I don’t know what most Americans think of when they hear “Ireland,” but I have always imagined a very green place with quaint cottages, stone walls, and lots of sheep. Also, because I have read many historical fantasy novels set in Eire, I pictured sprites and pixies and all other manner of supernatural beings that emerge from the mist on a long winter’s night. In other words, I suppose I thought of Ireland as being, on average, slightly more rural, picturesque, and magical than the most rural, picturesque, and magical part of England. On the whole, my recent trip to Ireland confirmed these suspicions (though I never did see any fairies).
Before I moved to the UK, I didn’t really understand the difference between the two parts of Ireland, but now I am more educated. “Ireland” refers to the large island (the third biggest in Europe, in fact) that is off the west coast of Great Britain. It is divided into two parts: the Republic of Ireland, which covers most (5/6) of the island, has a government that couldn’t care less about what Queen Elizabeth and the coalition Parliament think, and uses the Euro as currency; Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is a part of the United Kingdom with the same kind of separate-country status as Wales and Scotland and uses pounds sterling as currency. When I recently went to visit “Ireland” during the first week of September, I traded in my pounds for Euros and went to Clew Bay in County Mayo, Republic of Ireland—or, as I tend to call it in casual conversation, “Ireland Ireland.” (I bet a lot of Northern Irish would cringe to hear me say that.)
The trip began with a flight into Dublin, which really could have been a destination unto itself—one day I do hope to go back and get more than a bird’s-eye-view of the city. We flew there from Newquay Airport in Cornwall, and it amazing how quickly we arrived in a whole other country—we were not even in the air for an hour, and barely had time for drinks and miniature bags of nuts before we were back on the ground. The flight itself is pretty impressive, since it takes you over the many peninsulas and inlets of Cornwall, then along the southern coast of Wales, before finally approaching the eastern coast of Ireland. You can see all sorts of cliffs and beaches and giant green fields, as well as the deep turquoise ocean along the shorelines:
As soon as we arrived at the airport in Dublin, it was obvious that we were no longer in the UK. It’s amazing how such a short flight could transport you to a place where people wear such obviously different fashions. Of course, an airport crowd is not exactly representative—there were many Americans there, and also a bunch of Brits—but even among people with Irish accents, I could see a difference; this held true even once we left the city and explored some of the smaller towns. Even down in Cornwall, which is not exactly what I would consider the most modern part of Britain, there are people who wear the types of very current trends you see in fashion magazines. The style of dress in Ireland was toned down in comparison; people weren’t dressed unfashionably, but they weren’t wearing some of the more outrageous things I normally see in the UK, either (e.g., none of those little Charlie’s Angels beach rompers or ankle socks with loafers—thank God). In other words, while the Irish looked unmistakably European, had I seen them elsewhere, I wouldn’t necessarily have identified them as coming from Ireland rather than, say, Scotland or Germany. The exception to this was many of the older working men that we saw—in particular, farmers and fishermen:
(Our caretaker, who is also a fisherman, and his son--those are genuine seafarers' oilskins!)
Those guys could have walked off the set of Far and Away or any other period Irish drama set over the last 100 years. The majority of elderly gentlemen walking through town or working in their fields wore wool flat caps that matched their wool jackets. I can imagine wearing this when going on the weekly shopping trip, but while ploughing the field?—that is pretty hard-core. It must have been rather toasty, but it did lend the gentlemen an air of distinction.
Once we left the airport, we had an unexpectedly long drive in order to get to our destination, Rosturk Woods. Given that Dublin is located on the east coast of Ireland and Clew Bay is on the west coast, we actually drove across the width of the entire country (though not across the widest part), and in a single day. I think that is the first time I have ever done such a thing, anywhere. Although I don’t particularly love car trips, given my propensity to become massively motion sick, I enjoyed the opportunity to watch the countryside as it became increasingly rural. For about the first two-thirds of the trip, the scenery didn’t scream “Ireland!” in the way that I had expected; we could easily still have been in England (though the vistas were much wider than those in Cornwall, since the roads weren't hemmed in by stone walls). However, it was extremely green (just as I predicted!) and the fields were decorated with many sheep and bright orange wildflowers. As we moved into the center of the country, there were lots of picturesque rolling hills. To my excitement, there were also tons of pine trees. Although there are also evergreens in Cornwall, the landscape is dominated by deciduous trees, and conifers are few and far between. Not only did Ireland have many pines, but they were grouped together in big patches; that is a habitat feature that reminds me of home and that I miss in the UK.
