The Genesis

It started two years before. That's when my parents, along with my Uncle Dewey and Aunt Dee, first went over to Ireland. My dad and Uncle Dewey had begun researching their genealogy maybe a year before that, and their mother's line had yielded the most results: they knew for certain that their grandmother (my great-grandmother) Mary Ann Coen, had emigrated to the US from County Roscommon in Ireland. In doing their research, Dad and Uncle Dewey had managed to make contact with living relatives still in the area. Two years ago, after letters and a couple phone calls, they went went over and met them in person.

Now they were planning to go back again, and at a family gathering, Dad and Mom asked my sister Sharon and me if we wanted to go along as well.

Sharon looked at me. "I'll go if you go," she said. I looked at Denise. "I can manage the kids," she said. "Go on."

So I went.

Here's the group: my mom, Aunt Dee, me, my dad, my sister Sharon, and Uncle Dewey. A motley bunch, aren't we?

First Impressions

The flight over on Friday, September 3rd was exactly what you'd want it to be: uneventful. We left Cincinnati for Newark, then made the connection in Newark for the flight to Ireland. Aunt Dee, who works for Continental, had booked us into bulkhead seats, so even though we were in steerage with the rest of the cattle, we actually had leg room for the 6+ hour intercontinental flight. Our flight out of Newark left on Friday evening -- we would arrive in Dublin with our bodies telling us it was 3:00 AM even though it was 8:00 AM Saturday morning there, and I knew that Saturday was going to be a long and tiring day. I tried to sleep on the plane to start making some of the temporal adjustment, but that was tough: too noisy, too cramped, and sitting is not my preferred sleeping position unless the television is on. I may have managed a few hours. Maybe.

We came in on time at Dublin airport and had our first taste of the Irish notion of time efficiency: there was an Air Lingus plane still in our gate, and we had to wait about twenty minutes on the tarmac for the plane to push out of the gate so we could get in.

I hate to admit it in this cosmopolitan age, but this was the first time in my life that I'd been off the North American continent. The only 'foreign' countries I've visited have been Canada and Mexico. So this was the also the first time I'd needed a passport or had to go through 'real' customs and immigration. I don't know what I expected, but I've had tougher times at the Canadian border, where I've been told to "pull over there, please" and had the authorities go through my car three or four times. The customs official glanced at my passport, asked how long I was staying, stamped the page and motioned me through. We picked up our baggage -- after another twenty minute wait -- walked down a corridor marked "Nothing To Declare" where two Irish customs officials talked to each other while we wheeled the luggage past them, and we were out of the gate, where Aunt Dee and Uncle Dewey were waiting for us: they'd arrived two days earlier. We headed for the car rental booth, signed up for the van and went out to the shuttle to take us to the rental lot.

The fact that Sharon and I had been asked to go along hadn't been an entirely altruistic request: in Ireland (and I suspect also in the States), there are laws restricting the age at which you can rent cars and vans, and everyone in the group except Aunt Dee were over the age at which they could rent a van. Sharon and I would be the designated drivers, and Sharon had the added advantage of having lived in London for a while, and thus had once been familiar with driving on the sinister side of the road. We had more of a taste of Irish efficiency at the rental lot: we were supposed to have reserved a Volkswagen van with three rows of seats, but they didn't have one. Instead, they brought out a Fiat that had two rows of seats -- three people to sit up front, three to sit in back. In addition, the Fiat had been wrecked and the side door gaped at the top, which meant that whoever sat on the left hand side would find themselves getting soaked if it rained... and it does occasionally rain in Ireland -- generally four days out of seven. Not to mention that the Fiat had no gas in the tank, and they'd written down the mileage entirely wrong. So after some wrangling, we were given another Fiat van that at least hadn't been on the wrong side of an altercation, and we were off.

Sharon drove. She didn't even offer me the keys -- which was exactly the way I wanted it.

Our plan was to drive from Dublin to the town of Roscommon in County Roscommon. We were staying there at a place called Regan's Inn, where we were also hosting a party for the relatives at the Inn that evening... assuming we could all stay awake that long. By now it was 11:00 AM in Ireland, and 6:00 AM for our bodies. I'd been up for twenty four hours, with the exception of the catnaps on the plane. Adrenaline was still kicking, though; I don't think any of us felt particularly tired. We headed off toward Roscommon.

Once out of the Dublin proper, we got our first taste of 'real' Irish roads: two lanes, with just about enough room for two vehicles to slither past each other without taking off their sideview mirrors, and fences (stone or wood) and bushes lining either side ready to snag any unwary arms. I was sincerely glad I wasn't driving, though in sitting in the passenger side of the front seat, I had the feeling that I'd be picking leaves out of my teeth at any moment. Still, I sat back and tried to absorb my first images of Ireland.

One thing that impresses itself upon a visitor once you're actually outside the city is that Ireland richly deserves its nickname as the "Emerald Isle". The grass is a vibrant, deeply saturated hue of green that I'd never seen before, even in the Midwest. Take the richest blue paint you can find and mix in an equal amount of searing bright cadmium yellow and you might approximate it. The grass almost seemed to glow in the sunshine. We saw our first thatched roof cottage within 15 minutes of the airport, and as we passed through several small towns, each seemed to have its own ruins: an old keep, a ruined abbey or decaying mansion. Ireland is relatively sparsely populated now -- its population perhaps halved since the middle 1800s. In the towns, the roads narrow even more (and Irish drivers have a tendency to park wherever they damned well please, on either side of the street). More than once, Sharon had to negotiate between two parked cars with about an inch to spare on either side. The houses and shops crowd the streets and each other, their fronts and doors painted bright primary colors and most of the windows ablaze with window boxes of brilliant flowers.

An hour and a half out of Dublin and we were in Roscommon. County Roscommon sits as nearly in the middle of Ireland as it's possible to be -- due west and a little north of Dublin. Think of Ireland as a oblong and slightly curved bowl, with a thick raised rim of mountains all around it. In the center is the farm country of the lowlands, and around the midpoint of the bowl is County Roscommon. We pulled in front of Regan's, went in and got our rooms, hauled the luggage up to the third floor, then went downstairs to the pub/dining area, and there had our first pints of Guinness in Ireland. We toasted each other, and I sipped at the creamy foam. After finishing the pint, we decided to walk around a bit before taking a nap. Roscommon is a small town, by any US standard, though it's the county seat. County Roscommon was hit hard -- harder than any of the Irish counties -- by the Potato Famine of the 1840's. In 1840, the population of the County was 250,000; by 1900, the population was down to less than 60,000 between deaths and emigrations. Currently, it's back up to around 100,000

Regan's sits on the town square, which is surrounded by small shops and dominated across the way by what's called the Old Jail (converted now into small shops itself), where in the early 1800's the last official hangman in Ireland, a woman, plied her trade. Farmers had set up produce stands just off the square, selling the stuff that had just come out of their gardens that day. We went into a few of the shops -- disappointingly, the toy shop might have been anywhere in the US, with the same array of plastic toys -- bought a few postcards and went over the post office to mail them.

Unlike the post offices of my experience in the US -- this one was efficient, with two friendly clerks who were actually moving as fast as they possibly could.

We went back to Regan's and went up to the rooms to take a short nap, since we were going to have a late night when the relatives arrived...

