There must be something in our genes that harbors "memories" of places we’ve never been and people we’ve never met. How else to explain the powerful sense of belonging that enveloped me when we landed at Shannon Airport? My heart had come home!
Two anonymous quotes bracketed our 21-day idyll in Ireland. The first, on a placemat in a Donegal pub, read: "Ireland has been described as rather a plain picture encased in a beautiful frame." What a crock! Surely the work of an Englishman over-steeped in Guinness. As our Enniskillen B&B keeper would say, never in donkey’s years could anyone who had seen Ireland describe it as plain. The Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea do, indeed, provide a beautiful frame for this magical island, but inside that frame are a magnificent landscape, delightful people, and a history that’s both glorious and haunting.
I doubt there are another 32,544 square miles on earth that encompass such a variety of natural beauty. The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare rise a sheer 700 feet above the Atlantic.
Spectacular, indeed, but farther north, in County Donegal, we visited Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe, stretching for five miles along the coast and reaching a height of nearly 2,000 feet. Mountainous is not a word that generally comes to mind when thinking of Ireland, but in fact, one is seldom out of sight of them – not the Rockies or the Alps, but mountains, nonetheless, with names like Knockmealdown, Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, Blackstairs and Blue Stack.
What one does expect, of course, are little fields in myriad shades of green, separated by ancient stone fences in the south and hedges in the north. And they are there, dotted with flocks of dairy cattle and sheep, the backs of the latter daubed with various colors of paint to identify their owners. (Not all the sheep are fenced in. Many wander the narrow roads, and we often had to pick our way through them.)
Loughs (lakes) and gentle rivers meander everywhere – which is fortunate, since as an old gentleman told me, "An Irishman can’t exist far from the water."
One of the most awe-inspiring sights we saw was the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim – 37,000 joined basalt pillars, mostly hexagonal, formed 65 million years ago by volcanic action and reaching from the ocean bed to a hundred feet above sea level. It’s Ireland’s most popular tourist site, and for many, the journey has been refreshed since 1608 with a stop in Bushmill, the nearest town, where the world’s oldest whiskey distillery (at least, the oldest legal one!) is still in business.
There are beautiful beaches, deep forests, and – a surprise – palm trees and dolphins, their existence enabled by warm air from the Gulf Stream. Even though Ireland lies north of most Canadian cities, its temperature rarely falls below freezing or rises above 68 degrees. I’d wondered if flowers would be in bloom when we began our trip in late April. They were magnificent, as were the ornamental cherry trees that dotted the landscape with drifts of pink petals.
Those who say it rains every day in Ireland are almost right, but it’s usually a gentle shower that lasts just a few minutes. We took ponchos, but never wore them. Nor did we need the heavy sweaters and woolen socks we’d been told to pack. (That advice came from the friend who raved about the delicious Irish soups. More about that later.)
Places I’ll never forget include Dublin, my favorite city, with Trinity College that houses the Book of Kells (a Latin rendition of the Gospels by seventh-century monks whose calligraphy is so perfect that it’s difficult to believe it’s not type-set), the beautiful bridges spanning the River Liffey, the wonderful literary history and the colorful Georgian doors, including an especially ornate one designed for a visit by Edward Prince of Wales, who was later to abdicate the British throne.
Other places with which I was particularly charmed were Cobh, a quaint little village on the east coast that was the last port of call for the Titanic, and Donegal, where I received a chaste kiss in a pub from an Irishman in a kilt.
Belfast and, to a lesser extent Derry, also have many things of historic interest, but are memorable particularly for the reminders of "The Troubles" – the late 20th-century violence between the Loyalists who favor continued alliance with England (primarily Protestants) and the Unionists (mostly Catholics) who long for a reunited Ireland. Tour guides in both cities stressed that the ongoing tension is not over religion, but politics, a point they believe international media have misrepresented.
Whatever the cause, the major tourist attractions in both places are the murals, grim records of the hostility that still bubbles just below the surface and, in Belfast, the 40-foot-high fence erected to separate the contentious factions.
