(Photo credit Barbara Orr) The superb staff at Park Hotel -- or someone -- leaves clean, assorted sized Wellies (rubber boots) in the front hallway, for guests' use.

(Photo by Barbara Orr) The superb staff at Park Hotel — or someone — leaves a variety of sizes of clean Wellies (rubber boots) in the front hallway, for guests’ use.

After feeling sad under the Fairy Tree, I grew even more sorry when we returned from our walk, because we had to leave the Park Hotel. By 11 AM, everyone else — four writers, two PR persons, one guide and one driver, plus their luggage — had gathered in the hallway to say goodbye and put on coats and open umbrellas for the short walk out to the bus. This writer, however, was not there.

I was in my room, packing reluctantly, when some soft-spoken Irish person called me from reception.  At the Park Hotel, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the polite, kind, well-mannered, well-dressed, well-spoken staff and the polite, kind, well-mannered, well-dressed, well-spoken guests, and no one would ever be gauche enough to introduce themselves (unless they were local gentry) but whoever it was ringing me — an employee, the third-generation owner of the manor, a helpful stranger  – told me in a voice no stronger than a beloved auntie might employ in a similar situation she’d thought she’d give me a ring as my friends were just wondering about me, as they were gathering in the lobby. And, she didn’t need to add, they were ready to take off and wondering what the feck was taking me so long.

I rushed along the curious stairways and corridors leading (I use the term loosely) from my wing to the lobby, but the other people in my group were hatted, jacketed, and out the door getting on the bus by the time I arrived. After shouting after them in an unmannerly manner, saying I needed another minute, I stood panting by the beautiful, very antique, 8-sided leather-topped desk that presides in an aclove off the foyer, which desk is the closest thing I’ve seen at the Park Hotel to any kind of office-like infrastructure, or any suggestion that the hotel is a business and is not the home of your best and wealthiest friend. There is nothing so garish as a “reception desk” or a “cashier” or even a “concierge’s stand” at the Park, but every time I came into the little reading alcove I found a conveniently placed, soft-voiced, well-groomed person who behaved in a manner befitting one of the cherished Park Hotel retainers.

There was just such a person there, looking as if she had nothing she’d rather do than help me with any arrangements I might like to make, and to whom I tried to make payment for the incidental charges tomy room. (We TC writers are the guests of the generous tourism boards and hoteliers et al, and we enjoy the tours, entries, wines, meals, and suites without charge to our good selves, but we do occasionally have to pay for our own incidental expenses such as laundry.) I’d ordered room service instead of going out the night before, and I’d had my filthy, wet, trousers that I’d worn on the boat and in the horse-cart and in the rain cleaned, and so I owed the hotel about 14 Euros. But I couldn’t pay my bill — to the extent that any bill actually existed, because of course I was not presented with one — because I couldn’t find my wallet! Horrified at myself, I asked if I could ring later with my credit card details, and the beautiful young lady assured me that of course I could, no problem at all at all. She gave the wide-eyed, dimpled impression that my leaving a bill unpaid was an honor for the hotel , and that I was being endearingly over-conscientious in my obvious design to pay it. I left smiling with embarrassment and gratitude,  and hoping that she was a hotel employee.

If my colleagues awaiting me on the bus were slightly less gracious than the young woman, it’s only because they were tired, hungover, and pissed off at me. It didn’t help that when I ran, wet and breathless and still embarrassed and newly in debt, to get on the bus, late, I was still, even while climbing the steps of the big Mercedes, groping through my carry-on bag, hoping to find my missing wallet, and after the bus started up but before we pulled all the way down the half-mile driveway, I realized that I’d left my laptop in my room. I had to make a quick decision – never a good idea in my case – between saying nothing and hoping that the Park Hotel would forward the laptop to me at our next hotel, and stopping the forward progress of the press trip, thus delaying our departure even more and incurring more enmity of my peers and up-until-that-morning new friends.

“Oh no!” I said. “My laptop’s in my room!” Tiger, one of the two really gentlemanly, chivalrous two men on this mostly female trip, silently downshifted and U-turned the bus, crunching back over the long ancient gravel road to the hotel’s front gate. As we went, I stood up and apologized, rocking in the aisle, to my sister- and fellow-tour members.  ““Oh no, I know,” I said. “Now I’m the person on the press trip that everyone hates.” By the time Tiger had shifted into park I was crouching at his elbow, and ducking down the steps, I added,  Even I hate me!”

When I got back to the 8-sided desk, one of the ubiquitous elegant doormen informed me without my having to introduce myself or announce my plight that the laptop was already on its way to reception. He conveyed this information in such a way as to make me feel the hotel’s deep regret at having inconvenienced me by not chasing the bus down and handing it to me through the window. Once the machine was in my sweaty incompetent little grasp, I once I clambered back onto the bus I also perchance found in my suitcase my wallet, so we set off just about 15 or 20  minutes beyond the time we should have gone.

