Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

From the Republic to the Kingdom

After all that Beckett, it was a relief to find live music in An Spailpin Fanach. I didn't stay long as I had an early start the next day, but a pint of Murphy's and the music of a laidback fourpiece ended my day well.

Kinlay House, my hostel, never really impressed me. Dingy and in need of renovation, it isn't the worst I have been in, but it could be so much better. My single room gave me privacy of a sort, but positioned on the first floor by the stairwell, I got to hear all traffic, up, down and stationary. Ireland is 'blessed' with many American tourists and when they are not confiding secrets in deafening whispers in ten bed dorms, they are shouting them up and down stairwells. I turned over on my sagging mattress (I had tried the upper bunk, but it was no better), and eventually ignored them. Again there was no trouble getting up early the next day and at 7 a.m. I made my way to the shower. The morning before the dorm's ensuite shower was freezing and I had high hopes for the communal shower on the first floor. Surely it would be warmer. No, colder. Scientists claim water freezes at zero degrees. I beg to differ and point to Kinlay House for proof. My suspicion is that they do not turn the boiler on until later in the day as the hot taps in the sink were cold too, but warmer later. Not much use to me. I doused my head I quickly got dried and dressed.

The coach driver to Tralee was all for people getting their tickets from the vending machine (the sales desk was closed), but the machine was broken. 'You'd better have change then,' he growled. Frantically I managed to get some, paid my dues and headed off to the Kingdom at 8.30.

The triangular bus station at Tralee lies on the edge of the town centre, so impressions are a little desolate when you arrive. Walking into the town centre though, things brighten up. It's still a small town, tiny after Cork, miniscule after Dublin, but with a sense of growth pervasive throughout its streets. It's busy and new malls and shops show that some money is coming the people's way. Seeing as it was lunchtime, well, you know me at this stage. The Red Herring made an nice, inexpensive seafood lunch. Onward then to Annascaul, a town on the Dingle peninsula famous for nothing except Tom Crean.

Born near Annascaul, Tom Crean was on every major Antarctic expedition at the turn of the century, living through Scott's ill-fated mission, and joining Shackleton for two runs, including the infamous Endurance expedition of 1914. Crean was with Shackleton on his desperate, and successful, quest for help, when the rest of the Endurance's crew were trapped on Elephant Island. This was not the sole example of his heroism and courage, but perhaps the most famous. When he retired from the British Navy, he retired to Annascaul, married a publican's daughter and set up his own pub, what is now the South Pole Inn. It's sad to learn that he eventually died at age 61 from appendicitis, though he was in the best of health all through his life until then (despite some tender feet from his frost-bitten days). Having seen the Antarctic and admired this quiet hero, I had to complete the pilgrimage by visiting the South Pole Inn.

I thought twice about this plan when the bus eventually drove into Annascaul. A street with ten bars or so (some of which actually opened later on), two shops, several b and b's and not much else, it didn't strike me as a hub of tourist activity. Off the bus behind me three American girls got off evidently thinking the same thing. I had booked Annascaul House two days before, but had been warned no one would be there before 6, though I could leave any bags I had in a nearby pub. The girls, all students of South Carolina University, had booked the b and b too and were now asking themselves why. Offering whatever help I could, we all headed off to the South Pole Inn, ironically to get out of the cold wind. Apparently they had flown from Barcelona to Dublin and now for some inexplicable reason travelled to Annascaul. They hadn't even heard of Tom Crean. Fishing my timetable out of my pocket, I suggested that there might be more life and certainly more fun waiting for them in Dingle. They didn't need much persuading and off they went.

I stayed drinking, eating and reading how a mystifying Irish public was going to vote in our sleaze infected Government yet again. At least the fire was warm. Six o'clock came around.

The door to Annascaul House was opened by a bespectacled Kerryman covered from head to foot in paint. I let that pass, letting myself be ushered in to what was very apparently a family home. A young girl sat by her twin baby brother and sister watching television. The sitting room and dining room were one and all in all it was cosy, but still a family home. Upstairs Noel led me to my room and pointed out the dvd player and collection of dvds in the wardrobe. I was more grateful to see the comfy beds and soon settled myself down for an hour or so's reading. By 9, I was rested and showered - eventually a hot shower - and made my way to the South Pole Inn for the undoubted entertainment of live Irish music, a warm fire, crowds of smiling faces and a good pint.

The place was, with the exception of four die hard locals and a table of three female diners, empty. Live music was only on Saturday nights and the upstairs closed except for functions. On the plus side the fire burned and the pint was nice, but this was not what I was expecting. I sat there nursing my drink, staring at the photos of Crean and the Endurance expedition that covered the walls and wondering why the hell I had come here. Three attractive American girls had gone to a no doubt livelier Dingle (well, it had to be, hadn't it?), while I stayed in an empty bar. Eventually an unwise local let slip that there was a 'crowd' up in the Randy Leprechaun, mainly comprised of Paddy Wagon tour. I set out into the cold wilds of Kerry on my own expedition.

