At the time I met Noel—on an Irish morning flawless as a perfectly poured pint of Guinness—I had a plan: to spend the morning in glorious solitude. I would depart Kenmare after breakfast, drive west into the tranquil Beara Peninsula stopping to take photographs only if the mood struck fiercely. Two hours later, I would turn around and head back along the Ring of Beara in time for horse riding at Dromquinna Stables.
The idea? Steal a day from the minutiae of solo travel. From constantly talking to strangers, and from my self-imposed schedule. To simply absorb what I came across rather than photograph the soul out of it.
Let’s face it, Ireland is beguiling. It stops you dead in your tracks every few moments, obliging you to whisk out a camera with an exclamation like, “For the love of God, could this be any more charming?” or “Janey Mac!” if you’ve practiced your Irish sayings. Consequently, you can drive all day yet find yourself just around the bend from where you began with little to show for it but an SD card filled with photos and a headache from overdosing on fairy dust.
After a stop for gas, my wheels hit the Ring of Beara, the main route on the Beara Peninsula, bounded by Kenmare Bay on the north and Bantry Bay on the south. It is split by County Kerry and County Cork. At once both wilder and more pastoral than the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle peninsula (and without the tourist crowds) the Beara Peninsula brings you a step closer to the Ireland of your dreams.
Kenmare Bay spread out to my right. Its coastline pirouetted out from the main road then swung in close like a fine dance partner. The briny scent of oyster beds identified by strings of blue floats swirled through the driver’s window. Mountains rose on my left: the Slieve Miskish range, followed by the Caha, green as only Ireland can produce and dotted with blindingly white sheep. Twice that morning I stopped the car and shut off the engine as a Wellie boots-and-cap-wearing farmer shepherded his flock across the road to pastures high in the hills.
An hour into the drive, I felt free. Two-thirds of the way to Allihies out on the point of the Beara Peninsula, I spied Eyeries, a small village near the Cork-Kerry County line. Brightly painted cottages glowed in the slanted morning sun, capturing my attention like a neon sign spelling out Warning: charm alert. What the heck, I thought, I’ll pop in to the village, take a photo of those crazy-colored houses and be back on the road in a few moments.
Because of the hour, lanes were empty of traffic and any of the 60 people who call Eyeries home. Pubs remained shuttered at that time of day, not a single note of “Wild Rover” echoed. I parked before the only shop open for business, opened the car door and sat for a moment, enjoying the quiet. Glorious days like this make visitors dream of immigrating to Ireland where they would learn to play fiddle and knit wooly sweaters. I turned my face to the sun. A voice broke my rumination.
“Are you out for walking this morning?”
A massive bunch of rhubarb approached, carried by a spry, shorts-wearing fellow with a shock of silver hair. Being Irish, he stopped to chat.
Being a nosy Parker (and despite my vow to avoid talking with strangers for the morning) I asked him about the rhubarb.
In short order, I discovered more about Noel than I probably know about my own father. Such is the case when you’re traveling. Solo travelers, especially, learn that talking with strangers is not only a good idea, it’s often the best part of a trip. I also realized this was going to take a while.
What I learned in Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula:
Noel makes jam. Which explains the Brobdingnagian heap of rhubarb. Jam production is a solo effort for Noel these days. His grandkids had been kitchen helpers but they’d grown older and abandoned the jam-making process in favor of a simpler method: spooning the final product onto bread and eating it. Noel shifted the rhubarb to his left arm, reaching out to shake my hand with his right. He gestured toward the shop behind me: the rhubarb source.
Owned formerly by his recently deceased mother-in-law, the current proprietor is now Noel’s wife’s cousin (if I followed that right.) His wife, Máirín (Moi-ren) was born “just there, you see,” (indicating a house a few feet from us). She has lived her entire life in Eyeries.
Noel came to be in a house on the sea at Castletownbere, a fishing port on the peninsula’s south side. Noel pointed as we both peered up the hills looming to the south, as if seeing through the green heft of the Slieve Miskish Mountains to the village of his birth.
Noel’s unscripted tour of Eyeries led me through the unlocked door of what he calls “the romantic dancehall.” “Back in the day,” he said, this was the big draw in Eyeries. To his lasting good fortune the dancehall was where he met the lovely Máirín. As he spoke, I know he pictured Máirín as he first encountered her: wearing a summer gown and welcoming smile. The romantic dancehall’s maple floors double as a basketball court on long winter days. I could almost hear the screech of sneakers intruding into Noel’s dance reverie.
