It’s dusk in Ireland, and I’m looking out over the River Shannon. The steel gray waters that Frank McCourt called “a killer” in his heart-wrenching book “Angela’s Ashes” run clear, now, through Limerick City. There’s still a hard edge to this industrial port, but swans now float on a Shannon once strewn with garbage. Flowers cascade from boxes in the windows of the old brick row houses.
“We were plenty mad when McCourt wrote his book,” said one local as we chatted on the sidewalk in front of my room at the Jury’s Inn. “We all had that kind of childhood back then. You get over it and move on,” he said in an Irish brogue that ran thick like honey.
McCourt’s memoirs may not have helped the image of Ireland’s fourth largest city, but it is bringing tourists, eager to share in the sorrow of a town that was down on its luck for so long. It brought me here, to see the pub where McCourt’s pa drank away his government assistance, the national school where teachers regularly “knocked sense” into their young students and the dreaded River Shannon, which McCourt blamed for the Tuberculosis that killed 2 of his siblings. How times have changed, not just in Limerick, but all over Ireland. The country is shining, these days, with the glint of millions of Euros being spent by tourists and locals alike. But in order to be accurate about Ireland today, I need to go back to my arrival on these dew-kissed shores on the weekend of the 4th of July.
Flying into Shannon on US Airways, I board the bus to Galway. One of Europe’s fastest growing cities, Galway is known for its music and vibrant nightlife. It’s perfect for me, as my flute is in tow and I hope to join in a few Irish jams (or sessions, as they call them.) But before I play one note, I need a nap. Settling into my room at the Salt Hill Hotel, I fall fast asleep till a rumbling sound shakes me from my covers. Screaming past my window over Galway Bay are dozens of military jets from Ireland, the UK and America, practicing for a huge air show the next day.
“We love Americans,” says a ruddy-faced local in the pub that night, with a seriousness that wanes with each Guinness he pours. Soon enough, I find myself playing the flute. Tommy Hayes and the boys are singing songs from our shores and someone shouts “let the lass play her music.” I sift through the musical scores of dozens of Elvis and John Denver songs and choose Green, Green Grass of Home. I play with every ounce of passion and vibrato I can muster, seeing the tears on the faces of more than a few men and women that night. When I finish, through the haze of a dozen burning cigarettes, I can see the pints lined up on my table. It’s their way of showing appreciation for a gal who had crossed the Atlantic to play her flute.
I arise the next morning to my first Irish meal – poached eggs and bacon and fresh fruit scones. There is something, too, called black and white pudding – little muffin-shaped patties that taste better when I dip them in catsup. I’m starting to see the extraordinary hospitality of the Irish, in their smiles and in what they are willing to do for my comfort. I want to see if the fish are the same way, a fairly ridiculous notion, but I have a theory. So I walk down the seaside promenade to the National Aquarium of Ireland. Sure enough, the petting pool is full of Thornback Rays who are craving a human massage. A freshly-scrubbed lad who works at the place even picks up a Bull Huss Shark and turns it on its back for a good rubdown. The shark has its eyes half closed with this look of pure bliss on its face. My suspicions are confirmed. If Ireland isn’t heaven – I am just outside the door.
Getting out of Salt Hill isn’t easy. A great crowd is starting to amass for the giant air show and the All-Irish Gaelic games which are just down the road. Some streets are blocked and bus service has stopped. Blessedly, a young man at the Salt Hill Hotel offers to drive me to the Galway bus station. I thank him profusely and buy my ticket for Dublin.
This brings me to the real purpose of my trip. To meet three women, only one of whom I know, under the old clock in the corner of the bar at the Shelbourne Hotel. We are coming thousands of miles to honor Jillian Quist, my writer friend with strong Irish roots and a milestone to celebrate. From this point on, I’ll call her Jillie and the other gals Affie and Sooze.
Arriving in Dublin, my next task is to wheel my suitcases up Grafton Street to St. Stephen’s Green. This is no easy act, navigating my way through the hoards of people who are shopping and meandering on this famous cobbled walkway. The lack of sleep and the strangeness of hearing dozens of different languages make the mile long trek so surreal. But I arrive just in time for my heralded meeting.
The energy in the air seems to crackle, as one by one, we arrive. Soon we are under the clock – the most prestigious place in the bar – drinking martinis at the Shelbourne. We are completely untethered from husband or child – as the Irish begins to come out in us. Jillian is the birthday girl, for whom turning fifty has become an event of international proportions. Having once hailed from the Emerald Isle, she has planned for us a most interesting odyssey.
“When the spirits go in, the truth comes out”. So goes the saying in Ireland, and while the Shelbourne has seen many a reunion, we seem to have made our mark. We leave with a dozen new friends and a more than a few business cards.
Squeezing into our little blue rental, we drive the hour south to the Bel Air Hotel in County Wicklow. Jilli has special memories of this place, having stayed here as a child. But nothing prepares us for the welcome we get when we arrive at the 15th century equestrian estate. “Come in and sit down, girls, and I’ll get you some drinks and grilled sandwiches,” says Fidelma Freeman, the kindly proprietor. She’s waited up for us, despite the lateness of the hour.
What happens next couldn’t be more perfect, if it were staged. Two guests of the manor, both local men, take it upon themselves to put on a show. They sing and dance and tell tall tales – all to our great amusement. I especially enjoy the kissing song, which is punctuated by two leprechaun-like pecks on my cheek. Sooze, an actress back home in St. Louis, is so caught up in the antics, she joins the men in a jig.
