Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

Willy Wonka

Posted from 35,000 feet over the Atlantic at 10:07 am, September 3rd, 2023

For our last day in Dublin we decided to take a cab into the city, because the thought of driving and parking in Dublin’s city center frightened me to my core, and upon seeing that he was taking us to the Guinness Storehouse the cabbie muttered “quelle surprise”. We fully admitted that there was no more touristy thing we could do than start our day with a tour of Dublin’s most notorious tourist hotspot, but who goes to Dublin and skips the Guinness Tour? Even the cabbie couldn’t argue with that logic. The “factory” tour is actually through a former storehouse that has been converted into a museum, and upon entering Audrey’s first exclamation was “Oh my God, it’s Willy Wonka’s!” And that was totally apt – the building was old and industrial, with riveted girders and crumbling tiles, but they’ve filled it with escalators and LEDs and even a waterfall, so it felt like Gene Wilder and a troop of Oompa Loompas was going to burst into song around every corner. The experience itself was surprisingly well done, and we left two hours later a bit tipsy and much more knowledgeable about beer making, barrel making, and everything else related to Dublin’s finest ale.

We wandered through the city after the Guinness tour, hitting St. Patrick’s Cathedral and St. Stephen’s Green along the way, and just as Audrey was starting to fade I made the request that we walk through the Temple Bar section of town just to see what music we could find playing in the pubs. Navigating the crowds, I heard a fiddle, and echolocated my way into a crowded bar where a guy on a guitar was accompanying another fellow who was playing up a storm on the fiddle. I thought we’d found our spot to enjoy a few drinks, but the Irish music finished, and the guitarist said “sing along”, and suddenly the music went from folk to the White Stripes. I was having none of that, so we headed further north and heard the unmistakable notes of the song “Galway Girl” coming from a bar. That being my favorite Irish tune, we made a beeline into the bar, and spent the next 45 minutes drinking another Guinness while the Murphy Sisters absolutely killed it with amazing harmonies, a guitar, a banjo, and an accordion. All in all it was an excellent way to bring the trip to a close.

Choir details in St. Patrick's Cathedral
The choir in St. Patrick’s cathedral sings under a bunch of helmets and swords for reasons that probably made more sense 300 years ago.

Medieval Times

Posted from Dublin, Ireland at 2:27 am, September 2nd, 2023

For our last two nights in Dublin I was debating where to stay; the city center would obviously have been fun, but parking is a pain, and the hotels were expensive, small, and many were already sold out six months ago. We settled on Clontarf Castle Hotel, which is outside of the city center and closer to the airport. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after booking it – there was definitely a castle on this site at one point, but I told Audrey as we were arriving in Dublin that it might be more like Medieval Times than an actual castle. As we entered the lobby, with suits of armor all around us and banners hanging from the ceiling, Audrey looked at me with a HUGE smile and said “it’s TOTALLY Medieval Times”; I had forgotten how much she loves that place.

Prior to our arrival in Dublin we had our longest driving day of the trip, as we traversed the country from west to east. Of course, on a day when we were mostly driving it was also the best weather of the trip, with sun almost the entire time. Leaving the amazing landscapes of the Connemara, we stopped at Joyce’s Craft Shop, where there was a massive and imposing statue next to a scenic lake with the following inscription carved into its base:

This is
(Conn Son of the Sea)
Built in 1999
By Joyce’s Craft Shop
For no apparent reason

For the long drive today we didn’t want to miss the landscapes of Ireland by taking the motorway the entire way, so we decided to put our lives on the line by taking backroads through the countryside. This route made our journey a bit longer, and there were plenty of moments where we passed another car on the tiny roads with about an inch to spare between mirrors, but the country is so pretty here that it was definitely worth it. The bogs of the Connemara turned into pastures lined with stone walls northeast of Galway, followed by rolling fields and pastures in central Ireland as we reached the River Shannon. Our first major stop for the day was at Clonmacnoise, a 1500 year old monastery complex on the banks of the Shannon that was abandoned over 800 years ago after repeatedly being pillaged by Vikings and local tribes. Of course, as soon as we arrived the sun dipped behind clouds for the first time all day, but such is Ireland, and it was still an amazingly pretty site next to the river.

We then hopped in the car and headed a short distance down the road to our last bog of the trip. Clara Bog Nature Reserve is one of the few remaining bogs in Ireland that hasn’t been extensively damaged by peat harvesting, and we hiked the one kilometer boardwalk through the sphagnum moss while (of course) it rained for the first time all day. Despite the weather it’s still always neat to be out on a spongy bog, knowing that you’re standing on top of twenty-foot thick layer of moss and decayed organic matter, surrounded by some of the planet’s weirdest plants and animals.

