Getting off the American treadmill to live the Irish dream

"That decision changed our lives. I still remember our first time flying into Shannon, being mesmerized."

I was born in Chicago, lived there while attending law school, and stayed there to start my work career. My wife, Karen, was born and raised in Manhattan and continued to live in the city into early adulthood during the beginning of her career.

My first wife and I moved to San Francisco where I started my career as an attorney, working for a “downtown” law firm. I was constantly battling deadlines, satisfying client demands, meeting partner expectations, going to court, and researching and drafting legal memoranda — working late and often on weekends.

At the same time, Karen had also moved to San Francisco with her first husband. She became a partner in a company that exported mining equipment and other goods to the Far East. She would spend her days receiving purchase orders from copper mines in the Philippines, shopping world markets for the best prices, purchasing goods, hedging foreign exchange rates, and issuing bills of lading. This was long before the modern forms of instant communication, so typically she’d return to her office after dinner nightly to read incoming telexes from mine sites in the Philippines, since her evenings were their mornings. She’d remain there for hours to organize her work for the next day.

Each of us was a city slicker on treadmills of our own making. We made good money and acquired things — retirement accounts, cars, jewelry, houses, and more — but had no real time to enjoy these trophies. Life was slipping into the past without us even noticing it. Almost as a parody of our work lives, city life was filled with traffic jams, honking horns, crowded elevators, jack hammers, and smog.

Sixteen years after we first met and twelve years after my divorce (Karen had divorced years before I did), Karen and I were married. Karen (who is Irish Catholic, whose paternal grandparents had emigrated from Ireland in the early 20th century, and who, decades earlier, had been to Ireland to trace her roots) decided that we’d earned the right to take two weeks from our insane schedules to go on a horseback-riding trip in Ireland.

That decision changed our lives. I still remember our first time flying into Shannon, being mesmerized by the 40 shades of green in the quilt patchwork of the pastures beneath us, taking a deep breath, and wondering if the country could be as calming as that visual. It proved that and more.

That first trip we rode at Castle Leslie in Monaghan and in Sligo. The riding was exhausting, challenging and exhilarating. As a bonus, suddenly we faced no traffic jams (unless you counted being stopped by a bunch of cows crossing a road, heading from one pasture to another), no honking horns, no elevators, and unless you considered the smell of fresh cut hay as unhealthy, no smog.

Having dipped a toe into Ireland, we were hooked. We returned fourteen times for increasingly extended stays over a twenty-year period.

In the late 80s, the food was pretty terrible — overcooked meat, overcooked vegetables, two kinds of potatoes and, yep, a side of potatoes — but the riding made up for it. So did the conversation.

Wherever we traveled around the country we found witty chat or, in Irish terms, talking the craic, which seemed to be a national pastime.

As the economy boomed, so did pent-up desires. Construction was everywhere — roads, houses, shopping centers. The food went from mediocre to excellent. With the booming economy, immigrants — primarily from Eastern Europe and Northern Africa — sought refuge in Ireland. We were disturbed by an Irish strain of xenophobia, all the more troubling to us because we were aware of the Irish plight under the British boot heel for eight hundred years and felt the Irish, of all people, should have been more welcoming. Still, we weren’t ones to pontificate. We were all too aware of the American history of prejudice and worse against Indians, blacks, Irish, Japanese, Jews, Muslims and others.

We were on Irish soil on 9/11. Then, we saw firsthand the Irish capacity for compassion. Two days later, the country essentially closed down and religious services were held throughout the land in an outpouring of sympathy for the U.S. In an almost reflex action, the Irish displayed their central goodness.  

We traveled throughout the country and did most of the tourist stuff during our initial trips. The sites were never ending. The history was fascinating. The countryside was gorgeous, but the driving proved to be a tad challenging, especially on the country roads where locals seemingly drive at the speed of light and there’s barely enough room for two cars. Adding to the challenge was being in the driver’s seat on the right side of the car, shifting with my left hand, remembering that the left lane is the slow lane, and getting the hang of looking to my right for oncoming traffic when entering a roundabout. An additional challenge was figuring out how to exit without causing a crash.

Eventually we settled into the Village of Adare in County Limerick, a village of 1200 people, roughly the same number as had lived in a square city block where we’d each been born. We returned annually, rented the same cottage, and came to know the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. We adapted to the slower pace of life in the village, and never complained that things weren’t as “at home.” Though the showers were smaller than that to which we were accustomed, we’d get just as clean.