I lived in Ireland the summer of 2002, right after I graduated from college. I shared a house with a gaggle of girls on the outskirts of Galway; worked in an old men’s pub in the evenings and a coffee shop during the day; and left town as much as I could on the weekends to see the neighboring sea cliffs, sheep fields, matchmaking festivals (events run from “after Mass, till late”), and all the other things that make this diminutive green country so very Irish. (I would paste up a photo or two here, but they were all taken with real film!!)
When Arthur was tasked with going to Dublin for work earlier this month, I happily packed up my laptop and tagged along. While he was in the office, I worked from our third-floor walk-up accommodations in the amazingly named neighborhood of Ballsbridge, venturing occasionally to our local chapter of Insomnia Coffee for a sweet treat and some B-grade European pop music. We took a couple of days off at the end of the week to travel around, and I could shower you for hours with anecdotes of all the wonderful Irish-ness we encountered, but you probably only have time for a wee dose, so I’ll just pick a few.
- At a Thai restaurant in Killarney, after we finished an excellent bike ride through the area’s drop-dead gorgeous national park, we were tapped by the group of middle-aged guys at the next table for our opinions of one guy’s sock-and-shoe choice (a potent combo of orange and blue striped stockings with tan leather Oxfords). Our hearty approval touched off a good 15 minutes of conversation, in which our suspicions that the Irish and American definitions of “salty” and “spicy” vary considerably were confirmed. (Arthur used to work with an Irish woman who, in fact, told him of their famously bland food, “Ah yes, we do consider salt a spice.”) One of the men pointed to the bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce on the table and called it “Kill a Man.” When another asked if I’d tried the Sriracha and I said we had a bottle in our fridge at home, he just put his head in his hands.
- It was fascinating to go back to Galway and see my old haunts. Or really, try to see them. I found I remembered relatively little, at least geographically, of my time there. Thankfully, I still had the address of the pub stowed in my mind, and we were able to find it without trouble (though it was shut tight on a Saturday night—Paddy, where are you??), but I couldn’t locate the big yellow house I’d shared with the girls, the town’s centerpiece Eyre Square could have been dropped in from Barcelona for all I knew, and I realized I had no memory of the routes I’d walked between home and my jobs every day. (The locally owned coffee shop, we deduced, was gone, most likely replaced by a Mocha Beans, the national chain that seems to be everywhere now.) I’m sure I’ll be stewing on the reasons for this mental blank-out for a while; for now, I can only chalk it up to all the other stuff I’ve crammed my brain with in the past 15 years putting the squeeze on older memories!
- We took a “black cab” tour of Belfast, something I’d wanted to do but been a little nervous about when I was last in Ireland. I’m so glad we did it this time, though it did indeed put me on edge to hear someone who had lived through it tell of the decades of violent struggle the people here have endured—as well as the fact that, despite never hearing a word about it in American news anymore, the conflict is still not resolved. Aside from the sights we saw (which included many haunting murals, images of the frightening bonfires still held in Protestant neighborhoods today, and the “peace wall”), it was the nature of the tour I found so arresting: a professional cab driver, a Catholic native to Belfast, was our only host, so the tour was super visceral, emotional, and biased. I loved it. Yet I was so caught off guard by everything I internalized in such a short time (such as the concept that this isn’t so much a religious conflict as one between colonizer and colonized) that, even though I had about a hundred questions flying through my mind, I noticed myself keeping as mum as the Swiss couple who shared our cab. Stupefying though it was, the experience was a pointed reminder that, no matter how well we think we’re keeping up with news from abroad, there’s no substitute for being there to help round out our understanding of the world.
By the end of our trip, I had absolutely drunk the Irish kool-aid (and, this time, I don’t mean the Guinness!). Despite some pretty crap weather and a few meals no amount of salt or hot sauce could save, I felt the magic and soul of this little dewy island that’s seen so much. Thanks for having me again, Éire.