Green in my eyes


With St Patrick’s Day tomorrow, thoughts all over the world turn towards the emerald isle. Ireland is so universally loved that once a year people in English speaking countries all around the world don green and claim Irish heritage and the right to sit in a pub and drink loudly and jovially with friends.
I am unashamedly one of them. Although claiming my Irish heritage may be stretching it a bit as those relations left Ireland in the 1800’s, I have an Irish mother who has claimed me as her foster daughter, so I guess that makes me a ‘foster Irish’. It’ll do me!
I went to school in County Tipperary for a short 9 months when I was 16 and since then have been back and forth and all around the island many a time. I am heading back again in just under 2 weeks and would love to point out a few of the place that I think are under the ‘you would be silly to miss them’ category in a country that is full of ‘must sees’.

 

Bright colours in Dublin
 
Dublin: It’s a city that in no way rivals the great European cities dotted over ‘the continent’ to the east. It is small and it is quiet but it’s made for tourists. Packed tightly into a small space, it is walkable and full of treasures. From the GPO building on O’Connell St where you can still stick your fingers into the bullet holes created during the 1916 uprising when the rebels used it as their headquarters, down the street to Trinity College where their beautiful library holds the Book of Kells, widely regarded as the best illuminated manuscript in the world and around a few corners to the statue of Molly Malone wheeling her barrow of cockles and mussels (no longer crying ‘alive alive o!’)

 

The library in Trinity College

Kilmainham gaol is another sobering piece of history. Walking the empty corridors where the Irish Rebels last walked makes you realize why the Irish are so proud to be separate from England. A lot of work went in to making it so.

Hurling

Art galleries and traditionally decked out pubs abound in Dublin but for a real feel of Irish pride and passion head to Croke Park during the Hurling season. Hurling is a sport created and played solely by the Irish (as is Gaelic football but it’s just a little too similar to rugby to spark my interest). The teams wear helmets like those in cricket and carry a wooden bat (or Hurley) most related to a large hockey stick. It is the fastest field sport and the players hit the cork and leather ball (or sliotar) up and down the pitch or run with it, balancing and bouncing it off their Hurley. The aim is to get it into goals that resemble a cross between football and soccer posts. It is a dangerous and loud game with the crack of sliotar hitting Hurley ringing around the stadium and the roar of the crowd sparking passion in even the most confused of foreign viewers. Check out some hurling here or here, then tell me it doesn’t look like fun!

Newgrange

Newgrange. This Neolithic passage tomb’s claim to fame is that it is roughly 5200 years old, that’s older than the great pyramid at Giza. Just above Dublin in County Meath it sits in the Boyne valley, home to many other ancient structures. Hidden for centuries it had passed into myth, stories of fairies and burial places for ancient kings were associated with the area and when a local land owner in 1699 ordered his workers to clear the land they initially they refused, claiming that the fairies there were known to seek revenge on those who disturbed them. When it was eventually cleared, large stones covered with carvings were discovered in front of a long passage leading to what seemed to be a burial chamber. Since then many other Neolithic sites have been discovered in the area and it is now a UNESCO protected site. It is an awe inspiring site at any time but its true magic is felt on the 21st December each year, the European summer solstice. Around this time a ballot is held and only those few that have their name drawn out are allowed down the passage to experience the sun creeping down it to light the end chamber on the longest day of the year and the only time the sun reaches all the way inside. It is an amazing engineering feat from those who had not even advanced to using metal tools and truly one of the wonders of the world.

Murals in Belfast
Belfast: This is a place which foreigners associate with unrest, and a visit there will show that the feeling of unrest is still one that is predominate in the city. Sure all seems fine in the city center, large, clean, public gardens are filled with workers taking lunch breaks and kids playing soccer. Public buildings like the Town Hall are open for tours and when I last visited the 100thanniversary of the Titanic was impending and pride of their part in the story was palpable in the large public displays dotted around. However a short ride in a public bus took me to the outskirts of the city where nationalistic murals covered walls, flags and signs proclaiming their independence hung from windows and kids looked up from the pavement in public housing allotments with defiance, like they had been brought up fighting even though they didn’t understand what for yet, it was in their blood. In a bar that night this unsettlement was almost forgotten amongst the sound of the fiddle and people dancing to it. That is until a song was requested which had to be politely turned down ‘you know we can’t play that here’ they said and the gentleman looked slightly embarrassed. The next day the recentness of the history that has happened there was brought home to me. Whilst wandering slightly blindly to find the most famous of the murals my friend and I ran into a local man.

