Ireland Recap Day 1: Ennis County Clare

After a year of planning and anticipating we finally began our travel to Ireland. We picked up Dave & Stephanie and proceeded to Detroit Metro Airport on Tuesday the 17th. Our flight departed on time to Chicago where we rendezvoused with Anne and Roger who were connecting from Baltimore. The flight from Chicago to Dublin is approximately eight hours with a few hours layover before a short hop to the Shannon airport. My plan was to get as much sleep on the plane as possible so I would be bright eyed and bushy tailed when we arrived at Shannon the next day at 10:00 AM. That plan worked in some capacity, but the excitement of our first European trip was preventing me from getting any meaningful sleep (having the food cart on the plane slammed into my elbow and being bumped persistently because I was in an aisle seat didn't help either). Our trans-Atlantic flight went pretty well, although we were delayed leaving Chicago by two hours due to luggage sorting issues and backups in general when we missed our take-off window. We were also delayed in Dublin while they cleaned the plane and had us fill out customs forms.

Once in Shannon, we acquired our rental cars, a mini van and a sedan, which I opted to upgrade to an automatic transmission. It's been over 15 years since I have driven a manual transmission, and while it's a lot like riding a bike (from what I've been told), I did not want to re-learn driving a manual transmission on a mini van with everything located on what would be the passenger side of the vehicle while also trying to remind myself to drive on the left side of the road all on only a few hours of sleep. I'm fairly certain I would have burned through a whole clutch by the end of the trip, photos to come will show why.

My idea of a mini van and Europe's idea of a mini van was the first culture shock of the day. Keeping in mind all vehicles in Europe are smaller and more efficient then what we see in America, the mini van is no exception. We rented an Opel Zafira which was about as big as my Kia Spectra, but manages to fit six people. Since we had luggage we also rented a second car which was a Ford Focus. It was a fun little van to drive and in my search for an image the first one to come up in Google was this one which made Jen and I laugh hysterically. Truth be told, there are many car makes and models which are very popular in Ireland which would never see the light of day in America, where bigger and less efficient seem to be status quo.

After saying a few prayers to miscellaneous deities, we engaged the transmission (once I figured out how to use an auto-stick transmission and disengage the emergency brake) and proceeded to Ennis. If you have never driven a car in the UK or Ireland, then I will try to relate my experience with the first few moments:

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!

Once that was over, we managed to exit the Airport and find our route to Ennis. Fortunately, we were able to drive the N18, one of Ireland's handful of multi-lane motorways, for a good portion of the drive. This allowed me to get accustomed to the controls of the van and convince my jet-lagged subconscious that it was, in fact, alright to drive on the left side of the road. Thus completing culture shock number two for the day.

The next shock was not far behind. This came in the form of Ireland's roadways. There are many things we take for granted in America, some of them being street signs, sane speed limits, lanes a few feet wider then the car your driving, intersections with stop lights, and consistent speed limit and route signs. Ireland, I have recently learned, likes to preserve the integrity of its old world charm and scenery and does not necessarily feel obligated to put up things like street signs in a consistent manner. They might be on the side of a building (if one exists on the corner of an intersection) or a fence or curb in no consistent style or font or language (some in Gaelic or English or both). Most rural routes are 100 Km/h which is about 60 Miles/h. While that might not sound terribly fast, some photos I will post in the coming days will show that is near impossible attain that speed. That's not to say that people won't try though. That may explain the staggering number of accidents that occur in the country every year, but I digress. Ireland also uses the system of round-abouts to connect roads instead of intersections. This definitely took some getting used to, but I see the advantage of them.

We traveled through a few small towns before reaching Ennis in County Clare. We could only assume it was Ennis since there was no grand sign welcoming visitors to Ennis, at least not one that was obvious. This brought about the first adventure of the day. Anne and Roger were following us in the sedan and we got separated at a traffic light coming around a sharp corner on the outskirts of Ennis. There was absolutely no place for me to pull over until they could catch back up, so we proceeded to try to find the hotel knowing they would be fine on their own. Ennis is a wonderfully charming and old town, meaning the roads a very narrow, usually one-way, and missing any kind of signs or indicators. We drove from one end of the town to the other with no success in finding O'Connell Street. We finally asked a few people walking where we could find our hotel. In a very think accent, which my jet-lagged brain was having trouble comprehending, they pointed us in a general direction. We knew the hotel was across the street from the cathedral which was plainly visible from almost every point in town, but finding a road that led to it was proving to be a challenge. By chance, we made a few turns and wound up at the beginning of O'Connell Street. Please refer to some photos which show just how narrow this road is. Thankfully, it is only one-way as it's usually very crowded, especially during the lunch hours when we arrived. We managed to find some hotel parking after the lunch crowd vacated it's restaurants and got checked into our rooms. As we were parking the car, we met up with Anne and Roger who had also found the hotel despite being separated from us earlier, which probably worked to their advantage anyhow.

The Old Ground hotel is a wonderful old ivy covered building with grand rooms and lounge areas. After the long flight and shock of learning to drive in Ireland, it was pleasant to finally relax a bit and focus on more important things like food. After freshening up a bit, we strolled down O'Connell street checking out the menus of the many pubs and restaurants. We decided on Brogan's Tavern which was a short walk from the hotel. We had a pretty good pub grub style lunch (hot sandwiches and chips which we know as fries).

Feeling refreshed, we wandered around Ennis a bit more. The tourist information center in Ennis has a great gift shop and is also attached to the Clare Museum. The museum has many artifacts and cultural information regarding the heritage of the area. The museum is free and worth a look. Don't forget to check out the Bog Butter exhibit. The museum gave us some inspiration and ideas of places to visit while we where in that region, and we also were able to get sailing times for the Aran Islands which we also wanted to see. Ennis also has a very nice river walk area just east of the town center, with many sculptures and a variety of water fowl which make it their home.

Jet lag and sleep deprivation finally got the better of us, as well as many of the shops closing by 5:30 PM, so we headed back for the hotel to rest a bit before dinner. The Old Ground hotel has a great little pub called the Poet's Corner which has a very nice menu selection. Dinner for myself was a pint of Guinness (it's Ireland, what do you expect) some seafood chowder and poached salmon.

A few select pictures from Day 1 are here

Day 2 Preview: The Aran Islands and how to get lost in Galway without trying.