One of the two PR ladies — Ruth, I think, who was not the one who’d suffered through the boat ride with me the day before and thus still positively inclined towards my presence on the trip —  assured me that it wasn’t such a huge thing to leave a bit late on a Sunday morning, but I felt guilty and embarrassed, anyway, about being so chaotically unprofessional and having thereby inconvenienced a considerable percentage of the employees of County Kerry’s tourism industry, and so I sat quietly and self-accusingly in my cushy seat and determined that I would have to be scrupulous for the rest of the trip about not being late or inconveniencing anyone – let alone everyone. For at least the next hour I did not ask for anything or proffer opinions about, say, whether we should or should not make a stop to take photos or drink Irish coffee. I sat meekly in my rightful seat and tried to work out how to work my new camera, a Fujifilm EXR, I think.

Before lunch we were taken to a place called Valentia Island, although William the tour guide said apologetically that it was no longer an island, as it had bridges. In Ireland, a land mass is not considered an island if it is possible to reach it other than by boat. Skellig Michael definitely qualifies as an island, still, despite having all the mod cons of stone steps and beehive dwellings, but Manhattan, for instance, would not count.

On Valentia, we had a tour from a local man and pub owner, Mauris, who is an expert on the first transAtlantic international cable and who has built a road up a cliff lookout and put up signs about the Irish legends and local history and so on. Mauris had a great, sometimes incomprehensible Irish accent and he talked  knowledgably but fast, and the wind was blowing my ears off and I got a bit confused about the various politicians, transAtlantic telegrams, freedom fighters, notification of the Titanic disaster, dates, and legendary events, and I came to think that O’Connell had been thrown off the cliff by someone called Finn, leader of the Vikings, or maybe by a troupe of imaginary legendary beings called Finnoghs, or maybe Firblogs, ancient Irish bloggers who invented the ancient Irish warning system for shipwreck notifications and telegraphic (telepathic?) calls for help.Rules for joining the warriors

There's a lot of information on these signs, and I was hearing it out loud while trying to take in the scenery and atmosphere. I got a bit muddled.It was all muddled to me, but while we were on the cliff the sun did come to a thin place in the clouds, and I took a few pictures that had more than one shade of light in them.

As I was pointing my camera out to sea in the direction of the cloud gap, a writer named Cathy, who joined our group yesterday, and who has family in Killarney and spends a lot of time there, pointed out the Skelligs to me. I didn’t know what “the Skelligs” were when she said I could see them “over there” and pointed across the hills: I didn’t know if I was looking for a kind of bird or some trees or a village or a group of people, perhaps Irish gypsies. She said something that suggested that “the Skelligs” were the ghost-like mounds of islands in the far distance, briefly visible through the mist and clouds.

Cathy was excited about their appearance because it was so overcast, and in her excitement she said, “See? They’re sharp!”

What with the misted morning light, the fog, the clouds, the incipient rain, and my own inherent blurriness, I couldn’t see anything that wasn’t very extremely fuzzy around the edges, so I was even more confused. “What?” I said. “Sharp what? Where?”

“See, it looks like a pointed hill,” she said. Looking where she was gazing, I saw a pale shadow shape that I would said was the underbelly of a cloud. And, again prompted by Cathy, next to that one I saw another, larger, similar shape.

“Sharp?” I said. “Those are very soft focus to me…”

“No, I mean the shape,” she said. And okay, when I squinted and used my imagination, and because I am very suggestible, the tops of the islands did look a bit like the shape of spears – not like a rounded hill or even a single Alpine-style peak, but narrow, pointy things like flinty broken arrowheads. And then the mist closed in again and they were gone.

After that sighting, we were taken to the “Skellig Experience,” a visitors’ center which turned out to contain an amazing, thrilling introduction to and history of the islands but which looked unamazing and unthrilling from outside. It’s nearly invisible as it’s been built into the hillside, with a grass-topped roof, and so in the mist and overcast daylight it looks much like many of the other hills in the area. At night I’m sure no one could find it.

Inside, we were shown a film about the Skellig Islands, which fascinated all of us and made us all ready to beg, bribe, or in case of the important writers demand to be taken there, but the man who ran the museum, who is also a world’s leading expert (as opposed to a following expert, as all of us were becoming) on the islands, told us that there would be no opportunity to get there for at least another week, because of the heavy rain, heavy waves, and heavy tides. Considering how miserable we’d been yesterday just puttering across some inland lakes, you’d have thought we would not be keen to cross 8 miles of open water in similar conditions, but several of us were ready to row ourselves there at first light if we could get a boat.

Our enthusiasm was slightly dampened, ahem, when we came across the exhibit of the iron gates that once guarded a pathway on the Skellig Lighthouse station, which is, note, on land, NOT on the 8-mile-out Skellig Michael. Here is the sign, and what’s left of the gates:

A former gate...

Skellig Lightbhouse gates sign...and it's former mate

Anyway, we couldn’t get to Skellig Michael, not that week. The tour leaders told us to give up, but I kept praying for a break in the weather, as Mother Theresa did for a cease-fire in the Bosnian war so she could get through with the Red Cross trucks. She made it; I did not.

