When you turn the key in the ignition in Ireland, you don’t need to know where you’re going. Point the car north or south or west and you’ll arrive at a country pub on a windy road. At a forest full of ancient trees. At a lighthouse treacherously perched at the edge of the sea.
This year I spent Christmas in Dublin, and the day after the holiday, we hopped in the car and headed north on a bright morning. We were aiming for the town of Carlingford, set on a narrow inlet of water, Carlingford Loch. The city opened up to a two-lane highway and green hills dotted with sheep. Soon we turned off the highway, slowly snaking along a country road towards Carlingford. We passed quiet farms and horses nibbling at long grass. Right around the time we all needed a bathroom break, we arrived in Carlingford.
The Loch is known for its oysters, so naturally our first stop was P.J. O’Hare’s, an old pub and oyster house with a peat-burning fireplace. The day after Christmas, locals were drinking more tea than Guinness.
After lunch we took a stroll through the town, stopping in front of a bright blue door. The name of the house, Ceol-Na-Mara, was written above the door. My husband translated from Irish: Music of the Sea.
Like many villages in Ireland, a remarkable historic relic is often at the heart of town. Perched above the town’s harbor, King John’s Castle dates back to the late 12th century and has walls that are 11-feet thick. We explored the exterior of the crumbling castle, but December in Ireland is marked by an early setting sun, with darkness settling in around 4pm. The dark and damp chases people from the waterfront walkway back into the pub.
Taaffe’s Bar dates back to 1745. It’s the kind of place you want to “get stuck in” … a phrase used in Ireland meaning kick back, talk, and drink, with no plans to go anywhere. To see what happens to a room full of strangers after a few hours and a few pints. If conversation slows, you can watch the peat burn on the fire or listen to music. It’s the kind of place you hate to leave.
After several years of living in New York without a car, I value these Ireland day trips even more. The freedom to explore, the hospitality that’s always at the other end, how much there is to see in such a small island.
People often ask me: I only have one day, should I leave Dublin or not? The answer is yes. Leave the city to climb the Sugar Loaf, slurp some oysters in Carlingford, walk around the medieval monastery at Glendalough, get lost in the hills of County Wicklow, have a picnic on the beach outside Roundstone. Get in the car and go.