Ireland

Although half of my ancestors (great-grandparents) are from Ireland (and my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was even Kennedy) and I don’t live that far from it, I never really wanted to go there, since I abhor cold weather. But friends told us that the weather there at beginning of June was usually good, and my girlfriend really wanted to vacation there, so off we were.

Our plane arrived at Dublin rather later in the evening. We had reserved an AirBnB room, and our host was kind enough to wait until midnight when we arrived. He quickly gave us information about the apartment and city and then left to drive to Galway for the weekend. We discovered that we were sleeping in his bedroom, so he had to arrange to be somewhere else. He had two roommates, whom he said worked for Google, and they were also gone and had rented out their rooms. Kinda strange, and we only saw the others fleetingly.

It certainly seemed like a bachelors’ pad with the kitchen appearing to be little used. There was a huge TV in the living room, but we were afraid that it was one of those new ones that record your speech or even film you although it is supposedly turned off, especially since his roommates were Google employees and consequently certainly aware of and using the latest technologies. We made certain not to speak there. The bathroom did not have any hooks for hanging towels or clothes nor did it have any sockets. Our host Daniel told us proudly that we did not need to turn on a boiler to get hot water in the shower, so I could imagine how he had grown up.

The first bar, or rather pub, in the neighborhood that we got to closed suddenly when we arrived, but Daniel had given us directions to another one that was still very full at that late hour after midnight. My first Guinness in Ireland! We had left home in 32° C, and it was approx. 14° C with a cold wind in Dublin, so we were freezing, but the bar was warm. Locals were walking around in t-shirts and women with short skirts. The next day we saw many beggars, a few young female junkies, drunks, street musicians, break dancers performing on the street, a six year old playing fantastic fiddle, etc., i.e., everything you would expect in a big city like Dublin. Temple Street, billed as a great nightlife district, turns out to be very disappointing, since it is one big tourist trap with loud street bands competing with the loud music from bars. The Irish music, which we heard coming out of the bars, sounded rather unauthentic.

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Walking around on the other side of the river, which divides downtown Dublin, I needed a toilet run and we entered a pub. The final Championship League game was close to the end, so we had a drink and stayed. As we were getting ready to leave afterward, three musicians starting playing quite good Irish music, and we wound up staying for another couple of hours. I had thought that this had to be a pub for locals, but the musicians asked the people where they were from at one point, and all were tourists.

We were exhausted from walking around all day and sure to sleep well, but a police helicopter woke us in the night and hovered above the apartment for a very long time. Then on Sunday morning, there were workers in the neighborhood cleaning windows with loud machines and other during road construction nearby, and that on Sunday morning in Catholic Ireland!

The nearby restaurants all seemed to feature bagels for breakfast, which is certainly much better than your traditional Irish/English breakfast with beans, eggs and bacon, which makes me sick even to look at it in the morning. Most of the waiters seemed to be Spanish, although there were also a lot of Polish and other Eastern Europeans doing the menial work in the all the hostels, B&B and restaurants that we experienced on the trip. Vegetables are certainly not the specialty in Ireland, as the following menu illustrates.

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At the Museum of Modern Art, there was a fantastic photography exhibition by Stan Douglas. Always surprising to discover a great artist, whom I had never heard of, and entrance was free of charge, and the grounds were just beautiful.

Dublin was full of police; I imagine to protect the tourist industry. Seeing a “paddy wagon”, I could not help of thinking of my grandmother who often used that phrase. Actually, the word is of US American origin, so those in Dublin are not “paddy wagons” per se. My grandmother maintained that they were called that because they rounded up all the Irish drunks in them, and “Paddy” is slang for an Irishman.

I wondered what my grandmother had heard from her mother about the Ireland that she emigrated from and regretted that I had never asked her. I know that she had two kids before her husband, my great-grandfather, sailed to the States. He saved money for five years until he had enough to send her to join him. However, she was apparently illiterate and tricked by the shipping company, because she wound up on a ship to Canada. It took another two years of saving money before she could make the journey down to Newburg, New York, to join her husband. Five more kids quickly followed, and then my great-grandfather died. My great-grandmother got a job in a rich family’s household where her sole pay was their old clothes and leftover food for her seven children. It was the time when many bars and restaurants posted the sign “No dogs or Irish allowed” at their entrances.

