At the end of his book on Ireland, written in the 1970’s, Leon Uris commented that the Irish have no future.
Sometime after that, I visited Ireland for the first time. It was 1998, and the island was under the economic stimulus of the Celtic Tiger. The 800-year Troubles were also finally over, as the Good Friday Agreement had been signed with the UK weeks earlier.
Galway, that town on the west coast, astounded me. It was a medieval city suddenly thrust into the modern world. Its streets were narrow and winding, all reminiscent of the medieval seaport it had been. Time had stopped for it in the 1530’s, when Henry VIII, the first of Ireland’s Tudor oppressors, closed its ports. The thriving trade with Spain abruptly ended, and the town was relegated to live in the past, like Castro-led Havana.
Yet now Galway was suddenly blossoming in the late twentieth century. It hosted a thriving computer business. Just beyond its narrow streets, business buildings and homes were being constructed in a flurry of activity.
The Celtic Tiger seemed subdued when I returned twenty years later. The computer glut had largely been outsourced to the east. And if the general mood had not quite returned to time of the Troubles, it was nonetheless a bit more subdued than it had been in ’98.
I flew to Dublin in August with my wife. We made the mistake of going to the Irish capitol when Pope Francis was also to be there. Trying to leave the airport, we found that the buses were way behind schedule, and taxies were having to go on detours away from barricaded areas.
The hotel we’d booked was very close to the route of the Pope’s motorcade. Arriving there, we were allowed to deposit our travelling bags in the hotel’s care. Having spent a long previous day waiting New York’s JFK, we were beyond tired.
But we were still hours from being able to check in.
So free of our bags, we left the hotel, and walked south of the Liffey River to Temple Bar. Dublin is atypical Ireland, a Viking/English settlement that seems more to the taste of foreigners than to countrymen.
The one typical element was, unfortunately, evidence of people drinking in Temple Bar the night before. On a Sunday morning, the city was still asleep. Shops were closed. Searching for a place to have breakfast, we sidestepped the vomit left by drunks in the wee hours.
Finally we found a good little restaurant, still in Temple Bar, where I enjoyed a pancake breakfast. Then we went on to Trinity College, alma mater of Samuel Beckett, where we paid to see the Book of Kells.
The Book of Kells consists of lovely illustrated manuscripts made by Irish monks roughly from the seventh to the tenth centuries. I would have perhaps enjoyed the exhibit more had I not had to grappled with throngs of tourists pushing to see the glassed-in manuscripts. I should add that these blatantly rude people were all visitors to Ireland. The Irish themselves are the most polite people I’ve yet encountered.
When we’d seen the exhibit, and wandered a little more, we crossed the river north to O’Connell Street. Here, in the front of the still-functioning post office, you can still see bullet holes left by British troops in response to the 1916 Easter uprising.
The city was now bustling with foreigners and some Dubliners waiting to see the Pope. But we were glad that our hotel keepers were kind enough to give us our room, even hours before our contracted time. Yes, we slept soundly through much of the Pope’s visit. We missed seeing his motorcade live, less than a block away, as it travelled down O’Connell Street. We stirred for a moment as a nearby church bell rang, then returned to our slumbers.
A couple of hours later, I watched Francis on TV as he visited a Franciscan church in the city. And this was as close as we got to seeing him. Later that evening, still jetlagged a bit, we went out for dinner and a little touristy shopping spree at Carroll’s.
THE ROCK OF CASHEL
The next day, we waited outside the hotel for our bus to the airport. The bus never came. One taxi driver stopped, and offered us a reasonable price for a ride. The city traffic routes, he said, were still blocked off because of the Pope’s visit, and it was next to impossible to get a bus. We declined, and only after we’d waited an hour did we put our luggage into the back of another taxi.
At last we reached the airport, and took our rental car. We drove in the rain through the south of Ireland, through Tipperary. The climate on this island is quite different from the vacation places we’re used. We usually spend our holidays in sticky Florida or the mild breezy tropics of the Hawaiian Islands. We’re used to eighty-degree days and surfing, swimming or snorkeling through the ocean.
In Ireland, however, the weather was fall-like, wet and cool even in late August. It took, for me anyway, a little getting used to.
The first major stop we made at was the Rock of Cashel. This is medieval ruined castle that also holds the ruins of a cathedral. The rain continued to fall as we walked about the green grounds, and drops clustered on the lens of my little camera, but I loved the place.
Thomas Cahill wrote a book called How the Irish Saved Civilization. It was Irish monks who, through their copying and learning, kept civilization alive throughout the darkest of the Dark Ages. There is a well-known story of Pope Gregory I, the prelate responsible for the Gregorian Chants, who ruled in the seventh century.
