“Please don’t sneeze, mate,” I said to myself, as the young British soldier pointed his revolver at my head.
It was Derry (or Londonderry, depending on your preference), November 19, 1977 and my wife and I were touring Ireland in a hire car from Cork, with Republican number plates.
It was the time of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, but we were determined to venture into Ulster to see the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim.
In Derry, where there had been a number of incendiary bomb attacks earlier in the month, there were troops everywhere, and when we drove into the city centre, our car was checked from top to bottom.
Our Australian passports meant nothing, as one soldier bashed the panel work and looked under the car, while the other, a pimply faced lad, held a revolver at my head. We got the all clear, but Marie just wanted to turn around and go back into the Republic.
We passed convoys of armored cars on our way to ‘the causeway’, where we undertook quite a walk on a grey day. It was worth it, although the causeway wasn’t as big as I imagined. It was certainly much bigger than the version at Fingal, on the Tweed Coast in Australia.
We had intended to go the races at Navan, back in the Republic, but there were diversions everywhere, so that was that.
On leaving Ulster the British soldiers stopped us again, this time without weapons being drawn.
We had started our Irish adventure at Cork on November 11, staying at Kinsale, and then Macroom (see ‘The Luck of the Irish’ on this website).
With everyone in Macroom heading for Mass, we drove out of the town on our third day, for Blarney Castle, but made it there too late to beat a coach load of Americans, who were lining up to kiss the ‘Blarney Stone’.
Next stop was Lismore, a ‘must see’, since Marie and I came from Lismore, New South Wales. The autumn colors were spectacular and the castle, on the River Blackwater, the most beautiful we had seen in our travels. Owned by the Duke of Devonshire, it was closed. Locals told us Fred Astaire’s older sister, Adele – like Fred, a dancer – lived there three months of the year.
We drove over ‘The Vee’, stopping at Mt Melleray Abbey, before entering and exploring the limestone caves near Mitchelstown, with a local guide. That night we stayed at Mallow, in accommodation provided by Mrs Pat Murphy.
The town was quiet when we arrived, but quickly filled with football supporters and church goers, as we enjoyed pork chops at the Hibernian Hotel.
The next day it took a while to get away from Mrs Murphy and her affectionate dog, but we made good time to Killarney, where we paid four pounds for a jaunting car driver to take us through the national park.
We had lunch at ‘Ladies View’, overlooking the Killarney Lakes. I thought the wind would blow the car over. I had the same feeling at rugged Tim Healy Pass.
We arrived in Kenmare at nightfall and booked into the ‘Shamrock’ pub, where Mrs Foley slowly served us drinks in the bar, while we played pool.
The next day I saw snow fall for the first time, as we drove from Tralee to Limerick, where we stayed in Mrs O’Toole’s town house. Mrs O’Toole proudly told us her husband had once been invited to the United States, for St Patrick’s Day.
That night we celebrated our second wedding anniversary, at a medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle, after drinks at Dirty Nellie’s pub. There were lots of Americans at the banquet, including one John Kelly, who boasted the same name as my mother, Lola’s first cousin, from Lismore.
Wild winds were still in force the next day when we walked along the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. We stayed at Kinvara, just inside County Galway.
At Westport we visited a market, and then had a drinks at a bar where we chatted to locals, one of whom, Mike Murray, had been living in Chicago for 30 years.
We stayed at Ballina that night – at Mrs Ryan’s Waterville House, Bed and Breakfast, on Killala Road. She wasn’t too fussed with Americans. Marie and I had a curry at the ‘Cosy Pub Cafe’.
The drive north from Ballina was often rugged and desolate. We had a lunch stop in the pretty town of Donegal. I touched snow for the first time, on the side of the road, in hilly country near Fintown, on the way to Letterkenny. At Letterkenny we visited the beautiful
Cathedral of St Eunan and St Columba, Donegal’s only Catholic cathedral.
That night we stayed at Buncrana, ahead of our venture into Ulster. As you can tell, we put some miles behind us, and when we look back, we realise we drove too far, and should have selected one region of Ireland and explored it thoroughly. But when you are young, and on your first trip abroad, you just want to ‘go. go. go’.
1 Tim Healy Pass, County Kerry
2 Marie and Steve Ricketts at Bunratty Castle, November 15, 1977
3 Ballina, County Mayo.