A Visit To Ireland, September 1992

In September 1992, I and my friend Michelle travelled to the British Isles. This is a portion of a description of the trip which I wrote shortly afterward.

After two days in London, we ventured forth to visit Ireland. We took the train from London to Holyhead in Wales in order to get the ferry crossing to Dun Laoghaire, Ireland. Train travel in Great Britain is an absolute pleasure. The trains run in a timely fashion, and on the intercity runs they run fast. On a clear, straight stretch of mainline the intercity trains top 125 miles per hour, which makes them much faster than automobile travel. Prices are reasonable, too. The fare for a return (round trip) ticket from London to Holyhead was 44 pounds.

At Holyhead we discovered that the ferryboat was delayed. And it started to rain. Heavily. After a three hour wait, we were finally able to board the vessel. During that time the weather grew steadily nastier. It made for a “colorful” crossing. I thank my lucky stars that I have never suffered from seasickness, but I was in the minority aboard that night. More than half the passengers were suffering, and this fact was unpleasantly obvious. The boat really pitched and rolled, and for most of the voyage there was a pronounced list to starboard which made matters even worse. Michelle, who alleges that she had never been seasick before that crossing, was three shades of green by the time we docked in Dun Laoghaire. Mercifully, the Capitain was able to shave about twenty minutes off the typical crossing time despite the rough seas, and we docked at about 10:00 pm. We found a local Bed and Breakfast and crashed.

The next morning we proceeded on to Dublin (Baile atha Claithe, in Irish) by commuter rail. The system is known as “DART,” which I found amusing since that is the name of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system as well. We found another nice B&B in downtown Dublin and deposited our luggage so we could walk around the city. Irish B&B’s live up to their reputation as a good bargain. I know of no other major city where one can get pleasant accomodations and a huge, delicious breakfast for $26 a night.

Dublin is a great city to tour on foot. There was scaffolding only on the famous Four Courts, and it turned out that most of the historical sites were free of charge that Sunday because it was national heritage day. This fact ensured that there were mobs of school children at every attraction, and that there were guides to explain the historical significance of all of it as well.

The next day we went to pick up the rental car that I had booked and paid for before I left the US. This is the point at which I began to learn, first hand, that the popular stereotype of the Irish attitude toward punctuality is accurate. They know punctuality, they respect it, but they have a very casual relationship with it …

We were to pick up the car around 10:00 am at the Dublin Ferry Port. I also learned about the Irish definition of precision. I called the rental firm. “Oh, no,” they said. “You must pick up the car in Dun Laoghaire!” This despite the fact that my rental voucher clearly stated that the car would be at the Ferry Port. OK. Back on the DART to Dun Laoghaire. Once at the rental firm I was subjected to half an hour of hemming, hawing, and hedging. The net result was that they didn’t have the car I had paid for. Well, it seems that it had “gone missing.”

It may be tough to imagine in this day and age of instant computerized control systems how a car could be misplaced, but it was quite a cultural lesson. The firm uses no computers whatsoever. They drop off and retrieve cars all over Ireland, and the drivers check in, erratically, it seems, by telephone. It took another hour to determine that a suitable car was at the Dublin airport. The airport is about as far from Dun Laoghaire as one can get and still be calling it Dublin.

The agent offered to have one of his people drive us to the airport to pick up this car. OK. Good. Ah, but she hadn’t had her lunch hour yet. So, wait another hour. Fine. It is now 2:15pm. Sarah has returned from lunch. It is now time to do the paperwork! Not a rapid procedure you may well guess. At 3:00 pm we leave for the airport, carreening through congested Dublin streets. When we get to the airport at 4:00 pm we learn from a smiling lad that the car is “almost” ready. I happend to inquire of that lad, “Do the Irish have a word like the Spanish mañana?” “Well, sort of…but nothing that conveys the same sense of urgency…” We were underway by 4:45.

I still had more to learn, of course. Driving on the left is a surprisingly easy transition to make. This is because everything is reversed. The wheel is on the right, all the traffic flow is reversed, and so there really is no temptation to steer to the right lane as I had feared. Of course, so completely had I effected the mental flip-flop that I consistently referred to “easy” turns (lefts) as rights and “hard” turns (rights) as lefts! But I managed OK all the same.

Irish roads add to one’s sense of adventure. I discovered that the dividing line in the center is merely advisory in character. But this makes sense as the roads are typically 10 feet wide and enclosed by stone walls or bramble hedges. As a result one drives dead-center down the road untill some other vehicle approaches or wants to pass. At these times one prays for clearance and hugs the edge of the pavement. The speed limit is alleged to be 45mph on the country lanes. The locals, however, drive in excess of 60mph. They all wanted to pass.