Family Ties

When I first heard that my parents, along with Uncle Dewey and Aunt Dee, planned to host and pay for a party at the pub for all the relatives, I started laughing. "An open bar for fifty to seventy Irish folks, and you're going to pick up the tab? What's the limit on your credit card?" It borders on cliche (but is nonetheless true) that the pub is the social center of Irish life and drink is the social lubricant. The party was supposed to start at 7:00PM but when Dad and I came down to the pub at 6:30, the first relatives had already started arriving, and were sitting with Uncle Dewey and Aunt Dee. We were introduced around as we waited for the private room we'd reserved to be ready.

In truth, I've never met a more gregarious and friendly bunch of people in my life. There was Marty and Bridie Mullins, along with their two sons Brian and Niall, who helped host the party and who had been our main contacts with the Irish relatives; Frank and Theresa Cuffe, who had done extensive research on the family in Ireland and who also had been a great contact for us; 'Irish John' Hester, a man of 93 whose mind was still as sharp as the proverbial tack and who gave me tales of his young days in the IRA; Kitsy Kelly, who stood up and sang a few songs for us with a stirring voice that spoke of Irish folk music's roots to Appalachian folk music; John and Yvonne Meyer, with whom I talked for a long time about life in Ireland. All told, there were between 50 and 60 people there that night. We drank, we ate, we sang, we talked, we traded yarns. I noted some social differences: the Irish don't keep the same 'private space' around themselves that we do -- instead, they come right up into your face and lean in intimately when they talk. They touch: they clap shoulders, they hug, they tap you on the chest with their index fingers to make points. They're not at all shy about standing up in front of the crowd and singing something.

They also retain a fierce patriotism that seemed shared equally among young and old. Kitsy sang a song about the Rising, and when it was over, there were several people wiping their eyes; Irish John talked several times about 'throwing off the boot of the British.' With our own rebellion against England some 220 years old, we forget that Irish independence is still very new, with the Rising of 1916 and the subsequent War of Rebellion in the early 1920's. Irish John was politically active in that time himself, and it was the parents and grandparents of most of the people in that room who suffered through those years. The Irish have long memories, and to them, it was only yesterday that this happened.

When Uncle Dewey and Dad finally stood up and gave a brief "thank you for coming" speech to everyone, Irish John stood and returned fire with a grandiloquent extemporaneous speech in return about the ties of family and blood. People started to drift out, and finally -- early Sunday morning now -- we headed to our rooms and bed at long last.

Real Ireland

The next morning, we headed downstairs for breakfast at 9:00 AM. As we strolled into the dining area, I noticed first that the help was looking at us oddly and secondly that we were the only ones in the place, though we knew all the other rooms were occupied. When we were seated, the proprietess of Regan's came up to our table to take our orders. "You folks are up early," she offered. When we expressed surprise that we were the first breakfast arrivals at 9:00, she shrugged. "Ireland's a slow country," she said. "We go to bed late, and we sleep late." My sister and mother, who had shared a room, were already well aware of that -- they'd left their window open, and had heard the singing and talking in the pub and the street below until 4:00 AM.

Breakfast, when it came, was massive, as it would be every morning we were here: eggs, sausages, rashers (or bacon, though it looked more like ham than what we think of as bacon), brown bread, cereal, orange juice, and blood pudding. I tried the blood pudding, which was black and fried and tasted something like cardboard dipped in grease. I ate my eggs, a few sausages, and about a dozen loaves of the bread.

We packed the car and settled the bill for the previous evening's party -- which, by the way, was far less than any of us expected. A pint of Guinness generally goes for about £2.50 to £3.00, or around $3.50 to $4.50 at the current exchange rate -- they must have given us keg rates, given the amount of the Guinness and Jamison and Smithwicks and drinks in general consumed the night before, along with the food. This is not to mention the fact that they could have easily taken advantage of the stupid Americans' lack of knowledge on going rates. We were pleased. Very pleased.

We went off to visit Pakie Kelly, a relative who's currently living in a local nursing home -- the Sacred Heart -- a few minutes away. Martin Mullins and Frank Cuffe came over to Regan's to act as native guides. I drove -- my first experience, and I'm pleased to report that we didn't kill anyone, especially since there were very few people on the road with us.

Pakie (pronounce it "Packy" -- his actual name's Patrick) is probably our closest relative in Ireland. His mother was Margaret Coen, who was the sister of my great-grandmother, Mary Ann Coen. I'm not sure what that makes Pakie -- my grand-uncle, perhaps? The Coens were all buried in unmarked graves -- the Coen name's gone now, since the brothers of Margaret and Mary Ann all died in childhood, leaving no descendants with the Coen name. Margaret married a John Kelly; Mary Ann came to America and married a Joseph Sebastian Lang, and their daughter became my grandmother, May Lang. Pakie spent a fair amount of money to put headstones on the Coen graves. Several of the relatives told Pakie that he was wasting his money, since there were no more Coens, but he insisted, saying that someday someone would want to find the graves. He was proven to be correct two years ago, when my parents and Uncle Dewey and Aunt Dee came over.

Pakie's 83, and though his health isn't great, his mind is still sharp. It was interesting listening to him talk about his life. He also gave clay pipes to my dad and Uncle Dewey. He told them that these kind of pipes were always used at wakes: They'd be handed out, packed with tobacco, to each of the mourners, male and female. The soul of the deceased was supposed to rise to heaven with the smoke. "By the end of the night, all the pipes would usually be broken," Pakie said.

"Was that part of part of the ritual?" we asked.

He looked confused for a second, then laughed. "Nah," he said. "Everyone would be drinking and after a while they'd be a'pegging them at each other." He picked up one of the pipes by the stem and pretended to toss it toward the wall.

We left Pakie after an hour or so and went outside. The nursing home is built next to the old Workhouse, where the poor were housed during the famine, and Roscommon has built a Famine Memorial here. The memorial is quite striking, with a sculpture of a gaunt mother holding her two children close to her. The statistics on the granite wall alongside the sculpture were even more striking: in Ireland, the population dropped by an average of 20% in the famine years of the mid-1840s; in Roscommon, the population dropped 38%, nearly twice the average elsewhere. Again, this was the highest percentage in all of Ireland. The poor were buried in mass graves in a place called Balley's Acre, which was located within a quarter mile of the monument. Frank Cuffe had the most poignant comment. "They buried people wherever they could," he said. "The ones left didn't have strength to dig the holes very deep. They find the remains all the time, still, whenever they dig to put up a building."

I asked Frank and Martin the question that seemed logical to me. "When the potato blight hit, why didn't they plant other crops?" I learned that there were several factors in that. First of all, to some degree the famine was artificial: there was food, if you could afford to buy it. But most of the people worked for the large British landowners who decreed how their own land was used and what was planted on it. They paid the Irish workers next to nothing, and in any case, the produce from that land went to the British, not the Irish. When you only have a quarter or half acre of land for your family's sustenance, potatoes were the one thing that produced enough yield with enough nourishment in a small space -- wheat or oats or whatever else wouldn't.

We followed Martin back to his house. The Mullins live on a farm a few miles outside Roscommon, in Ballintubber, which is also where all of our ancestors lived. Martin pointed out a tree on the far edge of the field by the house. "The Coen's lived a few miles over there," he said. "The Farrell's were over that way. And right over there is Frank Cuffe's house."

