When it comes to Ireland, I’m nothing if not biased.
I was named after the country; my dad was writing his Master’s thesis about WB Yeats when I was born, and chose a name that honored his family’s heritage and couldn’t be transformed to a nickname, which was important to him having lived with a name, Charles, that spawns nothing but nicknames.
My husband was born, raised and lived for many years in Dublin. His kids–and their kids–are there still. And his sister, whom I feel closer to than most of my blood relatives, her husband and son, and his brother are all there as well. My heart is there.
I was lucky enough to live in Dublin for several years, and spent time all around what is an undeniably beautiful country, from Sligo to Clare to Connemara to Cork and Kinsale.
As I’ve watched and read and talked with friends and family about Ireland’s current woes–a disastrous economy and blazingly inept politicians–my heart breaks a little. Because these reports, while accurate, are not Ireland.
Don’t get me wrong. Ireland, Dublin especially, as the same problems as everywhere–drugs, poverty, violence, and don’t even get me started about the traffic. But when I thought about where I wanted to spend my 40th birthday, and as my husband lobbied for a trip to Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo, I booked our flights to Dublin. While we were there, I was reminded of what makes Ireland, its culture and people, amazing and resilient, and why Ireland will flourish despite the current political and economic turmoil.
Because we were visiting for a special occasion, we stayed in a castle. Ok, not the “rent the whole castle and get a staff” sort of castle, but Clontarf Castle, which is an integral part of Irish history, and now boasts a comfortable hotel with staff who go above and beyond at every turn. Clontarf Castle is not downtown, but rather in a residential neighborhood, and walking around, chatting briefly with folks in their front gardens and admiring the homes was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Dublin is a walking city, and those who visit and don’t venture into the residential neighborhoods are missing something special, because this is where you see that regular folks are getting on with life, just as they always have.
Weddings and Babies
Clontarf Castle, it turns out, is a popular venue for wedding receptions. The first six nights we stayed, there was a wedding reception every night, replete with live band–some impressive and others dreadful–and guests celebrating lives beginning together. The sense of celebration was palpable, even in chatting with wedding guests about the lack of water (Dublin had to turn off residential water at night because of an overly stressed Victorian water system in need of repairs) and latest shenanigans from those in the Daíl (Ireland’s congress).
We also spent a lovely afternoon chatting with my sister-in-law’s next door neighbors, a young couple who are expecting their first child. She is a lawyer with the DPP (public prosecutor), and he is a structural engineer. Having recently completed work on the new terminal at Dublin Airport, he’s between jobs at the moment. But they’re not worried; they talked about their family and excitement about their baby’s arrival and are looking forward to the next stage of their life together.
Fish and Chips and Soup
For Americans, European cities have always been expensive. Meals in restaurants, taxis, clothing and gasoline all cost on average about twice as much as they do in the U.S. The exchange rate didn’t do us any favors in that regard this trip, but it was worth every penny. Whether fish and chips from the local chipper, or a quiet meal in a lovely restaurant (not, I hasten to add, a chain), or a cup of coffee, the pace of life in Ireland is unique, and this is reflected in these ordinary experiences. Taxi drivers will share their philosophy–and it might surprise you. Shop assistants will tell you honestly whether that color suits you. And if you find yourself somewhere with soup on the menu, for the love of all that is holy, order it. I had soup made from things I didn’t always recognize and never would have ordinarily tried, and it was always delicious.
Oh, and if you find yourself in Ireland and don’t have at least one meal including cod and chips, well, you have missed one of life’s joys.
One of the reasons I so enjoyed this visit especially is that we neither rented nor borrowed a car. We took the bus. Not one of those touristy buses–although there are plenty of those if you want one–but the plain old regular Dublin Bus.
Dublin bus drivers are the best in the world. Not because they’re all jovial and cheery–few are either. But they are always helpful and almost universally possess a clever, dry wit. Like the guy who, when we boarded the bus without enough coins for the fare (can’t pay with bills), shook his head and said with a grin, “Aw, g’wan ye idjit,” which is Irish for, “I’ll look the other way this time, but please have the correct fare in future, and have a nice day.” Sitting upstairs in a double-decker bus as the driver deftly negotiates Dublin’s ancient, often teeny, streets is a singular thrill.
Like everywhere in the world, Dublin has chain stores and malls just about everywhere. You’ll never want for a Starbuck’s. As these have flourished, though, one-of-a-kind independent shops continue to thrive, too, and they’re not hard to find. Bookshops inhabit nooks all over downtown Dublin, and we visited a small model shop on a side street (recommended by one of those bookshop proprietors) that was a one (knowledgeable and helpful) man show.
In 1996, Ireland introduced a national television network in Irish. I’m a big fan of keeping languages alive, and so was thrilled to see this happen. TG4, as it is now known, has evolved to a sophisticated producer of TV content, all of which is subtitled in English. We watched compelling documentaries, news, music, and sport programs, and even a few episodes of the nightly soap opera. TG4’s programming is consistently high quality–to a standard I haven’t seen in the US for quite a long time.
I don’t know when we’ll get back to Ireland for our next visit, but I do know this: Ireland and its people will be there, with a cuppa (tea) and a tale, when we do.