Forty Shades of Green
It must be the glorious but unrelenting green of the countryside—40 shades of it, claim the Irish—that makes driving through a typical Irish village such a kick. Rowhouse after rowhouse, shop after shop, is painted a bright color, purposely and brilliantly in contrast to its adjoining neighbors. Colors—for example, electric lavender—colors that would be considered garish and even taboo in an American suburb—are utterly charming in this architectural style.
Dunguaire Castle, Kinvara, County Galway.
The Queens' Bar, Dalkey, County Dublin.
Two Lovely Irish Traditions
There was a second sight my 12-year-old daughter Madeline and I cherished during our delightful Trafalgar tour of the southern portion of the Republic of Ireland—the counties south of and including Dublin (Ireland’s capital) on the east coast and Galway on the west. A flower box adorned nearly every street-facing window. In August, at least, every one of these was bursting with multicolor blooms. This was partially the result, our tour director explained, of a “most beautiful village” contest underway, sponsored by the government of my family's ancestral country. And behind each window box? Irish lace curtains. Years and years ago, people referred to as “Lace Curtain Irish” placed these delicate drapes in their front windows to prove that they had moved up in the world, from the peasantry to the middle class. Today, they are simply traditional among Irish people at every income level. One of the bets that Madeline and I had going was to find a house without lace curtains. We never did.
Roughly the size of the state of Maine, Ireland’s 26 counties (something like American states) are home to some four million people. They are among the most educated populations on earth. The literacy rate is 98 percent, and some 50 percent of the Irish attend college. Their high schools are rumored to be as tough as many American colleges.
Business is Booming
Ireland’s trade-dependent economy has been booming for the last decade or so. Agriculture, once the most important sector, is now dwarfed by industry, which accounts for 38 percent of the gross domestic product, about 80 percent of exports, and the employment of 28 percent of the population. Ireland, which joined the European Union some 20 years ago, has been one of the prime investment areas for the EU. One of the results? The national income per person is higher than it is in England.
It's obvious the Irish take great pride in their clean and green country. The only graffiti I spotted was "I LOVE CAKE!" scrawled on a whitewashed wall. "How sweet," I remarked to Madeline, "I love cake, too." Then she disdainfully informed me that Cake is the name of an internationally known (except by me) musical group!
I was actually surprised that the graffiti author hadn’t signed his name, because the Irish also take obvious pride in their work. Nearly every village shop, pub, and restaurant prominently includes the owner’s name:
Fitzhugh’s Shoes, O’Grady’s Pub, Sullivan’s Auto Works. Even each Super Value, a grocery chain (one of the few chains of anything in Ireland), was preceded by the last name of the owner. I suspect that if I had ever seen a McDonald’s (and I never did) it could conceivably be called McDonald’s McDonald’s.
Renovating Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny City.
Crown Alley, Temple Bar area, Dublin.
Blennerville Windmill, Tralee, County Kerry.
The Clue is Your Shoes
Our final mother-daughter bet: find an Irish person wearing athletic shoes. This bet was spawned when, back in the U.S., we read in a tour guide to Ireland that the Irish do not wear athletic shoes, and that, in fact, tourists were sometimes ejected from pubs for this "infraction." There was no explanation in the book for what the Irish find so offensive about athletic shoes...and the book was only half right. We did see very few natives in Nikes — leather appears to be the standard — but we never encountered any hostility as we traipsed around the country in our own comfortable sneaks. And we certainly were never ejected from a pub.
Nevertheless, though I have traditional Irish looks, those shoes identified me as an American the instant I walked into a shop. Clerks would approach me, note what I was looking at, and then helpfully inform me of the approximate price in U.S. dollars. This before I could even open my mouth and reveal my Southern California accent, which to me sounded hard and flat in comparison to the gentle, upbeat, almost musical Irish brogue.
