RETURN TO IRELAND – A Quarter Century Later
WEEK 2 of 2: SOUTHWARD THROUGH THE INTERIOR
Day 8: Wednesday October 11
Following a wisely chosen half-size Irish breakfast, we’re on the road again, but now heading southward. Back down to Ballyshannon and along the near-to-the-coast N15 until we arrive once again in Sligo city. This time we’re better prepared to find the signs pointing to Carrowmore which – only 6-7 kilometers west of town, we reached by noon.
Carrowmore is of similar vintage to Stonehenge, Newgrange and other mesolithic sites throughout the British Isles. The well informed gent who sold us admission also turned out to be the talking tour guide for a busload of American seniors who arrived soon after we did. Sensing a learning opportunity we temporarily merged with the group, assuming that to an Irish tour guide all American seniors look alike.
After experiencing his excellent and wonderfully informative tour I also assume they paid him something for the privilege, for this gent knew his material and delivered it authoritatively. From the visitor center we trekked out across squishy ground to a small dolmen, the first of many at the site. Its capstone – perhaps five by six feet and a foot thick – rested on five small standing stones, and he pointed out how it had been carefully aligned at about six degrees. All capstones have this tilt. This dolmen, a burial site, was fairly small. On our previous trip we saw more massive capstones perhaps ten feet in diameter and resting up to twelve feet high. I remember they all have one end higher than the other, around six degrees of tilt – a remarkable achievement by stone age humans, considering these massive rocks’ weight is measured in tons and multiples thereof.
Human bone remains found inside this dolmen were carbon dated to about 6,500 years ago. Stirred by this revelation, one brilliant senior lady thought to ask, right out loud, how he the guide thought these people related to Christianity. I assume she voted for Trump.
As a Mesolithic-Neolithic site, Carrowmore reflects human occupation and activities over several thousand years, up to as recently as around three thousand BCE (five thousand years ago). Such longevity leaves no doubt of the site’s enormous importance to dozens of human generations over those millennia, but no one alive today knows what that importance was. And there are precious few clues from which scholars may attempt to deduce it.
The newest DNA technology has opened a few formerly-secret doors, and has potential to greatly advance our knowledge of Neolithic times. As one example, DNA analysis showed that one of the bones excavated at Carrowmore was from a woman whose ancestors came from France – not Iberia, as was long believed to be the mythical origin place of Ireland’s earliest immigrants. And contemporaries of those old French people had long before made the transition from hunting-gathering to stationary farming.
Neolithic structures at Carrowmore are scattered over perhaps a square mile. The site’s main feature is an oval-shaped mound some forty by sixty feet and perhaps twenty five feet high. At one end a passageway leads in to the mound’s center where it opens into a room. There in the center sits a large dolmen with enormous capstone resting on seven standing stones emerging five to six feet vertically above the ground. Its tilt is, of course, about six degrees. An irregular three-foot boulder embedded at the entrance was clearly selected and placed to display its indentation shaped like a human footprint.
The room is roofless and has had to be reconstituted based on scientific best guesses of original size and shape, because locals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had steadily robbed its stonework – meeting their lithic needs for easy-to-get-at rocks including crushing them to build roads. Similarly, about half the structures at the site had been damaged, altered or totally carried off during those wanton decades. About thirty remain today.
The final item of interest was a simple stone circle – surprisingly, the smallest I’ve ever seen, thousand of years old and not as big as the stone circle I built on Mink Run. This one consists of 3-5 foot boulders placed close together in a nearly continuous ring about thirty feet across. Nowhere did the stones stand taller than four feet, most were less.
I asked our guide if he’d seen the new findings on stone circles and dolmen-like structures found in the remote Sahara region of southwest Egypt. He had – but, perhaps aware of my unpaid attachment to the bussed-in American seniors, was uncommunicative on what he thinks of them. I think – I would have told him if he’d had the grace to ask – there is a significant but unknown connection between the Egyptian site, which is extensive and dates to some ten thousand years ago, and the numerous megalithic sites found all up the west European coast from Gibraltar to Scandinavia. Supporting my surmise, he had previously mentioned that DNA analysis of the French female skeleton showed that the woman had ancestors who resided in the Middle East at an earlier time, back when that region was peopled by the Aryan ancestors of modern European peoples. Those ancient people would have looked like us, and nothing at all like the Arabic-Semitic peoples inhabiting the Middle East today.
Our western prehistory back to around twelve thousand BCE is riddled with fascinating mysteries of the highest possible order. As a lifelong student of late human prehistory, the connection I consider most logical connects all neolithic structures in all places to major human migrations that were precipitated by a large asteroid strike which left the fractured island remnants we today call the Azores. But that’s another story, far from Eire-land.
We almost saw another. Having heard that Carrowmore is one of four major prehistoric sites in the Sligo region, we did not hesitate to turn off when we saw the brown sign pointing to Carrowkeel. After five kilometers on a single-car road, however, we came to a sign that said we must walk a trail another 2.3 kilometers to reach the Carrowkeel site. The weather being rainy-blowy, and me being eighty and already cold, we passed.
