On a cinematic, sun-soaked spring day in Ireland’s County Clare, while tourists scurried up and down Bunratty Castle’s spiral stone stairs, next door the locals packed a worn and dusty side room in the warrenlike Durty Nelly’s pub, crowding around a trio of old-timers on fiddle, piano, and tin whistle.
“Any requests?” shouted the cardiganed gray-hair at the piano.
A rosy boy with wavy blond hair boldly stepped forward. “Do you know ‘The Wild Rover?’ ” asked the American.
The crowd chuckled “Cheers!” in assent. “Do ya know the words then, lad?” asked the musician, ruffling the boy’s hair. He nodded. “Well then, lead on.”
So it was that my son conducted his first sing-along that did not include “The Wheels on the Bus,”culminating eight prior days of song-centric travel in Ireland’s green and glorious west. At the outset, my inner parenting critic pondered whether visiting pubs and learning lyrics about a rogue who returns to pay his bar bill was the best education for a child. But, at age 8, Seth wasn’t old enough for the pubs to damage his liver, and smoke-free since 2004, they wouldn’t damage his lungs either. And the rogue he was singing about, after all, was reformed.
To our great fortune, the Irish don’t seem to distinguish between “family places” and “adult places” like fine restaurants and crowded pubs. Travel advisors tout the destination as family friendly, welcoming children along with their elders.
Also, pubs, we reasoned, are essential to the culture, extolled by Ireland’s proudest – from writer James Joyce to singer Van Morrison and playwright Conor McPherson – for the craic, or revelry, spun of music and conversation fueled by a few good pints. This, it turns out, was not just wishful reasoning. At Nelly’s, as throughout the countryside, we were warmly welcomed and often in the company of other clans. “Irish family life revolves around the pub,” one local mother confessed to me as she herded her two toward the door, “for better or for worse.”
Entertainment aside, Ireland is perhaps the easiest European country in which to travel as a family: no language barrier, good-humored locals, castles to climb, green and rolling landscapes to rove. Though we knew little about Irish customs or, for that matter, pubbing from the perspective of responsible parents, in a few baby steps our family learned to crawl.
Bring the Family
Along with my parents, we embarked on a leisurely eight-day road trip around County Clare on Ireland’s west coast, a stronghold of traditional culture, language, and song. One of the country’s more scenic and less traveled counties, it affords plenty of opportunities to hike; visit Stone Age forts, Celtic ruins, and medieval castles; and foray via ferry to bike the Aran Islands offshore, all in the vicinity of some of Ireland’s most family-friendly musical pubs.
With the exception of the Cliffs of Moher, as symbolic of Ireland as the Blarney Stone, Clare is not for checklist travelers. But checking it from our list was one of the first things we did, joining a parade of Irish families walking along the dramatic 700-foot-high sea walls while chasing down children who were getting too close to the edge (fairly impossible, thanks to pathside walls). Climbing the park’s crowning O’Brien’s Tower, we spotted razorbills and kittiwakes darting in and out of nests in the sandstone as we peered over the parapet.
We left the precipice and drove ten minutes north to the small fishing port of Doolin, bound for Gus O’Connor’s Pub – one of three musical pubs that give the town a reputation for “trad” or traditional music. We sought an early dinner and in the bargain got a 5:30 Sunday “session,” an ad hoc jam by musicians who share a song repertoire.
The music began in a happy, loopy sort of jig that engrossed the players: guitar, fiddle, two flutes, and an accordion. The wife and 8-year-old daughter of one of the flutists pulled up stools alongside. Two teenage sisters with long dark braids, one on concertina, the other on flute, soon joined the band, and the circular, wordless music seemed to spread goodwill among the crowd in the dark, wood-paneled pub that has entertained since 1832. Fish-and-chips (crispy good) arrived, as did another round of pints (also good), and a bodhran player (best) sounding the goatskin hand drum with a wooden mallet. Babies bounced on knees, children skittered underfoot, old guys bellied up to the bar for fresh rounds – it was like a family reunion without name tags.
