We looked on Couchsurfing recently for options for a two-day midterm break stay somewhere in Ireland, and Bert from the Netherlands got back to us. He lives just outside Abbeyfeale, in the county of Kerry, or ‘The Kingdom’ as they like to call it down there, so we thought: why not? That was far enough away to make it worthwhile going for the Sunday and bank holiday Monday, and there’d be plenty of things to see en route, so we accepted, and he confirmed, and that was that. We were going to stay in Bert’s cottage just over the Kerry border with Limerick, barely a stone’s throw from the river Feale.
Other than a mid-morning coffee at the worryingly-named Racket Hall just outside Roscrea, our first stop on the way down was at King John’s Castle in Limerick. We’d heard from Simon and Gina, fellow travel bloggers we met one afternoon in Killiney Castle for a pint and a chat shortly after we arrived back in Ireland in August, that the interpretive centre there was worth the visit. And so it was, especially as far as the kids were concerned. Al and Eoin ran around like pillaging norsemen, up and down ramparts, up and down spiral staircases, all in search of these (sort-of) hidden plaque things they had to make rubbings from on the leaflet given to them at reception – the geniuses who think of these things! – if they wanted to win a multicoloured rubber with King John’s Castle Limerick on it, which of course they did – what are you? Nuts? A raw Shannon wind whipped through King’s Island, which is the nucleus around which the layers of Limerick city have accreted over the past half millennium like a pearl in an oyster.
A late afternoon stop for a walk in a park full of golden fallen leaves in the postcard pretty town of Adare broke the trip further on down the road. We watched the boys play Rugby World Cup with a Munster-red mini-ball got in the castle gift shop at King John’s, then pressed on Bertward, deep into the badlands of Limerick. With the light of the day gone, a table was claimed in Mat McCoy’s on the main street of Abbeyfeale, provisioned with Guinness and Tayto, and there we watched the second Rugby World Cup semi-final, between Australia and Argentina, reading The Sunday Times in the intervals between the Ozzie tries. As Sunday afternoons go, you’d be hard-pressed to beat it.
The very last of the day’s driving took us out of Abbeyfeale town, over the Feale itself, and into The Kingdom. It was a good trick finding Bert’s cottage up a boreen in the dark, but there it was, the one with the Ciarraí (Kerry) yellow and green flying outside. The friendly giant Dutchman welcomed us inside to where a fire had been lit and dinner prepared. Once again we thought to ourselves how inadequate and misleading the term ‘couchsurfing’ was and how it didn’t at all do the hospitality we often receive justice. Our ‘couch’ was our own room, and the kids’ their own too, with the added thrill of a bunk bed. We even had our own private bathroom and shower. Of course we already realised we wouldn’t all be curled up on a settee with dog hair and biscuit crumbs, having checked out Bert’s profile on Couchsurfing.com. Still and all though, like, each time you get welcomed into someone’s home like that and shown your own cosy quarters, your heart sings. Bert, from Helmond, near Eindhoven, sat us down and fed us overcast food – mashed potato and meatballs, and was liberal in his application of olives and red wine to the situation.
So what brought Bert from the Helmond to Abbeyfeale? Well, years ago he came out here for a holiday with his wife. They both loved it, but she in particular felt that in Ireland she’d ‘come home’. When it was time to leave she was in tears. A plan to find a place to buy in Ireland was born back in Holland. “In the first year we came out twice; the second year, three times, the third year four times.” he told us. “And by the time I finally found a place, I came out alone.” It didn’t sound like it was the first time he’d told that story, he told it so neatly, and we didn’t press for details.
He was a great host, a lovely man; books were dug out for the lads, he had Dutch pronunciation guidance for me, half-beginning to think about learning Dutch as I was, and of course ideas on where we should take ourselves over the weekend. In the morning a buffet-type breakfast such as you’d receive at a B&B for €70 per night down the road was laid on, while we with disquiet considered the soft day that was in it outside the window. But you don’t go west for the weather; everybody knows that.
Bypassing Killarney and its lake, a corner of Ireland I barely knew, at mid-morning we pulled in at Kate Kearney’s Cottage, the famous old shebeen at the head of the Gap of Dunloe, with the weather still on our side, just. We’d do as much of the Gap as we could on foot till the kids or the weather wore us down. Sky-high waterfalls lined our way, and steep slopes of scree were testament to the ever-changing face of the hillside. Standing aside to let a jaunting car pass us by at the Wishing Bridge, I felt mighty, like we could have walked the whole thing that morning, and with fight to spare. Many’s the purple-patched sheep we disturbed, and still the pony traps clopped past us every now and again going into the deeps of the Gap, a weather-worried look knitting the occupants’ brows. But the wind scraping down over the river Loe between the Reeks and Purple Mountain had the better of us after about an hour of it, and we turned back once we’d reached Auger lake, reaching the sanctuary of Kate Kearney’s just in time, weather-wise, where we ate to the sounds of ‘Star of the County Down’ and Asian tourists chatting, and the rain outside.
After lunch and the rain really coming down now, we went from nine to three on the clock of Lough Leane, where Ross Castle is a sentinel at the head of Ross Island on that lake. You can only see the castle by guided tour, so with a troupe of French we were shown around the smallish fort with its murdering hole and arrow-slit windows. “Can you imagine being slathered in goose fat to keep out the cold, like they were in medieval times?” I asked the lads. I bought a nice print of Ross Castle from Peter Cox’s shop on High St. in Killarney afterwards. Given it was still busy on a pissy Monday evening in late October, we could only imagine what the town must be like on a balmy Saturday one in June. Since it was our, by which I mean, of course, Tina’s, turn to cook, we stocked up in Lidl, a brand that’s taking over Ireland, and which you pronounce lee-dil. Nice it was to be able to head back to the warmth of Bert’s place, with his Celtic Soul cds and bowl of chocolate mint sticks, and we ate off the rain feel.
Next morning the rain was still a thing but. Saying bye Bert, it’s been nice knowing you, and next time we’re in The Kingdom we’ll be sure to call, and of course we’ll write you a reference too on Couchsurfing as soon as we get home so you can keep doing good by travellers like us, we struck out north in the general direction of Birr, Offaly. There, the last of our castles for our break, Birr Castle, was the least warlike, the least murderous, the most scientific, had the nicest garden, and had the most impressive telescope of the lot. The Leviathan, the biggest telescope in the world for seventy years, was only restored recently and sits out in the pretty gardens, which we drizzled around after a tour of the science centre. Looking more like it belonged to the same taxonomy as the Great War’s Big Bertha than to that of Hubble or Spitzer, it was interesting, in this age of miniaturisation, to see a thing so solid and bricky, the culmination of the process of enlargement which telescopes must always follow in their insatiable lust for light.