Today is our last full day in Ireland, and we’re off to explore Dublin’s city center with what the forecast suggests will be mostly good weather. Ireland has been a fun place to visit, and the incredible landscapes will be something we remember for the rest of our lives.

Connemara, Son of the Sea
Connemara, Son of the Sea. Memorialized here for no apparent reason.


Posted at 11:47 pm, August 31st, 2023

The Connemara is definitely my favorite landscape in Ireland. Every bend in the road has a new lake or bog or mountain, and then suddenly you’re back on the coast looking at inlets from the sea. It’s pretty spectacular.

As planned, we visited Connemara National Park yesterday and did a nice hike through hilly bogs in weather that alternated between rain and sun. Beforehand we made a short stop at Kylemore Abbey, a Benedictine Abbey that was founded on the grounds of a former castle. Our final stop for the day was the appropriately named “Sky Road”, a 14 kilometer loop that goes high up in the hills and provides some pretty spectacular views over the sea. As is customary with the pretty roads in Ireland, the road was barely wide enough for one car, which made for some interesting maneuvers whenever we came around a blind turn and met another oncoming car.

For those keeping score at home, so far on this trip Audrey got to pet a deer, a horse, a cat and (surprisingly) a dog. Yesterday we pulled off at a scenic stop and were mobbed by sheep (the attention was explained by a sign and box nearby: “sheep food 1 Euro”), so she added sheep to the list as well. We also encountered some ponies in a field, so add them to the list. The cows have remained standoffish.

Kylemore Abbey
Kylemore Abbey. I can see why someone would be tempted to become a Benedictine nun when you get to live here.
Sky Road
The view from upper Sky Road in Connemara. There is an “upper” Sky Road and a “lower” Sky Road; we couldn’t come up with a single reason why any right-thinking person would take a road named “Sky Road” but then forgo the upper road for the lower road.

Mussel Mike

Posted from Ballynahinch Castle, Ireland at 1:10 am, August 31st, 2023

We’re traveling through the Connemara, which is the region west of Galway. It’s full of coastal inlets, bogs, lakes, wildflowers, and hills, and has my favorite scenery in Ireland thus far. At one point yesterday we pulled off the road to take some photos, and an older Irish gentleman approached us from the sea carrying a bucket of mussels that he had gathered. He introduced himself as Mike, and told us a rambling story of his adventures in America, which included time in Milwaukee for reasons that were never made clear, before we finally had to flee due to clouds of midges. Our route then led us along a one-lane road through a bog where piles of peat were left out to dry (it is used like firewood). After that we somehow ended up retracing our steps; we passed a store that I was 90% sure we had stopped at earlier in the day, then experienced deja vu for the next 45 minutes as whatever map mistake I had made gave us a repeat viewing of the beautiful coastline.

Our lodging for the night is in the very fancy Ballynahinch Castle, which is located on several hundred acres of forest with trails throughout. The river in front of the manor is stained a coffee brown, apparently from all of the decayed plant matter that the water filters through, and is surprisingly scenic. Audrey continues to talk to sheep and pet any animals that come close (yesterday it was horses), and I continue to get up early each day to roam around in the rain. We’ve got another day here in the Connemara, so if the weather cooperates we’ll be off to drive the Sky Road and see the bogs of Connemara National Park before settling in for a beverage at the castle this evening.

Galway Oysters

Posted from Galway, Ireland at 1:55 pm, August 29th, 2023

When we were planning this trip we thought it might be neat to visit the Aran Islands from Galway. They are rugged, remote islands off of the coast that are home to prehistoric ruins and hardy farmers, but we didn’t want to go if the weather wasn’t perfect, since boats only run every few hours. Sadly, despite today’s perfect weather, we decided that since we’re both still recovering from what we assume was COVID that hiking across the islands and up the steep cliffs would be too strenuous, so instead we spent the day around Galway. I expected this town to be more like Monterey, but it has a more industrial feel to it, with a more utilitarian and less tourist-friendly waterfront. We visited their aquarium this morning, which was actually a pretty good find, but then decided to leave town and headed south through the countryside to Moran’s Oyster Cottage for a late seafood lunch. This place ended up being a great find, with oysters pulled right out of the nearby estuary, and grilled crab claws for Audrey since she’s not a fan of slimy bivalves. From there we visited the nearby Coole Park Nature Reserve, and Audrey fell in love with all of the vine-covered trees.