Nightfall finds us in the town of Boyle, laid up in style in Abbey House, a very large and fine old dwelling with 14-foot ceilings and piss poor heating. Next door is a vast old ruin of well placed rocks called Boyle Abbey. Dating from the eleventh century, it was torched during the Reformation Troubles – one of the many Troubles to trouble Ireland. Today it is a roofless series of high, high stone walls, many still retaining their original shape. A ticket office says Closed For Winter and the gate is padlocked.
We walked on past the ruin to an lar, the downtown area, found nothing of interest – nothing at all – and so have turned in to call it a day. My mind toys with the idea that somehow, however indirectly, this town of Boyle is connected to the naming of Boyle County, county seat Danville, just forty miles down the road from my central Kentucky home. I realize I shall never know and, moreover, don’t care. Tomorrow is another day.
Day 9: Thursday October 12
After the usual excessive breakfast (I saved my excessive meat in a napkin for later), we walked around the old Abbey House, looking about, feeling the place. As houses go, it is relatively huge and 150 years old but forever destined to insignificant obscurity under the looming shadow of the old abbey ruin immediately next door. A pause beside the fast-flowing Boyle River, walled up adjacent Abbey House’s back yard, and off we drove.
We’ve fairly well done the wild northwest that we missed on our 1991 trip, and so we’re heading southeast, looking for whatever adventure may arise. Today therefore is designated for unpressured roaming and dawdling. We could easily reach our destination, Athlone, by early afternoon, but we choose the long way to get there on back roads which pass through numerous small rural villages. And many there are, plus a few towns and many stops along the way. Their names alone are a delight: Cloone; Carrigallen; Arvagh; Drumlish; Longford; Keenagh; Ballimahon; Moyvore (reminds me of “Malfoy”); Rathcomrath (yes, really); Horseleap (yes, really) – and, finally, Athlone. We also encountered on these rural back roads – all surprisingly busy with cars – quite a few tractors and many trucks of all sizes. Commerce is alive and well in Irish society.
In one of these places Herself chanced upon The Clutterbug second-hand store, dallied there and came out pleased toting treasures of books for the grandchildren. In another we had tea and scones for lunch (plus some napkined meat in the car). We roamed through a variety of hardware stores, garden shops, groceries and oddity shops in quest of we knew not what but knew we’d know it when we saw it. We underspent today’s budget.
Athlone an lar
We rolled into Athlone right on schedule, checked into our B&B and went out to explore the downtown. Traffic in this very small Irish city’s an lar would make New York look tame. It is awful, and made the more so by a profusion of confusing roundabouts through which one proceeds not in a straight line; curves with side streets branching off at odd angles which seem all wrong; chaotic parking all of which seems to be illegal even by Irish norms; and people crossing the streets absolutely everywhere to be watched out for. They all seem quite calm and comfortable in this chaos. Some sections of some streets are one way, the rest is not. Some stop lights pretend to control traffic, and some of those make only one lane stop whilst another lane stays green which inevitably gets one honked at. This labyrinthine traffic clutter bears no resemblance to anything we’ve experienced, anywhere, ever before. It rather makes me hope all my friends may encounter Athlone traffic sometime during their lifetimes so these words may become the more believable, mere description being hardly enough. They’d probably think me odd in this perversity.
Shazam. We made it to the other end of town – and all the way back through to re-find, miracle of miracles, our B&B. In between we explored according to our whimsical wont. I bought a used paperback novel chanced upon in a traditional used book store which smells much like all used bookstores. The book promises to render me intimate with what Dublin was like in the early twentieth century. A rare find. Paying for it, I ask the proprietor where we might find a nearby pub that serves pub food. He responds that he has not in his lifetime entered a pub. I respond that I have and will again. We have an exquisite supper at The Left Bank restaurant which is located somewhere in the labyrinth of downtown Athlone and will never be found again. It serves Guinness. I have one just on principle.
Day 10: Friday October 13 – Friday the Thirteenth
Our trip is essentially over – I think. We have well explored the north and west of Ireland, Connemara to Donegal, and the remainder of this trip will be merely coasting. We coasted today, from Athlone down to Carlow. Here, once again, the town center is a medieval rabbit’s warren of too narrow streets and meandering byways presuming to cope with twenty-first century traffic – cars, trucks, cycles and pedestrians.
I could have taken the national road direct from Athlone and arrived in Carlow by noon. Instead, we zigged and zagged on many byways diagonally to the east and west of the main road, which took us through many small villages otherwise unmet, unexperienced. We saw sights that go unseen by fast travelers on the big roads. Some of the more interesting sights were the roads themselves.
Ireland’s road hierarchy is itself interesting. The M99 (M plus two digits) and others like it are equivalent to our four-lane limited-access interstates. By contrast, a “national” road such as N59 (N plus two digits) is equivalent to our US 60, 127, 421 – representing what all of Ireland’s main roads were like before they build the modern M roads. An R999 (R plus three digits) is a “main” rural road. These range (randomly by certain observation) from M quality and width down to narrow with no (no) shoulders and omigod slow down.
Descending: the L9999s (L and four digits) are local roads. These tend to quickly become one lane wide with grass growing through thin asphalt up the center. One may pass oncoming cars only wherever a wide spot happens to occur, otherwise one driver must concede and back up. Then there are officially designated five-digit roads (“99999”). Consider your life insurance and let judgment prevail before entering onto one of these.
