Last Days in Ireland – Feeling the Love

We left Derry and made our way back to Dublin. I’ve finally figured out the roads – what the letters mean – so we used the wider cow paths to get there – mostly uneventfully. I won’t lie, I’ll miss being called ‘Love’, ‘Pet’ or ‘Darlin” liberally sprinkled in any sentence that addressed me for the length of the country.

We fell in love with Derry so it was a little bitter sweet to leave it behind. The people in NI were lovely. We heard more Gaelic spoken the further North we went. Even though it’s UK. So happy that they’re keeping the language alive and it’s spoken on the street – not just in schools or at special occasions.

But we got plenty of sweets on our last day. Ireland makes donuts and ice cream one of the main food groups. We saw it all over the country and while Northern Ireland is technically the UK, they embrace it there too.

At Taboo Donuts I was a few pence short – I had winnowed my British pounds down knowing we were leaving the country. The woman understood.

Taboo Donuts – Derry, NI

‘No worries, love. I’ll just take 60 pence from the jar and if I see ya again, then I see ya. If not, no one leaves here without donuts.’

Of course, I went back to the hotel and found 60p in a pocket and brought it to her. How nice is that?!

Joe Jacksons ice cream was to die for. Lots of gluten free options and the scoop size is first rate. The place we stayed in Derry was, again, very traditional. Like our authentic coal burning Christmas in Mayo, our Derry Georgian New Year was a little smaller and more compact than we had planned. The pictures online were not accurate. So we were happy to move on back to Dublin to stay at more accommodating accommodations. An old Ducal Palace.

We headed first to Trinity College Dublin to see The Book of Kells. It’s a bible written many centuries ago – like a thousand years – on velum. But honestly, I was kind of ‘Meh’ on it. Not because it wasn’t beautiful or important, but after going to the Templar Castle in Ponferrada on my Camino in Northern Spain, where they have an entire library of such bibles and other books, it seemed a bit over-hyped.

But I did LOVE the library above where the the book is housed. It’s like what you expect all libraries in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries were like. With ladders and such. Women had to get permission to enter back then, all knowledge being for the Men and all. They have displays of some of their most famous female graduates that fought for their right to study and graduate from Trinity College. Ironically, Trinity was initially funded by Queen Elizabeth I, so honoring women just seems natural.

After pulling me out of the library, Jeff and Em and I walked to the river to see the EPIC museum. This is the Irish Emigration Museum. Emigration and Ireland are intertwined. Due to famine, oppression, war, and economic hardship, the Irish have been spread throughout the world seeking a better life. EPIC does an amazing job telling that story.

We were astounded and moved by the stories from artists, engineers, politicians, athletes and much more, who have changed the world by sharing their gifts with the rest of the world. But the one thing that moved me the most happened after we were done viewing the exhibit.

Of course, you exit through the gift shop – just like every where else. But tucked behind the elevator is the Irish Heritage center. For 12,50 euro they give you access to their data bases. And you can sit right down and look it all up.

We had heard from others in Northern Ireland that Jeff’s last name, Darragh, could be the same as the city Derry. Derry is Royal Oak – only in Irish (Gaelic) its pronounced Darragh. It’s not spelled that way in Gaelic but upon entering Ellis Island, the officers spelled people’s names how ever they liked.

So the lady at EPIC started helping us and we got no where. Jeff isn’t close to his Dad or that side of the family. A lot happened there after his parent’s divorce and it’s like a third rail. He doesn’t touch it. But this lady didn’t know that and kept asking questions. I could tell she was coming close to the third rail. And then something happened.

There, all of a sudden, was a record of his grandfather via his Uncle Paige – who we discovered wasn’t named Paige at all. Which led to other records and more relatives. And suddenly we were looking at the immigration record of his 9 year old great-great grandmother who was from Northern Ireland (where we had just been), and had boarded a ship alone during the Great Famine – sent to live in America with relatives. It takes ‘Unaccompanied Minor’ to a whole new level. Jeff was overcome.

And there was the ship’s manifest for his great-great grandfather – her eventual husband – who came from County Clare a few years later. It was all there in black and white, this 18 year old kid who made the crossing for a better life.

