A bit o’ blarney from the Emerald Isle
When the rather dour immigration officer at the Dublin airport asked if I had ever been to Ireland before, I responded “Yes, but it was 40 long years ago.” With no change of expression, he said, “You must have come by boat then.” It took me a minute to get it (I had, actually, come by boat on that earlier trip, the ferry from England), but his joke was a great introduction to the friendliest nation I’ve ever visited.
This space is normally devoted to food and cookbooks, but I’m afraid I can’t say very much about the food of Ireland. (What can be said about a nation of people who starve when the potato harvest fails, even though they are surrounded by seas and lakes teeming with fish?!) Suffice it to say that we had HUGE breakfasts every day which meant we didn’t have to worry about lunch. Dinner was pub food which, I must admit, was excellent in most cases – pubs have come a long way from offering only fish and chips and Irish stew. Of course, the best thing was my nightly pint of Guinness, properly drawn. The sun didn’t set till ten and was up before five, but I slept like a baby with my belly full of that dark, creamy, and slightly-less alcoholic-than-export-variety stout.
We spent a few days in rainy and cold Dublin, where the bridges across the Liffey River are named for Irish playwrights and the archeological museum has lovely exhibits of ancient gold jewelry and people who were dug up from the peat bogs.
We then picked up a car and drove around most of the island. Gorgeous green fields and pastures separated by stone walls, lots of sheep and cattle, golden gorse and huge rhododendron bushes, little towns with pubs on many corners, lots of spectacular cliffs with an occasional stretch of sandy beach, and friendly locals wherever we went.
Then we crossed into Northern Ireland – where kilometers suddenly become miles and euros become pounds, and where the centuries-old Catholic–Protestant rift is still visible (don’t try to order Bass Ale, made by Protestants, in a pub in a Catholic neighborhood!). These are the counties from which my ancestors immigrated in the 18th century. There was more beautiful scenery, including the amazing geological formation at The Giant’s Causeway.
And I’ve got to plug some books because, after all, the proportion of great writers in Ireland exceeds that in any other country’s population. I loved Sebastian Barry’s lyrical novels The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side so I picked up his gut-wrenching novel of World War One, A Long Long Way. Joseph O’Connor’s recent novel, Ghost Light, about the relationship between the playwright John Synge and actress Molly Allgood is a beautifully written story as is his novel about Irish immigrants to the U.S., Star of the Sea. I’ve also enjoyed Anne Enright’s The Gathering, Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and Blackwater Lightship. These writers are all worthy descendants of Joyce, Yeats, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett and many others.
Ireland is a special place. In some small towns I felt as if I were stepping back in time about 20 years. Walking around the ruins of old castles and ring forts, I could feel hundreds of years of Ireland’s rocky history. And listening to the old Celtic music on uilleann pipes and tin whistles, I felt a breeze of ancient air that felt somehow familiar. It must be my Irish genes.