We approached Dublin–city of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Yeats and many others–as tourists, my family and I. We discovered that the metaphor for this city, which mixes the literary, historic, and religious with the desires of the flesh, is the “hop on, hop off” bus tour, which is the perfect blend of Dublin’s illustrious past and vibrant present: Trinity College and The Book of Kells, Guinness Brewery, Georgian houses, Dublin Castle, Jamieson whiskey, Kilmainham Jail, and the General Post Office, where a “terrible beauty was born,” among others. One of the best aspects of the bus tour was the driver/guide, who, always with humor, gave nuggets of wisdom on the human condition interspersed with historical details, background, and context for the sites of the city. Approaching Trinity College, home of The Book of Kells, the driver talked of the monks and their process for making such a tome, mentioning how many calfskins had been used to produce the pages, quipping that “the monks wrote by day and barbecued by night.”
Traveling by train through verdant countryside from Dublin across Ireland to Galway on the west coast was a chance to reflect on the Irish people and the resilience of their culture. We passed by stations with all signs in Gaelic, fields of contented cattle, sheep, and stonewalls cutting through the lush grass. On that journey, I couldn’t help thinking of “The Dead” the final story of Dubliners by James Joyce, and of Michael Furey, whose early death still moves Gretta, many years later. “So, she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake,” says Gabriel her husband. Gretta and Michael Furey came from Galway, and Gabriel knows at the end of the story that “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.” Toward the real Ireland.
Galway is a student town, full of pubs, restaurants, and gift shops, many of which are concentrated in the center, giving an almost Mediterranean ambience. We watched World Cup matches in pubs, ate fresh seafood, walked the bustling streets, heard great music, and all together enjoyed a slower, saner pace of life.
The following day, we crossed Connemara, along the Wild Atlantic Way, with its places of great solitude, and saw nothing but sea, sky, and bog. We visited Westport, a town of bridges, hanging baskets, winding streets, and great charm. The following day we skirted the Burren, that great outcrop of limestone rock to Doolin, to take the ferry to the Aran Islands, treeless and windblown. A lone dolphin played in the harbor, and people stood on the beach or sat on stonewalls watching its antics. Entertainment for the day.
Did we find the real Ireland? Not sure, but what we found was beautiful, majestic, with people who are charming, friendly, incredibly helpful, genuine, and garrulous; a narrative people, indeed. Surely they are the real Ireland.