My Trip to Ireland
Well, a blog being what it is, that is a web log, an online diary of sorts, from time to time I am apt to trot out stories a little closer to home. In the past I’ve had to unfriend some jokers when they felt compelled to point out I’d gone too “TMI” here. But it’s my sandbox. If you don’t want to play all the games here, that’s fine by me. All this is to prep you for the unavoidable fact that I am now about to show the modern day equivalent of the SLIDE SHOW OF MY FAMILY VACATION TO IRELAND.
Besides, accounts of my travels are not truly irrelevant to the usual themes of this blog. I write about culture; this blog has a whole section on Irish Americans; I review museums and such-like; and I present folk musicians in my variety shows from time to time. I also have some roots in Ireland and will likely be writing tons more about my background, and so everything about this experience feeds right in.
But mind: this post is going to wind and wind and wind and roar and tumble like the waters of the River Shannon.
The genesis of the trip is that my ex is in Galway for several months doing research on a Fulbright Grant (she’s blogging about some of her findings here). As a consequence my youngest son is in Ireland during that time, too. (Significantly, he is the one my mother always used to say looked “like a little Irishman”.) I’ve never been away from Charlie for longer than a month; the prospect of not seeing him for six months was just never on the table. I’d travel anywhere to see him and at any cost: the Dry Tortugas, Easter Island, McMurdo Sound…
The pot was sweetened even more by the facts that a) I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland, and b) the Duchess and I have been talking about traveling anyway. And then the Duchess bought me my plane ticket for my birthday. Essentially the only thing that could have loaded the dice more in the direction of a trip to Ireland is if I’d been shanghaied onto the crew of a Dublin bound tramp steamer.
This all comes at a time too when I have been learning more about my background. For most of my life I’ve had a mild uneasiness every St. Patrick’s Day, having had nothing but vague rumors that I had “some Irish” in my background, but always wondering if it was B.S. In the past decade or so I’ve learned a lot more about my genealogical history. I know I’m at least 1/16, maybe 1/8 genuine Irish on my father’s side, because my great-grandmother was a Hale, a branch of the McHales who lobbed off the “Mc” when they came to America.
But there is more to complicate the story (and my emotions) in visiting Ireland because the Stewarts (my real last name) who came to America were Scots-Irish…Scots who’d colonized northern Ireland for a century or two before pressing on to colonize America. Was there intermarriage? Interbreeding? Were there Stewarts who stayed behind in the Northern counties and live there to this day, and are likely Unionists? Probably yes to all. There is a town called Portstewart up there. “Are you Irish?” The question seems to be very complicated in my case! But my kids have much more Irish in them (through my ex) which is an added tie, and the Duchess is half Irish, yet another point of interest. Another personal Irish connection smacked me in the face when I was over there. Galway is a major center of the Irish traditional music (or “trad”) scene and I suddenly remembered that my old boss Michael Shorrock played that kind of music. In the summer of 1986, I worked for this gent, whom in addition to being a highly respected professional musician, had a small silk screen factory in my Rhode Island hometown, and two shops, one in Newport and one on Block Island, where he sold custom tee shirts and imported Irish wool sweaters. (That may sound like a weird combination but it makes sense in a seaside town). In the spring, I helped silkscreen logos and pictures onto shirts; in the summer I sold shirts at both of his stores and slept on a cardboard pallet in the backroom. I’ll always be grateful to Michael (and to my brother for hooking me up with him) because working for him that summer allowed me to save enough money to start at Trinity Rep Conservatory in fall of ’86. I was saddened to hear not long ago that he had passed away in 2007. At any rate, he was a big player in the trad scene, both in the U.S. and at the source, in Doolin, County Clare. He got his start touring and playing extensively with the likes of Patrick Sky and Tom Paxton.
You can learn more about him on this thread: http://thesession.org/discussions/13598.
And here’s a nice encomium about Michael from Patrick Sky, an artist much admired by Bob Dylan: http://forums.chiffandfipple.com/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=49913&view=next.
At any rate, I couldn’t help thinking about Michael when I was over there. And that’s just the prologue! Now on to the trip. I’m sort of a crappy picture taker — I tend to neglect taking snaps in favor of direct experience, so some of the more quotidian pix here I’m going to pull off the net — if it looks like what I looked at. But most of them are mine (you’ll probably be able to tell which ones). And a few are by the Duchess.
