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HOME AT FIRST's

ADVENTURE

CENTRAL IRELAND

 

Desperately Seeking Chowder

Discovering Ireland While Searching for Soup.

This article first appeared in December, 2002. most recent update: 2014.                  Photos © HOME AT FIRST

 

Lakeside Cottage, Dromineer, 8 AM. Photo © Home At First.
LAKESIDE COTTAGE, DROMINEER

          By 8AM the early autumn sunshine was already brilliant outside my lakeside apartment in Dromineer, County 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 Monk’s. "The seafood

 

chowder at 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 Monk’s for lunch. Perfect!

 

Making Irish Time
          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 center point 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.

          Isn’t it so? At Ballycommon I turn south and parallel Lough Derg’s 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 lake’s 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 Killaloe town, County Clare’s 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-hour’s drive from my cottage and maybe eight linear miles from where I started.

Autumn fogbank over Lough Derg at Castletown, Co. Tipperary. Photo © Home At First.
CASTLETOWN CHURCH ON LOUGH
DERG EMERGING FROM THE MIST.

 

Crossing Clare
          Just after 9AM and not much in my way now. The roads are (mostly) straight and empty, and the sun is to my back. It’s a fast cruise through east Clare farmland with only a few speed zones for villages Bodyke and Tulla and Moymore before I’m 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. Let’s go west. Yes, Monk’s chowder and Ballyvaughan is due north across the Burren, but let’s go west. It promises a fine day over the Atlantic.

 

The Atlantic

 

Spanish Point Golf Links. No gales today. Photo © Home At First.
NO GALES TODAY AT SPANISH POINT GOLF LINKS.

          Spanish Point. The name records the foundering of one or two ships of Spain’s ill-fated Armada in September, 1588. The once great vessels were battered twice — once by Drake’s 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.

         Now five more miles up the coast road to Lahinch and more golf! Lahinch town

was pert and busy, full of golf widows cruising the

 

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 I’ve 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. Photo © Home At First.
INCHES FROM PERDITION
AT THE CLIFFS OF MOHER.

Lisdoonvarna, the colorful, sleepy old spa town halfway from the Cliffs to Ballyvaughan.

 

 

The Burren

          What’s this?! 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. I’m told the event reaches its frenzied heights on weekend evenings at about 3AM. Today is Tuesday and it’s about one o’clock in the afternoon and already the roads and sidewalks of town are jammed with trawlers. I suddenly wished I had worn my wedding ring.

 

THE BURREN: A CONFUSION OF COWS AND STONES UNDER THREATENING SKIES

          The road northeast to Ballyvaughan was impassable with gridlock, so I took a little alleyway that led east and uphill into the 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

Poulnabrone Dolmen. Photo © Home At First.
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, Ireland’s top-ranked megalithic site. It was cute. I had already seen England’s Stonehenge — which made me wonder if prehistoric man had too much time on his hands. Poulnabrone seems a much more practical monument.

 

It was constructed only of five or six stones, which

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. I’ve 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 again.
          But oh the temptations! Here on the right was the Aillwee Cave, more proof that there’s 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 I’m sure worth an hour or two, but — if golf at Spanish Point wasn’t enough to tempt me away from chowder at Monk’s, then the Aillwee Cave experience had no prayer of distracting me. So, past Aillwee, then a few switchback curves downhill, and I’m suddenly out of the Burren and in sight of Galway Bay at Ballyvaughan.

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 town’s main street as a hedgerow of houses, hiding any clues about what happens in Ballyvaughan. A fountain marks the meeting of the town’s 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 Monk’s pub sign.

 

Monks
          There are three other cars parked at Monk’s. I enter and take a seat at the bar. Three tables are

Monk's Pub, Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare, Ireland. Photo © Home At First.
MONK'S, BALLYVAUGHAN,
COUNTY CLARE.

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. He’s 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 Monk’s 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 Monk’s by the pier. Pat asks me how I like it, and I tell him I like it fine. Then I tell him that I’ve driven six hours to sample Monk’s 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 similar tales.

 

Maybe those other Yanks sitting in the

Chowder at last.
 CHOWDER AT LAST.

restaurant have come just as far or further.

         Pat knows Monk’s seafood chowder is a minor legend in Ireland, where legend often carries much more weight than fact. Still, I couldn’t 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 Central Ireland.
If there's no gold at the rainbow's end,
at least there may be chowder.

This article comes from Home At First's exclusive
"Ireland Activities Guide" that comes to you as part of your trip.

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