Exploring the Emerald Isle

(Kissing the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle, County Cork, Ireland)

It’s true that everywhere we roamed on thre Emerald Isle, in accordance with the song, Irish eyes were smiling. The people were uncommonly friendly and helpful. There are no wild signs of affluence anywhere in Ireland. I saw no designer boutiques or couture labels anywhere–neither Gap nor Tommy–though Chriselle assures me that they have their own indigenous designer fashions. She can vouch for this as she bought a pair of jeans in Dublin that despite being designer brand were inexpensive by American standards. The people have a great sense of Irish pride and advertise their businesses as being “100% Irish”. They have not been overtaken by the seductions of popular American lifestyle or culture in the way that, sadly, Asian countries have allowed their native character to become Westernized. We saw three, maybe four, McDonald’s fast food outlets in the entire country. And while there are no signs of affluence, there is no indication of poverty either. The Irish seem to have achieved that middle class dream of living comfortably without the degradation of want or the vulgarity of excess. Neat, well-trimmed gardens adorning modest houses were the norm. Most people drive tiny cars that are eco-friendly and a dream to park and drive on the extremely narrow roads. Nor did we see any sign of the slums about which Pulitzer Prize-winner author Frank McCourt wrote so eloquently in Angela’s Ashes when describing his growing years in the 1930s. There was a large amount of construction activity everywhere, a sure sign that the country is on the economic upswing.

Every Irish town is built in a distinctively uniform design with a central square or circle out of which radiates four or five main streets. The streets themselves are charmingly narrow with two-storey structures on both sides, the fronts of which are painted in vivid, primary colors. Striking pub signs, window boxes and baskets spilling over with a profusion of flowers and ornamental wrought-iron work give the towns their unique ambience and style. Almost all stores are named after their owners, so that driving through a town, you get a very accurate idea of the last names of its inhabitants, e.g. Sullivan and Sons Home Repair, Dan Dooley Auto Parts, Flynn Pharmacy, O’Shea Opticals, McEvoy Mechanical Works, Donnelly and Co. Greengrocers, etc.etc.

Every village has its pub, a community hangout that stays open late into the night. Even their traditional fruitcake, Porter Cake, contains raisins that have soaked in Guinness for days so that they plump up with the potent brew and give the cake a characteristic flavor. Not surprisingly, Ireland has a huge drunk diving problem. In every county, we were warned to drive safely as the number of deaths recorded on huge signs on the Irish roads was astonishing. Accidents are also a result of tourists from the United States and Europe who are not used to driving on the wrong side of the road and tend to cause head-on collisions with on-coming vehicles.

We loved the sound of the Irish Brogue especially on the tongues of the older generation. A bi-lingual nation, all signs in Ireland were posted in English and Gaellic simultaneously. We did not see diversity in terms of race anywhere in Ireland. Indeed, the country is starkly mono-cultural, meaning Caucasian Catholic. The newer faces of immigrants were few and far between. We saw some Indian men, obviously fresh off the boat, working as clean-up crew in fast food restaurants. After spending ten days in Ireland, it was with something of a relief that we saw Orthodox Jews, African-Americans, South Asians and Orientals share the same flight back to the USA and we realized how startlingly pluralistic we are in North America.

Ironically, our favorite meal was eaten in a restaurant named Farrigtons of Temple Bar in Dublin where we ordered the traditional Irish Casserole and a traditional Beef Chasseur, both of which were deliciously reminiscent of the Goan meat curries of my growing years in Bombay. When I told Llew that I was certain the chef was of Indian heritage (as the dishes featured coconut milk and whole coriander seeds in them!), he asked the waitress what the chef’s name was! Imagine our sense of vindication where she informed us that he was from the Indian sub-continent and asked if we would like to meet him. Much to chef Patrick Shah’s chagrin, we complimented him on his cuisine which he described as “fusion” since he was born in England to Indian Gujarati parents, is a Hindu convert to Catholicism and has emigrated to Ireland! His culinary concoctions clearly keep abreast with his own personal multi-cultural background.

The most impressive part of the trip for me was Llew’s exhibition of his formidable driving skills. Within seconds, he acclimatized himself to driving a very small car, a postbox red Fiat Punto with a steering wheel on the right hand side. He dealt with the strain of staying on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and negotiating his way around the endless roundabouts that are so distinctive a feature of roads on the British Isles. Not only were the highways extremely narrow but much of the terrain we traversed was mountainous resulting in sharply curving bends that caused me countless nail-biting moments. We traveled a total of 1,130 miles in about six days and thanks to the joint task of skillful navigation on my part and expert driving on his, we were able to thoroughly enjoy our motor tour. My love of geography in general and map-reading in particular made it a joy to chose routes, some passing by urban areas, others taking us into rustic wilderness–realms inhabited mainly by sheep.

Overall, our travels in Ireland were “grand”—to use a favorite Irish expression. We moved at a pace that allowed us to soak in the rich and unique culture and history of the country and to get to know some of the people. However, it was good to get back home again to the familiarity of our own beds and bathtubs and to deal with dollars and cents after mentally converting them to Euros for over a week. We hope you too will have had a happy time in Ireland.

Click below to visit the many regions of Ireland through which we toured.

Bon Voyage!