Seek the Inspiration
The next day Seth spied the Burren, 100 square miles of rock along the Clare coast, from a hilltop road and thrilled at the thought of throwing it all back into the ocean. “Let’s go skip stones!” he cried, racing shoreward. Waves bashed the rocks below as he, my husband, and I picked our way over stone slabs arranged like a tricky staircase, thatched with grass and moss and delicately blooming thyme, down to the sea.
Eroded limestone covers the Burren, or, in the native Gaelic, Boireann, meaning, in an understatement, “rocky place.” Rock sweeps up to form striated hills, paves pocked plains, and breaks away in tonnage slabs, imposing boulders, and fields of shifting shards. Miraculously, humans have chiseled out a living here since the Stone Age, attested to by stacked-rock walls girding livestock fields and dwellings, and by dolmen, stone tombs marked by massive rocks somehow hoisted atop two standing stones, as mysterious as their contemporary, Stonehenge.
Many musicians credit the mystical landscape for their inspiration. Their folk music, by turns playful, surprising, and minor-key melancholy, reflects the setting. J. W. O’Connell, in The Book of the Burren, links the region’s musical prowess to sounds “heard in the wind, in the waves and caught with the inner ear from around the corners of castles and ring forts,” a harmony of nature and man conducted outdoors.
My parents declined hiking seaside ledges, creased with what the Irish call “grikes” or “cracks,” but which my dad termed “ankle traps,” but eagerly hopped on bikes when we journeyed offshore the following day to Inishmore, the largest of , some 12 miles out. Like a breakaway piece of the Burren, treeless Inishmore features narrow lanes stringing together stone cottages, rock-stacked farm fences, early Christian stone huts shaped like beehives, Celtic crosses, and, most famously, stone forts. Flat terrain and little traffic – less than 1,000 people live on its 12 square miles – make the island ideal for biking, and rental cycles line the street fronting the ferry port of Kilronan. We signed out four sturdy adult bikes and one child’s model from a variety of junior sizes, noting yet another sign of Ireland’s generous accommodation to families.
Some five slow miles later, after stops to watch orange-beaked avocets pecking the beach, photograph buttercups at the side of the road, and pet a pony tethered behind a stone fence, we reached Dun Aengus, somewhat apprehensively. Perhaps the most famous of Ireland’s ring forts, its three concentric half-moon fortifications embrace an 11-acre compound on a precipitous cliff that plunges 300 feet to the sea below, no guardrail in sight. Intrepid visitors inched toward the rock face, some on hands and knees, to lie down at its edge and peer over.
Ring forts like Dun Aengus and those in Clare give the region its story, a visual telling of ancient human civilization scratched from meager soil, always on guard for invasion from rival clans, wild animals, or simply the elements. In the same way that Athens’ temples and Rome’s Forum bring history to life, so do these ruins, which predate written history. A visitors’ center film at the carefully excavated, precisely circular Caherconnell Stone Fort in the Burren animated the stronghold to illustrate how its inhabitants likely sheltered, cooked, and tended livestock within it. But by then we’d already imagined ourselves storming these and other 12-foot-thick walls strewn across the countryside, sound-tracked by ageless rhythms in the wind.
Overcome Your Inhibitions
We spent the rest of our days beachcombing, fishing, visiting storybook villages, and spending
agendaless days making up stories about everything we saw. Most travel is, at core, an observer’s pursuit. But when travelers are luckiest – and travel is most vivid – we get to participate. Irish pubs are more public forum than passive theater, and the more you give them, the more they reward.
Though we had purchased a tin whistle at the beginning of the trip, by the end we still couldn’t play a complete tune. Instead, thanks to The Dubliners, The Chieftains, and Altan repeating on our car CD player, we could sing. And so at Durty Nelly’s on our last afternoon, after laying siege to the neighboring fifteenth-century castle and sheathing our imaginary swords, we finally sang out and joined the band.
