I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was that drew me back to Waterville – its beauty, the course, the village, the lot? – but when it came down to planning our route this time around, the pull towards Skellig Bay was none other than magnetic. We just had to get there. The two hour drive down from Ballybunion, down the Ring of Kerry through the likes of Caherciveen and other delightfully named settlements, was for the most part very pleasant – save for the weakness in my stomach that Gav’s poitin had left from the night prior. Like a sinner bitten my a serpent, wandering dizzy through the wilderness towards refuge, I had been poisoned, and was glad to see safety.
Though it really is a beautiful drive, the trip almost worth it for the views alone. In the high season to be sure, busloads of German tourists trickle along the Ring for that very purpose, clogging up the road intolerably – but I suppose it’s their prerogative, having effectively paid for Ireland’s modern roads in the Eurozone era!
At the golf club we were greeted by Noel Cronin, the General Manager whose reputation for hospitality and a good word precedes him, and the wind, whose reputation in Ireland precedes him more than Noel’s. I remember at one point during our round the wind dying down to a three club breeze; but for the most part if you would normally have a nine iron in your hands, and you were into it, then four iron was your club. The cleansing, bone chilling hurricane came straight off Skellig Bay, making the enchanting third hole along the estuary a stern examination indeed. There was a full field out so progress was far from quick, but happily this allowed us the opportunity to pitch and putt our way around each green from a dozen angles, really getting a feel for Hackett & Fazio’s handiwork.
Now, I wouldn’t be Tom’s biggest fan on earth, but on my second visit I was pleasantly surprised with the understated, firm green complexes surrounded by ample mown chipping areas and manageable (that is to say, un-Kidd-like) internal contours. We had our five irons out from everywhere. Hell, with five layers on, I’m not sure either of us would’ve had the dexterity to manage a flop shot anyway!
In the field was a tall Minnesotan gentleman by the name of John, playing on his tod. Given we were only a two and the pace of play, we joined forces – as you would, in anywhere but Australia. Y’er man like many a golfer, it seems, had been in the printing business for many years and had recently sold his family company. Interestingly enough he’d got into printing yardage books for some of the blue chip golf institutions of the US – the likes of Pinehurst, Pebble Beach and so on – and as such had been fortunate to play more US Open venues than your average rooster. He was a mild-mannered, light hearted chap that laughed when his putts lipped out; in short, my kinda guy. There weren’t many birdies between us out there at Waterville, but we had a great deal of fun – and, funnily enough, this being John’s first time to Waterville and Ireland, we found ourselves being in the curious position of being relative “locals”, in the sense that we were able to share a bit of Waterville’s history with him, and tips on where he might venture during his remaining days on emerald soil. He may have thought we were entirely mental, however, when we took to the sands below the sixteenth green to pitch back up while we waited for the lot on seventeen. This was a long way from the beach golf we played at Westhampton just a couple of weeks prior!
Much as we’d enjoyed the golf – and the short game practice – it was a relief to get off the golf course and back indoors. The Smugglers Inn, not two hundred yards from the club, overlooking the beach, could only have escaped our attention in 2010 because it wasn’t on Jay Connolly’s “Here’s The Deal” Waterville Experience itinerary. It features in Tom Coyne’s accounts of his adventures and so we thought we better have a pint by the fire, at least, to see what it was all about. A worthwhile nosy it certainly was, but the thirty Euro pieces of fish would have broken the proverbial bank, so we ventured on down the road to our B&B – the Old Cable Historic House – to shower up and gather ourselves.
Without GPS or a map we were at the mercy of the Saint Christopher. He was on his game because, like a moth to light – not knowing quite why you want to go that way, you just do – in minutes our Nissan Micra found its way safely to our destination, just up the road from the restaurant we’d had such a fine evening in nearly two years prior, The Fisherman’s Bar. It took a full five minutes for the hot water to thaw the frost from my bones. The shower itself was not a cubicle, but half a room – and if I said I didn’t think about making my bed there for the night, under warm trickle, I’d be lying. But the famous fish ‘n chips down the road – two hunks, not one – beckoned. And who was sitting in there by the fire, in a packed Sunday night bar, but John and gorgeous wife Darcy. I was utterly starving and I’m quite sure Goldy was too; but this was Ireland and therefore no such thing as the “quick hello”. For a full forty minutes of feeding time we sat unbegrudgingly in their good company until we finally realised, as they left, that our stomachs had eaten themselves out of desperation, and that we best throw some food down there lest the remainder of our digestive organs vanish before bedtime.
In the end, reminiscent of your first full meal after a week’s hiking, we just about couldn’t finish what was put in front of us. Note I said “just about”; there was no way, on principle, that there was going to be a crumb left for the resident canine. Comatose from the feast I wandered through the hallways to the improbably distant bathroom noticing, en route, the back bar that we’d painted red with Jay and Gretta all those moons ago. Goldy had hammered the piano; and that equally revered character, Payne Stewart, had pulled pints in the very same room. Ah, the memories.
Margaret Brown appeared in the breakfast room like a vision of motherliness. Her round, healthy looking face was painted with blusher and crimson lipstick, her grey curls curled with care. She was Christmas personified, I do not exaggerate on my mother’s grave. Originally from Dublin, she and her husband had made Waterville their home some years ago and nurtured many a weary sinner ever since. With not another soul in sight I had her to myself. Like her counterpart back up the road at Killarney House in Tralee, Margaret left no stone unturned in finding ways to overfeed me. Her porridge was first class, enhanced only by a hearty squeeze of honey. And did I not inhale my scrambled eggs on toast? Between courses, in a vain endeavour to burn a few of the calories I’d just taken onboard, I stumbled to the other side of the room to dine on a diet of history – of the first Atlantic cables, no less. You can read up on it here. Quite amazing stuff, when you think about it.
Margaret offered some suggestions as to how we might entertain ourselves en route to the golf, top of the pile being a ferry out to Skellig Michael, essentially an inhospitable rock 15km from shore where the monks made their home from the seventh century for six hundred years! The waters, regrettably, were too rough for us to get out there, but it’s very much on the cards for my next visit. God knows I could do with a little sea air and a bit of monastic guidance. On the way out I asked apologetically whether Michael and I could buy from her the socket adapter she’d lent us the night prior – our laptops as good as tits on a bull without it – to which she flat out refused. We were to take it for nothing. I protested and protested and did everything but stuff a five Euro note down her blouse, but she stood her ground. And that in a sense sums up what is so beautiful about the Irish people: they’ll give you the shirt off your back, even if it’s freezing cold out. Margaret was one of life’s good people and I’d happily eat at her breakfast table any day of the week, if only my metabolism were a little faster.
Our Waterville soiree had been a very different one to The Jay Connolly Show in 2010, but no less rewarding for it. A sincere thanks to Noel Cronin and Margaret Brown – and to John and Darcy – for reminding me, as if I needed it, why Waterville is a place I’ll return to time and again, and never get sick of it.