Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Irish Rovin'

Top 'o the blog to you this fine and glorious day. All the hills around are wearin' green, much like the hills of Erin.

Enough with the blarney chatter. I’m here to set you straight about Ireland's mythic lore. It's for real. Real enough for me to believe. Real enough for you to consider. Sit down and travel with me now.

Long ago I entered a contest for a trip to Ireland. Time has faded the details, but my mother insists it was because of my dulcet writing skills that I won, and one thing I've learned is to never argue with an Irish mother about their offspring. I only remember getting a telegram at my college dorm room informing me I had round-trip tickets. (For the younger readers, a telegram was a slip of paper with a note on it that a delivery person would give you to read. This was before texting, email, even computers. Yes, I'm aware I'm old.)

My first reaction was that it was a college prank and I very nearly tore it up, yelling at the frightened delivery man that he was a shabby fake, but it (and he) turned out to be quite real. So away I went to spend my winter holiday. I flew into Shannon Airport near Limerick in December, offseason, because I thought I could get a better 'backstage' view of the country that way and because I had the luxury of taking nearly a month wandering and exploring to my heart’s content. All too often vacations are crammed into a week or two when they desperately need more time. Spending a little more to discover the contents of your heart is a tactic I heartily recommend.

In Limerick I settled into a “Bed & Breakfast.” “B&B’s,” especially the smaller ones, offer an amazing peek into daily Irish life. Typically you reside with an Irish family in their home, with very little dividing you from their private lives. You eat at their table and sleep in their guest room. They welcome stories from America, and share their own tales. Personally, I’m so enthralled with the Irish brogue that they could read a grocery list and I’d listen. But their take on history, both near and far, is eye-opening. Keep in mind that history over there goes back not hundreds of years, but thousands. That kind of perspective makes slowing down and taking your time less of a crime that it seems to be here in the states. In the land of eons, what’s an extra week?

My introduction to Irish ways began years before. When most children heard bedside lullabies, our mother treated us to such hair-raising stories as “The Bloody Hand of McGuinness.” McGuinness had fallen in love with a princess, but her father, the king, held a contest for her hand in marriage. Who ever touched the far side of the river first would wed his daughter. Desperate, McGuinness cut off his hand and threw it across, winning the contest, and becoming royalty (and a lefty) in the process. Quite the lively story, matched only by the nightmares that sometimes followed such a tale.

And here I was in the land of such legends, wandering and wondering. I walked much of Limerick, blending in a bit in an effort to savor the town. During the standard tourist season, May through October, Ireland puts on its best face for a rousing, thriving tourist industry. After that, things relax even more than they usually do. Then the fun really begins.

The entire country is a series of small towns and large hearts. Even in big cities, people talk to you as if they were continuing yesterday’s conversation with an old friend. In pubs. On buses. In pubs. Did I mention pubs? Aside from the glorious stout and local brews, I was introduced to DuBonnet & White, a wonderful wine spritzer made with lemonade and perfect for the tasty cheese sandwiches offered everywhere. Bread is made fresh daily, as are the most incredible pastries.

In Limerick, a distant relative of mine proudly made me an “American pizza with everything on it.” At first glance, the pie appeared unassuming - cheese, sauce, dough. When I bit into it, I found the 'everything' was under the cheese and sauce. This made odd but reasonable sense considering the toppings that could normally fall off were now well-secured by mozzarella.

Another distant relative (the Isle is crawling with them) gave me a wonderful tour of the countryside, following a path taken by rally (racecar) drivers, most likely because the route passed every pub in the area. We, on the other hand, did not pass every pub. Passing even one would be considered unsociable, so instead we stopped at every pub.

At Durty Nelly’s, a pub founded in 1620 just outside Limerick, we tipped a pint. Compared to many taverns, Durty Nelly’s is a bit of a tourist stop, considering it sits right next to Bunratty Castle, an authentic if commercial tribute to Erin’s past. Nevertheless, I held a pint at the bar, bumping my hip on an odd spot in the wood. The bartender explained that since knights would stand at that very spot, eventually the scabbards of their swords had worn that spot in the bar. Over the course of several hundred years.