One day Gregory saw children walking through Rome. The Pope asked who the children were, and was told that they were Angles. To which he replied, “I shall make them angels.”
Thus began Gregory’s mission to re-Christianize England. And much of the missionary work was done by Irish monks.
The Rock of Cashel also contains an impressive chapel built at the behest of Cormac Mac Carthaigh, the local king, who was also the local bishop. Cormac was interested in the Romanesque style of architecture then flourishing in continental Europe. He sought to harmonize the Romanesque with the thick simple stone building of traditional Irish architecture.
Thus within the chapel, thick stones are juxtaposed with Romanesque arches. Like so much medieval art, an interior cosmos was intended to be depicted on its walls. You still can see sculpted heads depicting humans, animals and perhaps angels. But as with so much of the Reformation, the paintings on the walls were whitewashed, and heroic efforts have been made to restore them.
KINSALE AND KILLARNEY
We then spent two nights at a lovely bed and breakfast in Kinsale, located in the southwest. In the States, you stay in motels and hotels; in the Emerald Isle, you stay mainly at bed and breakfasts, maintained and lived in by the genial owners.
One of the first things that strikes you in a foreign country is the food. The food in Ireland is much simpler than it is in the States. But I enjoyed it, and ate well. I enjoyed the smoked salmon, delivered in much thinner slices than I was used to, and the pancakes, also much thinner and more artfully prepared than they are in the States.
Kinsale has a certain notoriety in that the Lusitania sank near its shores. We didn’t get much time to actually explore the village there, as we spent our days driving throughout the countryside. The first day after the Rock of Cashel, we went to another Viking settlement, Waterford, known for its glassworks.
Villages such as Kinsale are also quite different than they are in the States. The roads, most of them created long before the automobile, are narrow and often winding. In many places, they are wide enough only for one vehicle at a time.
I didn’t drive in Ireland. My wife did that work for me. But it is a nerve-wracking experience to drive such narrow and window roads, and with our car on the left-hand side! A certain vigilance is needed.
As these villages date from centuries ago, they are also smaller in size than those I was used to. The houses are much closer together. And within a minute or two, you can have entered a village, and exited it.
From Kinsale we went to Killarney, probably the quintessential quaint Irish village. As we walked there the first night, the rain was incessant. And in a restaurant, the fish and chips my wife ordered were a bit soggy.
Yet here, on the streets, small crowds gathered to sample ice cream and watch the young Irish step dancers. Here in a music store, my wife and I, both musicians, took our time looking at the tin whistles and bodhrans. And here I was able to wander around in a sizeable bookstore.
We would perhaps have been tempted to stay past our allotted two nights in Killarney, but we had other sights to see.
Port Magee lies toward the south of Ireland’s west coast. It’s an especially small village. If you walk five minutes down its narrow single stretch of road, past its houses clustered close together and its handful of shops and restaurants, and you’ve encompassed the place.
Port Magee is a dock town. Its many boats are available to take visitors to the islands of Skellig Michael and Little Skellig. Skelling Michael is one of the wonders of Ireland. Little Skellig is mainly a nesting place for gannets, many of whom have flown from Africa. Passing the island in a boat, you can see little of the island behind these voluminous birds.
But Skellig Michael served as place of sanctuary for rugged monks from the sixth through the eleventh centuries. It’s a rigorously vertical place, consisting of rocks piled on rocks, requiring steep climbs to its summits. At its peaks are beehive-like cells where persevering monks spent portions of their lives. A stay on this small island was would not make so much a career for these hermits so much as long-running retreats.
Somewhere around the year 1000, conditions in the Atlantic seem to have changed dramatically. Skellig Michael was no longer sustainable. Monks stopped living there. The place became abandoned.
For centuries this island was largely ignored. One of the people who did visit was the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who was rowed out to Skellig Michael by local fisherman in 1910. Shaw marveled at the astounding vertical majesty of it. Perhaps he had seen no place so stunning.
Interestingly enough, as an old man in his nineties, Shaw wrote letters to the Irish president, Eamon de Valera, on the need for building a film industry in Ireland. De Valera wrote back agreeing with him, but little was done on the matter for a couple of decades after Shaw’s death.
Of modern European countries, including England, Ireland alone is still pristine. Films can be made there of much earlier times, including the recent Favorite, starring Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.
Skellig Michael has been used for filming two recent Star Wars movies. In the beehive huts of its summits has resided Luke Skywalker. The assumption is made, of course, that only a person as spiritually advanced as a Jedi can reside in a location so austere.
