Ireland

Ireland Travel Blog

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“May the road always rise to meet you,

may the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

the rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

may God hold you

in the palm of his hand.”

(Irish blessing to travellers)

 

 

Before I ever got round to actually going there, the image I had of Ireland, was perhaps dramatically over romanticised by TV commercials and Enya video clips. I had pictured the image of weather beaten log cabin style inns by a storm swept ocean front with dramatical cliffs and foamy swells. A warm and safe haven for weary travellers who just barely had managed to escape the wild moors, a place where they would be welcomed in a living room atmosphere, filled with music and song in a language you never heard before, but found strangely comforting.  

That reality might prove to be slightly different was something I did not wish to anticipate on, and so when my girlfriend suggested checking the place out for real, I found that waiting for the day of departure to arrive was something of a strain.

August the 17th.  Finally! The day has arrived when we leave for Ireland. The weather leaves something to be desired, but we won’t let that spoil the fun. I have this, perhaps over-romanticised, image of Ireland in my head. I have never been there before, and all I know of it, is either from TV ads of  suspiciously healthy looking locals drinking Irish whiskey in a music laden pub after coming in from a vicious rainstorm, or from movies with suspiciously unhealthy looking people blowing up cars and buildings. That both these images held very scant relation to the truth is something we would soon find out. Having given the car a service as good as we can (it’s not exactly new anymore, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed) we set off to get to ferry numero uno. Hoek van Holland to Harwich, departing at ten in the evening,  local time, to get us to Old Blightey round about seven o’clock in the morning, which we intend to cross in a space of time short enough to get us to Holyhead in time for ferry numero due. The one taking us to Dublin, scheduled to depart at half past three, again, local time. Careful planning and looking up information on the internet has learned us that we should have ample time to get from Harwich to Holyhead. Which, according to map24.com is about five hundred and thirty kilometres, for which we have roughly seven hours. Piece of cake. Except of course that there is such a thing as Murphy’s law. Combined with the fact we didn’t exactly plan all this as well as we thought we did, it nearly led to disaster.

To begin with, when after arriving in Harwich we punched in our destination of Holyhead, North Wales, into the sat-nav system we so cleverly brought along, it rather shockingly told us we had six hundred and sixty-eight  kilometres to go, instead of the five hundred and thirty I had been told by before mentioned internet road mapping site. And that therefore we would arrive there at thirty seven past five in the evening . Crap! This would make us miss the boat by three hours. Making up for that loss of time would require breaking the land speed record. And in a twenty three year old Nissan Sunny the odds against that, of course,  are astronomical. To make things even worse than already really bad, there was the traffic around London. Not that it really mattered anymore, there are no degrees in hopeless. Hopeless is hopeless, and that’s just that. Congested roads and slow traffic are more of a rule than an exception when braving the motorways circling the UK’s capital city, but of course when we gave it a go, we were faced with major road works as well. All this combined added up to the fact that now, instead of three hours late, we were going to be four hours late. Can it get any worse? Of course it can! Halfway through the trip across the nav system decides to leave us to our own resources, and conks out on us. Honestly speaking I have to take the blame for this happening. Being the chaos demon I am, I hadn’t taken the effort to check whether the battery in the GPS receiver had been charged, prior to leaving. I did hit myself in the head for it, but that didn’t get us there any sooner.

Oh well. Despite this rickety start, we decide we won’t let it bring us down, we’re on a holiday after all. Only one thing for it, we called up the booking office of Stena Line, to ask if it was a problem to change to an alternative departure time. Luckily this poses no problem at all, because we had booked with a flexible departure schedule. Unluckily however, the next ferry left an hour later than the original one, still requiring illegal, and unobtainable, velocities, and the one after that left at three o’clock at night. Again, crap. Convinced we have no other option we go for the night boat to Dublin, and decide not to worry about it; it’s a holiday after all. However, it nags me. What the hell went wrong here? I’m sure it’s only five hundred and thirty odd kilometres from Harwich to Holyhead; I looked it up didn’t I? I have used several road mapping sites, so many times, without failure and can’t believe it’s just not working now, and hey, wait a minute!! There’s a sign there that says ‘Birkenhead, fifteen miles’. And it’s half past eleven. This can’t be right! Those who have been here before, or are simply topographically well informed (like me in this case), know for a fact that Birkenhead is at the border from North Wales. And therefore about a hundred miles from Holyhead! Now I’m really confused. And then it hit me. The navigation software simply was way ahead of us. We weren’t scheduled to arrive in Holyhead by thirty seven past five in the evening, but in Dublin! It had already considered the ferry ride when calculating the travelling time. Shit!

So we call up the Stena Line office again, and change it back to the three thirty ferry. We should be able to make that. However, because we’ve been slacking it (we thought we weren’t going to make it anyway), we’re now faced with a race against time. And we’re in Nissan that was manufactured in a time when Japanese cars were considered to be poor replica’s of our European models. The thing already makes more undesired noises than my grandmother after a sizeable bowl of chilli, the exhaust is leaking like a church organ, the right hand window refuses to close back up after opening halfway through England, and the lights aren’t functioning as the boys in the Force would undoubtedly like to see it. My nerves are occasionally taut as a bowstring. But this particular specimen seems to have been made on a day when the sun had risen on a land of particularly good humoured factory workers, as so far  it holds itself together like a dream. Hurray for ‘Granny Duck’, as Susan likes to call it. The last one hundred miles of the trip to Holyhead even go so well, it’s even feasible we’re going to make it onto the original ferry of half past two. And we do. Just. Giving the best Schumacher impersonation we can squeeze out of our ride, tyres screeching to the terminal, getting through the entrance of it and belting to the actual ferry over road bumps and other  objects that are supposed to slow you down, we park the car on the ferry, to see the ramp being pulled up and the ship picking up speed, no more than thirty seconds later. That’s what I call ‘In the nick of time’. We made it! Ireland here we come! First things first though, we celebrate getting through the first stage of our journey with a cool pint at the ships bar. Cheers!

