Discovering Ireland While Searching for Soup.
This article first
appeared in December, 2002. most recent update: 2014.
© HOME AT FIRST
LAKESIDE COTTAGE, DROMINEER
By 8AM the early autumn sunshine was already
brilliant outside my
lakeside apartment in
Tipperary. From my second-floor bedroom window, silky, silvery Lough Derg refracted the
low-angle light under baby blue skies. I easily could stay home today and walk or cycle or
cruise or picnic or go to the pub. But I had a full tank of gas in my rented Ford Focus, a
couple of Euros in my wallet, and an impulse under my skin. Just yesterday an Irish friend
of mine had been regaling the virtues of a place called Monks. "The seafood
Monk’s Pub on the pier in
Ballyvaughan," he stated forthrightly, "is worth the
trip." the trip." I consulted my Michelin map of Ireland and found
Ballyvaughan village a tiny dot at the northwest corner of County Clare on Galway Bay
and the edge of the rocky wastes of the Burren. About three hours away by the
scenic route. If I left soon, I
could be at Monks for lunch. Perfect!
Map check. Coat check. Water
bottle check. Wallet & keys check. Down the stairs, throw down a cup of
coffee, and out the door. What a morning! Crisp as a Granny Smith apple. Bright as a
scholar on the first day of school. My Ford is drenched in dew, and I employ the wipers
front and rear.
My Dromineer cottage is the virtual
of Ireland, and about the mid-point along the eastern shore of
Lough Derg. County Clare is
maybe three miles due west across the lake. The quickest way to Ballyvaughan is first
north to the top of
the lake at Portumna in
County Galway, then west
to Galway Bay. But I’ll save this short route for the way home from
Monk’s — time in Ireland has a way of slipping by and I might need the
faster drive home after chowder.
Isnt it so? At Ballycommon I turn south
and parallel Lough Dergs east coast to its southern end at Ballina, County
Tipperary. At Portroe mid-way to Ballina
I disappear into a fogbank. Irish time
has already begun. The thick autumn mists of Lough Derg cover the lakes southern
half, at a cost of my sunny day and maximum speed. At Ballina I cross the old bridge
across the River Shannon just below its exit from the lough, and enter
County Clares pretty eastern gateway. Pretty as pea soup today. I turn right past
the Heritage Centre and Tourist Information Office and follow the yacht canal out of town
and north along the west shore of Lough Derg. After 30 minutes I climb a hill and emerge
from the fog at Tuamgraney about one-hours drive from my cottage and maybe eight
linear miles from where I started.
CHURCH ON LOUGH
FROM THE MIST.
Just after 9AM and not much in my way now. The
roads are (mostly) straight and empty, and the sun is to my back. Its a fast cruise
through east Clare farmland with only a few speed zones for villages
Bodyke and Tulla
and Moymore before Im suddenly in the morning traffic conundrums of Ennis.
Despite its unfathomable road system, I love this town.
Ennis is old country Irish with a
few modern pretensions that it displays self-consciously like a pretty country girl in a
Parisian dress. Mostly though Ennis ducks its head and knows its place: county seat of
Clare, capital of Irish traditional music, agri-business center, and crossroads of western
Ireland. And, for me, these attributes make Ennis grand as any Irish town.
And oh what grand weather! The satin blue skies
above Ennis show a few cotton ball clouds to the west towards the sea. Lets go
west. Yes, Monks chowder and Ballyvaughan is due north across the Burren, but
lets go west. It promises a fine day over the Atlantic.
AT SPANISH POINT GOLF LINKS.
Spanish Point. The name records the foundering
of one or two ships of Spains ill-fated Armada in September, 1588. The once great
vessels were battered twice once by Drakes English navy in the North Sea, and
then finally by Atlantic gales which the hapless Spaniards encountered when escaping the
English by sailing around northern Scotland and western Ireland. Those Spanish who managed
to come ashore at the point that now bears their name may have preferred
drowning they were all executed by their Irish and English
captors in County Clare.
