VOL. 23: In the Quiet Heart of Clare

written by Tom Coyne | photograph by Gately Williams

There used to be a road here.

You won’t find it on any map, unless you’re a history detective or an archival sleuth, and probably not even then. It wouldn’t have been more than a sandy path through dunes, the only record of its existence a thin black line on a land survey from 1787.

The road would have been the scenic route along the edge of the sea, and it would have been traveled by the faithful who celebrated Mass in secret between the dunes. Soldiers, shepherds, and landlords followed its path as it curled its way around a crescent of sand, a beach that over centuries had been touched by earthquake, revolution, and world war.

Two hundred years after the beach road disappeared, there is a new path here. It is a windy route of sand and slopes and waving grasses, a track traveled by pilgrims from around the world. It is a new but old path, where you feel the years all around you as you ponder the possibilities past the next hill. The denizens of the small coastal village of Doonbeg, Ireland, call it the golf course.

The Irish refer to Donegal as “the forgotten county.” For me that forgotten county was Clare. I had been told that the corners and crannies of Clare made it far more than a pass-through, a county with every site, scene, and side of Ireland a visitor might hope to discover. So on my latest visit to Ireland, I headed for a small village along Clare’s jagged coastline to see for myself.

Doonbeg is a place you might pass through before you realize you’ve been there. Five pubs, a church, a gas pump,
a small market, cattle farms, and a golf course—all the staples of life in a few hundred yards, with a slow river slipping through the bottom of town and the remaining walls of Doonbeg castle anchoring the end of Main Street.

Past the village you return to a countryside of fields and fences, but in the distance, out by the water’s edge, there’s a surprise rising out of the pastures. The coastline of Doonbeg looks as if it has been squeezed upward like dough, the smooth, green land bursting into hulking mounds of sand and grass. And nestled in those massive dunes there sits a miracle—a castle, a fortress, a manor house, or is it a mirage? A few miles away from its entrance, the tall slate, stone, and even thatch of the Doonbeg Lodge draw you closer like a song.

The Lodge was the creation of architect John Denton Hailey and opened in 2006, but when I walked through the door, it felt like a trip to a fine old Irish country manor, the sweet smell of peat smoke from the fireplace flavoring the salt air. The thatched entry cottage roof and the carefully tended garden; the tall ceilings, deep couches, and dark wood of the members’ bar; the huge paned windows overlooking the course and a first tee beside the pub that pointed my eyes toward a pocket of fairway tucked between five-story dunes—something unexpected was happening beside this quiet village in Clare.

“They’ve blended the best of an American approach with the best of the Irish in a unique way no one has ever pulled off,” a Doonbeg Club member explained as we sipped pints of Guinness in the bar. He was referring to the American cousins/developers, Buddy Darby and Leonard Long, who had transformed seaside cow pastures to one of the most dramatic of modern European golf resorts, adorned with Greg Norman’s ultimate jewel. It seemed an apt description: Irish hospitality, the peacefulness of an Irish pace of life, blended with detail and can-do comforts of American five-star resort amenities. Stunning golf holes, late stories in the bar, and sushi on Wednesday nights—an Irish-American formula working in Doonbeg. For an Irish-American golfer on the road, the place felt like a big cocoon of happiness.

Links golf is golf. When you play one, you are teeing it up with the ghosts of the game. Links golf reminds you that golf isn’t meant to be played beside or over a landscape; it’s meant to be played with one. The game is the land, the grass, the sea, the wind. A links explodes with imagination—every shot, every moment, suggests a thousand possibilities. When you play a links, you play, in the ten-year-old sense of the word, and if you can walk off the links in Doonbeg without a smile on your face, then you’ve forgotten how to play.

The opening par-five at Doonbeg is a wide-armed invitation, a deep hole that sweeps you downward and away from the clubhouse inviting you to begin your journey toward a green nestled perfectly on three sides with high sandy hills.

The tee shots become more intimidating from there, but for all the dramatic carries and curious suggestions from my caddy (“Hit it over that hill? Really? There’s something over there?”), Greg Norman’s routing was sneaky fair, a links with generous landing areas. The tee box views may tighten your throat a bit, but there’s plenty of space over that mound or around that corner to feel as if you could play it.

