The Toast Atop Cullihan's Cairn

Charles T. Faulkner

© Copyright 2020 by
Charles T. Faulkner

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Before the recent plague and an illness requiring chemotherapy, my wife and I tried to take at least one trip a year across the pond. We have been to Italy, England, and Wales, but the most memorable was one of our earliest trips, to Ireland in 1997. This was a family trip which included me, my wife, and my two daughters ages 21 and 14. Our son, 17, could not tear himself away from high school football practice. We decided to plan our trip so the first week we would be on our own and the second week we would hook up with Karen Davis who had organized a hiking trip along the west coast. Karen is the former part owner of the Davis-Kidd Bookstore in Nashville. It turned out we were the first “family” to go on one of her hikes.

The trip began stressfully. I idiotically decided to begin our trip in Atlanta, thinking we would drive down during the day and be in plenty of time to board the evening flight to Shannon, Ireland. We were peacefully cruising down the interstate with lots to time, even to stop for lunch. It was after lunch when I realized that we would gain an hour due to Eastern Time and were in danger of not arriving when required. I confess to driving like a maniac the rest of the way and we did arrive in time to board the flight. (The choice was doubly idiotic as on the return we had to drive back to Nashville extremely fatigued) The flight was uneventful, arriving the following morning after a brief stop in Dublin. On to the rental car kiosk, car loaded, we were starting our adventure! Stick shift, steering wheel and driving lane on the “wrong” side, no problem. The problem occurred when I discovered I could not put the car in reverse! There was nothing to do but return to the airport. I turned into a driveway, put the car in neutral and the three girls got out and pushed the car backward onto the road. Going back to the rental car office I made sure no backup would be necessary. The rental car agent managed to have only a small grin on his face when he showed me how to get the car in reverse by simply pulling up a chrome ring on the shifter which I had not even noticed let alone tried. The rest of this part of the trip was delightful. Our first day we went to the Bunratty Castle and Folk Park and had only a mild crisis when the three of us with cameras ran out of film before the end of the day’s explorations. We had our first Guinness and I learned that if a man orders less than a full pint he is considered less than manly. Luckily, someone clued me in before I ordered. Half pints and blackberry syrup to take the edge off are fine for the girls, a man at minimum is looked at sternly if he orders either of these. We did the tourist thing and went to an Irish dinner with music at the Folk Park, very enjoyable. Then we went to several other places which included a site seen in our favorite family movie, The Princess Bride. This was, of course, the Cliffs of Moher, otherwise known as The Cliffs of Insanity. We did not see how Andre the Giant, strong as he was, could have possibly climbed up a rope with three people on his back!

After the week on our own we turned in our car at Shannon and met up with Karen at the airport. From there we went by bus to our home base in Dingle. The hotel and food were very good, the hotel had been rated the best small hotel in Ireland the previous year. Most of our hikes began at a point distant from Dingle and we would hike back into town. Our bus driver John was very friendly and struck up a friendship with my oldest daughter. He would teach her a new Irish word each day and expect her to pronounce it correctly the next day. They got to be so close that they cried like babies when they said goodbye at the end of our trip. My wife and I got pretty verklempt, too. Our primary guide Michael had been delayed so he sent his assistant, Rosemary, young, pretty and Irish to the core. Karen also hired a local man to lead us until Michael arrived. The hikes were amazing. However, on the hikes disputes arose between the local guide and Rosemary and Karen. These disputes were over the best way to proceed on the hikes. The local guy did not agree with what Karen and Rosemary wanted. I am not sure any of the hikers knew what was going on at the time, they managed to keep the disputes under wraps. On the local’s next to last day the disputes climaxed with the guide quitting us midway through a 12 mile hike. He just walked off and we were guide-less! Without skipping a beat Rosemary and Karen took over and there were no problems. Two things stand out in my memory before I get to the title of the story. First, on the hike that the guide quit, I was standing on a hill, taking in the fantastic green scenery and observing a herd of sheep. A small car drove up to the pasture and stopped. Out stepped a farmer who opened the boot of the car, grabbed a sheep, tossed it in the boot, and promptly drove off. I fear things did not end well for the sheep. The second occurred when we were walking along a path next to a sheep farm. Our oldest daughter Melissa was lagging behind us and we began to hear her talking. The presumed owner of the farm had come out and approached her. He asked her if she would like to come with him to see something interesting. Now my daughter is beautiful and very friendly, but not that friendly. She declined to the farmer’s obvious disappointment. I could not and to this day can not think of any good coming out of going with him.