Monasteries, castles, and cathedrals abound, some beautifully restored and some charming in their state of disrepair. On May Day, when we toured Glenveagh Castle in the Derryveagh Mountains of County Donegal, fresh flowers were strewn around every doorway to invite the good fairies in and keep the bad fairies out. Long-ago visitors to Glenveagh were weighed on arrival and departure in a suspended jockey’s chair. If there was no weight gain, the hospitality was assumed to have been lacking.
Our adventures were wonderful and varied. We talked to a fisherman in Killybegs – who could not love a country with a village named Killybegs? – who had just returned, as the fleet does every year, from seven months at sea, following the catch from Norway to Ireland’s west coast.
We saw peat, still the fuel many families use for heating and cooking, being cut and stacked in the bogs.
We rode in a pony car up the Gap of Dunloe to view the beautiful Lakes of Killarney.
We saw a family of musicians – mother, father and little son – playing on the street in Donegal.
We visited St. Patrick’s Purgatory, where the saint spent forty days praying on an island to rid Ireland of evil spirits. Thousands of pilgrims visit the island every year, spending three days walking barefoot and subsisting on one meal a day of strong tea and dry bread.
And we saw Newgrange, dating to 3200 B.C., the oldest-known megalithic passage tomb and a World Heritage Site. For 17 minutes at dawn each December 19-23, a shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box over the entrance and flows down the passage to illuminate the burial chamber.
Because one purpose of our trip was to gather information about my ancestors and their way of life, we were intrigued by visits to the Bunratty Folk Village in County Limerick and the Ulster-American Folk Park in Omagh, County Tyrone. Displays in several museums and reference materials in the Letterkenny Library were also helpful.
When I reached the crossroads in Clones Clintivrin, County Fermanagh, I could picture my 21-year-old great-grandfather, James Kennedy, leaving that spot in 1852 to sail to America, carrying the red wooden chest – now the coffee table in our family room – that he had built to hold his belongings. I could also imagine the "American wake" his family and friends would have held the night before his departure, knowing they’d never see him again.
In far northern County Donegal, near the Fanad Head Light, I found Croagan House, the ancestral home of my sixth-great-grandmother, Margaret Patton, who was born in the 1600s. Deserted but still standing – fortunately, the Irish never seem to tear anything down – it was once the center of a huge estate that included a private island in the North Atlantic.
We also spent three days further south in County Donegal in Kilmacrenan, the village Patton’s daughter, Margaret Lynn, and her husband, John Lewis, left about 1730 to come to Virginia and found the town of Staunton. (Margaret Mitchell told friends that she based John O’Hara in "Gone with the Wind" on stories about John Lewis, my fifth-great-grandfather.)
Just outside Kilmacrenan is the spot where, for centuries, Ireland’s high kings were crowned on Doon Rock. Doon Well, nearby, is still believed to have mystical healing powers, and a small tree beside it is hung with hundreds of mementos of answered prayers.
Our 4,200-kilometer journey in a wee Nissan Micro (a model not sold in the U.S.) took us through 23 of the 32 counties, including the six – Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Derry, and Tyrone – which comprise Northern Ireland. Our tiny auto was just right for the 12-feet-wide winding roads. Pickups are nearly non-existent, but huge John Deere tractors do double-duty as family transportation. We were amazed to see one waiting for a traffic light to change on the main street in Limerick, the fourth-largest city in Ireland.
We stayed in B&Bs, some elegant and a few a bit shabby, but all clean, comfortable, and hosted by friendly people who were happy to share their computers, telephones, and local lore. Some of our accommodations were newly "purpose-built," while others ranged in age up to the 255-year-old Cavangarden House in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, which can host 18 guests and has an equally-ancient private chapel next door.