We flew into Shannon airport and went across County Clare to Galway by bus. Out the window, the entire way were scores and scores of farms with green, hilly pastures bordered with stone walls where cows, sheep and horses were grazing. Everything looked about like this:
Shannon and Galway are seaside cities on Ireland’s west coast. Galway, where we spent the most time, reminded me a little of Newport, Rhode Island — maybe because of those memories of Michael Shorrock I mentioned, but also regarded objectively. The town is all about water and boats: you’re looking at Galway bay and the River Corrib constantly; water seems to both surround the city and divide it. Like Newport, it’s very tourism driven, with a mix of history (except here there’s about 600 more years of it) and shops and bars and proximity to a marina that caters to both pleasure-boating and the fishing industry. And as in Newport you get a strong sense that it used to be a lot rougher…there used to be a lot of sailors prowling around here. But Galway is about three times the size of Newport. (To use another Rhode Island scale of measurement, it’s a little less than half the size of Providence). Galway is the fourth largest city in the Republic of Ireland, the sixth largest in Ireland as a whole.
The other way that Galway’s all about water, is that it is always raining. Always. (Or very nearly). When it is not raining, it is drizzling, misty, cloudy, cold and damp and just generally just biding its time until its ready to rain again.
The first thing the Duchess and I did after our first hour of site-seeing was make a beeline for a pub and sit next to a fireplace and fortify ourselves with tea. The cold and wet also made me grateful to partake of the rich food at the local pubs, the stews and savory pies, mashed potatoes and peas and the like. These institutions exist for a reason. Here’s Charlie tending the fire at the place where we stayed (with a little bit of hamming it up for the camera). True to what you’ve been told, the Irish rely less on wood for their fires than coal and bricks of peat. (You were told that, weren’t you?)
And here’s Charlie outside Riordan’s Home-Cooked Food, just after I realized my goal of having some actual Irish stew. The picture contains clues about the weather.
We spent most of our time in the city center, an area of several blocks containing shops and pubs unabashedly reaching out to tourists, with many busking street musicians doing the same. The very first thing that caught my eye when got there was this place, which claims to be the original source of all Claddagh rings. The skeptical New Yorker can’t help but wonder if it’s like Famous Ray’s Pizza:
It had been 20 years since I had last been out of the country. One shock the infrequent traveler gets is the fact that it happens to be 2013 EVERYWHERE. That is, we are increasingly a global culture. One goes to Ireland for the Irish culture, but this is no longer 1913. The culture of the entire world is here, as well. Thus Galway has the full compliment of yoga centers, Mexican restaurants, The Gap, and such like. And, among the buskers playing traditional Irish music on the street, I was delighted to see these two Japanese kids:
A big mecca for the trad scene locally is the Crane Bar, which was right down the block from where we were staying. Musicians come every night and have long jam sessions, providing free entertainment for the patrons, who mob the little place every night to get close to it. When we first went there, we walked in on a couple of older folks, half sloshed, singing traditional tunes a capella to the rapt room. This is a frequent occurrence — everyone in the bar will hush respectfully to hear singers. The jams are totally acoustic, with fiddles and accordions as the core instruments, but I also saw guitar, mandolin, banjo, harp (the stringed kind) and hand drum on other occasions. (My old boss used to play an exotic instrument called the bazouki). The first occasion was very emotional for me, and it felt obscene somehow to photograph. But on our last night there, we went to a young people’s session. It was more of a free-for-all so I didn’t mind taking a few snaps:
It’s easy to connect this music with the sailors who’ve always played and listened to it, and it’s nice to have it in your head while you tramp around their stomping grounds. Despite the cold and the rain, midway through our trip we took a jaunt past the river to look at the bay (and the hills of Clare beyond it) from the Claddagh promenade and Celia Griffin Memorial Park (dedicated to a child who died in the potato famine).
Off the coast of Galway, by the way, are the famous Aran Islands, Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer, written about in plays by the likes of John Millington Synge and Martin McDonagh. It’s also the location of Robert Flaherty’s second greatest film (after Nanook of the North), Man of Aran (1934). My old advisor at NYU George Stoney made a documentary about this film that is included on the DVD as a special feature.