The Irish accent is not the only gentle aspect of these people. I have been many places in the world, but I have truly never encountered a nicer people. For example, in the handful of times Madeline and I got lost on the streets of some village or city, absolute strangers would not just tell us how to find our way, they would actually take us there. Even the street signs are kinder than Americans are accustomed to. “Traffic Calming Ahead,” for instance, is “SLOW DOWN!” in America. Incidentally, all public Irish signs are, by law, not just in English, but in Gaelic (also called “Irish”), as well. Gaelic, and that is still the primary language in some far-flung Irish towns, was the language spoken nationwide before England invaded the country centuries ago.
A Brutal History
There is much history to be seen in Ireland...such as in grand, centuries-old castles, some of which have been restored and are available for rent, and in majestic cathedrals in this predominantly Catholic country. But remnants of Ireland’s long, often brutal and tragic history are evident, as well. For me, the starkest reminders were the walls that still stand firm on both sides of some roads more than 150 years after Ireland’s greatest catastrophe, the Potato Famine. These walls were built by starving Irish people who were paid a penny a day and a bowl of soup by their English masters. Potatoes were the mainstay of the Irish diet, as well as Ireland’s principal crop, when a fungus destroyed several years of harvests in the 1840s. In less than a decade, the famine cut Ireland’s eight million population in half. About two million died of starvation or starvation-related ailments, and another two million (including my own ancestors) immigrated...mostly to the U.S. That’s why some 60 to 70 percent of all Americans today claim some Irish ancestry. If you’re among this number, any trip to Ireland should include the County Cork port of Cobh, formerly Queensland, where the majority of immigrant ships set sail in the 19th Century.
The Celtic Cross.
The Great Nave, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
Pastoral views abound throughout the country.
Many Irish today believe that England let Ireland starve; that the virulently anti-Catholic British landlords, in fact, were shipping foodstuffs to England even at the height of the famine. The resulting bitterness...and years of battles...eventually resulted in the independence of Ireland’s 26 southern counties in the 1920s. England retained the northernmost six counties, now known as Northern Ireland. Because Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital, is often in the news, it’s no secret that hostility still exists between the Irish Republicans and the British loyalists.
A Joyful People
But the dark side of Irish history has always been balanced by the traditional joie de vivre (wish I had the Gaelic translation!) of this people. They love to tell stories and jokes, to sing and dance, to hold parties and street fairs...and yes, to drink. There really is a pub on every corner—and usually a few in between. No trip to Ireland is complete without tipping a pint of Guinness, Ireland’s most famous export. It has a strangely appealing burned flavor, because what sets Guinness apart from other brews is that there’s burned barley in the mix. Incidentally, you’ll pass golden field after golden field of barley in rural Ireland, because, as many pub signs declare, “Guinness is our business!”
Another treat in Ireland: the fantastic scones (one type liberally sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon), which we ate with Irish butter, possibly the sweetest and creamiest on earth. We did avoid what is part of every traditional Irish breakfast: black pudding. It doesn’t resemble pudding at all; looks more like a black and white hockey puck...and is made with fresh pig’s blood!
Kytler's Inn, Kilkenny City.
Bunratty Folk Park, County Clare.
A typical Irish window in the town of Blarney.
Real Estate in Ireland
The price of Irish real estate has risen dramatically in the last decade as Dublin has become more cosmopolitan, more involved in international business. Indeed, it has evolved into the high-tech capital of Europe. Consequently, very ordinary-looking townhomes near the city center can cost a million dollars and more. On the coast further south, rock stars and other glitterati are building multimillion-dollar spreads where they truly can be away from it all...including the American media. To the west, while we were in Ireland, former President Clinton was rumored to be considering property in the Kilmare area, which is near the more-spectacular-than-Big–Sur Ring of Kerry. Still, in more remote areas, it’s possible to buy a charming cottage for about $200,000.
While I would love to have a summer cottage in Ireland, I am too set in my ways to live in Ireland full time. I could not live without my freeways and my malls and my 7-Eleven. On the other hand, I deeply envy the Irish because they can...and they thrive.
Performers on the Ring of Kerry.
Kilkenny Castle where it overlooks the River Nore.
A walking stick—and an umbrella!—are handy things to have in Ireland.
Story by Jacqueline Shannon
Photography by Jacqueline Shannon and the Irish Tourist Board