POSTCARD FROM IRELAND
Every journey tells a story. The story of our trip to Ireland could be told with a recitation of castles we saw, cities we visited, food we ate, entertainment we watched, people we had accompany us on the journey. However, to do this would be to ignore the experience of Ireland, the warmth of its people, the tragedies of its history, the beauties of its land, the richness of its culture, the soul-stirring rhythms of its music, the joy of its dances. Time and space will force me to recite the more prosaic story, but it would not be fair to do so without confessing that this trip accomplished that most sought after prize of travel – it changed how I see the world and the people who weave its ever changing fabric. Truth may be unimpeachable, but the facts are up for constant review.
Special credit must go to Brendan, our driver and tour guide, whose passion for history, his country and his people made the stories behind the places we saw come vibrantly alive, as well to Darragh MacIntyre, whose book, “Conversations”, interviews with 49 people from assorted backgrounds living in contemporary Ireland, added a depth and texture to my experience of the country that would otherwise not have been possible.
Our group of 21 (that included one of my colleagues with a rare sense of humor and his charming fiancé) arrived in Dublin airport from different destinations. After collecting luggage (all of which arrived as intended) and companions, we made our way to Cabra Castle, a short 1½ hour drive from the city, and our home for the next couple of nights. The castle, originally the property of the O’Reilly family, was confiscated in the 17th century by Cromwell, and given to Colonel Thomas Cooch, has the requisite crenelated walls, turrets, and even sightings of ghosts by various guests over the years. Surrounded by forest and clearings converted in recent years to a golf course, we had the pleasure of walking its grounds accompanied by Oscar, a giant Irish wolfhound with most courtly manners. The guest rooms have been updated for modern day comfort, but the halls and common rooms have been maintained with a rich assortment of paintings, antiques and tapestries, giving us a special sense of privileged living enjoyed by prior residents. We were pleasantly surprised by the excellent meals we were served (an experience we happily continued to enjoy during the rest of our trip,) having been told by prior American visitors that the food in Ireland was bland, and tolerable at best. I don’t know if the cuisine has changed or other travelers did not know where to eat, but the wonderful soups (ubiquitous throughout pubs and restaurants) salmon and other seafood dishes, as well as roasts were as good as any we have sampled throughout other European travels. By the way, don’t try to find corned beef and cabbage in Ireland. Like pizza, it’s an American invention, and we never saw it on any menu in the country.
Newgrange and Knoth are Neolithic monuments, very impressive structures functioning as centers of sun worship, as well as an astronomical calendar. On the winter solstice, the sun shines precisely through a narrow opening, illuminating for 17 minutes the chamber built inside the monument. Constructed of stones set without mortar, the central chamber has an 18 foot high dome, remarkable not only for its architectural features, but also for the large stone slabs at the entrance covered with decorative (or linguistic?) runes, each weighing over ten tons, and made from rocks whose origins had to be at least 40 miles from their current location. The people who created Newgrange were clearly no simple primitives, but possessed architectural and astronomic skills impressive in any age, but especially for the time – 3200 B.C. antedating the pyramids by 600 years, making this the oldest functioning building known to man!
Driving through the Midlands, we pass by the Hill of Tara, seat of the High Kings of Ireland, and an important site since the Stone Age, when a passage tomb was constructed here. We also pass by the Oldbridge estate, the site for the Battle of the Boyne between King William III and his father-in-law, King James II, fought in 1690. Both kings commanded their armies in person, as at stake were the British throne, the French dominance in Europe and religious power in Ireland. Upstream from the battle site is Slane Castle, providing historic tours of the area, and even more popular, comparative Irish whiskey tastings, including their own award winning Slane Castle Irish Whiskey. Needless to say, consumption of alcohol is a popular pastime with both tourists and locals. I must say, I have never drunk so much beer in my life as during the short period of our travel, inspired in no small part by the wonderful dark Guinness on draught available at every pub and restaurant. So, this Irishman walks out of a bar….Hey! It could happen!!!
Sadly, we say good bye to Castle Cabra and head into Dublin. Our hotel, the Gresham, is on O’Connell Avenue (the street name of almost every main thoroughfare in the country, named after Daniel O’Connell, who helped Ireland achieve independence from the British at the beginning of the 20th century) in the center of town. There is a huge Spire built in 2003, almost in front of our hotel, making it easy to find for the directionally challenged.