Lest these five categories be thought consistent, let me hastily add that there is a notable absence of consistency among the lower four categories. While it is generally true that a two-digit road seldom becomes as bad as a five-digit road, it should be emphasized that the gradient among the lower three categories is vague at best. Caveat travelemptor.
Today’s highlight was in the town of Athy (pronounced “ah’thye” with a soft th) where we had a fine lunch – extravagant lamb stew for me, pureed veggie soup for Herself who seems to be getting to like it. One never knows. We also visited their nice local museum.
The museum’s featured highlight is Ernest Shackleton, who was born in a wee village near here, who knew. The museum tells the story of his Antarctic adventures in some detail, along with remembrances by various of his crew. New details are added to my understanding of the miracle Shackleton pulled off by ultimately saving every member of his crew from what first seemed like inevitable death in that frozen desert at the bottom of the world. Outside on a rock-paved corner stands perhaps the world’s only statue of Ernest Shackleton. The museum’s other highlights focus on Athy’s medieval origin and its honored citizens who fought in World War I. A nice little place, revering history.
After a wonderful, informative two hours at Athy museum, we sped on down to Carlow. (I’ve embedded a nugget right there to see if you Celtic musicians are on your toes.) There we bravely ventured downtown, despite the super confusing street layout and dense traffic, because we had no choice but to buy some more minutes to add to our little prepaid telephone. It worked, we got our new minutes and actually found our way back to the B&B. But we cannot forget what our B&B proprietor said before we ventured forth: “Oh it’s only a ten-minute walk from here to downtown.” All is perspective, I suppose.
Day 11: Saturday October 14
A day that turned out differently than expected. It was expected to be a simple drive – Carlow down to Wexford, then west to Waterford. Ample time to fool around, discover whatever we will.
Well. Approaching Wexford we saw this ancient square stone structure perched high atop an unreasonably steep hillock right beside the road. A small parking lot, two cars parked. So off we turned, parked, and up the goat path forty strides to examine this strange square ruin of a tower obviously build long centuries ago. Not a sign of a sign anywhere to explain it. The door is padlocked though through a wide crack I can see…the empty inside of an ancient square stone tower. We looked it over as well as one can in five minutes when there’s not much else to see and little reason to tarry, then back down the goat path to leave, mystery unexplained.
Irish National Heritage Park
The mystery got explained. Across a nearby bridge and immediately on the right a sign: Irish National Heritage Park. In we turned. Visitor center, reception desk, senior ticket prices and we’re admitted. And right there we spent the next five hours, best bargain of the trip. On some 35 acres they have created a walkthrough experience of the last 11,000 years of human occupation in Ireland. It was well done and wonderful.
On a meandering trail which takes about two hours to complete, we started at a faux Mesolithic stone age hunter-gatherer campsite. DNA tests in recent years show that these people came from…the Basque region of Spain, consistent with the oldest myths of Irish origins. No doubt some did come from there, though others came from elsewhere. They were pre-Celts – now called Tuathua da Danaan perhaps – DNA-dated at around nine thousand years ago. They all knew how to build and sail boats. The biggest question I can think of is this: How did they know that if they sailed northwest they would find Ireland, given that Ireland was so far across the sea that they could not see it to know it existed? On the same grounds, how did Hawaii and Easter Island get similarly settled?
Site two is a Neolithic farmstead, showing how stationary settlement for farming produces wealth and more people. We moderns understand these terms “wealth” and “more people.” The takeaway message is that a farming lifestyle inherently produces more mouths to feed so that there will be more farmers to do more farming resulting in more mouths to feed…ad infinitum We moderns, some 98 percent of us, have moved on to non-farming lifestyles, but we – all of us, every one – still depend 100 percent on the food that is grown on farms, and our derivative farm-food-dependent lifestyles are still to this day producing ever more mouths to feed. We are in fact doing so exponentially – an unsettling word, that word exponentially. Its full significance is expected to become clearly manifest to everyone alive sometime well into in the second half of this century.
Other sites along the trail walked us forward through the most ancient of historical times. A bronze-age grave, a stone circle exactly the size of ours at home on Mink Run – then an Ogham stone post. Until today I hadn’t realized Ogham marks were based on the Latin alphabet and date to only 1600-1800 years ago; they are post-Christian, not all that old.
We explored a medieval ring fort which served as an early Christian monastery complete with beehive monk huts. Some life. It also had a water mill and a kiln for drying grain to make beer. Not so very bad. After a superb lunch in the visitor center, we took another trail to the crannog – an island homestead surrounded by water. Then a Viking boatyard, followed by a Norman castle with adjacent deep ditch the Normans themselves actually didst dig some 1,200 years ago. Right there it is, at our very feet. We can imagine the Norman serf-soldiers right there, grunting away, sweating stinking hungry, under fierce orders to don’t dare stop digging until they’ve finished that humongous damn ditch
Last of all was a round tower built in 1857 to commemorate the sons of Wexford who gave their last full measure in the misbegotten stupid Crimean War of 1854-55. I suppose its location inside the park is coincidence, though round towers in general are much older and have symbolic importance in deep Irish history.
On down the road to Waterford where we immediately took the wrong road, got on the super M-highway to Cork and went ten miles out of our way before finding a way back. Flying by the seat of my pants and instinct alone we finally arrived at our reserved B&B. I have no idea how we got there. It’s a comfortable place. We decided to stay here for two nights so we can do justice to exploring the historic sites in and around Waterford – Ireland’s oldest city we read belatedly.
