Archive for the 'Ireland' Category

Spring Break, Part the Fourth

Tuesday, March 18 – Dingle, County Kerry

The surfers are up early.  We take a quick breakfast — instant coffee and Oatbix — and then hit the road.  Reports say the surf is good off the Maharees, so we point the car in that direction.  But between us and the waves lie the Brandon Mountains.  It’s not a terribly menacing range, at least not in the age of GPS and rear differentials, but there’s something about it that subtly domineers.  The lack of chintzy McMansions which would undoubtedly and unashamedly ravage such real estate back home is utterly refreshing and the gentle southern slope makes one wax poetically about all the grandfatherly wisdom this mountain must contain.

Myself and Rónán at the crest of Conor Pass.

The Conor Pass takes us over the mountain, and the view from the crest is best summarized in stale words like phenomenal, breathtaking and incredible.  It’s amazing how elevation piques the senses.  The road that cuts across the northern slope offers a bit of an existential experience:  one lane shared by two directions of traffic, with the massive drop on one side offering a certain, gravity-induced demise.  I took this footage on the way back; have a look:

While Ro and the guys surfed, I sat on the beach with Sarah and talked.  She spoke about the Ireland of then and now, of the have-not and the have.  It was only 20 years ago that Ireland was economically out of step with Western European standards.  She remembers how it was when she was a child.  Money was tight for everyone.  Big families crammed into small apartments.  Then Ireland joined the EU, the foreign investment came, and the country assumed an enviable sort of prosperity.  But she’s afraid it might not last, that the past is the future, that people are resting a bit to comfortably on their laurels.  Empires fall — history tells us that much — and the weak get overrun.  Yet, somehow, Ireland has remained somewhere in between.  Untouched by the Romans and untamable to the British, this people persists, and in this we find comfort.

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Spring Break, Part the Third

March 17, 2008 Dingle, County Kerry

Dingle and Dingle Bay

We depart Inch and the second act begins. The conversation meanders to the historical; the political. 1921. The revolution. The English. The civil war. There’s no official celebration of Irish independence, says Rónán, a bit indignant. I sympathize in earnest. Is it a product of the proximity to the crown? Did the vastness of the Atlantic incubate American pride? July 4th — it’s not a day to protest the British, but a day to love your country; a day for merriment to the tune of controlled explosions.

We arrive in Dingle just after sunset. The town is most aptly describable in trite terms like “quaint” and “authentic” — but that’s exactly what it is. It’s a coastal town on an impressive bay, ironically preserved partially by delicate tourism and partially in protest of it.

Our hostel is a simple place, unassuming and well located. We meet up with several of Ró’s friends who are also staying at the hostel. They’re all surfers; Redondo beach types with Irish accents. Sarah needs a shower and Rónán and I need money; she showers and we head into town to find an ATM. The cash machine does it’s thing and we’re soon filled with paper confidence.

“How about a pint?” says Rónán. We pick a pub and soon our paper confidence is exchanged for liquid confidence. There’s a trad session going on in the corner which is loud in the most pleasant of ways, so we’re forced to speak over it. The conversation meanders: travel, school, life, sailing. Did I really just meet Ró a few hours ago? Or did I always know him, as a character of my imagination resigned to faux-nostalgia of this mystic land of my ancestors?

We see the frothy bottoms of our glasses and then it’s back to the hostel for a lively dinner before we hit the town.  Saint Patrick’s Day.  Ireland. What sort of debauchery is in store for us tonight? Truthfully, not much. It’s a Monday night and, St. Patrick’s Day or not, the bars close at 11:00. And I’m fine with that. It strikes me as the ultimate act of defiance toward the American St. Patrick’s Day establishment that I’ve come to loathe. A year ago I was in New York City, taking free shots till two in the morning with Firemen and Police Officers dressed in their formal uniforms. Young female bartenders danced on the bar and poured unholy libations down the throats of yearning customers. But now the tin whistle is playing it’s last note and the patrons are saying their goodbyes as bar is wiped down. It’s been a good night, and it’s time to go.  Memories await.

Spring break, Part the Second

March 17, 2008 – Dingle, County Kerry

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. Back home it’s a peculiar day, a day for people whose only salient claim to Éire are the two capital letters in their last names to proclaim their heritage and corroborate it with the consumption of dark stouts. A day for the rest to wish and pretend they could make such a claim. Erin go bragh, they say, drinking to the ancestors they’ve never met. The Irish Prime Minister is the honorary grand marshal of a massive parade in Boston or Chicago or New York or some other American city that was thanklessly built by the Irish.

But I’m not home, I’m in Ireland. And the fact that I’m here when I am is a coincidence; I didn’t come to Ireland for Saint Patrick’s Day — I’m not one of the thousands of Americans that make that profane pilgrimage. It just so happens that spring break coincides with St. Patty’s, and it just so happens that the most opportune time for me to go to Ireland coincides with this holy day, and it just so happens that this holy day coincides with Holy Week, and therein lies a subtle irony that absolutely scintillates.

It’s a Monday and I hop the bus into the center of Cork City. The parade is marching through. Kids are on parents’ shoulders, girls with painted faces and everyone and everything seems to be splashed with green and white and orange. It’s immediately evident that it’s a holiday more akin to the Fourth of July than to the sloppy mess we have back home. I’m given a pin to remember those that died in the 1916 Easter Uprising and all the Irish dead.

