INITIALLY, it was very appealing: a whirlwind skite around the deep south, cramming a variety of adventure activities into just two days.
Who doesn’t love a bit of hillwalking? But there was also rally driving, shooting and a spot of extreme climbing. Hmmm.
You see, I’d be more your cautious type: when the doodoo hits the fan, I’m leading the panic-stricken flight, trampling over women, wearing small children as body armour, screaming like a boiled hyena. So, frankly, I need a little ‘moral support’. And that can only be provided by one man, my old compadre, Blond, James Blond (JB).
“JB! Me old segosha! How do you fancy a little hillwalking around the beautiful sunny south?” “Emmmm … ?” Says JB. “Good man!” says I, “See you Friday at the crack of dawn.”
A few days later we are driving through a misty, magical west Waterford, in the hinterland of Dungarvan. We crest the brow of a small lane way, chuckling about souped-up Escorts. The chuckles vanish. Nestling in a bucolic vale is a tarmacadamed circuit, loops, dips, curves, 180-degree hairpin bends.
It’s Rally Connection, one of only two Irish venues authorised to issue rallying competition licences. Screaming down the home straight is a souped-up 36-year-old two-litre Ford Escort. Our gulps are deep, simultaneous; this is no longer funny.
Proprietor Tom Kenneally pulls off his helmet to reveal a shiny pate and a wicked grin, wrinkling his nose at the fresh waft of Sunday driver.
“Who’s first?” he asks gleefully. I bamboozle the bewildered JB into jumpsuit, balaclava, helmet and passenger seat before he can work out what has happened. Tom takes off. Actually, Tom leaves planet earth, nought to sound barrier in three seconds, 70mph into the first hairpin. With the old Escort’s arse swinging wildly behind, Tom negotiates the bend, rearing up and off into the next straight, the next hairpin. Just over a minute, he completes a circuit with a handbrake turn.
A brief glimpse of JB’s face, all eyes and terror tells too much. I grow progressively queasier as Tom hurls around the circuit 10 more times before screeching to a halt. JB staggers out. “Jesus,” he gasps, “I’m like jelly. That was the most terrifying thing I have ever done in my life.”
We guffaw, me hysterically. Last year, JB knocked out a parachute jump and a paraglide in New Zealand with nary a bother. I break into a cold sweat if I see a kite. I am going to soil myself. I am going to cry. I cannot do this. I am doing it. It is a dream.
Instructor Tony is strapping me into the hard bucket seat, belts over shoulders, chest, crotch, no give like a normal car. “Can you hear me, Joe?” shouts Tom over the helmet headset. “Yes,” I whimper. He presses ignition. I am pinned back, we are heading for that first bend, for death. And then a strange serenity washes over me. I am floating. We slam through, Tom gunning out of the turn, shouting a running commentary. I take in nothing. I reconnect with the car. I am, I am … enjoying myself? “You’re very quiet, Joe?” “This is effing brilliant, Tom!”
Ten circuits are done in a flash, and I am scrambling into the driver’s seat. I have become my own worst nightmare, Boy Racer. Tom howls instruction: “Brake! Gear down! Off the brake! Don’t accelerate, don’t accelerate, wait until you’re nearly through the turn. NOW, JOE, GIVE IT WELLY!”
I hare down the straight and into the next bend. “Stay wide, Joe, stay wide! Off the effing clutch, Joe! !! Now go! GO!”
It is a drug. I drive faster and faster as the Escort and I form a bond of thrust. Into a sweeping rising bend, ! I put the boot down, find the line and rise through the curve, bulleting out the far side like a stone from a slingshot, shimmy through gentle waves of the home straight and handbrake turn. Well, Tom pulls the handbrake.
Out of the car, I struggle for a nonchalant swagger, but am fizzing with adrenalin. It’s JB’s turn to take off. Like an old lady looking for a space in a crowded car park, braking to a near halt at the first hairpin. I laugh the hysterical, cruel laughter of the survivor. He never tops 40mph the whole way round, struggling in vain to master the scrawny gearstick.
“That’s an afternoon in the workshop for me,” says Tony pleasantly after one grinding crunch of the gears. Tom cuts JB’s misery short a few laps shy of 10.
We leave — me very reluctantly, promising faithfully to return — but the clock calls. Driving off, we laugh manically. No question, we’re awake now.
Two hours later, near Kilfinane, Co Limerick, we are driving cautiously up a rough track, into forest in the beautiful Ballyhoura mountains, misty rain shrouding the peak. It is the Lazy Dog Clay Pigeon Shooting Range. JB and I are gun novices, wild-eyed and wary in our ignorance. Proprietor Ray sports a shooting jacket, festooned in gun paraphenalia and is, like ‘Rally’ Tom, completely bald, but he soon puts us at ease.
Ray is Ray Sampson, former Limerick hurler, a sports addict who needed a replacement after retiring from the game. He and the Lazy Dog shooting team are the All-Ireland Club Champions.