Near the Cliffs of Moher was a pub with the most marvelous music playing. I asked the proprietor what it was and he replied, “Jigs and reels.” I asked him to be more specific, and he handed me the cassette tape. One side was labeled “Jigs & Reels.” The other side was of course entitled, “More Jigs & Reels.” Alas, sometimes the best tunes never break the top 4o.
At a tavern south of Galway, a group of men was gathered in the back, staring quite seriously and silently at something on television. Perhaps a poetry reading or a political speech. When I got brave enough to peek around at the object of their attention, I found it to be a Tom & Jerry cartoon.

Continuing our pub crawl, I spied an interesting crest – one with a red hand on it, blood dripping from the bottom. “That’s the crest of McGuinness,” a patron replied as he caught me staring at the grisly plaque. He explained the ancient tale I already knew - the very same story my mother used to tell at bedtime. I had written it off as Blarney until I spied the crest on the wall. The hair on the back of my neck was slowly rising.

Our mother had told us other stories. Ancient, unbelievable stories of our ancestors. In 1699 BC, King Milesius of Iberia (now Spain) discovered that his brother had been killed by a wild horde in Ireland. (For my mother’s sake we'll ignore the fact that the king’s brother shouldn't have been messing in Ireland in the first place.) To avenge his death, Milesius got royally peeved and sent his eight sons to invade Ireland. Five of the king's sons were killed in the attack, but three survived and established the clan of the Milesians.

My family is direct descendants of this tribe. To this day, if anyone in our clan is the least bit threatened, we all invade, conquer, and pillage. My mother swore this all to be true- it had to be, since, she argued, it had an exact date attached to it. Plus it featured the very impressive name, Milesius. If you need more proof, please refer to the rule mentioned in the third paragraph above about never arguing with an Irish woman.

For the record, my father’s mom denied the story, saying that the Milesians, as the Spanish Armada after them, all ‘drrrrrowned on the rrrrocks.” I’m afraid that has less to do with true history than an Irish Nana being afraid of sharing Spanish bloodlines with her Puerto Rican neighbors.

I had the precious gift of time and the precocious gift of odd perspective, so I skipped the Blarney Stone completely (you don't know want to know where that thing's been) and headed off for something different. Dingle Bay was other-worldly, not only for the incredible charm of this fishing village, but for being a Gaeltacht, a place lost in time where the natives speak the ancient language of Ireland. Lilting, rhythmic, and unique, Gaelic sounds a bit like melted Portuguese. When you have no hope of understanding a single word, the focus turns to the tune and meter of the voice. An Daingean, as Dingle Bay is known in Gaelic, was pure music.

A friend had rented a car to explore the back country, and we toured the Ring of Kerry, a wonderful loop of road in the Southwest. As I shared the eerie tales my mother had told me years ago, we veered off N70, southwest of Killarney, just because we could. We came upon a tiny, crooked sign that read, "Scenic Route." No details, but all the quaintness of an impish leprechaun. We followed the trail up into the hills, and it evolved into an 8-kilometer-long, single-lane, goat-path of a dead-end. The most interesting dead-end I've ever been on in my life.

The road ended at a gate. I approached it, finding a small tin box and another enigmatic sign. “Admission – 10p.” I looked around. There was no one to see whether I paid or not. Tickled, I plunked my pence into the box and listened as it hit other coins. This was already worth the price of admission.

We were up in the mountains near the coast, and the breeze picked up a bit. I heard a goat nearby. He turned out to be our tour guide to an ancient staigue fort, a monstrous monument built of stone upon rough-hewn stone. Shaped like a huge horseshoe and overlooking the ocean, the fort commanded an incredible view. The walls were at least twelve feet high, six feet deep, rock deftly tucked into rock ages ago. It was open to the sky, the goat grazing contently in the middle while the wind swirled past me and history. It was then that I found the plaque.

