The next day, we travel along country roads that include a portion of the world-famous Wild Atlantic Bay, where the Atlantic Ocean touches the cliffs and sheep feel more at home lounging in the road than on the lush greens. The beauty of the Atlantic Ocean in Galway County is just stunning, and I wish I could take my eyes off the road and enjoy it all. As we turn inland, over bogs and through small towns, we reach a lake, and in the distance is Kylemore Abbey (Kylemore, Tel: 353-95-41146. www.kylemoreabbey.com).
Inside the visitors’ center we meet with Eithne who walks us up to this gorgeous piece of turn-of-the-century architecture. “It took four years to build it,” she says. And frankly, I’m shocked that it was built so quickly, considering the cost of transporting the materials. The roads today are insane, I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like in the late 1800s. The property was originally built as a gift for the wife of Mitchell Henry (an English doctor and heir to a textile fortune). Everything about the property was designed to impress Margaret Henry: 40,000 square feet, feminine embellishments adorning the outside (unusual), stained glass, rare stones, 70 rooms, and heated greenhouses that were so impressive they were the talk of English society. Unfortunately, Margaret didn’t get to enjoy the property for long, she died on a trip to Egypt (she’s buried in the mausoleum that you can visit), and Henry returned to England.
The new owners were the Duke and Duchess of Manchester (the Dutchess was an American). The Duke, was known to be a flamboyant character, who, through lavish parties and a gambling problem, whittled away the family’s fortune. Benedictine nuns, fleeing from WW1 Belgium, took up residence here in the 1920s and began the Kylemore School for Girls. While it is no longer a school, some of the guides did go here. The girls who lived around the school were allowed to attend for free, creating interesting dynamics. “We had girls from all over the world coming here, including wealthy Americans,” our guide says. “We got a worldview here, absorbing cultures we would rarely have been exposed to growing up in rural Ireland.”
The progressive order of nuns continues to take care of the property (along with volunteers), and you can explore the various rooms and hear all sorts of naughty stories. Check out the young-adult book K-Girls by Lydia Little, while fiction (it does involve a ghost), apparent- ly lots of the anecdotes are based on true stories. A walk around the lake reveals the Gothic Cathedral (Margaret never got to see completed). It’s gorgeous with imported marbles and sculptures (it’s not used for mass), and a cemetery filled with the remains of many of the sisters and one girl (the basis of K-Girls). The mausoleum next-door contains Margaret and Henry and their daughter, who also tragically died near the Abbey in a horse-carriage accident.
Take the shuttle bus to discover the greenhouses while you are here. Though they were left in disrepair, the sisters have worked tirelessly to preserve what is left, and your imagination will run wild thinking about the guests walking through the heated glass palaces filled with exotica like bananas and pineapples—of course this was when they weren’t swept up into pteridomania (the fern-hunting craze that captured the free time of wealthy ladies).
Leaving Kylemore, we begin the long drive to Cork (thankfully just on the motorway), and enter the city center through Hot Wheels–track streets clearly not built for modern-day cars. University of Cork students laugh with friends over pints of beer, older men sit smoking pipes, and buskers play Irish music, all undeterred by the light rain. “Could this get anymore Irish?” I rhetorically ask.
Through wrought iron gates, we crawl up a steep driveway. In front of us is a brilliant country home, Hayfield Manor Hotel (Cork, Tel: 322-213-32122. www.hayfieldmanor.com). Its brick façade is covered in color-changing leafy ivy. The red carpet is literally rolled out as we enter into the spacious lobby and are greeted with a sherry.
We’re then led upstairs to our monster suite that features two separate bathrooms (his and his). Tom gets the one with a Jacuzzi, and I get the one with a steam shower. We’re in heaven.
A bottle of bubbly chills on our dining room table that is filled with all sorts of treats. The fireplace in the living room is on, and, as we walk into our bedroom, we discover chocolate-dipped strawberries and a card that reads, “Happy Birthday Mr. Pedro.”
The following morning, Brendan Vacations arranges for a local greeter to meet us. After giving us a basic overview, he tells us about LGBT-specific places and events including the annual Pride (www.corkpride.com) that began in 2005 and now takes place each July. Knowing of our interests, he contacted a friend who had photos from one of the first prides here, and went above and beyond to find out all he could about gay life in the city.
