... "What took ye so long, Seamus?"
Part one of two ...
After 77 years, it took a wedding invitation to Ireland to get me to the place where my mother was born. My wife says it was an omen when we received the invitation the day our scheduled Mediterranean Cruise was cancelled. A three day trip for the wedding turned into a 10 day stay that took us to all the places we heard about for many years, Armagh and Newcastle in the north, and Dublin, Cork, Killarney, Dingle, and Doolin in the south. We never did get to see Glockamora (no such place) and leprechauns (none such) and surprisingly, we saw very few thatched houses, and no corned beef and cabbage.
Ask the Irish if they believe in fairies and they'll say "No, but if you leave them alone, they won't bother you."
A major road under construction was rerouted around a fairy tree to avoid bad luck. We went from an upscale hotel in Dublin to a tiny room walk-up over a pub in Doolin, enjoying the differences in accommodations along the way, except having no wash (face) cloths, in most places, with the towels.
There were nine of us staying for the extended tour with a rented bus and a bus driver who knew Ireland and its history like the back of his hand. After experiencing the roads in many towns and how they narrowed to one lane (still with 2-way traffic), over foggy mountains, we were so glad we left the driving to Sean.
"Shake hands with your uncle Mike, me boy..."
We adjusted to many differences including the meaning of pubs and pints which are a way of life there, pubs (public) meaning more to socialize, converse, storytell, food, singing, and dancing, rather than just drinking, and a pint meaning 20 ounces, not 16. In Dingle, if you ask directions to Dick Mack's Pub, you'll be told it's across from the church and if you ask for the church you're told it's across from Dick Mack's. Actually, it's Dick Mack's Bar, Boot Store, and Leather Shop where you can buy boots or get them releathered, while Dick leaps over the leathertooling bench to get you a pint. The shelves of shoe and boot boxes are on one side of the room and the taps and bar on the other.
You can also find pubs in hardware stores and supermarkets. In Dingle, a town of 1500 permanent residents and 52 pubs, in theory every inhabitant can "hoist a pint" of Guinness simultaneously without anyone having to scramble for a seat. If you order a pint, you get a Guinness, although other "dark stuff" (as it's called) is Murphy's, Smithwicks, Beamish and Bulmer's (cider). You can also get a Bud.
"Only the Germans consume more beer than the Irish."
Of course, money is always a major difference abroad with the British Pound Sterling in Northern Ireland and the Euro in the south. Sadly, our dollar is very weak, worth 50 cents to the Pound and 75 cents to the Euro. Don't expect your usual bacon with your eggs. It's ham over there along with eggs, black and white pudding (sausage), tomato, and mushrooms which make up the Irish breakfast.
If YOU drive, get used to kilometers (.6 of a mile), give way (yield), calming (slow), carriageway (highway), and roundabout (rotary). Ireland is smaller than Maine, only 300 miles long and 100 miles wide. We can't complain about gas prices here when it is 4-5 Euros, or $6 there.
If you tip a bartender, or the owner of an establishment, he'd be insulted but if you tip other service people it's welcome but not expected, and tipping is usually no more than 10%. Many restaurants figure a service charge into the bill or even calculate it into the cost of the dish themselves. When you go to Ireland you hear about the "troubles" and you not only hear it, you "feel" it.
The wedding was at the Carrickdale Hotel in Ravensdale, County Louth, across the street from a beautiful mountain vista with what looked like a weather station on top. It was, and still is, a British observation and surveillance post while the "border" is ½ mile down the road. Although things are fairly quiet now, there IS evidence of continued security and surveillance in the north and the annual Orange Day parade through the Catholic section of Portadown has the violence erupting each year.
Contrary to popular belief, the fighting was not primarily religious, but nationality. Those in the south want to be Irish and those in the north want to be British. There are four provinces -- Ulster, Munster, Connacht, and Leinster with 26 counties (4½ million people) in the south and six counties(1 1/2 million)in the north and the wish of the south is to have 26+6=1 United Ireland. Three of the counties in the north are both Irish and British which complicates things because they are ALL under British rule. Sadly, the children are in separate schools, learning a different history, and never speak to each other until they get to the University, which included our driver Sean. However, under the 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, residents of Northern Ireland may choose to individually identify as Irish or British. Up until as recent as the 1960's and 1970's Ireland was considered a third world country without running water, electricity, or roads.
The early history of Ireland was no different than other European countries being "plundered, pillaged, sacked" for centuries by the Vikings, Normans, English, French, Spaniards, etc. Vikings who settled in Ireland founded and named towns like Limerick, Waterford, and Dublin, and also built Ireland's first castles. The Irish survived every time even during the English Project of "planting" (protestants in Ireland) to dispossess Catholics of their land. Ninety-five percent of the land was owned by five percent of the people, none Irish, and while they were starving during the potato famine, corn and wheat were being EXPORTED from Ireland. With the "troubles" came familiar names like IRA, Black&Tan, James Connolly, Michael Collins, Bobby Sands, Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein, Bloody Sunday, Easter Rising, War of Independence, Civil War and Kilmainham Gaol (jail), that resulted in many unfortunate incidents and bombings, causing much bloodshed.
Our bus tour began with a visit to Northern Ireland, traveling the border crossing roads, heading to Newry, Newcastle, and Armagh. There's a place called "Northern Ireland", but there's no "Northern Irish". They STILL identify themselves along religious rather than geographic lines -- Catholics or Protestants. The 950,000 Protestants want the six counties of Northern Ireland to remain in the U.K. while the 650,000 Catholics identify with the Republic of Ireland, not Britain, and want the six counties to be part of the Republic. It appears that this will always be the situation in Ireland.
We had a photo stop at the Flagstaff overlook, high on the mountain, with a spectacular view of the landscape and the Irish Sea. This beautiful scenery continued all the way to Newcastle, the popular seaside resort, where we stopped for lunch at the Slieve Donard Hotel with the Mourne Mountains looming over it as a protective back drop. We were there on a clear warm Sunday afternoon and, strangely, only a few people were out enjoying this quaint setting.
We crossed over to Armagh where, according to tradition, Saint Patrick came in the 5th Century to convert the pagans. Since then, Armagh has become Ireland's ecclesiastical capital, remaining the administrative center for both the Catholic Church in Ireland and the Protestant Church of Ireland. Armagh's twin cathedrals of the same name, the Church of Ireland Cathedral of St. Patrick and across town, the Catholic Church of St. Patrick is its pride and joy. These magnificent Cathedrals, and other monuments, were amassed over a long history of religious prominence. Both churches are in one town while the rest of the Ireland is divided.
To be continued in our June issue ...
May 5, 2006