My grandmother entered a convent to become a nun, but left after two years. She told us that she had become ill and had to leave. Now I wonder if that was the real reason and wish I could question her about her time there. Lots of things I would like to ask her, for example, about her sister whom they all claimed had died in her twenties; I later discovered that she had left her husband and ran off with another man, which the rest of the family considered a big disgrace at the time. Apparently she wound up in California, far from New Jersey and the rest of the family, but I know nothing else about her. At the end of my grandmother’s life, living in a housing project in Jersey City (from which they had to move a couple of years before my grandparents died, since it had become too dangerous), she went to mass on Sundays, but she said it was only to meet her friends. She had long since lost her faith.

At her funeral, the Catholic priest persisted in giving us nasty looks and seemed very annoyed with the whole affair. My sister and I went to take communion, although we had long since had nothing to do with the Church and no belief, because no one else in our family was willing to and we feared the priest might just refuse to give our grandmother any blessings.

I will always remember what she said to me not long before she died: “I don’t want to die.” I as twenty-year-old could only shrug my shoulders, unable to say anything although I wished I had some wisdom or comforting words to impart. Now, as I approach old age, I know better than ever how she felt.

We rented a car to get around in Ireland, and I hate cars and hate driving. On top of that, you have to drive on the left and shift gears with your left hand. The roads are often extremely narrow bordered by high hedges or stone walls. The speed limit was often posted as 100 km/h followed by “Slow”, curves and “Children” signs. I let my girlfriend drive for the first week, which was not really fair, but then I finally relented because she really was tired from driving. She was certain that I would drive at 30 km/h, but I was soon driving faster than she had when there was little traffic and the road a wee bit wider.

We picked up our rental car after three nights in Dublin and headed south to the Wilcox Mountains. We took a short walk in the national park there and marveled at the ruins of an abbey and the tall tower that the monks had built in Glendalough. The adjacent graveyard contained some tombstones with my last name, but my ancestors were from Claire and Galway, so I doubted whether they were from relatives.

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And a nice sign next to a pasture:

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We originally planned to stay overnight at a bed & breakfast there, but the one we had picked up was too isolated for us, and since it was still early we continued on to Kilkenny, where we hadn’t planned on staying. As often is the case, such things that happen by chance are the best. A very friendly guy in the youth hostel gave us a four-bed room at the price for a two-bed one, just for us. He told us about a good pub across the street where locals would be playing music, and we discovered a great restaurant run by a Portuguese man. The music was not the greatest, but it was certainly entertaining, with a couple of old men singing solos and others playing their instruments in true Irish fashion. We were lucky with the weather, and the next day was beautiful as is the local castle (they seem to be everywhere). People said hello on the streets, and everyone was just as friendly as possible. In addition, I learned that what we drink as Kilkenny is really Swithwicks, brewed in Kilkenny but sold under the town’s name abroad.

There were not that many tourists in Kilkenny, but of course not that few at the castle. The Americans all seemed to be very fat, and I had to think of an article that I had read stating that airplanes had to make changes because the average passenger in the USA weighed 20 pounds more than 30 years ago.

On to Kilkarney, and the youth hostel had been such a nice experience in Kilkenny, that we got a room at one at our next stop. It was incredibly well organized, and we had a great room with a private bath. We set about arranging to rent a bike to explore the nearby national park the next day, but the guy at the first bike shop spoke such a heavy dialect that I barely understood a word he said.

Reading O’Brian’s excellent novel “The Gathering” in the evening with tales of alcoholism and poverty interspersed. I had to think of another great-grandmother, who died alone in a poorhouse in the States, apparently suffering from dementia. It is too late to know the true story, but I imagined that she suffered terribly after emigrating to the States, and the chances that her husband mistreated her and was an alcoholic are real possibilities. Of course, I cannot know anything about them for certain. I do know that my other grandmother on the other side suffered from her husband’s alcoholism and abuse. Although he was the best grandfather to us that I can imagine and my mother said that he never lifted a hand against her, my grandmother hinted at quite a different experience of her own. His family had experienced similar situations emigrating from Alsace in the 19th century. His mother was a convinced socialist, while he always voted Republican, even though he benefited so much from Franklin Roosevelt’s programs (and my grandmother often thanked Roosevelt for social security). His also had six or seven siblings. Their father was a mean alcoholic who beat them, and my grandfather was only too happy when he died when my grandfather was only 12 at the beginning of the 20th century. As the oldest child, he had to drop out of school and got a job driving a horse carriage making deliveries. After WWI, during which he claimed with pride to have bayoneted a German soldier (my grandmother said it was not true, but no way for me to know), he got a job working in the railyards in Jersey City. He worked seven days a week with no vacation (including double shifts during WWII) until 1955 when he got the weekends off. He was missing a tooth and claimed that he lost it in a fight with a policeman, but my grandmother said that he got hit by one of the railcars. When he married my grandmother, she related that her mother told him just to be good to her. My grandmother sighed when she told me that and said, “If she only knew.”