I lost only one ball at Doonbeg, fewer than I expected to leave behind on a links. The course blends Mother Nature raw with man-made dramatic in ways pleasing to both links purists and golf thrill-seekers. The par three fourteenth, with its tiny green stuck like a saucer to the side of a dune, was the most fun I’ve ever had hitting a flip wedge. The closing walk up to the castle of a clubhouse was like playing golf along the
world’s ultimate infinity pool, an endless ocean tight against the fairway’s edge. And I loved that on the fifteenth I said hello to two passing surfers and a young couple walking their pack of terriers, all crossing the course to the beach. Whether we were there to walk or surf or swim or golf, we were there to feel this uncommon stretch of land under our feet. That made for a special round, one where you feel fortunate for every swing and less concerned about drawing the right numbers
on your scorecard.

It is a lovely way to play.

There used to be a road here.

If I had followed it a few miles south, I would have found the summer town of Kilkee, its crowded pubs, Victorian facades, and restaurants perched above the water. From its main intersection, you have a wide view of the sun setting over the waves below.

“There! There it is—can you see it?”

An excited Irishman in a red jersey pointed toward the water. I was busy reading my map, but it seemed he was talking to me. I had no idea why.

“There she blows! Whale. See it? See it cresting, right there?”

And there it was. A small splash of white water in the harbor was my first whale-spotting.

“I see it!” I said, grabbing my camera. I began firing away at the gray hump in the ocean, snapping shots of the waves breaking over its back. It took me a moment to figure out why the hump wasn’t moving, why the kindly Irish gentleman was laughing so … and why I now had a dozen pictures of a rock in the harbor. But it was a whale of a rock. Heading east from Kilkee, you soon arrive at the market square in Kilrush, a town busy with shops and pubs. You can’t find a bad bowl of chowder or a bad piece of brown bread in Ireland, and that truth was confirmed along the square in Crotty’s pub, where it would be easy to lose an afternoon trading stories in one of its dark and cozy snugs.

Just outside Kilrush, the Vandeleur Walled Garden was a portrait of the beauty of Ireland beyond its seascapes, a change of pace from wind-whipped dunes to quiet, manicured greenery, with tropical flowers and a hedge maze, a sort of Gaelic fairy tale.

Ten minutes outside of Kilkee, the rental car was rolling up and down seaside hills and bending around farmers’ fields as I headed for a lesser-known corner of Clare. Every tourist had pictures from the Cliffs of Moher and the Ring of Kerry; I wanted to be of the fortunate few who knew the coast road along the peninsula that ended at Loop Head.

The jagged black cliffs guiding me to the southern tip of Clare made Ireland feel like a chunk of granite that had been hacked away at the edges. The sea cliffs weren’t just long free falls—they were towering black sculptures with shape and slope, with ocean tunnels and ancient crannies and cold stone lagoons. Jagged outcroppings broke the waves like giant axes. In a moment’s glance, I felt a sensation of the eternity of water and wind that shaped this ancient coastline.

The road out to Clare’s southernmost point was full of seagulls spinning on the air, diving in and out of the cliffs while white water crashed against indifferent rocky walls. Maybe it was the fair weather, or that the route felt so undiscovered, but as I traveled along the coast to Loop Head, peering through rock arches and looking out over a line of cliffs that cut up the ocean like sharp knuckles, I felt small, in the warmest kind of way.

The Loop Head lighthouse was operating, but I opted against the walk up to its bright turning beacon. The cliff beside the lighthouse was tall enough for me. I settled down in the grass atop the edge of Ireland, and I looked back across the green and black coastline of Clare, fishing boats dotting the calm waters and sea birds gliding on the breeze.

