Ireland was grand! There were some things that we would have done differently, if not part of a tour, and some things we liked better than others, and the food was expensive (where we ate!) and not at all what I expected. I had been told that Ireland was still making Irish food (as in lots of potatoes and plain cooking) but apparently, at least in the southwest, where we were centered for a lot of the trip, Ireland, too, has discovered Nouvelle Cuisine, which others loved, and we hated. No Irish stew, no corned beef and cabbage, no potatoes! And lots of what I nastily call the Family Circle School of cooking, which includes chocolate covered chicken with tarragon, accompanied by potatoes mixed with ginger ice cream and oregano (okay, I’m exaggerating…and being nasty…sorry: give me plain ol’ mashed potatoes with plain ol’ lamb stew on top without spices to mess up the natural flavor of the meat and veggies!) So, we ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (brought the pb and j from home!) while others went out for fancy food. The Kenmare area is lovely: mountains without many trees, dotted with sheep who browse and eat the puckerbrush as well as grass. The roads are a challenge: picturesque to be sure, but curvy, very narrow with stone walls covered in ivy and other brush on either side. The main roads appear to be two lanes, though reasonably narrow, and seldom a shoulder, making it interesting for bus to pass bus: they slow down and often get close to scraping paint from one side of one bus to the other bus…or so it seems! Secondary roads are narrower than my driveway at home and present some interesting situations. Apparently, while one drives, which seems a process of gunning the engine, speeding ahead, and screeching halt as another vehicle comes from the other direction around a curve in the road, one takes notes of pulling off areas, which are either entrances to driveways or conveniently placed half lane shoulders for maybe 25 feet, and when cars meet in opposing directions, one of the cars backs up and off the road for the other to pass. There never seems to be an issue with who does the backing up: that courtesy is there, for sure. But we took a hair-raising taxi ride the six miles or so from Kenmare to the house we were renting one night, which rivalled the ferry ride in very choppy ocean, the bus ride on high mountain roads with no shoulders and inadequate guard rails, and the turbulence on the airplane. Actually, the taxi ride won hands down for scariest part of the trip…and that includes that ferry ride, described by a passenger as a floating vomitorium!
Kenmare has been described by some authority (NY Times magazine?) as one of the 10 best (or is it 5?) places to retire to in the world, but my take on it is: only if you have a lot of money, and like ghettos. (As in a neighborhood or area where everyone seems to be in the same socio-economic class as you, and the shopping district is very pointedly all of one type and price range of clothing.) I don’t like ghettos, even wealthy ones. I kept walking aorund Kenmare village wondering where the farmers and shop clerks bought their clothing, for there sure wasn’t anyplace in town that I would describe as having clothing they could afford, even allowing for Ireland’s incredible leap from poorest to wealthiest country in the EU in a decade or two. I wondered if the local folks were also being priced out of buying and owning land and homes in the area as well (as they are to some extent here in Vermont).
I was surprised to see palm trees in Ireland. It is more north than Vermont, on the globe, resulting in daylight around solstice til 11 p.m. and beginning again somewhere before 4:30 a.m. However, temperatures are moderated by the jet stream or something, so that it apparently is seldom below 55 and above 75, at least at this time of year. The bus driver said they might get a dusting of snow in winter, but it is gone by noon. I wonder what global warming will do to that climate?
There were far fewer sheep, at least in that part of Ireland, than I expected to see, and most of them were Scottish Blackface, a small browsing sheep with fairly coarse fleece, which is made into Aran sweaters on the islands and in other areas of Ireland and sold in every shop, both handknit and I assume, machine knit as well, since some were very expensive, and some, only moderately expensive. There were also some that were made from merino and exotic fibers like alpaca, undoubtedly to compete with other country’s markets for soft sweaters. Personally, I prefer the original fiber. I find merino dull and shapeless and greasy to feel. I don’t like it next to my skin at all, though I admit it is much softer. But then, I don’t frequently wear heavy sweaters next to my skin! So, it really is of no concern to me if they are more scratchy than merino.
We visited many touristy venues, had a Medieval dinner at Bunratty castle, the only part of which was like unto medieval was not giving us forks. The music was much more modern with the exception of one Elizabethan madrigal (Renaissance, not medieval!). This was a disappointment to me, for when I heard we were going to a medieval banquet, I thought I’d hear some fine medieval music. FAt chance. And the costumes weren’t accurate. And the food was much more like modern fast food. (Did they have bouillion cubes and instant gravy in medieval times, I wonder? The few recipes I’ve read from those times speak of turkey stuffed with goose which is stuffed with chicken, which is stuffed with duck which is stuffed with partridge or dove…not with chicken alone…and of greengage plums, called, I believe, bull’s asses. And the daggers (steak knives) they provided us to eat with (though most people thought they should eat with their fingers!) did not even attempt to look medieval…however, most people, I guess, didn’t notice, and didn’t realize that a reference to Sir Walter Raleigh in a 14th century re-enactment was an anachronism, since Raleigh lived in the 1500′s. Oh, well, I’m just being too fussy, I guess.
I loved the hills, and wish we’d had more time to walk on back roads and ponder the beauty of the place, rather than zoom past on tour buses. And being old fogies, going from 8 a.m. til 11 p.m. was too much for us. For the last two days, we felt it would be a kindness to the rest of the tour folk and to us, for us to absent ourselves from the tour, being wet blankets, and so we did, on the Aran Islands, and we walked and walked and walked, seeing only a few ruins, but seeing them perhaps more deeply, since we could stay there and observe, quietly, for as long as we wanted. We walked six miles one day from one side of the island to the other. Perhaps this was our favorite day of the whole tour: quiet and slow paced, and surrounded by the stark beauty of the place and the spirits of eaons of people who lived there for centuries and centuries. I think I’d like to go back and stay on the Aran Islands for a week, just taking it all in, and studying the ruins. I appreciated the different landscape in Southwest Ireland, but I’m not in any hurry to go back there. Too busy a place, too modern, too “with it” for us.
One high point of the trip was meeting Jo from Celtic Memories (see sidebar links!) What a great person. She spoke at one of our dinners. Her talk was unfortunately truncated by time constraints, but it was wonderful to finally meet her. I am hoping for some time in the future to sit down over lunch or a walk and spend more time with her, either here on one of her visits, or there, should we actually be able to return some day.
Ireland was a wonderful mixture of experiences, despite the disappointments here and there. It was a good trip. John said that the prettiest parts of Ireland reminded him of Vermont. And, at the end, Deb said, “Okay folks, back to reality. No more fantasy.” I thought to myself,…no, that’s not quite true. I live in a fantasy world, a dream world, something most people ONLY dream about. How lucky am I!
I will post some photos tomorrow, though with all the rain, and taking a lot of them from the bus window en route to one venue or another, didn’t make for the greatest shots either. Maybe Tom’s photos (he took 850 of them) will turn out better and you can see more on the Hodge Podge blog later in the week!