Medals my grandfather received at the end of WWI

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There are so many things, which I wish I had asked them and my grandfather’s brothers, but now it is too late. His brothers Freddy and Marty lived in the same build as them toward the end of their lives. I never even saw Marty, and he avoided all contact. On the other hand, Freddy started showing up at our house one day, and then often came, especially if he had had a good day at the races. He talked incessantly, but had a big heart. There was another brother, Ernst, who lived in a mobile home in Florida. We once stopped by during one of our annual trips there, but he was not at home and we never tried again. He apparently still had contact with many of our relatives in Germany, but now such knowledge is lost.

The next day of our trip had the most beautiful weather we experienced in Ireland, and one of the few during which I was able to wear shorts. The ride around the park was quite pleasant, although the maps and signs were rather deficient. We had hoped to take a long loop, but just could not find the right trails. Another abbey in ruins with adjacent graveyard and more tombstones with my last name. It was all quite picturesque, but the best experience of the day was renting a rowboat and rowing out to a small island with another abbey in ruins. Amazing that the monks constructed it during the Dark Ages!

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There was pub called O’Connors, which although the majority of my Connors’ ancestors were named “Connor”, I still felt that it deserved a visit. Guinness certificate. A couple were playing loud music downstairs, which vaguely resembled traditional Irish music, so we headed upstairs where the bar was almost empty. One bartender was attending to an American couple. He was showing them how to pour Guinness from the tap, which the man did and then got a certificate proving he could do it and his picture taken with the bartender. I couldn’t resist doing the same, since I like hanging up useless certificates in my bathroom. The bartender asked what music we would like to hear, but neither he nor the American couple had ever even heard of flamenco. I tried to explain that it was gypsy music originally, but the Americans had never heard of gypsies. I mentioned one of D.H. Lawrence’s novels, where a gypsy gets romantically involved with an aristocratic woman, but none of them had heard of Lawrence either. The Irish bartender understood when I mentioned the movie The Virgin and the Gypsy; “Oh, we call them travelers.” Maybe he knew that from the movie Snatch.

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On to the peninsula of Dingle and a spectacular coastline and then over Connor Pass, only at an altitude of 400 m, but a must for me due to the name. Still, it felt like we were at a lot higher altitude.

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A long hike on the Cliffs of Mohair, also quite spectacular:

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Then Galway, a lively and pretty town. The youth hostel was full, but they directed us across the street where we got a room in a house of an older woman, who was only too glad for the extra income. We were lucky enough to find a pub with genuine Irish music, not just something watered down for tourists.

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Local damsels not in distress

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A “heat wave” (23° C) brought out the crowds.

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Still possible to hear genuine and good Irish music in some pubs.

We hoped to take a bike tour from our next stop Clifden, a lovely town at the coast, but we had the first rain of our trip there so contented ourselves with some driving around and a stop at a cozy pub in a seaside village, where this funny poster was hanging:

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Ireland as I had imagined it:

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Vacation time running out, we made the bad decision to go to Sligo, famous because Yeats is from there, but otherwise a dreary, ugly city. Almost every shop was trying to market its wares with a reference to Yeats, but which did not increase their attractiveness. The owner of our BnB did not understand how we could connect to Wifi in the guesthouse, so he let me use his computer once that was full of links to porno sites.

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We fled back to Dublin, and the weather improved considerably. Temperatures reached 23° C, and the headlines in a local newspaper proclaimed “Heat Wave!”

One last day and a beautiful hike around the peninsula of Howth.

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In the end, I thought Ireland is not such a bad place for a vacation after all.

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