But there was something else. Jeff was very close to his grandparents when he was little. His grandfather owned a music store, and when ever we go into one here, Jeff always talks about him. What a kind man he was. And how much he loved his grandmother. Well in that data base in Dublin, they had a photo of his grandparent’s graves. Jeff had never seen or been to the graves before. He had tried to find out where they were but no one seemed to know. And yet here we were, 7 thousand miles away and he was looking at them. I’ve never seen him so struck. Still waters really do run very deep.

We had another place to hit on our list and the museum was closing so we had to go. Jeff was quiet on our walk to the Jameson Distillery. It was a lot to process. I saw this on a wall on our way and it seemed to say it all. Across time and across miles, love doesn’t diminish. Even if those we love are gone.

We would go to both the Jameson Distillary and The Guiness Store house. Both are kind of must-see touristy things to do. But I definitely prefer Jameson’s and would skip Guinness as being a little too over the top.

Jameson’s was started in 1780. They are still making whiskey in Cork and I felt like I connected with their story more because of how small an operation it still really is. Sure, they make whiskey and ship it all over the world. You can buy it anywhere. But the people working there took so much pride in the operation and the legacy, well, it just struck me as more authentic.

Maybe it was the family motto of Arthur Jameson. It mean’s ‘Without Fear’ and as a Scottish Immigrant coming to Ireland to make whiskey from his own sweat and hard work, I liked it. Perhaps I’ll borrow that.

By contrast, Guinness feels HUGE. But of course they do. They’re everywhere, in every pub in Ireland. I had started taking pictures of the ads I saw on buildings all over the country. The message was clear ‘Guiness is good for you’ and it actually said it in one sign. It was always the working man’s drink – a reward after a hard day’s labor. But in Ireland, ‘the drink’ has a darker history.

But the view from the bar at the top of the Guinness Storehouse is not to be missed. The rest of it – Meh. You can see that it’s above the cloud bank looking out through the window in the first photo. Jeff enjoyed a pint too.

Our last stop before Em was due to fly out was Murphy’s Ice Cream. This was a must see for Emilie. She had watched ‘Somebody Feed Phil’ on Netflix this summer and when we told her we were going to Ireland she said ‘We need to go to that place he had ice cream’. So we did.

Murphy’s is a County Dingle company with a few locations sprinkled in the south of the country. They make some traditional favorites but specialize in crazy flavors like Sea Salt and Brown Bread. And that’s what Emilie ordered.

The staff are absolutely wonderful Brand ambassadors and we enjoyed chatting with them as much as eating the ice cream. An American couple came in and the kid behind the counter said ‘Hey, weren’t you here yesterday?’

The man looked incensed. ‘No’ he replied very cranky. As though the kid were implying that he was there too often.

‘Ach, too bad. You see, we give all our customers who come a second time free ice cream.’

That made the guy laugh.

This interaction is so typical of our whole trip. The Irish just have a way about them. They smile, they laugh, they cajole. You can’t be mad. We were on our way to the airport but had to make a stop to pick up another suit case. Yes, I finally admitted I had done a little shopping.

We parked on Merrion Square (Oscar Wilde called it home) and were walking into the main shopping areas. On the square, artist hang their canvases on the black fences and sell their work to passersby. It’s been going on for a long time and this square fronts the Irish National Gallery so it’s no wonder. Some of the artists are talented beyond what I ever hope to achieve with my dabbling, and they’re selling their art for peanuts.

But they’re also starving artists and they can be aggressive in their pitch. One old man – who’s canvases and those of his son are something I would be proud to hang in any home, sang me an Irish love song while trying desperately to get me to load up my, as yet, newly acquired suit case with a canvas or two of his work.

I’ve decided I’m going to create a gallery on this site for all our adventures. I’ve got too many photos that won’t fit into my blog posts. But then, after just scratching the surface of Ireland, I’m pretty sure there aren’t enough photos or blogs to capture the beauty and the people. We will be back.

Derry on the Uptick

*Still doing this on my phone. Formatting, etc. May be wonky.

Derry is a vibrant walled city with the old and new working side by side. Traffic and people weave through the gates; tourists and locals walk the top of the wall. Life is good here.

The walled city sits on an island hill that used to be surrounded by water entirely. Several centuries ago the river sort of sank a few feet. Hence ‘the Bogside’ neighborhood. And ‘the Waterside’. No longer an easily defensible island with a natural mote.