One of the other big scenic differences between the UK and Ireland was the style of house that we passed. Bungalows abounded—one-storey homes spread out over a lot of ground, fronted by a little stone or cement wall and fairly sizeable front gardens. Many of the gardens contained topiaries, or at least very well-sculpted red-cedar-like trees. I suppose the bungalow-style home is a modern version of the traditional long-house style of dwelling that many of Ireland’s first residents used. Oddly, though, we also passed some brand new McMansion-style homes like those you see in the US, jutting out of the landscape in a very unnatural way. I did not expect to see those in the middle of the Irish countryside, and they looked as surprising and bizarre there as they do in the middle of an otherwise empty field in the US. I will never understand how anyone could choose to live in such a home/location. Both the McMansions and the bungalows were situated extremely close to the road, which also reminded me of much of the US. I had a friend from the Great Plains who could never understand why East Coasters didn’t use long driveways in order to give themselves some privacy. I suppose it is a bit odd—if you have several acres of land, which these places clearly did, why not remove yourself from the noise of the traffic? I suppose it allows residents to maximize the amount of space they allocate to their livestock, which abounded. In fact, sometimes the livestock felt the need to break free of their confines and occupy some additional space, regardless of how their human neighbors felt about it:
The landscape really started to change around Westport. Suddenly there were picturesque stone bridges stretching over tannin-darkened waters and glimpses of fishing vessels sitting in the mud flats, awaiting high tide; we were definitely nearing the coast. From Westport to Newport, and then from Newport to Rosturk Woods, we passed many roadside shrines to the Virgin Mary, which is something I haven’t seen in other highly-Catholic countries I have been in; maybe I just haven’t been to the right places. As one might expect, there were also tons of Catholic churches, whose adjoining graveyards also contained shrines. This in the same country where the “quick-release” tab on a kayak’s spary skirt is referred to as the “Oh, Jesus!”handle—as serious as they may be about their religion, they can also involve it in a laugh.
We finally reached our house just before dinner time:
(Home, sweet home, for our week at Rosturk Woods.)
Like freshmen arriving at our dorm for the first time, we explored our surroundings and staked out our sleeping quarters. Oddly, two pairs of bedrooms were “stacked,” such that you had to walk through one bedroom in order to reach the other from the hall. On the bottom floor, where the bedrooms also had patio access, this meant you could reach the living room or kitchen by going outside; on the top floor, where my husband and I were staying, the only way out involved intruding on your neighbors. I found this to be particularly uncomfortable because we ended up in the back bedroom, but I was consistently the earliest riser in the house, which meant that every morning I woke up our friends in the adjoining room on my way down to breakfast. Sorry, guys! The other weird architectural thing was that the bathroom doors in both of the upstairs stacked bedrooms had panes of glass in their upper halves, covered only by a thin curtain. Thus, anyone who wandered past could see you using the toilet. I’d like to have a chat with both the architects and interior designers involved in making this building.
(Our see-through bathroom door. Luckily the curtains were not hung on a rod, but on a flexible, stretchy wire, which allowed us to hang towels in the window for better coverage.)
Our arrival at Rosturk Woods coincided with a bit of nasty weather, which was fine by me. For one thing, I like cloudy skies and rain, anyway. For another thing, I hadn’t had a true vacation for a very long time. I had a lot of sleep to catch up on and some very long books to read. Other than a brief foray down to, and along, the coast (about 5 minutes’ walk from our porch), and a short blackberry-picking expedition, I pretty much didn’t leave the house for the first three days.
(I took this photo during one of my brief forays along the coast outside our house; this castle was built in the 1800's and our caretaker's father grew up in it. I believe this may be the first time I vacationed within walking distance of an actual castle.)
It turns out that Ireland is a great place to hunker down inside, snack, and take naps. Our bedroom was particularly good for sleeping because, from it, I could hear the waterfall, the rustling leaves, and the birds singing outside; it was very peaceful. In the evening, we lit a fire and burned some very Irish peat bricks. In front of it, we watched movies and played Celebrities (in which I redeemed my poor performance in the one-word round by discovering a talent for the charades round).
