O’Brien’s Tower

Martin, our ex-military B&B
host, accomplished an amazing feat this morning: he not only prepared two
perfect omelets for our breakfast, but elicited a compliment acknowledging
their perfection from Nancy, who is notoriously particular about the way eggs
should be cooked. Bravo, Martin!


This is how hard the wind was blowing

The winds that howled outside all
night and were still slamming rain against the windows indicated that we’d best
put on as many layers as we could before we ventured out. As we mentioned
earlier, the voyage to the Aran Islands that we had hoped to take this morning
had been ruled out, not only because of today’s weather but also because other
recent storms had left the channel in need of dredging. So instead of going to
the ferry landing in Doolin, we got back on the WAW and headed toward the
Cliffs of Moher.

The Cliffs of Moher
Although clouds and rain limited
visibility of the cliffs and completely obscured our view of the Aran Islands
just ten or twelve kilometers offshore, the weather added to the drama of our
encounter with this spectacular exhibit of nature’s craftsmanship. The Cliffs
of Moher (mo-HAIR) are an undulating, five-mile stretch of rugged black rock
that drops seven hundred feet straight into the Atlantic, which hurls its waves
against the bare walls. No doubt the waves crashed more violently today than
usual, and the wind was so intense we not only had trouble keeping hats and
hoods on our heads, but feared for our very lives when we climbed the steps to
walk a little way along the top of the cliffs. The footpath was muddy and very
slick, so we turned back as soon as the low stone safety wall ended. We did,
however, climb to O’Brien’s Tower, situated on the cliffs’ highest point, which
is not hard to reach from the visitor center.

The view from O’Brien’s Tower

The visitor center itself is
something of a wonder: it’s built into the side of a hill under a grass-covered
roof, so if it weren’t for the adjacent car park, you might not even notice it.
Inside are exhibits on the history, flora, and fauna of the region, as well as
a fifteen-minute Imax-style video presentation simulating a flying seagull’s
view of the cliffs—and, when the seagull suddenly takes a dive, the underwater
world beneath them. Except for the cries of birds and the slosh of waves, the
soundtrack is silent, so the total effect creates a slightly eerie, out-of-body
experience.

The view from the other side, looking back toward O’Brien’s Tower

Oh La La! in Ennistymon
Bunratty Castle
As we drove inland across County Clare, we
happened to notice a small crèperie called Oh La La! in the equally small town
of Ennistymon, and decided to stop there for lunch. Michael had a gallette
(a large crèpe made with buckwheat flour) filled with brie and bacon; Nancy’s
gallette contained goat cheese and ratatouille. 

County Clare is divided from County Limerick by
the River Shannon, which runs diagonally through the heart of Ireland. Situated
between the cities of Shannon and Limerick on a bluff above the river is
Bunratty Castle. Michael had passed the castle when he came through the
area a couple of weeks ago, and although Bunratty is not listed among Fodor’s
starred attractions, it looked intriguing enough that he decided to put it on
our itinerary. After visiting, both of us felt it was worth a “Fodor’s Choice”
designation. The castle itself, originally built in 1460, has been fully
restored with period furnishings and tapestries; if you reserve ahead (which we
had not), you can attend a medieval banquet that undoubtedly features a lot of
meat and a lot of mead. We were to content to simply imagine the menu as we
walked through the banquet hall a couple of hours before the meal was to be
served—although later, when we saw the musicians who would provide
entertainment for the banqueters beginning to arrive with their harps, pipes, and
bodhrans, we kind of wished we could stay.

The South Solar in Bunratty Castle

The Great Hall of the Castle

A farmer’s house in Bunratty Folk Park

Colorful poultry in the farmyard

The type of haystack Monet liked to paint

The chapel at Bunratty
The pasture at Bunratty
Bunratty’s collection of vintage farm equipment

An antique lawnmower
Even better than the castle was the adjoining
Folk Park, which consists of several historic homes, shops, and public
buildings that have been moved to Bunratty from other locations and fully
furnished to create an authentic-feeling nineteenth-century Irish village. It’s
kind of like a small Williamsburg, or Nauvoo without the LDS missionaries.
Because we visited during the off-season, we didn’t get to see the cooper or
the blacksmith demonstrate their trades, but it was interesting to note that
the main difference between the rustic homes of the simple farm folk and the
slightly larger ones of the better off seems to be that the latter didn’t have
to share living space with their animals.
There is a lot to take in at the Folk
Park; but becau
se Bunratty is privately owned and funded, the antique
structures, furniture, and textiles are not as well protected as they are at
sites administered by Ireland’s Office of Public Works. Nancy was alarmed to
see vintage clothing and priceless tapestries displayed in rooms that were
completely open to sunlight and damp air. We hope Bunratty’s treasures will
somehow manage to survive prolonged exposure.

