If one is travelling through Connemara, one of the more compelling tourist destinations is Kylemore Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in existence since 1920 that sits majestically surrounded by expansive wooded acres, behind a tranquil lake. The gray structure, comprised of indigenous granite, is castle-like and imposing, and tourists can visit its well-appointed interior and learn of its origin, which commenced in 1867 as a private residence then switched hands with a fascinating, scandalous story. This was all well and good for my friend and me, as we pulled into the abbey’s car-park unplanned, on our way from Galway to Clifden. We were there in the off-season month of October, and were therefore unencumbered by a crowd. To our surprise, it only took a half hour to walk through the only section made available to the public, but at the time we had no way of knowing the real attraction was just outside.
In the woods of Kylemore Abbey, there are symbols and signs that set the imagination aflame. A sylvan path stretches hushed and eerie through a sense of timelessness decidedly historic in ambience; the environs quiver with dappled light through the trees. There are peculiar gifts along the natured path: a limestone seating structure abutting an ancient tree that I was convinced had been crafted as a couch for a giant; a tree stump covered in moss, so verdant and soft to the touch, it was surely the throne for the queen of the faery’s, probably used since the dawn of time and passed down through countless reigns. And there at the path’s side, a triangular boulder more than twenty feet high, so perfect in three-sided proportion, it was easy to subscribe to local legend, which calls it the wishing stone. And I, being a willing believer in Irish folklore, did as the brochure in my hand instructed: I gathered three pebbles from the ground and stood with my back against the stone. When I settled upon three wishes, I closed my eyes and tossed each pebble over my head, willing each to clear the stone’s apex so that my wish would be granted. It came to me as no surprise later that night when my first wish came startlingly true.
I found our unplanned trip to Kylemore Abbey like many things I found along the Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: unheralded, unexpected, and charming, with a sense of place replete with magic.
The Wishing Stone and Dungaire Castle, Kinvara
Travel Ireland with a Loose Plan
Once upon a time, I spent a year living on the western coast of Ireland, in an area of Connemara called Inverin, which is thirteen miles up the coast road from Galway City. Last October, I had good cause to return for nine days, and had invited a childhood friend to accompany me sans husbands, sans children, and sans any thoughts beyond my mission, which was to photograph many of the places I’d written about in my novel, “Dancing to an Irish Reel,” which is set in Connemara.
When my friend asked me where we would go and what we would do on our trip, my best answer was, “We’ll book a few rooms, hire a car, make our way from Shannon airport to Clifden over a stretch of six days, then take two days to circle back towards Shannon; we’ll just see what happens.” In short, I intentionally had a loose plan centered on nothing more than a camera and the places I wanted to photograph.
The good news is you can have this sort of plan when travelling through Ireland because it leaves room for the happy accident. It’s been my experience that serendipitous things tend to happen in Ireland, wrought from the hands of the friendly Irish people. Mind you, I’m not advocating throwing caution to the wind when travelling in Ireland, it’s just that after spending a year in Ireland, I learned a thing or two about going with the flow. Ireland has its own spontaneous rhythm, so my advice for travelers is to settle upon how many days you’ll be in Ireland, find an online hotel booking agency for the areas that interest you, hire a car, and leave the rest to unfold as it will. This is exactly what my friend and I did last October, and it afforded us the trip of a lifetime, the highlights of which I’ll share with you here.
My only real concern pertained to the acquisition of a car while driving under the influence of what I knew would be disorienting jet-lag, after the eleven hour flight from California. There are such disparate driving conditions between America and Ireland that I didn’t want to risk driving in a trial by fire, so I had the wherewithal to book a car at the airport and our hotel for the first night twenty minutes away in the town of Gort. Knowing it’d be early morning when we arrived, I’d made arrangements for early check-in. We dropped our bags at the hotel at eight AM and took to the streets, our aim being to keep moving and get on Irish time immediately.
We headed for the spectacular wooded grounds of Coole Park, less than ten minutes away, then onto Thoor Ballylee to see W.B. Yeats summer home. It was there we met a kind local who directed us to the 7th century ruins of Kilmacduagh Monastery and gave us the tip to knock on the door of the middle house across the lane to ask a woman named Lily for the keys to the abbey’s gate. We had an incredible day in the environs of Gort; we were so enamored of the area in this tourist off-season that we returned to Coole Park the following day, then made our way slowly to our next destination of Ballyvaughn.
On the road to Ballyvaughn is the seaside village of Kinvara, where we spent the afternoon exploring. We marveled at Dunghaire Castle, the myriad shops and restaurants, walked along the docks, then stopped at a handful of ancient churches we spied from the side of the winding road, before we checked into a charming B & B in Ballyvaughn, in which we stayed for two nights. We drove leisurely the next day through County Clare, on our way to the Cliffs of Moher. We explored Doolin and Lisdoonvarna, and made it to the windswept cliffs before nightfall.
The next morning, we headed to Inverin, where we were booked for three nights in a privately owned thatched cottage we used as a base from which we explored Galway City, the fields of Inverin, and the coastal town of Spiddal. On our second day, we made the hour long drive to Clifden, stopping randomly throughout our journey to photograph rambling streams, flocks of sheep, and the odd ruined castle positioned haphazardly in the endless bog. We found unheralded estate hotels on the way to Kylemore Abbey, then perused the vibrant town of Clifden until well after dark.
