Editor’s note: We will travel again. And when we do, it will be with renewed anticipation and appreciation. In the meantime, please enjoy Ireland – A Buddy Trip, by Gerry Feehan.
Despite my bona fide Irish heritage, I never had any burning desire to visit the Emerald Isle. But some years ago when I asked my mom if there were any place she’d like to go, she leapt at the chance to see Ireland, “Your father and I were there in 1970 and I’ve always wanted to go back.” So my brother and I, together with our better halves, took mother Teresa on a grand tour. We stayed at the venerable Gresham Hotel in Dublin, drove the Ring of Kerry, peered over the Cliffs of Moher and visited the multi-purposed Feehan Pub and Funeral Parlour in Tipperary. We even kissed the Blarney Stone.
My mom was astonished by the change the Celtic Tiger had wrought since the ‘70s. It was 2003 and Ireland was roaring with economic prosperity. What had been drab villages lined with grey terrace houses had evolved into affluent towns filled with bright new homes painted all colours of the rainbow. It was an emotional trip. On what would have been my dad’s 80th birthday, the five of us stood on a hill overlooking Galway Bay at sunset and sang his favourite song:
If you ever go across the sea to Ireland — Then maybe at the closing of the day — You will sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh — And see the sun go down on Galway Bay.
I get a tear in my eye e’en now as I recall that brilliant Irish evening. It sounds corny but I truly felt at home in Ireland. I felt a bond with the peaty earth and a genetic connection to the people, their demeanour, wit – and love for a pint.
I’d been itching for an excuse to return and, as Irish luck would have it, last year the opportunity arose. But just like the first time around, this latest sojourn to Ireland wasn’t my idea. It was my school buddy’s notion that a bunch of us – eight old friends – should celebrate our 60th year on the planet by gifting ourselves a trip to the golf links of Ireland. I’ve known this group for a while; five of us attended kindergarten together. Collectively my association with these fellas has spanned 352 years. I did the math.
So in late May we packed our clubs and boarded a jetliner bound for Eire. After a couple of nights wandering the streets of Dublin’s fair city, in a state of jet-lag-induced somnambulism, we boarded a private coach bound for the lovely port city of Kinsale. Distances on an Irish map can be deceiving. The 250 km traverse took us almost five hours. Fortunately we had a couple of guitars, some harmonies, plenty of bonhomie and the affable chatter of our driver, Mr. PaeBottle, to shorten the journey. And there’s no better way to pass an evening than marvelling at the serenity and bucolic beauty of an Irish country lane.
In the morning we arose to a brilliant sunny day, a rarity in soggy Ireland, and chowed down a modest Irish breakfast of rashers, black pudding, white sausage, runny eggs, fried tomatoes, baked beans, soda bread, butter and preserves – all washed down with fresh-squeezed orange juice and black coffee (I waved away the creamer to avoid the fat).
“Yes, once, briefly,” Morris said sheepishly, “no one deserves to be happy all their life.”
Sated, we departed for Old Head, our first test of links golf. I have stricken many a golf ball in my day but never have I enjoyed (or endured) a more beautiful (yet painful) experience than my introduction to Irish golf.
It is bittersweet to see a brand-new Titleist sail up over a gorse-laden glen, observe its apex framed by a heather-topped mountain, then watch its descent over a 200-foot cliff en route to a watery Atlantic grave. “Gimme a double,” was the oft-used phrase of our Irish experience – both on and off the course.
On the trip with my mom in 2003, the Irish cuisine was noticeably un-notable. Supper invariably consisted of boiled fish, boiled chicken… or some other bland boiled protein substance. And always there was the ubiquitous potato, served in two or three varieties at every sitting: mashed, fried, boiled, etc., stacked grimly on one’s plate. One evening, tired of the usual fare, my mother politely asked if she could have a vegetable side with her dinner. The waitress promptly delivered a baked potato. “I asked for a vegetable,” said my puzzled madre. “The potato is a vegetable ma’am,” deadpanned the waitress, then turned and delivered two plates of over-boiled haddock to an unimpressed American couple at the adjoining table.