Unnervingly, the trucks which ply these country lanes are full-sized diesel rigs, and they too drive at phenomenal rates of speed. It adds to one’s confusion that speeds are miles-per-hour but roadsigns post distances in kilometers. Well, mostly. Some signs use both kilometers and miles. But not for the same destinations! And there is rarely any indicator to tell you which measure is in use. On top of this, the distances are truncated, not rounded. Whether Killashandra is 1 kilometer or 1.1 or 1.998 kilometers ahead the sign will simply say “Killashandra 1.” The same rule applies to miles when used. I learned this fact when I stopped at a gas station and asked the pleasant, talkative proprietor about the inconsistant distances. I was told, “Well, on the road signs, a kilometer is not so precise a measure as you might imagine…” This seemed to epitomize the Irish world-view.

Despite the travails of car rental in Ireland, I think that a car is definitely the way to go around the country side. Ireland’s railway net is not the equal of Great Britain’s and so a car is nearly required to truly venture into the countryside. And seeing the countryside is essential to seeing Ireland.

The roadsides are generally a mixed hedge of brambles and, unexpectedly, huge wild fuschias! I have always thought of fuschias as tropical, and they are, but the Irish weather is somehow just right for the wild sort. The roadsides are also graced with lovely wild roses. Since the roses bloom for just a few weeks (around late June, I am told, in time for weddings, don’t ya’ know…) all I saw was the bounty of brilliant, ruby red rose hips. I had read, years ago, that when citrus fruit was scarce during the Second World War, rose hips supplied sufficient vitamin C for the children of the British Isles. I now can see how this was possible; there must have been tons of rose hips along every mile of highway.

Another distinct advantage of travelling by car is the chance to stop when and where you wish at the time that suits you. This was wonderful since the Irish seem to move on a time schedule that suits them…

On the first part of our journey we were quite constrained by time. I had intended to leave Dublin around 10:00 am and ended up departing from the far North of the city at quarter to five. The result was that we were forced to bypass driving through my ancestors’ lands in Loaise (“Leesh”,) alas… This was no great tragedy as we must have seen a hundred fields that would have looked just the same, but the sense of spiritual pilgrimage was diminished a little bit.

All the same, we had time to stop at the Rock of Cashel, a marvellously preserved medieval stronghold, which (naturally) was partially covered in scaffolding! The rock is an ancient fort and an even more ancient holy site. Patrick’s Church is here at the seat of the kings of Munster (The southernmost of the Four Kingdoms: Ulster, Leinster, Connaught, Munster, and Meath. Well, that’s five kingdoms, but remember what I said earlier about Irish notions of precision…) Patrick preached here in the mid 400’s and won the South for Christianity. As far as can be reliably determined (and “reliable” may be like “precision” in Irish) Patrick himself proclaimed a church and a bishopric at Cashel which confirmed the rock’s lasting place in the Irish imagination.

Many imfamies occurred at The Rock over the centuries. Before the English Reformation, the Earl of Kildare set fire to the Cathederal on The Rock, explaining that he “thought the Archbishop was inside.” Later Oliver Cromwell, self-styled Lord Protector of England and ardent anti-Catholic, immolated the 3000 citizens of the town of Cashel who sought refuge in the same (rebuilt) Cathederal during the tempestous troubles of 1647-48.

The Rock was “closed” by the time we arrived. The setting sun was a spectacular backdrop to the great, grey granite citadel. As we approached this stirring location, this “Acropolis of Ireland,” I was smitten by the sense of immediate proximity to the past, to history. Such is the sense of history in Ireland that the above incidents, and all of the details of which I have just written above about Cashel, were recounted to me by two teen-aged fellows whom I passed as I walked about the walls of the fortress; they were neither tour-guides nor scholars, simply lads who knew what had happened in the places where they trod.

From Cashel we motored, braving the dark on those narrow Irish lanes, through Tipperary (where the City Limits sign informs you that “You’ve Come A Long Way”) and thence to Limerick. Some of you may appreciate the fact that there is a certain sense of Pilgrimage for me to go to Limerick.