The trip thus far has been good. The falconry yesterday was obviously a highlight, but the countryside is incredibly pretty, the Gap of Dunloe and Dingle Peninsula were quite memorable, and it’s amazing how many old castle and church ruins are hiding on random backroads. Driving continues to be fun, with tiny farm roads bordered by stone walls and flocks of sheep. The prehistoric sites have also been a surprise; I read about them beforehand, but it’s still a bit mind-blowing to find a 5000 year old building or tomb next to the road. I haven’t liked the towns as much as I expected to, but I think I was expecting them to be more like New England, with a church and a few little shops around a town square, while Irish towns tend to mostly have a more utilitarian layout, with a pub, a restaurant, a pharmacy and a grocery store lined up next to a narrow road.

Tomorrow we’re off to spend two nights in a castle, something we’ve been excited about since we first booked it, so it will be an opportunity to experience another side of this country before our trip begins coming to a close.

Frodo and Dingle

Posted from Galway, Ireland at 12:35 am, August 29th, 2023

One of the activities that came up while we were planning our trip was falconry, and of course that seemed like something not to be missed. Thus it was that we found ourselves on the grounds of Ashford Castle yesterday, standing outside the gates of the Ireland School of Falconry, getting ready to walk through the forest with hawks accompanying us.

Our guide Kiva introduced us to the birds: Frodo was younger and more rambunctious, screaming and jumping the moment he was out, while Chewie was older and more stoic. The birds seemed to care not a bit about us, viewing us more as mobile perches, and their eyes were constantly probing the surroundings. Once in the forest we were instructed to let them fly free, and the birds immediately took off into the trees. From there we would regularly call them back, using bits of meat in a raised glove, and the birds inevitably returned, grabbed their snack, and then took off again after whatever caught their attention. They followed us through the forest, and it was an odd experience to regularly have a Harris hawk swoop inches over your head as it darted through the woods looking for the next perch.

After an hour in the forest with the hawks we returned the birds to their roosts, then it was off to meet Dingle, a Eurasian Eagle Owl. Kiva explained that the “wise old owl” expression didn’t hold much truth, and that compared to the hawks Dingle was a bit slow, so rather than taking him outside they mostly flew him in a long barn-like structure where he was more comfortable. On a day that didn’t seem like it could get much better, we then spent the next twenty minutes calling an owl to our outstretched hands, and then holding him next to us while he absently listened for any interesting noises in the area (apparently an owl can hear a mouse’s heartbeat from quite some distance away).

It’s nice to have days that you’ll remember for years to come; this was definitely one of them.

Falconry at Ashford Castle
Chewie and Frodo after a nice walk through the woods.

The Cliffs of Insanity

Posted from The Burren, Ireland at 12:13 am, August 28th, 2023

Audrey spent yesterday in bed recovering from the flu, but the hotel has two house cats and 30+ outdoor cats, so she didn’t mind being stuck here too much. I visited the Cliffs of Moher, filming location from the Princess Bride, and battled winds that were occasionally strong enough to knock people over while walking along the crags. It was surprisingly pretty and made for a good morning trip. From there I took a drive through the Burren, enjoying the weird rocky landscape with its millions of wildflowers. The area is home to a number of prehistoric sites, including the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a large, five thousand year old stone tomb that overlooks the landscape.

The evening’s final adventure was a trip back into Doolin for music. McGann’s Pub is known for its traditional Irish music, but after arriving the server said the musicians had cancelled for the evening, so I escaped up the street to Fitz’s Pub where what I assume was a group of family and friends had instruments out. Two fiddles, and three instruments that I didn’t recognize kept everyone tapping their toes for the evening, and at one point a teenager in the musical group even put down his instrument and started doing some traditional Irish dancing, which got a huge reaction from the assembled patrons.

The Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher. Only Fezzik is strong enough to go up this way.

Slea Head Drive

Posted from The Burren, Ireland at 11:29 pm, August 26th, 2023

This morning’s adventure was driving Slea Head Drive at the western end of the Dingle Peninsula. Audrey stayed in bed fighting the flu, so I had the early morning sea cliffs and prehistoric stone structures all to myself. The terrain was similar to Highway One in California, and the drive was one of my favorites thus far on this trip. We later made a side trip to Glanteenassig Forest, a moss-covered forest park where we did a neat boardwalk hike around a mountain lake with waterfalls coming down the valley walls. It ended up being another one of my favorite outings on this trip.

From there the route took us through the Shannon Estuary and up to The Burren, a rocky region in Ireland’s west that is one of the few places where the land isn’t fifty shades of green. While here we’ll hopefully be tapping our feet to the music in the pubs of Doolin, a town known for its traditional Irish music.

Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula
Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula. All of those words make me giggle.