THE DOONBEG GOLF SHOP had an unexpected connection to my hometown of Philadelphia. Head pro, Brian Shaw, is an Irishman who played his college golf in Philly at La Salle University. Brian has red hair like myself (a ginger, as the Irish might call us), with a big laugh and an ability to hold three conversations at once—arranging tee times, passing on gossip, giving pre-round pep talks, and figuring out that we had a dozen friends in common. He knew everybody. And he certainly knew the gentleman I was waiting for in the Golf Shop, my Doonbeg guide for the day.

“Tony’s a character,” Brian explained, smiling as if he could envision my afternoon. “You’ll be in good hands.”

And after a few hours touring Doonbeg with my new friend, it became clear to me that, should I have the chance
to come back in the next life, I might like to come back here. But only if I might return as Tony Pender.

Tony was one of the four Doonbeg farmers who sold their total of 405 acres for construction of the golf course and lodge. When I met him outside the Golf Shop he didn’t look like a farmer. Fifty-something and dressed in stylish Euro jeans and dress shirt, he was fit, fast-moving, nothing of that Irish farmer in muddy old boots prodding his cattle down the lane. Formerly a prison official in Limerick who ran the family cattle farm in Doonbeg, Tony, with his gourmet wife Maeve, oversee Links Lodge, a charming guesthouse, a three-wood from the golf course. He greeted me like we had just played eighteen holes yesterday: “Tom, how you getting on. Ready to go?” We set out to meet the faces of West Clare. And like Brian in the Golf Shop, Tony seemed to know all of them.

Walking through the village, we couldn’t go ten paces without stopping to share an inside joke or catch up on the news. I asked Tony how it was possible that he was not only friendly with everyone in the village, but also with their friends and relatives as well. He knew who was well, who was looking for work, who might have an old tractor for sale.

“I don’t want to make it sound like an arrogant kind of a thing,” Tony explained, almost apologizing. “It’s a small village. If you were from Doonbeg, if you grew up here, you would likely know me, you know? Because of the football probably.”

Tony is best known to many locals as a footballer, not the European or American football, but the Gaelic variety: a violently graceful blend of rugby, soccer, and a bar fight. Fifteen players bounce, kick, and pass a round ball down a sprawling playing field—kick or punch it into the goal, three points; over the goal, one point. It’s a beautiful game, and along with hurling (another spectacle of a sport—think field hockey, but the ball hardly touches the ground), Irish football is a source of massive national pride. The all-Ireland championship in Dublin draws over 80,000 fans—a stunning number, considering the sport is played exclusively by amateurs: farmers, prison wardens, innkeepers. Gentlemen like Tony.

Not quite six feet tall, Tony didn’t seem goalie-sized, though his friends regaled me about his legendary leg for getting the ball out and kicking it downfield. He was a part of some of the most acclaimed teams from Doonbeg. The game seemed as important to the village as fishing and farming.Team photographs covered the pub walls, and the standby conversation was about what the junior team had done the night before, or what to expect from Mayo in tomorrow’s huge match. Would our lads be coming under a bit of pressure! Or would they go on to glory?

At Tubridy’s pub in the heart of the village, I met proprietor Tommy Tubridy, another football legend who had coached local youth teams. The walls were covered with yellowed news clippings from football glories past, some of the blurry team photos featuring Tommy and Tony in younger years. Tommy was a close friend of Tony’s who explained, “Tony fought hard for the golf course to get planning permission as much as anyone. He’s one of the heroes of the whole thing.”

Tommy’s son David was pulling pints behind the bar when I visited, and after his shift finished at seven, he was off to train with his Gaelic football team. Tommy and I talked a little more football, and it struck me how two former football heroes of yesteryear, Tony and Tommy, had helped bring golf to their hometown, and now, to the attention of the world—their village boasts the title 2010 European Golf Resort of the Year. Golf and Gaelic football could not be two more different pastimes, but sport matters in Doonbeg. Not only does it matter, but it changes things. Football changed things for young men growing up in a leaner Ireland, and a golf course has changed things now. For everyone.

As Tony and I toured the village and knocked on doors, it became clear why small Irish villages that seemed little more than a few tidy cottages, a tractor, and a Guinness sign, held such magic for visitors like me. Not two minutes from the Lodge, Tony asked me to pull over beside a small farmhouse to meet Kathleen and Sean Flanagan and their son, John. We arrived unannounced but were soon “very welcomed” into their home for a cup of tea. I had siblings in America who would have eyed such a spontaneous visit with more suspicion. Even the sheepdog cozied up by my feet, soon old friends.