After checking out of the thatched cottage the next morning, we drove to Limerick City and walked around, but stayed for the night twenty minutes outside of the city, in the picturesque, historically preserved village of Adare, where we were overwhelmed by its quaint architectural delights. The following day, which was our last in Ireland, we had lunch in the gallery of the five star hotel named Dromoland Castle, then drove twenty minutes to stay in Bunratty: a charming town surrounded by ochre fields with a castle and a woolen mills in the town center, just ten minutes away from Shannon airport, so that there would be no need to rush for our early morning flight. The wonderful thing about the way I’d booked the hotels throughout western Ireland is that no destination for the night was much farther than a one hour drive, with the exception of the distance between Inverin and Adare, which was slightly more.
And the happy accidents I mentioned that tend to happen in Ireland? They were plenty: a stranger with directions to Kilmacduagh Monastery; tips from locals on where the best Irish traditional music could be heard; directions to Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Clare’s burren by a proud local we met in a restaurant; late night Irish folklore whispered beside a fire in a thatched cottage in Inverin; a spontaneous tour of the bookstores in Galway City by a literary promoter we met serendipitously on the street; a knock on the bedroom door at five thirty in the morning from the proprietress of the B & B in Bunratty, who insisted on driving us to the airport well before sun-up. And all because we left room for the happy accident.
“What a great trip,” my friend said as we boarded the plane.
“I know,” I returned, “it couldn’t have gone better had we planned.”
I was tired of living in Los Angeles. I’d moved out to the big city with stars in my eyes from my hometown on the Mississippi river to work in the music business. At the age of twenty-six, it was stimulating and thrilling, but after four years, L.A. lost its glitter: the bohemian quality I once loved in my West Hollywood neighborhood began to fade, and all I could see were the cracks in the sidewalk on the seedy side of town.
Turning thirty was an awakening, that’s when it occurred to me the music business is best populated by the youth of the day, and I began to evaluate the course of my life. I kept thinking if I didn’t make a change, I’d wake up one day to find myself with permanent roots in the cacophonous city, where it seemed everyone jockeyed for position in one form or another. I was uninspired. I was tired. I wanted serenity; I needed to get a plan.
I resigned from my job in the music business and took a position in client services at a thriving post production facility in Santa Monica, where I was one of twelve assistants to the clients from major movie studios that came to the cluster of recording studios to synchronize audio with film. It was a unique job, something new and different, but I was still living in Los Angeles. A sensitive friend addressed my discontent by asking two simple questions: “If you could live anywhere, where would it be, and what would you be doing?”
Ireland was my answer. I saw myself in a best case scenario living upon verdant fields partitioned by grey-stone walls on the way to the sea, writing poetry and novels—whichever came spilling from the resources of creativity suited me fine. “There’s only one way to do this,” I said to my friend, “and it starts with a plane ticket.”
It seemed once I’d made the decision, the powers that be aligned in support. After I gave my resignation to the managing director, uncanny things transpired: I’d be standing on a Los Angeles street corner just as a stranger approached to exchange pleasantries in an unmistakable Irish accent. I received useful information repeatedly from surprising quarters and it gave me a feeling of being in tune with destiny. I was certain I’d made the right decision by following my bliss.
And there I was a year later: living by the sea on the west coast of Ireland and employed in the music business because everything had fallen into place. I was living a life imagined: I had friends, a rented home, a schedule, a purpose, all from a start-up business dedicated to the careers of Irish musicians. My life had certainty and security. I grew accustomed to Ireland and its cultural nuances and truly believed I’d found my place in the world.
But the rhythm of life has an ebb and flow. By the end of that year, the tides started to turn so subtly they were imperceptible, up until the moment there was no recourse. My non-profit place of employment lost its funding, and there I was in a foreign country without a job. I was baffled and bewildered. What had seemed like destiny became ambiguity, and I was indecisive and riddled with doubt over every option I weighed. I was not ready to leave Ireland; I hadn’t exhausted her charms and it seemed all was lost, that fate had conspired against me.
I’m the kind of person that possesses an optimistic faith in the goodness of things, that life has meaning and God has a plan. The quandary was I couldn’t see anything beyond the roads that appeared blocked (and two weeks of feeling this way is two weeks too many.) I prayed, I meditated, I believed, and I vacillated between hope and despair. Then a letter arrived at my door.
One of the things I had to accept about living in rural Ireland was it took ten days for a letter to arrive from California. I lived way out in the countryside, where there were no mailboxes, so the post master would leave my mail at my door. One day during my quandary, I leaned down to inspect a letter at my doorstep, recognizing right away it came from the United States. I tore open the envelope to discover an offer from the post production facility in Santa Monica, reviewing it twice in complete surprise. “The woman who hired you in client services is leaving to have a baby,” the letter began, and by the time I got to the managing director’s signature, I realized he had offered me her job. My first reaction was complete resistance. No way in the world I’d ever go back to L.A. I put the letter back in its envelope and threw it on the kitchen counter, until my disbelief compelled me to read it once more. It was then I noticed the letter’s post mark. Squinting my eyes, I brought into focus the postdated stamp, which was only three days before. “What is this?” I said out loud, “divine intervention?” I considered and weighed until I arrived at the conclusion I didn’t have a choice. Yet all the while, a voice in my head whispered, “Follow this, you don’t have to know why.”