Ray does a good job of settling us but there is still the matter of the virgin shot with the beautifully tooled Beretta shotgun. I am wincing, eyes near closed, aiming vaguely skyward, anticipating a mighty recoil, a mighty bang despite ear defenders. Pull. Ray releases one of the ‘pigeons’, saucer-sized, orange, clay discs. I’m not even looking. I jerk the trigger. Bang. Hey, that wasn’t too bad. “Pull,” I shout, another orange projectile soaring. I pull the trigger. Jesus Christ! It shatters apart in the sky. I’ve hit the buckin’ thing!
Then it’s JB’s turn. He fires. Close, says Ray, kindly. Ray is kind a few more times. “Ah, emasculated all over again,” sighs JB. Ray gives him a few pointers. He shoots again, misses but a second shot explodes the pigeon on the way down. “Well done, JB!” enthuses Ray, “best shot of the day so far.” And that’s us sold, blasting away until the clock calls a halt to a grand afternoon’s sport. What’s all the fuss about guns? Why, I might even get a couple for my toddlers.
We’re off to Ballyhoura Rifle and Pistol Club range sited in an abandoned old quarry near Glenroe, 15 miles away. It seems a bit pointless, now we have mastered shooting, but the appointment is booked. Dave O’Dea is a former prop-forward like fellow Bruff-man John Hayes. And like Hayes, Tom and Ray, has a shiny, shaved pate, today covered in a range officer cap. An old sweet jar is brimful of his medals, plaques and trophies, won in national and international marksman competition.
“Many first-timers who come here think they can already shoot,” says Dave, “from watching James Bond.” He tells us of a couple where the wife completely outshot her husband. “Why?” Dave asks himself. “Because she listened to my instruction.”
We nod vigorously at Dave, very much in the wife camp. JB is first, aiming for targets 55 yards away. With clay pigeons, you move and shoot; for target shooting, you strive for stillness, halfway through exhaling, hold the breath, squeeze the trigger. Except it is very hard to relax, squinting down telescopic sights, hands quivering, anticipating report and recoil. We try .22 calibre bolt-action rifles with varying degrees of success.
Then Dave introduces a .308 calibre Sacko long-range rifle which he shoots a 1,000 yards in competition. JB pulls the trigger. There is an enormous explosion, I jump out of my skin. Dave, who doesn’t waste smiles, dishes out a broad grin.
Afterwards, JB confides he didn’t know what was going on other than he had shot himself and was now dead. He is very reluctant to take his remaining shots, I am equally reluctant to try at all. But we do, wincing at each thunderclap. A .22 calibre Sig Sauer pistol comes as a relief and we empty magazines rapidly. Dave tells me I have potential but I am still unnerved after ‘Big Bertha’. Tell Santa the guns are off the Christmas list.
Too late for our hillwalk, we soothe frayed nerves overnight in the welcoming Deebert Arms Hotel in Kilmallock.
The next day, playing tourist we take the slow scenic route to Dingle, early afternoon, heading up the Conor Pass. Us and the entire peleton. A cycle race inching its way forward has reduced a vast convoy of 21st century automotive technology to wagon-train pace.
When we finally make Dingle the lure of a pint outside in the late afternoon sun is infinitely appealing but we dutifully drive to the Play-At-Height climbing centre.
Outside there’s two high-rope courses and a 40ft freefall tower, inside the biggest climbing wall in Ireland, swarming with kids. The staff are young and friendly but …. where’s the obligatory bald guy, the remote country location? Where’s the fear factor? And after four back-breaking hours in the car, I need a rest. The very obliging David postpones until morning and we hightail it back into town for a hilarious evening in the legendary Curran’s pub.
Next morning, we have the place to ourselves. JB has resigned as guinea pig; I am climbing alone. I begin with a simple traverse wall, clambering sideways by hand and footholds.
Yesterday, the kids scampered around like squirrels but I find it tough. Unlike kids, I am not only shifting my own weight but another few stone I’ve had on loan for the last while. On top of that, a few pints the night before is never the isotonic recommendation.
I switch to the starter climbing wall, strap into safety harness and begin my ascent. This is even harder, pulling my carcass up by fingertip. Near the top, I’m sweating. I’m done. “Push out from the wall and let yourself go,” shouts David. “The harness will let you down gently.”
Four years ago, I fell 30ft, ending up in hospital under anaesthetic having pins inserted in my arm. Is it my imagination or is my wrist tingling? I can’t quite commit to letting go. Instead of a graceful swoop, I come down like a sack of suet being lowered by a drunk, giving my shoulder a handy wallop on a protruding foothold en route. JB guffaws vengefully; he who laughs last and so forth. I surrender, all adventured-out.
We complete a 700km round trip home, wondering if anyone will notice the change, that aura a man carries when he has looked death in the face and pranced off squealing.