Kathleen and Sean were well into their seventies; Kathleen was diabetic and had been recently diagnosed with cancer, but she insisted we come in and spend some time—it wasn’t a bother, not at all. She gave us each a slice of cake she unwrapped from the freezer, something for a special occasion it seemed, and we sat in her cozy kitchen, all of us knee-to-knee, talking about the weather and the price of cattle. Tony asked how she was feeling. She smiled and said, “Some ladies go to the doctor because they want smaller bosoms or lots of them maybe larger ones. I just want to keep mine.” We all shared a laugh and felt comfortable enough.

“I wish the golf course was here when I was young,” Sean said when I asked his impression of their new neighbor. “I might have worked there like so many of the lads now.” Instead, he rode his bike fourteen miles a day to a job in the next village. When I stood to go, my head not far from the ceiling, Kathleen made us smile again. “Why, you’re a tall one. The sun makes Americans tall. That’s something we don’t have to worry about in Ireland.”

Tony and I made our way along Main Street, and we came upon a man who seemed to be standing watch on the corner. Tall, with heavy lines in his face, his white hair not so much messy as unbothered—his name was Padraig Haugh. He was not only a purveyor of antiques and a rare multiplicity of used goods, but also a fine poet and, not least, “lord mayor” of the town. He explained what it was about his home county of Clare, and his hometown, that inspired so much of his verse.

“We respect the land here. Look out there. Look to the ocean. The land isn’t covered up with roads and with buildings like some parts of Ireland. It’s green all the way down to the shore,” he said, pointing my attention to a long patchwork of bright fields rolling down into the dunes.

“We listen to one another,” Padraig explained. “We’re not always in a rush. We have time for a conversation.” We picked through his collectibles, in no rush at all. I bought a book of his poetry, a hundred or so poems about life in Doonbeg and West Clare. He assured me that he had volumes more, and after a few minutes in his company, I believed it.

A few paces from Padraig’s outpost was Comerford’s pub, operated by a longtime publican and pillar of the village, Tommy Comerford, who I met as he was busy unloading a mountain of peat from his tractor. Tommy had enough cut from his nearby bog to heat his home and pub through the winter; no need for gas or oil. Peat is essentially old mud, cut and dried into bricks, the Irish equivalent of coal. Ironic that so many Irish came to America to risk their lives digging for our coal when theirs was sitting on the surface back home. For me, the smoke from a peat fire is one of the most transporting scents on earth. A whiff of the earthen, ashy smell, and I know precisely where my feet are planted, and I’m happy for it.

As I talked to Tommy about his home village (“Whatever you’re interested in, we’ve got it: hiking, surfing, riding horses, camping, fishing, and now the golf. It’s all here.”), it occurred to me that in one afternoon in a village of two hundred, I had met a pub owner hauling peat, a poet/lord mayor holding court outside his corner antique shop, and a farmer and his wife kindly offering a cup of tea and talk of the weather, with a sheepdog dancing around outside their cottage like he had been waiting for us for weeks. A few minutes later, I would meet Padrig the cattle farmer who was busy, but not too busy, pushing his herd down the road, headed home for their milking. Irish rush hour Tony called it: three cars on a country road, stuck behind thirty cows. No bother at all.

A few days in the village of Doonbeg found every kind of Irish character who you hoped to meet. I even met the undertaker, a stout, jovial, impossibly wonderful man for such matters, named John Joe O’Dea. He could be seen riding his bike through the village or waiting outside the chipper for his cheeseburger. His round and huge smile was reminiscent of Hemingway at his outdoorsy best. Even when he wasn’t smiling, John Joe was sort of smiling, and his thick, dark hands reminded me how soft a life I had lived. When Tony introduced me, he thoughtfully explained to John Joe that I had come to Doonbeg to open a crematory. Thanks, Tony, I thought.