We went inside. Bridie was making lunch for us, and making it fancy: a melon first course, lamb, potatoes and vegetables for the entrée, and a pie and cake for desert. I also had more alcohol that afternoon than I think I'd ever had in one day: shots of Jamison before we ate, Cabernet with dinner, and a Guinness afterward. Sharon jingled the keys to the van in my direction. "I'm driving," she said.

After we ate, Frank came by again and invited us over to his house. Sharon, my mom and Aunt Dee went over to Frank's; my dad, uncle and I climbed into Martin's car, along with Martin's son Brian, and he took us over winding, one lane country roads to the old homesteads: the original Farrell house, which last served as a barn on a small farm where now no one lives; and the Coen house, only one corner of which still survives as a pile of head high stones in the middle of a thicket. I brought back an old horseshoe that Brian found in the Farrell house. "Here," he said as he handed me the rusty loop of metal. "For luck."

We finally made it over to the Cuffe's house, where Theresa served us Jamison, cake and tea, and Frank gave Uncle Dewey a survey map of Ballintubber with the family locations marked.

And after that, we headed out. We were planning to stay in Galway that evening, so we had a two hour drive ahead of us. On the way from the Cuffe's to the main road, following another one of those unmarked one-lane roads, we found our path suddenly blocked by a herd of cows heading directly toward us. Gridlock in Ireland. Sharon put the car in park, and we waited while the cows made their slow way around us. Another car, and two black and white herding dogs were behind the cows -- a farmer was using his car to move the cows from one field to another. We let the group get by us, and then said goodbye to Martin and Brian, whom we were following before the cows separated us. Martin was laughing. "Don't see that where you're from, now do ye?" he asked in his deep brogue. He gave us directions to Galway again, we all hugged and shook hands, and we left them -- the 'family' part of the vacation over.

In 20-20 hindsight, this was in many ways the best part of the trip: a chance to see people and a way of life that tourists never glimpse. Real Ireland -- the people and the land as it is, neither reconstructed or staged. And a link to family and the past.

We made it to Galway, put our luggage in our rooms, and took a cab downtown to find a pub with music. It wasn't a hard search -- you can't toss a stone in Ireland without hitting a pub window.

The old Farrell house, which once housed the family of my great-great-grandparents, and now serves as a barn and storage shed for the property.

Frank Cuffe, Martin Mullin (both standing) and Pakie Kenny (seated).

The Mullin Family: Martin, Bridie, Niall, and Brian, who showed us great hospitality. They have two black-and-white dogs, who insisted that they also be in the picture.

 

Got Any Stones?

We woke up the next morning to a downpour, and drove through the rain an hour west of Galway, where we could pick up a ferry to the Aran Islands. There are three main Aran Islands out in the mouth of Galway Bay, the largest of which is Inishmore. The Aran Islands are geologically part of a barrier strip that once ran over to the Burrens of County Clare.

It looked like it was going to be a cold and miserable day. The rain was penetrating, driven by gusts of wind that found every crevice in our parkas and hoods and soaked the clothes beneath so it seemed they'd never get dry. I think we were all wondering why we were doing this, but it was the only chance we'd get to see the islands, so we paid for the ferry tickets and got on. The fates were with us. Though the clouds remained and there were occasional drizzles and mists from the brooding sky, the heavy rain had stopped by the time we docked at the dock in Inishmore's largest village, Kilronan. Looking out across the small harbor to the slopes and the village, we could already see that this place was different: the white of limestone peered through the thin skin of grass everywhere you looked. Under the slate gray and moving sky, the island looked particularly forbidding.

You have two choices if you want to see Inishmore: you can rent a bike and cycle around the island, or you can take a minivan tour bus. Had it been a nice day, Sharon and I would have rented bikes and left the others, but with the rain, we opted to crowd in with everyone else in one of the dozen or so vans lined up along the pier, and we headed off.

Inishmore looks as if it has been parceled out into tiny, irregular lots only a few paces across, all of them marked with drystone fences. Think of a jigsaw puzzle with the edges of the pieces marked in stones. That was the only way to get land to farm here: you dug the rocks out of the ground and built fences with them, just to get rid of them and have enough soil in which to plant something. As Oliver Flaherty, our driver, put it: "There are enough stones here to build a road all the way to America."

Inishmore once had a population of 1,500 at the peak in the mid-1800's; today there are about 700 permanent residents. It wasn't the famine but simple emigration that cut the population here; Inishmore was the area least affected by the potato blight. Its remoteness meant that the blight never withered their potatoes at all, and besides, as Oliver put it: "We always had fish." Gaelic is the first language here, the language taught in the schools and used in normal conversation among the residences, though almost everyone also speaks English. There is one doctor on Inishmore for the 700 residents ("But we all drink Guinness, so we stay healthy"), and no dentist at all. From the look of Irish teeth, there aren't too many dentists anywhere in Ireland. The British never came to the islands, considering them too desolate to even worry about. There are more cattle than people on the island, but very few sheep; they have one mechanic and one petrol station ("it opened three years ago; before that they just brought petrol over in great cans at the harbor." There are essentially three primary occupations on the island: farming, fishing, or tourism.

Oliver also told us that it was mandatory to see the film "Man Of Aran" at the Heritage Center.

After driving halfway around the island by the tiny, winding shore roads and missing every passing vehicle by no more than the thickness of the paint on his van, Oliver dropped us off at Dûn Aonghasa, a cliff-top fort whose first stones were laid somewhere between 700 and 1100 BC. Oliver promised to be back in an hour and a half, and took off.

Dûn Aonghasa was incredible. We walked the mile or so up the steep ascent to the actual fort, and saw how truly hard it must be to eke sustenance from the stony ground of Inishmore. The fields are a bare layer of earth that's often missing entirely, revealing the limestone bones of the land. Everywhere there are the ubiquitous stone fences, wandering and curving, enclosing tiny fields where a few cows graze or potatoes are laid in their 'lazybeds,' which are mounds of earth piled on the stones. The Islanders use kelp for fertilizer, pulling long strings of the stuff from the copious beds of seaweed offshore and laying them in the fields. The wind shrieks in off the Atlantic, a constant presence. This is a barren and wild place, made more gloomy by the spitting sky.

Inishmore is long and narrow, and is tilted along the narrow axis. The side facing Galway Bay is low; the side facing the Atlantic is high and ends in sheer cliffs rising 300 feet above the thrashing surf. Dûn Aonghasa is perched at the highest point of the cliffs, a cluster of half-circles of stone that finally give way to an open area at the utter edge of the cliffs. I was in awe at the sheer effort it must have taken for the late Bronze / early Iron Age people to erect this edifice. Dûn Aonghasa is the largest of the four ring forts on Inishmore, and the most inspiring, perched on the cliffs with the breakers pounding far below. (In fact, I wondered how many tourists they lose a year, since there's nothing keeping anyone away from the cliffs.) From the fort, you can look back and see most of Inishmore and (through the clearing mist) we could also spot the mountains of the Connomara region of the mainland: the Twelve Bens.

I stood there for a long time, just soaking in the majesty and long history of this place, and trying to imagine what it must have been like.