Up at the crack of noon the next day, we take our tea in the lobby of the grand old estate, where cattle graze just beyond the front door and horses prepare for the day’s ride. I bring my old Montana cowboy boots and jeans and assume I am ready. “We’ll have to take you out separately,” says the stable manager. The rest of the group, including Jilli, will be galloping wildly through the forests and meadows of Wicklow. In an English saddle, it is all I can do to hang on in a trot. But by the grace of St. Peter, I get out there and give it a go. Through the fields of Fox Glove and Clover I move to the rhythm of the steed. Up and down, clip and a clop, faster and faster I ride. I am high on a ridge overlooking green pastures and an ocean of azure and blue. I am doing what I’ve come here to do.
I am also popping Advil into the evening, nursing both a sore neck and now a sore bottom. But it does nothing to stop us from burning the midnight oil in Dublin’s famed Temple Bar district. Here, pubs like the Hairy Lemon and The Auld Dubliner play traditional Irish folk music late into the night. Fiddles and flutes and Elbow pipes stir the soul with the primal beat of the Bodhran drum. Some of the songs you will know, like “Dublin’s fair city…cockles and mussels, alive alive-oh”. But the ballad that brings us to our feet is the heartfelt ode to the beloved River Liffey. We dance round and round, arms linked and legs stepping high with strangers who feel like friends. It’s clear that the Irish love their rivers, and liken the Liffey to a beautiful woman who stirs the flames of passion.
We have good craic in Dublin that night. Craic is pronounced “crack” and is Gaelic for conversation. You’d have to be dead not to have good craic with the Irish. They love Americans and they love to talk. (Almost everyone in Ireland has a relative “in the states”. Many have been to the U-S, since it’s only a few hours by plane). Often, the stories you hear are of hardships, which were evident everywhere in Ireland until the recent economic boom. The Catholic Church is another favorite topic. Men have their stories of being “chosen” for priesthood and then falling from grace in the Seminary. “I was rescued by the lady with me tonight,” one man tells me. “She lured me from a life of celibacy,” he says with sparkling eyes. But more often than not, these days, it’s politics they’ll be talking about in the pubs of Ireland. If you engage in this topic, be prepared to stay awhile.
As prolific as the pubs, are the castles and ruins of Ireland. They’re part of the landscape, everywhere you go. On one misty day, in weather the Irish call “soft”, we explored the ruins of Glendalough, where St. Kevin built his monastery in 550 AD. From the round stone tower where the monks used to hide from invaders to the tiny cells where these early Christians lived, Glendalough is often called the cradle of religion in Ireland.
Every region has its castles, and some are open for touring and medieval meals. Malahide Castle is one of the favorites, only nine miles from Dublin with the only medieval hall in Ireland that’s preserved in its original form. It’s a picture-book palace surrounded by botanical gardens and parkland.
Steeped in Irish history is the long list of writers who’ve been born on these shores – men like Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Frank McCourt, to name a few. Their sayings are on many a pub wall and their books can be found in towns big and small. It was Wilde who wrote the words: “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” a quote that seems to embody the spirit of Ireland. But to truly give life to these words, you should hear them spoken by the author, himself, or at least a good impersonator. The best place to do this is the Writer’s Museum in Dublin. Here you can see a one man show, where the actor reads passages from great Irish books, impersonating the authors and captivating the audience.
I would be remiss if I missed mentioning the gardens of Ireland. County Wicklow is renowned for its gardens and celebrates with a festival each May through July. The moist climate, tempered by the Gulf Stream and fertile, sun-kissed soil make Wicklow a lush land for greenery. Two of the county’s best gardens are Powerscourt and Mount Usher. Completely different in nature, Powerscourt is one of the great gardens of Europe, with fountains and ponds and antique sculptures, all laid out grandly in the shadow of the Sugarloaf Mountain. Mount Usher, on the other hand, is a relatively small natural garden – a more modest showing of nature along the banks of the River Vartry. It doesn’t attract the hoards of people that flock to Powerscourt and for that reason, it is truly a restorative place.
Among the many changes in Ireland is the food. You can still find the traditional Irish breakfast of cured ham, poached eggs and black and white pudding. But all over the cities and towns you will see restaurants serving everything from Italian to Chinese cuisine. We had a stunningly good meal in Ashford at Restaurant O Sole Mio, where the pasta was perfect and the vegetables were crisp and flavorful, not “done to a turn” like the Ireland of old. Curry is big in Ireland, and you’ll find it served with Fish and Chips at a multitude of “take away” cafes. But don’t make the mistake we made, and wait too late to eat dinner. While the sun is up until well after ten pm in the summertime, most restaurants and pubs stop serving food at 9:30.
Just a little about the traffic in Ireland, which can be quite bad in the environs around Dublin. With the high housing prices (that rival popular U-S cities) and a booming economy, more and more people are moving to suburbs. There’s highway construction all over the area, and traffic jams are now the norm – so avoid driving during peak commute times. Also, be prepared to get lost, as some new highways simply stop with no signs marking detours. It’s part of the price being paid for prosperity. But like everything else, it’s taken in stride. For the Irish are survivors and laughter and wit will carry them through.