Ireland personifies the words magical, brooding and windswept. Every vista was breathtaking, made all the more so by a lashing rain that vanished as quickly as it appeared, leaving behind a shocking panorama of blues and greens that defied my camera’s lens. It’s impossible to capture the aching loneliness of the moors or the mystical, misty clouds that shrouded the barren hills and bogs, hinting of faeries and such.
This is not a country that embraces the whole of the 21st or even the 20th century – the best of the old is preserved while only some of the new is embraced. Dublin’s modern architecture is right at home amongst the Palladian splendor or stately Georgian houses of the 18th and 19th centuries. The modern DART rapid rail system, complete with WiFi, speeds past Dickensian row-house neighborhoods reminiscent of Billy Elliot. It’s a country that is comfortable with contradictions and contrasts.
There is something important to be said for the national pride that is so apparent in the Irish culture. For me it’s a plausible explanation for why so many of Irish descent celebrate their traditions long after they have assimilated elsewhere. Whether or not it’s appreciated is a separate issue, but credit must be given to a people who have lived for centuries under the harshest conditions and who do not abandon their heritage. As an example, the British tried in vein to banish the lyrical Gaelic language (which dates back to the 4th century) even going to the extreme of punishment during the 17th and 18th centuries if children spoke Irish at school. Today efforts encourage its usage which is evident in signage throughout the country.
Two museums were standouts. Yes, museums can be deadly dull, and these two – the National Museum of Country Life in County Mayo and the Famine Museum in County Roscommon, might have been so, had it not been for what I was willing to see with fresh eyes.
The Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid 1800s is a vague memory from our history books. This museum in Strokestown, on the grounds of a typical example of feudalism, brings to life heart-wrenching examples of how during the mid 1800s, crop failure and starvation impacted 2-4 million tenant-farm families. Most died while the landlords did very little to help. This devastating famine marked the beginning of the collapse of the landlord/tenant farmer system, which had existed from the 11th century.
In America we assume home ownership. In Ireland and indeed much of the world, it is still very much a privilege of the few. We forget how very fortunate we are in America, to have the freedom to achieve, based on our efforts, not on an accident of birth.
The Museum of Country Life is a four level example that proves that ingenuity is indeed the mother of invention. Imagine living in a world where whatever you need you must create yourself. No retail stores, no corner markets, few tradesmen other than the blacksmith and the coppersmith, no resources except the land, your hands and your creativity. Imagine the harshest land left barren by glaciers; clearing a field of its buried rocks with your bare hands; only the most basic tools to dig or cut; no wheelbarrow to haul the rocks away. Need a basket? Grow the reeds first and then weave the basket into a shape that will hold the rocks, or the potatoes, or the fish. Need clothing? Raise the sheep, gather the wool, spin it on your spinning wheel, then figure out some sort of loom on which to weave the wool into blankets and sweaters. Need a roof for your stone cottage which you built by hand using the rocks cleared from the field. Grow the thatch and then figure out how to “weave” the thatch into a waterproof roof that will last five to ten years.
It’s simply AMAZING what humans can do with basic survival instincts. I’m sure such examples are found throughout the world, but my visit to Ireland gave me a new appreciation of the indomitable spirit of the Irish people.
The country is beautiful, the roads are good, the people are warm and generous, the music is charming, accommodations were luxurious and the food – mouth-wateringly delicious. What more could you want? The only negative was finding a wall plug for the electrical adapter — 220 electric you know.
If you go: Take the time to know the area you are going to visit, and use a good guide book such as Fodors, as well as engaging local guides such as Slainte Ireland Tours so that your time is well spent. Our guide James Henry, part of the official Tour Guide Association of Ireland, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his country, which he enthusiastically shared with us on a private day tour of County Mayo.