I can relax now, because our adventures are winding down. Our B&B reservation is already made for night after next – a place real close to Shannon airport. Let us now see what the morrow will bring. A bizarre northern hurricane has been mentioned.
Day 12: Sunday October 15
Adventures may be on the rise again, but it’s a risky course. The entire western coast of Ireland – essentially this entire island nation – is to be hit tomorrow by Hurricane Ophelia. Winds up to eighty miles per hour all day, not to mention all that pouring rain every hurricane delivers. A bad day for driving. Ophelia is rated category 2. The worst storm in fifty years, they say. One of the few to occur this far north, and the first hurricane as such, ever this far north in recorded history. An obvious result of global warming everyone understands, here in Ireland. At this latitude the gray ocean waters were thought too cool to feed a hurricane’s energy needs. Until now they always were…
And yet our schedule requires arriving in the Limerick-Shannon area tomorrow. We’ll play it by ear and common sense, but I think we can get there – it’s normally less than a two-hour drive. We’ll see what contingencies must be met. Provisional car rental and B&B extensions in case our Tuesday morning flight gets cancelled occur to me.
Today we did inside things only for it rained all day in Waterford. Happily it’s a straight shot from our B&B to downtown Waterford which is awash in old historic and interesting things. Of these, we did three.
First we bought the grand tour at the Waterford Crystal ware establishment. Never in my life have I seen such exquisite and novel things made of glass. Some highlights, all polished and shining in their thousands of cut facets: a crystal goblet five feet high; a crystal football and helmet; dozens of punch bowls and vases, no two alike; a two-foot tall glass bear; and a Cinderella pumpkin coach pulled by four glass horses via glass harness and reins. The latter is two feet long – price $40,000 U.S. dollars. There it sat, right out in the open, right there on the big wide gleaming glass shelf on one side of the display room. You could just reach right out and touch it if you dared. Nervous, I advised Herself to not get too close. One never knows when one might trip and fall forward.
We then toured a very large old Georgian mansion now become a three-floor museum. Second floor rooms with 20-foot-high ceilings were done up to display the conventional furnishings of the period. It’s hard to believe people lived in such opulence, or that they actually enjoyed it. I’m confident they wore lots of clothes to keep warm. The third floor began with the Viking invasions and, room by room, brought us forward through Ireland’s history clear up to late twentieth century. The struggle against England for Irish independence was given full play – reminding us that Wateford was a hotbed of republican and anti-British sentiment for two hundred years.
Our third session focused again on the several hundred years of Viking invasions and their deep influence on Irish history. What made this session remarkable was that it took place with us wearing virtual reality headpieces with internal goggles. When the thing was placed on my head I “saw” that I was suddenly alone in the room where we’d been sitting. I looked to right and left and all around and it was so, only me now alone in that room where there previously had been several of us. That is exactly how it looked to my visual sense – though my fingers insisted Herself and I were still holding hands.
There ensued a half hour of Viking stuff – invasions and ways of living – all well imagined by somebody well informed and then re-created in virtual reality. I could turn my head in any direction, including full back and full up or down, and what I “saw” was a realistic-seeming simulation of reality…during Viking times.
It’s easier now to understand how this technology, which I’ve considered useless, could become as addictive as soma in Brave New World. I now realize it’s worse than useless. God help us when they put war games and sex into these gogglehead devices – as no doubt they already do – for I can predict a percentage of viewers starving to death through inability to pull away, back into the real world. A significant step in that direction, it seems to me, is the constant sight nowadays of people fixated on their smart phone screens, pecking away, oblivious to the real world around them.
Back here in reality, tomorrow is another day and it is bringing a rare hurricane all the way up here to Ireland to make our lives more interesting a mere twenty four hours before our scheduled flight back home. Our job will be to reach our B&B just outside Shannon, and then – with phones and electricity out all over the place – find out whether our flight out of here Tuesday morning has been cancelled by the hurricane – or may yet be because of storm damage aftereffects at Shannon airport. Damn. Bother. Bloody hell.
Day 13: Monday October 16
Arising to lowering skies and blustery wind gusts, we’ve no doubt reality is a hurricane. All Ireland is a’stew. Worst in fifty years, first hurricane ever – how did we get so lucky on the day before our departure flight – up in the air – where the hurricane now is.
And yet here it comes. Schools and banks are all closed, half the rest of Irish commerce and society is closed or on the brink of closing for the day. Like light bulbs winking out. The government’s warnings grow more dire every ten minutes – these people are not accustomed to this kind of weather and if there is error they intend it to default on the side of caution. Irish prudence that. Their message: Stay off the roads. Great.
We worry through our Irish breakfast, deliberately ordered so I can roll up the meat in a napkin for snacking later at – assumed – the airport. But we’re two hours yet away from Shannon. The day’s itinerary called for a leisurely drive from Waterford to Shannon, dallying at will, checking out the airport so we know where to turn in our car, where to get in a departure line. Then leisurely fool around Shannon-Limerick the rest of the day, spend some Euros, sleep peacefully our last night in Ireland before our 9AM flight out.
All that’s out the window. There’s this damned unplanned hurricane Ophelia, the government saying stay off the roads, wind gusts and rain blasts out the window visibly gathering strength. What, me worry?