We found a B-and-B in Limerick, but it was nearly 10:00 pm when we arrived. This limited the choice of restaurants to one: The Genuine Texas Steak House! How’s that for a fine How-dee-doo? I had a small salad and soup (my word! The steaks were better than $20 for 9 oz.!) But I was quite amused by the decor. It was fairly “cowboy” but not too terribly much “Texas.” The waitress, noticing my hat, asked me if I was really a Texan (I suppose only a Texan wears a broad-brimmed hat in Ireland…) When I noted that I was in fact from Dallas, she insisted that I tell her what I though of their atmosphere.

I was tactful. If I had really been honest, we might well be at war with Ireland!

One of the great sights to see in Limerick is the Norman castle of King John which dates to the early 1100’s. It was, of course, shrouded in scaffolding and closed to the public while repairs and excavations are being effected. Scaffolding was the Leitmotif of the trip, it seems…

Limerick is situated on the mouth of the Shannon, the greatest, longest, broadest river in the British Isles. This makes for some splendid, achingly beautiful views, which stand in one’s memory as clearly as Van Gogh’s records of the night lights on the Rhone at Arles. These scenes did not lend themselves to the camera, yet they committed themselves deeply into memory. If I ever resume painting, I have a treasure trove of scenes to depict.

From Limerick we drove North to the Cliffs of Mohor. Astounding! This is the most spectacular site of the land mass meeting the inexorable sea in all of Europe. The stormy, violent Atlantic slams into the high, slaten cliffs, and the interface is sheer. No soft beach or gentle slope lessens the impact of the hungry ocean as it gnaws upon its first taste of Europe; here is the most dramatic of dichotomies between land and sea. The rock and water meet as if neither one desired the meeting, but neither could avoid it, and the meeting is all the nastier for that.

We mere humans witness this dreadful contention and feel the terrific force of wind and water as we bundle up against the ferocious elements, all the while pondering the analogies which beg to be drawn from this drama. The cliffs are splendid, scenic, and stark. Both stunningly lovely and frighteningly bleak. The spray from the waves one hundred-fifty feet below soaks through the topcoats of the tourists above. Yet no one seems to regret the experience.

A bright Victorian Gentleman built a small tower at the cliffs so that he could promote travel to the site. So well did he succeed that the locals still honor him to this day, for without tourism, the denizens of Mohor would be failed sheep ranchers. And the only sheep the can survive the harsh environment at Mohor are “No good for mutton and worse for wool” according to a snaggle-toothed, good natured lady who served coffee at the tourist lodge. (I was thrilled to find coffee, by the way. Ten years ago it would have been a strong Irish tea. And the Irish, according to this hostess, only know how to make tea “so strong a rat could’t sink his foot in it.”)

From Mohor, our journey proceeded North to Galway, which is a town of much historical interest. However, I must confess, that my mastery of left-handed driving was sorely tried by the thought of driving through the second largest city in the Irish Republic. We skirted the city and missed seeing where Christopher Columbus prayed before setting sail for parts unknown in August of 1492.

Northwards we passed through the several towns that ring in Irish song as the last hope of the rebellion of 1798: Ballina, Baouhie, Castlebar and Killala. Killala’s “Broad Bay” was the scene of the French troops’ landing in August of 1798 which was intended to support the rebellion of the Irish patriots against their English overlords. Alas for the “Gallant men of the West,” the rebellion had already been crushed at Wexford and points South nine weeks before. Not to be daunted, however, the French General, Humbert, decided to proceed as though the rebellion were in full swing (despite the fact that his only interpreters spoke English, as the Irish in the East did, but that the Irish in the West spoke Irish.) After early successes, the French were captured by the English and accorded the treatment that was the right of prisoners of war. Of course the Irish folk who had joined them were summarily executed, as were their families and cousins. The civilized English did, however, limit their revenge to the rather decent expedient of decimation of the West. Only every tenth male above the age of thirteen was hanged!

We located a likely B-and-B in Sligo and passed a pleasant evening dining upon delicate salmon and heavenly Guiness Stout. As the Irish claim, Guiness is “more nutritious than mother’s milk, and more fun in the drinking.” (A delightful young man, John Brophy, told me this and I felt it worth including even if it may not be a general sentiment…)

The gentleman who ran the B-and-B assured me, the following morning at breakfast – a splendid, hearty, and delicious Irish breakfast (Eggs, sausage, “Canadian” Bacon, grilled tomatoes, toast, and cereal, with juice {in a thimble!} and strong, black coffee) – that we must “do the scenic drive and visit the Holy Well.” He assured me that, “even if you aren’t a believer, you must wash your hands in the holy well…” So I did. It was a lovely, tranquil, and picturesque site, and I felt calmed if not purified by the experience. Michelle was accosted by a woman who wanted to be sure that Michelle experienced the religious rapture of the site. Michelle’s Judaism notwithstanding, she assured the woman that the Holy Well was a moving experience.

