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A Sort of Homecoming

To recap my round: I hit into a graveyard, see the Vision and catch my death all in an afternoon. I hate Ballybunion?I don't. I love the place. I love its look, its feel, its raw power. Ballybunion is where the ancient, storied, heroic, triumphant, revered Finn MacCool would play, were he a contemporary Irish chieftain (and were he considerably less mythical).

The drive from Ballybunion to the Mustard Seed at Echo Lodge, in the village of Ballingarry, just south of Limerick, is forty-two miles. Of course it is. But it's a pleasant trip through the chic "Golden Vale" region, where items that shortly ago were junk now fill antiques stores intidy towns and where there is at least one tinkers' camp, the first I've seen this week. The erstwhile tinkers go by the more respectful term "travelers" now. Even the old has new clothes in the New Ireland.

The stately building that is now the Mustard Seed was built in 1884 as a convent. Today, Daniel Mullane's raffish taste makes the yellow-painted inn feel like it's situated in Vermont. As I load the bags into our room, I wonder what the nuns would make of the dominatrix statuette on the mantel. Certainly they would be appalled by the hedonistic experience that is dinner at the lodge's restaurant. To emphasize what a departure this is from old Irish cooking: The vegetables are extraordinary. Fresh vegetables, cooked perfectly, in Ireland -- hell is freezing.

The Next Morning, I Head south to Old Head, which is said to be seventy-seven miles away, but it is in fact seventy-seven hundred. We are pretty quiet during the ride, not yet awake. The radio news is about five killers being released by the North under the Good Friday Agreement and late-breaking opinions in the Viagra controversy: Should governmental curbs, dictated by State but pressed by Church, be eased?The sports report says that next year the soccer league will use instant replay.

Halfway to Cork, we're stopped by cows crossing the highway. Farmers shoo them along with switches. I'm reminded of what we used to call the "SF": the Sheep Factor, which fifteen years ago would routinely add a half hour to an hour's trip. We'd hit three or four sheep blocks a day back then -- or cow blocks. On this trip we have been slowed much more regularly by tour buses traveling in opposite directions on rural roads, getting locked up like rutting moose.

The cows pass, and we're on our way again. The rain stops as we get south of Cork. This is not in the plan. We've heard that at Old Head the wind will knock you down, the rain will drown you, and your body won't be found for three days because of the fog. But as we head from Cork to Kinsale, the sky clears, the sun shines, the breeze calms and the birds chirp. We'll take it.

The Old Head -- the name of a peninsula and, now, a golf course -- is spectacular. It is impossibly beautiful as a piece of land and all but inconceivable as a resort. The first thing that comes to an American's mind is, How'd they pull this off?It wasn't easy. The contrarian story is that the O'Connor brothers -- developers, entrepreneurs, sharpies--got ahold of the Old Head for twenty-six dollars and a handful of beads, never fessing up that they intended to turn 220 acres of the national monument and ancient royal site into 7,127 yards of sensational golf. The O'Connors see things differently. Patrick will tell me over drinks that everything was on the square and that the local castle huggers are a bunch of pansies who made his life a misery during years of legal battling. "I won," O'Connor says, sipping his cocktail with a dram of satisfaction.


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