Adare Manor Hotel (photo from hotel website)
This is not where we stayed.
One of the many thatched cottages in Adare
(photo from bracktours.com)

The sun was low in the sky when we arrived in
Adare, which Fodor describes as “cute as a Fisher-Price toy village, a
thatched-roof jewel laid out with characteristics that conjure up the English
rather than the Irish countryside.” This “once-upon-a-time-ified” town
obviously knows how to market what it has, because even though it is small, there
were a lot of people walking up and down the main street, looking in shops, and
checking restaurant menus. Well-heeled visitors stay at the Adare Manor
Hotel, a Victorian Gothic mansion that was once home to nobility and now sports
a prize-winning golf course on its huge estate. We
had booked a room at the much humbler Adare Village Inn, which was right on the
main highway downtown, above a pub also owned and operated by our hosts, Sean
and Bridie. The inn’s website had said there was on-site parking, but when
we arrived we couldn’t find it; we had to park on the street a few blocks away
while Michael walked over to register. When he inquired about parking, Sean
showed him a narrow alley just past the pub—barely wide enough for the subcompact
Nissan Micra we are driving. The alley led to a postage-stamp parking area
behind the inn, with access through a gate that was even narrower than the
alley. Michael managed to maneuver the Micra into the space, and we hauled our
luggage up the steps and through the back door to our room.

Adare Village Inn
Our window is behind the sign

Sean, Bridie, and their three teenage children
also live above the pub, with access to their flat through a door right next to
ours. Sean assured us that even though our windows overlook the busy main street,
we wouldn’t hear any traffic during the night because they had installed two
complete sets of windows, one on top of the other, to keep out the noise. (It
worked!)

Although Sean and Bridie invited us to have
dinner in their pub, we had decided to try the “acclaimed” Mustard Seed
restaurant at Echo Lodge, which Fodor describes as “a Victorian yellow-stucco
jewel set atop a small hill overlooking Ballingarry, a village that time
forgot, deep in rural Ireland.”  This description—as well as the crowds
milling around Adare—motivated us to reserve a table at the Mustard Seed and
then make the half-hour drive to get there. Michael was relieved to find that although
the road between Adare and Ballingary was narrow, it was  surprisingly straight. Because the only address we had to go by was
“Village Center, Ballingarry,”
we had some trouble locating the
Mustard Seed at Echo Lodge, and because it was dark, we couldn’t really enjoy
the view once we found the “yellow-stucco jewel” on the hilltop, but we were
looking forward to the “memorable” meal that Fodor promised.

The dining rooms at the Mustard Seed were elegantly appointed,
with crisp white linen tablecloths, bouquets of fresh roses, and sparkling
china, crystal, and sterling silver. Other patrons were dressed in stylish
suits and cocktail dresses; good thing we had at least changed out of our cargo
pants and muddy hiking boots. When we were seated and the hostess had presented
us with copies of the menu, both of us gasped. We had planned (as we often did)
to order a couple of starter dishes and then share one main plate, but the
Mustard Seed’s table d’hote menu didn’t include any à la carte
items; our only option was a full four-course meal at a fixed price that was
twice what Fodor had led us to expect, and nearly six times what we had paid
for our very satisfying dinner last night in Doolin. This obviously wasn’t the
sort of place where you could ask for an extra plate and share one generous order
of fish and chips. But we’d reserved a table; we’d driven half an hour to get
there, and now we were seated, so what else could we do but suck it up and order
two lavish four-course meals?
We sat in this corner of the dining room at the Mustard Seed
(photo from Trip Advisor)

Here’s what we got, in all the glorious detail of the printed menu.
(Unfortunately for you, dear reader, the ambiance at the Mustard Seed was so refined
that it would have been terribly gauche to pull out a camera and take photos of
the food, so you will have to use your imagination.) Michael started with a terrine
of wild boar and foie gras, served with slices of brioche, and garnished with a
prune and beet couli. This was followed by a salad of local organic greens with
mustard and Newgrange rapeseed aioli. Meanwhile, Nancy was enjoying slow-cooked
breast of Longford lamb on baby gem lettuce with black olives and roasted red
pepper sauce; then came a divine, palate-clearing scoop of pineapple-passion fruit
sorbet. The main course for Michael was poached John Dory
(a type of white
fish) with wild garlic emulsion, seared Kerry scallops, tapioca, liver fritter
and lime
gel; Nancy had the guinea fowl (pan-fried breast and
smoked leg roulade)
with pickled heirloom beetroot, carrot air, charred spring onion, and artichoke
purée. Finally, for dessert, Michael had chocolate mousse with fennel sorbet
and a meringue kiss; Nancy had a slice of broiled pineapple with iced coconut
crème and paper-thin caramel crisps. Everything was delicious and exquisitely
presented, but was it worth the price of a fully loaded Cuisinart? Not really.
We’ve had plenty of meals that we enjoyed just as much, which were presented
with similar panache, at a fraction of the cost. But we must admit that the
experience was memorable.