 

Claire deciphers a mural

We were standing looking around and deciding where to go when he noticed us, “Do y’ want to see the murals? Come with me, I’ll show ya.” He introduced himself as Sam, just back from 3 years in Australia and told us about the area, including the bombings he had experienced. He told us about a time when he was in the street when it happened. “I saw a body, lyin naked. Y’ know how all the clothes come off with a force like that? And she was face down, with cuts covering her body from the shrapnel. I thought it was my ma an I ran over to cover her with my jumper. But when I went to turn her face toward me my fingers went straight through her skull, shattered it was, and she was dead. It wasn’t my ma but the horror was still there. But y’ know what haunts me more? What comes back to me at night? It’s the screamin, all those children screamin, for their mothers and their fathers and cryin at the sight of the ruins”

Murals in Belfast

The bombing he was talking about was the Shankill Rd Bombing in 1993 and was the most devastating bombing the area had experienced. Just a few days later our train down to Dublin was replaced with a bus when we got near the Republic of Ireland border where there had been some political unrest and the rail line was considered unsafe. Yep, memories of struggle are still very fresh in Northern Ireland but I still think it is a place that needs to be experienced.

Inishmore
Galway and the Aran Islands. This little western area of Ireland has got to be my favorite and would top my list of must see’s if you asked. Starting in the city of Galway a small area of land has a variety of delights to offer. Shops full of arts and crafts, jewelry and clothing. Markets where the bustle of people and the smell of fresh bread and soup mix with the colours of newly cut flowers to give a wonderful example of what olde tyme village markets may have been like. It is very touristy, but it doesn’t bother me, it means that it is not hard to find a pub playing good traditional music in the evening. In fact there are so many it is like all the craft stores of the morning are moonlighting as pubs! It is also a student town and the university across the river populates the local area with artsy types who play their own music in smaller hidden pubs found generally by opening your ears.
 

 

Inishmore

The Aran Islands are a short ride by bus and ferry from Galway’s city center. Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer are three breakaways from the mainland which to the naked and untrained eye look like three slabs of uninteresting rock in the ocean. Get a little closer however and an Irish gem has been discovered. I have only been to Inishmore, the biggest and most popular of the three, however I have visited 3 times, needing always to show the next person their charms. On the islands, Gaelic is still the language of the community, one of the few places in Ireland where it is primarily spoken. On Inishmore a few hotels, food stores, bike rentals and souvenir shops huddle around the port where the ferry docks into but just a walk of a few hundred meters and you are out in the rural barren island. So what do you do here? Hire bikes and explore.

Houses on Inishmore

Have you ever wished that you lived back when much of the world was undiscovered? Me too. This island allows you to feel like you are discovering it all anew. The main attraction is Dun Aonghasa, a ring fort perched on the edge of a cliff. There are no barriers to stop visitors falling (or being blown) off into the navy foam specked sea 300 feet below and every time it both scares and delights me. Now that you have ticked of the main site, follow road signs (in a mixture of Gaelic and squiggles), your map (which doesn’t actually match with the roads you are riding on) or just have fun bumping over fields or slogging up hills until you find something that interests you. I have found stone domes and naturally occurring swimming pools in this fashion and you are sure to find something to make all the pedal pushing worth it.

 

So there are a few of my ‘you’d be mad to miss them’ sites of Ireland. There are so many more (and I have left out Munster mostly because I haven’t done a whole lot that is touristy down there, I have had great times, but they were mostly at friends’ houses, walking in hills or camping in caravan parks…) but if I had to recommend just a few, these would be them. Enjoy your St Patrick’s Day and pledge to make your next trip to the Emerald Isle!

Not all of these pictures belong to me. If any are yours or you have a problem with me using them please feel free to contact me at gemtherese@hotmail.com

 
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