Gloria and I went to Ireland, a place neither of us had been, for our 20th anniversary, and we really enjoyed it. The Irish are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. And if you tell them that, they buy you a round of drinks (thank you John and Liam Coffey).
There are quite a few things I learned about Ireland, some that I would have realized if I had just thought about it, and others maybe not.
That they were never attacked during World War II, for example. Well, yeah. If the Nazi’s couldn’t get past Britain, then they weren’t getting to Ireland. They never even declared war, though many fought with the British. That’s one of the reasons there are so many old, and I mean old, buildings still standing. They’re not Roman, they are Celtic, because the Romans never settled Ireland either. The Irish believe it was Ireland’s “temperate” weather that kept them away.
The owner of an Irish pub in our neighborhood back in the states told us that when he was growing up in Ireland he thought “temperate” meant that it pissed rain all the time. Irish weather is wet and cold all year, though not cold enough that you could ever freeze to death, your misery would never end, but I didn’t mind it. A long sleeve shirt and a windbreaker is all you need. The Irish made woolen cap I bought there was a help too. If you need more than that, you duck into a pub at any time for a shot of Irish Whiskey or a Pint of Murphy’s (Guinness, if you prefer).
In Germany, by the way, they also have ruins. A German cousin of mine once showed me a Roman wall, and I said, “so it wan’t destroyed in the war?” and he said, “yes it was. We rebuilt it.”
But the Irish ruins only need renovation sometimes, there are so many that people sometime live in them, and then there are those, that are “as is” and pretty good for climbing and imagining what it was like to be there thousands of years ago, looking upon the same stone.
I also never understood why Catholics and Protestants couldn’t get along, but I got some insight to that during our trip. As it turns out, It’s not religion, per se, but because the two groups were segregated into classes for political purposes. The Irish Catholics were oppressed by the English who were protestants. And the Irish Protestants were favored and taught to think that the Catholic majority were a threat to them, which, of course they were, but not because of their religious differences, because they were a different class. Ireland has many large fantastic churches, but they’re all protestant, even though Catholics have always been the majority. Catholics weren’t allowed to have big churches in Ireland.
And did you know that English is not the Irish language? Call me ignorant, that’s why it’s good to travel. In parts of Ireland they are not even allowed to have official signage in English. That said, the Irish language is barely spoken and for all intents and purposes it is dead. We learned from a tour guide that the potato famine killed it. During that time parents would only speak English to their kids because it gave them a better chance for immigration to America.
The consequences of the potato famine were quite complex and interesting in other ways as well, according to the Trinity College historian who gave us our walking tour in Dublin (recommended). For example, the extreme poverty of that time resulted in fewer marriages because the first sons had to wait for their parents to die to inherit small plots of land, and only then would they marry a younger woman who would outlive her husband by so many years that their first son would again be quite old before he could inherit any land and marry. Opportunities for employment were scarce, too, so men went into the priesthood. The combination of a society with limited marriage potential and the watchful eyes of a growing population of clergy, resulted in a much lower rate of procreation and a sharp decline in population. During this time, there was also a rise in mental illness among the unmarried, leading to the conclusion that marriage correlates to mental health. My wife looked at me in surprise and said, “so we’re keeping each other out of the nut house?”
“Hard to believe, isn’t it?” I said.
It was a very nice trip, like a retirement that probably won’t ever come if we keep taking vacations like this.
And now it is back to the routines of every day life, work, exercise, yoga, writing, feeding the kids.
But when I close my eyes I still see mountains, castles, and sheep. I see the Cliffs of Moher, and I can’t get that song out of my head about the boy who never left home that we heard in the pub where we met the Irish Coffey’s who kept paying for Gloria’s Irish Coffees and many many pints of Guinness between the three men.
“Sonny don’t leave me, I’m here all alone, your father went sailing and never came home.”
We drove a VW diesel from the wrong side of the car, round around in turnabouts until we felt like we knew what we were doing. We ate Guinness beef stew and drank beer, at least a little, every night. We climbed a mountain, the morning after drinking with the Coffey cousins. We found a beach and the sun came out just for that. We eavesdropped on conversations between Americans staying out of it, because we were in Ireland, and they were Americans.
When we returned to Dublin from our drive, we got to see it on a Saturday night. The people were out, and so were the winos (I’m going to call them that, because they actually had wine which they periodically pulled from their coats and passed around) and we watched scenes unfold from where we ate (and drank) in Temple Bar. The winos even seemed to own a little alcove across the street, right outside our window, and to their right a young guy played the bagpipes for money. I gave him money before we went in, and saw others engaging him in conversation and giving him money while we ate. He was very good. When I gave him the change that I originally intended for the young woman begging on the half penny bridge, who was no longer there when I circled back money in hand, he showed me his braces. I wondered how he could afford braces, but maybe he wasn’t necessarily there for the money, or maybe Ireland has national dental care. He seemed friendly with the three winos. The nice thing about European restaurants or bars is that they never rush you, so I watched the scenes that unfolded outside the window long enough to see the bagpipe boy leave, and to satisfy my curiosity about whether he would have to pay rent to the winos (he did not).
One stopped a young couple that were walking by. The boy wore a long black coat, and a black rimmed hat, and a black satchel. The satchel had a satanic star on it, but upon closer inspection I could see that two corners of the star rounded to form a heart. It appeared that they were talking about the boy’s outfit, until finally the wino asked for money, which he received. The one wino that didn’t have his own wine bottle slept through most of the fun, but eventually they woke him up gave him a sip after which he stumbled and fell before waking up completely. A girl and a guy came out of the bar and stood not two feet from these guys, something which stuck me as strange. In the US, I think people would stand away, uncomfortable with engagement or possibly to avoid the smell (these are Europeans, Gloria said). They lit a cigarette and that’s when the wino on the wall clamored for their attention. They spared him one, gave him a light and shook their heads “no” to some other request. Then they remained, flirting, until a friend of theirs came out of the bar with a beer glass in hand and ushered them back in.
I wish I had been able to take some pictures of this scene, but you know how they always say the best pictures are the ones you miss? For example, that first weekend that we were in Dublin I missed a great picture. We walked by a bar and sitting with his back to the window was a medium heavy guy showing not only his underwear but his butt crack to everyone on the street. I turned to Gloria and said “I did not need to see that,” but very shortly afterwards regretted that I had not taken a picture of it. I wish I could share it with you.