A couple of weeks ago, a lifelong dream came true – we traveled to Ireland.
I’m adopted, but of Irish descent. My mom always celebrated that – made a big deal of St. Patrick’s Day, things like that. Since I don’t know any specifics of my ancestry – which clan, which county, etc. – I claim the entire country as mine.
For months, we planned this trip. We decided not to try and see everything. We focused our time for this first visit mainly in the west and southwest – Mayo, Galway, Kerry, Dingle.
We flew into Dublin, and promptly encountered Irish humour when we succeeded in finding the bus to Galway, only to have the bus driver tell us since we were American, the fare would be a hundred euros instead of eighteen.
By the way, I don’t know if it’s like this throughout Europe, but if you’re over there and get lonely for Americans, come to Ireland. We’re everywhere!
We got a quick view of Dublin from the bus windows and then got a cross-country tour on our way to Galway. We only spent one night in Galway, but got acquainted with Ireland’s rugby team as we found a pub for dinner where everyone was in the middle of cheering the home team in the Rugby World Cup.
The next morning, we picked up our rental car. Oh. My. Gosh. Driving in Ireland is an experience I hope never to repeat. It wasn’t so much the left-side-of-the-road thing, but starting out in a busy industrial section of Galway in morning rush hour and then trying to squeeze our tiny car through tinier roads where stone walls and hedges squeeze you like the Knight Bus in the Harry Potter stories while trucks (lorries) come at you from the other direction – my hands ached from white-knuckling it up to Cong. I wasn’t sure who was going to have a heart attack first, me or Beth, who bravely sat in the passenger seat, sure we were going to lose a side mirror at any moment.
Our time in Cong was magical – the grounds of Ashford Castle, the walking trails along the river, the village itself (where Beth discovered she actually likes Guinness). “The Quiet Man” is my favorite movie and it was so much fun to see the village where it was filmed, to walk the river where Father Lonergan fished, to stroll past Red Will Danaher’s house.
Our time there was everything I’d hoped and dreamed our trip to Ireland would be. After a few days, we left Mayo and Galway counties to meet our guide, Ray, who was our chauffeur for the remainder of our trip. It was WONDERFUL to let him do the driving!
Our first day with Ray, we took in the sights of the Flaggy Shore, including an old stone fort and a ruin of a church before driving south to the Burren – a truly unique landscape. From there, we headed to the Cliffs of Moher. The view of the ocean from the cliff tops is stirring. After a hefty hike and a hundred photos there (where Beth couldn’t walk more than two steps before stopping to take another picture), we made our way to Killarney, Ray’s hometown.
Killarney is a charming town with a beautiful national park. It was our jumping off point for the Dingle peninsula and the Ring of Kerry. Ray was fantastic, handling my million questions about everything – politics, history, architecture. In his small van, he was able to take us to places the tour buses couldn’t go.
But I found myself feeling… sad. It was confusing to be on the trip I’d dreamed about all my life, and to be filled with this sense of melancholy. I couldn’t figure out why. The scenery is rugged and beautiful. Just as you round a mountain road, you come upon a view of an ocean or bay or valley that takes your breath away. And yet, I wasn’t filled with the sense of wonder that I had expected.
Years ago, Leon and Jill Uris published a book titled Ireland – A Terrible Beauty. It was a mix of Jill’s photos and Leon’s writings.
And it hit me.
As we meandered along roads that took us through gorgeous, stunning scenery, we were passing the skeletal remains of stone houses and barns – dwellings that were probably abandoned during the Famine, and never inhabited again. Everywhere you go, if you’ve eyes to see it, are the signs of the hardships that people faced trying to make a life in this rugged, beautiful, terrible, wonderful land.
I’m descended from people who left this island, who said good-bye to home and family, to their past, to make a new life in America. I think that’s part of what I was feeling – the echoes of those farewells. Those who stayed in Ireland struggled through poverty and hunger and war. They faced the fight for independence from three centuries of heavy-handed rule by Britain. More recently, they’ve struggled through the recession. There are still a lot of empty storefronts and abandoned homes – not the roofless walls of the Famine, but lonely nonetheless.
The towns are lovely – Adare’s charming thatched cottages, Galway’s lively town center, Killarney’s pubs and music.
But when you wander out, away from towns and away from people, you can hear the farewells in the soft misty rain that falls for a while and then clears to let the sun through. You hear it in the breeze that always is there, blowing to or from the sea. No wonder so many Irish songs are songs of longing.
Once I realized what I was feeling, there was a sense of balance – the reminders of hard times sitting right alongside the beauty. And for me, there was an additional sense of completion. When I wrote Miserere, it was totally based on research and imagination, but as I stood in the shadows of houses that hadn’t been homes since the Famine, I felt a certainty that I got it right.
Irish history is full of conflict and hardship and resiliency. Ireland is a terrible beauty. If you have the opportunity to go, please do. Especially if you’re Irish. Breathe it in. Let it soak into you, fill you and leave you with a sense of wonder. It’s just grand. I know I’ll be going back.