Exploring Killarney, Ireland on Wheels

Prior to my incomplete spinal cord injury (SCI) 11 years ago, most of my travels involved outdoor activities and hosteling. Low-budget traveling and the unique community atmosphere that I found while hosteling really suited me. Traveling solo and having the casual, instant community I found when like-minded people from around the world share space is appealing to me. Though hosteling is not for everyone, I enjoyed it, and have many friendships from that time in my life. Upon returning to solo travel, now as a wheelchair user, I was dismayed at the prospect of large hotel bills eating up my meager budget, having no access to kitchen facilities (again increasing the cost), and, as a solo traveler, having a difficult time connecting with travelers like myself. It can be disappointing to not have full autonomy because disability-related issues come into play, but don't let that stop you. There is a whole world out there waiting to be explored.

Earle taking a detour on a hike

In the autumn of 2017 I spent six weeks traveling in Ireland. It was an amazing opportunity to learn about myself and become immersed in the solo travel lifestyle again. Early in my trip I unexpectedly ended up in Killarney, Co. Kerry. I only stayed three days, as my only moderately accessible and extremely expensive hotel room was killing my budget. In those few days I found that Killarney not only had an incredible traditional & modern music scene, great food & pubs, theater, and amazing opportunities for accessible outdoor activities, but it also had an award-winning hostel right in the heart of town and less than a quarter-mile from the Killarney National Park. I wanted in on that, but it would have to wait for my next trip back to Ireland...in six weeks.

Planning for the Trip

Planning a trip abroad as a wheelchair user with a service dog can be challenging. Booking flights are more complex and they involve multiple phone calls to the airline, health paperwork for Earle, my service dog, and the endless phone calls and emails around finding and discussing accessibility needs with hotels. It is daunting, but worth it! After booking my flight into Cork International Airport (it's small, affordable from my home near Boston, and very easy for me to negotiate with Earle and my luggage), I tackled what I thought would be the most difficult part of planning: the hostel booking.

I made my initial contact with Neptune Hostel via email; I prefer to have things in writing to prevent any questions or confusion down the road. It has happened many times, and it can be anxiety-producing and unpleasant to be sitting in the rain at dusk with no hotels around that one can access. Having correspondence in writing has come in handy in the past. In my email I explained that I was a wheelchair user, that I travel independently with my service dog, and detailed what my accessibility needs were. I received an email stating they could accommodate my needs and that they had two relatively new accessible rooms. What a surprise. Here I was expecting to, and willing to, bump up some stairs, or to have them tell me the doorways were too narrow. I will be honest, I booked with a fair bit of skepticism, but hopeful that I would be able to adapt if something went awry. Sometimes in travel a leap of faith must be made.

Getting to Killarney

Upon arriving at Cork International Airport at 7:00 a.m., I was met at the plane by two gentlemen who would assist me in quickly getting my luggage, and then through customs and immigration. I am an independent person, but these men are so genial and eager to help that I actually enjoy taking them up on their offer. The first time I ever flew into Ireland, things were daunting. My main focus and concern is getting Earle to a spot for him to relieve himself after a long flight. It was during that first trip that I learned that airport help can be a real asset, and a way to quickly get to your next location with ease and priority. Those that assist will do as much or as little as you need or want them to. They key is communication. It is not uncommon for them to carry your bags all the way to the taxi stand or bus, and even help load them. A tip is nice, but unlike America, it is not expected.

At the airport I made my way by city bus to Parnell Bus Terminal, the main bus terminal in Cork. All city buses throughout Ireland are very wheelchair accessible, with ramps and very helpful drivers. It is not uncommon in my experience to have a driver make a slight alteration in where he drops me off to make it easier or safer for me to disembark. Challenges can arise when traveling on the coach buses between cities. About 63% of Bus Eireanne intercity buses have lifts. There are two choices: one can contact the Bus Eireanne Disability line 48 hours in advance and they will make sure that a bus with a lift is put on your route, or if you are able, you can adapt. I personally don't have the time or inclination to call 48 hours in advance; my plans are too variable. I choose to do what many wheelchair users in Ireland do, which is to get out of my chair and bump up the four steps to the first seat. My bags and chair are then stored under the bus. You will find that the drivers and other passengers are helpful and patient. The Irish, as a whole, are helpers. Sometimes there is over-helping at times, but I can tell you, it is nice to have those helpers available when needed. I find if I am clear but polite, and clarify what is helpful or unhelpful, people will respect my wishes. Once we arrived in Killarney, the driver unloaded my bags and chair and helped me get settled and on my way.

The more expensive option is to take the train, which is very accessible, but has restricted travel times. I enjoy the train and it is about the same travel time, but usually more comfortable though sometimes crowded. You will not receive a disabled discount on the train, as you must be a resident of Ireland and have a pass. You may automatically get a discount for the bus, though you should have a pass for that as well.