On a Wednesday in last August, my wife and I had lunch in Port Magee. An hour or so later, we took a tourist boat out to Little Skellig and Skellig Michael. The captain of the boat was an old local mariner whose Irish accent was so thick that I listened closely to recognize his words.
Behind me and my wife sat a large German man who was videographing the boat trip and making continuous comments for his future edification. I guessed then that the man would be an annoying companion.
The Atlantic that day was rowdy enough to not allow landings on the islands. So we contended ourselves with taking photos and short videos as we watching the gannets on Little Skellig.
I enjoyed the ocean’s rough rocking. I had ancestors who were fisherman off a Baille Shannon, and the Atlantic’s dark waters flow through my veins. Except for the trip to Belaney, which I will mention in another page, the trip to Skellig Michael was the highpoint, for me, of our Ireland trip.
When we were close enough to the larger island, the tourists crouched forward in the boat to see the residence of Luke Skywalker. Guestimates were made by some on where exactly scenes had been shot. Near the top was a helicopter launching pad. Obviously the film people arrived and departed there.
And as a closeness to this island made for a closeness to Star Wars, as it were, there was a certain general euphoria on the boat. Suddenly the large German fellow, who I no longer found annoying, said, “I’m Chewbacca.”
To which I turned around to him, and said “I’m Darth Vader.”
It took a while, and several more rocks of the boat, to get back to Port Magee. But we stepped out of the boat with good humor, and more conversations about Star Wars.
So the ancient site of hardy mystics has now been relegated to pop culture, and this may be for the best. For the time being.
My wife likes to tour through Victorian-era homes. In a good mixture, she’s a modern technologist with the taste for an earlier aesthetic. After we had left Kinsale earlier in the week, we had visited Muckross House, which mainly interested me as a place where George Bernard Shaw had once stayed.
While staying in Galway we ventured to Kylemore Abbey, featuring a Gothic castle built in 1848. The castle was originally the home of a politician and his wife. On the grounds near the castle is an impressive chapel, originally Anglican, constructed after the wife’s death in her memory.
But the most impressive residents of the Abbey were the Benedictine nuns who have lived there since 1920. The extraordinary story of this group of nuns goes back more than four centuries. With the reign of Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century, the practice of Catholicism became illegal in Ireland.
But the Irish stood by their faith. From the early 1600’s on, Irish women who aspired to be Benedictine nuns moved to a convent in Belgium. For more than three centuries, the Belgian convent was composed mainly of Irish women. On the walls of the Abbey are portraits of the convent’s abbesses, the earliest depicted being a contemporary of Shakespeare.
This exile ended only when the convent was destroyed during World War I. In 1919, the nuns returned to their homeland. The industrious Benedictines supervised an impressive garden, started small businesses and ran a farm at Kylemore. Most impressive of all, they started a girls’ school that became the alma mater of many distinguished women.
As the numbers of the nuns have recently dwindled, the school was sadly closed a few years ago. Now the site is used for educational programs by Notre Dame University.
After a trip to the cliffs of Moher, we stayed two nights at a bed and breakfast just outside Galway. We did not spent all that much time looking through Galway, but I have a considerable liking for the place. Not so much a city as it is a big town, Galway is located toward the center of the west coast. Just to the west of its shores are the Aran Islands, known for their sweaters, and for being the subject of plays by John Millington Synge.
As I’ve said earlier, Galway retains much of its medieval nature. The Celtic Tiger may seem a bit diminished, but Galway’s narrow streets bustle with with rushing tourists, good shops, fine restaurants, people in search of pub life and street musicians known as buskers. They also feature sites of medieval executions and the home of the excellent Druid Theatre.
My wife and I ate two consecutive days at an Italian restaurant we found there. I am Italian through my father, and Irish through my mother, and even in Ireland I seek out Italian food. The Panini at this restaurant was particularly good, so I insisted on going back the following day.
We also spent a short time in the Church of St. Nicholas. Like the other medieval churches that did not fall to ruin, St. Nicholas was taken over by Protestants during the Reformation. As with many older churches, St. Nicholas has recently been much used as a place for the arts. While we were there a concert rehearsal was going on in another room, and I heard the lovely strains of a soprano voice.
A day before our departure from Ireland, we drove off from Galway. I would perhaps to have spent more time there, seeking out its music, but there will be other trip.
WEST MEATH AND MEATH
Our last full day west there was spent in the midlands: Counties West Meath and Meath. My maternal grandmother’s father was said to have been born in West Meath. His father owned two sheep farms. His main farm was the site of a yearly meeting between the local sheep farmers and an agent of Macy’s in New York. These Irish farmers were then a principal source of wool for Macy’s.
