We have been talking about visiting Ireland for years now, always having it just narrowly lose out to places deemed more exotic (Vietnam), cheaper (Guatemala), more Incan (Peru) or less prone to constant rain (everywhere except Vancouver or a Twilight movie). Despite the long delay, Ireland has always had all sorts of characteristics drawing us their way:
A particularly endearing accent (think “educated Newfie”).
World famous hiking and scenery.
A mysterious infatuation with the colour green.
A reputation for extreme alcohol consumption (making Ireland one of the major inspirations in my life, along with sports betting and scotch-guarded couch cushions).
Lofty status as the original birthplace of my ancestors. The Johnstons made their way west from Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, while the McFadzens originally hailed from Tipperary before coming to Canada, with an unscheduled stay in Scotland after being “banished” from Ireland, based on the McFadzens that I know, probably for either cheating at cards, excessive racial humour, or kneeing too many people while playing hockey.
And suddenly there we were. Actually in Ireland. Staying in a town called Trim, in a hotel called Trim Castle Hotel, which not surprisingly overlooked Trim Castle. This sudden foray into the lap of luxury was somewhat discombobulating – fluffy towels, key cards, complimentary bags to dispose of tampons – it had it all. Top that off with our very own rented Ford Fiesta – a chipper little car, even if they did mess up and put the steering wheel and gear shifts on the wrong sides – and in comparison to some of our previous destinations (Morocco, we’re looking at you) these small luxuries felt equivalent to being in a quaint townhouse in Nice getting ready to entertain some fashionable socialites from Paris who were just ironic enough about their elitism to make it admirable. Of course, we were also planning to do some hiking so we had our really big rain jackets, too.
In a cultural sense, Ireland was fairly surprising. Irishisms (can you believe that word doesn’t create any sort of stir with the Word spellchecker?) are so prevalent the world over – Irish pubs, St. Patrick’s Day, leprechauns, potatoes, shaved head/track suit combos, more Irish pubs, green boxer shorts – that I’ve always felt like I had a pretty good handle on things. But it turns out I had no idea about so much. For one, Irish, or Gaelic, football is actually a real thing, at least in the same way Canadian football is a real thing, meaning it is wildly popular within its own country, yet generally considered fictitious and amusing to everyone else. Then there is hurling, another popular Irish sport, at least judging by the 6 pages it warranted daily in the newspapers, but one I can barely begin to describe, seeming to be somewhat of a cross between lacrosse, field hockey and men’s shorts modelling. Possible even more important than sports, though, although it is hard to imagine how since it is something that can actually be practiced by regular people without the help of any human growth hormone at all, is the actual Irish language, also known as Gaelic. Of course, this should have been fairly obvious but I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that before visiting Ireland I didn’t think Irish was really used any more.
One of those old languages that had sort of fallen by the wayside, only used by kids looking for ways to expand their repertoire of swear words or elderly women who’ve drank too much whiskey. But I was wrong, very wrong. Irish is alive and well, especially in the northwestern areas such as Donegal and Connemara, and in seemingly all the rural areas. We were actually more likely to hear men in pubs conversing in Irish than English, although the results were heavily skewed by age (young guys speaking English, old guys speaking Irish, really old guys mumbling and chewing their way around their 20 second long mouthfuls of Guinness, and occasionally grunting as though they were having their balls roughly checked for lumps). Between that and the way they used Irish names on road signs we felt nearly as clueless and lost as we do in any other foreign country. It was quite a relief.
Irish weather was definitely a concern going in, famous as it is for dreary rain and biting wind, two things I usually only enjoy while gazing out at the ocean from the end of an otherwise empty wooden dock and quietly pondering a moral dilemma. Having a car meant we weren’t as concerned as usual with getting caught in the rain while wandering the streets of an unfamiliar town in search of a hotel, or restaurant, or used belt store, or anything else we are highly unlikely to ever find on our own. No, we were mostly just hoping for some decent weather for hiking so that we would be able to fully enjoy the famously spectacular coastlines and ruggedly scenic hills and valleys that Ireland has to offer.