No gales today. This September, Spanish Point is swept with mild breezes
and calm seas. And Spanish Point Golf Club
is as benign and pretty as ever a classic links course can be. And only
four couples on the course. Maybe Monk’s chowder can wait for another
day while I rent some clubs and hit the links. Nope! I’ve already played
golf. I’ve never had Monk’s seafood chowder. We stick with the plan.
five more miles up the coast road to Lahinch and more golf!
was pert and busy, full of golf widows
antique boutiques (see title photo of
"Bygones", above) and passing time noshing café pastries and tea.
Just north of town the
famed Old Course is a zoo! Foursomes on every fairway and green, and one waiting at each tee. Still,
the old girl looks unfazed by the heavy traffic and green as Ireland can be. The
coast is a little wilder here than at Spanish Point, as the beaches and coves are being
replaced with headlands leading to the Cliffs of Moher.
Thirty buses and one hundred cars more
than Ive seen on the road since Ennis. And still the parking lot at the Cliffs is
only half-full. And the Cliffs of Moher are as unnecessary as fortress ramparts in
peacetime the Atlantic is a docile lake today. No, the assault is not waterborne
today. Rather, a human wave has washed over the grand cliffs, running, skipping, clicking
shutters, posing inches from perdition, flipping shale into
the abyss. And lots of kissing going on. You'd think it was the Blarney Stone. Out of here
and straight for
INCHES FROM PERDITION
AT THE CLIFFS OF MOHER.
colorful, sleepy old spa town halfway from the Cliffs to Ballyvaughan.
Lisdoonvarna was colorful
alright with banners hanging across the roads, and traffic wardens in neon vests and
white gloves directing traffic to a standstill. I had forgotten. In September Lisdoonvarna
takes on the frantic aspect of the world’s largest singles bar with its
renowned Matchmaking Festival. Local tourism promoters have
reinterpreted an old rural custom when a few isolated Clare men came to
town at harvest time to cash their crops and
look for brides.
The new custom attracts singles from throughout Ireland and elsewhere to meet,
mingle, flirt, dance, and imbibe at the towns several bars and dance halls. The so-called
festival is part Sadie Hawkins Day, part meat market, part orgy, part parlor game, partly
serious, and mostly Guinness. Im told the event reaches its frenzied heights on
weekend evenings at about 3AM. Today is Tuesday and its about one oclock in
the afternoon and already the roads and sidewalks of town are jammed with trawlers. I
suddenly wished I had worn my wedding ring.
A CONFUSION OF COWS AND STONES UNDER
The road northeast to Ballyvaughan was
impassable with gridlock, so I took a little alleyway that led east and uphill into
Burren. In a few seconds the clamor of Lisdoonvarna was behind me and my Ford was wedged
between hedges on a semi-paved single-track lane without horizons. With the sun mostly to
my right, I knew I must be driving east, but not very quickly, and not with any particular
goal. Once the hedgerow to my left dropped low enough to exhibit a meadow full of cows. A
few minutes later the lane plunged into a creek valley, exposing a rocky hillside on the
other side of a stone bridge. Then, blindly, an even less paved lane disappeared to the
left, and I took it, thinking that it would take me in the general direction of seafood
chowder. And, after five more minutes of driving with blinders, suddenly a stop sign and a
cross road of two lanes.
I turned left and put the sun to my back. This
should direct me toward Galway Bay, if not Ballyvaughan itself. After two minutes of
driving this empty road I saw both shoulders ahead parked full of cars, with not so much
as a solitary barroom in sight.
Once again, Monk’s could wait. I pulled
over and got
THE POULNABRONE DOLMEN
out of my car.
On the south side of the road sneaker-clad
tourists were clambering over the rocky limestone turtle-backed outcroppings of the Burren
for about 200 yards. A steady stream of folks were heading away from the road and an equal
number were on their way back. I joined the parade of lemmings. In fifty yards I could see
the goal of this pilgrimage
the Poulnabrone Dolmen, Irelands top-ranked
megalithic site. It was cute. I had already seen Englands Stonehenge which made
me wonder if prehistoric man had too much time on his hands. Poulnabrone seems a much more
It was constructed only of five or six stones,
no doubt were selected from the monument’s immediate
surroundings in this rockiest of Irish garden spots. Moreover, the
monument is not of monumental proportions
one can imagine Eagle
Scouts constructing one like it to earn a megalithic merit badge.
