In the narration column of my diary adjacent to the first two days of the Irish Dash, Friday and Saturday, sat one word: “Ballybunion”. Not only was it a good place to start, it was the best. Golf, dinner and evening plans were made with our local man, Gav, for the Saturday, but on Friday night he was otherwise obliged. Other pal, Owen, was coming across for Friday afternoon and night from Kilkenny – en route to a stag party up in Lahinch – but we were in no way tied to our favourite little coastal town after the golf; and so it presented a great opportunity to visit somewhere new, a place we’d planned to get to in 2010 but circumstances conspired against it.
Tralee is only half an hour down the road – twenty minutes, if you’re following Owen – and, to my surprise, is one of the larger towns in Kerry, bigger than the more familiar Killarney. Don’t ask me its history (there’s plenty on show, if you’re interested), but the centuries seem to have been kind to Tralee, the forefathers of the town having taken it upon themselves to leave as their legacy beautiful old buildings (the Georgian ones on the street of the Grand Hotel were particularly notable) and parks. There’s no shortage of pubs either, and to be honest they were the main event in the scheme of our Friday night visit.
Although we’d gone more or less without sleep the night prior, on Delta 122, and we had banked on sinking a few pints in the aforementioned establishments, we also planned on getting at least a few winks before heading back up to Ballybunion in the morning. Past experience of Ireland’s fine Bed & Breakfasts left us without any meaningful choice, so we consulted the B&B Ireland website to see what was on offer. Given the snap decision nature of our little dash across the Atlantic, and the fact that we were looking for beds on a Friday night, our options weren’t what you might call myriad. There were two B&Bs however that each had a bed for us – a little time apart was no bad thing either, if only for a few hours! – and so, in remembrance of a lesson learned in the school dinner queues, we took what we were given.
My lodging, Killarney House, was the first port of call. On the town end of the Fenit Road, it’s a five minute drive to the pubs (or a seven Euro taxi ride at one o’clock in the morning). My host Mrs. Morgan had that lovely way about her that only the Irish have, that ability to react at once surprised to see you and at the same time as if they’d been expecting you all their life. So musical were her tones that I was almost surprised to be there myself; and at 9.30pm after the Longest Day, this injection of energy was not in the least bit unwelcome. While the boys waited in the car outside, on what was a remarkably cold evening, I was shown to my quarters – and upon arrival, resisted by the slightest of margins the temptation to collapse on the ample queen bed before me. There were pints of stout to be drunk and, as far as I was (quite irrationally) concerned, if I didn’t drink them, no one would. Watertight logic, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Having now jeed myself up for some trad music, Guinness and smiling Irish girls, it came as a terrible inconvenience to bare a ten minute detour to and from Goldy’s B&B, Ashville House, on the other side of town. Now, Ashville is very much on the right side of the tracks – not that Killarney House isn’t – in a swish neck of the woods notable above all for the smart, ancient walls that line the roads. In fact it wasn’t entirely dissimilar in character to the rural villages northeast of Paris, around Chantilly. The proprietor was of a less sunny disposition than her counterpart across town, and I suspect it’s either because she’s a devout, conscientious Catholic that’s ever mindful of her sins and those of others, or because we turned up at 10pm without advance warning. In either case, she cannot be blamed. More amusing was the state of absolute confusion she found herself contorted into when we tried to explain exactly what It was we were at. “So ye are writing a golf book about Tralee are ye?” “Well, no, not exactly. No – we are writing a book as it happens, but that’s about an adventure we undertook in 2010. For the purposes of this trip we’re just blogging about the charms of the southwest of Ireland...etc, etc.” “I see. So when is this book about Tralee coming out?” “Er, it’s not.” And so it went on for five minutes’ drinking time. Poor dear, again, was not to be blamed, it’s not quite as digestible as “we’re lawyers from New Zealand here on a golfing holiday”; and to be fair, the US immigration officials have a hard time wrapping their minds around our exploits too!
By happy coincidence, the hotel that Owen checked himself into, the Grand Hotel, had a lively bar of its own. While he – and then Goldy! – freshened up, I amused myself at the bar. In the corner were a trio of journeymen musicians strumming, fiddling and blowing a few notes, each tune separated, seemingly, by a ten minute interlude at which point the band would pick up their pints, talk about football (GAA, not soccer) and no doubt complain about their wives. This was no great hardship because for company a barman who was simultaneously incomprehensible and uncompromisingly engaging. When I asked him for pointers as to which establishments we might take ourselves to after his, the reply if it were an exam paper would have been failed without hesitation for being utterly illegible. Somehow I managed to detect the words “Baily’s Bar” and “Sean Og’s” from his good natured slur; and so when the boys arrived, smelling like the Harvey Nicholls cosmetics department, I promptly informed them of the plan, implored them to make light work of their ageing pints and led the way with a hint of uncertainty in my bones that I had no intention of revealing.
