Wool &Whiskey – Ireland Edition, Final Days

I might be saving the best for last. County Kerry is one of the largest and most frequently visited areas of Ireland. It’s easy to see why. Miles of scenic, jagged coastline juxtaposed with the country’s highest mountains, generous lakes interspersed in between – it’s dramatic landscape.

Up until this point, I’d had a very neutral response to the landscape here. Green, certainly yes, and dotted with cows and occasional sheep. Houses are modest and small towns remain at a scale where you could park your car at any one, walk the high street for a few minutes and find anything you might need. Pharmacy, hardware store, cafe or two. Cities larger and certainly bustling (Cork, Dublin, even Longford). In fact, I’ve thought long and hard about how the word “modest” comes to mind repeatedly. With the exception of Dublin and near a wealthy town called Adare, I observed very few expensive cars or motorcycles, few outlandishly huge homes, few uber-expensive shops. Just regular people, living regular lives on a modest scale. Those living in grandeur, like at Longueville, Roundwood, and Longmont houses where we stayed, are more keepers of the place than owners. They live modestly on the property or nearby. I do not know if that impression I’ve gained is accurate or not. It’s simply my impression. The landscape too, has been modest. Neither huge and imposing nor harsh nor particularly noteworthy. It is green, occasionally rich, occasionally bog instead, full of things that grow without much effort in the gentle light and frequent, variable rain. The most impactful and intriguing element in my visit up until now has been the people I’ve met.

Until now. County Kerry is where the landscape suddenly becomes larger and more impactful than any other single element in the experience. And if you know me, you know that’s likely to be where I’m happiest.

I left Doolin reluctantly. I was so glad to be by the sea. I didn’t want to turn my car or my attention away from it at all. But I had a place to find that day, before heading south to my next hotel in County Kerry. The owner at Vibes & Scribes, Joan, had connected us earlier in the week with a sheep farm from whom she sources organic, locally grown wool. Now I was to find and meet up with the woman who will be doing the dye work on their Vibes yarn in order to keep the process local and organic. So I programmed a town name (Whitechurch? Whitehall? Whitethorn?) into google maps, bid a fond farewell to the booming Atlantic and hit the road.

Have I mentioned how narrow the roads are in Ireland? Yes, just like in the UK. It would be stressful to drive them except for this one thing: because they are so narrow, and because you are supposed to be driving them much faster than you think you are, you constantly feel like a race car driver. It’s actually fun! Once behind the wheel, I picture myself as a guest on the British tv show Top Gear, competing on their racetrack in a “reasonably priced car”. I tell ya, I’m ready to compete!

I was able to find Jennifer and Tristan’s place, which is the home of Apple Oaks Fibre Works, only because she advised me to “follow the signs for the cemetery and then we’re the third house after, with boat and van”. It really was in the middle of nowhere. They have a tiny place, three kids, are in the process of trying to buy their own home with land, and are running home and business all on top of each other. Boy, did that look familiar! So reminded me of years living on Camino San Patricio in a tiny house with kids, dogs, cat, rabbits, chickens, creative work being done on the kitchen table and then squirreled away before dinnertime… Jennifer does beautiful dye work. It’s color produced from natural materials like woad, sage, lovage, elderberrry, indigo, etc. Her colors are fantastic. (I highly recommend taking a look here at their etsy store https://www.etsy.com/shop/AppleoakFibreWorks? ). We had a nice visit. Jennifer has graciously agreed to provide workshops for our travelers when we are in her area. Our hope is to trace the path of Vibes yarn from sheep to finished yarn while visiting in Ireland. Since it’s the only yarn we’ve found that is produced completely in Ireland, it’s a great way to show people what’s going on in the country. However, for Apple Oaks Fibre Works, Jennifer works with a wide range of fiber bases, including wool, silk, yak, linen and cotton. Her yarn is scrumptious. We will be very lucky to get to spend a day dyeing with her in the future!

Sorry, no pics. Partly I was too busy talking, looking, thinking. Partly for privacy reasons, as the work of Apple Oaks Fibre Works is all done from their home.

Then I headed south for about three and a half hours. Stopped once for food, driving down the narrowest street yet and encountered a cafe I thought would be raw food, but instead was a reference to the raw materials used in their interior furnishings business. Ah, that same-words-different-meanings thing again. Always makes me chuckle.

Finally, finally, finally, I came around a corner and there before me, spread out at the foot of some surprisingly tall mountains, was the town of Killarney. “Wow!” I thought. “It’s like any mountain town in Colorado. But next to the sea. And in Ireland. And with Irish buildings instead of miners’ shacks and turn of the 19th century stone buildings.”

