So I had one of those big birthdays this July - one of those ending in a zero that demands something memorable. My sister and I went to Ireland.
We spent eight days on a coach with forty people traveling from Dublin on the east coast across to the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast, down to the Ring of Kerry, across the south to Blarney and Waterford, and then back to Dublin, where we spent 2 days exploring the city on our own.
Joining a tour for two women means up at 5:30 a.m., bags out at 7 a.m. with a full Irish breakfast and on the road by 8 a.m. Exhausting? Yes, but the sights each day made it all worthwhile.
Our guide was a young woman named Ally. She had a whole range of knowledge of her country's history and culture, which she generously shared.
We had a daily Irish history lesson that covered the ancient Celts, the beginning of Christianity and monasteries, the gradual takeover of the English, Oliver Cromwell, the Great Famine, and the 1916 Rising.
In Ireland, Ally explained, school children are taught to say "boo" every time the ruthless Oliver Cromwell's name is mentioned, but she also told us stories of Irish heroes-Finn McCool, Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Daniel O'Connell, Charles Parnell, the men executed for the 1916 Rising, Constance Markievicz, Michael Collins, and Eamon de Valera.
When we travel to a culture that is even just a bit different than our own, it is often the little every day things that make us stop and take note:
- The Irish traffic jams when sheep with brightly colored brands on their backs cross the road.
- Potato chips called crisps in onion and cheese or roast beef flavors.
- The houses and doors in bright blue, green, yellow, purple and red.
- Ham called bacon for breakfast.
- Fuchsia in bushes instead of hanging pots.
- A sign in a food court of a Dublin shopping mall that read Bits and Bobs for condiments and listed vinegar.
- The cab driver cautioning us against the "Rumanians," or Gypsy pickpockets.
- The cemeteries with Celtic crosses.
Above all, what struck us the most is how vibrant and alive this wee country is. An assortment of guides referred to the present as the first time since the Great Famine that the population is increasing.
Before 1845, there were over 8 ½ million people in Ireland. Today, there are 4 ½ million with a third living in Dublin and its suburbs. The average age is 25.
Everywhere we went, the sights, sounds, and smells reminded us of the diversity of this country, its technological advances in sharp contrast to the ruins of famine cottages and castles a common sight on the side of the roadways.
There was the little blond college student from Sweden who waited on us at the Hard Rock and the German accents of the hotel clerks. Many people were from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and Asia. And not just in Dublin, but in small towns, as well.
A question that they may be pondering now is, "Can we hold on to our identity as Irish people with so much immigration?"