Every B&B guest in Ireland should start the day with “the full Irish breakfast” – eggs, sausage, bacon (the Canadian variety, not the American version, which they call “streaky bacon”), cold cereal, a half tomato (raw or broiled), white toast, wonderful “wheaten bread” with butter and jam, orange juice, coffee or tea and sometimes fresh fruit, pancakes and oatmeal. (It became our ongoing joke that, while sausage and bacon were on every breakfast plate, the farm animals we saw in three weeks included hundreds of thousands of sheep, thousands of cows, and a single pig!)
Those bountiful breakfasts sustained us most days until dinnertime, and the food in general – mostly pub grub – was very tasty.
A few surprises: If there’s a packet of artificial sweetener to be found in all of Ireland, it was nowhere we ate.
Every bowl of soup we were served had been pureed. (We quickly stopped ordering soup.)
Canned or bottled sodas (varying in temperature) were served with a glass, but no ice. (Bottles of Coke and Dr. Pepper were printed with the message, “Open by Hand.” As opposed to …?)
And there was no iced tea. (I learned to ask for a pot of hot tea and two large glasses of ice.)
Creamed potatoes translate to mashed, crisps are chips and chips are fries. (Raised with an Irish grandmother who served potatoes at every meal, I had a dinner in County Fermanagh with three kinds of potatoes on my plate. Heaven!)
Salad dressing is scarce and usually limited to one choice. I ordered a green salad our second night in Ireland and asked what kinds of dressing were available. “Well, now,” said the waitress, “you’ve only just arrived, haven’t you?” They had none at all.
Tuna salad consists of canned tuna and whole-kernel corn, with perhaps a touch of salad cream (mayonnaise). But order a side salad, and you hit the jackpot. At the Railroad Hotel Restaurant in Enniskillen, we were served half-circle plates containing lettuce, sliced apples, tomatoes, green peppers, green onions, cucumbers and beets, a hard-boiled egg, grapes, corn kernels, grated Swiss cheese, a strawberry, slaw, and Waldorf salad! No dressing, of course.
Our B&B hosts were not the only people who made our trip special. As I took photos on the grounds of the 13th-century St. Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare, a woman sweeping the steps insisted that I must see the inside “because it’s so beautiful.” She was right, and when I said I’d run out of film, she dashed home to fetch another roll for me before I could add that I had lots more in the car, just down the hill.
In Belfast, where I was searching for the 19th-century baptismal records of my great grandparents, a cab driver parked in the shade, turned off the meter, and told us to wait while he ran down the block to see if the address we’d been given was actually where we needed to be.
And a cab driver I’d hailed in Dublin, not realizing that my husband had gone off to find an ATM, chased him up the street and brought him back. Not likely in America, I think.
But our favorite example of the Irish spirit of caring is the mail delivery system. We noticed the total absence of family mailboxes and, in talking with two mailmen, discovered that they put mail through door slots in both town and country and, consequently, know everyone in each residence and business. One visits 385 addresses a day; the other about 500. It’s their civic duty, they said, to check on the elderly and ill, and their union is fighting the government’s effort to replace this personal contact with a less time-consuming system.
We found the Irish brogue more pronounced, but very understandable, in the Gaeltacht region along the northwestern coast. Signs in the rest of the country are in both Irish and English; in the Gaeltacht, in Irish only. Still, most are not difficult to sound out phonetically. Hospital, for example, is ospidéal.
Whether or not you have Irish ancestors, you’ll find a trip there a magical experience. Two hints: Bring washcloths and be aware that your request for a first-floor room will entail climbing a flight of stairs.
I mentioned that two quotes bracketed our trip. The second, woven into the tapestry covering the seats in the Aer Lingus plane that carried us back to Chicago, is as accurate as the first was mistaken: "Returning Americans are never the same. They will forever be caught between two worlds." Tis true, tis true!
*Patty Williams is third-generation American-born on her mother’s side; seventh-generation on her father’s side. Memories of her sentimental journey are enhanced with more than 1,700 photos and the 152 pages she wrote in her journal.
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