We walked back down and rejoined Oliver, who took us over the rest of the island. We walked through the ruins of a 17th century Dominican church (though the cemetery is still in use.) "We don't have an undertaker here," Oliver said. "The dead stay in the house for a day or two, then go to the church and are buried."

Back in Kilronan, we went to the Heritage Center for the showing of "Man Of Aran." I'd heard about the film before going to Ireland: filmed in 1934, the B&W film is a supposed classic, showing a slice of life that's gone now, as well as (according to the reviews I'd read) some incredible scenic shots of a storm battering the island and cliffs. So we saw it, and frankly I found it incredibly melodramatic, with far too many shots of the Brave Wife gazing longingly out to sea in search of the Brave Husband's small ship. The huge waves smashing against the cliffs were spectacular enough the first hundred or so times we saw them, and the camera work was vaguely reminiscent of BLAIR WITCH (or perhaps it was only an excessively jumpy video tape). Most of the people in the audience seemed to be 'resting their eyes' through the majority of the film.

 

A lush field on Inishmore. Limstone in foreground, cows in background.

To Hell Or Chonnact

We went back to the ferry and the half hour trip back to the mainland, picked up the van from the parking lot, and headed into the Iar-Chonnact area: bordered by mountains of gray-white limestone and emerald grass with their shoulders lost in misty clouds; the Iar-Connacht area is moors of bogland, with black ledges of black earth where the turf was being cut, covered by hummocks of purple heather and studded with lakes of crystalline, cold water. There's a wild beauty here, where like the Aran Islands the British never came. Cromwell reputedly said of the Irish: "Let them go to hell or Chonnact." In the British eyes, there wasn't much of a difference. But Iar-Chonnact, while wet and dreary, could sustain people.

And damn, is it pretty.

We stayed the night in Clifden, at the Sunnybank House on Sky Road. We ate at a seafood restaurant, where I ordered the plaice, a local flatfish, and then we all moved next door to the (surprise!) pub, where we listened to a group of mostly older folks playing reels and jigs on fiddle, piano, accordion, spoons, and bodhran. Oh, and we drank some Guinness, too...

Random Observations In No Order At All

  • Toilets in Ireland have to be flushed twice -- you have to 'prime the pump.'
  • Speaking of toilets, the handles are always on the wrong side, too. And the hot and cold taps in the sink usually seem to be reversed
  • Water pressure? What water pressure?
  • Heat in the room? It's gotta be a stifling 55 degrees Fahrenheit in there; why would you need heat?
  • The prosperity of the "Celtic Tiger," as Ireland's roaring economy is called, shows. There are a fair number of new buildings going up. And the Germans are buying a lot of Irish property as investment.
  • There's even road improvement going on. Some of the roads are a full two lanes wide for at almost a mile at a stretch. In fact, the phrase "Two years ago it wasn't like this..." became the stock phrase during the trip. "Look!" someone would say in the back of the van, pointing at a grand mansion perched on a hillside. "Two years ago, that wasn't here." Sharon and I would roll our eyes at each other. "The sign over there says that's a castle dating back to the 17th century," we'd tell them. For a moment, there'd be silence, then: "Two years ago, they didn't have signs like that..."
  • Clean. Ireland is clean. You don't see trash along the road at all. In the US, you see McDonald's boxes and Burger King cups alongside the roads. In Ireland, you see sheep.
  • Speaking of sheep, they're usually marked with red or blue splotches of spray paint. Sometimes both. We were told this is the Irish version of branding. Hope the people who tag city walls with graffiti here in the US never make it over. The farmers'd never know who the sheep belonged to.
  • No one honks. You can be backed up behind some idiot stopped to have a conversation with someone just coming out of the pub, and people simply wait until they're done.
  • Some random road signs: "Black Spot" (means there's been a traffic death at that location, usually on a nasty curve); "No Verge" (no shoulder on the road); "No Overtaking" (don't pass); "Achtung! Drive On Left" (Hey, you German tourists, keep on the correct side of the road); "Loose Chips" (the shoulder is gravel, not asphalt)
  • On the restaurant menus, you have Starters (appetizers), Entrées, and Sides. If you order an entrée, you will get only the entrée. If you want vegetables or a salad, you'll need to order (and pay) for them separately. Oh, and the drinks: they're small, they cost a lot, and if your order a refill, they'll happily charge you again. You're best off ordering a Guinness
  • Guinness, Guinness, Guinness... They must be the richest damned family in Ireland, followed closely by the Jamisons.
  • Every statement has to end in a question: " 'Tis a beautiful day, 'tis it not?" Answer: " 'Tis, 'tis..."
  • Here, you use the fork the European way: in your left hand always, with the tines facing down. You shovel the food onto the fork with your knife.
  • When in doubt, boil all vegetables to death and utter limpness. They even sell frozen Mushy Peas in the groceries. Yes, it's exactly what you think it is.
  • I don't think I saw one dog in all of Ireland that wasn't black with white splotches or white with black splotches. Short hair, long hair, whatever breed you want: it didn't matter as long as it was black and white.
  • If you have a window, you must also have a window box with flowers. Lots of 'em. You don't even need to water 'em; the rain will take of that.
  • When someone says "turd," they're referring not to fecal matter, but to the place between second and fourth.

"Oh my God!"

We ate breakfast at the Sunnybank -- usually rooms in Ireland include breakfast as part of the rate. The Sunnybank, by the way, I would highly recommend if you ever get to Clifden: friendly owner and staff, a picturesque place, and very reasonable. We shopped for a bit in Clifden; I bought Devon a bodhran and Megen jewelry (I'd already got Denise a sweater and earrings on the Aran Islands). And then we headed out to the Connamara region, with me driving.

We took the Sky Road out of Clifden, which is a narrow (this is Ireland, after all) road that circles around the headlands of one of the peninsulas. Suprisingly (and thankfully for me), there was very little traffic out there, though you couldn't have driven fast anyway unless you wanted to go hurtling over a cliffside around the several sharp bends and turns. In any case, we had to keep stopping to catch our breath at each new scene the turns revealed, with muffled cries of "Oh my God!" at the vistas spread out below us. It was truly gorgeous, these wide landscapes of seacoast and mountains, dotted with white houses and farms, and everything green under a wide blue sky. I think I shot a whole roll of film as we drove and stopped, drove and stopped along the Sky Road.

From the Sky Road, we wandered a bit inland in Conommara National Park, still pulling over every half-mile or so to gape at some new scene. Unlike the US, Ireland has only recently begun setting aside lands for national parks -- this one dates back only to 1983. You simply must see Connomara. The mountains are unlike any in the States. These are old mountains like the Appalachians, rather than young and rough ones like the Rockies. But where the Appalachians would be covered in stands of pines and hardwoods, the Connomara Mountains are bereft of trees. (They once had trees, though. Ancient ireland was covered in deep woods. But the Bronze and Stone Age people burnt down some of the forests to clear the land, as did the Irish, and the British logged what was left. What you see in Ireland is an environment changed drastically by humankind.)

Nor are the Connomara Mountains bare stone like the Rockies. Instead, these are steep slopes of lush green grass and gray-white rock, with cloud-shadows casting purple into the shadows of deep clefts where rills of white water cascade down. Deep fissures are shrouded in greenery; you can hear the streams running madly through them but you can't see them until you step into the cold, cold water. The creeks and streams feed down into a thousand lakes of water stained blue-black by peat, or fan out through the bottomland of bogs.