Our B&B proprietor strolls over with our tea and mildly asks what are our plans for the day. I tell him we’re going to make a dash for Shannon. He clucks, looks concerned and ambles off – thereby doubling my anxieties and second thoughts. We’d be driving precisely into the worst of the arriving storm which is right now arriving at the southwest coastline, its center driving straight up the western coast – directly over Shannon – its big rotating funnel reaching out to cover all Ireland.
I ask the B&B mistress if she has a room vacant in case we are forced to stay another night. She does. I call Dan Dooley’s to see if they’ll make contingent extension of our rental car. They will. Our hostess graciously uses her laptop to inquire whether any of tomorrow’s flights are cancelled. She reports that all flights in the whole of Ireland are cancelled today, but there is no information on tomorrow’s flights. None at all.
Our choice is stark. It’s 9AM in Waterford and it’s two hours drive to Shannon where Ophelia is to arrive in full force by noon. If it should turn out that tomorrow’s flights are not cancelled, we could miss our 9AM flight back to the USA unless we’re already there, in the Shannon area. We decide to make the dash before the storm’s full force arrives.
The dash is a lark. There’s little traffic, mostly trucks heavy enough to be unconcerned. Two hours of alternating sunshine and steadily increasing wind gusts later, we arrive in the area and locate our last B&B, reserved days before. Checked in, we still need to make a run to the airport to find 1) where to return our rental car early tomorrow morning in dark darkness (it also was dark when we last were there, so orientation did not occur), and 2) where to get in line once we’re in the terminal. One doesn’t just presume these seemingly small matters when arriving in a totally unfamiliar place in the darkness before daylight – one must know where to go. If one’s survival instincts are in working order, that is.
The teeth of the storm
By the time we reach the airport around noon, Ophelia is getting serious. We find the car rental return, relieved to see it’s well marked with signs and easy to find in the dark. We then walk into the terminal, noticing acutely how difficult it’s becoming to walk in the fierce wind. It keeps blowing my left foot against my right ankle with each step. Herself’s progress is stagger-like; I hear her muttering and exclaiming, the way she does, as only her arms through the sleeves keep her raincoat from blowing off to Timbuctu.
Inside we find that United Airlines does not have its own desk at Shannon airport. Great. Among the few airport staff still in the building – most have long ago left and gone home – nobody has any idea where the United passengers will be expected to queue up – assuming there’s to be a queue and flight. To hell with it, let’s get out of here, there’s a lot of glass overhead. Let’s get back to the B&B while we still can. Assuming we still can. The hurricane is here, now. “Only” category 2 or not, it’s violent and scary.
The return trip is fierce but we make it. Then follow long hours of nothing to do but read and that by window light, for the power went off while we were out. Around late afternoon over lukewarm tea apparently made over a Bunsen burner we chat with a young couple from Oklahoma on their first visit to Ireland. Doing it our way in their rented car, they seem so innocent, so unaware of Ireland’s long history and prehistory. We offer a few suggestions. The young man later thanks us for mentioning “so much history” because he’s trying, he tells us, to get his little wife interested in history.
The storm blows over. Evening turns mild with diminishing gusts and the power comes back on. We re-pack our bags, intent on being super ready tomorrow morning. We retire early. What a day.
Day 14, the last and goodbye: Tuesday October 17
We were out the front door before daylight. Taking a side trip to make sure our gas tank was returned tiptop full, a taxi driver told me an easier route to the airport. Praise God we got the rental car returned and the rest of the day went like clockwork.
Inside the terminal’s front door stood an obvious line of people before a sign temporarily placed in the middle of the floor to announce United Airlines flight 24 to Newark. So that’s how they do it. Then occurred in short order Irish security, United’s check-in, U.S. security pre-clearance at Shannon, then find the right gate, then sit and wait for permission to board. On board and carryons stored, the pilot tells us it’s perfect flying weather – no turbulence at all today. Boy, are we glad we made the dash yesterday.
We’re back into the system – the gigantic international air travel system that herds you through multiple security scans, checks your passport again and again, issues your boarding passes and, saying nothing more, assumes you’ve got enough sense to follow their dozens of ubiquitous signs to find the proper debarking gate on your own. Well…
To countrified retirees who rarely do this sort of thing in the course of a lifetime, all this systemization is, to understate the case, overwhelming. Nevertheless we do it, we find the gate. Isn’t it amazing, dazzling, demeaning. The system intakes us, checks and accepts us, processes us thoroughly, passes us on and spits us out at a programmed destination, immediately closing behind us so as to devote its full attention to all them others who never stop arriving, passing through, boarding…
I reflect a bit on all this. I can think of no better way to convey a meaning-worthy impression of the double super megasystem air travel has become than to simply list in chronological order the steps the system required us to go through in order to return home from our happy little trip to Ireland. No doubt I’ll forget some.
- Find airport road in the dark.
- Find Dan Dooley Car rental in the dark.
- Clear our stuff out of car and set it beside small building to await shuttle bus.
- Give rental paperwork to frenetic shuttlebus driver upon his arrival. Tell him about faulty sending unit which constantly insists a tire is low, of which he cares nothing.
- Congratulate self on these accomplishments while riding to terminal’s front door.
- Observe ad hoc United flight 24 queue, get in it.