Walking up the cold street, I saw that some of the bars that had earlier been closed, now had lighted windows. Some were no bigger than houses, indeed looked inside like houses, and open or not, customers were thin on the ground. Surely the Randy Leprechaun pulsed with life? It had to be somewhere. And what was a Kerry 'crowd'? I thought with wonder of the exaggeration that went into a Kerry Mile.

I suppose compared with where I had been, there was a crowd in the Randy Leprechaun. Four locals sat by the bar while the Paddy Wagoneers, around fourteen twentysomethings, filled a couple of tables and played pool. And there was a jukebox. While I waited for my pint, an old local waved me to a seat beside him and I got talking.

Apparently locals rarely came out before 11, though more fatally everyone was terrorised by 'them' and didn't come out like they used to anyhow. I wondered confusingly for a while who 'they' were. Tourists? Paddy Wagioneers? Were young Kerry houligans speeding along the roads threatening the lives of more godfearing folk? I asked in my stumbling fashion for more information. Well, it wasn't the Paddy Wagoneers. They seemed to form the main bulk of business in the town. No, the bastards who were terrorising the townsfolk were the Gardai. They, apaprently, hadn't nothing more to do except stop drink driving and people were now staying home from fear of apprehension. Even my elderly informant had been caught at a checkpoint, though having only had four glasses of Guinness he had been under the limit, or so he thought.

It was tough these days, he told me. Youngsters didn't want to get up early and milk the cows. In fact farming was no longer for them and Kerry was losing its young people to farflung places like Sydney and New York. I couldn't disagree, nor blame them. As a city slicking Jackeen, I could no more understand getting up at five in the morning to milk cows than the Kerry sons and daughters. A town of ten bars and little else didn't strike me as much of an incentive to stay either, though the beauty of the landscape is something hard to match anywhere. Beautiful greenery only goes so far though. The man left.

I had been feeling comfortable in the bar, not the distant Dublin stranger I thought I'd be seen as, when I asked for another pint. Before my eyes the barman poured the pint of Guinness straight. No three quarter fill and settle, straight. I could understand, if not accept that, in Vienna, but in Kerry. I made it known I was not impressed. The bartender tried to laugh it off, but I persisted. I know my Guinness and he should too. This was purely a thing done for the ignorant tourist and that wasn't me. He didn't take it back, but charged me less and did not do it again, but I was left with a bad taste in my mouth in more ways than one.

Surprisingly my b and b host came in then (and his Guinness was poured properly). Dots speckled his glasses and I thought then that it was raining outside. I discovered later the dots were paint Noel was a painter and decorator, as I should have guessed when he opened the door. He sat down and I was glad to find he was in conversational mood. He confirmed the old man's tale of police terror, though we steered clear of the problems of emigration. Noel had, I found, done his own travelling, and before their children he and his wife had been to Malaysia, South Africa and elsewhere. He would go back to Malaysia in a moment, he told me. More farflung places. Now though he kept his adventuring to the local walking society. With so much spectacular scenery around, walking was no mundane affair and before long I was thinking of joining them in some of their future treks.

While we chatted the noise from the Paddy Wagoneers rose. The Paddy Wagon is like the Oz Experience or the New Zealand Magic Bus, though on a smaller scale, taking a small group of young tourists around the sights and lodging them in hostels. There had been a group staying in Kinlay Hose in Cork too. In true young backpacker style they got out a pack of cards and started on their drinking games. I heard the familiar words, 'Never have I ever...' and again eavesdropping a little, I was pleasantly surprised to hear some original bawdy propositions put forward. Noel told me that sometimes when several buses arrived together the place would be jammed with these rowdy tourists. Glasses would be passed around making a collection for any girl who would strip, so entertainment was plentiful. Nevertheless I had to wonder why the tour had stopped here for the night when Dingle town, surely a more authentic party town, and one with far more sights to see, Tom Crean aside, than Annascaul, lay only twenty five minutes down the road. Annascaul accommodation was no doubt cheaper and, if the tourists were being short changed, certainly the locals were not.

It transpired that his presence in the pub was not entirely social. Close to closing time he made a round of the pubs, picking up any stragglers who might attract police attention should they drive, and offering instead a b and b bed of safety. The South Pole Inn would more than likely be packed now and draining his pint he headed there on his own personal expedition. I finished my drink and looking wistfully at the female Paddy Wagoneers deeply engrossed in their drinking games, left to cross the road to my bed.

Over breakfast the next morning, a big fry up, I chatted with Noel's wife, a woman from Artane in Dublin. All in all, they were a wonderfully friendly family, my room was comfortable and, despite the lack of town life, I had little to complain of. If I had not partied the night away, I had at least had a chilled out day. At 10.45 I got the bus back to Tralee, The American girls were once more on board and their trip to Dingle had been party filled.

At once point I had contemplated going to Galway, but a cursory look at accommodation websites suggested rooms were hard to come by and expensive when found. I had had a nice break and now it was time to go back to Dublin, so that is what I did. The only fly in the ointment was a driver who insisted on playing The Frames. It irks me to live in a country that insists on celebrating that band. Glen Hansard's histrionics actively annoy me. I stuck on my own headphones and read hoping it would go away. Eventually it did, though by then I was home.


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