This is fairyland, harsh and lush all at once, a place where a passing cloud can toss rain down at you while the sun still caresses the adjacent peak.

Sharon and I took a hike out from the Visitor's Center halfway up the slope of one of the Bens. There, we could look out over a few miles of hills and see the ocean again: a harbor nestled beneath another mountain. I stood there, and I realized something. I've often painted imaginary landscapes of mountains and water, and those landscapes were nothing I'd ever seen. Instead they were drawn from somewhere inside: long slopes and mists. "Those are the mountains I draw," I told Sharon suddenly. And it was: this was the landscape I've often tried to reproduce -- green slopes devoid of most trees, the hidden, folded valleys below.

I felt myself at home.

We left Connomara in the late afternoon, moving away from the mountains and into County Mayo. Mayo seems to be inhabited mostly by sheep, at least half of which think the road is a good place to stand. The views here are not as spectacular as Connomara, but the soil is better for farming and grazing, and you can still see the mountains off in the distance. We drove the inevitable narrow, winding roads -- I think they laid them out by simply following the sheep and putting down asphalt wherever they wandered. We occasionally passed slower cars and occasionally shivered when a lorry or tour bus coming from the other direction suddenly appeared around a bend, taking up 3/4 of the road. This was the worst driving I had to do in Ireland, and it didn't get better in the villages, where the streets seemed to have been (and probably were) sized to accommodate horses and buggies and not vans. I'm amazed that the paint stayed on the side of the Fiat.

We passed through Sligo and the city of Donegal and stayed the night just outside Donegal.

Yes, then we went to a pub.

Connomara vista - Sky Road outside Clifden. You need to be there to really get the feel for the space. Those sea-side cliffs you can see at the upper right are probably a hundred feet or more high and are a few miles away.

What? Rain in Ireland?

One of the locals in the pub that night told us that we were going to fall in love with County Donegal and the coast. "Ah, 'tis even better than Connomara. The best place of all: the real Ireland, 'tis. But ye'll see for yourselves... as long as the weather's good."

There's an old (and not particularly funny) saying about Cincinnati, which goes along the lines of "Don't like the weather here? Just wait five minutes and it'll change." That seems to be even more true of Ireland. After Tuesday's sunshine (which followed a rainy Monday), I was awakened by a sound I couldn't immediately identify: the wind whistling through the cracks of the windows. Outside, trees were bending over against the gales; the electrical wire leading to the hotel was moving enough that you could have jumped rope with it, and black clouds were scudding along under a slate gray sky. The wind must have been kicking up to 40 mph in rainy gusts.

Lovely. And we were planning today to travel along the upper north-west corner of Ireland, where the guidebook says: "The land's austere beauty can be rather bitter and desolate in bad weather." Yup.

However, though we started out in heavy rain as we headed north and west of Donegal, the clouds started to break; half an hour later, out over the Atlantic, we spied a rainbow. Aha, we thought, we have been blessed by the gods and we're going to have a glorious day.

Never, ever think yourself blessed by the Irish gods. Fifteen minutes later, the clouds had closed back in, the wind shrieked louder, and it started pouring again. Despite that, we still headed out along the coastal road, but most of the vistas were shrouded by the rain, mist and low clouds. We stopped a few times and looked between showers, but by midday we decided to head straight overland to Letterkinney, giving up on glimpsing the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Even the sheep hated this day; they were huddling against the stone fences, nose in.

Souper

We moved into the bogland -- wide, treeless valleys covered with moor grass and lined with turf cutting and heaps of peat. It was still raining when we reached Glenn Cholm Cille, on the coast. There, we got out of the car (smelling the distinctive odor of burning turf fires) and went into the Folk Village. We went through various dwellings restored as they would have been in their particular eras. We were startled to realize how late things changed in Ireland: the thatched cottage dating from the 1700s wasn't terrifically different than the one across the way restored to 1900 standards. The dwellings were uniformly small and dark: there was a 'window tax' during the British occupation. The larger your window, and the more windows you had, the more you paid.

In the center of the courtyard around which the cottages were built was a huge metal kettle. The guide explained that this was the soup kettle. During the famine years, the British would make a kettle of soup there and give it to anyone who wanted it. The only catch was that to get a bowl of soup, you also had to swear your renunciation of the pope and Catholicism. No renunciation of your faith, no soup. Those who would take the oath (and their bowl of soup) were scornfully called 'soupers' by the locals -- a title which, given the long memory of the Irish, would probably have been attached to your family for generations.

In the 1940's cottage, the only concession to modernity was the addition of a wooden-floored parlor added to the usual two-room structure. Glenn Cholm Cille didn't have electricity until 1953, and telephones didn't arrive until two years after that.

We did learn that a tea kettle spout Uncle Dewey found back in the old Farrell house most likely did belong to our ancestors -- it has the same distinctive end to the spout that appears on the Glenn Cholm Cille artifacts from the 1700s.

Leaving Glenn Cholm Cille and turning inland now to cut across the peninsulas, we moved into the true moors. This was a blasted and barren area of low hills and endless bogs, punctuated by a few tiny villages and widely-separated farmhouses. This was the most desolate-looking country I'd seen thus far, and I found it not at all appealing, though in fairness, part of that impression might have been due to the continuing poor weather. We eventually passed out of the moors and back into steep hills, and descended down into Letterkinney town. We ate lunch and made reservations to stay at the Fort Royal Hotel in nearby Rathmullen. By the time we finished our late lunch, the sun had returned, but we headed for the hotel anyway. We relaxed, had a fine dinner at The Water's Edge restaurant and watched seals passing by in Lough Swinney, a long lake that eventually empties into the North Atlantic. The Fort Royal was full of old folk -- I think Sharon and I were the youngest people there. Most of the people seemed to have come from nearby Northern Ireland on holiday.

After a few Guinnesses in the bar, we headed outside to our rooms in the annex. I had to stop, craning my neck upward. The sky was dusted with stars while the Milky Way streamed overhead as a glittering band. It's been a long time since I've seen a night sky like that. I pointed out the spectacle to everyone, and both Uncle Dewey and I saw a shooting star streak from zenith to the east at the same moment.

Glorious. 'Tis.

We decided that we'd let the weather decide the itinerary tomorrow -- we'd go north to the coast for a second try if it was good weather, or head directly for Dublin if not.

The soup kettle at the Folk Village, Glenn Cholm Cille. Eat from it, though, and you're a "souper" for life.

Is This A Stag Party, Or What?

We left the Fort Royal hotel, but not before one of those weird serendipitous meetings. First, you have to know that although Sharon and I were leaving on Sunday, my parents, Uncle Dewey and Aunt Dee were then going up into Northern Ireland to see some of Aunt Dee's relatives, and also meet a friend, John McGrady, whom they met on the last trip. John lives in Sleiveninski (I know I haven't spelled that right, but...), a small town in the middle of nowhere that is also where Aunt Dee's family lived. The night before in the Fort Royal's bar, we met a man called Cecil Johnson, who like many of the others here was here on holiday from Northern Ireland. He asked where everyone was going, and when Aunt Dee told, him, he was amazed. "You don't say. That's where I live. Why would you be going there?"

