Gems of the Emerald Isle

Just hours after the completion of my last Warwick exam paper, my plane landed at Dublin Airport. Having associated summer with sunshine and high temperatures, I was shocked when a storm soaked my sandals and a deep fog made it extremely difficult for me to distinguish where the ‘an Lar’ (i.e. city centre) bus was. ‘Typical Irish weather’ I heard a young woman next to me mumble.

My first stop was the capital, Dublin of course. Built by the river Liffey after the Viking invasion of the island (9th century), it is a city where past and present coexist harmoniously. Having spent a day walking around Trinity College, Dublin Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I headed off to the ‘Temple Bar’ area, where I mingled with Dubliners in pubs and enjoyed a pint of Guinness…or maybe two!

After that, the explanation of why Dubliners painted the doors of their beautiful Georgian houses with bright colours seemed perfectly clear: it is the only way to recognize your house when you come back from ‘Temple Bar’!

After spending three days in the capital, I moved westwards to the picturesque town of Galway, where the small, brightly-coloured houses stood in stark contrast to the tall Georgian buildings in Dublin. Galway is the fastest growing town in Ireland and in its winding medieval streets are always buzzing with people. Yet, during the horrible years of the ‘Great Famine’ (1845-1848), the town was almost evacuated, when thousands of Irishmen migrated to America, including John F. Kennedy’s ancestors. At sunset, I took a lovely walk along the Galway Bay, where I was accompanied by the numerous swans and the Galway hookers: the traditional wooden sailing boats, of course!

From Galway I took a tour to Connemara, with its glorious countryside. Our bus passed through narrow, swirling roads often having to stop due to traffic jams caused by sheep! While we were waiting, I noticed that trees stood alone in cleared fields. I asked the bus driver why and the answer revealed another part of the Irish soul. ‘These are fairy-trees! They are the homes of the little people (i.e. leprechauns) and bad luck will curse anyone who dares cut them’, he explained. This is a country whose spirit is still alive! I thought.

At the heart of Connemara is Kylemore Abbey. Built in 1868 by Henry Mitchell as a gift to his wife, it is a symbol of true love. Its neo-Gothic architecture is reflected in the lake surrounding it, making it probably the most photographed building in Western Ireland. Having explored some of the reception rooms of the castle, I headed towards the Gardens, where I was mesmerized by the beauty and aroma of rare flowers.

The following day, I visited the home of the Kings: the ‘Hills of Tara’, from where I could theoretically spot a quarter of the Irish mainland. What makes this vast landscaped area so interesting is the fact that it is surrounded by mystery, as no one really knows much about the passage tombs that are found there. Yet, the excellent audio-visual presentation of the visitor-centre gave me an idea about the place’s history. This was where St. Patrick, the patron saint of the country, (in 432 A.D.) attempted to meet the King to introduce Christianity.

Yet, legend has it that the guards refused him access to the palace. Consequently, only one alternative was left for St. Patrick: by lighting a fire before the King, he was arrested and brought in front of him. There was, however, a slight problem: such an action was punishable…by death! Fortunately, St. Patrick’s last wish was granted and he met the King and succeeded in converting him to Christianity, thus marking the beginning of the end of paganism in Ireland. As I was leaving the ‘Hills of Tara’, I noticed a strange-looking, standing stone: the Lia Fáil. Rumour has it that if the stone roars your name when you touch it, then you deserve to become the King. I tried my luck, but the stone did not even whisper. What a shame!

Trusting my tourist guide that the ‘Ring of Kerry’ is ‘a must’, I decided to explore it. Indeed, the little villages of Sneem, Waterville and Kenmare were gorgeous and the famous lakes of Killarney and Ladies View left me speechless!

My last stop and definitely the highlight of the trip was the Cliffs of Moher. Walking along the edges of the 400ft high cliffs was exhilarating and breathtaking! I could hear the wind passing through the barley plants and the waves crashing mercilessly on the rocks. I could taste the salt of the ocean on my lips and watch the puffins fly below me. That was certainly an unforgettable experience!

The emerald country, however, impressed me not only with its spectacular landscapes, but also with the friendliness of the local people. After succeeding at decoding the unfriendly accent, I was able to enjoy the chatter of the locals in trains, theatres and restaurants. A chance meeting with a local Killarney resident led to an invite to the town’s summer festival (end of June-early July).

There the importance of music and dance in Irish culture became obvious to me. After all, Ireland is the only country whose national emblem is a musical instrument: the harp. Dancers of all ages skillfully mastered the distinctive technique of Irish traditional dances: that of keeping the upper part of the body stiff, the hands straight at their sides while moving the feet with tremendous speed. One of the most popular explanations of this technique is the fact that under British rule, when Irish culture was suppressed, the locals kept the upper part of their body still and danced behind the hedges of their houses, the bars of the pubs etc. As I was watching them, I felt that it was not music that dictated their steps, but the other way round!

Determined not to leave without tasting an authentic Irish dish, I visited ‘Katie’s county kitchen’ and ordered the ‘Irish stew’, cooked with Guinness beer and served with fresh soda bread. When the dish was placed on my table the waitress looked at me disapprovingly and I immediately changed my expression, which probably showed that I wasn’t particular impressed with the stew at first sight. But when I tasted it I was sure of only one thing: I had to get the recipe!

The last day, on my way to the airport I closed my eyes and ‘rewound’ in my mind the past 15 days. The emerald country had surely cast a spell on me! Was it because of the landscapes, the people, the music? It was probably because of all of these factors: it was because Ireland has its own, clear identity that has been carefully preserved as a means of resistance to foreign occupation throughout the centuries

(Stepping out of the bus I congratulated myself on being better prepared: this time I wasn’t wearing sandals or shorts, but instead waterproof boots and a warm sweater that stated that ‘I love Ireland’. Only later it occurred to me that this time I was indeed going to a hot and sunny country: Greece!


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