“In 1699 BC, King Milesius invaded Ireland…” I was standing directly on my great ancestor’s landing place. As I gathered myself, the fort seemed to spin around me, and I wondered at the odds of the world twirling for 3700 years with me coming round to the same place, with the same blood flowing through my veins as had this angry king.

The grave of Fial, daughter of Milesius, was down the mountainside a bit. A massive pile of stones, I could imagine the little Milesian boys getting in trouble for playing with the rocks –“Oh, fer pity’s sake, Heremon, Junior, leave your Auntie Fial be!”

The goat and I looked out at the ocean. We could see the skelligs, natural stone spires sticking out of the ocean hundreds of feet high. My direct ancestor, Ir, a son of Milesius, died in a shipwreck on treacherous Skellig Michael. Legend has it that monks would climb up and out on the skelligs to kiss a cross and hopefully live to pray again. Sort of an early drinking game that fell out of popularity... literally.

A place of natural and brutal beauty, Ireland invades your heart and soul. A mystical blend of light heart and tragedy, it epitomizes the splendor of contrast. Eventually, I had to leave, but always, I’m still there. While far away, it still echoes within, and always will.

When going on vacation, leave time for, well, vacation. It's quite often found in the wildest places. Just give it time and it will find you. Vacation isn’t always a where- it’s often a who. Given a chance, a good vacation transcends time, allowing you to go back and visit in your mind, relishing, remembering and reliving. Don’t wait to win a contest – go. And failte.


ScottMGS said...

Oh, Annie. Now you've got me wanting to go. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

excellent... i've forwarded the link to everyone i know ;)

do you read the j.d. robb books? how about "satellite down" (a YA novel by the amazing Rob Thomas)?


Annie said...

Thanks, judi! I haven't read those books, but based upon your recommendations, I will.

Siouxie said...

Awesome as usual, my writer friend!

When you're rich and famous, you're flying me there!

Much drinkage will follow...

insomniac said...

the 'red hand' shows up in a lot of coats of arms... red hand of ulster

favorite line:"Each of these stories are likely to be retrospective fabrications, most particularly the one about the giants."

Annie said...

Thanks, Sioux! I'd love to go back with you. Nothing beats stout with a goat in a staigue fort. :)

Insom - you're right, but I didn't have the nerve to ask my mother about that, since Ulster is part of the North, and we didn't talk about the 'troubles' as they're called, lest she get going on it again. Fantasy and fact sure blend seamlessly over there.

WriterDude said...

Being a quarter Irish myself, I've always felt the tug of the land of my ancestors. You just went and yanked me right into the mud pit, Annie -- can I come along, too? Pretty please? I'll buy the Bushmill's.

However, there is one trip I have to make first -- northern CA, to meet my first second-generation descendant.

Annie said...

Congrats, WD. We're gonna need to charter a jet soon and hit the olde sod.

Kristina said...

What an amazing trip!

Cool quote from Dave Barry.

Cat R. said...

Wow, Annie, this was great. I visited Ireland in 1984 and your story brought so many wonderful memories back. The B&Bs, the Ring of Kerry (our bus had to back up -- and lose a rear-view mirror -- to let a wrong-way driver pass by), the pubs, pubs and more pubs, the wonderful, funny, friendly and chatty Irish people. I have not a drop of Irish blood in me veins, but I would go back in a heartbeat.

NoSoShyJan said...

Great story Annie. I visited Ireland with my Irish husband 6 years ago. We had a great time and I would love to go back.

O the Umanity said...

LOVELY work, Annie ... tnx muchly for taking me back there ... and we're going again in about 18 months ...

I especially liked several of your points of interest (besides the pubs, I mean) ... we were in many of those same places, and we'll be stopping by once again ... when ...

I might mention, however, for WD ... Bushmill's is in the North ... not a factor, but we DID see them bottling and casing Jameson's there ... IANMTU ...

Lovely work ... tnx ... or did I mention that already?

annie said...

Thanks, everyone. It was the trip of a lifetime. I'm glad you all enjoyed me sharing it with you. I've been wanting to write it down for a long time. It's a wonderful place not to be missed.