Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
– Oscar Wilde, Irish writer and poet
On July 4th, Mike and I boarded a plane in Edinburgh, Scotland to trade in one funny-sounding English-speaking country for another: Ireland. After a quick pass through customs in Dublin, we exited the airport and were immediately greeted by a warm sun and a cloudless sky. I felt beads of sweat building all over (I mean ALL over) my body. I’ve never greeted my perspiration with so much nostalgia. Ahh, Ireland! Finally, a country that knows summer!
Maybe it was beginner’s luck of the Irish. Maybe it was a short Irish blessing from my late Irish Grandma Kay. Or maybe it was just a cruel Leprechaun’s joke. Whatever it was, “summer” was short lived. It turns out Ireland hates summer just as much as England, Wales, and Scotland combined. Still, we pressed on. (Travel Tip: Leprechauns are a sensitive subject in Ireland. I wouldn’t mention them in a pub if you’re trying to make Irish friends)
Our plan for Ireland was much like our plan for the UK: figure it out when we get there. Mike and I ended up visiting Dublin, Doolin, and Galway. When Mike left for Chicago, I went on to discover Achill Island, Killarney, and Cork. With each destination, I learned a little bit more about the Irish and their Emerald Isle. Here’s what I found along the way.
After spending three days in Dublin, I realized it’s not much different than any medium or large American city. It has international citizens, everyone speaks English, and there are tons of pubs. Mike and I spent a few days in Dublin, wandering around the streets and drinking tasty, but offensively expensive Guinness. There was live music in most pubs, especially in the Temple Bar area. But Dublin felt too familiar and touristy, and I think it’s lost a lot of the authentic character Irish writers like James Joyce loved.
Lesson 1: Relative to it’s size, Ireland has had tremendous influence on the world, especially America. I felt so much at home in Dublin among the pubs and shops. This may be a no-brainer, but I became impressed with the impact this small country has had.
Doolin & Cliffs of Moher
We boarded a Bus Eireann bus (the first of many) and headed toward Doolin, a tiny town near the famous Cliffs of Moher. Tiny means it takes 30 minutes to walk to the supermarket/gas station to get groceries. Tiny also means you have to double-click on Google Maps about 6 times before the name ‘Doolin’ pops up.
But I loved it. This was my first taste of Irish countryside. It was quiet, green, and filled with rolling hills. We stayed at the homey Rainbow Inn hostel run by a sweet middle-aged couple. That evening we went to the local pub with live, traditional music and had some more Guinness.
The next morning, we rented bikes and road a couple hours to the Cliffs of Moher. (Travel Tip: If you arrive at the Cliffs of Moher by bike or foot, you don’t pay an entry fee!).
Lesson 2: Pretty much every pub in Ireland has live, traditional music. I stopped getting excited every time I saw a sign advertising live music because it turns out every pub has it.
Lesson 3: Ireland, especially the west coast, is beautiful. Pictures don’t do it justice. Seeing it firsthand made me a believer.
Lesson 4: It’s called the Emerald Isle for a reason. A lush countryside is the upside to a rainy country.
After the quaintness of Doolin, I was looking forward to some Irish nightlife. Tourists and locals alike raved about Galway, and I’m here to confirm that the hype is true — this is one drunk and happy place. Mike and I went out on a Sunday night with low expectations (it was a Sunday night afterall), but ended up dancing the night away with locals. I decided to stay here a couple extra nights after Mike went back to Chicago (FINALLY, geez) and traded up for cute German and French-Canadian friends.
Lesson 5: The Irish are the most friendly people I’ve met. Within ten minutes of arriving at our hostel in Galway, the manager was leading us down the street and pointing to the best place for fish & chips, tasty pints, and fun music. And it’s not just people working in hospitality. For example, bus drivers, who are normally some of the most disgruntled people in America, went out of their way to help me when my paid bus ticket didn’t register.
Lesson 6: Most, but not all, Irish love to drink. I met a lot of Irish who love the drink. But I also met several (at a pub, nonetheless) who have never touched a drink in their life. These were adults, not 17 year olds. But they all seemed to drink a lot of Red Bull.
Lesson 7: The song and the subject of “Galway Girl” makes me happy to no end. This song by American artist Steve Earle is about meeting a Galway Girl whose “hair was black and eyes were blue.” This song kept playing in my head while I strolled around Galway. One night, I found myself talking to a cute, black-haired girl from Galway. After a few minutes, I could tell she was sloppy drunk. After a few more minutes, I was certain of the fact when she lurched toward me and started kissing me. I [eventually] pulled away (she was way too drunk) and asked her “What color are your eyes?” Coyly she replied “Blue…” I smiled and excused myself from the bar. I could now leave Galway in peace.
