enamored of the full Irish, hopping out of bed, eager to greet my morning friend, that crowded plate of sausages, bacon, eggs, tomato, mushrooms, beans, blood pudding, toast, tea, and juice that had me rocketing down the road to my next course, calories pumping through my veins. But gobbling down hefty slabs of bacon every morning (over here, the bacon is a T-bone compared to our meager little strips) for two, three, four weeks straight, it was getting a little scary (if I could have found some barbecue sauce, I might have taken a bite out of myself). I eventually became terrified of the full Irish, the nemesis waiting for me every morning. And so I swore off breakfast, opting for some yogurt, maybe a gas station sausage roll (not as nasty as it sounds). But despite my protests-still, sometimes, the full Irish still came.
The sweet old ladies who were looking after me, to them, my night in their home was my first and only in Ireland, and they were going to show off the breakfast of which they were so very proud, no matter that it meant I would be staring at a plate of food I physically could not endure, sitting there like some finicky nine year old staring at Brussels sprouts. The waste of it-how awful, how ungrateful, how American. In my defense, forgive me ladies for the dogs that weren’t supposed to eat bacon, the eggs and napkins that ended up in my pocket and which might have eventually wreaked havoc on your plumbing. I was doing the best I could with the situation that presented itself. (I wish I was joking about the eggs in my pocket-get the book for the yolky details.)
Let me say that the B&B is still the way to do Ireland-bring your appetite, and your curiosity, and spend some time in real Irish homes. There is nothing quite as good as a good B&B, and nothing quite as bad as a bad one. So here are a few of the winners I’ve found along the way, in case you want to plan an Irish golf trip and actually feel like you’re in Ireland.
In Enniscrone, the Ceol Na Mara B&B was quite lovely, and with walking distance to the course. Margaret’s Cottage in Ardglass might be the best-located golf B&B in Ireland, unless you count Baltray, where they let you sleep upstairs in the clubhouse. The Carriage House in Dundrum was just a few miles from Royal County Down, and for a B&B without so much as a sign out front, it has been one of my favorite surprises. Immaculate rooms, and a garden breakfast room that you would never imagine when eyeing the house from main street.
In Kinsale, the Desmond House was pricey but fantastic, and worth the money to stay in what I consider Ireland’s perfect town. We absolutely loved the Strand House in Portstewart-new and clean, a block from the course, storage for your clubs, breakfast menu where full Irish is only a last resort-and above all, flat screen TV’s (after a summer spent with four channels, I’m a sucker for a flat screen). And though it’s not next to any major links, we also loved the Fernroyd House in Cork City, modern but quaint, and as warm a host as I’ve had in Ireland.
And the places not to stay, where your breakfast might end up in your pocket? I’ll save that story for later, when I’m safely off these roads. As long as I’m over here car-dodging, your full Irish is fine with me.