Our very first weather forecast on the radio seemed positive, although it was difficult to be sure, with the cheery young woman predicting in her charming Irish brogue “some pretty decent chances for dry spells” throughout the day, and although she never went so far as to predict actual sunshine, she did offer a slight possibility that the skies would “brighten for a time, later in the day”. Jackpot. Then, following the forecast we listened while Sean from Belfast called in to DJ Sean to discuss how Monday morning sucks after a weekend of drinking and how the best cure is usually to just start drinking again. Both Seans fully agreed.
Irish food was interesting, somehow managing to be completely awesome yet disappointingly bland at the same time. After spending so much time this winter in Portugal and Morocco it was thrilling to find menus with more than 2 items we actually recognized. In fact, Irish food is probably the most familiar for me of anywhere in the world, as similar as it is to the food I grew up on, possibly speaking to our Irish roots, possibly to my family’s love affair with bland. Burgers, pork chops, bacon, battered fish, and a side of fries (called chips, of course) included with absolutely everything (including bland pasta, bland soup and, obviously, bland lasagna). Bottom line: there were a dozen things on every menu that sounded good enough to order but tasted just average enough to be mildly disappointing.
As for breakfast, well, I’ve discussed this at length after our visits to both England and Scotland, and Irish breakfasts fall into much the same greasy, filling, mesmerizing, irresistible, heart palpitation inducing category. Not the ideal start for a big day of hiking but perfect if you have a pair of pants you bought slightly too big in hopes of eventually growing into them. You could always tell how long a tourist had been in Ireland by what they had on their breakfast plate. People at the tail end of their trip – half a bowl of cereal with a fruit salad and some toast, while politely declining the fried eggs, bacon slabs and all the different colours of mysterious meat “puddings”. Newcomers – heaping stacks of fried pork products jostling for space with runny fried eggs, heavy chocolate muffins and glistening hash browns, all of which would be surrounded by bowls of cereal and porridge, and with one token piece of fruit balanced precariously on the edge of the plate as a last resort in the unlikely even you actually have any room left in your stomach thirty minutes from now.
A major coup that I’d like to report on: we actually managed to discover the source of the whole “cute little Irish village” look. It isn’t a cultural thing, or an environmental thing, or even an obsession with multi-coloured storefront thing. No, it’s a competition. The Ireland “TidyTowns” competition, which each year since 1958 had rewarded locations around the country for cleanliness, aesthetic appeal, clashing colour schemes and most prominently displayed “TidyTowns” stickers. As amusing as I found this, however, there is no denying that it has served to literally create an attractive culture of pride, community and the diligent use of pastels.
While not exactly a cultural phenomenon, driving in Ireland was certainly a foreign experience for me and, seeing as how we rented a car for our entire 2 week stay and spent more time in said car than we did at any other culturally Irish activities, such as getting drunk and balancing unsteadily on a bar stool while obstinately droning on about the dearth of real rugby players these days, or in the lowlands hunting leprechauns with butterfly nets.
As I mentioned earlier, the whole driving on the left, sitting on the right, shifting with my left, drifting too close to the left, scolding Laynni for yelling at me in too alarming a fashion for getting dangerously close on the left – thing definitely took a little getting used to. But it was nothing a bit of practice and a ball gag couldn’t rectify.
As for the endless roundabouts, well, I can understand the advantages, even if having to slow down to 30 kilometres per hour every 3 kilometres on the highway got a little tiresome. And I could live with the narrow, winding shoulder-less roads with skinny little lanes and absurdly high speed limits, or the tiny one lane country roads lined tightly with grassy fences forcing you to plan several steps ahead in search of even the smallest slice of ditch to pull off into in the event you met another car along the way. But what I could not abide, and must emphatically condemn, usually with a meaningful frown and vigorous hand gesture, were the horrendous Irish radio stations which, despite having a vast array of talented Irish musicians to choose from, not to mention the, you know, internet, steadfastly refused to play anything other than the trendiest selection of dance-hip-pop in an endless 6 song loop. Oh Nelly, I wish you all the best in your brave attempts to have Little Porsche let you take her home, just for a weekend, maybe more, just sayin’, for I’ll believe you when you tell me that you’ve never seen an ass like that and that it’s highly likely to make a nigga crash like that.
