Tag Archives: travel

A Harpists Guide to Hitchhiking

It seems almost a faux pas to be writing this blog now, as though this already somewhat taboo subject has just become more so.

But then, maybe that’s the perfect time to write about it.

Hitchhiking is one of those things that people seem to be equal parts fascinated and horrified by on, even on a normal day.

In this time of social distancing, with our newfound fear of handshakes and hugs, it feels almost unthinkable that as recently as three months ago I was happily climbing into passenger seats of unknown people, sitting next to their children, balancing dogs on my lap, and never once worrying about whether or not I might catch plague.

I started hitching when I was nineteen. Well, that’s perhaps not entirely true. I suppose it would be more accurate to say I started hitching solo at nineteen. Until then I’d always had a friend with me, or a parent even, and I’d never gone particularly far.

But then I started college and I had to get buses and I lived thirty km away from the nearest bus station and there wasn’t always someone around who could give me a lift.

So I thought I’d give it a go.

My dad dropped me as far as the main road, and I stuck out my thumb. I think I waited less than five minutes before someone stopped for me.

And that was the beginning. I got a lift off a lovely woman, who dropped me all the way to the bus station, and then I got my bus to Cork. Easy.

Everything is scary the first few times. First time I went busking I was shaking like a leaf. But you get used to it. You find your own rhythm. And so it was with hitching.

If I could get a lift, I would, and if no-one was available I would go to the main road, stick out my thumb, and usually be there in about the same amount of time.

Some days I would hitch just for the fun of it. Because I fancied talking to someone new and didn’t want to just sit on a bus, staring out the window.

Other times there just wasn’t any other option. Like the time I had to play at a wedding at St. Finbar’s oratory in Gougane Barra one cold November morning. In my defense, bus eireann claimed to have a bus route out to it, but when I presented my ticket to the driver he informed me that service hadn’t run in over five years. But he could drop me at the turning if I liked? Well, I had a wedding to be at so I said yes and he left me at the Coolcower Court turning, a neat 30km from my destination, with my harp, and wished me good luck.

I made it. The last lift was two young lads from the nearby village who stopped out of sheer curiosity and nearly died laughing at my predicament. They drove ten miles out of their way to drop me to the door.

And that is probably my very favourite thing about hitching. Sometimes the sheer generosity of strangers really does blow me away.

I should be used to it really. After all, my livelihood is entirely based on the generosity of others, but with busking there is a trade. You provide them with amusement, some pleasant music to brighten their day, and in exchange they give you a few coins and maybe a nice compliment to brighten yours.

With hitching the exchange is quite different. You reach out and not only ask for someone’s generosity, but also their trust. Their space. Their company. All rare and valuable commodities these days. And yet, I have never been left empty-handed.

I don’t remember every lift I’ve ever had, but I remember quite a few. Where bus journeys and Ryanair flights all blur into one long, impersonal haze of uncomfortable chairs and hoping no-one would try and strike up a conversation, hitchhiking journeys have flavour.

As a rule the people who pick you up will at the very least want to know the basics. Where are you going? Where have you come from? Who are you? And of course the most important one, why are you hitching?

These four questions, I find, are enough to fill a journey between five and fifty miles long. Sometimes I’ll hop out at my destination, wave goodbye to the person I’ve spent the last half hour talking to, and realize that at no point did we exchange names. It is a strangely intimate and yet utterly ephemeral connection.

Some of my more memorable journeys would be the woman who took me from Charleville to Cork who worked in a company that leases aircraft to airline companies, the woman who took me from CastleIsland to Rathmore during my tour (a journey where we both discovered that Rathmore has two towns a few miles apart and we were both very confused by this), and the man who pulled over in his artic lorry to pick up myself and Emma somewhere outside of Kells to drop us off near Ballinlough castle which turned out to neither be a castle, nor to be open to the public, nor to be on any kind of main road to …well… anywhere.

I was hitching once from Gort to Whitegate, over the Derrybrien backroads. For those of you not familiar with the geography of the Clare/Galway border these backroads are the real deal.

There are no people.


Well… there was one, I suppose.

I mean, I was there.

Now, it just so happened that I was carrying a pair of crutches at the time. I didn’t need crutches, but I had been seeing a friend to the bus and she had borrowed the crutches off us, and I had, on a whim, decided to take a different route home and visit a friend along the way.

So there’s me, walking along this road, with a pair of crutches slung over my shoulder. It was blisteringly hot that day and I had no water with me, but the walk was pleasant enough.

In an hour, one car passed me. I stuck out my thumb, but they didn’t stop. So I shrugged my shoulders and kept walking.

Eventually, and inexplicably, I came to a pub. It was open and I wandered in to ask for a glass of water. Duly refreshed I set off again.

