When I was in Wiltshire, England, I bought a used copy of Pete McCarthy’s book, McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in Ireland. McCarthy was an English born son of an Irish mother and English father. He wrote that “The Eighth Rule of Travel states: Never Pass a Bar That Has Your Name On It.”
I unknowingly adapted that rule to, “never pass a book that has your family name on it, especially if it is about the author’s search for identity in the same place from which your same-named family came.” I bought the book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it after I made my own trip to the land of some of my ancestors, in some of the same places McCarthy traveled.
My mother’s side of the family is all Irish, McCanns and McCarthys. We know that some of her Irish Catholic family immigrated to the U.S. from County Cork, Ireland. I was thrilled to visit the family home town, Dunmanway, in May 2017. During this trip I joined family members there for a McCarthy Cultural and Historical Weekend.
I’ve never felt a strong connection to my Irish roots. My grandparents on that side died when I was quite young and for whatever reason, Irishness wasn’t part of our family identity. But still, I recognized how special it was to be able to visit this place of familial and hereditary significance.
Pete McCarthy wrote, “So what I’m wondering is this. Is it possible to have some kind of genetic memory of a place where you’ve never lived but your ancestors have? Or am I just a sentimental fool, my judgement fuddled by nostalgia, Guinness, and the romance of the diaspora?” As we flew into the Cork Airport on our Aer Lingus flight, I couldn’t help but have similar thoughts.
I stopped those deep thoughts as soon as we landed and realized the airline had lost our son’s car booster seat, followed by the stress of helping my husband figure out how to drive on the opposite side of the car, on the opposite side of the road. We set off to find our Airbnb and let our Irish adventure begin.
Where We Stayed
I waited too long to get a room at the hotel where our McCarthy family event was being held. There aren’t a lot of hotels in the town and they were all full. So, we turned to Airbnb. What a blessing that turned out to be, because we found Gael’s Lap Farm and Accommodation
(website and Facebook page) and we loved it! Staying here gave us a more authentic experience of life in Ireland, authentic experiences being one of the great benefits of renting Airbnb properties. (Update, sadly, due to a change in hospitality laws and restrictions a few years after our stay, Gael’s Lap Farm stopped offering their lodging services. I am leaving the rest of my post as I wrote it at the time, but wanted to put the update here so that readers wouldn’t attempt to search for them.)
Gael’s Lap accommodation is a cabin on a family farm. The hosts are an incredibly nice and generous couple who happily let us help feed their farm animals every day, including chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, and the sweetest little lamb named Loey. We also loved playing with their cats, dogs, and donkeys.
When we first arrived, the hosts showed us around. My son ran in the cabin first and came out with his mouth wide agape and a look on his face that told me he was about to exclaim something. Knowing that this cabin was going to be more rustic than the other places we had been staying recently, I had a moment of panic because I knew my darling child has no appropriateness filter. What was he going to say about what he just saw inside? He stood in the doorway and here it came…
“This. Place. Is. … AWESOME!”
Whew. He was right. He loved the foosball table, the wall full of DVDs (during the trip we watched a whale documentary and his first Mr. Bean movie), and did I mention the cats outside?
My husband and I loved the amazing views of the lush Irish countryside and Bantry Bay, sheep grazing, standing stone formations in the distance, fresh baked Irish soda bread and eggs from our hosts, and the clearest sky full of stars I think I’ve ever seen (at least until a few months later in Provence). Seriously, pinch me. Or slap me, because I don’t blame you if you think that sounds obnoxious.
I highly recommend staying here if you are looking to visit this area, but only if you are good people, because the hosts at Gael’s Lap Farm are good people and I don’t want any jerks heading their way! Seriously, I am Facebook friends with them now, so I will know.
This is a really special result of travel using accommodations found on Airbnb or boarding houses or B&Bs. You get to meet locals and get a better sense of real life in the area. In McCarthy’s Bar, Pete McCarthy travels almost exclusively this way, though he took it even further and only booked accommodations as he went, not even making reservations.
The travels he wrote about in this book also took place in a time before mobile smart phones, GPS, and online guides. His travel consisted of driving around with paper maps, getting directions from actual people, and staying wherever he landed. There is a real feeling of nostalgia and adventure to his travels, and one of connectedness to the land and the people. I found myself feeling envious of that and wondering how I can make our travel more grounded that way. Staying in authentic places with generous hosts like Gael’s Lap Farm is one way to start.
What We Did
Now, here’s a downside to where we stayed and this area of Ireland in general … you are out in the middle of countryside and it takes a long time to get anywhere! We grossly underestimated our travel time to any destination we had in Ireland because of this. Once off the main highways, the roads are generally narrow, moderately maintained, mountainous, and unpredictable. I had to laugh when I read Pete McCarthy’s words, “You must never divide the distance by seventy-five miles an hour, and say that’s when you’ll be there; that way, madness lies.” The trade-off is that the views are lovely!