Miki had arranged to meet one of her Latvian cousins, Andris, accompanied by wife Sylvia, daughter Sandra and son-in-law Edgars, all of whom had flown over from Riga to see us, as well as do some sight-seeing on their own. We had met them a couple of years ago when they stopped by LA, and saw them again last Easter in Riga. They were as warm and welcoming as ever and together we toured around the sights of Dublin. Sandra, true to her hyper-organized persona, came with schedules of activities for us, divided into categories based on the presence/absence of rain or sunshine. Since the sun was shining, and it was a balmy 68F, we scratched the museums on the list, and proceeded to walk through the city, stopping to admire the campus of Trinity College, Ireland’s equivalent of Oxford or Harvard, and home to the justly famous illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kels. We saw the suspension bridge wonderfully designed to look like a harp, the official symbol of Ireland. (No, it’s not the shamrock.) Anchored in the river is the sailing ship Jennie Johnston, used to transport victims escaping the potato famine to the United States. Unlike other ships, whose passengers suffered death rates of up to 90% during the crossing due to combination of malnutrition, overcrowding and the rough North Atlantic, the Jennie Johnston never lost a passenger, perhaps in part due to the owners providing a ship board doctor, Richard Blennerhassett, for each crossing.
We also got acquainted with Inese and her beautiful young daughter, Kristine. Inese is another member of the large Kalpins clan who, unbeknownst to us, had moved to Dublin six years earlier, discovering belatedly that she really should have paid more attention when studying English in school. (It’s a deficiency she has quite well corrected.) She guided us to a Mongolian Barbecue restaurant for dinner that proved to be quite good, then to a pub that featured Irish dancers as part of the evening entertainment. The somewhat substantial entrance fee included dinner, but as we had already eaten, she managed to sweet talk the bouncer at the door to let us watch the show only for the price of the drinks we consumed. Never underestimate the power of a pretty Latvian face! By the time intermission came, Miki and I were ready to call it a night, especially as we had to be up early in the morning. Andris, however, who has boundless energy (I can see where Sandra inherited hers), insisted on staying to the bitter end, rightly pointing out, “that life is short, and when are we going to be in Dublin again?”
The following morning, we drive to Waterford, where the shoppers in the group could indulge themselves in making purchases and having crystal shipped home. As Miki and I own more stuff than we really need, we chose to forego the factory and gift shop tour, and instead, spent our time wandering through the city. A large round tower fortress was showing an exhibition of Viking artifacts, the people who were the prime reason these fortifications were needed. Scattered elsewhere throughout the country, especially near the estuary of rivers, we found many other tall towers, designed to give early warning and hopefully, some protection, against the fury of the Norsemen.
We spent three nights in a modern luxury hotel overlooking the River Lee in Cork, Ireland’s second largest city. According to Fran, our friend and travel guide for umpteen years, this is the best place to shop in the country. Since this doesn’t motivate us, I spent more useful time wandering around the beautiful campus of the University of Cork, visiting a couple of interesting churches, and watching the life of the city ebb and flow around me.
You can’t come to Ireland without visiting Blarney and having the opportunity to acquire the gift of gab. Since I already know that this process involves having a person hold on to your legs while you hang backwards and kiss a rock whose original function was to act as a backstop for those in the old days who hung their behinds out to achieve vital elimination needs (a little inside joke on tourists on the part of the Irish,) I decided to bypass this adventure. I already have sufficient GI experience, not to mention sufficient gab (at least according to Miki.)
Having so far managed to escape the commercial sirens of the Irish, the Blarney Woolen Mills finally reeled us in, as Miki and I purchased some souvenir sweaters as well as gifts for our Stateside friends. Overall, we managed to limit our purchases to minimal amounts, though I would have been happy to sneak a keg of Guinness into one of our suitcases had that been a possibility. And I’m a person who has never been much of a beer drinker!
The story of Cobh’s historic legacy is dramatically recalled in a multimedia exhibition housed in a restored Victorian railway station. This was the last place where families leaving Ireland said their good byes to those who were being left behind, knowing they would never see each other again. Of the six million adults and children who emigrated from Ireland from 1848 to 1950, about 2.5 million sailed from Cobh, including Annie Moore and her two children, the first arrivals to Ellis Island in 1892. This was also the last port of the ill-fated Titanic that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, as well as the place where the few survivors and bodies of many of the 1,198 casualties were brought after the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat during World War I.
To relieve the gloom of Cobh, we move on to Kinsale, a town with brightly painted houses bedecked with flowers overlooking a harbor filled with pleasure craft. The place is a photographer’s paradise, and I run my camera battery dry, taking shot after shot of what my photographer friend Michael caustically refers to as postcard photos. Hey – I like postcards!
