At 19, Maria McGrath visited her grandmother’s farm in Cork, and returned home with a serious Gaelic jones. Around the same time, Randy Garutti became smitten with Irish culture during his first visit to Dublin. A decade later, the American Express account-development manager (McGrath) and the Union Square Cafe general manager (Garutti) met and bonded over their passion for the Emerald Isle. For Christmas last year, McGrath gave Garutti two tickets to Ireland—their first trip together. Randy proposed, in the turret of Dromoland Castle. For their next trip, the newlyweds say they’re looking to soak up even more Ireland—the more authentic, the better.
We all have a place that looms mythically in our imaginations. Its contours seep in and imprint themselves on our DNA like inherited memories. For me, it’s Ireland. Its lilting brogue and notched coastline were grafted onto my inner topography before I’d even been there.
Ireland teemed with all the personality and drama my suburban teenage life seemed to lack. I dreamed of dating a freckled lug of a boy who knew how to handle a hurling stick, and I invented a personal history of wrenching Frank McCourt–ian hardships around my Irish grandfather’s relatively uneventful upbringing. But mostly, I fed my record player Irish music. I drank in the mystic melancholy of Van Morrison and danced in my room to the Chieftains and the Pogues.
Twenty years later, my non-hurling husband and I rented a house for the summer in the three-pub village of Doolin in County Clare, on the edge of a wind-pocked stone wilderness known as the Burren. I picked Doolin because it’s famously regarded as the capital of traditional Irish music, and because it isn’t Killarney or Kinsale, where American rusticators outnumber the Irish from June to September. Doolin’s stark beauty has made it a magnet for adventure-seeking hikers and mountain bikers, not to mention cavers and divers, who jealously guard its surprising, secret charms. Looking out over the moody Aran Islands toward Nova Scotia, Doolin held all the promise of being my atavistic connection to Ireland’s wild spirit.
The Opel microvan we rented at Shannon airport was barely wide enough to fit two people hip-to-hip, and slightly too wide for the Lilliputian lanes on the coast road to Doolin. As the van leaned cartoonishly around a sudden bend in the road, I saw, in choppily spliced film cuts: an achingly beautiful ruin of an eighteenth-century farmhouse with a choreographed horse grazing along its crumbling foundations, a billboard advertising the Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival, and a large herd of Friesian cows lumbering toward us 30 feet ahead—presumably heading to an even greener pasture down the road.
We finally pulled up to our thatch-roof cottage, with only the round medieval tower of Doonegore Castle standing between it and the sea. To the south, the shaggy headlands looked as though they’d been cut by a giant’s pinking shears, creating the spectacular Cliffs of Moher. Realizing our fridge was empty, we went in search of groceries in the nearby town of Ennistymon. In the colorful high street, live music and the frenetic brush-and-stomp of half a dozen little girls’ patent-leather dancing shoes leaked out the door of a church that had been converted into a teach cheoil, a community center for traditional music.
But there was something odd. In the Ennistymon-church car park, every other vehicle was sporting a surfboard (or three) strapped to the roof. Our stupefied expressions led a helpful passerby to offer, “They’ve come from Lahinch—the waves were two meters today.” A rain-drenched climate and Arctic water temperatures are the only things holding Ireland back from becoming the Hawaii of Europe. Unrelenting winds consistently carve up ten-foot waves off the strand at Lahinch, making it a favorite spot for surfers, even if they have to vie with throngs of intrepid golfers for a seat at the pub.
After a home-cooked supper, we trundled down to the Doolin pubs for some good craic (pronounced “crack,” meaning fun derived from a nexus of great music, copious drink, and lively conversation), determined to sample the sessions at O’Connor’s, McGann’s, and McDermott’s. The shindy at O’Connor’s was the best that night. Well-lubricated dancers of all ages spun and bobbed between the small tables as red-cheeked lads belted out raucous songs to the wild beat of the bodhrán and a reckless fiddle.
We ordered pints of Guinness (what else?), sat down, and began asking about the best beaches nearby. “You can swim with the dolphin in the cove up by Fanore—he’ll rub right up against you!” suggested one local B&B owner. Every summer, the west coast draws a few lonely dolphins, he explained, whose lifelong mates have been caught in commercial fishing nets. During what amounts to a grieving process, they seem to crave human contact and will weave through swimmers several times a day all summer long before heading out to sea in search of another mate.
The next morning, and for dozens of mornings thereafter, we alternated between visits with the dolphin, walks along the cliff-hugging path outside our cottage door, knee-shredding crawls through Doolin’s six and a half miles of limestone caves, and rounds on the gorgeous short-hole “Pitch and Putt.” But the otherworldly rockscapes of the Burren were what drew us again and again. We hiked much of the 100 square miles of gray-green limestone steppes that turn an eerie bone white in the sunshine and a burnt gold at sunset. A harsh place at first glance, the Burren is a shocking contrast to stock images of vivid green Irish countryside. “A savage land” was what one of Oliver Cromwell’s ethnic cleansers, General Ludlow, called it, “yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him.”
On one cloudy August morning, we met Shane Connolly, a wiry farmer with degrees in local history and archaeology, who leads guided walks through the Burren to Neolithic tombs, Celtic ring forts, and early Christian church sites. Sculpted by rain, wind, and ice, the limestone is broken up into deeply fluted “pavements” separated by parallel grooves called “grykes” that are miraculously hospitable to wayward Mediterranean, alpine, and Arctic flowers. The day we walked the Burren with Connolly, a riot of color shot up from the rock—magenta cranesbills, bright-yellow bird’s-foot trefoils, and countless rare species of orchids that often fall prey to botanical geek-thieves.
There are two explanations for how the Burren came to be. The scientific reasoning is based on eons of erosion. But there is another plausible theory, spelled out in John M. Feehan’s The Secret Places of the Burren: The man in the moon and his wife got blind drunk one Saint Patrick’s Day and had the father-and-mother of a row. The missus was getting the worst of the fight and ran away. Himself took after her with a big sledgehammer, and she ran in behind a cluster of lunar rocks. He was in a fierce temper, shouting “Burren!” which is moon language for an unmentionable four-letter word. The husband split the rock, sending his wife flying through space clinging to a fragment that landed along the Clare coast. And apparently that’s how the Burren got its name.
Mythmaking and bawdy humor are bred in the Irish bone, of course. Every Irishman has a favorite limerick and a favorite pub where he first test-marketed it. Part of their charm is that the Irish are, above all, survivors, a people who’ve been battered by the Vikings, Cromwell, and the Famine and buoyed by their poet champions. What sustains them is their love of a well-poured stout and the music to which they drink it.
Like the stray dolphin in Fanore, Ireland has an almost instinctual pull for me—and, I suspect, for millions of Americans who have real or metaphorical Gaelic blood in their veins. There are a lot of exotic places I’d love to explore, but when I flip through the options, I always come full circle and think, We could always go back to Ireland.
The Doolin Activity Lodge (from about $40; 353-65-707-4888) offers Doolin’s best value, with fairly spartan but fully appointed apartments. To rent a cottage, manor, or even a castle, try shamrockcottages or irishvacationrental.com. Doolin Café (353-65-707-4795) serves tasty seafood. Caving guides can be hired through the Doolin Activity Lodge (from about $32 per person for a four-hour trip); Shane Connolly’s guided Burren walks are about $20 per person for a half-day trip (353-65-707-7168). Hit Lahinch Surf Shop (353-65-708-1543) for boards, gear, and daily surf reports.