Several crazy moments of trying to drive in a town again and then I found a place to park, my hotel and had lugged my (now seriously heavy) suitcase up to my room. Over the next couple days, I kicked around Killarney, both walking the town and driving in the area. My first morning I just wandered, getting to know the layout and the feel of the place. In the afternoon, I had an appointment to go visit Kerry Woolen Mills, about a half hour away. Another amazing find! Different from Cushendale in the north in that it was much larger and seems to create a wider range of yarns and textiles. I met with one of the owners,Yvonne, who generously showed me around the place following the order of wool’s arrival at the mill (cscoured and in large bales), through fluffing, dyeing, color mixing, carding into pencil roving, spinning machines and on to the weaving looms. In fact, they also produce sweaters on huge knitting machines, but not at the County Kerry location. We also had quite a frank talk about the use of Irish-grown wool (“We can’t use more than 50% Irish wool because people won’t wear the stuff. Also, we have no scouring facility here. Irish wool from has to be shipped to northern England for scouring and then back again.”) and how Brexit is going to affect the few mills and producers in Ireland. I appreciated the effort that Kerry Woolen Mills has made and continues to make to produce authentic Irish textiles. They are family owned – Yvonne married into the second generation of current owners – and have been a local employer for hundreds of years. I’m happy to see the mill is robust, creative and flexible enough to sustain themselves in this modern world of fickle customers, complex trade and sourcing relationships, and political maneuvering. Their shop onsite was a delight. I spent a long time wandering around in it. You’d think after all the visits of the last few weeks I’d be sick of wool and woolen products. But these were of such fine quality, it was a joy to browse and handle everything from wool to cashmere to mohair. The shop offered their own products and a selection of goods made by other Irish artisans and textile producers. Worth mentioning: Kerry Woolen Mills has been part of an effort to create a county-wide craft trail that incorporates potteries, metalworkers, artists, etc. Sigh… So many makers, such limited time!

After leaving there, I attempted to drive to Kenmare to visit the Lace and Design Center. The route I took turned out to be a portion of the famous Ring of Kerry road. I’d thought the road would all be coastal. Instead, it starts by leaving Killarney and threads its way up into the nearby mountains. I drove through the designated national park (more like a city park, really) and soon found myself in some spectacular mountains and among quiet lakes.

At one point I thought I’d take a secondary road over to Kenmare. Ha! The road quickly became a rutted mess. I turned my tiny car around on a tiny road, praying all the while that I didn’t do some terrible damage and render myself stranded. A bit stressful, yes, but oh so delightfully free of any other traffic or humans!

I drove the (designated) curvy route to Kenmare. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to visit the lace and design museum. Instead, I turned the car to retrace the way I came, found a quiet pub in Killarney for dinner and an Irish coffee and called it a day.

The next morning I was up early and ready for another adventure. Despite the rain, I was determined to drive either the Ring of Kerry or the road out to the Dingle Peninsula. I opted for the second. Turns out County Kerry is the place from which the Irish portion of the Sugrue family (including that name, which is quite common in this area) emigrated to America. The Sugrues are my ex-husband’s family. Their great-great grandmother(?) on their dad’s side came from Anascaul, just near the town of Dingle itself. I couldn’t come so near to the place and then not actually go there! It’s part of my kids’ heritage! Plus I’ve always been curious about it. From the maps, it looks like it’s right on the coast. I always pictured it to be a fishing village. In fact, as I’d find out later that day, my mental picture of Anascaul was completely inaccurate. It’s not by the sea but up in the mountains! Not a fishing village at all, but more agricultural and has the feel of a mountain town. Once again, Ireland surprised me by being not what I pictured, but something entirely different…

So I set off on my drive, along tiny, country roads even though I was on the famed “Wild Atlantic Way”, a series of roads that hug the coast of Ireland from southeast County Cork to far northwest County Donegal. It wasn’t long before I was hungry for lunch and ready to stretch my legs. I pulled of at Inch Strand (or beach). What a fantastic place to happen upon without planning! First food, then a long, long walk on what seemed to be an endless stretch of white sand, distant mountains, ever changing sky, grassy dunes. Light and dark shadows moving across all of it, with rain bursting out then sun, then rain again. Heaven.

Then I was off again. Next stop, Anascaul, right? Nope. First I found a great little quilting shop and had to stop there. Then I was on to Anascaul.

Turning away from the coast, the road began to climb up into the mountains. Very soon I found myself in Anascaul, marveling at the greenery and sweet feel of the place.

I did drive all the way to Dingle. It’s another sweet town, lively with shops and boats and all manner of lodging. Then I returned to Killarney for an early evening of gathering my stuff and my thoughts, writing and figuring out logistics for my final day (the next) during which I’d need to drive back north, return my car and catch an early flight out from Shannon airport.

The next day, I did just that. Stopped in a little town called Adare, for lunch and a bit of a walk to break up the drive.

By this time, however, my mind was well into the journey home. I returned my rental car – always with a sigh of relief – took a taxi to my last night’s hotel, enjoyed a nice dinner, repacked everything as best I could and set the alarm for 5:00 am. I wrote a bit for posting. I tossed and turned, concerned I would miss my alarm or that my taxi wouldn’t show up. But the alarm went off as planned, the taxi showed up as ordered, and I was checking my baggage at the Aer Lingus ticket counter before I knew it. Wool & Whiskey – Ireland Edition, plus scouting days, completed. And heading home.

I do still have further thoughts to share about my time in Ireland – random observations on the feel of the place, things I learned, and the situation regarding wool in Ireland. Coming your way soon.

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