Bad weather and a tight schedule discouraged us from making a day trip to the islands. Our big excursion was to Dublin. We are sort of the stereotypical embodiment of what marketers call “cultural tourists”. Fortunately there was plenty in Galway for us to see on that score. First, there are tons of medieval sites, right in town. Galway goes back at least to the 1100s. Lynch Castle, right in the middle of town, is now a bank. St. Nicholas Collegiate Church, the largest medieval parish church in Ireland, dates to 1320 or before. I was flabbergasted to learn that the church is of my own denomination, Anglican/Episcopalian. We saw Anglican (actually “Church of Ireland”) churches all over the place. I expected to see nothing but Catholics! But people don’t switch religions as easily as all that. England was a presence here for 600 years. So there’s this odd phenomenon of political separation…but continued religious union for some people. But not so odd, come to think of it, since I’m an American Episcopalian and we too fought and won a war for political independence from England! Duh! Anway, we poked our head in there and briefly watched a choir practice. And we went to their weekly Saturday farmer’s market where we walked past stall after stall of fresh vegetables…and proceeded to visit the donut man. Being in the open air market in the shadow of the church: what’s more medieval? We also took in the Spanish Arch (1584) and the town’s medieval walls, and the archaeological dig at the 13th century Hall of the Red Earl, named for Richard de Burgo, the town’s Norman ruler at the time.
The Hall of the Red Earl is across the street (more of a lane, really) from the Druid Theatre, Galway’s most notable playhouse, which we went into but were disappointed to learn had no shows up. (Especially disappointed because their next show, opening December 5, is Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn. How I would like to see it!). So, no theatre on this junket, but there was some museum action to be had. The Galway City Museum offers a nice overview of the town’s history. When we were there they also had a nice exhibition of the work of Irish modern artist Evie Hone. We were less crazy about a festival of contemporary visual art called Tulca at the Galway Arts Centre and other galleries and venues throughout the city. (Although I did like a video installation by Jenny Brady called Carve Up, which I found thought-provoking, well-executed and quite lovely to watch.) And of course there’s this statue, apropos of nothing, a gift from the people of Estonia to the City of Galway, depicting Oscar Wilde sitting with an Estonian playwright.
I note that they are sitting very far apart. Wilde’s mother Lady Gregory’s estate Coole Park is not far from Galway, providing partial justification for the monument’s existence at this location. In the interest of international diplomacy we won’t speculate too loudly about the Estonian playwright. Another point of interest in Galway is the home of Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s wife, which we visited but was closed at the time:
By now, I think you can safely say, we have “done” this town of 75,000, in terms of hitting the high points. We were chomping at the bit to get to the capital. Fortunately, the entirety of Ireland is only a little bigger than the state of Maine. We were able to cross the entire country to get to Dublin in about two and a half hours.
In our little day-and-a-half side trip we can scarcely say that we have “done” Dublin — just about scratched the surface, but we did see some terrific stuff, and our appetites are whetted for more. And so are our thirsts. Because this is the first thing you see when you leave the train station in Dublin:
The factory complex goes on for blocks and blocks and blocks. It’s like a walled city right in the middle of Dublin. The above photo was obviously a back entrance. We saw more impressive gates as we reached the main thoroughfare.
As you might imagine, their product is more delicious close to the source. I took great pains to make certain of that.
Miracle of miracles, the weather in Dublin was sunny. The Duchess found us a hotel in an amazing location. It was right across the street from Christ Church Cathedral, another Anglican edifice, this one dating to Norse times (ca. 1020) although it has been rebuilt many times. While the Cathedral was beautiful I was much more awed by the crypts beneath it, which feel ancient and mysterious. At any rate, a pleasant sound in our hotel room was listening to the Cathedral’s bells toll the hour, though we weren’t there for many hours.