- Show passports, check baggage in, receive boarding passes, read and decipher them.
- Advance to Irish Customs.
- Show passports, advance to Irish security.
- Show passports, advance to U.S. security pre-clearance Shannon.
- Put everything except the clothes I’m wearing, and belt, on a security scan conveyor and walk guiltily through metal detector. This must be how criminals feel when they realize the jig is up. People 80 years old need not remove shoes.
- Put belt back on, re-stow shirt tail and belongings, get back into ongoing queue.
- Advance to, and ultimately find, correct boarding gate.
- Board plane after a long people-watching break-taking wait.
- Fly over north Atlantic Ocean, passing just south of Greenland on great circle route to Newark, packed like sardines in barely-reclining seats for six hours. Expletive deleted.
- Debark airplane. Stretch. Live.
- Somehow find far, faraway “Gate 17C” which leads to a shuttlebus.
- Thoroughly disoriented, ride shuttlebus from Terminal C to Terminal A.
- In Terminal A search for gate for flight to Cincinnati – gate identities being small, digital, transient and decidedly inconspicuous – until Cincinnati gate is eventually found.
- Go pee. Wait.
- Board plane to Cincinnati. Immediately notice that seats are comfortably far apart, suggesting this must be a very old plane soon to be junked. Note also that in this corporate age of pack’em in tight, two-thirds of seats are empty of passengers, suggesting that a lot of absent people know something I don’t about this obsolete aircraft.
- Fly without incident praise God to Cincinnati.
- Walk a country mile to find baggage claim area.
- Lug luggage off the rotating carousel.
- Find circuitous way to shuttlebus that will take us to long term parking.
- Get on shuttlebus, no waiting at all.
- Give bus driver the ticket, held for two weeks, which tells which row we’re parked in, row 29-30, which is far from the highest number in the lot.
- Ride bus to row 29-30.
- See our car, tell driver, debark bus with all our luggage.
- Put luggage into our car.
- See if car will still start after two weeks. It starts.
- Drive to long term parking kiosk.
- Find parking ticket which I’d placed over visor and forgotten existed, give it and credit card to kiosk attendant, show AAA card for discount which I’d forgotten would apply, sign her form and drive away. DRIVE ON THE RIGHT.
- Free at last, OUT of the big system. Find I-75 and head south to GO HOME. Don’t forget to pay conscious attention and DRIVE ON THE RIGHT.
Wednesday October 18 – Postlude: Reflections on our Return to Ireland
Noticeable changes after a quarter century
Our first trip in April 1991 being 26 years ago, elapse of a quarter century is enough time for changes to occur, and to be noticed. There are some and they seem significant. In a nutshell, Ireland has joined – or been willingly drawn into – twenty-first century globalization. I noticed it everywhere and in many ways.
There is more of everything. More traffic. More road signs. More gas-and-junk food mini marts along the roadsides. More congestion in the an lars. More people. And more people tap-tap-tapping on their smart phones and oh-so-connected tablets and laptops. Just like everywhere. The twentieth century is history, all over the world.
In 1991 there were no green signs corresponding to contemporary international conventions on road signage. No, instead there were tall stout posts with arrow-shaped wooden signs nailed to them, pointing in all directions to however many places could be reached on the roads radiating from each sign post. All that is sadly gone. Today it’s a bit like driving in the USA. The green direction signs unquestionably make it easier to proceed from one place to another, the brown signs make it easier to find interesting sites – but something is lost. The old traditional posts worked quite adequately, I thought, telling you Lisdoonvarna is that way, down that very road. Do you really need GPS when you’ve got a map in hand? Do you really need a map when the signpost clearly says it’s there, down that direction.
Ireland has greatly increased its roundabouts. They are just everywhere, even out in the middle of nowhere. Most towns have at least three or four roundabouts on the main roads healing inward toward an lar – and often so many it’s easy to get bewildered and lost in case you want to backtrack and retrace your steps, as the tourist often does. Who can remember which of those three-to-five exits one took on the multiplicity of roundabouts coming into town. The locals can, the first-and-only timer probably won’t.
Roundabouts certainly keep traffic moving – the whole idea seems to be to avoid at all costs any signs or red lights which bring you to a full standstill, robbing your momentum. Roundabouts are a wonderful idea that I think the US could use a lot more of, to greatly reduce all the gasoline wasted in vehicles, halted and just sitting there idling, by red lights and stop signs. The American attitude is: if in doubt bring’em to a full stop. However, on this good idea it seems to me that Ireland may be just a tad overdone.
Ireland had quite good roads. Everywhere the paving is a coarse grade of asphalt which has a very grainy surface which no doubt minimizes slips and slides, as tire traction on the rough surface is exellent. It probably is an order of magnitude less expensive than our fine-grade asphalt and concrete roads. Still, when we got home I appreciated the quiet hum of tires on a very expensive good concrete interstate.
Ireland’s road classification system is something else. I’ve already described the five-tier numbering system in one of my day’s-end writeups, but I didn’t adequately emphasize the inconsistencies. These start with the “national” roads, level two, equivalent to our pre-interstate federal highways such as U.S. 60. In some stretches a national road such as N23 may be interstate quality – four lanes of limited access divided highway with broad paved shoulder lanes on each side. Then – and quite suddenly in many cases – the road may dwindle to two lanes with no shoulders at all, the two furthermore being crowded on each side with Ireland’s omnipresent hedge-walls. These leave unsettlingly little room to spare for meeting oncoming traffic, much less passing one of their huge Irish tractors.
