Reflections on Ireland

After the last glass of champagne was drunk and the last wedding toast was made at my sister's wedding celebrations a few weeks ago in England, my husband and I decided to make our way over the Celtic Sea to the Emerald Isle, otherwise known as Ireland for a wee vacation. During our six days we were there, we visited Cork on the southeast of Ireland, drove up to the Dingle Peninsula in the west and then drove northeast to Dublin.
Now being travel junkies, Ireland is definitely not the most exotic place we had ever visited. For people who like to be challenged and taken out of our element and comfort zone - this was not the trip. Nevertheless, we did have some very special experiences. A good friend of mine whom I knew many years ago in Tokyo, who has since returned to her hometown of Dublin, told me that there was a concern that Irish hospitality and their friendly nature was on the wane. But we happily reported that we met incredibly helpful and friendly people. Any Irish person we stopped for directions, and that was often, was always very generous with their time. (The only exception were two African taxi drivers in Dublin - one drove away instantly in tremendous haste when I in my most friendly yet pathetic voice asked for directions to our hotel. It was as if I had just asked for his first born. The other taxi driver informed me that any directions he would give me would result in me getting even more lost, so it was best he said nothing).

The name the Emerald Isle is a very apt for Ireland. I don't think I have ever seen such endless fields of brilliant green. Coming from pollution rich Los Angeles, I inhaled the Irish country air like it was my last breath. And while we were never suddenly inundated by herds of sheep on a narrow country road as I had desperately hoped to be, we did see sheep everywhere - white little furry clouds like polka dots against a lush green backdrop. We also did see a lot of cows which are no doubt responsible for the sinfully delicious butter and ice-cream we had in too much abundance all over Ireland.

In the City of Cork, we stayed at this wonderful hotel called the Hayfield Manor. The grounds and the rooms were large, well kept and comfortable. And for the most part our service was very good. But something did strike me as odd. They, at this hotel, had a huge number of Eastern Europeans who worked as wait and support staff. That in itself is perhaps not so unusual. After an influx of Eastern European countries joined the EU, many came to Ireland from Eastern Europe drawn to the opportunities available when the Irish economy was booming as the Celtic Tiger. However, what was so striking, given that they are working in the hospitality business, is that none of them ever smiled. There was instead a harshness in their tone when they took your order, brought you your food, cleared the table. They were actually so cold, that I started to feel very uncomfortable. Did they not know that communism had failed and that big brother was no longer watching them? I finally concluded that either the hotel was badly abusing them or that the vestiges of the dark days of communism still hung heavily over their heads. Or perhaps it was the endless rainfall all summer. That would make me cranky too.

As we travelled around Ireland, we did meet many more people from Eastern Europe who had left their own countries and made new homes in Ireland and for the most part, our experiences were much more positive after we left the Hayfield Manor. Odd.
For us, the city of Cork was a huge disappointment, as was Kinsale, the supposed sailing and foodie capital of Ireland. I think if we knew better, our time would have been better spend driving around the Irish countryside. Kinsale, although, lauded as wonderfully picturesque and glamorous felt more like a kitschy tourist trap. And although, we went to one of the most renowned restaurants in Kinsale for lunch "Fishy Fishy," I can't say we were blown away. For the most part we were completely thrown by how overpriced the restaurants were in Ireland. Most of food we had was wildly disappointing if not sometimes inedible until we got to Dublin. (Although, we did have one of the best fish and chips ever in Dingle).

We did learn while in Ireland, that the Irish still take their potatoes very seriously. Every meal I had, every meal, came with potatoes. As if not carb-ridden enough, my big bowl of pasta at dinner one night came with a side of potatoes three ways - potato croquet, french fries (which the Irish do very well), and potato gratin. "Would you like some more potatoes with your potato?"

Something the Irish make very well however, is soup. I never had so many different soups from so many different kinds of food establishments and they were all good.

Dingle Peninsula

From Cork we drove to the Dingle Peninsula. Dingle turned out to be a wonderfully charming town. Very picturesque - with planes of green grass terminating in black cliffs that plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. We only had one night there, but wished we had more. It would have been a great location to do some hiking.
Good pub in Dingle

Fast food in Dingle

Our final destination was Dublin - which we loved. Dublin has a great vibe and energy. Although, we visited the all standard tourist destinations, my most favorite parts of Dublin were found when we just wondered around aimlessly. There was however, one historic building well visited by all tourists, that as an architect and a nerd gave me tingly sensation down my spine. Well actually it was one room in particular - The Long Room in Trinity College. I was in love. It is the main chamber in the Old Library of Trinity and is 65 meters in length and houses 200,000 of the Library's oldest books. This room is spectacular. It killed me that they did not allow photography. I would have gone wild capturing every angle, every detail. Instead I just stood there, motionless, trying to memorize every little nook, every capital, every arch. My only option was to buy a postcard of the room (which I have scanned below), but the image does not do it justice.
Dublin Castle

St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin

St. Patrick's Cathedral Interior
James Whiteside, Chief Justice of Ireland 1866-1876

Capital, interior St. Patrick's Cathedral

While in Dublin we stayed at the Dylan Hotel - a uber chic, sometimes a little too cool to be practical hotel. We loved our stay there. The service was exceptional. Our room was comfortable, the bathroom was little odd but since each room has its own unique design, it may have just been our bathroom. The location was also great. The Dylan Hotel is located just on the periphery of all that craziness in Dublin. Turn down the street and you have escaped the hustle and bustle of the city but within a 10 minute walk you are back in the middle of the throng.

Lounge area, Dylan Hotel

My last comment on Ireland is about the street signage. I would imagine that many of the people who visit Ireland rent cars and drive from town to town, as we did. However, in all the research I did on Ireland and in all the guidebooks I read, nobody mentioned how direly lacking street signage is in Ireland! They are either invisible covered by a tree or ivy, or mislabeled or missing. At first I thought, it was just because we were tourists and didn't know any better; didn't know where to look; just weren't savvy enough. Turns out the Irish also have problems with their own street signs. It seems that we were all getting lost together. In addition to the lack of signage, the Irish also love their roundabouts. They are everywhere coupled with the poor signage. You have no choice but to keep going in circles trying to guess the best road out. On the plus side, we had none of the common problems we read about renting cars in Ireland. Our car we rented still had the new car smell and drove like a dream. We loved our peppy Peugeot.

If we had to do it all over again, I would definitely go back to Dublin and Dingle but instead of the southeast, I think I would focus more on the northwest of Ireland as was recommended to us at the end of our trip. Our trip was not as thrilling as I would have hoped, but it was an experience we would never forget. And now back in Los Angeles, every time I open up my refrigerator and pull out that Irish butter to slather on toast, I am once again in the midst of rich green fields surrounded by sheep and cows.

Aaah...breathe deeply.
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