Posted from Dingle, Ireland at 12:46 pm, August 25th, 2023

The weather today alternated between rain and almost-sun, so it was an alternately pretty and gray day to drive around the Ring of Kerry, a highway loop along the southwest coast. Prior to setting out on the Ring route I got up early and took the car up the Gap of Dunloe before the horses and hikers were on it, and had the beautiful scenery mostly to myself, with only a couple of times where another car came along and we had to figure out what options existed to let each other past.

I expected the Ring of Kerry to be a bit like Big Sur in Monterey, but it reminded me far more of the Falklands, with rocky green pastures, rolling hills, and sheep on every rock. The peninsulas jut out into the Atlantic, and it’s surprisingly sparsely populated for such a scenic area. The day ended up being more driving than I had anticipated, and we arrived to our B&B on the Dingle Peninsula around 5pm. Audrey has contracted whatever cold I’ve been suffering with, so I left her to sleep while I wandered into town to find dinner. Tomorrow I’m hoping to get up early again and explore the far west of the peninsula before we continue north towards the Cliffs of Insanity Cliffs of Moher, where hopefully we’ll be spending some time in the pubs of Doolin enjoying local music.

Ladies View in Killarney National Park
Ladies View in Killarney National Park on a very gray day.

The Gap of Dunloe

Posted at 12:09 pm, August 24th, 2023

So far the Irish haven’t been winning awards for poetic naming. Today’s example was an incredibly picturesque pass through the mountains, full of flowers, streams and lakes, which leads to the town of Dunloe. The Irish name for it? The Gap of Dunloe. Nearby, one of the country’s dozens of “Upper Lakes” reinforces the Irish penchant for the prosaic. While the Gap is technically a public road, it’s a tiny, narrow road filled with cyclists, hikers, and “jaunting cars”, aka horse drawn carriages, so driving is discouraged. We hiked a few miles of it, but may return early tomorrow to traverse the rest in our vehicle if the weather is good and before the crowds make driving a hazard. I enjoyed the scenery along the route, while Audrey continued to talk to the sheep, and also made friends with a few horses along the way.

The afternoon took us on a short boat trip across Loch Lein, followed by an encounter with the friendliest deer in the world; this tiny sika deer was hanging out next to the trail and was more like a cat than a deer, waiting for passerby to rub its neck or scratch its shoulder. Had I been wagering on whether Audrey would get to pet a sheep or a deer first on this trip, I would have lost that wager.

The Gap of Dunloe
The Gap of Dunloe.

Kilkenny to Killarney

Posted from Killarney, Ireland at 11:49 pm, August 23rd, 2023

We woke up yesterday morning to rain and gray, which is probably not going to be an unusual event on this trip. We’re unfortunately having to rush through a few things at the start of the trip – Ireland is a big place and we can’t see it all – so we made a short stop in the morning at Kilkenny Castle, made a detour off of the motorway in Waterford to see some nice crystal, and finally took a bunch of random tiny roads to Blarney Castle outside of Cork. I wasn’t keen to kiss the castle’s famous stone, but was more interested in seeing the gardens and castle ruins. However, once we were a hundred feet in the air at the top of the castle Audrey decided to dangle backwards over empty space to kiss the germy rock, so she is now endowed with whatever magical properties the stone bestows. Magic rocks aside, the castle was a neat one; it’s built on an outcrop so it seems taller than most, there are gaps in the topmost battlements that allow you to look straight down to the ground from 100 feet above (terrifying in a building made hundreds of years ago), and there’s a “murder hole” used for dumping boiling tar on invaders, with what looks like black tar stains all around it to remind you of the awful deaths past combatants must have endured.

After the castle we traversed tiny backroads to get to Killarney, where we’re staying for a couple of nights. The weather forecast calls for sun, so with any luck we’ll be able to see Killarney National Park and the Ring of Kerry before moving on.

Kilkenny Castle roof detail
The roof of the portrait room in Kilkenny Castle was built to resemble a Viking longship.
Blarney castle
An unfortunately gray view of Blarney Castle. The Blarney stone is in the outer battlements at the very top of the castle, and despite the kitsch factor of hanging upside down to kiss a stone, it was a surprisingly interesting place.

Drive on the Left

Posted from Kilkenny, Ireland at 12:38 pm, August 22nd, 2023

There is a large sticker on the passenger side of our rental car that reads “Drive on the Left”. Luckily we haven’t needed that reminder, but it’s nevertheless been a bit of an adventure as we’ve started our road trip across Ireland. In addition to constantly having to remember to stay on the left, the roads have gotten progressively more narrow throughout the day; we started in Dublin with tight lanes, but they were clearly lanes. We then headed across the old Military Road through the Wicklow Mountains National Park, where lane markers were no more but there was room for two cars heading in opposite directions to pass one another. From there it was off to Glendalough, an old monastic city and nature area, where most of the roads had room for two cars if one pulled over a bit. Finally we finished our day just outside of Kilkenny, where weeds brushed the doors on some roads and I had to constantly keep an eye out for places to get off of the road should another car be spotted anywhere on the horizon.

