It’s Not Easy Being Green (Ireland)

June 2013

When Ted and I told our friends we were planning a trip to Ireland, a common response was “why?”  This was a mystery to me, since Ireland is full of cultural and scenic treasures.  And they speak English.

Some photos of our trip can be found here.

Dublin is a lovely city which reminded me of the older parts of Boston – Georgian architecture, leafy green parks, a faux-medieval university, and lots of bars.  There’s even a local “duck boat” tour, although the Dublin version provides customers with horned helmets, in tribute to the city’s Viking origins.

We stayed at the Merrion Hotel, one of the nicest places we have ever stayed at – historic 18th C surroundings, with a down-to-earth, incredibly thoughtful staff.  It claims to be the birthplace of the Duke of Wellington (although, we found out later, it is not the only claimant — everyone wants a piece of this illustrious fellow).  The hotel has an impressive collection of art by Irish artists, and on weekends they host an “art tea” with inventive pastries inspired by their collection.

Dublin (and Ireland generally) is a frustrating place to visit for lovers of churches.  The country’s medieval churches were generally taken over by the (Protestant) Church of Ireland after Cromwell, and many had their interiors “redecorated” in the 19th C.  They are nice enough, but lack the spiritual power of the medieval original.  Most of Ireland’s current Catholic churches date from the 19th C , and are not architecturally interesting.

Ireland is, however, rich in medieval monasteries, some dating back to the 6th C.  We visited several of these, including Glendalough and Clonmacnoise.  They are pretty impressive, even as ruins.

Ireland’s roads are pretty good these days, courtesy of the EU.  Left-side driving turned out not to be much of a problem as we had feared, since there isn’t much traffic.  I found it was actually more difficult as a pedestrian, since on busy sidewalks I was always swerving the “other” way.

One thing that becomes immediately obvious once you leave Dublin is how agricultural the country is.  Ireland is a country that, essentially, missed the Industrial Revolution.  The Ford factory at Cork, and the great shipyards of Belfast, are no more; and the Paint Hall which once housed the Titanic now serves as the throne room of the fictional Kings Landing.

Ireland’s current population (4,000,000) is lower now than it was in 1840, before the Famine (7,000,000) – the only developed Western nation for which that is true.   The country is still losing about 2,000 people a week, although these days emigrants are more likely to go to Australia and New Zealand than the US or Canada.

For the tourist, this means that the countryside still consists of small villages separated by farmland, with little of the urban sprawl you see in other parts of Europe.  You can also sometimes see 20th C gravestones in 1000-year old graveyards.  In most parts of Europe (and even in colonial New England) these old graveyards ran out of space decades if not centuries ago.

It wouldn’t be much of a trip to Ireland without visits to local pubs.   They are surprisingly pleasant – indoor smoking in pubs was eliminated a few years ago.  I’m not generally a beer drinker, but Irish Guinness is surprisingly tasty — tangy and creamy at the same time.  (Unfortunately, the American version, which is pasteurized, is not very good, so you’ll have to travel to Ireland to taste it.)  Irish whisky is also tasty – smoother than Scotch, but not as sweet as American bourbon.

Doolin, on the West Coast, is noted for its traditional music pubs.   At one pub, a 14-year old girl asked if she could sit in with the musicians (a fairly standard request at such pubs).  She was pretty good, and when the musicians asked if she wanted to play another piece, she asked if her sisters (aged 13 and 10) could also join in. They were pretty credible too.  It turned out these girls were from Uganda and had learned this music pretty much on their own.  They had brought their instruments with them on their family trip to Ireland, hoping they would have the opportunity to sit in with real Irish musicians.  Everyone in the pub was moved by this story of Irish music’s international appeal, not the least the musicians themselves.

We took a small tour boat out to the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s scenic landmarks.  We saw dolphins (at the northern edge of their geographic range) and Arctic puffins (at the southern end of theirs).  Global climate change is no joke here, where even a small change in climate could knock the country, at the same latitude as Labrador, off its precarious perch on the edge of the temperate zone.

About the weather, the less said the better.  Summer is supposed to be relatively dry, but there’s a reason the Romans called this place Hibernia – loosely translated as “the place where winter is always coming.” The first four days and (of course) the last day of our trip were sunny and warm.  The rest of the time we had rain, sometimes intermittent, sometimes so heavy it made a mockery of what we had previously referred to as our “rain gear.”  Fortunately, there was always a warm , snug tea shop or pub nearby.  And the coastline was pretty dramatic, even in the rain (fewer pictures, though).

We visited the Dingle Peninsula, one of the few places in Ireland where Irish, not English, is the primary language.  English is universally spoken, so this presents no problem for tourists.  Some of the road signs out here, though, were in Irish only – fortunately, not any place where we wanted to go, because the language is pretty much indecipherable.  (Galway, for example, is Gailimh in Irish.)  Hearing Irish spoken, it becomes immediately obvious that the distinctive lilt of the Irish accent comes from the cadences of the old language.

In Killarney, we visited Muckross House, the center of what had once been an 11,000-acre estate granted to an English nobleman by the first Elizabeth.  (It’s been a national park since the 1930s.)  The house, available for tourist visits, is set up as it would have appeared in the late 19th C. Somewhat startlingly, the tour guides point out that the bells in the servant halls were not labeled because most of the servants were illiterate, and the sinks for washing pots and pans were so low because the scullery maids were usually children.  There’s no Downton Abbey-type nostalgia here – Ireland got rid of its aristocrats and doesn’t want them back.

We visited Kinsale, a charming fishing village along the south coast, noted for its fish restaurants.  The local churchyard had a memorial to the Lusitania, which was torpedoed about 20 miles off the coast.  Our final stop was Cork, the country’s relatively untouristed second-largest city, and the birthplace of both Henry Ford and labor activist Mother Jones.

The phrase “Irish cuisine” is no longer an oxymoron.  Fresh, local foods have become cool again, and Ireland has some great local products – beef and lamb, seafood of all types, cheese,  artisanal yogurt, and butter so good you don’t want to bother with the bread.   But you still have to work a little bit to find a good meal – especially if you like vegetables.

Ireland’s most awesome attraction, though, is its people.  It’s a place where people are not only willing, but eager, to talk to you.   Sitting in a pub, your neighbor would discuss your choice of beverage.  Locals sitting next to you at the theater would ask whether you liked the play.   One guy passing Ted on the street advised him not to wear his sweater tied around his neck, because “only Americans do that.”  Tour guides provided not only information about what you were looking at, but also their views about everything from national politics to local sports.  For people like us, who enjoy understanding how other people live, Ireland was a real find.