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The Ireland Series: So You Think You Can Drive?

I drove in Ireland. For those of you who have never done this, it is no small feat. Adopting the opposite side of the road was an easier than thought adjustment, but the narrow width of country roads in addition to that is a harrowing experience — my passengers would likely agree.

Stressing about my upcoming foray behind the wheel for weeks, nay, months before actually doing it, I was determined that fear would not hold me back from discovering every part of my destination: County Clare.

Being on the opposite side of the road itself only worried me when in connection to bustling city streets and traffic — if I could survive the roads leading out of Belfast, I could survive anything. Voices and fists raised in road rage were a common theme to my imaginings of what it would be like. Visions of my head out the window, teeth gritted, yelling “I’m doing my best!” accompanied the potential spectacle.

Three nights before I took the wheel, my cousin Danny gave me the best advice that made driving a snap. “Not problem at all, Tara. Just keep the center line to the driver’s side of the car and you can’t go wrong — that’s what I do when I’m in America.” He was right… in the city and highways.

It turns out, country roads are selective regarding the center line. Some divide roads into impossible expectations, others are missing altogether where I’m guessing even locals know it would be laughable. Many roads, such as those we explored off the coastal highway, are the width of a single lane.

It was day three of our driving adventure, we were wrapping up day two of exploring scene locations for my novel, and I was doing great! My passengers lived through some bushes and branches grazing their windows a couple times when we passed other vehicles, but they were supportive of my newly acquired skills. We all agreed that the tour buses were trying to kill us — you’ve never truly tested your driving skills until you’ve driven a small SUV toward a bus full of tourists in western Ireland, one side of the road a rock cliff going upward, the other side a drop to the rough Atlantic Ocean beating itself in harsh wind against boulders.

Flat tires on ocean side cliff roads are a funny thing… there is nowhere to pull over other than the three inches hugging a shrub covered rock face.

The Airbnb I had rented in the sleepy hamlet of Fanore is run by an amiable Belgian named John. John is the proprietor of three well appointed apartments, two with sea and Aran Island views and one with a Burran view, above Siopa Fán Óir, a little shop which doubles as the Craggagh Post Office, next to Vasco’s Cafe and Restaurant.

If you are driving the Wild Atlantic Way in County Clare, you’ll know Fanore, found between Ballyvaughan and Doolin, by O’Donoghue’s Pub, a bright blue fixture you can’t miss. Locals and tourists alike sit outside enjoying the extended daylight hours or inside imbuing camaraderie as they listen to local musicians. Expect relentless wind that wraps the scent of salt water around you, through your hair, and up your nose. It is alive. Oh, and don’t forget the pints.

Stranded on the cliff road north of Fanore with the aforementioned flat, traffic not giving a damn that we were taking up one side as they continued flying alarmingly close to us at 60 mph, research assistant #2 — a.k.a. my boyfriend — decided that there was no way he was letting research assistant #1 (see previous post) or I out onto such a treacherous road to help while he changed the tire. It was also life threatening to change the tire and handle such traffic singlehanded.

We called John.

What we didn’t know is that John’s sons, whom hadn’t visited in about five years, had arrived that morning. This is how we found ourselves on a perilous Irish cliff road, cursing a careless driver as well as a wayward rock, living its dream to be part of the road, welcoming the chivalrous aid of three Belgian men. One directed traffic while two put on a spare more suited to a bicycle rather than a car. Research assistant #2, use to getting me out of these situations, was forced to accept that Ireland and hospitality go hand in hand. They wouldn’t let him help — such acquiescence not easy for a hands on guy.

Donut affixed, we doddered the ten minutes to Fanore facing the fact that it was 7 pm on a Sunday and we had to find a replacement tire. Technically, we needed to find a “tyre” we learned, as that is how it is spelled in Ireland. There was no way research assistant #2 was going to fly off to his business meeting in Germany the next morning leaving us with no transportation, so the quest began.

It turns out, the man who owned the shop below our apartment knew a tyre guy. Of course he did — that shop has everything, including handy local contacts. A tyre guy who works on Sunday evenings? You can’t even find that here. Problem was, he only takes cash.

Scraping together what funds we had between the three of us, research assistant #2 and I ventured off with three goals in mind: 1. Fix the tyre, 2. Find an ATM to replenish our Euros, and 3. Take up John’s recommendation: Seeing the Cliffs of Moher at sunset, after hours, when most people think it’s closed.

It’s not closed — How do you close a cliff? A little known fact is that the Cliffs of Moher, which charges by the person and not by the car at the gates to the parking area, are free to the public after the parking attendants and shopkeepers leave for the day (which varies upon the season).

The shop owner also told us where we could find an ATM — Ennistymon or Lahinch, both 35 minutes away. Tyre guy on a Sunday night? Sure, 10 minutes away. ATM? At least 35. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that one.

John Sparry sells and changes tyres out of a stone, single room, single story barn that is a couple hundred years old on his family farm land in Doolin. He is everything a writer wants to find when exploring the Irish countryside. At a guess, I’d say he was close to 70, good-natured and stoic with a dash of sarcasm, wearing a wind-blocking jumper, flat cap, and boots stained by years of hard work. The man is strong as an ox, despite his slightly bowed frame, and can put a tire on a rim and have it on your car in 10 minutes flat. He’s even been to Boston, twice.

As a bonus, he has a persistent dirt clogged, dreadlocked farm dog named Ozzy who will bark non-stop at you and paw your leg countless times if you stop petting him.

During the short time we were there, John received a call about a flat tyre, and while he was giving these kindred souls directions on the phone, another car pulled up to procure his services proving I am not a bad driver of Irish roads at all. John is clearly making a killing in this side job of his.

There wasn’t much distance from John Sparry’s between Ennistymon and Lahinch, but since Lahinch is just south of the Cliffs of Moher, we headed that way. The wind had died down and the coming sunset was golden, reflecting off the water at Lahinch Beach as we parked.

Sunset comes late in Ireland in the summer, close to 10 pm, so it was an easy decision to stop along the boardwalk for some prosecco on a pub veranda before hitting up the ATM. If you’re ever in Lahinch, do it. Time stands still.

It stands still so long that you nearly forget the entire reason you’re there, which is how we found ourselves scrambling to find the ATM about 30 minutes later so that we still had time to make it to the Cliffs.

We found the ATM — it was broken. This is how we learned that Lahinch only has one ATM. At that point we either lose seeing the Cliffs at sunset, or go to Ennistymon so that we were prepared for the next day.

We headed for the Cliffs of Moher.

 

It was all worth it.

(Side note: If you find yourself along the Wild Atlantic Way, I recommend John from Airbnb for your accommodations — he is attentive, communicative, and knows interesting secrets about the area that only locals know. John Sharry, honest and a good man, can fix your tire, even if it’s on a Sunday evening. And don’t forget Siopa Fán Óir, the little shop that has everything that you forgot to bring. It has everything you’ll need… well, except an ATM.)