As I was getting back to the car, a white-haired gentleman called to me: “Tell me!” he called, “you’re not from Dallas!” I replied that I was, in fact, a Dallasite. (The hat, again, you see.) He regaled me with stories of his adventures in Texas 30 years ago, and then, unaccountably, for we hadn’t talked about my California connections, informed me: “Don’t go to San Francisco. Everyone tells me I’m crazy, but it’s the most over-promoted city in the world, if you ask me!”

I hadn’t the heart to explain my San Francisco connections to him.

After the trip to the Holy Well, the next stage of the pilgrimage was W. B. Yeats’ grave “under Ben Bulben.” Ben Bulben being a magnificent highland rise that looks just like some mesa in Arizona except that Ben Bulben is softened by a dense cover of lush green. As befits a poet who was spare of word, Yeats’ grave is marked by a simple slate headstone with no adornment but the quote “Cast a cold eye\ on life, on death\ Horseman pass by!” cut into the cold, grey slab. His own vision of the fantastic heroes of Ireland’s past is a fitting epitaph.

Next on the road from Sligo, we headed to Lough Allen, a small, almost tiny lake that is more acclaimed by English fishermen than by the Irish locals. Lough Allen is surprisingly lovely in a land where bucolic loveliness is the norm.

Perhaps the most endearing detail of this beautiful region was a simple toadstool. A small, perfect, red-capped, white-stemmed mushroom grew along the marge of the lough. It was the most perfect, enchanted-looking, toadstool I have ever seen. I have almost conviced myself that I “just missed” the Leprechaun who (no doubt) had been sitting upon it moments before my intrusion.

The afternoon flowed rapidly away as we drove through the countryside, including the “green and lovely lanes of Killeshandra.” Far sooner than we had expected, we had arrived again in Dublin. Despite the fact that we knew exactly where we intended to go, we spent more than an hour trying to negotiate Dublin traffic.

Back in Dublin for the evening, I decided to locate a pub which would feature traditional Irish folk music. I took several recommendations from guidebooks, and Michelle and I set out on what proved to be quite a walk. We looked into four different, far-flung pubs, but they were all hosting varieties of progressive rock, and had not a note of the more traditional fare. Our peregrinations took us over quite a wide swath of central Dublin. Finally, I stopped into Davey Byrnes’ Pub (which Joyce mentions in Ulysses, and which naturally has turned into a shrine/theme bar,) to restore my flagging spirits with a pint of Guiness. There I fell into conversation with a convivial group who assured me that the place to go for the folk music was a bar called Barry Fitzgerald’s.

By now it was nearly 10:30, but Michelle and I decided to check it out. It was marvellously ironic that the pub was less than two blocks from where we were staying! And they did have splendid music as well! Although we were only able to catch a half dozen or so tunes, I felt it to have made the search worth while. I met an engaging fellow who introduced himself as Seamus O’Conchubhuir (that’s Jamie O’Connor in the Anglicized version.) He hailed me with, “Sure you must be from Dallas.” My hat served as my ethnic identity, again. He wanted to buy my hat, and when I declined his offer, insisted that I procure him one in Dallas. I gave him my card, and I await his call.

When the band wrapped up, I got into quite a conversation with the musicians, and even ran through a rendition of “Streets of Laredo” with them (the tune is an old Irish air.) The collective skills of these performers were quite impressive; each fellow played at least three instruments, and they all sang. I was just sorry that I hadn’t arrived at the place earlier in the evening. Yet, as the saying holds, better late than never.

The next day was a remarkably uneventful trip back to London. We dropped the rental car at the Ferry Port (by special arrangement!) and enjoyed a smooth, timely crossing Eastward across the Irish Sea. We caught the Chester train from Holyhead and changed at Crewe. Here the only occurance worthy of mention happened. A young Australian woman came up to me and said: “Pardon. I can’t help asking. Did you know that you have a twin?”

I think that she was unprepared for my answer; “Yes,” I replied.

I suppose that she didn’t know quite what too say, so I continued and told her that I did indeed have a twin brother, and I had known this for as long as I could remember. I then inquired why she had asked. She explained that I “looked just like” a friend of hers in Canberra, and she wondered if I might be a relation. I informed her that I had no Caseys in my family tree to the best of my knowledge. She seemed to have been rather disoriented by the whole exchange.

Jamie Rawson
Dallas, Texas
1 October 1992

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