Sunday, August 10, 2003
Written by Suzanne Dorsch, contributing writer
My family loves to find adventures we can do together. We do particularly well when we leave our four corners of the country and spend just under two weeks together, then head right back to our four corners full of familial love and good cheer.
Being an Irish family, there was a unanimous urge to head to the old country and find our roots. Different avenues were discussed, since Mom and Dad had been there before, but then my brother found a Web site that led us to one of the most wonderful 10 days of our lives.
The name of the tour: â€œThe Heart of Irelandâ€. The tour company: Celtica Tours (1-800-299-CELT), located in Franklin Mass., where the tour guide lives.
Ever heard of the Clancy Brothers? Liam Clancy is the only surviving brother of the original Irish musical group, but there are children and nieces and nephews. One nephew, Robbie Oâ€™Connell, grew up in Ireland, and toured with Liam and Liamâ€™s son Donal during the 1990â€™s. They performed at the Cape Cod Melody Tent several times and they made two CDâ€™s together. Then Robbie started Celtica Tours along with his sister Alice, who still lives in Ireland, and his wife Roxanne.
Celtica offers one tour per year, but the family has been conducting tours for a decade.
The relaxed atmosphere of the tour was evident from the first day. At Shannon Airport, we gathered to wait for another planeload of people before we got on our bus. Robbie and Alice met us there, handing out luggage tags and name tags and making introductions. There were 27 of us altogether, of which five were from our family. After waiting a bit, we made our way to our bus, met our driver, Joe, loaded up luggage and began our Irish adventure.
The itinerary was well planned, thought out to the smallest details to insure everyoneâ€™s comfort and to make sure we saw as much as we could. Each day included two or three activities, and each night we would get together after supper for a music session. Robbie, Alice and Sean (her husband, who accompanied us on the tour and was an invaluable contributor to it) are accomplished musicians, and they share a passion for traditional Irish music. I knew nothing at all about Irish music, which I now realize is shameful, but Iâ€™m working to remedy the situation.
These sessions were a joy because not only did we listen to the music, we became participants in making it. Robbie, Sean and Alice willingly shared the traditions of the music, the structure, the way the musicians communicate, and the history of the songs, and as a group we began to feel like â€œinsidersâ€ after a few evenings.
We enjoyed music all day on the bus as well, introduced via CD to many other wonderful Irish musicians who are keeping traditional music alive.
The itinerary included Waterford, of course, and the Jameson Distillery, Caher Castle (a wonderfully preserved fortified Norman castle), the Swiss Cottage (where the lord and lady of Caher Castle would dress as and pretend to be peasants), the Avoca Handweavers store at Mollâ€™s Gap, the Cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands, as well as several other very touristy stops, all of which were great fun.
But it was some of the other places we visited that made us feel like we were seeing an Ireland that isnâ€™t often seen by tourists.
The Mitchelstown Cave was one such place. On our fourth day, we got on the bus early, traveled through the countryside and stopped in a dirt parking lot near an old brown house with a lovely green stained glass door. A small sign announced that we were at the Mitchelstown Cave. Not another car, bus, or house was in sight. Alice went up to the door and knocked, announcing our presence and requesting a tour. Presently, a young man appeared, slightly disheveled but enthusiastic, and we were led up a long incline to a gathering place at the top of a hill.
There, a forbidding-looking door, rather like a bolted up basement door, appeared half a dozen steps down. The young man led us down and warned us that we would be heading down about 90 feet before the path flattened out.
We learned that the cave was discovered in 1833 and had been in the young manâ€™s family that entire time. Family members had constructed walking paths by carrying buckets of concrete one by one down that 90 foot drop, building steps and installing electric lighting, all of which enhances the drama and beauty of the cave.
The rock formations were glorious, and our guide was passionate about the cave. We shared his enthusiasm. After about 15 minutes of walking through caverns, we came to an amazing site, a cavern large enough to hold several hundred people, with a natural stage on one side of the room. Our guide told us that concerts have been held there with as many as 200 people listening to an orchestra.
Of course, we just had to check the stage out, and, being with Robbie, Sean and Alice, we had to check the acoustics as well. So Robbie taught us a song, â€œThe Gray Funnel Lineâ€ and we sang the choruses while he sang the verses. It was a memorable experience, but one that may not be available much longer. Heading back out, Robbie commented that the place would probably be completely commercialized in the next 10 years.
Later that afternoon, we headed to another amazing site hidden on a farm out in the middle of nowhere. Our bus driver, Joe, and Robbie, who have worked together many times, took us through gorgeous country, and we could tell they were discussing the proper directions to take.
At one point, we needed to turn left, and there just wasnâ€™t enough room for the bus. Irish country roads are lined with hedges or stone fences, and they are so narrow that the bus takes up both lanes, so a turn of any kind at a 90 degree angle is a challenge. After 10 minutes of inching forward and backward, Joe solved the problem by getting out and moving stones off the stone wall. We eked by, shouting our encouragement to Joe all the way.
Arriving at our destination, we headed down a footpath until we came to a sign that read â€œWarning. You are now on a farmâ€ and a rather stern looking gentleman who watched us pass on by. Turning the corner, we came upon the Drombeg stone circle, a prehistoric circle of standing stones. As with other circles throughout Britain and Ireland, these stones line up with a solstice â€“ this one the winter solstice.
After spending so much time in music sessions with Robbie, Sean and Alice â€“ some of which went on until well past midnight â€“ our appreciation and understanding of traditional Irish music became a desire to experience more. Robbie played guitar and sang, while Sean played the fiddle to Aliceâ€™s rhythm guitar. She would sing for us as well. The sessions were casual, the next song inspired by the last one, and those of us on the tour who were musical were encouraged to contribute our own music as well. We became close as a group and brave enough to sing in front of each other – a magical feeling.
Our musical interests also led us to the wonderful town of Doolin, the Mecca, so to speak, of traditional Irish music. Doolin is basically a large pub and several shops on one street, two of which are traditional music shops. Unfortunately, we werenâ€™t there at night when the music sessions take place, but it was still a thrill to visit.
A bit of fortuitous timing on the part of our guides took us to another musical adventure. In the town of Ennis, the annual music festival was under way. Itâ€™s called the Fleadh Nua (pronounced â€œfla nuaâ€), and it takes over the town. From pub to pub we walked, listening to musicians ply jigs and reels with fiddles, pipes, guitars, bouzoukis (similar to a mandolin), bodhrains (the round drum played with a beater). The musicians were of every age and background. Witnessing the passion in the music and their love for playing was the most special time of the whole tour for me. Our group had been so well tutored by our guides that we knew what we were hearing and what made the sound so special.
Another tour of Ireland is in my future, and Robbie again will be my guide. He brought the â€œHeart of Irelandâ€ to life for all of us on the tour, and gave us a treasure to remember.
If you would like us to post or link to a published review of one of our tours here, please send a message to Robbie at celticatours.com.