Poetry, just poetry. Although I do have to admit that I was completely won over by the idea of staying up all night to get some, to have some good fun, and, ideally, to eventually get lucky.
Also, I found it fascinating how the rural Irish driver was almost shockingly similar to the rural Saskatchewan driver. Both are clearly in no rush to get anywhere, ever, and both have fully embraced the nonchalant, hand draped loosely over the steering wheel, one-finger wave. And on a single one hour stretch of road between Eniskillen and Sligo we passed eleven tractors. It gave me chills.
Now, for a brief description of some of the best, or most notable, or most filled with sheep, sights we visited in Ireland:
Possibly the most famous sight in all of Ireland, and certainly in Northern Ireland, we unfortunately found it somewhat disappointing. Maybe it was the name, or maybe all the photos we had seen actually had abnormally small humans in them, but we expected the mysteriously uniform rock formations to be bigger.
We kept walking around, poking around corners, thinking there must be more. But then that night we got back to the hotel, looked at our photos, and went “wow, that looks really cool”. So maybe it’s just one of those things that looks better on film than in person, kind of like Michael Ironside, or a flaccid penis.
The Carrick-a-Rede Bridge, on the other hand, was
surprisingly impressive thanks to the surrounding scenery, and not necessarily
the diminutive rope bridge itself.
We spent countless hours just meandering down tiny rural roads (toward the ocean, Dean, always turn toward the ocean) and the scenery was mesmerizing. Stunning cliffs, windswept dunes, and placid sheep-filled pastures sporting vast oceanscapes in the background and gnarled old Irish farmers in foreground. Occasionally we would stop to wander around, hiking alternately in wind, or bogs, or steep rocky outcropping, but always, always, shoes.
This most northwesterly of Irish counties was definitely the quietest, and probably the most Irish (judging by the extensive use of the Irish language and not on any scientific formula regarding total whiskey consumption or prevalence of “rugby ears”.
A natural paradise, Donegal was simply filled with lakes, coastal beauty, occasional forests, and many, many small hills. Or, as they are called in Ireland, mountains.
This lonely abandoned castle hidden back in the woods near Lough Erne was a place we stopped at on a whim and which ended up pleasantly surprising us. Appearing suddenly around a bend on a quiet little dirt road, standing there stoically in the rain, it turned out to be an atmospheric place to explore in the rain, and a terrific place to take a leak privately.
The historic home of the Johnston clan, we made a small detour to visit it, particularly looking forward to Johnston’s Bridge, hoping to discover some suggestion we were somehow responsible for its existence (maybe it would have our family shield carved into the side, or maybe also be prone to overcooking steak). Alas, it rained the whole time, the castle didn’t look promising enough for us to search for parking, and what our map showed as the eponymous bridge didn’t have so much as a sign to prove it, although we did get an outstanding photo of me driving across it, so there’s that.
This wild, untamed area full of windy bays, picturesque fjords, circuitous rivers and stunning inlets was one of our favourite areas. Don’t get me started on the dire restaurant situation, though. Or split ends.
Inishmor, Aran Islands
We spent a couple nights on this barren, cold, wind-swept island just off the west coast, which was 2 nights more than most of those who take the ferry over for a few hours of puffing around on rented bikes and posing awkwardly in front of ancient stone fences. We, on the other hand, were able to spend an entire day puffing around on our rented bikes and posing awkwardly in front of stone fences.