About five minutes later the same car from before passed me again. Going in the same direction as before. It pulled over and waited for me.

It turned out that the man driving it had driven ten miles or so after passing me before the guilt had become so strong that he had turned around and driven back, missed me because I had stopped in for that glass of water, thought he had somehow managed to miss me along this one single stretch of road, or that I had vanished, turned around again and then finally found me on a stretch of road he had already covered.

And that is actually an incredibly common theme in my hitching journeys. Here’s a phrase I hear about one journey in five:

“I couldn’t just leave you there. You’ll never get a lift out here.”

No-one ever seems to see the irony in this and I never point it out. Wouldn’t want to jinx it.

In fact, there is only one other stock phrase that I hear more and it is this one:

“I used to hitch myself, when I was your age. We all did. Wouldn’t do it now though. Far too dangerous.”

And this is by far simultaneously the most understandable and most baffling conversation I have while hitching.

People seem to be afraid to pick up hitchers, because they fear that they might pick up a dangerous psychopath. But they pick me up, because I might get picked up by a dangerous psychopath. Whereupon they proceed to tell me how when they were younger everybody hitched and nobody ever got picked up by a dangerous psychopath, but it was different back then.

Yes, I agree. Back then nobody had a mobile phone, or satellite tracking, or gps built into their cars. Nobody was updating their progress on Instagram so if you went missing on a journey from Cork to Belfast it was anybody’s guess where along the road you went missing.

Back in the good old days when people didn’t insist you buckle your seatbelt.

Back in the days when it was perfectly acceptable to smoke with a passenger in the car.

Yes, I’m sure it was a lot safer. Back then.

I really do try not to get annoyed about this, but I’ve never been good at being told I shouldn’t do something because it isn’t safe, or because I’m a woman, or because it isn’t safe because I’m a woman. Especially when I’m being told not to do the thing by another woman, who did the thing herself at my age and suffered no ill consequence from it, but that was then and it was safer then, as we have discussed.

It was in fact, not safer then. It is not safe now. I have done my reading and looked at my facts, and the most dangerous part of getting into a car with a stranger is in fact getting into a car. People die in car crashes every year. Cars are dangerous. Things were a lot safer before we had cars.

Unless you got run over by a horse and cart of course.

Which happened a surprising amount. Horses are very large and heavy and spook a lot easier than your average Ford Fiesta.

And now we finally reach the ‘Guide’ part of this guide. Honestly, it is mostly just common sense.

When I hitch, I do so in the daylight. There is one route I will hitch in dusk and it’s the road back to my dad’s house because I am almost invariably picked up by someone I know. Or who knows my brother/mother/father/dog. Such is rural Ireland. Other than that, if it is getting dark out, I find another way.

Don’t hitch at night.

Keep your stuff with you as much as is possible.

This is perhaps a slight paranoia of mine, but I like to keep my belongings where I can see them if at all possible.

Sometimes, when you have a bag and a harp and an amp and you’re squashing into a car with three children you just have to put your luggage in the boot, but I personally feel more comfortable if there isn’t a possibility of me getting out and the driver just taking off with my stuff.

That might just be me though.

When a car pulls up I look who’s in it and ask where they are going. I stay friendly and open, but I take a good look at the person/persons in that car and I get a vibe for them. Usually it’s fine, but sometimes people stop and I just don’t like the look of them, or their car, or something, and I will make up an excuse. Change my destination. Decide that they are going a different route to where I want to go. Or simply decline their offer. If they are decent people they will take it well, and if they don’t then you made the right call not getting in the car.

Everybody has a vibe. If it is a bad vibe, don’t get in the car.

In all my time hitching I have had exactly three lifts that I was less than ecstatic about.

Twice the man in the car decided I needed to hear about Jesus for the duration of the trip, and once a woman decided to chain smoke the entire time.

That is it.

On the flip side, I have met incredibly interesting and generous people. I have been given excellent advice and hilarious stories. I have learned local knowledge and passed on some of my own. And I have made what would otherwise be long, lonely, expensive journeys into experiences that give me joy to relate and to relive. After all, good company on the road is the shortest cut.

Around Ireland in 80 Tunes – June

Conor’s Pass, Co. Kerry

Do you remember tour lesson 2? No? That’s ok, here’s a reminder:

Tour Lesson 2: It’s never that easy.

It’s amazing really how fast we forget these life lessons. I thought May was hard. The hardest week I was going to have. I thought June would be easy in comparison. I forgot lesson 2.

Last Monday I set off on my second week of tour feeling very prepared. I had spent an entire day the week before sending emails to almost every town I was going to visit. People knew I was coming, some people were even going to be there to greet me. As I was travelling in and around Cork county, I could go home most nights so my pack was considerably lighter than it had been in May. I had a new umbrella.