“Follow this to Los Angeles?” my petulance screamed, but that is exactly what I did. I talked myself into returning to Los Angeles by holding to faith, by deciding this may be a stepping stone along a bigger path, that perhaps someone or something would be waiting where I least expected.
Today, I am married to the man who wrote that letter. In 2015, the novel I wrote inspired by my year in Ireland was published. I now have a way of deciphering life’s supposed ambiguities, which is to say I now see life’s quandary’s as full of potential. When in doubt, I don’t fall into despair; instead I look for a bigger picture. And if I keep my faith and narrow my eyes, I swear I can see divinity.
I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Now that my book, ‘’Dancing to Irish Reel” is out, I’m being asked the inevitable question, “How much of the story is true?” Everyone who knows me personally knows I picked up and moved to the west coast of Ireland without much of a plan, and that I stayed for a year. Add that to the fact that the book is written in the first person, that the narrator’s interior monologues in the story are unabashedly confessional to the point of unnecessary risk. I’ve been told the book reads like a memoir, and for that, I can only say I’m glad because this was my intention. I can see why readers might think the entire story is true.
But writers make a choice in how to lay out a story, and in my case, I wrote the book based on the kind of books I like to read. I’m a one-trick pony kind of a reader. I want an intimate narrator’s voice with which I can connect. I want to know exactly whom I’m listening to, so that I can align with a premise that makes the story’s swinging pendulum of cause and effect plausible. The way I see it, there are always bread crumbs along the path to the chaotic predicaments people find themselves in, and although many are blind to their own contributions, when I read a book, I want to be the one who divines how the character got there.
What fascinates me about people are their backstories. Oh, people will tell you their highlights, but they rarely reveal their churning cauldron of attendant emotions; they rarely confess to carrying acquired fears. We all want to appear bigger than our own confusion, and the key word here is “appear,” because when it comes to faces, most people like to save theirs. This is the point I wanted to make in the story, but I also wanted “Dancing to an Irish Reel,” to be about discovery, so I started with a narrator who is a fish out of water: a twenty-five year old American ensconced in a specific culture she uncovers like the dance of seven veils. In the midst of this there enters an Irish traditional musician named Liam Hennessey.
He is from the region, of the region, and therefore it can only be said he is because of the region in a way that is emblematic. From a writer’s point of view, the supposition offers the gift of built-in conflict, most poignantly being the clash of the male-female dynamic set upon the stage of differing cultures trying to find a bridge. And I can think of no better culture clash than America and Ireland. I say this because I happen to know to the Irish, we Americans are a bit brazen, that we have the annoying habit of being direct. But the Irish are a discreet lot, culled from a set of delicate social manners that seem to dance around everything, leaving an American such as me with much guesswork.
No matter how they shake it, writers write about what they know, even if it has to be extracted from varying quadrants that have no good reason for being congealed. “Dancing to an Irish Reel” is a good example of this: it came to me as a strategy for commenting on the complexities of human beings inherent longing to connect—the way we do and say things that are at variance with how we really feel, in the interest of appearances, and how this quandary sometimes dictates how we handle opportunities in life. In my opinion, there is no better playing field on which to illustrate this point than the arena of new found attraction. I’m convinced the ambiguity of new love is a universal experience, and since the universe is a big wide place, and since ‘”Dancing to an Irish Reel” has something to say about hope and fear and the uncertainty of attraction, it occurred to me that I might as well make my point set upon the verdant fields of Ireland because everything about the land fascinated me when I lived there, and I wanted to take any reader that would have me to the region I experienced as cacophonous and proud: that mysterious, constant, quirky, soul-infused island that lays in the middle of the Atlantic, covered in a blanket of green, misty velvet.
About the Author:
Claire Fullerton hails from Memphis, Tennessee, and now lives in Southern California. She is the author of “A Portal in Time” and “Dancing to an Irish Reel.” She is a three time award winning essayist, a five time contributor to the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book series, a proud contributor to “Southern Writers Magazine,” “The Wild Geese,” and “Celtic Life International.”
I have had the great fortune of meeting true believers in “Dancing to an Irish Reel,” as well as “my little Irish stories,” and other contributions I’ve made via the written word. Thank you so much to Ronovan Hester of Lit. World Interviews, Melissa Gillan, who is The Aran Island Artisan, Dawn Carrington of Vinspire Publishing, Liam O’Connell of “GotIreland,” Stephen of “Celtic Life International,” Ellen Comesky in Santa Monica, California, Tama Dudley Harris in Memphis, Fran, Ger and Joe of The Wild Geese online Irish community, and Gary Fearon and Susan Reichert of Southern Writers Magazine (the dynamic duo replete with bat cave.) And always, thank you to my husband, William Feil.