Our primary reason for spending this long weekend in County Cork was to attend the M(a)cCarthy Cultural and Historical Weekend held in Dunmanway and hosted by the University College Cork School of History, Cork City and County Archives, and Dunmanway Historical Association. We met up with family members including my Uncle who has spent a lot of time researching our family tree. He was involved in a project researching genealogy and history of M(a)cCarthys in this area, and this weekend was a celebration of some of that.
Full disclosure, I was not involved in any of that and the only parts of the weekend we attended were the welcome event and gala dinner. It was wonderful timing for us to be able to meet up with family though, and around a good reason!
We did enjoy some time looking around Dunmanway, the small town of my ancestors. If you are wondering, I didn’t feel any familial spirits or strong pull to the land, but I enjoyed being there and seeing it. It’s hard not to love a small Irish town.
Bantry is another town near where we stayed. It sits on the Bantry Bay which leads to the Atlantic Ocean.
We were there on a Friday morning, so we were able to enjoy the Bantry Market.
It was here that my son got his first (of sooooo many) fidget spinners. We also bought cookies, brownies, and a pupuska (?) at the market, because that’s what we do. Markets = snack time.
We toured the Bantry House and Garden, a beautiful estate with a private collection of art and antiques from the family, descendants of the Earls of Bantry, that has owned it since 1739.
Our visit included a guided tour of the home and the ability to walk through the gardens and old stables. The owners still live in a part of the home and we enjoyed meeting their dog who was roaming the grounds freely.
They had a nice café where we enjoyed an afternoon tea and coffee and took in the views.
The Sheep’s Head Way
We took a hike on The Sheep’s Head Way, a series of trails on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula. We chose the Lighthouse Loop Walk, a little over 4 kilometers along the peninsula, down to a lighthouse and helipad, and back through fields of grazing sheep and building ruins.
There is a small café and picnic area at the trail head. We were lucky to have beautiful weather. The views were absolutely gorgeous. I will let the pictures show you that!
I had really hoped to do some whale watching on this trip, but we didn’t have time. While we were at the tip of the peninsula at the lighthouse though, I saw something big moving in the water, way in the distance. I took dozens of pictures with my zoom lens, hoping that despite not being able to make out clearly what it was in person, that the pictures would show a whale. The beauty of digital photography is that nothing was wasted by my excess. It was not a whale. I now have 53 pictures of someone’s boat.
What We Ate
Because we were staying in the farm cabin, we were able to eat most meals there. We bought groceries at the Aldi in Dunmanway and ate most breakfasts at the cabin and packed lunches for wherever we were on the road. I’ll mention again that our hosts provided us with some delicious farm-fresh eggs, homemade Irish soda bread, and had some Irish Cheddar cheese in the fridge for us. It was all delicious!
Our only meals out were two dinners. One was in Dunmanway at The Southern Bar. I enjoyed fish and chips and mushy peas, and of course, a Guinness. My husband had a Murphy’s Irish Stout as an alternative to Guinness. He observed that it was what all the locals were drinking and took that as a good sign.
I have never been a big fan of Guinness but I heard it tastes better in Ireland, so I felt it was my duty to test the theory. And you know what? It’s true. Maybe it was just a mental trick, but I’ve also been told that the Guinness served locally is slightly different (better) because it can be packaged and preserved differently than that which is exported. True or not, whatever the reason, it didn’t just taste good, it tasted right.
It was a cold, rainy night and we were able to sit in a cozy corner of the bar by a wood fireplace. Next to us sat a sweet older lady who was clearly a regular. We exchanged some pleasantries with her but our conversation didn’t go too far because, despite speaking her English, I couldn’t understand her accent and was feeling badly about asking her to repeat herself more than three times per comment.
Our other dinner was at the banquet of the Historical Weekend at the Parkway Hotel. The meal itself was unremarkable, but what I remember most was that it took sooooo long. I don’t know if it was this particular event alone, or if it is an Irish thing, but the meal started an hour late and courses came out slowly. (Maybe some readers familiar with Irish culture can tell me, is this typical for Irish gatherings?)
After the meal we were supposed to enjoy traditional Irish music and dancing. My son was so excited about this and was looking forward to sharing some dance moves from his after-school dance club, but it was pushing midnight and the band hadn’t even shown up yet, so we had to leave the banquet “early” to get to bed. We had a long, 20 kilometer drive back to the cabin that we knew would take us twice as long as we thought it should, and we had our flight home the next morning.
What We Missed
This was a quick long weekend in County Cork and since it was primarily for spending time with family and at family events, there was a lot of touring we didn’t get to. I would have loved to have gone dolphin and whale watching with a chartered guide. We didn’t have time and I also didn’t think to book that in advance, which probably would’ve been necessary even if we had time. In planning for the trip, I also considered spending some time in the city of Cork as well as County Kerry and that didn’t happen.
I don’t know if we’ll have time to return to Ireland anytime soon, but I would love to. This was such a relaxing and fun trip for our whole family, in a beautiful place surrounded by nice people. I would go back to all these same spots but would also love to see more of Ireland. Even though my Irish genes didn’t start tingling, I think it would be hard for anyone not to love this beautiful place.