For those who don’t know, I’m 25% Irish (like probably 95% of Americans). But I know close to nothing about my Irish heritage. I emailed my dad a week earlier and asked him if he could dig up any information. It turns out my Great-Great-Great-Grandparents were married on a place called Achill Island. Armed with this information, I located Achill Island on a map and decided to head there straight from Galway.
A boarded another Bus Eireann and headed northwest to Achill Island. After six weeks of non-stop moving around, this sounded like a great place to lay low for a few days. And with Mike gone, this marked the beginning of my solo adventures. I looked forward to reflecting on the weeks past and planning the weeks ahead.
I booked a bed at the Valley House hostel, which is a spooky old house with a small pub downstairs. The Valley House and it’s original resident are the subjects of the 1998 movie Love & Rage with Daniel Craig. It was partially filmed here as well.
Achill Island is gorgeous. Some of the landscapes could be confused with Hawaii. I didn’t end up finding out much about my family, but the search led me to discover an obscure corner of Ireland, meet some fascinating people, and learn a little more about the country.
Lesson 8: The Irish love to talk. The bus ride to Achill was comical. As far as I could tell, everyone on the bus were strangers. But by the way everyone was gabbing and laughing with each other and having great craic (Irish slang), I felt like I had accidentally stumbled on a family reunion. Similarly while at the hostel/pub, I literally couldn’t sit down for more than ten minutes on my own before I was surrounded by people who just wanted to be heard. That “gift of gab” thing is no joke.
Lesson 9: There’s a strong Achill Island-Cleveland connection. Talking with the owner of the Valley House, I found out most Achill Islanders initially settled in Cleveland, Ohio. At the pub one day, I even met an Irish guy who used to live in Cleveland.
From Achill Island, I decided to head way down south to the County Kerry, known for it’s picturesque mountains and coast. Five buses and twelve hours later, I pulled into Killarney, a typical starting point from which to explore Kerry. Although it was a beautiful place, this is where I experienced my first bout of travel burnout and temporarily lost touch of why I was traveling [See: How to Get Lost]. I ended up booking a room at a bed & breakfast for four nights to recoup and spend time alone.
In hindsight, I realize it was the combination of spending 6 weeks in vacation mode (unsustainable for long-term travel), coming to grips with traveling alone, not getting much solitude on Achill Island, and coming down with a cold. After a few days, I eventually got over my funk and started to explore the area. Highlights include sneaking into the Killarney July Horse Race Festival and exploring the incredible countryside, mountains, and lakes. I left Killarney rejuvenated and a new man.
Lesson 10: Ireland is becoming a growing destination for EU immigrants. I met several Lithuanians, Estonians, and tons of Polish who came to Ireland for better opportunities. Most of the local Irish seem to think this is an increasing phenomenon. I don’t know the actual statistics, so this is just my observation.
I decided to see Cork for Blarney Castle and Blarney Stone, if nothing else. Cork feels like a grimier little brother of Dublin; it’s not exactly charming, but it has character. Using CouchSurfing.org, I secured a bed (a real bed!) from an American expat. I also met up with Eleanor, a Cork native and fellow traveler I met in Peru last year. She graciously drove me to Blarney Castle and showed me around Cork.
Lesson 11: Non-labor workers are leaving Ireland to find jobs. I met so many Irish in the service industry who were hoping for greener pastures in Australia, England, Canada, or the United States to secure a job. This is interesting in the context of the immigrants entering Ireland from other EU countries. Again, I don’t have the stats on this; it’s just an observation.
Lesson 12: Kissing the Blarney Stone is an awkward experience. A guy holds onto you while you hang upside-down to kiss a stone that probably hundreds of thousands of people have already kissed before you. By kissing it, you’re supposedly granted the “gift of gab.” I just hope that doesn’t include the gift of herpes.
After spending almost three weeks in Ireland, I have a new appreciation for being Irish. The country really left a mark on me. The countryside is beautiful, and this fact never goes unappreciated by the Irish. The Irish themselves are welcoming, fun, and just genuinely kind people. Having lived in the Midwest USA (Cleveland and Chicago) for 22 years, I’m positive it’s the Irish influence that makes it one of the friendliest places in America.
Next Up: After spending a week back in London, I passed over Western and Central Europe and headed straight to Lithuania. I caught the Olympics spirit in both places. I’ll share these experiences in another post.