Accessible Accommodations

The Neptune Hostel

The Neptune Hostel is about a third of a mile from the bus and train terminal, and can be tough with bags after a long day. There are taxis available, but I just wheel it. You will be traveling down cobblestone sidewalks at times, and they can be a bit narrow as well. I find that using a Freewheel attachment for my chair makes a huge difference in my happiness level. As I entered the hostel I was immediately greeted warmly with a cup of tea and my bags taken and brought to my room. The Neptune is a typical hostel and has been in business for 25 years. The staff are both Irish and from far afield and are incredibly warm and welcoming. I was initially given a tour of the main hostel building with the kitchen and lounges, but I would be staying in the newer building next door. It was down a short paved drive, but I didn't have difficulty getting there. Of course, since it is on a bit of an incline, I would need to push up it to return to the main hostel, but without bags it's easy. If I had bags, the staff gave me the phone number to the desk and they offered to not only carry anything I need, but to pick up any groceries I needed at the store.

Accessible room at the Neptune Hostel

When the staff brought me to my room I could not believe my eyes when I saw the size of my room. It was massive, with flooring that was very easy to wheel on. The décor was simple and a bit nicer than many hostels, but more than adequate. The bed was a large futon style and quite low to the ground. I did not have difficulty transferring out of the bed to my chair, but a person with a different disability might. The bathroom was fully accessible and up to the latest standards. It was so large that I could have played basketball in there! If you require the use of a shower chair, mention that upon booking.

Accessible bathroom at the Neptune Hostel

My first priority when I travel is a stop at the grocery to purchase provisions, and there was one right across the street. The kitchen at the hostel was very easy to move around in, and though the dishes and range were a bit high for me, staff or other guests happily helped me. It is a bit uncommon for travelers from many countries to see a wheelchair user traveling at all, let alone by themselves. It is important to remember that those you meet may have some pretty strong misconceptions due to their own lack of exposure. I have never been treated poorly, and I have found that most people are more respectful of your privacy than what you might find in the United States. While friendly, the majority of people in Ireland do not interrogate you about your disability, but they are going to be very willing to assist you if needed. Those that have known people with disabilities are acutely aware that Ireland can be tough in a wheelchair. They will help you adapt if you take the lead. These experiences, the give-and-take of learning and teaching, the smell of food being cooked, the various accents and languages, and the sharing of meals is quintessential hostel living. It is what makes this type of travel appealing to so many. In order to stay at a hostel and enjoy it, you must be able to enjoy, or at least tolerate, communal living. If you can't, then it will be an unpleasant experience for you.

Exploring Killarney

During each of the next 10 days I found myself wheeling the quarter-mile to the Killarney National Park. I would literally hike for the entire day. It was January, so rain was often in the forecast, but with rain pants, a good rain jacket, and waterproof shoes, it made for a comfortable adventure. If I am going on a difficult hike, where I may find myself scooting up stairs or doing transfers onto questionable surfaces, I will wear an extra layer to protect my butt. With tens of thousands of acres of wilderness, the park offers walking trails that are very suitable for wheelchair users. On one day-hike I easily traveled 20 km through what seemed like wilderness, but there was a very stable surface to wheel on most of the time. I use knobby tires and my Freewheel when I can, but often I just wheelie my way along when necessary. Of course, if you want more challenge, you can certainly get that as well. On this trip in January there was plenty of flooding and wheelie-ing to be had.

Chris, Earle, and a jarvey

If you choose not to hike, you can take a jaunting cart ride. You do have to have some mobility to do so, but the jarveys (the drivers) will do whatever they can to help make it possible. My driver, Paudie, and Mike the groundsman had no difficulty. Once again, communication is the key. With minimal work they got me up on the front seat, and Earle and my wheelchair into the back. It was raining most of the time, but the views were amazing. The clip-clop of the horse's hooves, the light rain, and the stories only made the views that much more beautiful. It truly takes one back in time.

On a sunny day I decided to take a day-long bus tour, which is out of character for me. But I am so glad I did! The Deros Tour Company in Killarney offers some great day tours, and they will pick you up right at your hotel, though they are actually right in downtown and close to most hotels. I chose the Dingle tour because it offered a number of stops, one of them being Inch Beach, a famed place to surf the wild Atlantic. I knew Earle would love to run. This was another occasion where having the Freewheel attachment truly provided freedom. I recommend carrying one of the small, heavily absorbent but quick-drying swim towels in your pack. It will help get the sand off, keeping you comfortable and the bus a bit cleaner. Taking this tour is only possible if you can either climb or bump up the three steps of the mini-bus. Again, it was absolutely worth the trip. Our driver made sure that I was comfortable, and that I had the opportunity to see and get pictures of everything I wanted to. Once arriving in the seaside town of Dingle, we had ample time to stroll around and have lunch. The steamed mussels were amazing, and Earle had plenty of time to run on the beaches, smell the salt air, and take a quick romp in the ocean. If you prefer a tour that has fewer transfers in and out of your chair and more driving to see the scenery, take the Ring of Kerry tour. Regardless, you will not be disappointed with any of the Deros tours.

