Visiting Ireland

We’re off to Ireland to visit people I hardly know.  My better half and I are traveling there for business.  Her business, actually.  I am just going along for the ride.  But while I am there, I will get to reconnect with some of her business associates, whom I have met once and whose company I enjoy.  Sid from India will be there.  Sid and I spent hours one night discussing religion and philosophy over beer.  You know me–religion, philosophy, and beer are three of my favorite topics!  And Lorraine will be there.  She lives in Ireland and has arranged for her husband Paul and I to spend a couple of days seeing some local sights during work hours. In short, I have a play date!

When the work event is over, we will spend the a night (maybe two) with Lorraine and Paul at their home and then travel a bit with them, seeing the country from a local perspective.

It should be great fun!  I hope to post thoughts and impressions here as the trip progresses.

Ireland, Day One (Arrival)

We jump started out trip by having a Guinness at Jack Duggan’s at the Philadelphia Airport.   We met my lovelier half’s co-worker, Rhonda, at the terminal and survived the flight to Dublin.  There should be some kind of airline rule that if you are flying over one of the Seven Seas, your airline seat should be wider than the average seventh grade girl.   I was uncomfortable before we took off.  After the in-flight movie, I actually dreamed about sleeping on the airplane floor, with my head under the seat in front of me and my legs up on the seat—anything to straighten my back.  I calculated that I could, in fact, FIT under the seat in front of me, there was just no way to maneuver myself down there.  Of course, I was asleep while calculating this, so who knows.

After maybe three hours of sleep, we found ourselves rushing toward the sunrise.  It was interesting to watch the sun rise below us—below the clouds below us.  The sky above us was deep blue, the clouds below at to the east, bright orange.  As I looked out at the scene below, trying to figure out whether I was looking down at clouds or ocean, I glimpsed the engine slightly behind me.  It reminded me of my dad’s old home movies of some vacation he and my mom took, and my dad videotaped the propeller and the ocean below them for what seemed like several minutes.  In honor of that memory, I took a few photos of the engine of our plane.

Finally, Ireland came into view.  Mostly farms and fields, islands, and even a castle.

Airports are airports, no matter where you go, but rental cars are not all the same.  In Ireland, they drive on the left side of the road and so the steering wheel is in the “passenger” side of the car.  And all the rental cars have a manual transmission.  The shifter is on your left .  But the pedals are arranged as they are in the States.

We arrived too early to check into our motel, so we went straight into Dublin to see the sights.  We did the cheesy touristy things, like the wax museum of Irish history.  It actually started pretty well, but suddenly, after peace broke out in Northern Ireland, we were in a chamber of horrors, a rock and roll hall of fame (which also had Star Wars characters), and some kind of cartoon land with everyone from the Flintstones to Sponge Bob and the TeleTubbies.

We left disappointed.  But recovered quickly   by visiting the Dublin Castle, Christ Church and the Guinness Storehouse, where we had our first beer in Ireland.  That seemed fitting.  I must say, Guinness tastes better in Ireland.  We also got to try Guinness Foreign Extra, a hop-rich beer not available in America (but which really should be) It was VERY good.  We ate lunch there (Guinness Beef Stew) which was also excellent.  We went to the top of the building where you can drink beer and gaze out over Dublin.  Very scenic.

We were running out of daylight, so we ran over to the Jameson Distillery for Irish Whisky. Which was also very good.  We didn’t have enough time for the tour.  Maybe next time.

By this time, Rhonda was exhausted and we were close behind.  We went to our hotel, checked in, showered, and went to the hotel pub for a beer.

Throughout the day, I took photos, of views, buildings, street scenes, street performers—I especially liked the guys who stood in a windless stress looking like they were walking through a wind storm – coats, tie, and even hair, all affixed so they seemed to be flying off behind them. The puppeteer was also excellent.

Ireland, Day Two (Driving)

I was planning on writing about my experiences driving on the “wrong” side of the road in Ireland.  I woke up early today and went out alone to drive on near-empty Sunday roads to get used to driving here.  But it was easy and uneventful.  In fact, it’s easier to drive on the “wrong” side of the road than I expected.  Other things about the Irish roads are more difficult.