Derry is the only walled city in Europe whose walls were never breached by an enemy. And they were under seige here plenty. There is an actual Siege Museum to walk you thru the details, complete with armour and starvation descriptions aplenty to ensure you skip lunch. But not Guiness or a Savingnon Blanc. We’re not that disturbed.

Short version: Surprise! The English colonized Ireland in the 1500’s with their protestant Scottish cousins. They kicked the Irish Catholics off their land and formed plantations. ‘Plantations’. Now where have I heard that before? Hmm. This is known as ‘The Plantation of Ireland.’ It was systematic oppression and colonialism.

Lots of rebellions by the local native population took place, so the English ringed the city in a wall with gates to allow commerce to flow. But also to maximize defense from local riff raff. Only Anglo-Scots were allowed to live inside. Other Catholic crown heads of Europe took umbrage over this and that – bada bing, bada boom – siege!

And like most sieges, it left a big impression on the population. The mayor of the town at the time said essentially ‘Hey, so I’ll pop out for milk. You guys stay here and guard the town during this ‘siege thing’. Promise I’ll be back.’ The milk got lost in the royal mail. (Insert Crying Over Spilt Milk reference here).

The town starved brutally during the siege so even today, every year, they take great pride in constructing effigies of this gentleman, then hanging and burning them. And I thought my family could hold a grudge. We got nothin’ on these people. There is even an effigy guide in the local Tower Museum to help the next generation make sure their effigy is the most accurate and humiliating as possible. Lest they forget.

The walls are the transit system here. Its a little over a mile all the way around. We are staying right on the wall so we just hop up and we are off where ever we need to go. No traffic to contend with and the views are lovely.

Just up the wall from us is The Cathedral of St. Columba. It’s the first Protestant cathedral built after the Reformation (Martin Luther starting the Protestant church). Its old. They wanted me to pay for a ‘photo license’ to take pictures of the inside, so I don’t have any. Never been asked to do this in any church in the world, and I’m not starting now. It wasn’t as spectacular as our little church in Benimaclet, but it was nice enough.

In the vestibule, where you can take photos without a license, is the cannonball used by the Catholic army to shoot over the wall. It has a hole where they stuffed the terms of surrender. Heads up! Siege mail incoming!

The graveyard outside the cathedral peaked Jeff’s interest for walking thru and reading old tomb stones. It’s his favorite activity in small villages.

Here are a few photos of walking the wall and some of the sights from it.

We have discovered little Alleys and warrens in the city. Full of businesses run by women.

Derry is the poster child for the working woman, in my opinion. Shirt factories were in full swing here. 18,000 women worked in them in this area at one time in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was little work for Catholic men so the women were the breadwinners.

One of our elderly guides told us his mother worked in one. Another co-workers came to work 9 months pregnant and had her baby during her shift. The other women hid them and made sure to pick up the slack on her quota of collars for the day and such, or they would have fired her. The woman was back on the line the next day working. Without the baby. If she had taken a day off she would have lost her place. The women-run businesses here today are a tribute to those women in the factories working 12 hour days to support their families.

We will miss ‘Womens Little Christmas’ on January 6th. Its when women, on one day a year, have traditionally left the housework and kids to the hubby and go out with their friends for the day. I love how the advert advises booking early to ‘avoid disappointment’. I think the women here have known disappointment for centuries.

We are off back to Dublin tomorrow to see a few of the last must-see sights before heading home to Spain, and seeing Em off back to school in the US. We’ve checked off so many things in our lists this holiday.

We picked up her prom dress and shoes here yesterday. I’m pretty sure no other girl will be wearing the same thing at her school. Whew! Prom dress shopping is too important to leave it to an online experience. And it’s a Mom/daughter milestone I didn’t want to miss. She’ll go back with all the things she needs for the next few months.

After one more cross country drive tomorrow. This marking on a Derry street pretty much sums up how that will go.

We will thoroughly enjoy the last few days in this beautiful country.

Derry: Two Sides One City

I’ve traveled to conflict zones over the course of my adult life. Some have been boiling over while I was there. Others quietly simmering.

Like in the Middle East, being stopped at checkpoints controlled by a militia who stationed a 12 year old boy sitting on a bucket to ask why we want to travel a road, while clutching a machine gun. You’ll consider your life choices in moments like that.

There was the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea when we had one of our guys shot down on the North side of the border. Having to register with the embassy in Seoul in case it all went pear shaped. With tensions running so high messages were perpetually flashing across the tv as warnings on how to evacuate the country.

Other places with long simmering conflicts like a divided Cyprus with the Turks and Greeks were not so scary. Just inconvenient.

But being here, what happened such a short time ago seems very real and is still very raw. I remember seeing stories on the news in the 70’s and 80’s, but the American press cared more about Middle East conflicts, where oil mattered above all else, to pay attention to what was happening in Northern Ireland. In the US, most people considered it a backwater – irrelevant.

As a refresher, back in the 60’s, as the rest of the world was fighting for civil rights – the Northern Irish Republicans (mostly Catholics) wanted their rights in Londonderry. They marched and protested peacefully. The British government cracked down hard, sending troops ‘for 3 months’ to crush the insurrection. They stayed for 38 years. It started here and Derry became ground zero for ‘The Troubles’- really a civil war.

Republicans wanted gerrymandering of elections that disenfranchised them to end, and elected officials to stop oppressing them. They wanted to be united with the rest of Ireland and govern themselves. The loyalist to the English crown liked things to stay as they were. But they were sorely outnumbered in Northern Ireland 2 to 1 then, and still are. There are just 2% of them left in the walled city of Londonderry and right outside the gate you can see their passion for their views today

They’ve painted the curbs in the colors of the British flag to show their Unionist support.

The Free Derry Museum tells the story of the time. Guided only by relatives of those killed in the conflict. It sits amongst a series of street murals done by ‘Free Derry Artists’ on buildings known as ‘The Peoples Gallery’ in an area called The Bogside, below the town wall where the Catholic slum used to reside. Where ‘Bloody Sunday’ (Yea, thats what the U2 song was about) occurred in Jan 1972 when British troops (by British PM David Cameron’s own admission) attacked unarmed peaceful protestors killing 28. The town went mad! The protest movement spread like wildfire across Ireland and the current incarnation of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) was born.

Walking amongst the murals is eerie. Like a graveyard. So much happened here, so little time ago. The mural of the little school girl is particularly poignant. Annete McGavigan was sent to get bread by her Mam when she was shot in the head by a British soldier. The first child of over 100 that would die in the conflict. The mural shows the stones she had collected for a school project that were in her pocket. They say her Father came and stood in front of it every day until he passed recently. He talked to her picture to tell her about his day.

Added to this mural, after the Good Friday accords that stopped the conflict in the 90’s, is a destroyed weapon. And a Butterfly. Two brothers who lost their brother in Bloody Sunday asked for it to be added to symbolize rebirth.

The other murals depict scenes and people from the period. The final one is the dove in the shape of Ireland. Celebrating all colors, religions and people in peace.

The EU erected a Peace Bridge here too. To symbolize their commitment to supporting peace in NI. But now there is Brexit. If you know anything about the debacle that is Brexit, you know Northern Ireland is a sticking point. Free Movement from the North to the rest of Ireland is part of the Good Friday accords. Brexit has rattled the people here. They’ve seen and been through too much. They don’t want ‘The Troubles’ to return. But they won’t accept a hard border to the south.

We had heard in the south that the feelings here are still raw. And they are. Like most geopolitical conflicts in the world, we in the US are so far from them we struggle to relate. We just turn off the tv and say ‘Uch. I’m tired of seeing that.’ Its a luxury other people, and other countries, don’t have. And these ‘little regional conflicts’ have very real, very global consequences for us all – whether we like it or not.

If Derry teaches us anything its that violence, walls and oppression are temporary solutions and not long term strategies for peace. Dialog, listening and a willingness to change our views, as times change, are the only way forward.

After David Cameron stood on parliament in 2010 and read the government report on Bloody Sunday – profoundly apologizing for it and taking responsibility, Derry and Northern Ireland held its breath. Large screens had been set up in town squares throughout Ulster to view it. It was a national event. Afterwards the news cameras were trained on an old woman whose husband was the last person killed that Sunday, 40 years before. Amongst tear gas he had come out of a doorway to help a boy who was on the street, shot and crying for his Mom. They shot her husband thru the eye as he tried to help the boy.

The cameras shoved in her face, they asked his elderly wife what she would do if she had David ‘bloody’ Cameron standing in front of her right then. She said she would invite him in for a cuppa tea. ‘Its enough now.’ She told them. And the collective breathed a sigh of relief.

One man told me he was spoiling for a fight that day. Waiting for the English to shirk responsibility, again. ‘But if she can forgive, then so can I.’ I find that old woman’s example profoundly moving.

There are other amazing sights to be seen here. I’ll post those at another time, but on a day like New Years Eve, when we typically reflect on things, this deserves it’s own. Its that important.

Northern Ireland

We are spending our last week in Ireland in Derry or Londonderry. Depending upon your political point of view. More on that in another post. So it was the moment to see the Giant’s Causeway.

This basalt rock phenomenon occurs on the Northern coast of Ireland. If you require a little courage before your visit you can stop in Bushmill for a wee dram before you get to the truly majestic scenery a couple miles down the road. I say ‘miles’ because here in Northern Ireland its miles not kilometers. There was no sign when we crossed from Ireland to the UK/Northern Ireland welcoming us to a new country, except the one telling us that now we were calculating speed signs in miles. But our car only had kilometers. So we were doing backwards calculations to figure out how not to speed or go too slow.

In Ireland there are speed signs every 10 meters – even the farmers driveway doubling as an Irish expressway. In Northern Ireland they tell you the speed once at the border with a hearty ‘Good Luck guessing it on the rest of these god-forsaken roads.’

We made our way to the Giant’s Causeway over hill and dale, but it was worth it. From Derry it’s an hour drive. I’d tell you the distance but it doesn’t matter. Distance here means nothing. Its time that matters. 28 kilometers can take you an hour as Google routes you through the parking lot of a welding workshop, only to find the one lane track you were on previously picks up on the other side. You think I’m kidding. Sadly, not. Jeff checked to see if there was a setting to stop this nonsense, but if we turned it off in the app we would never be able to leave the country.

The GC is part of The National Trust of the UK. The Trust was set up in the late 19th century to save historically significant buildings and locales. They do good work and The Giants Causeway is head and shoulders their biggest draw every year. Heading for 3/4 of a million visitors annually. After seeing this area there is no mystery as to why.

It’s set up well with minimal impact to the environment. The visitors center is tasteful and not an ‘Exit Thru the Giftshop’ type of experience. If you’re a member of The National Trust its free. For a family that’s about 100ยฃ per year. A bargin when planning on seeing other culturally significant places throughout the UK.

We did the self guided tour with the head sets, but could have waited the 40 minutes for the guided tour that is also included in the ticket. It was awe inspiring.

The place was created by lava flows, chemical weathering, and time. The hexagonal rocks and pillars are otherworldly.

The walk down to see them is stunning.

The Irish legend goes something like this. There was a giant called Finn. He created Ireland and he was pissed at a Scottish giant who wanted to threaten his land. So he threw the hexagonal stones into the sea to scare his foe, who used them as a bridge or causeway to run across the sea from Scotland to fight Finn. Well, Finn saw him coming and was shocked by his size. He knew he was outmatched so he ran home to his wife, and cried like a baby.

She knew just what to do and wrapped Finn up, swaddling him like a baby and put him in bed. The other giant found his way to their cottage and asked the wife where her husband was so they could fight. She told him Finn was out. But he searched the cottage anyway and heard ‘the baby’ crying – it was Finn afraid to death. But the other giant thought ‘If this is the baby, then his father must be huge!’. So he ran back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway with his footsteps. There are similar basalt pillars on the Scottish side today to prove the story.

In fact, about 60k yrs ago, lava flowed and formed these pillars. It took 40k yrs for the pillars to interlock. Hexagons are some of the strongest and most frequently occurring shapes in nature. Think honeycombs and tortoise shells.

We walked up to the Giant’s Pipe Organ, said to be heard once a year at 6am on Christmas morn. Then headed up top, via nearly one million stairs straight up, to make our way back. Hoping not to drive to Derry in the dark. The views continued to amaze the whole way. You could easily spend an entire day there.


Well worth a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site. And a strong recommendation on the Bushmills. The town is adorable – you might consider staying there for a night. More importantly, you might need a break from driving out there from Derry. But this is wild Ireland at its most raw and beautiful. Not to be missed.

Holy Shit! Driving in Ireland

First off, renting a car at the Dublin airport mimicked buying a used car on Aurora Avenue in Seattle. It felt like we were haggling with a used car salesman for insurance, transmission and tire coverage. If he’d mentioned ‘clear coat’ I would have gone ballistic. We needed a shower after.

The swearing started directly after the airport, and our wake has been littered with profanity throughout the country ever since. Jeff has made up some new ones and I’m pretty sure ‘Kelli!!’ isn’t just my name any more.

And, as luck would have it, I was driving our automatic rental car and it stalled, almost permanently, in the middle if an Irish round about! We did a ‘Chinese fire drill’ like we used to do in high school; Jeff ran around and hopped in. He jiggled some stuff, a lot of grinding later – much honking from behind – and we moved it to the side of the road.

Here’s where I both bitch about and, well sort of, praise Hertz rental cars. They made us limp it to the West Ireland airport. So wrong. Again, there was prolific swearing during this procedure. Then they swiftly gave us another car. But the new one was a huge luxury car we didn’t ask for, and it was a manual transmission. I can’t drive a manual and me learning it in Ireland was highly discouraged by the rental car guy. Under normal circumstances the upgrade would be welcome. Even the stick. But we are in Ireland sooo yeah, NO!

The roads here – if not on an expressway or carriageway- are of three clear classifications.

  • Shit!
  • Oh Shit!!
  • Holy Shit!!!

Allow me to explain.

Shit! roads have a line down the middle of one variety or another. It’s never consistent. In theory, these roads are supposed to contain cars traveling opposite each other on either side of that painted divider. But not when you’re traveling in your gigantic car you never asked for or possibly wanted. Short of scraping our left side on the ancient stone walls, hedgerows and houses we whiz by, we count our lucky stars to survive them. But even in a Citroen C1 the lane would be inadequate.

Oh Shit!! roads are those that are 3/4 the width of Shit! roads but without the lovely line you were laughing at and mocking just 15 seconds and one turn ago. But now you miss that line, and the extra two feet of roadway with no shoulder. Now you’d sell everything you have for that line. But even if you could allow yourself a moment to scrape together all your worldly possessions, there would not be one place to turn out to hand them over. Just sheep fields, and the sheep are just looking at you with thinly veiled contempt.

The speed limit sign will say 80 on this stretch of tarmac- and your fellow travelers will strive to achieve it. On these roads I recommend only driving with one eye open – like a pirate. You’ll see death coming as you hold your breath and grimace, but from only one side of your body. The other side will be blissfully ignorant.

Holy Shit!!! roads are like snow flakes. Each one is unique and are never replicated in all of human history. These remarkable gems are, however, not rare AT ALL in Ireland. So much so that Google maps thinks they’re normal roads and will route you down them with abandon, even when your rental car needs to get to the regional airport, post haste, to die. These one lane tracks with stone walls and hedgerows growing over the top will require you to put your mirrors in so as not to rip them off the car at the whole 30km per hour top speed you’re traveling. But then this adds in a little Irish mischief. I mean, why not?! When your neighbor, or his cow, meet you on the Holy Shit!!! road, there is no turn out – just a wet bog on either side. You’re trapped unless you go back. What can you do?

But here is when the Irish do something that is only hinted at in literature and legend. Never speak this secret to anyone, but all Irish people are leprechauns. Don’t believe me? Then how do they always find themselves in my rearview mirror after meeting head on, on the Oh Shit!! and Holy Shit!!! roads? Its leprechaun magic. Plain and simple.

That and I’m pretty convinced that all these churches are to stop and pray for your life while driving. When cars were invented it must have filled more than a few pews.

‘Please God, it’s me Patrick Seamus Micheal O’Malley. I just got my driving license. Not driving that one horse trap anymore. So well…you know, I’m gonna a need fair bit of that leprechaun magic. Here’s a fiver for the collection plate.’

There are ZERO straight roads in Ireland. Google maps will make them appear straight but it’s a lie. They don’t exits. Just like pots of gold at the end of rainbows. When you get there, the promised straight road disappears to a narrowing winding deathtrap you’ll slalom through, like the alpine downhill outrunning an avalanche.

Reading signs has been interesting too. Yesterday, when we came upon a couple of head scratchers Jeff asked me what they meant.

‘How do I know?’ I asked him. Like I’d studied the Irish driving manual.

‘Uh, you just took the written test in Spain, and studied for it like the bar exam’

What was he thinking? ‘I only know Spanish road signs. Duh.’

‘These are signs valid in the entire EU. They’re symbols – not words’.

‘Well, I didn’t see that one in my book.’ I hate it when he’s right. ‘Just assume it’s a cliff and don’t go there.’

Now, I can’t drive here anymore, cause of the stick thing. Much to Jeff’s both angst and elation. He did a lot of shifting away from his side of the car, wincing, and ‘Oh my God’ing when I was driving. He would call out frequently ‘Did you see that?!? How did you not hit that?!?’ Quite a bit during my time behind the wheel. I know exactly what it is but I’ll never tell him. I have just enough Irish in me for some residual leprechaun magic. And, I find in most circumstances, a little leprechaun magic is all it usually takes.

Happy Christmas

Its Christmas Eve in County Mayo on the banks of Lough Conn (Loch Conn). Our home for the holiday this year is cold and drafty. Jeff has headed out for more fuel and I’m wrapped in a new wool blanket from the local Foxford Woolen mill.

Jeff and I went into the village to visit the local Lidl and get some last minute supplies. Nothing will be open tomorrow or the 26th, as its St. Stephens Day here. No Boxing Day in Ireland. So the village was packed with cars, shoppers and the local outdoor market taking up all the parking at the Tesco. Madness.

The woman at the local Supermarket asked if I was ‘home visiting your parents.’ I was a little confused.

‘Well, it’s pretty clear you’re Irish. You have the look.’ She gestered to Jeff, ‘He’s not Irish.’

When I told her that he has some Irish but mostly Norweigien she shrugged.

‘Yup. It’s the height and the tan gives’em away.’

Jeff looked surprised.

‘Well, at least you came back during the good weather. So mild this year.’

I had no idea what she could be talking about. It’s 4c outside. Spitting rain and fog so thick we could barely drive. If this is ‘good’ I’d hate to see what ‘bad’ looks like.

When I was little, my grandpa used to tell me I had the ‘map of Ireland’ written on my face. But he also used to tease me that each of my million freckles were a kiss from a different boy. So there you go. I was 8, so I’m pretty sure he wasn’t implying anything untoward.

Before the holiday I got back edits & suggestions for my novel from my editor in the UK. She said ‘You’re a very talented story teller. This book will sell if we can shape it.’ Then she gave me about 10,000 edits and asked me to cut 30k words so believe me when I say my ego isn’t growing any bigger. But being in Ireland has opened my eyes as to how I came to be what I am.

I’ve always felt a little strange in the world. Not like normal people in the area where I grew up. I will use 10 words to answer a question when others will use 2 or 3. But go into any shop, pub, or asking directions from a policeman here, and its clear that prolific story telling is in the DNA.

And laughter. They laugh here alot, and smile while walking down the street. Greeting strangers as friends. We’ve been wished a Happy Christmas by countless people. They don’t seem to know the meaning of ‘Seasonal Effective Disorder’ even with all the clouds and rain. So I am how I am because of my genes. I’ve just got too damned much Irish in me! It can’t be helped.

And I know it’s not just in this area. Yesterday, we ventured down to Westport (see the pics). Its a lovely little town south of here about halfway to Galway. I wanted to see where the legendary pirate and first/last female chieftain of an Irish clan, Grace O’Malley, was born/based in the 1500’s. The woman had big brass ones and I feel a strange kinship to her. But the people of Westport are like that too. Smiley and open-hearted.

So, as I sit here this Christmas Eve listening to actual cows lowing in the fields next door; stoking a coal and peat fire under my wool shawl, I think I’ve landed in a country where the general population gets me. And I totally get them – even if I struggle at times to understand the lingo. I’d say this year I have alot to be grateful for.

Happy Christmas, everyone. From our family to yours. I hope you are enjoying a warm fire and are surrounded by people who appreciate and celebrate all that you are. And like me, no matter how strange that may be. Cheers!

Wild Ireland – Getting Schooled

Yesterday, Emilie set the agenda. We started the day at Balleek Castle in Ballina. It was built nearly 2 centuries ago and was the seat if the Earls of Arran, the Gore family.

