Friday, January 05, 2007

Magical History Tour

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
~ William Wordsworth

It did indeed seem a wondrous dream, this family trip to Ireland. Each evening of the journey, as we wove our morning plans over delicious nightcaps of hot Irish whiskey, the coming day held forth a special excitement, the promise of joyful adventure. And each day proved to be a treasure of delights.

We began in Adare, a charming hamlet reaching over two centuries into the past. Four days at Dunraven Arms was our Christmas treat, and we savored every hour. We walked the beautiful grounds of Adare Manor, and were surprised to see a Vietnam Memorial monument, dedicated to the sixteen Irish-born soldiers who died in that conflict (the plaque also informed us that a duplicate statue stands in Riverside National Cemetery, California). We walked the quaint town streets and park, and, since we were in Ireland, of course we stopped to enjoy drinks at the pubs along the way.

The Irish people are friendly, hospitable, and good humored. They like Americans, perhaps because so many Irish have family members in the U.S. Others expressed a fondness for American business expansion in Ireland, fostered first by Bill Clinton and currently by George W. Bush, that have brought them their “Celtic Tiger” prosperity. Whatever the reason, it was very pleasant to feel so welcome in a foreign land.

No one in Ireland is shy about extending Christmas wishes. Right down to the television news anchors, “Happy Christmas!” sang from everyone’s lips, freely and easily. Christmas Eve we journeyed to the Cliffs of Moher, a place I have always wanted to see, and were fortunate to watch the milky winter sunset--one of the few we saw in December Ireland. On Christmas Day, we heard Mass in Adare’s centuries-old Holy Trinity Abbey. To pray in an ancient stone church, to kneel down at a Communion rail, to see real stained glass windows, was a spiritual tonic for any thirsty soul—especially my own.

On December 27, we continued south to Blarney and explored the famous castle and its splendid park grounds, which contain dramatic rock formations and gardens of Ireland’s pre-Christian civilization, the Druids. The scenery was otherworldly in its beauty, something akin to “The Lord of the Rings” landscapes. A small footbridge crosses a narrow river that burbles and twists through the lush greenery and towering ancient oaks. We left the castle grounds at twilight, as a groundcover of white fog crept slowly across the green fields, unfurling itself like a living blanket.

Although not famous for food, Ireland is the place to be if you’re hungry. The standard “Irish Breakfast,” which includes eggs, bacon, sausage, brown bread and toast, was included with the price of accommodation and served at every place we stayed. At dinner, one best be prepared to eat. Plates are platter-sized and heaped with enough delicious food for at least two people. Lamb and pork melts in your mouth, vegetables are delivered in serving bowls, and a potato order most likely includes two kinds—mashed with scallions, and boiled with butter. If you like good tea (and I love it!), Ireland is your heaven on earth. I did not see plastic or cardboard containers on any table, even once. To the Irish, mealtime is sacred. You are served with china, ceramic, stainless steel, and glass, even in a supposed “fast food” place. Ireland is definitely not a “throwaway” society.

The day after Blarney Castle we drove to Killarney and continued around the Ring of Kerry. That is a sight that needs to be seen to be appreciated. Words simply won’t do, everyone needs to see Kerry for themselves. Suffice to say, it took my breath away. Towards New Year’s, in the midst of a bitter storm, we traveled north to the Marian shrine at Knock and to my grandmother’s nearby hometown, Ballyhaunis. It was our worst weather day, with a bitter winter storm lashing rain and wind, but we were undeterred. (After all, the pub in Ballyhaunis had a gorgeous fireplace!)

Our final segment took us to Galway, which was a complete change of pace. Galway is both a thriving metropolis and a university town, so we got a taste of Irish urban life. Our last day in Ireland, we spent the day “in town” in Galway, visiting shops, pubs, and restaurants as we roamed the cobblestone streets.

This is not my grandparent’s Ireland. The Euro was trading at 1.37 to the dollar during our visit, so it was expensive. Business and development are booming in Ireland. New homes are large, numerous, and upscale, with BMW’s and Mercedes in the driveways. I read an Irish Times report that Ireland’s population is now comprised of ten percent immigrants, and work restrictions have been placed upon the newest members of the EU to help stem the tide. How ironic that the land that is famous for immigration out of the county is now the place where foreigners are lining up to enter. Of the countries immigrating to Ireland in 2006, Poland was number one. At number three stood Latvia, the homeland of Pete’s family. My daughter and son may soon have company in their exclusive minority of half-Irish, half-Latvian offspring.

Although I was wistful to think that much of the wide open green countryside will be built up in another few years, I was grateful that Ireland, with its impoverished and painful history, is finally getting a break in today’s world.

We returned to California late on January 3, travel weary but quite happy with our adventure. I was so dreading facing my first Christmas without Pete, but this magical trip to Ireland with our children was a gift of Providence. My Twelve Days of Irish Christmas were sweetly joyful, endlessly fun, and uniquely precious. May each of you find the New Year to be the same.