For example, it’s more difficult to be a passenger.  As the driver, you are focused on what you are doing until it becomes second nature (and busy reminding yourself to “stay left… stay left”).  But as a passenger, you are navigating, tuning the radio, and sightseeing, when suddenly you look up and flash back to America.  For a moment, the mirrors are all wrong, oncoming traffic is wrong, everything is wrong.  And of course, the steering wheel is missing.

But today, I drove.  I drove to the airport to pick up Sid, a co worker of my more attractive half.  And I drove half way to our final destination for the week – about four hours away.  That trip is picturesque, and easy.  Well, it should have been.

To understand the day’s drive, you need the background.  There were four of us:  My more attractive half and me, and Sid and Rhonda (two co workers).  Since Sid and Rhonda don’t really know each other, it was decided that Sid and I would travel in one car, while the women drove in the other.

Upon arriving at the airport, we parked the car the girls would be driving in the short term lot.  Upon leaving the airport Sid and I left by way of the Hertz parking lot.  The complication was that the Hertz lot and the Parking lot were not near each other.  With my wife and I driving separate cars and Sid and Rhonda on cell phones, we attempted to catch up with each other and caravan across the island.

This took an hour.  By the time Sid and I found the car and then found the girls, the police had already found the girls, illegally parked along the side of the road.  When Sid and I came upon them, we drove past and waved, and then called to say we were on the first of the highways and would travel VERY slowly until they kept up.  They never did.

For reasons I do not understand, they ignored both Sid and I and the GPS navigation voice and took another route, and then called us to turn around and catch up to them.  We tried.  Except for reasons I do not fully understand, there was no way to get to where they were.  Several phone calls and nearly an hour later we ended up exactly where we were when they first called and found this was where they wanted us to be all along. No, I don’t understand it either.

Finally on our way, we drove a few hours and then stopped for lunch. Stopping for lunch in western Ireland means pulling off the highway and finding a town.  The towns are small, the streets narrow and the parking non-existent.  The towns are cute however.  We finally parked and found a small tavern serving lunch and ate.  While we ate a gentleman who must have been the town drunk, entered.  He talked to the bartender in a loud voice and we followed the conversation.  The drunk was there to have a beer and explain why his friend would no longer come into this particular establishment.  He repeated over and over, “He won’t come in, and that’s the end of the story.”    Except it wasn’t the end of the story, because the story repeated.  “And he won’t come in and that’s the end of the story.”  And again, the story repeated.  The bartender threw him out. But while he was doing so, the drunk said loudly.  “Well at least we know where we stand… and THAT, I guess, is the end of the story.”

After we left the tavern, the drunk engaged us in conversation.

Back at the car, Sid wanted to drive.  He could not find reverse, so I pushed out car out of the parking space.   We navigated through the narrow streets and back onto the highway.  15 minutes later my more attractive half pulled onto the very narrow shoulder of the highway and got out of her car.  Sid and I pulled up behind her.  “I left my cell phone at the tavern.”  She informed us.

Sid must have mentally reviewed the trouble we had finding parking, not being able to find reverse and navigating the small streets and announced “we will wait here!”  He pulled the car up a small dirt drive that was about 1 car length long and ended with a metal gate and shut off the engine.  The girls turned around and headed back the way we have come.  Sid turned to me and said. “I pulled the car in.”  I looked back, not quite understanding his point.  “We can’t back up” he reminded me.

We used our time to learn reverse.

Back on the road 30 minutes later, the drive was nice.  We arrived at our destination 10 minutes before the planned dinner.  From the time we left for the airport until the time we arrived at our hotel, it took us 8 hours to make the four hour trip.

I am sorry there isn’t more to report today, but in short, driving isn’t so hard here, but traveling can be a nightmare

Ireland, Day Three (The Playdate)

Today was my arranged play date with Paul McDermott.  The day started with coffee in Ballina with Jennifer, one of the few other “corporate spouses” here this week.  We wandered around Ballina for about an hour, had coffee at the local coffee shop and did a little local shopping.  I got back to the hotel just in time to meet Paul.

Paul is a veterinarian here in Ireland and was gracious enough to take the day off to show me the countryside from a local’s point of view.  We saw coastlines and mountains, church yards and small towns, ruins and modern facilities, farm lands and small cities.  And we talked of American and European politics, the Irish pub culture and the American mall culture.  We talked of the differences in our technologies, and the similarities of our teenagers.  In the end, we’re both happy living under the systems we have, and we’d make a few adjustments given the chance.  The conversation was both very interesting and very enjoyable.