That night, Tom warns me before we head out to meet his friends at a place called Sober Lane (Sullivans Quay, Tel: 02-1467-7217. www.soberlane.ie) that they like to take a craic (the wit and good humor Irish people are known for). And he’s right. One beer turns to dozens, and I’m blessed with humiliating stories about Tom’s college years at an alarmingly quick rate. The bar’s alive too for a Tuesday, as the back patio (complete with a nook filled with couches and video games) fills with thirsty college kids.
Afterward, we head to the only gay bar in town called Chambers (Washington St, Tel: +353-21-465-8100. www.chambers.ie). It’s a mess. Packed to the gills with super-super-drunk kids. Luckily, we’re on their level (it’s my birthday!). I strongly suggest going here after a mighty pregame. JELL-O shots plop, pints pour, drag queens fall, boys kiss, and people sweat—all on a Tuesday. Best of all, the crowd is as Tom’s friend says, lig dom agus ligfidh mé duit (let me be, and I’ll let you be).
As fun as seeing the Blarney Stone sounded like before my birth- day night, the thought of hanging upside down to kiss a stone wasn’t in the cards for us in the morning. We call down for breakfast and the hotel sets up a beautiful meal. I steam while Tom Jacuzzis, and we enjoy the morning in the suite, including the in-room put-put golf!
It’s a commonly cool and rainy day, and I begrudgingly get the full Tom’s University of Cork–life tour. I soon learn that it’s a beautiful campus only steps past the hotel’s estuary with impressive gates, Old World buildings, and a diverse student body.
Afterward, we walk the streets along the River Lee, curiously walk- ing into Urban Remains (13a Lancaster Quay Cork. www.facebook.com/urbanremainscork) a two-story treasure trove of oddities, antiques, religious iconography, and just-for-fun souvenirs. The best part is, in typical Irish fashion, the owners just lets you wonder, so it gives the feeling like you’re snooping through a friend’s house, and a sign that reads: “You Are Welcome to Bring a Drink in From Reidys Wine Vault.”
Nearby, Records and Relics (14 Lancaster Quay. www.facebook.com/recordsandrelics) is another trendy store reminiscent of yesteryear with new and classic records, and all sorts of fun gifts (hello Father Ted T-shirt). The pedestrian-only streets are filled with the hustle and bustle of small city life. An Old English Market sits in the center of town where fresh cheeses, butchery, and fish are proudly displayed. We grab a wine upstairs and check out the action below.
“Cork’s gay scene has become increasingly integrated into bars throughout the city,” Moira from UCC’s LGBT group tells me. “We’ve lost a big part of LGBT history when the iconic bar Loafers shut its doors at the end of last year,” she adds. Places though are increasingly hosting LGBT-specific evenings, like Ted’s (13 Douglas St., Tel: 353- 21-241-5328. www.tedsbar.ie), that hosts a weekly party. Additionally the LGBT society from the UCC has events throughout the city, including at the local breweries.
Back at the hotel, we have an epic meal at their signature restaurant, Orchids, where our adorable gay waiter can’t help but treat us like stars in the all-white, plush dining room. Feasting on market-fresh cheeses, scallops, and lamb, we happily return to our suite and pack for our drive back to Dublin in the morning.
Returning our Enterprise Rent-A-Car, we sadly say our goodbyes to the Jetta that has taken us to so many fascinating places. Walking through cosmopolitan Dublin, I think back to our guide at Kylemore Abbey. “He built this house to show off Ireland. To tell the English Ireland’s story, and the high society that Ireland is just as happening and just as beautiful as Victorian England, but also that this island is unique in its identity and its individuality. This country eventually rose from years of British rule, but managed to hold on to its thousands of years of history and culture to continue to carve a path of its own.”
Looking back at my trip, journeying down sheep-filled country roads, exploring castle grounds, partying at inclusive LGBT spots, and now wandering the streets of Dublin, I think of Ireland as a place whose roads themselves embody the spirit of the country—curving, expanding, new, old, and connected to the beat of an island that encourages visitors to explore and discover the unexpected.