Aunt Dee told him how her family was from the area, and that they were also hooking up with John McGrady. Now Cecil was utterly flabbergasted. "John? Why he's a great friend of mine..." So here we are 200 miles from the place they're going to visit and they run into someone who's not only from the same small town, but who's a close friend of the person they're meeting.

During breakfast, we watched another Irish phenomenon -- the rain shower in the middle of sunshine: true Irish mist. We decided that we'd go north, and turned the van that direction into alternating brief showers and long stretches of sunshine. I was the driver today. Sharon grumbled in the passenger seat. "Whenever it's good weather, it's your day to drive..."

When we finally hit the Atlantic sea road around Sheep Haven and Horn Head, the wait was justified with the views of the spectacular scenery of this rough coast: huge waves coming in driven by gale force winds, breaking white and high against the rocks. County Donegal's coast proved to be well worth the visit, though I don't think it was actually more spectacular than Connomara. I think everyone in Ireland (perhaps like everyone here in the States) says that their part of the country is the best.

We then turned inland again and stopped at Glenveagh National Park, which contains Glenveagh Castle. This is a truly remote region of Ireland: a very boggy, high valley, cradled in the midst of 2,000 foot high mountains. In ancient times, the region was totally uninhabited, and it was only population pressure that -- in the late 1700s to early 1800's -- drove people here from over the hills at Garton to try to make a life. In 1857, the several thousand acres of land were purchased by John George Adair, who created an evil reputation for himself when -- in the cold April of 1861 -- he evicted 244 tenants (with the help of British militia) from their houses on his new estate. The evacuation made headlines throughout Ireland and caused an uproar, but the tenants were sent away, many of them emigrating to the States, to Canada, or to Australia. Adair then built Glenveagh, completing it in 1870. He didn't live in it long, dying in 1875, and his widow Mary made up for some of Adair's evil reputation with charitable donations. She lived in Glenveagh until her death in 1921. In 1922, the IRA briefly occupied the castle, but fled when the Free State Army approached. In 1929, the castle was bought by Prof. Arthur Kingsley Porter of Harvard, who then went missing in 1933 while on a trip to an island off the northern coast. In 1937, Glenveagh was bought by Henry McIlhenny of Philadelphia, who died in 1983, but not before he donated the castle and the land to the Irish government as a park in 1981.

We found the castle to be impressive, set on a hillside in front of a black and windy lake (Lough Veagh) that looked like the dark Lochs of Scotland, winding through the valley between the brooding mountains with a constant wind frothing the waves. The castellated mansion is huge: a four story rectangular keep with walls a meter and a half thick; ramparts and turrets; a round tower. McIlhenny, though not a hunter himself, often had friends in on hunting expeditions. The red deer were extinct in the area when Adair bought the land; Mary Adair brought in red deer from England, and there is now a herd of around 600 on the land. The deer motif runs throughout the castle: chandeliers made of antlers, massive baroque painting of fighting stags, deer on the china, on the wallpaper, in drawing and engraving and paintings hanging everywhere.

McIlhenny entertained on a lavish and expensive scale, yet we learned that Glenveagh was wired for electricity only in 1960. Yes, that's right: not even four decades ago. Until then, the estate was lit by kerosene lamps and candles. Ireland moves slow...

The bus driver who took us on the two-mile drive from the visitor center to the castle -- Paddy O'Grady: I don't think you can manufacture a more Irish name than that -- told us a tale that also seemed typically Irish.

"Ye see, there were tourists, eh, an' they stopped inquire of a gentleman walking along the road. 'Paddy,' they asked, 'can ye tell us how we might get to Glenveagh?' The man looked at the tourists and asked them: 'Now then, how did ye know that me name was Paddy?' he said. 'Why, we guessed it,' said the tourists. 'Ah. Then I suppose ye can also be guessing the way to Glenveagh, can ye not,' the man answered them, and walked on."

In Glenveagh, as we had in Connomara, we heard about the 'infestation' of rhododendrons. Imported from England, rhododendrons, like kudzu in the south of the States, had taken over, killing and crowding out the local plants. The Irish park system is actively taking out great swaths of rhododendron, which cover entire mountainsides

Lough Veagh, Glenveagh National Park. Glenveagh Castle is hidden around the trees, just beyond the hillside that thrusts out into the lake at the middle left.

Kata With Fish & Chips

We left Glenveagh and went back out into bog country, and found the road heading south to Dublin. We pressed on through dozens of little towns with the usual narrow streets, trying to pass slow trucks... err, 'lorries'... wherever the road straightened out enough and cursing inwardly when in the towns at the Irish propensity to park wherever they find an open space. We saw, in one town, another Irish image: an old man, dressed in his tweed cap, sports jacket, white oxford shirt and tie, mowing his grass. On our trip, we've seen men in jackets and ties doing all sorts of things: painting houses, driving farm machinery, and sweeping sidewalks.

We've also had time to develop our own routines during the drives. One of these was for someone to ask a semi-innocent question, and then everyone else tries to give a wrong-but-semi-plausible answer to it. For example, the week we were in Ireland was also the week of the Gaelic Footbal finals, and every town we went through had flags flying in the colors of their team, We passed through one village where they'd gone even further, stringing banners across the street from one rooftop to another. "Why'd they string the banners across the street like that?" Uncle Dewey asked. My answer: "Because if they strung them much lower, they'd get in the way of the cars." Okay, so it needs a rim shot and a laugh track to go with it, but you find what humor you can when you're driving.

As we passed through yet-another-village, my dad spotted a neon sign, bright in the overcast. The letters were stacked vertically, like this:

T

A

K

E

A

W

A

"Tah-KEE-ah-wah?" Dad said. "Steve, what kind of martial art is that?" For a moment, we all thought he was playing the silly game. We drove by the shop and I glanced in the rearview mirror, noticing that Dad seemed genuinely puzzled. "Oh," I answered, "it's a local martial art that involved battering people over the head with fish and chips." Dad squinted at me suspiciously. "The sign says 'Take Away,' Dad. Fish and chips to go. Carryout. The 'Y's out on the sign."

For the rest of the trip, we'd point out 'dojos' to my father: Chinese ones, mostly.

Not Beirut, But Kentucky

The quickest way back to Dublin involved cutting through Northern Ireland. The contrast was interesting. At the moment, there are no militia guarding the borders; you simply drive along and hey! you've crossed into the other country. When my parents were here two years ago, that wasn't the case -- they were stopped each time they crossed the border by uniformed, polite young men with machine guns.

My own mental image of Northern Ireland, I must admit, has been shaped by media coverage: scenes of bombed-out Belfast and hordes of Orangemen marching down streets while the Catholics throw rocks; litter and blood in the street from car bombings. Instead, I saw a land that appeared more prosperous and fertile than the Free Republic. Great Britain has spent money here, and it shows. The streets are wide and well marked, there are new sidewalks in the towns, and there is overall a more 'modern' and mundane appearance. The rural areas remind me of Kentucky near Lexington, with farmland and rolling hills, white fences (not stone) enclosing acres of open fields. This is not the rocky soil of the south and west. No, this is black, rich soil with large houses sitting on manicured expanses of green. No wonder that the British didn't care if the Irish fled west. No wonder they fought to retain this area.

After a five hour drive, we arrived in Dublin, checked into the hotel, and then went out for dinner and -- yes -- a Guinness or two in the nearest pub. How else would you end a day in Ireland?