We stopped at the small churchyard where Irish poet and dramatist, WB Yeats is buried.  We ate in a small modern restaurant and shared a pint at the McDermott family’s pub, which is now run by Paul’s brother and his brother’s wife.

At the pub I met the some of the locals, watched people meet and greet each other and got a taste of the Irish pub culture Paul told me about earlier in the day.

After Paul dropped me of, I ran into another spouse in the bar, had another pint, and went off to dinner and Irish music with the entire office crowd.  I long and busy day, afterwhich my spirits were high and my voice was gone.

Ireland, Day 4 (Ruins)

Today was a day for ruins.  Not necessarily those of the medieval variety.  All along the back roads here, there are the remains of small farm houses—nothing but their stone walls remaining.  Some of these home are no larger than two car garages, some smaller than that.  And they are everywhere.  I was able to get inside one or two and you can really get a feel for what life was like during the hard times in Ireland.

The day was divided into two parts.  In the morning I took the car and went out on my own exploring, stopping whenever I found something of interest.  My favorite spot was an old graveyard with a large stone arch in the middle of it.

The roads are so narrow that you can’t simply pull onto the shoulder when you see something of interest.  You have to drive a ways until you find a patch of shoulder or field you can park in.  Then you walk.  I passed a few locals walking along the roads, and even got to say good morning to a few housewives when they came out to see why their dogs were making such a fuss.

The second part of the day was a small boat excursion with the corporate team.   Ours was a three-tour in a boat about the size of “The Minnow” on Lough Corrib.  There we saw the famed Ashford Castle.  A massive building right on the lake which the Guinness family used as their summer home two weeks a year.  The castle had a full time staff of 350 people.

We traveled on to Inchagoill Island, famous for the ruins of Tempall Na Naoimh (Church of the Saints) which was (believed to be) built by the Augustine Monks of Cong in about 1180 AD.  Also on the island are the ruins of Saint Patrick’s church.  According to the local tradition, Saint Patrick was banished to the island by the Druids in the middle of the 5thcentury.

On the boat we were entertained by both the captain, who told us the history of the lake and the island, and an Irish gentleman in his 70s who played traditional songs on his accordion, told jokes, and sang songs. There was a bit of dancing on the boat.  (It’s amazing what half a glass of wine will do to some people).  My more rhythmic half was doing what I think was a Polish Polka to the tune of an Irish Jig.  But I’m not completely sure.

We ended the day with dinner in a small castle overlooking the lake.

Ireland, Day 5 (County Mayo)

I spent the day with Paul again and we did a tour of Mayo.  The amazing part about Mayo is every time you turn a corner, you are in a different environment.  Coastal cliffs, green pastures, bogs, barren landscape, stone shores, mountain lakes, bustling towns and tiny hamlets all exist within a few miles of each other.  We got so far off the beaten path that English no longer appeared on the street signs, only Irish/Celtic.  Eventually, there were not even signs.

My friend and guide was a veterinarian for 30 years in this country and he not only knows every road and view, but he seems to know every person in the area.  I met of a few of his friends–some along the side of the road, where we’d stop and talk a while–and visited a few of his old hangouts, including Leonard’s Pub.

Leonard is a bit of a legend in these parts.  His pub is half pub and half general store, literally divided down the middle.  He owns the local farm, the only gas station in town, and the funeral home.

Ireland, Days 6 & 7 (Paul and Lorraine)

The last day of the work conference, so I had much of the day to myself.  I took drives along back roads, walked along nature trails down to the river, and wandered the city in search of lunch.  I even walked along long, winding and narrow country roads, just like a local.  I wandered around the estate on which our hotel sits and found the old estate grave yard.  It held maybe a dozen headstones and was surrounded by a 5 foot wall.  Not far away sat an old medieval tomb I had a great morning.

After all the work related conferences were done and all the foreigners left, we packed up our belonging and went to stay with Paul and his wife, Lorraine.  On the way to their home, we stopped by the castle/restaurant we ate at with the company gang the night before.  It was nice getting to see the building and the rooms without all the people in it.  Of particular interest was the bar, made entirely out of the timber of an old Spanish ship.