At the bottom of the street where we were staying was the Smock Alley Theatre, which regrettably was dark while we were there. Indeed, since we were spending an evening there we looked hard for some theatre to see, but could find nothing that suited our tastes. Naturally, I am interested in the Abbey Theatre, but I found myself uninterested in the description of the show they were playing. And since it isn’t the same structure that housed the premieres of plays by Yeats, Synge, Shaw and O’Casey (that one burned down 60 years ago), I reckon I can wait. We did walk by this pretty theatre though, but it was dark also:
We spent the evening exploring the picturesque byways of the Temple Bar district, hearing the music spill out into the streets and grabbing one too many rich dinners at a pub. Then we stopped into our hotel bar to hear a singer I found more than a bit hokey — rather unlike the authentic sounds to be found in Galway:
Then we kicked back in our hotel room to close out the evening with a little bit of television. We were only able to get one station, a BBC channel from Northern Ireland on which we watched an episode of Ripper Street, the horrible news from the Philippines, and — most fittingly — a documentary about the song “Danny Boy”.
The Dublin trip was dominated by cultural sites. Our first, on the first day, was the National Gallery of Ireland, where the Duchess raved about the Caravaggio, I was pleased to learn about Jack B. Yeats, Charlie accurately identified a Vermeer without looking at the label, and this was taken, the only known proof that I was actually in Ireland:
On both days we roamed around Trinity College, just to soak it in really. The campus is beautiful and there were many monuments to admire. We didn’t go in to look at the Book of Kells; the price seemed too high to glance at a single page, which is all that is ever on display at one time. But there was much evidence of many heroes about. As you go in, there’s this statue of Oliver Goldsmith, a writer I happen to love:
Across from him stands Edmund Burke, friend to America during the Revolution, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) I have also read. Also this plaque adorns the dorm where Samuel Beckett once lived.
We also roamed the grounds of Dublin Castle (also very close to our hotel), and went into the National Museum of Ireland’s Archaeology branch which illuminated much about the country’s past from prehistoric through medieval times. The highlight of this museum is of course the many “bog people” they have on display…the preserved corpses of unfortunates who were likely sacrificed to Pagan gods on the eve of battle, only to be later chewed up by some farmer’s plow centuries later. The spectacle, while compelling, seemed inappropriate to photograph. Upon emerging from the museum though, we saw this:
I guess he lived across the street from dead bodies, eh? (Yes. I know they weren’t in the collection when he lived here, wise guy).
From here we made quite an Odyssey across town to try to find Shaw’s birthplace. Which we were disappointed to find closed, although I was still glad to have gone there.
In reality he was a little more than “the author of many plays”, but if you listed all of his accomplishments they wouldn’t fit on any sign.
Coming to and fro the Shaw house we enjoyed St. Stephen’s Green, a beautiful little Victorian park, with swans, fountains, and this little monument to Joyce.
Okay? Are we coming through loud and clear? This is a town that knows how to respect its writers!
As it was right on the edge of the green, we stopped at the Little Museum of Dublin, a little history museum that I feel certain my old colleagues at the New-York Historical Society would absolutely LOVE. (Not the current staff, but my colleagues from a decade ago). It’s a sort of history from the bottom up, “People’s” history museum, full of artifacts and ephemera from ordinary people tracing Dublin’s history, mostly in the 20th century. Located in a Georgian townhouse, it’s a good place to go for the little details about every day life in Ireland’s capital, providing a real in-depth feel for the place. There are still textbook-worthy facts to be learned there, too. For example, did you know that though the Republic of Ireland was officially neutral in World War II, that didn’t stop the Nazis from dropping bombs on it? I didn’t!
Tellingly, however, the only photo I found myself taking there was this:
Like I said, I was only there for a day and a half. There’s a long list of other stuff I really want to see on some hoped-for return journey. There’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Jonathan Swift was dean. Several other museums and historical places. And the showman in me wants to see the National Leprechaun Museum and the National Wax Museum. But, like I say, that’s for a future trip. If I had gone to those places and not Trinity College, I couldn’t have lived with myself. Then there’s the Rock of Cashel, whom my my other son is named for. And the north of Ireland, where ancestors are from. Next five or six trips!
Anyway, I think that covers it. This feckin’ post has taken me seven hours to put together! (Sorry to swear! Blame Ireland!) If I think of little things I missed, I’ll just come back and add them. Thanks again to Susie, Charlie and Carolyn for making this adventure possible.