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  • Writer's pictureBridget Houchins

Small Town Ireland and Backpacking Irish Mountains

In late May/early June of 2023, my husband Tim and I were invited to join family and family friends on a trip to a small town an hour north of Dublin. A family friend of ours was celebrating her and her husband’s 25th marriage anniversary in the castle they were married in, which was just outside of the town her and her ten siblings grew up in. Tim and I had been to Dublin and Belfast before but we had never seen small town Ireland, so we were excited to join them and watch her siblings play traditional music in pubs off the beaten path.

My family had plans to travel around Ireland for longer than Tim and I could get off work, so we planned to stay with them for four days before parting ways and heading south to do our own thing for another few days before we would have to fly home. We flew into Dublin, spent a night there to meet up, then rented a car and drove to the small town of Nobber that our family friend was from.

Nobber is a tiny rural town consisting of two pubs, one market, and a few other stores and churches all within the same few blocks. There was also an old cemetery with headstones dating back to medieval times as well as a walking trail. We were staying an an Airbnb, possibly the only Airbnb, which was an old farm with multiple houses on the property. We shared one of the houses with family while our family friends and their guests occupied the others. The owners also lived on site in the house attached to ours. Him and his wife knew our family friend. Since the town was so small they all seemed to know each other. Even the local bartender both went to school with her as well as ran the funeral of her mother.

Somehow we had left rainy San Diego for warm and sunny Ireland, which sounds backwards but remained consistent for the entirety of our trip. The farm was beautiful and green. Cows grazed in the distance and the farm’s Border Collie followed us with a ball any time we went out for a walk. The local pub felt ancient compared to what I am used to in San Diego. I loved it. I love old dive bars and I love unintended time capsules no matter what year they are from, and this was both. There was a main room on the main side of the bar, while the back of the bar backed up to two private rooms with bar access. These private bar rooms and the prevalence of teeny tiny little stools that were close to the ground were two things I noticed about pubs in the area. The ancient cemetery with medieval tombstones also backed right up against the pub.

The main event for the 25th anniversary party was lunch in the castle, which was in the neighboring town of Kingscourt. We strolled the gardens trying to find the castle dogs which were two or three Irish Wolfhounds I spotted napping in the sun outside of a window. Next to the castle was a forrest park we would come back a day or two later to hike and explore. After lunch we all met at a pub in town on the little main strip of Kingscourt. This was just slightly larger than Nobber. This pub was also old, with a thatched roof, the tiny stools, and a private room attached to the backside of the bar. We all sat outside and our family friend’s siblings played music. Locals arrived and would sometimes join in or take their turn playing a song of their own. These people were so incredibly talented. It was such a drastically different culture than at home in the US. I felt very fortunate to witness this glance into old Ireland. Where entertainment was telling a joke, laughing with a pint, and playing music instead of staying home to scroll and send memes. It made me think a lot about a term I had heard about called the Third Place, which made me both inspired and sad.

The Third Place is not your home, not your work or school, but an additional place to spent your time which is meant to be social. This could be a church, a library, a coffee shop, a pub, anywhere that you go to relax and be social on a regular basis. The internet has made fun of America’s lack of having a Third Place, but with cell phones, internet, the pandemic, and working hard until death I think it is starting to disappear for younger generations as a whole. Here I was in a pub far from tourists (besides ourselves) yet more impressive than any pub I had seen in Dublin, fully immersed into their Third Place. As I mentioned, it felt inspiring and sad. How could we have a Third Place too, was it possible? My daily commute was further than the trek from Dublin to this pub. Add Southern California traffic. Add being exhausted. Add friends who are exhausted too. Add finding parking and driving across town and paying for parking and busy schedules and so on. Our Third Place is scrolling the comment feed of a news article and reading the horrible opinions of strangers after a long day of sitting in the car after having your lunch stolen out of the work fridge. It seems the Irish Dream is more ideal than the American Dream, a simple life that seems to favor experiences over a facade of being wealthy. We tried to leave the pub early for a relaxing night in, but this wasn’t possible. You see, the Irish goodbye is needed for a reason. In Ireland, they do not let you leave. The music moved indoors and more locals joined in. Most of our party had left but a few of us stayed to experience this little pub that we might not get to again. After introductions and some small talk a local learned my maiden name, McGee, which I changed after marriage. He said “Ah, a good Irish name!” Then turned toward my husband and said “You ruined it!” The pub and pints were worth the next morning’s grog

giness. Soon Tim and I were leaving Nobber to venture on our own towards Killarney.