The Irish countryside is as pretty as everyone said it would be. The mountains were filled with wildflowers, rugged scenery, and sheep that were very willing to engage in long conversations with Audrey when she called out to them. The valleys and flat lands are an impossible shade of green that doesn’t seem like it should be real, with crumbling stone walls dividing one perfectly green field from the next. We’ve seen our share of ancient religious ruins today, gone hiking in weather that was sunny one second and rainy the next, and are spending the night at an estate next to a river where baby horses are racing one another by the water as we watch from the room. I’ve said this before, but I did something right in a past life to end up here today.

Land of Guinness

Posted from Dublin, Ireland at 1:03 pm, August 21st, 2023

Today we jumped across the Irish Sea (technology RULES) and landed in Dublin for the second stage of our trip. We didn’t plan much in the way of activities since we didn’t want to risk shenanigans with travel logistics, so the day’s activities were limited to a trip to the Botanical Gardens, the Glasnevin Cemetery, and the adjoining Gravediggers pub where we had our first taste of Guinness on Irish soil. Tomorrow we start on our clockwise loop around southern Ireland, and we’re both pretty excited to get out and see the countryside.

England was a lot of fun, if only for a brief visit. Audrey loved singing with the choir at Canterbury (video of her doing a quartet last week), I loved all of the museums and castles and cathedrals, and it was neat to see it with friends from back home. Below are a few more photos from last week, both from Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey detail
The plants haven’t been particular about where they decide to set down roots.
Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey wasn’t too shabby.

The Plague

Posted from Canterbury, England at 2:11 pm, August 20th, 2023

Heat stroke may have combined with something else; I’ve been feeling weird for a few days, and today while attending Sunday Mass at Canterbury I got incredibly dizzy and had to sit down, ironically at the same time as an older lady two rows in front of me collapsed, causing three ushers to rush over. While they were attending to her (she ended up OK) I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it, so once a path cleared I headed for the exit, stopping several times along the way to rest before I arrived back at the room, head-spinning and soaked in sweat. Whatever this is has come and gone a few random times today (although not as bad as this morning) and has me baffled, so today ended up being a rest day to recuperate before we head to Ireland tomorrow.

During the time at Canterbury I’ve been intrigued by an ancient pilgrimage route that starts here and eventually ends in Rome. I thought it would be neat to hike the 18 mile portion to Dover, but since I’ve been feeling odd decided not to push it. However, I’ve been searching everywhere for the stone that traditionally marks the start of the route. I’ve scoured every sewer cover and cobblestone around the cathedral, only to finally discover it hiding in plain sight right next to the cathedral entrance. I used to be reasonably smart, I swear it.

Pilgrimage Stone, Canterbury Cathedral
I literally looked everywhere for this stone marker, except (apparently) in the yard right next to the cathedral entrance where it is propped up so that it can be easily found.

The White-ish Cliffs of Dover

Posted from Canterbury, England at 12:06 pm, August 19th, 2023

I’ve somehow managed to get heat stroke in England. England! Land of no sun and pasty white folks. Go figure.

The last couple of days were spent in Dover, a short train ride from Canterbury. Yesterday I visited Dover Castle, which dates back to the 1180s. Even today it’s an imposing structure, with an 83 foot tall main keep and walls that are as much as 20 feet thick. I was again impressed at the ingenuity of the medieval builders, but for anyone visiting, be warned that around many corners you’ll run into re-enactors who are really into their jobs. Surprisingly the castle fortifications continued to be used during wars with the French and through WW2, so amidst ancient walls are anti-aircraft guns and tunnels where the evacuation of Dunkirk was organized.

After intermittent rain and sun at the castle I was feeling a bit odd, so I checked into my hotel for the night, laid down on the bed, and woke up 14 hours later. This amount of sleep isn’t normal, so it’s either heat stroke (my head is a nice shade of red) or a bit of the flu. I wasn’t going to let that interrupt vacation, however, so it was off to the White Cliffs first thing this morning for a lengthy hike among flowers, tons of birds, the odd rabbit, and an occasional cliff view. I suspect that the splendor of these cliffs is best viewed from sea or air, but it was still a relaxing stroll through the English countryside. Now I’m back in Canterbury, resting again, in the hopes that whatever is sapping my energy decides to go away soon.