Ireland the way you imagined it
Breda met me in front of the butcher shop and led my car down a road so narrow a moonbeam would need daylight to find it.
Then we arrived at Thomas Lynch's whitewashed ancestral cottage.
It had stone floors. It had horses out back. It had branches scattered in the courtyard because of a recent fitful storm. February clouds marched across the pale sky.
"It's nice in the summer, oh, it's nice," she said, standing in the cold 200-year-old kitchen.
I nodded at the caretaker. I could see that it already was.
This place, a muse for Milford poet, essayist and funeral director Lynch since 1970, has made him a lifelong fan of County Clare in this magical part of western Ireland called the Shannon region. He inherited the cottage in 1992 from an aunt.
"To have a little house smack dab on the peninsula between the Atlantic and the Shannon estuary has never lost its romance for me," says Lynch, who visits two or three times a year.
"The idea that I can look out the window the same as my great-grandfather did and see the same landscape ... there are maybe a few more lights, but it's the same."
Shannon is just minutes from western Ireland's castles and scenery in County Clare and County Limerick that tourists drive hours and hours from Dublin to see.
Most breathtaking is the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland's biggest natural tourist attraction.
The coastal towns of Doolin and Kilkee, the golfing mecca of Lahinch and the Burren town of Lisdoonvarna all are easily drivable. Bunratty Castle Folk Park with its 15th-Century castle is just 10 minutes from the airport.
I also made a side trip to nearby Limerick to see the newly renovated visitor experience exhibit at King John's Castle.
I stayed at the famous Old Ground Hotel in the market town of Ennis for US$120 a night. I stayed at the pretty Bunratty Castle Hotel for US$100. Crowds were few. I was one of only about 20 visitors at the Cliffs of Moher.
The mid-February temperature? About 10 degrees, windy and mostly sunny.
Best of all, Ireland's notoriously treacherous driving was easy. I saw few other cars, which was probably lucky for the other drivers.
High tourist season in Ireland is now through the end of August. But go a few weeks before or after, and you can see what the place is like when it's not putting on a show.
When Lynch's friends come to visit County Clare, he urges them to take a drive from the Loop Head Lighthouse all the way north along the Atlantic Ocean to Galway.
"You won't find a better drive," says Lynch, whose favourite months here are September and October, when crowds thin and the weather is mild. "I've known it for 45 years but just tried to stay quiet about it."
Ironically, many of Lynch's secret sights are part of a new tourist trail in Ireland called the Wild Atlantic Way, which encourages tourists to drive the majestic sections along 1,500 miles of Ireland's rugged west coast - including spots about a mile from Lynch's cottage.
What souvenirs does he recommend? Does anyone actually wear a warm, wool cable Irish sweater when they get home? "They look really nice on kids," he says.
He also used to bring porcelain Belleek china home to his mother and grandmother, "and I loved it for its frailties," he says. "But you know what really is a gift to me is a block of turf thrown in a fire in northern Michigan, and Knock holy water." Turf is a block of peat that is often burned for fuel in Ireland, and Knock Shrine holy water is known for its healing powers.
In this land of Irish football, where, in my opinion, the best foods are cream, whipped cream, brown bread and Jameson's whisky, Lynch feels at home. Iin Michigan, people do know him as a poet, mortician and a runner-up for the National Book Award. But in Ireland, poets have special standing.
"Everyone in the United States is glad we have poets in the same way as they are glad we have clean drinking water," he says. "But in Ireland, being a poet is considered good, honest labour."
This part of Ireland is famed for its music and fiddling, its rugged landscape and its wild coastline - all variations of poetry.
"You know that last scene in the movie when Dr. Zhivago dies and the brother has the funeral for him in Moscow, and they say, 'No one loves poetry like Russians, and no one loves poets like Russians'? You can say the same thing about Ireland," Lynch says.
In fact, when he used to visit his Aunt Nora, who lived in the family cottage before she died and left it to Lynch, Nora told the neighbours they were welcome to come visit - but not during the day, because her nephew the poet was working.
STAY: Off-season, stay in charming Ennis or Bunratty or at Dromoland Castle; in-season you may have to stay in a smaller town or look for a vacation rental. Nature lovers will like Doolin, near the Cliffs of Moher. Golfers gravitate to Lahinch, which has one of the greatest links courses in the world. More out of the way are lodgings on the Loop Head Peninsula.
CAR RENTAL: In Ireland, you must budget enough money to get full insurance coverage on your car. Your credit card car-rental insurance won't work.
ITINERARY: Plan where you want to go, then cut the itinerary in half. Don't drive too far each day; what looks like a highway on a map is actually a winding two-lane road. What looks like a two-lane road may be one lane.
TOURS: Most escorted tours of Ireland try to cover way too much ground. Look for something like the small-group West Coast and Islands Tour through Celtic Journeys.
MONEY: Ireland uses the euro, which currently is at a decent exchange rate of $1.61 to 1 euro. Get money from the ATM when you arrive at the airport in Ireland.
FROM SHANNON ONWARD: Use Shannon International Airport as a good jumping-off point for Britain and Europe. I flew onward to London Gatwick on Ryanair. Ryanair also now allows a free carry-on bag. Aer Lingus also flies to Europe and Britain from Shannon.
7 GREAT SHANNON-AREA SIGHTS
Here are seven great spots easily reachable from Shannon International Airport, all in County Clare and Limerick.
Cliffs of Moher: Ireland's most visited natural sight. Soaring 702 feet above the crashing sea, the cliffs stand sentinel for 5 miles. The interesting visitors centre is built into the hillside and is nearly invisible from the outside. cliffsofmoher.ie.
Ennis: Old market town with winding, photogenic streets, just 20 minutes from the airport. Good base for exploring the region. County seat of Clare. visitennis.com.
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park: Featuring a 15th-Century Medieval Banquet with wenches and an Irish Night with step dancers, the castle dinners play into tourist expectations - but it is fun, and the folk park with its historic cottages is an authentic window into Ireland's past. shannonheritage.com.
Doolin (and Aran Islands): Wonderful hiking along this coast; lots of castle ruins and sweeping vistas. Cute village. The ferry to Ireland's Aran Islands leaves from here. doolin-tourism.com.
Lahinch to Kilkee and Loop Head Peninsula: Lahinch is a golfing mecca, and you can see its famous links course right next to the road if you are not lucky enough to play it. Kilkee is an old-fashioned Victorian seaside town, and the Loop Head Lighthouse is the farthest point west in Clare. loophead.ie.
Lisdoonvarna and the Burren: This normally quiet town is known for its boisterous matchmaking festival each fall, and it's a gateway to the Burren - the wildest part of Clare, with distinctive limestone rock covering mountains and valleys in lumps and knobs. burrennationalpark.ie
King John's Castle and the Hunt Museum, Limerick: King John is cast as the villain in "Robin Hood," but that was the least of his problems. Great new high-tech visitors centre helps you understand the bloody history of this part of Ireland. Stop at the nearby Hunt Museum to see archaeological treasures; I liked the bronze-age pots from 800 BC dug up in Ireland best. shannonheritage.com and huntmuseum.com.