As interesting as Eyeries and Noel’s jam-making plans were, I aimed to stick to my plan. I said farewell to the romantic dancehall, angling toward my car.
Noel walked beside me, embracing his rhubarb. He mentioned that, beginning as a cabin boy at age 15, he’d worked his way up the sailor’s career ladder to captain in the British Merchant Navy. My attention swiveled from polite escape to genuine, full-on Nosy Parker mode.
That’s when the Universe said, “Dude, you’re going to stick around Eyeries for tea.”
I told Noel that my husband was a sea captain as well and was, in fact, on a ship just then. I’d worked on sailing ships and yachts for most of a decade and a half. He was thrilled to hear it. Two shakes of an Irish lamb’s tail later, Noel invited me home. “Máirín will be delighted to meet you.”
Eager to hear more about his life at sea, I had a quick peek at my watch. I pointed out the early hour to Noel.
“Bringing home an American stranger before breakfast? Delighted might not be the word Máirín will use.” Noel just laughed, tugged my sleeve with his free hand and led me up the steps past blooming roses. We walked through the entrance of their lemon-painted home, two doors down from the romantic dance hall.
Amid photographs of grandchildren and shelves filled with seafaring memorabilia that festoon the sitting room, Noel plucked a 60-year-old photo off the wall. Prodding me toward the window, he opened the blinds and instructed me to pick the younger, primary-school version of him out of the family. Even without my glasses it wasn’t hard; the cantilevered ears gave him away. Together, we studied family photos, including that of a grandchild who died, Noel said, “just outside this door.”
That sad news had the barest chance to gain a foothold as we moved on to the nautical mementos of Noel’s lengthy career. Noel’s seafaring voyages had dropped him into unfamiliar places around the world. That helps explain his open-minded approach to strangers like the one standing in his front room. He related tales of captains and crews, foreign ports and of being an Irishman in Her Majesty’s Merchant Fleet. Before I could lift a hand to stop him, Noel seized a hand-rung ship’s fire bell and gave it a mighty swing. The clapper released for a full-throated alarm. Which is how I came to meet Máirín, running in a panic, hand on her heart.
After her initial astonishment at finding a stranger in her home, Máirín dug right into the conversation. I gathered it wasn’t the first time Noel had rung the fire bell before 8 a.m. Máirín ushered me down the hall to her kitchen with its adjacent sunroom where she was mixing up a quinoa vegetarian meatloaf. “I’m not so fond of potatoes in the summer,” she explained. My brain endeavored to catch up with being in a kitchen with a quinoa-cooking Irishwoman and her bell-ringing husband. It goes to show how travel can shrink the world while opening your mind. Even in a cottage in tiny Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula.
Meanwhile, Noel put the kettle on for tea. He pulled out a chair and offered me Weetabix cereal with rhubarb compote. Noel told me more about jam-making and of walking his neighbor’s golden retriever which was an offspring of his own dog who had died. He spoke of navigating the seas of retirement as a former Unlimited Oceans Master returned home to a small village. Over strong tea and a fruit scone, the world got even smaller. Noel and I discovered we had someone in common. A Chief Mate serving under Noel had earlier sailed with a cruise company for which Brian and I worked.
An hour slipped past. Máirín’s vegetarian loaf was nearly finished cooking. Noel was due to walk his friend’s dog. I snapped a photo of them standing by their roses and got directions to head for Allihies. Noel and Máirín waved goodbye on the steps of their bold yellow cottage.
The Beara Peninsula has those typical winding Irish roads. They took me higher into the highlands before dropping into Allihies, a former copper mining center. On Noel’s advice I toured the Allihies Copper Mine Museum. I pictured a young Noel exploring abandoned mine shafts, frightening the bejesus out of his mother before heading out to an adventurous life at sea.
Retracing my route back through the Beara Peninsula to my room at The Cahas B&B, it registered that I’d never taken that photo of Eyeries’ charming colorful cottages. I debated taking a turn into the village for another opportunity. Much as I was tempted, I decided against it. I had my memories; no photograph could best that. As a result, I have a reason to return some day. Maybe I’ll bring Brian along to chat with Noel while I get tips from Máirín on how to navigate life with a sea captain home from the sea.
Stealing a day from my own plans proved (again) that talking with strangers helps you better understand yourself.
Need more reasons to talk to strangers? Listen to Kio Stark’s Ted Talk: Why you should talk to strangers