“Cremation. Oh, don’t you even talk about it. It’s a terrible waste of a perfectly good box,” John Joe said.

“But don’t you bury the box?” said Tony.

“Aye, you do, you do,” John Joe smiled, “but cremating is a terrible way to die.” His smile said he was putting us on. I think.

In all the faces I met around Doonbeg, it was there, that thing that brought people like me back to Ireland every year. I had played all the golf, photographed all the sites, drank all the pints, but it was the people that made the place and not just their unvarnished pleasantness and hospitality; it was their contentment, their pure confidence in who they were. There was a great peacefulness to a place that had been around for thousands of years and would be for thousands more, and in that setting, a missed text or late email doesn’t even feel like a real thing. The small things don’t stand up against the history and landscape and people I found in West Clare. What mattered: conversation. Having enough to get by until you had enough again. Friends. Laughter. The land. Sports. And a little bit of God as well.

I didn’t want to come back as Tony Pender just because he was successful and settled and seemed to have done well on the sale of his land, but because, as he walked the main street and stopped to inquire about the well-being of everyone he passed, he struck me as one of the most genuine men I had ever met—aware of himself in a quiet way, liked less for what he said than for who he was and how he made you feel.

Hailing from a country where we are reinventing ourselves by the minute, it was a real joy to spend time with such authentic people. For a land known for its blarney, Ireland is nothing but true in its heart.

There used to be a road here.

It would have run along the edge of the Lodge at Doonbeg, and if I followed the road north into the other half of Clare, it would have delivered me to the golf and surfing town of Lahinch. From the high promenade through town, you could look back toward the dunes and see spots of red and black and blue climbing their way across the hills of Lahinch Golf Club, one of the most renowned links in the world. And not far from the fairways, you might be surprised to find an ocean teeming with wetsuits and surfboards.

From Lahinch I followed the road to the Clare town of Doolin, Ireland’s unofficial capital of Irish music, where O’Connor’s pub is crowded from open to close with tourists and musicians who have traveled far to listen to old songs played by new faces. From Doolin it’s a ferry ride to the romantic Aran Islands, minutes from the famous Cliffs of Moher. Instead, I headed inland to see the other side of Clare, the ancient rocky moonscape forbiddingly called the Burren.

The Burren (from the Irish bhoireann, “a stony place”) is a sprawling limestone moonscape of 250 square kilometers, and one of the most haunting, beautiful, and curious landscapes I have ever encountered. As I left the green Ireland and came upon the stone one, its endless rocky horizon dotted with caves and prehistoric tombs (some outdating the Egyptian pyramids), I had the sensation of traveling to a distant planet.

On a rainy afternoon I saw the other side of being Irish, a contrast between bright and grassy slopes, to a lean place that was hard and resolved, a land molded by invading kings, earnest monks, and warring chieftains. The impossibility of the stone landscape fired the imaginations of Joyce, Yeats, and Wilde. Oliver Cromwell, whose English parliamentary forces ravaged Ireland in the 1650s in what might be considered Catholic genocide, found the Burren to be less inspiring, at least for his purposes. “There isn’t a tree to hang a man, earth to bury a man, or water to drown a man,” one of his generals famously remarked. As Cromwellian forces torched and plundered Irish villages, it was the Burren where many Irish were forced to seek refuge and make their homes. And as the Irish had been doing for thousands of years, they survived and pushed on. They made life out of stone.

There is still life there in the crevices of the Burren. Thick pockets of wildflowers defy their surroundings, as colorful surprises reach up out of the cracks. In its isolation and in its size, I found something beautiful in the permanence of the place. Like the cliffs on the road to Loop Head, the Burren had that feeling of forever.

Eager for the warmth of Doonbeg, I followed up on a recommendation to sample Lynch’s pub in Miltown Malbay. Lynch’s was owned and operated by the Wilson family (who else?). Len Wilson is a starter at Doonbeg, a graying, distinguished-looking gentleman who, like many of the caddies and Golf Shop guys, retired from another life and came to Doonbeg, hired to be their welcoming and amusing Irish selves. On Len’s recommendation, I went to Lynch’s to meet his brother Mick and nephew Jonathan for a Wednesday night session of traditional Irish music. You can travel Ireland for months (and I have) looking for a pub like Lynch’s.