My thoughts wander to the Saint Patrick’s Days of my childhood. Mom makes sure I’m wearing something green. You don’t want to get pinched, she says with bright eyes and a soft smile. Lunch hour rolls around and I open the small feast she has packed for me. My peanut butter and jelly sandwich is wrapped in wax paper, and to the outside of it is a green Post-It note, and on it is written in dancing green penmanship, “Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Love, Mom.”

The years pass and I begin to understand that, for many Americans, St. Patty’s is a day for the drink. But I’m Irish, aren’t I? I mean, my mother is the daughter of Irish immigrants, and the Gosnell name can be traced through Ireland, so I reckon I am pretty Irish. Why has it never been presented to me as a day of soaked revelry? Mom speaks. She speaks of how she looked forward to Lent every year, when for six weeks, Grandpa wouldn’t have a drop. She speaks of the massive stereotypes, often grounded in truths, that worked against the Irish, stereotypes which took decades to overcome. And this lack of celebration becomes a sublime point of pride for me, pride in a more transcendent Irishness.

But I’m not home, I’m in Ireland. If I were home, I’d likely be hanging out with bacchanalian Bucknellians, defending my roots. But today I prepare myself for an early evening with tea, conversation and my copy of James Joyce’s Dubliners.

Then my cell phone rings. It’s my cousin, Rónán. Truth be told, I hadn’t actually met Rónán yet — in fact, this was the first we’d ever spoken — but he’s 25 and we speak the same language and it’s clear from the get-go that he’s a cool dude. He and his girlfriend, Sarah, are going to Dingle this afternoon to — get this — surf. He invites me to come along, and subtly assures me that there will be merriment to be had. Of course, I accept.

So I exchange farewells with Tim and Mary and we hit the road in Sarah’s four door hatchback. The conversation comes naturally and it’s not long before I feel totally comfortable around my cousin and his girlfriend. He’s pursuing a master’s in oceanography at a university in Wales; she does work with the Irish school system. And all the while the Irish countryside, like the first act of an ancient drama, slides back and forth around us with a melancholy sort of beauty

We arrive at Inch in County Kerry, which has a sizable beach on Dingle Bay. Rónán nods to the south and says “On the other side of those mountains is Killeenleagh, where your grandmother is from.” Then he and Sarah put on their wetsuits and trot off toward the water.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, I’m in Ireland, and I’m watching my cousin surf. Surf. In Ireland. It’s the last thing I would have expected, but I’m loving it. I take pictures and breath deeply. I meander off to a little beachside cafe, order a pint of Guinness, sit down, and write.

Spring Break, Part the First

The last two weeks constituted our spring break; a chance to venture outside of Italy and see a bit more of Ye Olde World. For many, this was an opportunity to sample as much of the local drink in as many countries as possible; for others, a chance to take a look at cities and museums that compliment their studies; for some, a jaunt into the lands of their ancestors; for all, an opportunity to drop the books and relax. For me, it was a healthy combination of all of the above.

Over the past two weeks, I jotted down thoughts and observations in my little black notebook that many of you have seen me carrying around. Some of the writing was done on site — from a dark and musty pub in County Cork to the vast, white-speckled landscape of Mykonos — and some was done after the fact. What follows, then, is a catalog of notes and pictures from my travels, broken up into a few (i.e., yet to be determined) volumes.

15 March 2oo8, Cork City, County Cork, Ireland

Beneath the tarnish and the grit of a thousand years of birth and decay is where you’ll find the charm of Éire. She doesn’t flaunt it like France or pretend to contain it like Britain; she is genuine. She lives in the churches and on the streets, down crumbling alleys and in the abundant hospitality of her people.

I met her last night when Tim and Mary Sugrue collected me from the Cork airport. They’re cousins of mine: my grandmother’s sister’s son and his wife. This is the first I’ve met them. Or at least, the first that I can recall. He’s a lean man with handsomely sharp features and well set eyes. He speaks with the rolling accent indicative of his provenance. He speaks like my Grandmother, and his personality bounces with that inner child that seems to reside in this race. Mary has a soft face and a soft demeanor, constantly expressing a genuine concern for the wellbeing of her guest. Her tea is warm and so is her hospitality.

It was nearly midnight by the time the three of us arrived at their home.

–How about a cup of tea?

I tell Mary that would be lovely.

Tim shows me to my room. I unload my things and return downstairs to find Mary busily preparing sandwiches and tea. Tim turns to me:

–Well then, will you have a drink?
I’m not sure if he means tea or alcohol.
–How about some whiskey? His eyes light up and the corners of his mouth twitch slightly.
I smile and accept enthusiastically.

He proceeds to pour me the healthiest measure of Irish whiskey I’ve ever seen. The measure with which you measure will in return be measured out unto you. We toasted to slàinte, to health, and lost ourselves in the sort of banter that befits old friends.

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16 March 2008, Cobh, County Cork, Ireland

Today I saw Cobh, the port at the mouth of the River Lee. It’s the place where, so many years ago, my grandmother bade farewell to family and friends, to turf and poverty, to green and grey, and set off across the brine for a new life in America. And how many other people did the same? Liberty called for the tired, the hungry, the poor, and Ireland obliged. How many?

There is a cathedral in Cobh that sits prominently above the harbor. Grandma is my age. She boards the ship, loaded with anxiety and a piece or two of luggage. The ship’s horn bellows and it sets off. She turns to look at that massive structure. Would she return? Would she ever again see her parents alive? All she can see is the tip of the spire, now; the horizon consumes her home. Would God be with her in America?

(Image taken from here.)