Did The Book Of Kells Have A Paperback Edition

Friday morning, we walked from the hotel to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells. I'd think most everyone has at least heard of the Book of Kells, but just in case: the Book of Kells is actually four separate bound volumes of scripture, transcribed and intricately illuminated by monks and dating back to the beginning of the 9th Century. It is a marvelously beautiful piece of work: the little decorations and drawings that adorn it are incredibly detailed and often humorous. The best guess is that the volumes now known as the Book of Kells were originally created in a monastery on the island of Iona, just off Scotland. It came eventually to the monastery at Kells in Ireland, and it's amazing that the thing survived at all, given the history of catastrophic fires there. The Kells monastery suffered fires that nearly destroyed it in 960, 975, 990, 1110, 1113, 1135,1136, and so on. (I may have the dates slightly wrong, as I didn't write them down, but you get the general drift. This is evidently why it's nearly impossible to get fire insurance if you have a thatched roof.) The book came to Dublin and Trinity College in 1661.

Two years ago (there's that phrase again), on their last trip to Ireland, my parents said they were simply ushered into the room where the Book was displayed, and that was the sum total of the exhibit -- if you hadn't read up on the history and understood the significance of Kells, they said, it would be rather disappointing. Now, we walked through a large exhibit hall replete with eight foot high color transparencies of various pages, with long text passages on the walls talking about the history and background of the Book of Kells, about parallel historical events, about how the books were created, about monasteries, how colored inks were ground, and so on. There was a video loop showing the process of transcription, and another demonstrating how the book was bound after the parchment quires were written. I found myself fascinated by one panel that showed how the monks marked transcription errors, corrections and deletions with dots and crosses and lines. All in all, word processing is slightly easier.

The Book of Kells itself is in a flat, horizontal display case. Two volumes are shown, one open to a page of full decoration, the other open to a page that is mostly text. At least at one time, the curators turned a page each day, so that the same page wasn't always exposed. I assume that's still the case, but didn't notice anything that specifically said this was true. Two other ancient books are in the case as well.

I queued up with the people around the case and waited my turn to press my nose close to the glass and peer at the book. I've seen reproductions of some of the pages and read about it, but to actually be within a few inches of the artifact was amazing. You could see the ink marks, the intricate lines, the way a turn of the quill caused the line to widen or curve, the delicate wash of colors. I stared at the paper itself, realizing that this was something that predated this entire millennium that's about to end.

I sighed, ran my fingertip along the edge of the glass, and made way for the next person.

The exit from the exhibit ran through the Long Hall of Trinity Library, a two story edifice filled with old volumes. You could smell old books as you approached. Several books and manuscvripts here were also on display, none anywhere near as old as Kells, of course, but I did look at a first publication of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," one of my favorite pieces of satire. (I won't describe it -- go read it yourself.)

Speaking of Swift, our next 'scheduled stop' was St. Patrick's Cathedral, where in the 1730's, Swift was Dean. He's buried here with Stella, who was a much younger woman (he was in his late 30's -- I believe -- and she was 16 when they met) who moved with Swift wherever he went, though always in another house and always with a female companion as chaperone. My bet is that the chaperone found other things to occupy her mind on occasion. Though Swift never married Stella, he was devastated by her death at age 46, and they are at last together here in St. Patrick's.

The Tart With The Cart, The Floozy In The Jacuzzi

In perhaps our most touristy move of the entire trip, we got on one of the double-decker buses providing tours of Dublin. The sun was out, and riding on the open top deck was enjoyable, and it was a break from walking. The tour guide kept up a chatty if obviously scripted spiel as we moved through the streets: past the statue of the famous streetwalker Molly (called by Dubliners "the tart with the cart'), the statue of the Muse of the River Liffy (or "the floozy in the Jacuzzi"), the GPO (General Post Office) building where the majority of the fighting of the Rising of 1916 took place, and whose facade still is marred by the bulletholes of that battle, over the River Liffey, Abbey Theatre, the Temple Bar District... Dublin's a small city, and an old one. I also found it charming. There were very few high rise buildings; there's a concerted effort to maintain the old buildings.

Dublin's also famous for the brightly painted doors on its rows of brownstone houses. Reputedly, when Queen Victoria was coming to Dublin for a visit, the city's officials decreed that all doors must be freshly painted for the Queen's visit, and that they must all be painted black. The Irish painted their doors, all right -- any color they damn well pleased, and the brighter the better. They still keep them painted, giving a hue of rainbow colors as you look down the streets, and probably helping "himself" find the correct house when he wanders home after a night in the pubs -- though, as one (female) tour guide put it: "And maybe herself went and painted the door a different color after himself left for the evening."

In old Dublin, the streets reflect the city's medieval past: none of them are straight, none of them are very long, and they intersect at any angle except 90 degrees. To make it even more difficult for the out-of-town (or country) driver, there are no street signs on the corners. Instead, the streets names are posted inconspicuously (and sometimes nearly invisibly) on the walls of nearby buildings.

I did get a new Winston Churchill story as we passed Abbey Theatre. (My previous favorite? It was well-known that Churchill and Lady Astor hated each other. During a party at which both were present, Lady Astor remarked "Sir, if I were your wife, I'd put arsenic in your tea." To which Churchill immediately answered "Madam, if I were your husband, I'd drink it.") It seems that George Bernard Shaw and Lady Astor shared the same affection for Churchill. Shaw once sent Churchill tickets to the opening of his new play, with a note saying "Here are two tickets so that you may take a friend, assuming you have one." Churchill returned the tickets to Shaw, with his own note reading: "I'm sorry that I'm unable to attend the opening of your play due to a previous engagement. However, I would appreciate tickets to the second night, assuming you have one."

Don't know if that's a true story or apocryphal, but I like it anyway.

Sharon, my mom and I departed the bus, leaving the others to make their own way back to the hotel. We shopped for a bit, and then walked back, passing through St. Stephen's Green. We noticed that once you're within the park, it's difficult to tell that you're in a city: the trees mask the sound of traffic, and since there are no tall buildings, all you see is green around you. Very pleasant. It was almost 70 degrees Fahrenheit that day, and sunny, and many Dubliner's seemed to think this was far too hot: we say people walking around shirtless in shorts, or sunbathing on the grass. We, one the other hand, were comfortable in our sweaters.

In the Green, there's a statue of the Three Fates. We read the inscription -- the statue was a gift from the German government to the people of Ireland for their donations to the German orphans of war after WWII. The link between the Irish and Germans goes back to at least the time of the first World War. The Germans, at war with England, were more than happy to send arms and support to the IRA nationalists, and continued to help the Irish during the struggle to win their freedom from Great Britain. During WWII, since Germany was a friendly country to Ireland, Ireland remained neutral: they weren't quite willing to help the British, but neither were the willing to support the Nazi government. As noted before in this journal, we saw and heard lots of German tourists while in Ireland.

That evening, we attended the Tony Kenny Show at Jury's Hotel. This was essentially a cabaret of Irish music and dancing. Not exactly my preferred type of music or style, but well put-together, with good dancers and musicians. I'd have preferred to stuff a sock down the mouth of the operatic soprano they used for a female lead singer, though. My parents and my aunt and uncle loved it, which is all that matters. They've seen Kenny three times now, twice in Ireland and once when he toured the US.