Chris and Earle at Inch Beach

Over the next several days in Killarney we toured Muckross House and the beautiful Gardens, The Irish Traditional Farms site, Killarney House, and St. Mary's Cathedral, where they fed the famine sufferers watery soup out of huge cauldrons, and where a giant redwood tree marks the mass grave of a thousand children that died during that time. The history in the area is so rich; I found there was plenty to do each day.

Each evening I would return to the hostel, rest, eat, and then head out to the pubs around 9:00 p.m. to listen to music. The quarters are tight, and they can be tough to get into sometimes, but if it is at all possible, they will get you in. Whatever you do, make sure you go to the pubs. Drinking is not required, but a friendly open demeanor is. My favorites are Murphy's Bar and the Grand, but the truth is they are all amazing. Heck, if you bring a service dog, you might drink all night for free! A full Irish breakfast late the following morning will get you moving for your next adventure.

Friends, Kindness, and Stories to Tell

Overall, my short hosteling experience in Killarney was affordable and comfortable. I have been keeping in touch with friends I made, and planning on meeting up with a few in Glasgow this summer. I have not found another hostel in Ireland as accessible as the Neptune Hostel, but I will certainly keep looking. It is a unique way to experience Ireland, and a good way to do so on a tight budget.

Earle with new friends

Over the course of all my travels I have learned a few things that go far beyond logistics. I have learned that if you are kind, kindness will be returned. I have learned that by and large, people want to help, and they want you to tell them the best way they can be useful. Don't we all feel good when we are able to accomplish something together as a team, even if that team will only be together long enough to carry you up the six steps to the best music in town? I was once refused access to a train because they couldn't find the ramp key. I was going to miss the train until a carriage full of massive football fans blocked a door and carried me en masse into the first-class car saying, "This train isn't going without you." During those moments I have made connections with people that have lasted and grown into true friendships.

I also have great stories to tell. Stories about the time I could not find a place to stay and ended up staying with an elderly woman who had once run a B&B. Once when I was upset that I couldn't access an area of a mountain because the trail was too difficult, and I was cursing my disability and all of the things it prevented me from doing, I met a farmer who drove me to the top of the inaccessible part of the mountain in his tractor. Or the time I went to a boating race as a spectator and had a fisherman and his crew lower me down from the dock into his boat so I could tour the coast and watch from the water instead of the shore. People will help. Put yourself out there. Create a path for your journey and people will want to walk it - or roll it - with you.

About the Author

Chris Slavin and Earle

Chris Slavin is an advocate, educator, writer, and speaker who travels the world with her mobility assistance dog, Earle. Together they look for adventures, large and small, every day. Chris is a believer in possibility and the ability of each individual to actualize change in themselves while encouraging others. Using travel and relationships, Chris shares her story while listening and learning from the life experiences of others. A traveler before sustaining a spinal cord injury as a competitive adaptive snowboarder, Chris pursued elite-level monoskiing for eight years before retiring from ski racing after a second spinal cord injury. A desire to return to independent travel after being partnered with Earle has led her to a sense of independence and freedom that she thought she had lost.

Chris's ride is a Quickie 7R.

Earle is a three-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever from NEADS: Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans. While being raised and trained in a prison, Earle was an avid student with a wise, yet easy-going attitude. After being matched with Chris in February of 2016, it quickly became apparent that Earle's skills and temperament were what Chris needed to reconnect with the world and her dreams of independent travel. This "Big World Dog" shows the world that a great attitude and a willingness to greet everyone as a long-lost friend goes a long way towards creating a rewarding and fulfilling life. Driven by the desire to test every possible swim location, and to sniff every smell, Earle finds the world an endless adventure.

Follow Earle's adventures on his Facebook page.

Most of the stories here on Live Quickie were submitted by readers. Do you have a story to tell? We'd love to hear it. Submit your story here.

Date: 2/27/2018 12:00:00 AM

Frédérique BESNARD
Thank your for sharing your travel
I love so much Ireland and futthermore with your story
If you décide to décide to travel in Normandie I havé à bestioles for you and Earle 👍🏼
Best regards
2/28/2018 11:43:01 PM
Eva Veilleux
What an awesome and enlightening story. We live in a world where people are just "too busy" so it's heartwarming to hear stories of people going out if their way to help and be accommodating. You and Earle rock ❤️💕
2/27/2018 12:00:11 PM
Julie Anne Pickett
Meghan may have tips for you when you venture to Glasgow. It is the city she refers to as her 'home away from home'. Loved the blog, thanks for sharing your adventures.
2/27/2018 11:02:30 AM
Cristin Kalb
Your story is so encouraging for me. My son has a passion for travel but we haven’t ventured yet. This gives us so much insight and encouragement to go for it and put ourselves out there. Your suggestions are so helpful. Maybe a graduation trip to Ireland is in store for us. My son uses a power chair and a Quickie manual chair as a back up or for those unknown situations ;) Happy travels and thank you for always being uplifting, helpful and encouraging!
Cristin and Max Kalb
2/27/2018 10:56:49 AM

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