This time round the food was amazing. The Irish have upped their cuisinal game dramatically, fusing traditional Gaelic fare with actual flavour. Even the potatoes were tasty (although they are now mainly imported from Cyprus; apparently the Irish countryside is too good for the lowly spud). And the Celtic Tiger is alive and well. The streets are full of fancy imported cars and well-heeled women. The shops are stock-full and pubs overflow with tourists. But Ireland is expensive. Menu prices are similar to Canada but the currency is Euros, so the tab is 60% higher when converted to lowly Canadian dollars.
Which is not to say the Irish look down upon us. Au contraire, they love Canadians. We get it. The Irish are a loquacious bunch, always quick with a quip but also appreciative of a little conversational give-and-take. We Canadians laugh – then give it back.
Our driver Morris PaeBottle was a patient and diplomatic man, his Tralee accent oddly tinged with a Norwegian-like lilt. On the drive from Killarney to Waterville Golf Club we nearly rear-ended a number of cars. After the third incident I asked Morris, “Why do the drivers wait until the last possible moment before signalling a turn?” Unperturbed he explained at length how the Irish had suffered through centuries of poverty, then said, “They’re afraid to wear out the bulb.”
Mr. PaeBottle overflowed with Gaelic pride but was not full of himself. I asked if he’d ever been married. “Yes, once, briefly,” Morris said sheepishly, “no one deserves to be happy all their life.”
When we arrived at Waterville the friendly starter hurried out to help Morris unload clubs from the coach’s boot. My bunkmate Martin began gushing to them about how pretty were the Irish lasses.
“That barmaid in the pub last night took my breath away,” Uncle Marty said. “Surely, that would be a blessing,” Morris said, under his breath.
This wasn’t just a golf trip. A few of the lads are musical, so it was fitting that we’d join in a late-night ceilidh (traditional music, singing and dance) at the Cornerstone Pub in Lahinch. The boys acquitted themselves nicely and received a thunderous ovation – before being politely asked by the barman to exit the stage and let the truly talented locals reel off a jig or two.
It was a rare treat to join a group of long-time friends on a journey to the old country. It may happen again one day but unfortunately some of the vintage 1957 parts are wearing out. One pal, I’ll call him “TD”, struggles with his hearing.
At Ballybunion golf links, which is as famous for its fiendish layout as for its long history, he had a particularly bad finishing hole. As we left the 18th green I noticed him exiting in the wrong direction.
“TD,” I shouted, “the clubhouse is this way.” He looked at me, held up some fingers, and said, “Seven.” As always, Morris was standing by at the finish. He looked at me, winked and said, “Those hearing aids are a real eye-opener.”
I proceeded briskly toward the 19th hole and, killing two birds with the proverbial one stone, said to my scorekeeping friend Sid, whom I’ve known for almost six decades and whose turn it was to buy, “Gimme a double.”
Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. We hope you enjoyed his Irish adventure. He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.
Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.
Gerry Feehan explores Cape Breton Island
The Canso Causeway connects mainland Nova Scotia to the island of Cape Breton. As we drove across the span on a crisp autumn day, the ebb tide was pulling westward, hard through the Canso Strait. We stopped at the Port Hastings visitor’s centre where a pleasant woman bid us welcome and told us we were in luck, “You’re just in time for the Celtic Colours.” Being an observant fellow, I had already noted the changing season—the brilliant oranges and reds of the Maritimes’ fall foliage. And I smartly told her so. “Oh, no,” she laughed, “Celtic Colours isn’t about the leaves. It’s our annual autumn festival.” For nine days every October the entire island hops with a chorus of Cape Breton traditions: ceilidhs, live music, spoken word and dance performances, all celebrating the island’s rich history and culture.
But before we did any festival going, it was exploration time. Cape Breton is a marvel of twisting vistas, glorious hikes, great food—and friendly people. En route to the world-renowned Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park we took a circuitous path, skirting Bras D’Or Lake (not really a lake, more a brackish inland sea). Along the lakeshore near Big Pond we stopped and paid homage to Rita McNeil at the late singer’s eponymous Tea Room. When we finally arrived at Ingonish Beach Campground on the National Park’s southeast border, it was late in the day. We ate dinner and hit the hay. There was a big hike planned for the morning: Franey Trail, a long steep climb to a panoramic viewpoint from which one looks down on the Clyburn River canyon spilling into the Atlantic Ocean. Admiring the view at the summit, we chatted quietly with a young local couple who were proud to tell us the history of the region, their Scottish heritage and the hard lives their ancestors had endured on land—and at sea, which they wistfully stared out as they shared the memory.
