My alarm went off at 6am on a Saturday morning. Outside, everyone was still asleep, including the sun.
We agreed to meet outside the student residence by seven, whether or not everyone was there, to be able to catch an 8am train from Heuston Station in Dublin to Ballymote in county Sligo. By the time I got outside, my three friends were already walking past my building. I ran to join them. I was excited, but I had no idea what the day had planned for me.
There was no doubt that it was quite cold and wet, and I was worried that it would be so cold that I wouldn’t enjoy my experience. Despite going to Champlain College in Vermont, I actually hate the cold, and could easily live in 90 degree weather year-round if possible. It didn’t help that on that four-hour train ride, everything we passed by was covered in snow! It wasn’t like Vermont snow, though. It looked more like someone lightly dusted some powdered sugar onto the fields and trees. It seemed tamer or more poetic than a Vermont winter, but that doesn’t deny the fact that it was cold!
As we got closer, there was less snow but more mist, sort of like someone was breathing onto a window. We hoped the moisture would bring a bit of warmth with it. Spoiler alert: We were wrong.
We called a cab once we got off the train. It was a small town, nothing like the busyness of Dublin, so I believe there was only one taxi service in the area. It was run by this sweet, skinny older man in a big white van (I know, that sounds sketchy, but don’t worry, we’re alive and well). We told him to take us to the pub closest to the Caves of Keash.
When we got off the cab, the pub was basically deserted. No cars were in the parking lot, and no lights were on inside. It was 11:30, and the pub did not open until noon. I could feel the cold begin to rise up from the pavement, through the rubber of my sneakers, and then settle into the soles of my feet. We told the driver that we would be okay with waiting there until staff arrived. He nodded, told us to pay him at the end of the day, and left.
The pub was in the middle of nowhere. It was across the road from a fenced-in field with some large hills behind it. The road itself stretched for miles in either direction. You could sit in the middle of it for a solid ten minutes and nothing would happen, except I wouldn’t suggest doing that because if a car did come, it basically came at the speed of light.
While we waited for a half hour, we sang some really obnoxious songs from summer camp and my friend Sarah tried to make friends with the cats that lived around the pub. We looked like tourists who had been day-drinking, and we really hoped that no one saw us, because we looked kind of ridiculous.
The pub owner finally drove in about a minute before noon. We kind of awkwardly nodded to him as he unlocked the door and began to set up inside.
After about five or so minutes, we were let into this cozy little bar with a nice roaring fire, stone walls, and comfy chairs. My friend Molly ordered a Guinness, and the rest of us ordered tea, wanting to rid the cold from our bodies as soon as possible.
We asked the owner if he normally saw tourists heading to the caves. He told us yes, but normally during the summer. “The people who go during this time are…brave.”
We laughed, knowing “brave” was synonymous with “stupid” at this point.
We also met an older man, probably in his late fifties, with his mother, a woman in her late eighties. He talked our ears off. He was incredibly friendly, and even bought us all drinks, welcoming us to the West of Ireland. He told us a brief tale of folklore surrounding the caves. Apparently, one of the greatest high kings of Ireland, King Cormac Mac Art, was taken from his mother by wolves when he was an infant and raised in the caves. Now, do I believe that? Not particularly, but hey, I’m in Ireland. Using my imagination is a requirement.
By the time we left the pub, the weather was much more tolerable, but that didn’t make the climb up any easier.
First of all, it was incredibly slippery. Every step was well thought-out and strategic. Towards the top, the paths just got skinnier and skinnier, until we felt we were walking on a tightrope. We all slipped at least once on the way up or down. (Except Artemis. We think the cane gave her super balance or something).
Second, the mud. It was ankle-deep in some places and added to the slip factor. No one went home with clean trousers or socks.
Third, the sheep. I’m positive they were judging us. (Side note, if you want to read more about the sheep, visit my personal blog here).
However, despite the difficulties, on the way up, the view just got better and better. We started to understand why Ireland is called the “Emerald Isle.” Although, Ireland isn’t just one shade of green. There were lots of different types of greens, more than I could have ever imagined, and they were all organized into neat little patches. The landscape was a cozy quilt, and I wanted to wrap myself in all of it.
The view at the top was the most magnificent of all. Seeing the landscape through the mouth of the cave made me feel like reality was just an option. I had stepped into the world of fantasy, a feeling I don’t think has fully left me yet.
We wanted to go deeper into the caves, but after noticing that the mud was eerily like quicksand, we snapped a few lovely pictures, explored what we could, then started the (even more treacherous) trip down. I’m not going to say who, but one of us slipped and fell about fifteen times (no joke) and, after landing on a rock, ended up with a bruise so big and colorful it looked like the Milky Way Galaxy. She also probably had to throw her trousers away because the mud was caked everywhere.
On the train ride home, our shoes and socks were soaked, our hair a complete mess, and our clothes covered in mud or limestone. I could only imagine what other passengers were thinking about us. I didn’t care. I did something that so few people, even in Ireland, get to do. I consider that day a very special gem in my memory. I didn’t think I’d ever do something like this, especially with people I didn’t know terribly well the month before.
Overall, the trip was cold, clumsy, and uncomfortable, but it was also eye-opening, beautiful, and rewarding. If you ever have the chance to do something like this, do it and dismiss the discomforts. I promise you’ll be glad you did.