The biggest problem with things prehistoric is
that while full of wonder they do not inspire a lot of conversation. Ive
noticed mostly whispers and sniggers coming from others I have observed at the various
mounds, hill forts, ring forts, standing stones, barrows, and cairns I have trudged to
visit. Nothing new to report at Poulnabrone, except to say that it occurred to me the
dolmen might make a good shelter in the event of a thunderstorm. I concluded the ancient
Irish were a practical people, turned back for the road, and began focusing on chowder
But oh the temptations! Here on the right was
the Aillwee Cave, more proof that theres tourist gold in the Burren wasteland.
Stalactites and stalagmites alone must not be enough of a draw here. The ownership also
makes and sells their own Irish farmhouse cheese, hazel wood charcoal, and mountain crystal
gems. All well and good, and Im sure worth an hour or two, but if golf at
Spanish Point wasnt enough to tempt me away from chowder at Monks, then the
Aillwee Cave experience had no prayer of distracting me. So, past Aillwee, then a few
switchback curves downhill, and Im suddenly out of the Burren and in sight of
Bay at Ballyvaughan.
Today, Ballyvaughan is the
anti-Lisdoonvarna quiet, with almost no traffic, and nary a soul on the sidewalks.
Its rows of neat pastel painted cottages line the towns main street as a hedgerow of
houses, hiding any clues about what happens in Ballyvaughan. A fountain marks the meeting
of the towns three roads at the town "square", which is really more of a
triangle. The road I have taken comes from the Burren and the south. The road to the
northeast leads round the bay to Galway. The road to the northwest is a scenic route that
follows the coast to Black Head and the overlook of the
Aran Islands, those sanctuaries of
ancient Irishness that protect the entrance to Galway Bay. This is my road to El Dorado,
and, within 30 seconds I am parking the Focus under the Monks pub sign.
There are three other cars parked at
Monks. I enter and take a seat at the bar. Three tables are
occupied inside the
adjacent dining room. I hear only
American accents at the
tables. The barman welcomes me cheerfully. It’s after 2PM and there are
no signs of a lunch rush the place is
spotless, and solidly middle class, detailed with lots of heavy furniture in dark varnish
with brass trim. Could be a country club lounge. Hes Patrick or, possibly Padraig but quickly Pat to me. I ask if I can eat at the bar and instantly receive
his best Irish "No problem." I order a Guinness and a bowl of seafood chowder.
Six hours on the road to Monks has made
me hungry. I expect the Guinness will fuzz my head if I drink it without food, but I know
it has to settle for a few minutes anyway. By the time the chocolate stout is primed my
chowder arrives along with a stack of sliced, mildly coarse Irish brown bread and sweet
Irish butter. The milky chowder fills a wide bowl to the brim, and is flecked with butter.
A little steam carries a mild fish fragrance into my face. Wasting no time, I plunge my
big soupspoon into the soup and bring up an assortment of chunks of fish and shellfish in
the thin, creamy broth. Chowder, brown bread, and Guinness at Monks by the pier. Pat
asks me how I like it, and I tell him I like it fine. Then I tell him that Ive
driven six hours to sample Monks chowder on the strength of a recommendation from an
Irish friend. Pat feigns enthusiasm, but it’s clear to me that he’s often heard
Maybe those other Yanks sitting in the
restaurant have come just as far or further.
Pat knows Monks seafood chowder is a
minor legend in Ireland, where legend often carries much more weight than fact. Still, I
couldnt help feeling that Pat might be muttering "These meshugeneh
Americans oughtta get a life
", except in Gaelic. Get a life? Desperately
seeking chowder in Ireland is a life, a grand one that has much to recommend it.
Slán abhaile. Have a safe trip home!
— TAKE YOUR OWN ROAD TRIPS
as part of your next visit to
If there's no gold at the rainbow's end,
at least there may be chowder.
This article comes from
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