We now enter County Kerry, Brendan’s home grounds, where he regales us with stories about what makes this land superior to the rest of the Irish countryside. Here we find Muckross House, its formal gardens and elaborate interiors, built at great expense by a wealthy businessman hoping to gain favor with Queen Victoria, who was scheduled to spend a night there during a State visit to Ireland. Sadly, the man ran himself into bankruptcy, and he never was elevated to the nobility despite the outpouring of his fortune for his Queen.
The three nights we spent in Killarney afforded us the luxury of doing some hiking in the area, seeing some of the surrounding lakes and castles, and enjoying evening entertainment at many of the good nearby pubs, such as the Danny Mann. Here was our chance to also catch a performance by Liam O’Connor, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records of having the fastest fingers in the world, capable of playing over 11 notes per second, and called by one magazine “the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion.” It was a most entertaining evening!
Most of the thatched roofs seen in old photographs of Ireland have been replaced by modern tile, but in the town of Adare, a number have been preserved for feasting of tourist cameras. As far as the weather is concerned, we were incredibly lucky throughout our trip. We had sun at least part of each day save one, where we ran into rain while visiting the Cliffs of Moher. Even in the mist and drizzle, the 700 foot sheer cliffs, constantly battered by the pounding surf, provided plenty of visual drama. And we had clear weather for outing to Dingle Bay, claimed by Brendan to be one of the ten most scenic spots in the world; who am I to argue with him? I have to agree, it was spectacular. On the way, we saw the beach on which the movie “Ryan’s Daughter” was filmed – another scenic spot. Speaking of movies, Brendan, during our visit to Cong, the village where the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara film “The Quiet Man” was made, not only gave us detailed descriptions of scenes from the movie in their original locations, but also much of the dialogue. It was a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Bunratty Castle, yet another stone walled fortress, provided for us not only a medieval feast inside the castle, but also saw me crowned as Earl of Bunratty with Miki as my noble Lady. It was a fun evening with very good food, eaten only with hands, naturally, and accompanied by entertainment from the various costumed courtiers. We were given special attention and service, I got to ham it up, and after the celebrations concluded, I have to confess – “It’s good to be king!”
Before returning from Galway Bay to Dublin, and seeing the famed marble of Connnemara (the green is 6-700 million years old, while the black, containing shell fossils only 200 million years) I need to share a couple of Brendan’s stories that gave clues to Irish humor and character. (Brendan himself always referred to his wife as “the Leader of the Opposition.”) One is the story of the Wesclare Railway, a narrow gauge train famous for always being late. A journalist who wrote a story of the train’s perpetual tardy schedule was sued by the railway for slander and defamation. The judge decreed that the man from the railroad filing suit be in court by 9 AM to prove these charges. When the man showed up over an hour late, the judge was furious. “How dare you besmirch the honor of this court by your tardiness?” he demanded. The man apologized, explaining he was on the Wesclare Railway tracks on time, but the train was an hour late coming. The case was dismissed without the defendant needing to open his mouth!
Brendan’s other story involved poteen, a distilled spirit similar to our “moonshine” and equally illegal. A man was caught with the appropriate distillery equipment for making this potent alcohol, and brought before the judge for a plea. The man said, “Not guilty!” “How can you claim to be not guilty when you were caught with all the equipment necessary for the commission of this crime?” demanded the judge. The man replied, “Your honor, you might as well charge me with rape, then, for I have all the equipment necessary for that, as well.”
Back in Dublin after two weeks on the road, we sadly say good bye to Brendan, as well as all our fellow travelers who made the trip so enjoyable for us. Before we leave, we meet up with Inese and Kristine, as well as Inese’s Irish fiancé, Gavin, who we see for the first time. Working in the construction business, he gives us an insider’s view of the boom and bust period of the Celtic Tiger, and the amazing fortunes made and lost during this time. He and Inese seem to be a good pair, and we hope to see them again in the future.
I learned a new, uniquely Irish word on this trip, craic, meaning joyful, happy. It provides the perfect adjective, for we, indeed, had a craic journey. All too quickly, time, like the wind-blown clouds, has whipped by, and we are once more headed back to the States, though with a stopover in Boston for Miki’s 35th Harvard Dental School reunion. That, however, is another postcard. To all who shared this wonderful journey with us, be well, and share with us your story and photos. For those friends who weren’t in Ireland, we recommend a visit, and hope to see you soon.