We settled into the guest room at Lorraine and Paul’s, met two of their three children and Millie the dog.  They have a beautiful home, lovely gardens and very polite kids.

Lorraine did for us what Paul did for me, drove us around and showed us the sights.  Yes, there are THAT many sights to be seen.  We visited large cities and small towns, stopped in famous pubs and family pubs. Like Paul, Lorraine’s family has a pub, now run by her sister.  We stopped in one cold night for hot whiskey.  We met Lorrain’s father; her mother was across the street at another pub playing “Twenty Five,” a game she plays most nights at one pub or another.  There are three other pubs within view of Lorraine’s family’s pub.

We have had large Irish breakfasts each morning—oatmeal, soda bread, eggs, sausages and both black and white pudding.  The puddings are wonderful, I’m just not exactly sure what’s I them.  Well, actually, it’s all wonderful.

During our outings with Lorraine we saw small coves surrounded by cliffs, we then went up the cliffs.  We climbed part of Saint Patrick’s Mountain.  And we strolled, along with many sheep, through the deserted village—a medieval town of 137 homes, all in ruins today.  Every home was built the same way.  One room, door on the left side (as you face the ocean) and the “strong wall” to the sea, to protect the thatch roof from the winds.  The homes were no more than 10 feet apart and had no windows.  One home had a second room.  We figure that was the mayor’s house.

Ireland, Day 8 (Northern Ireland)

Today, along with Paul and Lorraine, we ventured north into the United Kingdom.  Northern Ireland has some great coastline, walled cities, and excellent food.  The real differences are the post boxes and telephone booths (painted red rather than green) and the fact that the money is in British pounds and the speed limit in miles, not kilometers.  Paul and Lorraine have been doing the driving, money converting, etc.  We picked up the hotel room and dinner.

We visited the Giant’s Causeway, a few ruins, some great cliffs and several other “Oh-Stop-Here” sites.  Paul is very patient with me as I attempt to capture ALL of his country on “film.”

Our hotel is… interesting.   It’ a guesthouse actually.  It’s how I imagine a hostel would be—out in the middle of nowhere, college-dorm style rooms, etc.  But I am not dispirited; the farther out into the countryside we got, the more sure I was that I’d be sharing a bathroom with every other patron of the guesthouse.  So when we arrived and I found we indeed had our own facilities, I was quite happy.

They do have a bar here, and we spent a few hours there talking about the past few days and the next few days—and listening to an Northern Irishman playing guitar along with a karaoke machine and singing American country-western tunes.  Now THAT is entertainment.  American Country is quite popular here, as is line dancing.

Tomorrow we go to Derry.  Or Londonderry.  (Depending on whether you are Catholic or Protestant)

Ireland Day 9 (The Town I Loved So Well)

Went to Derry (or Londonderry) in Northern Ireland today.   We took a tour along the wall of the city learned about “the troubled times” from a man who lived it first hand.  There is a lot about those times on the web, and you can read all you want, but perhaps the best way to describe it is in a song, “The Town I Loved So Well.”  It’s strange to walk the streets where so much violence took place so recently…

The Town I Loved So Well
by Phil Coulter

In my memory I will always see
the town that I have loved so well
Where our school played ball by the gasyard wall
and we laughed through the smoke and the smell
Going home in the rain, running up the dark lane
past the jail and down behind the fountain
Those were happy days in so many, many ways
in the town I loved so well

In the early morning the shirt factory horn
called women from Creggan, the Moor and the Bog
While the men on the dole played a mother’s role,
fed the children and then trained the dogs
And when times got tough there was just about enough
But they saw it through without complaining
For deep inside was a burning pride
in the town I loved so well

There was music there in the Derry air
like a language that we all could understand
I remember the day when I earned my first pay
And I played in a small pick-up band
There I spent my youth and to tell you the truth
I was sad to leave it all behind me
For I learned about life and I’d found a wife
in the town I loved so well

But when I returned how my eyes have burned
to see how a town could be brought to its knees
By the armoured cars and the bombed out bars
and the gas that hangs on to every tree
Now the army’s installed by that old gasyard wall
and the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher
With their tanks and their guns, oh my God, what have they done
to the town I loved so well