My first stops were Fermoy, Mitchelstown and Mallow. Monday morning I got a bus to Fermoy and stepped out into the glorious June drizzle. This was going to be a bit of a theme for the week.

Galtee mountains and site of former Mitchelstown Castle, Co. Cork

But the drizzle eased off and I made my way through Fermoy in good time. I did get a bit lost walking up the hill to find the old famine graveyard, but the view from the top was well worth the walk.

Next stop was Mitchelstown. I got a lift from a local lady and her mother who were more than happy to give me a potted history of the town. As we drove into Mitchelstown and rained speckled the windshield, she happily informed me that the mountains act as a cloudcatcher and Mitchelstown, as a result, tends to be a bit wet. She wasn’t wrong.

Thankfully it cleared up long enough for me to film myself playing in the town square. I did attract a bit of attention though and several very kind people came up to tell me I was in the wrong spot for busking. The concern was genuine and appreciated.

On my way out of town I passed by St. George’s Church and saw the door was open a crack. On a whim I stuck my head inside and that’s how I met Bill Power, a local historian who was more than happy to give me an extended history of the church, town and surrounding area. Thank you, Bill.

My last stop for the day was Mallow. Now, I went to college in Mallow for two years and mistakenly believed I knew the town reasonably well. Then my lift drove us into town on the other side and I realised I had only ever seen one half of the town. I hopped out of the car, over a fence, and went to take a look at the Spa House where I learned all about the history of the town and also about the tune “The Rakes of Mallow”. Fitting, considering that that was the tune I had picked out.

Tour Lesson 4: Just because you’ve been there, doesn’t mean you know a place.

Spa House information board, Mallow

On Tuesday I played at a wedding. What can I say, bills need paying.

Now, I’ll admit that my schedule for the rest of the week doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you read this and think “Surely there was a better way to do this? A shorter way?” then not only is your geographical knowledge of Ireland better than mine but you are also 100% correct. On account of the wedding, I had to reorganize my schedule and I made a bit of a mess of it. But it makes for a good story, so it all works out in the end.

On Wednesday I travelled to Bantry, Schull and Ballydehob. I got a bus as far as Bantry and was met with great enthusiasm at the tourist office. I was plied with tea and requests for music. It was lovely.

I covered the town fairly quickly before heading up to Bantry House. Eileen from the tourist office had apparently called ahead and they were happy to let me run around getting my footage.

In the back garden of Bantry House there is a long flight of stairs leading up to a terrace that overlooks the house and bay. There are over a hundred steps. When the video comes out, I would like you all to pause it at that part and appreciate the effort of climbing a hundred steps with a harp on your back. I suffer for my art.

In all honesty though, Bantry was gorgeous and I was sorry to go. I walked out along the coast road and caught a lift to Skibbereen and from there on to Ballydehob and Schull.

The alert reader will already have noticed what was wrong with that last sentence. Allow me to illustrate:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am an idiot.

Tour Lesson 5: Check the map twice.

I stuck my head into the tourist office in Ballydehob to say hi and to tell them that I would be back soon, but had to film Schull first. I got offered a lift, which was great, then I forgot my umbrella in the boot of the car, which was less great. Then it rained.

People think I’m paranoid about the weather. I will carry an umbrella on the sunniest of days. What they don’t understand is that it’s a weather totem. If I don’t carry it, it will rain. Without fail.

Anyway, Schull. I filmed. I got rained on. I left. I did see some really cute cygnets though, that was nice.

In Ballydehob, Deborah Beale of the tourist office was waiting for me. She sat me down, let me rest my weary feet, and I told her about the tour. While I was talking she was bustling around, arranging chairs. I didn’t really think about it too much.

Then people started wandering into the building and sitting down.

Suddenly I was playing a mini-concert to a room full of people.

I’m still not quite sure how it happened. That Deborah is a wily woman I tell you. One minute she’s lulling you into a false sense of security with her talk of tea and local news, the suddenly you have an audience looking at you expectantly. I think I was the only person who didn’t know I was meant to be playing a concert.

All joking aside though, it was really lovely and I would like to thank Deborah for arranging it for me. She’s a gem.

So, where are we now? Oh yes, Thursday and Friday. We might need another map for this one.

On Thursday I got the bus out to Tralee with the intention of busking, but the weather was poor and it was cold so I cancelled busking and was on the road to Killarney by one in the afternoon. I got a bit lost going out of town and walked 3km around the ringroad looking for the Killarney turn off, but I found it eventually and got a lift from there.

Killarney was my last stop for the day; so I went into town and set up again to do some more busking before finishing up my filming for the day. It was odd, only doing two towns in one day and I was at my friends house having dinner by about 6pm. Early for me on a tour day.

