From glen to glen I drove, and down (and up) the mountainsides, using the sun to keep myself on a rough south-southwest course toward County Kerry and finding new spectacles that diverged from the usual verdant-Ireland clichés. After unexpectedly visiting the Powerscourt Waterfall — about as classic an Irish image as you could imagine, all rocks and woods and fern-furred fields and white rushing streams — I wound up speeding along a high plateau runneled with rows of dense bushes in shades of yellow and purple: as alien a landscape as I could’ve imagined, especially under a steely sky backlit by a feeble sun. Eventually, I had to pull over and gawk. And then I drove on, the road a growing addiction.
It was a road that led me far from the familiar. Though signs were in English (and often Irish), it was a language I almost didn’t recognize: In the span of 20 minutes one day, I drove through Ballyorney, Ballybawn, Ballyreagh, Ballyross, Ballycoyle and Ballylerane. I crossed the River Gargle (actually Dargle, I learned later) and the River Suck. I saw signs for Cloon, Tubber, Inch, Finuge, Sneem.
OFTEN I would just speak these names aloud in the car, rolling their Seussian sounds on my tongue — I was alone for hours at a time, after all. Sometimes a name would intrigue me enough to pursue it. In County Cork, a sign told me Ballygriffin was to the left; I followed it.
The road led up and up, a single lane that emerged from a tree tunnel onto rockier, wind-swept slopes. Grass grew in the middle of the road, and this green mohawk thickened as I climbed higher. There were houses here, and farms, but as a place, Ballygriffin felt vague. Finally, at the top, the road dead-ended at a house, and when I paused in the driveway to turn around, the owner came out. He was of retirement age, with white hair and thick hands. His name, he said, was O’Sullivan, and his family had lived here for generations.
Did he mind the isolation?
“Oh, we don’t care,” he said. “It’s only four miles to the village.”
The best I can say of Irish pub food is that it’s filling. Menus may be beautifully written, but don’t let evocative descriptions of cattle breeds and root vegetables trick you into ordering a flavorless Irish stew. (I was swayed, twice, to my lingering regret.) Even at Martine’s (21 Quay Street, Galway; 353-91-565-662; winebar.ie), which I loved (waitresses and oysters pictured), I ate only oysters and French fries, though I was sorely tempted by the pork belly. A few places impressed me: The mussels at the Snug, in Bantry (The Quay; 353-27-50057), were nice, as was the seafood chowder at Johnnie Fox’s, in Glencullen (353-1-295-5647; jfp.ie), and the Kerry lamb burger at the Smoke House in Killarney (8 High Street; 353-64-662-0801; thesmokehouse.ie). My favorite meals, however, were assembled from fresh breads, fruit and local cheeses, which were unaccountably hard to find, except at Sheridans, in Galway (14-16 Churchyard Street; 353-91-564-829; sheridanscheesemongers.com).