Wishing well in the forrest park

We decided to break up the drive to Killarney by stopping into Ireland's, and possibly the world’s, oldest pub. One pint of the black stuff at Sean’s bar and we were on our way to Killarney. We had booked a hostel in Killarney to spend one night in town and then head off first thing in the morning into the mountains for two days of hiking. From there we would spend one night in Cork before heading back to Dublin to fly home. I realized only a few months prior that we had an extra day this day with no plans. We decided to book a second night in Killarney so we could really see the town instead of just using it as a sleeping spot before the hike. I went to book our hostel for a second night, but our room was booked up. We could move rooms half way through the stay, but a friend mentioned a hotel called The Brehon in Killarney so we decided to splurge instead and give it a try. This was a fancy hotel against the National Forrest with a spa, and access to indoor hot and cold baths included with your stay. As well as a full Irish breakfast via room service. The price for this hotel was probably nearly half the price an equivalent hotel would be back home in California.

I was so glad to get a great rest in the Brehon instead of choosing the cheap route of the hostel, since it was in stark contrast when we went to check in the next morning. For a traveler’s hostel in the middle of a tourist area, it seemed to be more like a motel of shared rooms for locals without anywhere else to go. Our room that barely fit two people but had beds for four was thankfully only occupied by the two of us for the night. Guests chain smoked outside of our window, and an elderly man who spent most of his time in the kitchen continuously added gravy packets to his tea, stirring them in and then spooning the gooey consistency into his mouth.

We went out looking for a Killarney pub but everything seemed to close early. Live music drifted out of a few larger tourist pubs, but they were covers of popular American hits and the atmosphere looked more like a T.G.I.Fridays than an Irish pub. The decor and music of most of these pubs almost seemed like a recreation for tourists of what we had witnessed in Nobber and King’s Court. And I was disappointed by a lack of tiny stools. Killarney was still a lot of fun and worth visiting, but I was excited to see what we had traveled there for, the National Park.

I drank my coffee next to gangly grandpa spooning chunks of hot-tea-gravy into his mouth and felt the need to get the hell out of the hostel before being sick. We had about a mile through town to walk before reaching Killarney National Park, and I was already exhausted just from lack of sleep and caffeine. We started the trail through a tourist area with a castle, lakes, museums, shops, and stores, which was a great opportunity to buy an on-trail latte. What luxury. We walked past deer through winding trail into thick bright green forest with waterfalls and streams, then into fields of peat, mossy boulders, and ancient ruins under open blue sky. After a little over sixteen miles, we arrived sweaty and tired to our hostel in a beautiful valley in the middle of nowhere. All of the other hostel guests this time were fellow backpackers. There wasn’t really any other reason to be staying out in this area. There were no stores, no cell service, just a few houses, the hostel, and lots of sheep and horses. This hostel was on a section of trail called the the Kerry Way. This was a 135 mile loop around the majority of the exterior of Killarney National Park. A way to see the deep countryside, mountains, and forest far from tourist buses and crowds. Tim and I didn’t have time to hike the whole trail, so our plan was to hike the first day of it then break off onto an alternate route for the second day to hike Irelands tallest mountain and it’s range of peaks. This mountain is called Carrauntoohil at 3,406 feet and the mountain range is called the MacGillicuddy Reeks. We had done a lot of research on this alternate route. It seemed somewhat popular and there were plenty of YouTube videos of people hiking it, but it was almost impossible to find legible maps. Tim downloaded a GPS map in case we got confused and we bought a vague map in town, but that’s all we set out with.

Our second day on trail the entirety of our hostel set off on the Kerry Way, as Tim and I walked miles of road past sheep up into the Gap of Dunloe. It was early morning, apparently before the tourists were out on their horse buggies and tour busses, so we had the entire place to ourselves. We were going slow, taking it all in, taking lots of pictures, and trying to find a spot to filter water that wasn’t full of sheep poo. By the time we found water and reached our trail up into the mountains it was late morning and we had already walked five miles. The trail led us up switchbacks to the base of the mountain range and then ended. From here we had to find our own way, which was a bit unsettling to me. We still had a long hard day of hiking ahead of us and the last thing I wanted was to get turned around or confused and then get in late. After crossing a few boggy fields and hopping two barb wire fences, we found some sort of steep bouldery trail up the first mountain. To get up to this trail we had to pass through many areas of bog, testing each step as to not sink in, which was almost impossible. Tim and I each got sucked in once, losing a shoe to the mud and having to yank it out. We were filthy. We continued up the mountain singing:

"And another bog comes and another bog comes, another bog takes your shoe. Hey, it's gonna get you too, another bog takes your shoe."

"I think we're in bog now, there doesn't seem to be any solid ground. I think we're in bog now, the sucking of your shoes is the only sound."

The first peak towered over Killarney National Park, but beyond it lie larger, more intimidating mountains. The jagged mountains, lack of trail, and fact that there were no other people out here had me quite nervous. We went down the mountain then up the second. No switchbacks, barely any trail, just up through peat and boulders. As we neared the top there was less trail and more rocks. We had to boulder the second peak, which was something I was inexperienced at. We were up so high and the way down was steep, I felt like I had to hold tight onto boulders so I wouldn’t fall off of the Earth. My nervousness turned into full blown anxiety, especially seeing what the next peaks looked like and how far away they were, and I was struggling. From here on out we would have to boulder every peak and they were only getting steeper. For the first time I was actually scared while hiking, not from the weather or injury or any other outside force, but just from the terrain itself. I didn’t think that was possible. The weather was still gorgeous but it was becoming late afternoon and it was hard to go quick bouldering steep mountains. I was starting to not enjoy myself at all.