What made Skellig Michael attractive to me was its strange history. The film showed how in about the year 600, on Skellig Michael, which is in case I haven’t impressed this on you enough eight miles out to sea from a barren cold Irish coast where hardly anybody lived anyway, some monks who had been living on the mainland built – and I use the term loosely, because they actually hacked it out of stone – a monastery. Using only hand tools, and hands, they cut into the rock three different sets of 600 steps each going up the extremely steep, arrow-head-like sides of the rock-island.

Why such redundancy? Why build three separate entrances to a monastery that only they and occasional pirates even knew about? No one knows. They built the three massive stairways with no handrails, presumably to make it that much more challenging to reach the top – which was desirable as a building and prayer site why, exactly? Because it was 600 steep steps closer to God? According to the film and the historian, no one speculates or can imagine what possessed those monks, but something must have fevered their imaginations and fueled their spirit, because once they’d reached the freezing cold, barren, top of this Godforsaken rock-mass eight feckin’ miles out in the Northern Atlantic, there they built six stone “beehive” houses and lived, two men to a hut,  so apparently 12 men, alone on the rock, until death. Perhaps fortunately, death was not that long in coming for most of them.

Extremely little is known of how they managed any of it, let alone WHY they managed it, or how many of them were killed or kidnapped by Algerian or Spanish or Portuguese or African pirates, all of whom regularly attacked the defenseless, innocent monks and took their gold, silver, and lives. But it is clear from the archeological evidence, most of it still standing, that after about 200 years of that cold monastic lifestyle — which would have made a Spartan villa seem like a high-end resort — that is, about 800 AD, the later monks of the same masochistic order found it necessary to build, at an even more extremely distant point on the rock, a hermitage!

Seeing this small, grey-brown, lichen-covered stone hut on the screen — it looks like something from the Stone Age — and hearing from the narrator that it was a “hermitage,” I started laughing. Seated behind me, the other writers responded similarly, that is, with incredulous snorts. The evidence was on film in front of us, but we still wondered why even the least sociable of the 9th-century monastic brothers would feel the need to get away from the the tip of the island and the other 11 monks. Beleaguered, maybe even self-righteously fired up like my neighbors on this Floridian island organizing a noise-reduction petition against the giant, pastel-covered party houses whence every weekend emanate the whoops and house music of overprivileged twentysomethings at the beach, those monks went off and carved a little cave space where a guy could get some peace and separation from the things of this world.

Well, I thought, as we left the Skellig Island Experience (enthralled, but still embittered at not having experienced Skellig Island itself), maybe I could see where those monks might have been sick of the clamor of the group. I know what it’s like. To have to live and eat and move with the same people day after day, packing in and out of five-plus-star country house hotels, attending champagne receptions and six-course dinners with selected wines, or trooping in and out of trad nights at wonderfully bright cozy pubs to see world-class musicians, being fed locally produced and lovingly prepared meals from third-generation chefs and prizewinning someliers, being walked up and down pebblestone pathways through rich botanical gardens by rich thirteenth-generation estate owners, and of course being driven collectively in a new Mercedes-Benz luxury bus while addressed by an expert on the history of the areas we were visiting was stressful in much the same way as hacking out a stairway from bare rock in the middle of an Atlantic storm, sustained only by pelican meat and seagull droppings. Look at how easily we journalists got annoyed with each other and began to despise one member of the group: that morning, I’d just about become the one person that everyone would have wished to send to the hermitage, if we’d had one.

In the next few days, I’d make a point of getting everywhere a few minutes early, and, being as helpful as it was possible for such a cossetted guest to be, I also made a point of being ready to carry my own luggage, reconsider seating arrangements, or elucidate my vegetarian preferences anytime, in order to make up my standing with my fellow and sister penitents on our pilgrimage of luxury and Irish culture.

And it came to pass that I escaped censure and ostracism, perhaps because I worked so hard to make amends, perhaps because our press group was an unusually mature, relaxed, and pampered one, led by unusually capable and broadminded and fun-loving PR people (see photo below of Ellen and Ruth)

Ruth Moran (in red) of Tourism Ireland, and Ellen Redmond of Failte Ireland (which I suggested should rename itself Slante Ireland), our beautiful, joyful, oocasionally tipsy PR hosts.

Ruth Moran (in red) of Tourism Ireland, and Ellen Redmond (Kelly green) of Failte Ireland (which I suggested should rename itself Slante Ireland), our beautiful, joyful, oocasionally tipsy PR hosts, two women who know how to have fun, even in the rain and regrettable wind.  For more on their companies, itineraries, or drinking suggestions  go to visitIreland.com, and tell them I sent you.

or maybe because One Other Person at the conference was so dreadful. But that story is for the private, not-to-say secret-gossip blog: let me know if you want to read it.

Anyway, having had the Skellig Island Experience but not the experience of Skellig Island, I desperately want to see these islands for myself, and I will. Soon. Anyone want to come with me? Start training now for those 600 stone steps, with no handrail, in extremely high winds. And don’t be late!