This is where we’re going to need the map. On Friday I travelled, exclusively through hitching, from Killarney to Dingle, to Brosna, to Rathmore, to Cork.

Cue the map:


I do not recommend this to anyone. During the day I told lots of people what I was doing and where I was going and every single one of them, upon hearing my route, laughed. Most of them didn’t think it was even possible. By seven pm I was starting to wonder if they might be right.

I left Killarney at half past nine in the morning. It was raining. I lost my whiteboard marker, which I need to write place names on my hitching sign.

Lack of sign not-with-standing, I still managed to get a lift and with a stop in Killorglin, and then again in Castlemain, I eventually made it to Dingle just as the sun broke through the clouds. It was beautiful.

I wish I’d got to spend more than an hour there.

As I have pointed out, I am an idiot, and due to my poor scheduling I ran around Dingle like a mad woman for an hour and fifteen minutes getting my footage together, before I had to leave. On my way out of town, I was stopped by a young man who had seen me in three different places in town and wanted to make sure I wasn’t lost. I told him what I was doing. He also laughed, but wished me good luck as I headed for the main road.

It is at this point I would like to thank the two gentlemen who picked me up and gave me a lift to Tralee. Upon hearing what I was doing they turned the car around and drove me up through Conor’s Pass so I could get some beautiful mountain footage. They were late for a meeting because of me. Thank you.

From Dingle to Tralee, on to CastleIsland and from there to Brosna.

What can I say about Brosna?

I mean, it’s tiny.

I’m told it has a wonderful music festival which I had missed by about two weeks. In that case I suppose it’s very much like my home town, Feakle. It even has a little dog. If you grew up in a rural village in Ireland you know exactly which dog I mean. It’s of the terrier variety and only nominally belongs to a single person. It’s the towns dog.

I petted the terrier of Brosna and walked for two miles back towards CastleIsland before I got a lift. It rained.

From CastleIsland I got a lift with a lady called Clare. She was going to Killarney but detoured to take me to Rathmore. Did you know that the town of Rathmore is divided into two towns? We didn’t. Wikipedia has this to say:

Rathmore is divided into two parts. One being the main commercial centre and the other being the administrative centre where the schools and churches are located.


After some initial confusion, I was dropped in the second Rathmore. It didn’t have a church so I’ll assume it was the main commercial center. It also had a dog. You know the kind.

I got home at about half past nine having hitched 277km and essentially worked a twelve hour day. But I wasn’t done yet.

On Saturday I was booked to busk at Blarney Castle. This was the other reason my schedule looks a bit ridiculous, but again, bills need paying.

Sunday morning; I caught the first bus to Bandon for my last two towns.

I was in Bandon for five minutes before I broke my phone tripod. I would have bought a new one, but it was a Sunday morning so most of the shops were closed. Instead I bought a tube of superglue and set about reworking the tripod. I removed bits, snapped bits, stuck bits on upside-down. It held. I moved on.

Bandon has some beautiful buildings. I hope I did it justice in the video. You see there was a slight…. weather issue. Namely, it was raining.

I got a lift to Skibbereen. I don’t know why I thought Bandon and Skibbereen were near each other. Possibly because they are on the same bus route. More likely, because I am, as previously discussed, an idiot. The lovely lady who drove me had to stop at a shop for fresh dill (she was on her way to what sounded like the most amazing and extensive family barbecue ever) and bought me a snack bar. Possibly to apologize for describing the barbecue to me.

I won’t lie. By the time I got to Skibbereen I was ready to call it a day. I was cold, I was tired, I had blisters. I nearly asked if I could just come along to the barbecue and pretend to be some long lost cousin. Instead I got out and waved goodbye.

Tour Lesson 6: You are made of sterner stuff than you think.

This week of touring felt intensely different to my first week.

On the one hand I was much better prepared. People knew I was coming, I researched the towns I was going to, I knew my tunes much better.

On the other hand the weather was against me and coming home at the end of the day was a challenge in and of itself. It is hard to travel for a solid week, but once you’re in the zone you just put your head down and do it.

Getting up early every morning and leaving my own warm bed to head out into another day of cloudy skies and long distances was another story.

It seems to be that my last day is a test. In May, I climbed a mountain. In June, the mountain was in my own mind. I wanted to be lazy, to slack off and maybe do it another day. I wanted to turn around in Bandon after I broke my tripod. Then again when I got rained on. But I’m glad I didn’t.

It is easy to follow your dreams on a beautiful, sunny day in May.

It is an achievement to keep following them through a wet and windy Sunday in June.

That said, I was very glad to have a lie-in on Monday. And now, in order to end on a cheerful note, here are some fish puns from Killarney: