Ireland Adventures: Slainte!

I’ve loved Ireland, Irish music and culture, for as long as I can remember. Several years ago, my grandfather took me there on a business trip and I’ve been trying to go back ever since. Coming from a completely Scotch-Irish family, those green hills feel just like home.

The course I took this Winter Term had us travelling all of the country. We landed in Shannon early in the morning on January 4 and from there trekked around the coast of Ireland. We stayed in Limerick, Galway, Sligo, Belfast and Derry in Northern Ireland, and ended the trip in Dublin. The entire class was positively phenomenal: I visited a number of castles, beautiful natural areas, museums, and places of enormous literary value. If I attempted to include everything, we’d have filled a whole magazine with the stories, so I’ll settle for a detailed description of the highlights.

As soon as we got off the plane and collected our luggage, we were off to Blarney Castle to do the whole “kiss the Blarney Stone” shindig. Kissing the Blarney Stone, so legend goes, grants the kisser the gift of gab. Apparently the lord of Blarney Castle during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I had a knack for talking himself out of any sticky situation, an ability that can be bestowed upon you for a mere €2 and a climb up what feels like a thousand steps!

Out of all the places we visited, Galway was by far my favorite city. One of the five largest cities in Ireland, Galway still maintains that small-town feel complete with cobblestone streets, pedestrian-only roads, and a scenic walk near the river called the Salthill Prom. Galway is also the best place in the country to experience traditional Irish music, or trad, which I absolutely love. A small group of us soon found a pub called Tig Cóilí that boasted itself as the home of traditional Irish music.

Of the four nights our class stayed in Galway, I spent at least a portion of all of them inside that pub. The bartenders and owners were wonderfully entertaining, the trad fantastic, and the regulars were genuinely friendly. We had impromptu dancing lessons with tipsy old men in the middle of the pub, even snagging a picture of one particularly blitzed older man dancing with Ronan, the twenty-three year old bartender/owner of Tig Cóilí. By the second night we spent there, several of us helped close down the pub, staying until the wee hours of the morning and helping clean up while we chatted and sang, the men downing more pints than I would have thought possible.

The next morning after approximately three hours of sleep, we boarded a ferry to Inishmore. One of the three Aran Islands, Inishmore is an isolated little community whose primary sources of income are tourism and fishing. We hiked up to Dun Aengus, a prehistoric stone fort situated on cliffs towering three hundred feet above the ocean. The day was only mildly breezy and we were able to lay on the edge of the cliffs looking out into the ocean. For someone who’s more than slightly terrified of heights, lying on a cliff felt something like a heart attack with a spectacular view. That view though, just looking down the stone into the waves, was well worth every bit of the fright.

Among our other adventures was a visit to the ruins of Dunluce Castle, a castle quite literally built on the edge of a cliff. In the mid-seventeenth century, part of the castle fell into the sea when the cliff under it crumbled. After that incident, the lady of the house, Countess Manners, refused to live in a dwelling that might suddenly collapse and moved her family to England. I can’t say I’d blame her: it was her bedroom and part of the kitchen that fell into the ocean! Nearly two centuries later, I stood in the remaining kitchen area and took pictures of the sea: I never would have guessed part of the castle had once stood in the way.

After Dunluce, it was a quick drive down the coast to the Giant’s Causeway, where volcanic rock formed five- to eight-sided columns of rock rising out of the sea. Alternatively, an Irish giant and a Scottish giant got into a fight and tore up the coastline, creating the causeway. Or so the legend goes.

Either way, we had a grand time clambering across the rocks, taking pictures and meeting several new friends from Germany and Russia. Something of a tourist trap, the Giant’s Causeway could be called a dangerous beauty. While we were there on a relatively mild day, the wind and the waves can quickly pick up, sweeping people out to sea if they happen to climb too far out on the rocks.

As one of my professors remarked, “The Irish believe in Darwin. Survival of the fittest and all that. If you’re dumb enough to be too close to a cliff edge or on slippery rocks when the wind picks up, well…”

Needless to say, we didn’t actually lose anybody. Apparently we’re mildly intelligent like that, so I’d call it a successful day of exploring.

The class also took us into Northern Ireland, in Derry and Belfast. If you were cognizant of world events anyway from 1969 to the early 2000s, then you probably realize how huge it is to take a group of college students into these two cities. There used to be this saying about the three places you simply don’t go: they were Baghdad, Beirut, and Belfast. The Troubles are an enormous part of Irish history and, while much progress has been made, there is still a long way to go. America struggles with racism, but Ireland is divided along religious lines. Are you Protestant or Catholic? Several people asked that question over the course of our travels. It’s a loaded question in Ireland, especially in the North, because you aren’t just answering your religious affiliation: you’re taking a stand for or against the Irish Republic. It seems that religion is a huge part of Irish identity, and they want to know where you stand. My answer tended to simply be that I believe in God, which the younger generation accepted more readily than those who were older.

Several of the adults I spoke with asked my opinion on American politics and history: I’m slightly ashamed to admit it, but these Irishmen honestly know more about my own country’s contemporary politics and political history than I do. Not only that, but they know so much about the history of their own country. They can tell stories of battles and quote literary figures in context like you wouldn’t believe. It’s fascinating to hear Irishmen talk. When I told a young man what my major was, he immediately named a half dozen plays, poems and Irish novels and asked if I had read them, then was able to carry a conversation about and even quote them. I’m still a little bit in awe of how deeply in touch the average Irishman is with his own culture.

This class on Irish literature, culture and history gave me the amazing opportunity to spend nearly a month traveling around a country that I absolutely love. More than that, it helped me discover why I love Ireland so much. After all, it’s my own heritage and, if the typical Irish individual is as enamored with Irish culture as the people I met, that love must have simply carried over the centuries since my family left the Emerald Isle.

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