I may have seen far more rain than sun during my stay in Ireland, but no matter – this island nation shines even through the dark skies and drizzle. I’m sharing the highlights of my visit and, while some might say they’re mostly predictable, the Emerald Isle surprised me too.
The People of Ireland
The Irish tradition of warmth and conviviality is no myth. In defiance against the notion that city dwellers are fated to an impersonal existence, the “Land of a Thousand Welcomes” spirit is omnipresent. It was in the driver on a Dublin bus who scribbled a map for me and my friend to ensure we didn’t lose our way. Or the truck driver in Kerry who was at a full stop and hit the gas pedal only after I snapped my photo of a church from across the road. Or the strangers on the street who thanked me after answering my request for directions.
My encounters with the Irish were endearing, even after they had thrown back a few too many pints. One night after leaving a party, I approached two young Dubliners on a street corner and asked for directions to my hotel. They were smashed. What followed was a wacky, Saturday Night Live skit. There they were, clumsily dressing a near-life-sized, faceless dummy with pants. “What are you guys doing?” It was the only question that could be asked. “You’ll have to excuse him,” one of them replied, pointing at the inanimate figure. “He’s had a bit too much to drink.” I fought the urge to assist. Were the pants the wrong size? Did they need bootcut instead of skinnies? I was so bewildered and entertained by the farce that I didn’t take notice of the directions they gave me.
A rickshaw driver pulled up beside us. Through their Guinness-soaked slurs, the two stooges provided the driver with directions to my hotel and attempted (unsuccessfully) to haggle my ride down to two Euros. I climbed onto the rickshaw and the driver began to pull me away. Then, like Seabiscuit at the races, with the dummy hanging by its half-dressed legs from one of the boys’ necks, they chased after us as they repeatedly hollered to the driver while catching their breath, “C’mon! Twenty Euros! We’ll race you there for 20 Euros!” Despite the driver’s efforts to lose them, within seconds, they had caught up. Dumbfounded by the whole trippy scenario, I asked, “Do you guys need a ride?” They didn’t answer. Next thing I knew, they had disappeared into the night.
Then there was the gregarious, intoxicated character in Killarney who gleefully struck up an animated conversation with me about his home country – but not before he merrily photobombed all my snapshots of the pub behind him, each with a different facial contortion.
Last but not least, my friend Denise, a native of County Cork and now resident of Dublin, is the personification of the hospitality and vibrant spirit for which Ireland is known the world over.
It’s hard to imagine a country friendlier and more cheerful than Ireland.
Dramatic coastlines and lush, vivid green pastures against mountain backdrops will enchant, even in the fog and shadows of the greyest clouds.
The Towns and Villages
Throughout the countryside and along the coast, the picturesque Irish towns and villages of my imagination came to life.
Here, gatherings of folklore, song and dance call for a return to life’s simpler joys and are as colourful as the pubs and shops that line the roads. But make no mistake: while these cultural traditions may celebrate a life of austerity, they’re rooted in long and complex histories.
All-Ireland Hurling Final
What do you get when you pack over 80,000 people in Dublin’s Croke Park Stadium to watch men dribble a small ball on paddles and furiously tear across a field to the sound of gasps, F-bombs and roaring cheers from excited fans?
Thanks to Denise and her family connections, I found myself at the gripping, final men’s match for one of Ireland’s beloved national sports: hurling. Now I’m not much of a sports fan and I attended the Cork vs. Clare match on the day I arrived on a red-eye without a wink of sleep – but how lucky am I? Immersing myself in a game that ignites the passion of an entire country was a cultural experience few foreigners can say they’ve had. (When I later shared with my guide on a trip to the south that I was in the stadium for the live match, she asked in disbelief, “How did you manage that?”)
No hooliganism. No tense verbal exchanges. Just passion for a unique sport of pure skill and athleticism.
That’s right, you read it here: this foodie loved Irish cuisine. It surprised me too.
It helped, of course, to have locals guide me in my search for the country’s best dishes. In fact, I ate so well that I returned home with pants a bit tighter. For the full post on my experience with Irish cuisine, click here.
In Ireland, as in many countries, the most memorable meals are often the simplest. Take, for example, what I can only describe as the gnocchi of Ireland: boxty. Served up at a party with cubed corned beef, these pillowy potato dumplings were proudly presented as “Ireland on a stick”. In my humble opinion, they were the star of the night.
The overabundance of potatoes admittedly had me craving alternative carbs, but I learned to appreciate them more than I ever have (to learn more, read my post on how Ireland taught me to respect the spud).
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That I almost didn’t book the flight to Dublin is inconceivable. I resisted the call to Ireland for months, and how thankful I am that I finally answered. If I have any regrets at all, it’s that I couldn’t stay longer to get more acquainted with her. But, like a cousin who opens her doors with arms stretched wide even years after your last visit, I know she’d happily have me back.
Disclosure: I travelled through some parts of Ireland with the assistance of Fáilte Ireland (National Tourism Development Authority) but, as always, all opinions expressed in this post are my own.