Now the music’s gone but they carry on
For their spirit’s been bruised, never broken
They will not forget but their hearts are set
on tomorrow and peace once again
For what’s done is done and what’s won is won
and what’s lost is lost and gone forever
I can only pray for a bright, brand new day
in the town I loved so well

Ireland Day 10 (On Our Own in Galway)

Today, my more European half and I took a long drive from Ballina to Galway.  It took about an hour and a half.  We twice along the way, once for me to take photos of an old church, and once for coffee.  In Galway, we wandered the streets, window shopped, listened to a woman play guitar on the street, and ate at a little sandwich shop.  We listened to Irish talk radio and caught up on all the news of the day.

The most interesting news item:  A car bomb was discovered in Derry, along one of the streets we walked just a few hours before.

Our day in Galway was wonderful.  We decided to drive home a more scenic route.  We were way up in the mountains, along quiet roads that were quite lovely until we got a flat tire.  Then the quiet roads were isolated and the mountains were ominous.

While it was interesting to have walked past the intended target of a car bombing just a few hours before the attempt, real “trouble in Ireland” is getting a flat miles from nowhere.

We drove back to Paul and Lorraine’s slowly and went out for a night at the pubs.

Only a few photos today.  I didn’t take any changing the tire..

Ireland Day 11 (Irish Weather)

Today we got our FIRST taste of Irish weather.  It was cold, rainy, foggy.  There were now views, nothing to take photos of.  It’s a shame a country this beautiful is so often so cloud covered you can’t see it.  Paul and Loraine have been surprised by how nice the weather has been throughout our trip.  They’re also glad we finally got to see real Irish weather.

Rain doesn’t seem to faze anyone here.  Clothes remain on the lines, windows remain open; people walk the streets, pubs remain in business.

We made our way back over to Dublin today (after stopping for a new tire).  We stopped in Carrick-on-Shannon for lunch at The Oreman’s Bar.  The food was excellent and I enjoyed a pint of a beer I had not see before–and Irish Pale Ale called “Hooker”

We walked the town, did some shopping, took our time.  We had no agenda, and as a result, accomplished little.  It was a nice way to round down the trip.

Tonight is our last night at a pub.  We have been to many pubs here.  Not only are no two alike, no two are even similar.  It’s been great fun experiencing them all. Well, ok, we didn’t experience ALL of them.  (but we tried!)

Ireland Day 12

Time to head home.  🙁

We said our goodbyes to Lorraine and Paul and Eadaoin and Ronin (and Millie) yesterday.  It was especially nice spending what ended up being 5 nights at their home.  We were made to feel so welcome.  Even the kids asked if we could stay longer, not so much because they enjoyed our accents or talk about what is different in America, but because the dinners were grand and there was dessert every night.  Eadaoin and Ronin are great cooks by the way.  Eadaoin made excellent banana cake and perhaps the best carrot cake I have ever tasted (and you know how I like carrot cake).  Ronin is a crepe expert.

I never did get to eat the black pudding Paul purchased for me, and apparently you can’t bring meat on a plane.  Well… it’s not exactly meat.  Black pudding is blood and pork fat, oatmeal and spices.  It’s probably not the kind of thing to be found in an American supermarket.  Perhaps not even in an American butcher shop.  But, regardless of what you think of its ingredients, it’s VERY good.  Paul, if you’re reading this, you’ll have to have the pudding for me.

Last night over our last pint in Ireland, we talked about all the things we have done and seen during the past 12 days.  We tried to identify our favorite moments, or things we would have done differently.  It’s impossible to choose a single favorite moment.  And really the only thing we would have done differently is to have stayed a little longer.  I suppose my favorite parts of the trip ‘tho were seeing the coastlines and talking about Irish and America life with Paul and Lorraine.  My more shopping-oriented half liked the towns and cities best, the little stores and restaurants.  She wishes we could have done more of that.  I guess we wish we could have done more of everything.

We chuckled about our trip to the Irish frontier museum.  They are very excited at the museum because they are adding a new exhibit–all about the life Irish Emigrants found when they settled in Virginia’s Shenandoah mountains.  They are even having homes shipped over from the valley.  Of course, our Frontier Museum has an Irish farm, shipped over from  Ireland.

See you at home!

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