Two steps in the door and you know this is the very pub you imagined when you booked your ticket to Shannon—low ceilings, six spots at a shoulder-high bar, a handful of seats against the wall. There was a small back room that was once the kitchen, and the edge of an old stairway was still there; children from upstairs would have snuck down, poking their heads into the pub after bedtime. A window frame at the back is a reminder of where fresh bread would have been slid out into the pub when the place was not just for pints but also for daily provisions. Traditional music fans from around the world remember Lynch’s as the exclusive venue of the late Irish piper Willie Clancy. They still make pilgrimages to the Wednesday night session to say they were there.

I happened to find a spot at the end of the bar. A teenager from New Jersey had arrived with her family and fiddle, introducing herself to the four regular players, waiting to join the music that kicked off a little after ten. When it started,
I remembered how a handful of people playing guitar, drum, and fiddle in the back of a pub can be more rousing than a rock show. There is an intimacy in watching musicians who don’t know each other become seamless. When a session begins to lift off, the strumming and the chords and the thumping start to crowd out conversations. You can feel a rolling explosion of sound overtake the room, and like that scent of peat or that tee shot between towering dunes, you feel so fortunate to be sitting in Ireland on this night, on this stool.

My last stop with Tony was to the Shanahan farm at the northern end of Doonbeg’s links. The Shanahans were one of the four families to sell some of their milk cattle farm to the South Carolina developers. Mr. and Mrs. Shanahan were well
into their seventies, and once again we arrived unannounced, uninvited, in the early evening. In but a few moments, I was in Kevin’s living room, his wife delighting to share pages from their thick album of amazing family history.

Kevin explained how an ancient earthquake created the coastline and how the fossilized remains of tree roots were visible in the beach when the sands eroded during winter storms. Ireland’s second most famous saint, St. Senan from nearby Kilrush, might have traveled the beach road that disappeared those centuries ago, a road that would have run along Doonbeg’s eighteenth fairway. A chalice had been discovered in the dunes not far from the course, dating back
to the penal times when Catholic Mass was celebrated in secret in the sand hills. As local historian Michael Griffin, who had also discovered the records of the long-forgotten beach road, described it, the chalice would have been hidden in the dunes because its possession identified one as a Catholic priest. Priests once brought a high bounty for a British soldier in those years before the Irish people rebelled and won their peace and independence as a republic in 1921.

The Shanahans’ uncle William, who lived on the family farm above Doonbeg’s strand, had been killed by British forces, blamed for the IRA murder of a British magistrate at the railway crossing up the road. The local Gaelic football pitch was duly named after him, and I heard the 1920 story on three occasions, told as freshly as if it were last week’s EU financial news. History has long run tight through the sands in Doonbeg, as it did when a British Sunderland flying boat crashed off the beach in WWII. The lone survivor scrambled up the beach to the only light in view, a lamp accidentally left on at the Shanahan farm, where he was taken in and nursed back to health with poitín (moonshine whiskey). Some of the deceased crew were buried in Doonbeg, just across from the football pitch bearing William Shanahan’s name.

The dunes and crescent beach at Doonbeg are part of the next era in Irish history. Today’s Ireland is young and looking forward, a part of Europe, and a place to flock to, not run from. A town of two hundred that not long ago saw massive unemployment is now home to a renowned lodge that employs two hundred on its own. While Ireland is covered with ruins, monuments, and reminders of every sort, this course beside the Atlantic seems its own monument to a new Ireland, a modern Ireland, a country confident and eager to impress the world.

There is once again a road here, but this one cuts through tall, wild grasses, whipped by the winds, and mapped by eighteen flags to mark your way. It was wrought by farmers and visionaries and a thousand years. It is a lovely walk along this link of farm and strand, and it winds you toward an old but vibrant village, a place you might have passed through before you knew you were there, in the quiet heart of Clare. — R.T.C.

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