The third, fourth and fifth tiers of the road system are equally inconsistent in different parts of the country. In some places a five-digit road – e.g., “51922” – is little more than a jeep-width cow path separated by a grassy center. Elsewhere it could be a decent country lane where two cars can easily meet and pass. The same is generally true of all three lower road designations. All in all, I think I prefer this lackadaisical attitude to standardization – too much sameness would seem hive-like.
Living with history
Americans, accustomed to a national history that begins in 1776 and barely conscious of the preceding century and a half as British colonies, tend to forget that the histories of all European nations originate not hundreds but thousands of years ago. In Ireland’s case the earliest inhabitants are thought to have arrived around (at least) ten thousand years ago, when the great glaciers were finally receding. Ireland’s recorded history dates from roughly three thousand years ago. Irish citizens thus live alongside physical evidence of their long ago pre-historical antecedents and think little of it.
It is common, for instance, for a village or town to be graced with ruined, roofless standing walls of a castle or monastery that had its heyday perhaps 800 to a thousand years ago, even before the Vikings came, long before Columbus sailed westward. Saint Patrick brought Christianity to the emerald isle in the fifth century of the common era, followed by Saint Columbanus who firmly implanted it across the island. Both were busy long before Eric the Red sailed his little boats across the great circle to New-found-land.
Ireland’s firmly Catholic caste thus has deep roots that have prevailed for most of two millennia. The protestant alternative was not a factor until the British made Ireland their first colonial possession five hundred years ago, and over the centuries thereafter transferred tens of thousands of protestant Englishmen and their fertile women onto the rich farmlands of Ulster so as to steal them from native inhabitants. These displaced latter fled or were driven away to the craggy wilds of northwest Ireland – from Connemara up to Donegal. The division of Ireland’s two peoples today is so deeply entrenched there seems no prospect of re-merging them into a single nation in any foreseeable future.
Protestant Ulster in the northeast, and all the rest of Catholic Ireland everywhere else, share a common prehistorical heritage replete with hundreds of dolmens, stone circles and – less ancient – castle ruins. These two Irish populations even speak the same distinctly Irish Gaelic dialects. But any prospect of their sharing closer social and cultural ties seems as impossible today as a century ago when the republic was being born.
The cleavage of Ulster from the rest of Ireland is purely on religious grounds – the ill-tempered separation of Protestant orthodoxy from Roman Catholic orthodoxy that kept all Europe embroiled in civil wars for three hundred years and more. Now in the second decade of the twenty-first century one must be cleared through guard stations to pass from the Republic into British Ulster, or vice versa. The cell phones bought on either side of the boundary will not work on the other side. Their two infrastructures of utilities and public service systems are separate and unconnected, side by side but as far apart as Spain and Portugal. I see no end to this division of Ireland in this century. Maybe after global warming does its work…
I have determined that the Irish population at large suffers a defective gene which makes it quite impossible for any Irish person, male or female, to give good clear directions from anywhere to anywhere else. That I myself, with documented Irish roots, have escaped this genetic defect obviously means I must have inherited that particular gene from my mother’s side, a mongrel blend of English peasantry with Norman French aristocracy I generally try to keep under wraps (my maternal line, for example, traces directly from William the Bastard who fathered William the Conqueror, which has nothing whatsoever to do with my coincidental naming as William after my grandfather Willie Coffey). My natural ability to read maps (I disdain GPS), and to tell people where to go unambiguously and with great clarity, clearly marks me as only half Irish.
Let me be clear about this. An Irishman cannot give a clear direction in a tea kettle, not if life itself were dependent on it. I shall be forthright with examples drawn from real life.
Q: How far is it to Donegal town? (Expectation: About two and a half miles.)
A: Oh, it’s just right up the road. Go through the first roundabout and watch for the industrial park setting off to the right. It will be directly ahead pretty soon then.
Q: Which exit should I take from the roundabout? (Expectation: The second one.)
A: Take the one that angles a bit to the right. Ignore all the others. Be sure to go straight through all the other roundabouts, there’s three or four. You’ll see the city soon enough.
Q: Is there a tea room near here? (Expection: Yes, middle of the next block, on the right.)
A: Indeed there is. Just go straight ahead up around the curve you’ll find up the street there, then follow that curve around a ways and watch for it a short distance past O’Malley’s Pub. The sign over the door is small so watch for it.
Over two weeks I found one non-vague, unambiguous exception. By trial and error, replete with errors and turnarounds, I found precisely one apparently Irish person – one, a woman – who gave me clear and unequivocal directions for driving to her B&B. I suspect her genetic lineage is German or something, perhaps an immigrated grandmother, though she did have a right-sounding lilt.
The indirect directions syndrome in its fullness is broader than mere directions. On our first trip in 1991 I discovered that the Irish mile – then often mentioned by Irishmen striving to give directions – ranged variously in factual length from three miles to six miles. In one case I drove ten miles to an objective an alleged “mile” ahead. In no instance did I find advice to proceed “about a mile” to be anywhere nearly so little a distance as one actual mile. On this latter-day trip I found all Irish distances to be measured (and advised) in kilometers, which generally compounded the difficulty.
