Railing ’round Ireland
Dallas Morning News
Running late for a train when you’re carrying a backpack the size of a VW Beetle is rarely the best way to start a trip. But when I burst – red-faced and wild-eyed – into Dublin’s Hueston Station, a loquacious guard stops me in my tracks, asks me where I’m heading, then walks me circuitously to my platform as if there’s an hour to spare. No matter what the urgency, the Irish always have time for a chat.
Dumping my bag and collapsing in a seat just as the train pulls away, I take a deep, restorative breath then look around the half-empty carriage. Elderly couples, cellphone-wielding businessmen and a family arguing over what to buy from the passing tea trolley are my fellow passengers. Each with our possessions arranged around us like nests, we’re all eyeing the paint-peeled house-backs and cow-strewn farmlands unfurling outside.
Partway into a long-overdue upgrade program, Ireland’s old railway network has introduced some snazzy new inter-city locomotives in recent years. And with the 2007 launch of a new hop-on, hop-off Eurail Ireland Pass, it seems like an ideal time for train fans – and those who like to travel with a smaller carbon footprint – to check out the land of rolling green hills, funky old-school pubs and energetic towns dripping with history and culture.
Speeding south through sun-dappled Newbridge, Carlow and Kilkenny, we jerk to a halt in Waterford around noon. Dropping my bag at the station’s left luggage counter, I take a taxi through winding, gray-brick streets to the area’s main attraction.
Waterford Crystal’s gift-friendly glassware has become internationally popular since the company re-opened here in the 1950s, following a century-long hiatus. Recognizing the pilgrimage potential, a swish visitor centre and behind-the-scenes tour were added in 1997.
After a hearty roast pork lunch in the factory’s on-site restaurant, I join a chatty group of crystal fans to watch glassblowers, cutters and etchers – many employed here for over 25 years – as they work on intricate vases and stemware and a smattering of sporting trophies. I learn that three copies of each trophy are made: two are sent to the tournament in separate packages in case one breaks en route and one is kept for the company’s burgeoning historic collection.
Back on board a couple of hours later, I change trains at Limerick Junction – a tumultuous rainstorm sweeps over me while I’m waiting on the platform – before arriving in Cork around 7 p.m. Strolling into the city centre as if I’ve been here a thousand times, I arrive at my hotel a few minutes later. Partaking of a quiet pint in the lobby bar – stout is ever popular but Murphy’s and Beamish are favored over Guinness in this part of Ireland – I plan tomorrow’s exploration.
Up early to encounter an historic city that, although divided by a river, is easily explored on foot, I amble absent-mindedly towards a church tower in the Shandon area – discovering Linehan’s Sweets on the way. It’s one of Ireland’s oldest handmade candy-making operations.
Chatting to twinkle-eyed owner Danny Linehan in his white-tiled kitchen, I crunch on a delicate clove-flavored confection as he adds a snowdrift of white sugar to a pile of shiny sour apple candies. It’s hard to leave – Danny has plenty of colorful stories about old Cork – but my tight schedule eventually pulls me back downhill towards the other side of the river.
The centre of Cork is a web of bright-painted pubs and busker-lined thoroughfares teeming with busy locals. Since it’s time for lunch – I’m not tempted by the blood sausage my guidebook claims is a local delicacy – I weave around the English Market to see what’s on offer. Treating the covered shopping area like a buffet, I’m soon feasting on sausage rolls, cheese flans and fruit buns – all the food groups covered in a single meal.
The rest of the afternoon is spent walking off my over-indulgence, with visits to the hulking St. Finbarre’s Cathedral and Shandon’s St. Anne’s Church, where visitors can ring the bells for fun. Sadly, my halting version of Waltzing Matilda sounds more like a funeral dirge and I make a mental note to strike campanology from my list of undiscovered skills.
I also remove teleportation from the list next morning when I try to head to Galway. Since most Irish Rail lines radiate from Dublin – and there are few links between the end stations on each of these “spokes”- vacationing passengers often have to double back on themselves to get to their long-distance destinations. There’s no direct line between Cork and Galway, and the guard on my train confirms I’ll have to travel back to Dublin before heading out again.
I’m not too bothered about this – Ireland is small enough that no train trip lasts more than a few hours – until the first leg of my journey suddenly grinds to a halt after 45 minutes. A train ahead of us has broken down, leaving passengers in my carriage grim-faced and silent for a wait that slowly stretches to more than an hour.
As the restaurant car serves placatory free drinks, I collar the guard to tell him I’m worried about making my Galway connection. He rubs his chin and says he’ll get back to me. With the train sill frozen in its tracks, he returns to tell me he’s arranged an unscheduled stop at an upcoming station, where the Galway-bound train will arrive a few minutes later – also on an unscheduled stop – to pick me up.
When we later crawl into the deserted station, only three passengers jump off the train. We’re amazed that the inter-city service has stopped just for us, then immediately suspicious that we might be stranded here if the Galway train doesn’t show. Five minutes later, we’re relieved when our connection eases into the station.
In Galway by mid-afternoon – the rain is back and there’s a chill wind blustering in from the Atlantic – I drop my bag at a B&B, unroll my Gore-Tex hood and hit the streets. A once-gritty fishing settlement – the ancient Claddagh village of fisher-folk near the centre still has its own “king” to remind locals of the old days – Galway is as pedestrian-friendly as Cork for those who like exploring on foot.
With the rain clouds shrinking away, I nip into the 14th-century St. Nicholas Collegiate Church, where local legend says Christopher Columbus stopped en route to the US, before ambling around the clamorous street market encircling it outside. I resist the home-baked cakes and artsy trinkets, then wander over to Quay Street. Galway’s heart is lined with ancient bars – the city is often referred to as Ireland’s drinking capital – and pub crawls are possible with very little walking required.
With evening approaching, I squeeze through the jolly crowds in the labyrinthine Front Door, a multi-level bar stuffed with shady nooks and scented with coal-burning fireplaces. It’s a good spot for a fortifying Guinness and I’m pleased to see the barman taking five minutes to pour it correctly. But before becoming too comfortable, I decide to stroll along the street to Tig Coili, a pub with the promise of live music.
It’s an older crowd in here and as I park my pint on a shelf by the door, a gaggle of three musicians is partway through a foot-tapping jig. A couple of smiling old ladies are dancing around each other at the bar, and the place feels as warm and satisfying as a bowl of Irish stew. A few tunes later, an older chap emerges from the throng, removes his hat and sings an a cappella lilt that soon has the noisy bar silent and attentive.
It’s a slow start the next day – Guinness can take its toll if you’re not used to drinking it – but I eventually check-out and wander towards the train station around noon. Finding a near-empty carriage, I snooze in the warm afternoon sun as the train winds eastwards.
Back in Dublin a couple of hours later, I head for a hotel in the tourist-friendly Temple Bar area. It’s walking distance to the Writers Museum, where local literati like Oscar Wilde and James Joyce are celebrated. Over an afternoon meal that doubles as both lunch and dinner, I re-open my guidebook and pull out my dog-eared Irish Rail timetable. Now, what time is tomorrow’s train to Sligo?
If you go:
Rail Europe’s Eurail Ireland Pass, only available to overseas residents, costs US$197 and provides five days of hop-on hop-off travel over a one-month period. Discounted senior passes (US$168) and youth passes (US$148) are also available. Passes can be purchased from Rail Europe before you arrive in Ireland or from the International Rail Travel Centre in Dublin. For bookings and information, visitwww.raileurope.com or call 1-888-382-7245.