That evening we dined luxuriously at the historic Keltic Lodge and later, over a digestif in the leathery lounge, struck up conversation with a European tourist. “Don’t you think Cape Bretoners are the friendliest people on earth?” I asked. We had been overwhelmed by Maritime hospitality. Looking puzzled, he answered dryly, in a thick accent, “I have had only a few weeks here, so I am not yet able to arrive at this conclusion.” Tough sell, those Germans.
When we awoke the air was cool, crisp and clear—a perfect day for an autumn sojourn on the Cabot Trail, which loops for 298km around the northern tip of Cape Breton. We cruised counterclockwise from Ingonish. Our first stop was White Point where the harsh Atlantic batter stony cliffs along the island’s unprotected north shore. Then we began a twisting ascent through the lush Acadian forest to Cape Breton’s central highlands. The display of foliage was magical. Maple, beech and birch all boasted their brightest fall colours in hues of red, orange and yellow. And, as if frozen in the windless air, the trees had yet to drop a single leaf. It was a palette of autumn perfection.
I pulled the motorhome into a serene overlook. Florence and I sat in silence, gazing through the windshield at the crimson and gold majesty. Suddenly, and before I could exit the vehicle to snap a picture, three vanloads of tourists pulled in, sprung from their seats and began frantically taking photos. Abandoning the hope of any verdant solitude, I instead jumped into the cacophonous human fray and started taking shots of tourists taking pictures.
We set up camp that evening at quiet MacIntosh Brook near Lone Shieling, where 350 year-old sugar maple trees stand sentinel over a long-abandoned Scottish crofter’s hut. Despite the quiet, I didn’t sleep well that night, for there was a menacing giant lurking in my future: Cabot Cliffs Golf Links.
You may have read my charming story about golf in Ireland – and how the Irish courses were the most beautifully humiliating courses I had ever encountered. Well, Cape Breton Island has retained its Celtic tradition not only in music and dance but also in its fondness for brutal but alluring links golf. Cabot Cliffs is equal to the best of its turf cousins across the sea. I was fortunate to secure a tee time—and a private caddy—to enjoy this spectacular course.
After the (humbling) golf interlude, we re-dedicated ourselves to exploration by foot with a last hike, on the Skyline Trail on Cape Breton’s west coast. Although crowded, the traipse was enjoyable and the ocean views breathtaking. On a clear day (which we experienced) one can see the white cliffs of Quebec’s Magdalen Islands shining distantly in the Gulf of St Lawrence.
With tired feet—and badly in need of food and drink—we arrived late at Cheticamp Campground. I noticed a sign announcing that the Harbour Restaurant in this quaint Acadian village offered a free shuttle for patrons. I phoned, booked a reservation and requested a ride. 15 minutes later a car pulled up to our campsite and a pleasant lady with a French-Canadian accent said, “Hop in.” It was Lorraine LeBlanc, the restaurant owner. And after a great chow down on Morue en Cabane (slow-cooked cod, chives and pork scraps) and Lorraine’s famous Apple Garden cake, she returned us to our campsite. Now that’s Cape Breton hospitality! Despite my inherent thriftiness, I left a reasonable tip.
Our time in the Highlands was coming to an end and still there was the Celtic Colours to enjoy. The festival venues are island-wide but many artists bunk each night at the Gaelic College in St Ann’s near Baddeck (Alexander Graham Bell’s summer stomping grounds). Widely scattered venues result in a long, dark drive on narrow roads back to St Ann’s after a day of performing. But for the tireless musicians the party carries on—with impromptu jam sessions lasting well into the wee hours.We arrived in St Ann’s on the last night of the Festival. We boon-docked in the Gaelic College parking lot. The Celtic Colours finale was scheduled to begin very late, past 12:00am—and well past our bedtime—so, after a parking lot BBQ, we lay down for a disco nap, awaking after midnight to the sound of instruments being tuned. It was a raucous evening, hosted by the effervescent humour of singer-songwriter Buddy MacDonald. It was past 4 am when the last fiddle was packed unwillingly into its case. We trundled off to bed… and enjoyed a well-deserved Celtic sleep in.
Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.
Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series. Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.
Todayville travel writer Gerry Feehan wins national Travel Media Association award
Todayville congratulates our distinguished travel writer Gerry Feehan.
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