With a few days left, I went to Killarney and met up with Alix again. Killarney was the perfect place to see natural wonders such as the Ring of Kerry and Gap of Dunloe that are written in as musts in a tour of Ireland. Well, it rained both afternoons, so there was none of that. Nonetheless, I still had an enjoyable time walking around Killarney and doing another castle visit, this time to the more ruinous Ross Castle.
Two things I noticed when I got off the bus were a) I had walked into a mall, so Killarney was a mid-sized town at least, and b) outside the mall entrance was the coolest piece of playground equipment I’ve ever seen. A giant, spider-like complex where kids strap into bungee chairs and propel themselves into the air off of trampolines while parents sit and watch, either reminiscing or dwelling on how deprived their own childhood was.
We were at a nice hostel called Neptune’s Town hostel on a street crammed to bursting with shops, banks, cafes, and pubs (pretty typical, as you gather now. This motif would repeat throughout the entirety of European cities) off the main road. Killarney has a pretty thriving, colorful town center with its own small collection of winding cobblestone streets and local bars. I wouldn’t mind returning there someday, and at the time while I was sitting in a café doing the only thing I could think of to pass the time (drinking tea. I wasn’t feeling very creative) I remember thinking that it seemed like a nice place to live. No tourists walked the streets, save for us and the few others from the hostel, and little about the place felt like it was striving hard to cater to our kind. If Killarney and Galway were tourist agencies, Galway would be running at you with balloons and jumping around your face like a puppy salesman mix, and Killarney would be Garfield, reclining in an armchair and making one lazy attempt to pick up a tourist information brochure off the ground before telling you to do it yourself. That’s supposed to give Killarney a positive connotation; it lifts one bleary eye and amusedly watches you make your own discoveries.
That night, Alix and I decided to create our own barhop and find the most exciting pubs on a Tuesday night (I believe it was Tuesday at least, or some other weekday of equal value). The first place we tried was more than half empty and featured a guy playing terribly on the guitar while raging like Lewis Black. I wasn’t sure if the yells from the locals to “shut up and play!” or “stop playing!” were serious or not because they were always followed with raucous laughter. It was a code of behavior I was too sober to understand.
We meandered through a couple other pubs. One we left through the back door of to walk into an authentic arm wrestling match happening in a tiny back alley. There in the middle on a metal barrel two Irish guys locked hand in hand were being cheered on by a crowd of men and women drinking and smoking along the benches, some of them seemingly having placed bets. I particularly remember one older man with a mall Santa-sized beard and several layers of shabby clothes. Whether it had something to do with how drunk they were, this was one of those few times when I really had difficulty understanding the accent. It was also one of those moments when I felt both completely immersed in “real local life” and completely foreign at the same time. We watched the competitors struggle for a few minutes and left.
Tired and enlightened to the fact that not much was going on Tuesday night (unless Killarney keeps it very well hidden), we headed back to the hostel but made one last dip along the way, at my behest. In this larger pub and restaurant we at last found the authentic Irish music we’d been searching for. And it was good music, some of the best music I’ve heard live. Two guys had the stage, one singing and playing guitar and the other on the violin. I later learned this was the duo Celtic Whisper, who has been playing in pubs around Ireland for the past ten years. Also, that they would be playing in my other favorite country at the Ostrava Irish Festival (I don’t get it either…) this March, which I sorely want to go to see for the show of two cultures I love coming together.
They played an extended cover of “Hotel California” that finished with the longest, most intense violin solo I’ve ever seen. It was nearly heart-stopping at some moments. Later I found a video of them performing on YouTube with an even more intense violin solo, in which John destroys his violin strings in the middle of a song because he plays so hard.
For day-lit adventures in Killarney, we paid a visit (I went twice) to the imposing Ross Castle, situated right on the water with a beautiful view of misty slate-hued mountains in the distance and little boats setting off to the other shore every hour for tours that take you into the Gap of Dunloe, a nearly 7 mile mountain pass – or – a nice walk.
The obligatory castle tour offered no chances to take photos but provided a lot of historical background, so instead of just wandering around thinking this is so cool, my newly trained eye noticed examples of architectural details I’d read about in The Medieval Castle (by Philip Warner. Awesome book if you like castles) I would’ve otherwise missed. The spiral staircase, for example, curves clockwise so that attackers carrying their swords in their right hands are hindered and defenders gain an advantage. The steps are also uneven, causing people to trip. The windows start out as narrow sniper-like slits on the bottom floors and expand to actual windows at the top since people assumed they would be safe up there. They’re also built to collect rainwater and prevent it from falling into the rooms, important as they couldn’t afford to have a damp castle interior.
Outside: a nice, peaceful area. Part of Killarney National Park. On the way back there were dozens of trails plunging into the forest, so I thought, commence wandering.