Cliffs of Moher
Stunning, and far more extensive than we had imagined. Also the busiest tourist attraction we saw in our time in Ireland, but the surprising length of cliff trails kept it manageable, huge unpredictable wind gusts added a welcome element of unpredictability to our photos of Laynni’s scarf, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never in my life run so fast as when I finally surrendered to its fury and chose to run, run like the wind.
At least 4 separate people recommended this cute little town (a TidyTown finalist, I’m certain) -some for its beautiful beach (too cold to lie on the beach), some for its beautiful golf course (too cold to swing a club), and some for its world-class surf (too cold to even utter the word “wetsuit”). We liked it.
Startling rock formations, rugged landscapes and a name that practically rolls its r’s for you.
Here we finally settled in to spend 3 nights in one place. There was a terrific view coming down from Conor Pass, a friendly small town vibe, a bevy of hiking trails in the vicinity and, naturally, yet another awesome name (although Laynni repeatedly informed me that being in a town called “Dingle” was no reason to sing “My ding-a-ling, my ding-a-ling!” all the time, that they in fact had nothing in common whatsoever, and why the hell didn’t I know more than that one line, anyway?
Of course, one can’t forget about Fungi the famous dolphin of Dingle.
The way I understand the story, he appeared one day a few years back and essentially squatted in the local bay, hanging around long enough without killing any surfers, like that last party guest at 4:30 am who just cracked another bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and asked if you’ve seen any good movies lately, to attach himself to the town and eventually be adopted as Dingle’s unofficial mascot.
Our only real city stop of the trip, having avoided the usual tourist haunts of Belfast, Galway and Cork, mainly due to our general aversion to cities, my fear of busy streets and uneasiness about driving in unfamiliar traffic on the wrong side of the road, and a highly pessimistic view of our parking prospects. But Dublin was non-negotiable. So we stayed out near the airport, took a bus into town, and proceeded to partake in all the traditional activities people engage in while visiting Dublin – strolling around Trinity College while gazing admiringly at all the history, taking rushed photos on bridges before tourists photo bombed us, traipsing around the hectic pedestrian streets of the Temple Bar area, stopping in for an overpriced pint in Temple Bar itself, wandering around listening to traditional Irish folk music on the streets (or so their hand-written posters claimed), joining the rest of the tourists doing laps up and down O’Connell Street, and topping it all off with a movie featuring prodigal Irish son Colin Farrell, playing a Hungarian pretending to be an American while doling out sweet vengeance, banging a French girl and staring at the camera with his trademark dark, brooding and blank look.
We were not, however, invited to join any of the dozens of stagettes, or hen parties, that seemed likely to be taking place on any given Saturday afternoon, very much including that one, and were mildly bemused by the signs on pub doors warning “No track suits or trainers”, at least until we watched a few mentally defective skinheads dressed in just such getups awkwardly bartering drugs in the local bus stop.
And then that was pretty much that. I think I’ve probably gone on long enough now to make it unnecessary to bother with some of the other little tidbits we found interesting, like how much we enjoyed the overwhelming friendliness of the Irish people, or the police search we passed on the highway where several dour SWAT members fully equipped with machine guns, bulletproof gear and unhappy scowls contrasted so sharply with their delighted sniffer dog who was bounding to and fro simply thrilled to be part of the action, or the unusual number of large groups of large women we always seemed to be passing, with difficulty, on the streets, whose stern “don’t mess with us” expressions seemed perfectly reasonable in light of the equally numerous large groups of men that could be found in pubs slowly chewing away at pints of Guinness in between short bursts of obnoxious banter, their demeanor, and faces, inevitably looking rougher by the hour.
Along with all of that, our entire Irish experience was tinged with that weird end-of-a-long-trip vibe, looking forward to heading home, trying to squeeze a last bit of adventure out of a trip, and gleefully discarding items either falling apart or having outlived their usefulness (books, watch, clothes, French vocabulary). They were heady times.
If you liked those leprechaun jokes, check out my book Random Acts of Travel: Featuring Trepidation, Hammocks and Spitting.