TOURING THE TERRIBLE BEAUTY

We were driving south from Shannon Airport, heading for tiny Kenmare, in County Kerry, not far from Ireland's fabled southwest coast, the land of the Ring of Kerry, Bantry Bay, Valencia Island and the isolated but magnificent Dingle Peninsula.

Christina the Lawyer had rented a 150-year-old farmhouse on thirty isolated acres. It came with two stone barns, horses, a flock of sheep and peat fireplaces in every room, including the kitchen.

At this moment, I wasn't concerned how the farmhouse might turn out. But I was nervous, and for good reason.

We had just come from the safe cocoon of an Aer Lingus 747 airplane to a seat behind the wheel of a tiny four-cylinder Nissan. I was horrified to find that its steering wheel was on the right, complete with a left-handed stick shift.

What lay ahead after the twelve-hour plane ride was a four-hour trip on what for American drivers is the wrong side of the road. Complicating the driving was the fact that in Ireland, the narrow roads are lined alternately with either twelve-foot-high hedgerows or ancient stonewalls. The roads twist and turn, sometimes it seems in almost a full figure eight.

From nowhere, rambling groups of sheep or cows can suddenly appear directly in your path.

Without exaggeration, most of Ireland's roads aren't wide enough to allow two full-size cars to encounter each other from opposite directions without risk of collision. Taking no chances until I could become adept at steering the car, I drove as far over on my side of the road as possible.

"You're too far over to the left," observed Christina the Lawyer, wryly. "You'll sideswipe those parked cars ahead."

I hadn't seen the parked cars. I was too busy making sure of avoiding the speeding cars headed my way on the busy road leading from the airport.

Now, I expected to hear paint scraping as I barely eased by the parked cars. But I continued without veering. There was a huge Guinness Beer truck barreling down the road straight at us.

"Pretty close call," I said, attempting to both calm my own fear and bring attention to my skill at avoiding the truck.

"Look out for the baby carriage," I heard, almost in reply. "You're still much too far over to the left."

"Wasn't even close," I said as the baby carriage went off in the distance in my rearview mirror.

I had managed to miss both the baby carriage and the mother who was pushing it down the side of the road.

"All right," Christina the Prosecutor asked, "How many babies did you see in that carriage?"

"Two," I said, briskly.
"That's right. You're still driving too close to the left side of the road."

"I'm driving right on the center line on my side," I said.
"I don't care," she replied. "You're still too far over on this side."

It took days before we were finally able to talk and laugh about those first hours on Irish roads. We were taking an afternoon hike on a trail over bridges and along tree-lined roads outside the town of Kenmare that Christina had heard about from one of the locals.

She assured me it would be just a "short walk" to work up an appetite for dinner.

"It'll be good for your cholesterol count," she promised. I didn't know we had come to Ireland to fight cholesterol. I usually accomplish that at home by listening to the radio as Pat McMahon talks about successful his diet has been.

After we had walked three hours, I noticed that we were still heading farther from town. Christina the Lawyer, although a demon in the courtroom, has a notoriously bad sense of direction. The road we were trudging along was so untraveled that we hadn't encountered either a car or a pedestrian for more than an hour.

"Let's turn back," I said, "it's getting dark and it's starting to rain."
Christina the Lawyer shot me a look that told me what a wimp I was being and announced, "There's a turnoff just ahead according to the map." She kept walking straight on. Rain began to fall. By now, we had walked more than a mile up a long hill until we reached the top of a rise.

Everything around us as far as we could see was deep green. There were ancient trees, thick and tall, and fields crowded with sheep, cows and horses. Each piece of farm property seemed to be bordered by thick stonewalls.

The temperature had dropped more than twenty degrees since we started out. It was a good thing we were both wearing hats and windbreakers.

I didn't dare ask to turn home again. But after examining the view, Christina was satisfied. We headed for home. Her "little hike" had taken close to five hours.

Small-business people in towns like Kenmare, where we stayed, don't seem to have a profit motivation.

Try to change money with a commercial moneychanger and he is quite likely to advise you that you'll get a better exchange at the bank next door.

Pick up a highly regarded novel like Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French in a bookstore and the owner is liable to tell you that she attempted to read it but found it such heavy going she had to put it down.

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