This summer my wife and I took a trip for the first time to the Republic of Ireland.
My wife is Chinese in origin; I am probably of old English stock with a last name corresponding to a large British city. Neither of us have any forebears as far as we know from Ireland.
We ended up on an extended week-long tour of the Emerald Isle after giving up on going to St. Petersburg in Russia, my wife’s first choice. The Russian visa process was alarmingly expensive, and required you to feel like you were being vetted for possible spy duties, given the extensive background information the forms required, back to who your friends were in high school and whether you’d ever viewed any satirical cartoons of Putin. I exaggerate, but that was the feeling that the bureaucratic invasion of privacy engendered.
After deciding we weren’t going to St. Petersburg, in order not to lose our tour deposit, we looked at our remaining choices and plunked a finger down on the world map and said, “There!” Ireland. Just the southern part of the Republic. We didn’t get to Northern Ireland.
We landed in Dublin in July and toured our way by bus in a rough circle route, as far east as the Cliffs of Moher, north to Galway, then south to the Ring of Kerry, back through the south towards the east and Waterford and finally back up north to Dublin.
Looking back on it now after several months, my most general impressions are of a startlingly green place, even more so than the “Wet Coast” of Vancouver, a place of extremely variable and often inhospitable weather, and overall basically a very tidy and friendly land.
And everyone spoke English! This was disconcerting to my wife, who felt afterwards that Ireland just wasn’t very exotic; it didn’t seem foreign enough, and the weather was as bad as rainy Vancouver in the winter.
Myself, I appreciated the subtle Tolkienesque effect of Gaelic on every sign, the medieval castles we came across, and the impression of a history much more turbulent and freighted with violence than anything anyone, thankfully, has suffered on the west side of Canada.
But we were unlucky with the weather. Sun and blue skies did appear on our first day in Dublin, but as we made our way across Ireland towards the Cliffs of Moher, one of the scenic highlights of the trip if only we could have seen it, the clouds descended thickly and the rains hurtled down.
Our guide on the bus tour charmingly referred to the torrents as, “Oh, but we’ve got a bit of a mist this morning,” but we got soaked all the same when we did venture out.
Despite that disappointment and the continued gloomy weather as we continued along the Ring Of Kerry, a purportedly scenic and panoramic 100 km drive, afterwards the weather did finally break and become relatively pleasant for the rest of our travels.
We did enjoy the castles and other medieval sites, from Bunratty Castle between Limerick and Ennis, to Blarney Castle near Cork, to Glendalough, the early Christian monastic site in County Wicklow founded in the 6th Century.
The medieval feast at Bunratty Castle was a highlight with costumed entertainment, food consumed completely with our hands, and humorous sing-a-longs.
Of course, Castle Blarney has the Blarney Stone, which is supposed to induce eloquence in all who kiss it. I am of the view that I could go out into a random field and kiss any old boulder with likely the same effect.
The long line-up to go to the top of the castle, lean out and have yourself anchored by others so you didn’t fall and then smooch above you the rough stone where thousands of predecessors have also so spitted did not appeal to either of us. (We were assured that as often as four times a day, alcohol is applied to the stone for sanitary reasons.)
But the castle itself is impressive, and as both my wife and I are enthusiastic amateur photographers, we had lots of subject matter.
Overall, I enjoyed the trip, with my wife somewhat less enthusiastic. Similarly to the experience we had of Greece and its people in the previous year, I was left with the impression of a hardy people, capable of retaining their culture even after enduring periods of oppression and internal wars.
As an example of specific Irish culture, I found fascinating the widespread enthusiasm for the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football.
Hurling, a game with stick and ball which resembles lacrosse to me, is said to date back to prehistoric times, and may be as much as 3000 years old.
Every county has its own team and the regional competitions are fierce and more interesting for the Irish, it seems, than that of more well-known sports such as soccer (football) or cricket.
Notes on my photos (from top down):
1. This photo of a Protestant cathedral in Dublin indicates the Irish past of considerable religious strife. The majority of cathedrals are Protestant rather than Catholic, despite the latter being the predominant flavour of Christianity in Ireland, as a result of the historical suppression of Catholicism by the British.
2. A fairly typical Irish pub in Dublin, with the ubiquitous Guinness signs.
3. A home for the Little People…. At the Irish National Stud Farm, there were a grove of trees with these abodes for the Little People. The Irish National Stud Farm was on the tour apparently because the Irish are just mad about horses.