Ireland, beautiful Ireland. Landscapes painted emerald green, grey walls with touches of lichen and moss, the occasional splash of red and yellow, streams cascading down the hills, ring of stones, dramatic skies. All this, I expected. I had leafed through travel guides and magazines, searched for stunning pictures on Instagram. No # will tell you the magic of listening to bagpipes on the cliffs of the Wild Atlantic Way, how Irish songs by a fireplace will move you to tears or how much heart and soul a pub can have. Everyone here has a story to share. A touching anecdote, a slice of history, a legend, a life story… Going through Ballybunion and Listowe, I collected a few. Grab a pint, come closer, listen up.
The Bromore cliffs: travelling back through time
No word was needed at first. The waves, rolling, roaring, raging seemed to be having their own conversation with the wind. My hair was tangled already, I could taste salt on my lips. Nature, free and untameable, magnificent. Just a glimpse of the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500 km route following the Irish coast. A scenic road longer than Route 66.
Danny Houlihan was our guide for the day: no one knows the Bromore cliffs like this local historian, founder of Eco Trek Ballybunion. The place, indeed, is steeped in history. In his bag are little tokens from the past: a fossilised shell, beautiful carved flintstone, a polished piece of coal found on board of a famine ship, wrecked in the area, a ceramic insulator used for radio transmissions: there was, in 1914, a Marconi telegraphic station in the area.
There is so much around. Ruins of a fort along the way, yet to be fully excavated. Caves, used by smugglers. The most surprising, perhaps, was learning of an incredible tunnel system right under the grass, leading from one beach to the next. There is more than meet the eyes in Ballybunion…
Tales and legends from the Ballybunion cliffs
The cliffs have tales of its own of course. Some whisper the Nun Beach takes its name for a convent, once built above it. The sisters would use a gangway made of wood and rope to bathe there (try and picture the scene!). Others say the nearby natural arch was nicknamed the Virgin’s Rock as Mary was seen praying there at sunset.
A favourite story is the natural blowhole’s, of such an impressive size that on stormy days, walkers by are sure to get soaked. Let’s go back 11 centuries, when fleet of Vikings were raiding the coast. The clan’s chef, learning that his 9 daughters had fallen in love with his ennemies and were planning to elope, met them here, on the pretence he needed help finding his gold bracelet in the grass. In his fury, he pushed them one by one into the chasm. The 9 Vikings were captured, beheaded and thrown in for good measure.
Hearing of the village lost in the sea, of mermaids and ghost-ships, you might very well smile. But as the wind brushes the foam from the waves, covering the landscape as snowflakes might, suddenly, everything seems possible…
Bagpipes on the Ballybunion cliffs
As the walk came to an end, Danny gathered the group around him to tell us one last story. Ballybunion had its own famous piper, Tom McCarthy (1799-1904), which life spanned over 3 centuries. The artist would wander along the cliffs, looking for a new sound to tame and recreate. It is said that when he died the pipes he played lamented on his passing. Our guide, also an All Ireland Piping Champion, put his instrument together, a last tribute to times past. The notes seemed to tell us of sailors going to sea, of storms and crashing waves: a sadness infused for a well anchored hope for better tomorrows. A melody no word could ever echo…
Mario Perez, the sand artist
Forget Instastories: sand art is a much more magical way to make people smile. Mario Perez occasionally uses Ballybunion’s beach as a canvas, and draws welcome messages or cheerful messages to couple getting wed: ephemeral words to be carried away by the sea…
Mickey McConnell’s songs by the fireplace
The fire was already crackling in the chimney when we pushed McMunns‘ door open – a cheerful pub a few minutes walk from the sea. There we joined a man of many talents and many words: Mickey McConnell. Journalist, songwriter, singer… What made him take this artistic path? My mother was a poet, my father a musician. It was expected us children would write or play, preferably both… Why work at a newspaper then? Music and writing are complimentary. A song might be about the same story you wrote that day, sometimes with a different take.
Taking a sip of Irish Coffee, he recalls being caught in the Northern Ireland riots. Taking shelter in a doorway, hanging to his father’s coat. That day, I saw defeat in my father’s eyes. I was 8 years old. This was to inspire his song, Only our rivers run free, written at the age of 18.
With us sitting around him, the light of the flames reflecting on his guitar, he starts singing about a country grieving its freedom and later of learning to pray by a loved one’s bedside. His eyes have misted up, there are tears rolling down our cheeks, and someone’s whisper: It’s everyone’s song. There will be plenty of laughs too – listen to his Ballad of Lidl & Aldi!
And if you’re ever in the area on a Friday or Saturday night, join in: he usually can be found here, a guitar in his hand playing and singing with his friends.
John B. Keane’s pub and other Irish stories
Another trip down memory lane awaited, not in Ballybunion but Listowel this time. You may have heard of literary cafés, how about a literary pub? Those of you familiar with John B. Keane’s, the famous Irish playwright, might know he owned one, now managed by his son, Billy, himself a writer, teacher and pint pourer.
This was both the family home and family business. His father would write in his room on the first floor, his mother run the pub with the occasional help of the children. There was a little motto remember: shop face! No matter how you felt, passed the kitchen door, you would be smiling.
The neighbourhood was a tight community, everyone supporting each other. Women would stop by, sharing news they were with child… Equally happy and scary news. They would get pregnant 10, 15 sometimes more in a lifetime: many would die in labour. Even if contraception was prescribed, this would have meant once condom a month. So imagine how brave it was for John B. Keane to publish Sive: a play about a young woman preferring to drown than marry someone she didn’t love…
Billy has inherited a talent for storytelling. This space, behind the counter, is a natural stage in a way and memories flow easily. It’s a therapeutic process too: emotion is never far away and by the time you leave, his family will feel so real to you you could swear you have met them. Sadly, he says, small pubs are dying. But they have a soul – and that is reason enough to have another pint and cheer.
The perfect pint
Forget the angle you should hold the glass, the time you should leave the beer to rest, the amount of foam allowed. In Ireland, the perfect pint simply is the one shared with a stranger over a good story… A tradition worth keeping. Sláinte, my friend!