BALLYVAUGHAN, Ireland — "The view from my front door is so lovely," a woman here told me, "I don't have to go to the films."
I had an image of what I wanted--a small village on Ireland's west coast where I could spend a few days, a village picturesque but not overrun with tourists, a village full of character and characters.
Furthermore, because I knew I would be tired by the time I landed at Shannon Airport, I wanted a destination I could reach easily within an hour or so by rental car.
There didn't have to be a lot to do in this village, for I would create my own diversions. All I wanted was the chance to stroll around, down a few pints in some Irish pubs, chat with the locals and experience a slice of life in a village where nothing much happened.
After consulting with the experts at the Irish Tourist Board I decided that Ballyvaughan in County Clare fit the bill. As soon as I got here I knew I had made the right choice.
"How many people live in Ballyvaughan?" I asked one of the locals as soon as I arrived.
He paused for a moment, scratched his head and then answered slowly, "Well, I suppose there's about 250. At least, that's how many people you'd see at Mass on a Sunday in the winter."
No doubt about it, Ballyvaughan was my kind of town.
The only problem was--there turned out to be so much to see and do in the village and vicinity that the amount of time I could devote to nursing those pints was sadly curtailed.
About an hour's drive north of Shannon Airport on Galway Bay, Ballyvaughan sits on the edge of a fascinating lunar-like landscape known as the Burren, a treeless 100-square-mile area of rocks upon rocks upon rocks.
For more than 4,000 years man has carved a niche for himself here, and from these rocks has fashioned tombs and forts, churches, castles and cairns and miles upon miles of stone fences. Clamoring for attention are also a beautiful coast, the stunning Cliffs of Moher, prehistoric Aillwee Cave and tiny Ballyvaughan itself.
"Of all the towns in the Burren," another woman said, "Ballyvaughan is the one that's retained the most character and is the least spoiled."
A third woman pointed out, "We're only 3 1/2 hours from Dublin, so actually we're very centrally located. Besides the sea, we also have good bars, music and plenty of places to stay. A lot of people use Ballyvaughan as a base, since this is definitely one of the most interesting areas to visit."
The most popular place to stay in Ballyvaughan is in one of its 12 thatched cottages overlooking the bay, which comes complete with kitchen facilities and utensils, bed linen and towels. Built in 1969, these cottages were the first such accommodations to open in Ireland in a concept known as Rent-an-Irish Cottage. Cottage villages for tourists are now in more than a dozen locations in western Ireland.
As for Ballyvaughan, it has one main intersection, a road that hugs the coastline, a fishing pier, a church and a handful of pubs. It takes only 10 minutes to walk from one end of town to the other, a walk that might lead you to meet one of Ballyvaughan's most well-known personalities, Tony Garrahy.
The Donkey Tycoon
Proclaiming himself the "donkey tycoon" and "a millionaire without money," he's a common fixture at Ballyvaughan's intersection, as he stands there with his donkeys and cart and his dog. A sign on his cart reads "Free Donkey Rides and Photos. Any Donations for Upkeep Appreciated."
If you stop to talk to Garrahy you'll probably be there a while, as he regales you with tales about how he was born on "a wild and boggy moor one mile from the west coast of Clare in 1916." Then he'll tell about his plans to get married soon, although as far as I could tell, he hadn't proposed to his girlfriend yet. He's also likely to talk about his cousin in America, Joe Garrahy, former governor of Rhode Island.
"I worked as a baker and taxi driver when I wasn't in prison," he said with a wink. "I worked in London and Dublin but moved here four years ago when I retired. I go out with my donkeys and cart every fine day, which occurs only about three days a year in Ireland."
Another way to meet the locals is to visit one of Ballyvaughan's pubs.
Monk's Bar, across from the tiny harbor, is the best place to hear live Irish music on most summer nights and on weekends in the winter. As it is about the only place to go for live entertainment, everyone from ruddy-faced fishermen to grandmothers and teen-agers go there.
Most likely you'll run into people you've encountered during the day, and they'll nod and smile in acknowledgement as if you've been here forever. Before the night's over, everyone will be joined in song, not an uncommon occurrence in Ireland.
If you're looking for a more quiet watering hole the most interesting place in town is probably the O'Loclainn pub, where you won't find such nonsense as music. Owned and run by MacNeill O'Loghlen, it's been in his family for generations, but he has no idea how old the pub is.