Because of the similarities in age we thought that Melissa and Rosemary would have fun together. This was not the case, they just did not connect. Melissa was more interested in thinking about and calling her soon to be fiancé every other day. Instead, our youngest daughter, Kathryn, and Rosemary became fast friends. They went to pubs together for the Irish music (and some underage drinking for Kathryn). They even swam in the icy waters off the coast of the Great Blasket Island which was a hiking side trip. …..Michael arrived for the last days of Karen’s hike. I think “crazy Irishman” would apply and no one would take offense, even him. He was charismatic and zany, with mismatched socks worn in Tevas, smudged glasses, wild hair, one trouser leg rolled up, the other down. Always talking except when eating and if you did not eat something at dinner he would finish it for you. When asked why one trouser leg was up and the other down, he replied “one fell down.” He was almost worth the cost of the hike. Our last hike may illustrate his out of the box thinking. Previous hikes had been “routine”, nothing unusual. Gorgeous, but not unusual. Michael saved the best for last.

The bus dropped us off near a pretty inland lake and after a short walk we reached a steep hillside. Michael pointed up the hill and said that our destination was “up there.” Huh? No steps, no path, just a steep hill with heather and other bushes covering it. Everyone except Karen and our family bailed out immediately and went back to the bus. Rosemary stayed with the less adventurous to keep them occupied. Michael proceeded to haul himself up the hill. I think hauling is the best descriptive word, this was not ordinary climbing, one had to literally pull oneself up the hill from heather to stable rock to tree to heather and so on. After considerable effort we made it to the top of the hill, sweaty and tired. Then we saw our destination: a large rock cairn named after a Cullihan which Michael said we had to climb to complete our hike. This we did without a problem after what we had climbed just before. The views were awesome and we found an unsuspected artifact. Inside a plastic bag was an unopened half pint of Jameson whiskey and a note. No one knew that this would be there. I mean, what are the chances? The note was from an American man who had come to Ireland with his wife to celebrate his roots. He asked us to drink a toast to their marriage and to ourselves for finding the bottle. We broke the seal and passed the bottle around. Skoal! Proust! Bumpers! So stunned by the climb and the the unexpected find we never learned who Cullihan was. The group returned to the bus in a considerably better frame of mind than when it started the climb. Somehow we managed to return down by a route that was quite easy. Michael!!

And so ended our most memorable foreign trip.

Post Script: After we returned home and prior to a reunion party I emailed the man who left the note and whiskey asking him why he left the “gift.” He replied:

Yes, I’m the guilty party. For about seven years each summer when I visit Dingle I hike the hills non-stop for 2-4 weeks. And on visiting the cairn I’ve always left a bottle for the land spirits as well as the relatively rare ambitious hiker who ventures up there. Besides leaving the Jameson I also perform a ritual up there at Dromavally blessing the land with milk.

Back here I’m a laser physicist, inventor of the excimer laser used to correct vision. Thanks for taking the time to email me. It was one of the few high points in a year that’s been beset with substantial difficulties, a separation from my wife being one of them. Hence the request that you drink to the marriage. We can use all the good energy available out there.

Hope your trip was memorable and that you’ll return soon and often.



Charlie is a retired radiologist who loves to travel, hike and freshwater fish with his wife of 47 years, Margaret. He studied at the University of Virginia and at Vanderbilt University. He and Margaret are also hard core fans of Vanderbilt baseball.

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