The Old Country: Folks

Ah, the people we met in Ireland. And let me say that anything I write here is certainly meant to reflect just the people we met. It’s definitely not useful as any sort of portrait of Irish people as a whole (since we spent 100% of our time in the northern part of the Republic and 0% of the time in not the northern part) or even of the particular parts we visited. We stopped at a pub in which someone, we never quite discovered who (but we did verify after multiple trips to the bathroom to meticulously scour our shoes that it wasn’t us), smelled powerfully of the poop of sheep. This certainly does not mean that everyone in that region or even that town exuded the odor of sheep leavings; it means only that one guy from that region and town decided that hanging out with all these sheep has made me very hungry and I need to satiate this hunger very soon and very publicly.

On the whole, everyone we met was incredibly congenial. They were not at all pretentious, but were noticeably closed off. Their collective attitude seemed to be, “Of course you’re very welcome and we’re glad to have you here. But why are you here?”

There was the pub owner in Knockabbey who was very friendly but also very suspicious when Jen asked for her cheese omelet to also include vegetables in it. This was not a request that she was familiar with, nor do I think she much approved of it culinarily. But she was very glad to hear that Jen enjoyed it. There was also a barman in Sligo who very happily took our food orders; he then asked what we’d like to drink, and I thought I’d try to engage in some friendly conversation and asked what he’d recommend–what he does he like to drink? And the sheepishness that came over his face. He hung his head and sort of hemmed and hawed like the prettiest girl in the class had just asked him on a date to the soda fountain for a chocolate malted. He finally compromised by recommending a beer with the rationale “people seem to like it.” No chocolate malted fan, he.

Probably the best friends we made on the trip were radio personalities. We spent our long drives listening to the dulcet tones of “Down to Business” with Bobby Kerr, wherein he traveled to businesses and interviewed the proprietors (and for some reason used the theme from the “Bourne Identity” as his intro and outtro music). When we heard that Bourne tune, we knew it was time to hear Bobby ask the hard hitting questions–like asking a donut baker, “does it have to have a hole in it to be considered a donut?” (The answer, in Ireland as in America, is no.) We also (me more than Jen) enjoyed the daily comedy stylings of Dermot and Dave and their recurring “Wacky Gardener” character. Though we never met them, they were all our stalwart friends and will definitely be invited to our birthdays and anniversaries and christenings and funerals.

Returning to the people we actually met, though, the moment we thought we had them pegged, they’d surprise us. During an excellent tour of Dublin Castle, the tour guide subtly and offhandedly tossed in a brilliant joke about statue masturbation. Also a pleasant surprise: after six days of being utterly unable to make an Irish person laugh, I finally cracked up a gift shop cashier after suggesting that Jen had an inordinate love of tea towels. And the crown jewel of Ireland’s surprises for us was a bouncer in Carrick-on-Shannon. He informed us that while we sounded incredibly American, we didn’t look American because we were “wearin’ fookin’ noice boots and ya don’t have a fookin’ fanny pack on or a fookin’ cell phone strapped to your belt.” There is a very low bar for Americans abroad. And yet, many still fail to meet it. Let us think on our sins.

To be honest, the good humor of the Irish people we met was remarkable given the heartbreaking tenor of much of Ireland’s history. At monument after monument, we read about famine, strife, and eviction of the poor by the English rich. One aristocratic Irish family at Strokestown gained their wealth by backing the British invasion of Ireland and then backing another group of British people who weren’t huge fans of the first group of Brits. This family had a horn that they would blow whenever they were leaving their manor to let the townspeople know to get back in their houses so they wouldn’t clog up the road or look at the aristocrat family’s cool carriage. In the face of so much pain, which when you look at the dates didn’t happen all that long ago (Ireland didn’t even gain its independence until after World War II), the joy and jocularity of Irish people is pretty incredible.

The final thing we found about the people we met in Ireland isn’t even about Ireland at all. When we were out to dinner in Donegal, we overheard a couple a few tables over saying, “when I was back home visiting my family in Ohio…” and I realized that Ohio truly is inescapable. It will follow you across the Atlantic, ye even to the ends of the earth.

The Old Country: Expectations

I finally did it. I finally got to visit my ancestral homeland. I got to return to the Old Country. Since I was a youth, I have yearned to walk the streets of my forebears and hear the old tongue spoken–to hear “Mangia! Mangia!” as the gondolas float laconically down the river. Then I learned that these things happen in Italy, not Ireland–which is where my very pale and potato-loving kin come from.

Thanks to the kindness and generosity of the folks at Groupon, Jen and I were able to take a trip to Ireland at an outrageously discounted rate! The savings were so great, you had to see it to believe it! We had to act fast, because a deal this good wasn’t going to last! So after some hemming and hawing and tax refund calculating, we did indeed act fast.

We wanted the trip to be low key. Jen has the propensity to aggressively sightsee, to use sightseeing as a way to wrestle a vacation into submission, as it were, so on this trip, we wanted to make a conscious effort to just relax and have fun. Consequently, I tried not to go into the trip with too many expectations, to let Ireland be Ireland and wash over me like a refreshing waterfall of Irish Spring liquid gel body wash. After arriving, however, it quickly became clear that I had still unconsciously developed several hopes for the trip.

  1. That I would finally be “home.” That I’d get off the plane and some stout old Irishman would slap me on the back and say, “Fair play to ya, lad! Welcome! Now let’s get y’a pint of Guinness and a tweed flatcap so you can finally relax. And by the way, you’re lookin’ a little tan–you might want to slather on some sunscreen, you might.” I thought I would experience an ineffable connection to people and places as I took in my roots.
  2. That people would be friendly and interesting. That every stranger would enjoy the chance to strike up a conversation and expound upon the intricacies of their life in Ireland. And that they would have troves of interesting and entertaining anecdotes for me to enjoy. Certainly they might not just volunteer this information, but also certainly they would respond readily (and in detail) if I asked, “So how about the intricacies of life in Ireland? How’re those going?”
  3. That everybody at a given restaurant would be enjoying a pint. I wanted to go to lunch and see old men catching up over a lunch beer.
  4. That navigating an unfamiliar place without the aid of GPS, WiFi, or a general skill at navigation would be easy and enjoyable.

In my next post, I’ll let you know how those assumptions worked out.