We ate at the Jack Renn cafe there. A hearty lunch in their remodeled stables. Then we took the tour. Balleek is now a hotel and one of the top wedding venues in the country. Along with awards for its multiple restaurants. Really stunning place and excellent food.

Then we got schooled on some Irish history. The Earldom was created by the British crown, who awarded these estates in Ireland to those who served them well in foreign wars. Ireland belonged to the UK for centuries until Irish independence in 1949. I’m more than a little bit Irish and had no idea that, while Ireland ruled itself from 1922, it wasn’t a formal independent country until after WW2.

I think our tour guide was surprised we knew so little of Irish history (but that’s what we were there for) and since we were the only people on the tour she digressed for us.

The potato blight caused a potato crop failure (one of many) in the 1840’s. But it wasn’t the potato that caused the mass starvation of the country and tens of thousands to die. It was the English policies of absentee landlords and ‘middlemen’ who oversaw in their absence that did it. The Irish were essentially enslaved by landlords, holding no rights to own land, vote, hold public office. They couldn’t own homes or real property of any kind because they were Catholic and the Anglo-Irish were protestants.

Landowners had vast estates and were not in country most of the time. Much of the time, the middlemen ran things by leasing vast tracks of land from the owner and breaking it up to lease to workers for less than subsistence farming. It was essentially slavery.

Nearly everything raised went to the landowner who shipped the grain, potatoes – whatever crop – out of the country to sell at a higher price. During the famine, grain could have been brought in to feed the starting but the English Corn laws prevented it.

As a capper, the Irish weren’t even allowed to fish in rivers, lakes or streams to survive. The landowners owned all the game, in water or land. Getting caught poaching meant jail, hanging or being sent to a penal colony in Australia or the US. These were people denied basic education, no medical care, horrific living conditions and discrimination and abuse in their own country by occupiers who stole their livelihoods.

The only reason Balleek Castle wasn’t burned to the ground during subsequent revolts was that the Earls had helped the people during the ‘Terrible Times’. So while it was on the list the people stopped its demolition. But the formation and success of The Land League – when the Irish farmers could purchase their holdings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – spelled demise for estates like Balleek. Without income, they were sold to new $$.

In the case of Balleek Castle, a man who had made his fortune on the sea bought the castle. He was born Jack Renn, but had purchased papers in America from a man called Marshall Doran that gave him Irish citizenship. His family owns and operates the castle today. I won’t go into all the details of it but it’s pretty cool. Parts from an old Abbey on the site. Reclaimed wood from Spanish galleons wrecked on the coast, Flemish tapestries. Stunning. Here are some pics.

After Balleek, we headed up to the bay to meander along the coast. Its dotted with the ruins of several old abbeys that look out to sea. Very spooky and very cool.

On the way to our final destination of the day, Downpatrick Head, we had to stop for some cattle herding rather suddenly.

Then on to Downpatrick Head on the Atlantic Ocean. It is truly stunning country side The headland has blow holes where the sea is undermining the cliffs.

The walk up to the head over heath (peat) was interesting. Squishy. It’s an enterprising people who figured out they could cut it, take 9 months to dry it out, 3 months to dry it indoors. Then burn it. The fire starter guy at Balleek educated me on the process. In the pics you can see how an over zealous sheep dug into it.

Breathtaking standing out there. A little scary too. Jeff shouted at me for venturing too close to the edge.

There are rocks laid into the peat. The number 64 and the words EIRE are clearly spelled out. My seatmate on our flight from Valencia told me about these. Ireland was neutral in WW2. These markings were to tell German bombers they were over Ireland, not the UK, if they veared off course. Remember Northern Ireland was, and is, still part of the UK back then. I hadn’t expected to see what he told me about on the flight. Funny how life works out.

On the way home, with coal, fire starters and kindling (and an impromptu lesson from the Balleek Castle firestarter guy on how to best start and keep a ‘turf and coal firing burning) we headed home, greeting our neighborhood donkeys in the process.

I feel a bit more connected to my Irish roots than I did when we woke up today. It feels good to know some of the people in my family were those who were tenacious in overcoming ferocious hardships here, and discrimination to make it to a new country. I’ll be raising a glass to the Hallaran side (who hail from just south of here) in our next toddle down to the pub. Well done, Emilie, on being our researcher and tour guide.