This is the only image I ended up taking with my camera

We stopped to take a breather and compose ourselves near the top of this mountain when all of a sudden a man our age appeared from up the side. I was so happy to see human life. We talked and I tried to be cheerful and to not come off as mopey or overly stressed. He said he was hiking each peak, one a day, and the one we were heading to was his final peak to complete. He had had been hiking up from the opposite direction when the terrain became too difficult to pass, so he went back down and then up the side of the mountain we were on to attempt it our way. This made me feel both better and worse. We decided to set out together, taking it slow. Chatting with this local helped to keep my mind occupied on something other than how terrifying these mountains were. And in Ireland, who would have known. Quickly we hit a wall, literally. A wall we would have to rock climb. The local refused, stating he was going to turn back and head down the side of the mountain the way he came up. I thought that might also be the best idea. Tim left his backpack and went on further to scope out what the future held after the rock wall. The local waited with me until he came back. When Tim arrived he said it didn’t get any easier from there, and the best idea would probably be to head back. This was something that definitely didn’t show up in influencer YouTube videos, but maybe they didn’t actually make it either.

Going back the way we came would be way too far. We asked if it was possible to hitch hike to our hostel from the way he came, and he said it should be easy enough and that there is even a full parking lot for the trailheads down that side. Sounded good enough to us. Especially since at this point going on would mean getting in late at night if our hostel would even let us in then, and running out of water. We were at a bout ten miles for the day and still were only half way in. We were as prepared as we could be given the knowledge we had, but the internet definitely made the hike seem a lot different than it was and each mile took so long with all of the bogs, boulders, and navigation.

We bouldered down the side of the mountain for over an hour. My legs became so exhausted from going up and down huge rocks that my knees started to buckle, which had never happened before and was a terrifying feeling. From here we walked through a field of bog and sheep, to a dirt road where the parking lots were. No other hikers leaving for the day had the room to give us a ride, either that or they claimed to be going the other way, so we walked over a mile to the main road hoping to hitch from there. The MacGillicuddy Reeks towered over us in the distance, now looking so far away.

Bonus cell phone images

The road was a rough one to hitch from, so we started walking. The hostel was about ten miles away on a small winding road. We were getting desperate. I pulled out 20 Euros and started holding it up at passing cars, which were few and far between. We had been walking the road for maybe thirty minutes when a car stopped and we jumped in. It was a British man who, turns out, was an adventure guide for the mountains we had just wussed out on. We told him our whole story. He said the hostel was a little out of his way, but he would take us there anyway because there was no way we were getting picked up on this road. I offered him the 20 Euros, but he refused telling us to spend it on burgers and beer at the hostel. Our hostel just to happened to also be the only restaurant and pub in the area.

Even though we didn't complete our hike, we had still hiked fifteen miles for the day, over 3,800 feet in elevation, and saw beautiful scenery. That was enough for me. I still feel like I earned my pint of Guinness. I had booked us a private room and you could hear the traditional music playing in the pub underneath. We were still surrounded by forrest. If I wanted to see a unique side of Ireland I definitely found it, and I loved it. We stopped back into the pub once more before bed since I wanted to see the music, but it was a little too packed for a birthday party. We definitely stood out with our hiker clothes and hiker hobble, but I'm sure they were used to that. We saw a few familiar faces from the last hostel but didn't have a chance to talk to any since we weren't in a shared room and none of them seemed to come down to the pub, which was odd.

The next day we stood out on the small winding road through forrest with our thumbs out and a sign for Killarney, and got picked up quick. A man was heading for Killarney train station to pick up family who were visiting him from Dublin. It was about a forty minute drive plus a bit of traffic. From there we walked to where we stashed our car behind a brewery, and hit the road for Cork. We only had one night in Cork, and it seemed like there wasn't much to do besides shopping or driving out of the downtown area to see historical sights. At the moment I had no interest in either. I looked up a punk bar and we spent hours there, talking with locals and drinking a few pints. At one point a local asked me "so how did you even find this place, did you Google 'Cork metal bar'?"

"I Googled 'Cork punk bar,'" I responded.

Our trip experiencing Ireland off the beaten path was definitely something I hope to do again. And I will still be thinking about finding my Third Place.

Find my adventures on Instagram at @realdesertgirlshit

All work here is protected by copyright and is not to be used without permission, proper credits, AND a usage license. For inquiries on using these stories or images please contact me through the email form. I will most likely love for you to share my work with proper compensation and permissions in place.

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