Traveling with kids
1. Stick to the theme. To keep your child engaged in the destination, stock up on children’s books, along with local music, once you arrive. In Ireland we read Irish fairy tales and Magical Tales of Ireland, featuring contemporary children’s stories from authors such as Roddy Doyle.
2. Schedule downtime. In deference to shorter attention spans, resist the adult inclination to pack as much into a day as possible, and plan frequent stops to beachcomb, throw a ball around, or have an impromptu picnic (you did pack snacks, right?) in scenic spots.
3. Get enough rest. Though you may not always mind bedtimes when you travel, do make sure to get enough sleep. Sometimes this means making a later start – one Irish waiter called it “having a lie-in” and sent a breakfast tray to the room for our son.
County Clare Essentials
Hotels and trips on Ireland’s west coast.
Getting to Ireland
Aer Lingus, the airline of Ireland, provides direct service to Shannon from New York and Boston.
County Clare’s most historic hotel, the 100-room Dromoland Castle occupies a 410-acre estate with such on-property activities as fishing, cycling, archery, and falconry, plus child-oriented castle tours and milk, cookies, and teddy bears at turndown. Doubles from $336, including breakfast and two-for-one greens fees.
Stay On the Clare coast, roughly 20 miles south of the Cliffs of Moher, the 47-room Lodge at Doonbeg is home to the links-style Doonbeg Golf Club, designed by Greg Norman, along 1.5 miles of dune-bordered beach.
Brendan’s nine-day private trip through Ireland features a city stay in Dublin, horseback riding and a sheep farm tour in Killarney, and medieval entertainment at Bunratty Castle. You’ll also cruise the coast, explore Burren’s lunar landscape, and stay in a baronial castle.
On Adventures by Disney’s eight-day trip that calls on Dublin, Killarney, and Shannon, your family will tour a country manor, marvel at the Cliffs of Moher, and sleep in an ivy-clad castle. Bonding opportunities abound, the Irish way: Learn to shear sheep, make scones, and, of course, dance an Irish jig.children under 12).
Though best known for pouring Guinness, most Irish pubs serve food as well, often including children’s menus of pasta, fish-and-chips, even pizza. Pub sessions vary by season, though music can usually be heard nightly from May through September.
Brogan’s Bar & Restaurant in Ennis, ten miles from the Shannon airport and famous for music, serves pub fare ranging from sandwiches to local salmon and lamb stew, as well as sessions after 9 pm on many nights. 24 O’Connell Street, Ennis; 353/65-682-9480; www.brogans
Dating to 1620, the cavernous Durty Nelly’s, next door to the 1425-vintage Bunratty Castle, hosts a restaurant, oyster bar, sports bar, and a “locals bar,” where patrons often sing Irish ballads and pub classics. Bunratty; 353/61-364-861; www.durtynellys.ie.
Gus O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin specializes in fish-and-chips and Irish lamb. Traditional sessions are held nightly in summer. Fisher Street, Doolin; 353/65-707-4168; www.gusoconnorsdoolin.com.
O’Connor’s neighbors McGann’s Pub (353/65-707-4133; www.mcgannspubdoolin.com)and McDermott’s Pub (353/65-707-4328; www.mcdermottspubdoolin.com), bothon Roadford in Doolin, similarly host music every night in high season and several times each week in the off-season.
Since 1810, Pepper’s Bar and Restaurant has been feeding, watering, and entertaining travelers in the rural center of County Clare. Feakle; 353/61-924-32 www.peppersbarandrestaurant.com.
In the summer tourist season, Roadside Tavern, run by the Curtain family since 1893, hosts nightly sessions. Doolin Road, Lisdoonvarna; 353/65-707-4084; www.roadsidetavern.ie.
By: Elaine Glusac, Virtuoso Life (January/February 2010)