The B&B industry
Bed and breakfasts are ubiquitous throughout the emerald isle. In most places they are many, in some places merely plentiful. B&Bs clearly are a cottage industry, so to speak, whereby many, many people earn supplemental income and that at a pretty good clip, especially in the height of the warm weather tourist season. The standard basic price for two persons ranges around 65 to 75 Euros per night. It goes up from there – none of which we noticed because our B&B vouchers were embedded in a prepaid package. All in all B&Bs seem a good thing, though I did notice a detail or two worth sharing.
There must be a very lucrative B&B design and construction infrastructure somewhere behind the scenes, for those we stayed in – except for the truly old houses – all exuded a certain sameness. The host family’s personal space is carefully separated from the “public” rooms. The rental rooms may be quite small or they may be middle sized up to equivalence with a standard U.S. hotel room, but none are large except in the old houses.
They’re all done up with a bed, and usually a small table and chair though these are optional. There’s usually a standing wardrobe to hang stuff in, and a shower with water-heating unit attached to a nearby wall. Each and every shower will have a unique way of being turned on, which must be learned. Some have one knob, some have two, and some have one or two little twisty things one has to figure whilst being variously scalded or doused with icy water in dawn’s early light. Some turn-ons may pull, others may push, one is never quite sure and all is trial and error. Lots of errors. Not once in two weeks did we encounter a shower that turns on the same way as any other shower – they’re all different and must be figured out in each case. One soon learns to examine the shower knobs at night in the full light of reason rather than early in the bleary-eyed dawn when many considered it not nice to begin God’s nice new day with profanity.
There’s usually an overhead light for the room, one for the bath, and small bed lamps which are optional. When desiring to read I found it efficacious to lay these on their side so the light would fall on my book. Most bed lamps turn on differently than most others. All wall switches are upside down in Ireland – down is on, up is off. Mostly. Not entirely. Each bed comes equipped with a top sheet and a comforter from hell. Not conducive to comfort, these comforters all weigh half a ton, are bulky and unwieldy. They make you sweat when they’re in place and freeze your back when they droop off the other side during the long night. They invite profanity, and deserve it.
Ex terminus fini
My world travel wants are met and fulfilled, I am complete. There is nowhere else in this dangerous strife-filled world I wish to travel to, and the void which kept nagging me to return to see the rest of peaceful, ancient Ireland has been filled, the itch is scratched.
In 1991, on our first trip to the island the Romans called Hibernia, we began by driving our little rented car out to the entrance of Shannon airport and wondering, Which way shall we turn. Fortuitously, we turn right. Thus did we journey through most of south Ireland, discovering the little back roads that carry one up McGillicuddy’s Reeks where the wild wind blows as fierce as any hurricane. We drove all about the Ring of Kerry before eventually becoming aware there is such a thing as a Ring of Kerry.
We became acquainted with all those Irish place names made famous in Irish-American ballads written, I suppose, by sentimental Irishmen driven here by the 1840s famine or who simply joined the great diaspora to escape the bone-deep poverty of colonial Ireland under British rule – songs like It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Galway Bay, and The Rose of Tralee. I’ve been to Tralee, and it feels good to have been there. We passed through, and paused often in, Limerick, Killarney, Mallow where we held rakes in American Gothic pose, Cork, Dingle, Cashel, Athlone, and Bantry by Bantry bay – to name a few.
This time, at the airport’s entrance, we turned our rented car to the left, toward the wild and mountainous northwest counties I had longed for a quarter century to see, to feel, to know. And now I do – as much as a passerby can notice in a mere two weeks. But that is a lot when you’re wide awake. I saw, felt and now know a whole different Ireland.
From Shannon we passed up the road to Lisdoonvarna, which is bigger than expected, thence on to Doolin village, where we spent our first night, which likewise has grown since our previous fleeting visit to old Doolin. Our subsequent travels up through Connemara, counties Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal soaked us in the experience of what is now called “The Wild Atlantic Way.”
Driving up this spectacularly mountainous coast, then back down through the countryside a bit farther inland, gave strong feel for that splendid remainder I missed on the first trip. Completing all this with time to spare, we proceeded on down through the central heart of Ireland with its tens of thousands of lakes, bogs and marshlands – an environmentally healthy area. There have to be few pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer runoffs because there are so blessed few places amenable to be farmed. An enviable condition, I think.
Our final days wrapped up by visiting those southeastern areas we also missed on our first trip – mainly Carlow, Wexford and Waterford. Until we had tarried and spent a night near those places there was insufficient appreciation for how very old they are, and how significant in Irish history. Indeed, Ireland’s ancient history began here, in and around Waterford which rightly claims first place as Ireland oldest city.
In all Ireland, the only part I’ve not experienced is the northeastern counties of Ulster – that Irish-cultured extension of England proper, still yet today a captive colony though the sun long ago set on the British empire. Somehow I have no desire to experience that area, though I sympathize with those of Protestant inclination who reject the dominance of Roman Catholicism down in the Republic. Methinks they reject too fiercely, while bullying their own Catholic minority in Ulster. This difference of religious opinion which has cost so many thousands of Irish lives is unworthy on both sides of the matter. I hope my own nation avoids its apparent descent toward such partisan divisiveness and the bitter intolerance it produces.