My family farms were actually in Meath, but at the Meath/West Meath border. In the 1970’s a priest who was my mother’s second cousin had travelled to Ireland located records at St. Brigid’s Church, the family parish. The records, for us, were as early as 1832, listing John Drum, grandfather of my great grandfather, as a parish member. John Drum married a Mary McEnroe, who lived down the road from him, and their son inherited both the Drum and McEnroe farms.
Based on the research done by Father John, my late relative, we went to St. Brigid’s in Old Castle, Co. Meath, early on a Sunday afternoon. I figured I was out of luck in finding anything out on my family history. The church, a late nineteenth century building, was lovely, but the rectory was closed.
We spoke for a few minutes with a local barrister, who had come to the rectory to drop off an envelope in the mail slot. Then we figured we might as well as eat. We went to a pub, where the general attention was on watching a soccer game on the TVs.
We spoke with a waitress who attended us. I told her that my relatives had been local farmers. “Coming here to shake the family tree?” she smiled.
A second waitress served us our food. I asked her if she knew of the Drum family. She replied that she knew of Drums at a place a few miles away. She then went to another table, spoke to a woman eating there, and returned. “The woman who owns the Seven Wonders Pub in Fore is a Drum,” our waitress told us.
After we’d finished our meal, we drove to the Seven Wonders Pub, located in West Meath. Seven Wonders is a small place, although it is popular stop for tourists. Nonetheless, it is a gathering place for locals.
As we walked in, a few neighbors sat continuing a conversation. I walked up to the bar, and asked the lady there if she were family with the Drum family.
“My granny was a Drum,” she said.
“So was my grandmother,” I told her.
The local friends now became interested in our conversation. The proprietress said that her mother’s uncle had become Bishop of Des Moines, Iowa. I had heard of this bishop family member my entire life, and I told her as much. The Bishop had stayed with my grandmother’s sister in Westchester during his trips to New York. The proprietress shared with us photos of the bishop, probably dating from 1921.
While we were looking at the photos, a fellow by the bar called the local historian. He put me the phone with the historian, who then told me that his brother now owned the Drum farm. He gave me his brother’s phone number. We thanked everyone there, and drove off toward a small place named Bellaney, located a mile or two away.
While my wife drove, I called the farmer who now owned the Drum property. I, as usual, got his directions wrong, so he eventually walked down the road to guide us. Belaney is a small place, a cluster of farms on the Meath side of the county border, and the main Drum farm is located by the crossroads. Only I could have missed it.
With him directing us, we drove up toward the house. The residence that my ancestors lived in had been torn down a few decades before. And the farm was no longer engaged with wool but with organic beef cattle.
The farmer and his wife were very hospitable. We stayed at their house for three hours, and they treated us to “tea”, which seemed, with its potatoes, vegetables and meat, to be a dinner.
When I thought I would learn nothing going to Oldcastle on a Sunday, I was not counting on the Irish being so friendly. And, of course, in Old Castle everyone knows everyone else. So very different than our American culture of isolation.
All in all that Sunday was the high point of our trip.
IN MY END IS MY BEGINNING
We spent that night at a hotel in Kells, Co. Meath. The hotel was nice, and the pastries for our breakfast were the best I tasted in Ireland. There were some rowdy singers under our window that night, coming from the pub full of pints, but they were more amusing than annoying.
From Kells we drove to the Dublin Airport, the beginning of our trip. There we had to go through the crucible of American security, but it was less painful than I expected it to be.
Then our plane took off, and flew up the west coast. Out our window we could see what I had originally seen flying into Ireland in ’98: intensely green fields bordered by stone walls. Then we saw the blue of the ocean, and finally only the clouds of the sky.
We had unwittingly picked the time of the Pope’s visit for our vacation. Some months after we’d booked the trip, the Vatican announced the visit.
Circumstances had changed since Pope John Paul II had visited Ireland decades earlier. At that time the country was overwhelmingly practicing Catholic. When Francis came last August, the Mass-attending Catholics there were less than 50%.
It is true that the Church had overwhelming power in Ireland for a long time. But we must remember that for centuries Irish Catholics were not even allowed to practice their faith. One imbalance reacts to another. Adjustments are inevitable over time.
Ireland was once known as the land of saints and scholars. At one time in the Middle Ages it was the most culturally advanced land in Europe. Now, shaking off the dust of the troubles, it again shows the promise of great achievements.
It is far to the west of the other European countries, excepting Greenland. It is further out onto the Atlantic than England. But it would have none of the Brexit nonsense that besets England. It is a vigorous part of modern Europe and, by extension, the world.
Ireland’s future will impress many.