After the show -- everyone say it together now -- we went to the Dubliner Pub and drank and talked. No Guinness tonight for me, though (well, except the one I had at the Kenny show). Just a few shots of Jameson.

Dublin By Daylight

Saturday was our last day in Ireland for Sharon and me, for all intents and purposes, since our flight out was at 9:45 AM tomorrow. We'd wanted to have an unplanned day, and so we went out into the city the non-tourist way: by public transportation and shoe leather. It was misting rain and had gotten chilly, but we didn't care. Some random Dublin notes from our walkabout:

  • Cell phones -- I hadn't heard or seen a cell phone in all of Ireland until we got to Dublin, but we were making up for it now. Cell phones are a lot more prevalent here than in Cincinnati. Any random glance down the street will let you catch someone talking while they walk, or while they eat, or while they wait for a bus, or while they're shopping. The chirping of the phones from pocket or purse is a common sound.
  • I've mentioned it before, but it was even more noticeable here in an urban setting: Irish drivers don't use their horns much. If this were an American city and as stuffed with pedestrians, cars and buses as Dublin is, you'd also be hearing the cacophonous symphony of horns. But you don't. Irish drivers seem to be more patient than American drivers.
  • Throughout our whole trip, we noticed this, and again it's even more startling in Dublin, which has a major airport to the north: you don't often see airplanes in the sky. In fact, while we were in the west and north, I don't remember seeing even one plane.
  • Dublin, like Toronto and unlike most American cities, is clean. Not much litter and trash in the streets at all.

Ireland, it seems, may not have Trekkies, but they do have Bloody Vikings. There was a convention of Viking enthusiasts in town, many of whom were walking around the Christ Church area in full regalia. Several of them were also at the museum, acting as volunteers for the Viking exhibit in the balcony area. Sharon and I spent some time talking with them, and getting a very interesting lesson in the art of fletching.

After the museum, we headed over for Dublin Castle (getting lost a few times on the way, and thus getting an interesting view of several streets we wouldn't have wandered down otherwise -- all in all, we thought that a plus, as we enjoyed seeing the various faces Dublin presented to us.) However, when we finally found the castle entrance and went in, we were disappointed. There's one round keep that dates back several centuries, but must of Dublin 'Castle" looks more far too modern for my taste. It certainly wasn't intriguing enough on the outside to compel us to pay the £3.00 fee to get in. There was an art exhibit in one of the rooms, and they had several sculptures set up in the courtyard, so we looked at those for a bit and wandered away again, eventually getting back to the hotel.

That evening, we all went to the Abbey Theatre and watched a play by Bernard Farrell (Hey! He could be a relative!) called Kevin's Bed, which was a two-act comedy. The writing was excellent, the actors (with perhaps one exception) performed very, very well. The plot was convoluted and farcical, and we howled with laughter at several points. The play would do well anywhere in the States, even though the characters are Irish to the core. The Abbey Theatre itself has been lovingly restored and is an acoustic and visual pleasure. The house was packed, too -- evidently the Irish (or the tour buses, perhaps) like the arts.

By the time the play was over, it was late in the evening, so we... I think you can guess the rest. Yes, it involved Guinness.

Home Again

On the way over, I'd shown my passport exactly twice: once at the ticket counter, and again when we got to Dublin.

Before I got on the plane coming home, I'd displayed my passport six times: to the security guard at the front of the ticket queue, who asked the standard "Are you carrying anything dangerous?" questions; to the young woman behind the ticket counter; to the security guard at the door to the departure gates; to the clerk behind the counter at the duty-free-store (I bought a CD); to the US Immigration agent at the "pre-immigration" gates; to the Continental ticket agent when he took the tickets.... At any of those points (with the exception of the kid behind the Duty-Free counter, and who knows, maybe even there), a lack of a valid passport would get you pulled aside. Security is definitely tighter coming this way than going out.

Next time, I want to fly First Class. Did you know that they actually have room for legs in First Class? It's true; I saw the seats as we went past them into the cattle car portion of the plane. This time, we weren't in the bulkhead or exit row seats, where one might actually stretch out. No, we were in the regular seats, which have slightly more room than the overhead compartments.

There was an infant in the row behind us, too. Sharon and I looked at each other and grimaced. A seven hour flight ahead... and we won't mention the very strange red-headed young woman across the aisle from us, who seemed to jump at every sound and who worried (out loud) about every conceivable mishap she could have.

The only thing I worried about, coming back, was the peat in our suitcases. We were given declaration forms at the U.S. immigration station in the airport, and being truthful sorts, we had to check "Yes" to the box that said "I am bringing in livestock, plants, soil, food; or I have been on a farm." We had been on a farm, back in Roscommon. We also had a few peat logs in our luggage so we could have a turf fire in the fireplace once this fall... and I suppose that's 'soil.' We knew checking the "Yes" box would red flag us for a few questions, and I fully expected that the peat was going to get confiscated.

In New Jersey, we moved with the rest of the cattle through the immigration area, picked up our bags, and queued up to jump through the final hoop. We handed in our papers, showed our passports (again). The customs official glanced at the paper. "Why'd you check this box?" he asked, right on cue.

"We were on a farm."

"Carrying any food?"

"No."

He waved us on. We were home.

Last Thoughts

It's true that I don't care if I ever hear "Danny Boy" again, but...

I want to go back. I want to go back and take Denise with me this time. I want to spend a few days in the Roscommon area and talk again with Martin, Bridie, Brian and Niall, with Frank Cuffe, with JJ, with Pakie, with Kitsy and John and Yvonne, all those wonderful people we met. And I like to wander through Ireland again, stopping wherever we feel like stopping and staying as long as we want to stay -- that's the best way to see the place, I think. Tours and schedules are all fine, but they're too constraining. You have to move at the pace of the scripted schedule and see only what is on the agenda, which may or not be your pace or your interest.

In retrospect, the time spent in Roscommon was the 'best' part of the trip. I'm not so foolish as to think that two days spent in one place with a small sampling of people means that I saw the "real" Ireland -- Ireland is too big and varied for that -- but I do feel that I was given a glimpse into one small part of Ireland's sinew and soul, and I treasure that. We met and talked there with people whose families and friends have lived through Irish history, not as the movers and shakers, but (like most of us) as those whose lives were moved and shattered and touched by the events. We heard some of the tales, we saw where they lived and how they lived, some small portion of their daily routines. It was a gift, because this is a part of Ireland of which the usual tourist will have only a momentary view, and I treasure that opportunity. Thanks to all the relatives, and especially Martin and Bridie and their family, and Frank and Teresa, for making that possible.

That's not to denigrate the rest of the trip, which was also fascinating. There is so much more history that I would like to see. I'd like to walk into one of the passage graves; touch a carved standing stone leaning in a field; see more of the ancient forts or the medieval castles; stand of the seaside cliffs against and feel the salt wind buffeting me while the waves shatter white on the rocks below; stay overnight on one of the smaller Aran Islands just to hear the silence; travel the south of Ireland, which I haven't even glimpsed as yet...

I want to go back.

I will go back.

Steve on a hill overlooking the beach at Glenn Cholm Cille. A beautiful scene, but no one seemed at all tempted to take a swim...