Baily’s Bar – of which I’d read in Tom Coyne’s A Course Called Ireland – appeared miraculously within two minutes, and in we went. Tom hadn’t warned me about the thick body odour you can almost grab with your fingers in Baily’s, but I suppose in the Smokefree Age this is a phenomenon to be expected in the cavernous bars of Ireland. (Although in truth it smelled how I imagine Poland would smell). The band were going for it, so there was at least a little comfort to be taken from the fact that the responsibility lay mostly with them. And the poor heavy fella in the corner sitting on his tod in a trench coat! The craic, to be sure, was not what it could have been – there’s a recession on, mind you – and all things considered, after a long day, we decided against shelling out 5 Euros on the door of what seemed like the only nightclub in town. Reckless we may yet be, but cutting one’s losses late in the evening is an unnatural discipline that even we are beginning to get to grips with, as we nudge well into the back nine of our twenties.
In the melee I’d told Mrs. Morgan that I’d be up for breakfast at 8.30. Now, how I expected this of myself I have no idea: my phone (alarm clock) was dead and I had no socket adapter to charge it; there wasn’t a clock in the room, let alone an alarm; and I’d had an hour’s sleep in the past forty three. As delightful as this timeless existence was, when I awoke without the slightest comprehension of what time – indeed, what day – it was, my first thought was a Four Weddings And A Funeral-esque “Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck fuck, fuck.” Once I was confident my eyelids wouldn’t close while on my feet, I bee-lined for the door and out into the dining room – in my PJs, of course. There wasn’t a sinner or a German in sight, but within moments Mrs. Morgan appeared and put me right at ease. It was nine o’clock, but “no bother Jamie, no bother.” Then ensued the ritual that is breakfast dining in an Irish B&B, which might be described thus. The hostess for that morning assumes the role of your mother, and whether you like it or not, you’re looking emaciated, underfed and in need of a stout helping of nourishment. If you won’t have the full Irish, surely you’ll be having herself’s porridge; or, heaven forbid, if not that, then at least some scrambled eggs on toast, yoghurt, orange juice, grapefruit juice, coffee and perhaps some marmalade toast to finish. Any aspirations you have to ingest only the calories you’re likely to burn that morning are to evaporate and be forgotten. You are here to Eat.
And so it was in Mrs. Morgan’s dining room on a sunny Saturday morning. Between my healthy helping of porridge and quite magnificent scrambled eggs on toast – I never learned how to make them, so have nothing but admiration for those that can – I was kept entertained by the musical voice and impish smile of a lady that seemed far too young to be in the B&B business. Mr and Mrs Morgan had run a B&B down in Cork for seventeen years but, their teenage daughters being very much into water sports and her parents living right next door, they laid down a second welcome mat and ran them both simultaneously. Evidently, with all that practice, they knew what they were doing. The veritable backwater that Tralee was – compared to Cork City – provided a constant source of amusement for y’er woman; its laughable painted roundabouts, for example, were not for circumnavigating but for driving straight over, as far as she was concerned. As I slurped down the coffee, trying to revive myself, I got a tip about where to park for free – the Aquadome (swimming pool) – and thus escape the attention of Tralee’s militant parking wardens, a tip that was delivered with hushed tones and the mischief of a biscuit tin raider. I heard of a group of Germans that returned in April, June and August of every year to her doorstep. Their golf travel cases were “like coffins” and it was a mystery to her why they were so insistent at bringing their clubs in doors every night, as if some harm would otherwise come to them if left to their own devices in the car boot.
Once Mrs. Morgan was comfortable that I’d eaten all I could physically ingest, she commenced a ten-minute long apology that she had to nip to the shops to pick up supplies for guests coming in the afternoon, and that if I needed anything I could call her on her mobile. It was no great hardship, I assured her, especially since I was already ten minutes late for picking up my companions across town. Make that twenty. In any case, we said our goodbyes and I pulled out of Killarney House safe in the knowledge that, next time I came to Tralee, I wouldn’t need to hesitate one bit about where I’d look for a bed. Maybe next time she’ll give me some tips on where to find the smiling Irish girls that were nowhere to be found?!