I finally ventured out on the fourth day for an afternoon kayaking expedition. Although I am quite fond of kayaking and, indeed, own a kayak, I hadn’t been out on the water for over a year, and had never before been out on the sea. The day started stormily, but cleared up just in time for our outing. Clew Bay supposedly contains 365 islands (one for every day of the year), and we paddled from one to the other in bright sunlight atop sparkling waves:
(A view from my kayak of one of the Bay's more impressively-sized islands and its smaller neighbors. Unfortunately, my camera was just not up to the task of capturing the phenomenal, wild beauty of the Bay.)
We visited maybe 3-4 different islands and a nearby salmon fishery, taking shelter along each island’s coastline in order to rest up for all the hard work required to get across the choppy, open bits in between. Nobody tipped over and nobody was too sore the next day, so the trip was definitely a success. Once we got back to the pier, we had to rush home rather quickly, because the gravel track that got us back to the main road was being overrun by water as the tide came in. I suppose that is a bit of evidence in support of the widely-held belief (by Brits, anyway) that roads under control of the Crown are always in better shape than roads maintained by the Irish.
The next day, we went back out on the water in vehicles that could move a bit faster. Our hunters and gatherers hopped aboard a small fishing vessel in order to throw out lines for mackerel and collect some scallops; others of us took a rib out to meet them, making a brief detour to do some seal-watching along the way:
(The Twilight Star, our caretaker's boat.)
(If you look closely, you will be able to see that the dot in the water is the head of a bull seal investigating our presence.)
After we rendezvoused, we pulled into an island and had a little picnic, complete with freshly-made hot tea (our skipper was both prepared and thoughtful). As we ate, we could see very intense clouds making their way towards us from the open water; just in time, we collected our belongings and set off for home. Our brief window of sunny weather was closed. Luckily, we had a home-cooked meal of freshly-caught seafood to distract us from this unfortunate fact.
On our final full day in Ireland, my husband and I drove to Westport for a little shopping. I was hoping to find some traditional Celtic-themed jewelry to take back to the US as presents. Oddly, this proved to be nearly impossible, despite the fact that Westport had many shops, a large proportion of which we visited. However, there were tons of other items on offer, including a wide range of things made by local artists. My husband and I were both impressed by the quality and the prices of these artisanal products, which were made in many media. In many cases, the art had a Celtic theme, but did not dwell on the stereotypical images of Druids and "faeries" and knots and the other sorts of things that most tourists might think of; rather, they reflected contemporary ideas of what it means to be Celtic and/or Irish now. That surprised me, but I also thought it was pretty neat (and I used my credit card to show my support).
Throughout our stay at Rosturk Woods, we also did “regular” shopping, which was an interesting process. The nearest village, Mulranny, had quite a tiny grocery store—smaller than many typical 7-11s in the US. Although that is completely understandable, given the size of the local population and the distance to the nearest supply centers, it was difficult for those of us who had planned to cook complex recipes. For instance, there were no fresh herbs in the store, and only a half dozen dried herbs; there was only one brand of tea, with no herbal options; and there were no options for health and beauty products for those of us who ran out or packed too lightly. Although none of this really bothered me during my 7 days in town, it did make me think about how difficult it would be to live that way year-round; I am definitely not a city girl by any means, but I do like the choices and conveniences that are a part of being nearer "civilization."
On the morning that we took off, we woke up to the sounds of rain but, after pulling back the curtains, saw sunlight streaming through the clouds. This yielded some of the prettiest views I had seen yet, which also matched most closely with my preconceived notion of what Ireland looks like:
(The view from our bedroom window on our final day--notice the simultaneous rain and sun.)
Unfortunately, the loveliness of the first few moments of the day did not persist throughout the rest of the day; after issues with unplanned potty breaks and fuel stops and traffic jams and lacking/poorly-positioned car rental signs at the airport, we barely made our flight—by which I mean that we were the last people to check in, and did so during the final five minutes before the gates were closed. That was undoubtedly the most stressful airport moment I have ever had when traveling, but at least it had a happy resolution. Maybe after a week in the country, we had been blessed with a little of the luck of the Irish.