 

  

 

 

The Irish

 

 

“There are only two things to worry about;

Either you are well, or you are sick.

If you are well, then there is nothing to worry about.

But if you are sick, there are two things to worry about;

Either you get well, or you will die.

If you get well, then there is nothing to worry about,

If you die, there are two things to worry about;

Either you go up, or you go down.

If you go up, there is nothing to worry about.

But if you go down, you will be so busy shaking hands

with old friends you won’t have time to worry”

(Old Irish wisdom)

 

 

A

rriving in Dublin by ferry is a memorable experience. Especially if, like in Susan’s case, you’ve been waiting for it for more than fifteen years. The lay-out of the city alone gives you an unmistakable feeling of getting home. As the ferry glides into port the city seems to embrace you like a mother does a prodigal child. Bit of a shame about that huge funnel that emerges from the city skyline, like a giant middle finger, telling you to fuck right off again. But that might just be my imagination. So, after having collected all of our gear back out of our hut, and stuffed in the car again, we were ready for the ‘Grand Irish Adventure’.

We at least had the chance to charge the GPS receiver on board, so finding our hotel should be a walk in the park. And it is. Despite the fact that traffic wise Dublin is a nightmare, with more one way streets than two way ones, we found Adams Trinity Hotel, where we have booked our first two nights in Ireland.

Dublin. What can I say? Of course two days are never enough to get to know a city, let alone its inhabitants, or what makes them tick. There’s one thing however that strikes me almost immediately. It’s more a feeling than a scientifically underlined observation, but even though the city undoubtedly is very busy, especially around rush hour, it doesn’t have that crazy atmosphere like most busy cities have. You hardly hear any cars honking at each other out of  frustration, or sub sequentially the owners of them wishing each other horrible disfiguring diseases. It’s just all so mellow. Which isn’t all that surprising when you think about it. It merely reflects the nature of the people that live in it.  The Irish tend to take everything in life with ease. Most of the time that is. This particular rule however seems to have escaped the attention of Irish bouncers completely, who, as we found out both in Dublin and Killarney, take their job prolifically serious. Then again, taking into account the Irish drinking habits, this is the only way to go about it if you want to avoid a messy evening. As soon as anyone was spotted stepping over the line of decent behaviour, this person got introduced to several hundreds of pounds of Irish beef, followed by an introduction to Irish pavement. Almost as a statement; “We’ve got a party going on here my friend, and you’re not gonna ruin it for anyone!”

But it must be said; this occurred very rarely, and most nights were nothing short of a party, with good food, good drink, and lots of good music.

 

We finally met Dave. The guy who got arrested for calling the Americans stupid. Apparently he’s not Susan’s cousin’s boyfriend at all. Luckily, because contrary to what I wrote about him earlier, I didn’t like him at all. We also met an old Irish guy, who just couldn’t stop ranting to us about an incident he had with the Dutch police in the 80’s, when he apparently was working there as a sheet metal  worker. “It just wasn’t fair” according to him. After getting into a fight with a Dutch guy, against whom he was only defending himself (or so he claimed) the Dutch police had given him a hard time. Instead of helping his innocent self out of his predicament, they only hit him harder than the Dutch guy who had started the fight to begin with, and they threw his ass in jail. End verdict; Dutch police are complete assholes. We all agreed vigorously.

 

I read an article in the newspaper the other day, telling of surveys that show that the Irish are considered to be the friendliest people on the planet. Now that the trouble in Northern Ireland is largely a thing of the past, the Irish can again concentrate on what they do best; Drinking whisky and beer, making visitors feel welcome, and generally having a wonderful time! And it seems to rub off as well. Not just the Irish themselves, most of the people we meet in Ireland are very talkative to strangers, I cannot help noticing. There are always people who have a story ready for you, or give you a little insight into their life in the big green garden of Europe. I have experienced the exact same thing in Scandinavia as well. It might very well be a genetic link between the two nations, because even a shallow study of both their histories shows the relationship between them. The history of Ireland has in al large portion been heavily influenced by the Vikings.  In fact, most of the more important trade cities in the country have been founded by them. In cities like Dublin for instance, this fact is almost impossible to miss. There are numerous artefacts, expositions and buildings bearing witness to that fact. Above anything else, the Irish seem nothing else than proud of the fact, the latest evidence of this being the replica of a Viking ship called the ‘Gaia’, making the historic journey from Roskilde to Dublin only last year, as a commemoration to the historic connection between Scandinavia and Ireland. The original ship was excavated in the area of modern day Dublin, and is estimated to have been built there between 1040 and 1045. Hmm. What about those Vikings eh?!

What surprises me about the same article however, is that the Americans are number two on the list. Have I been in the wrong part of the States then, or have I missed something crucial? Not that I didn’t meet any friendly Americans. There were lots of them. But somehow, like the country itself, their friendliness appeared a great deal affected to me. Most Americans, I found, will invite you to their family barbecue, but they don’t expect you to actually turn up.

What does not surprise me is that the Dutch are nowhere to be found in the top ten of the list. I’m Dutch, and I don’t even like them!

 

What is really beginning to annoy me when I’m travelling, is the inescapable fact that there seem to be too many tourists, where ever you go on the planet. Despite the fact I very much enjoy being in, so far, unexplored territory (unexplored by me, that is of course), I have always had this icky feeling when the word ‘tourist’ is brought up. For some reason I can’t help associating the word with fat American families being a bloody nuisance to their surroundings. I honestly suspect that Douglas Adams thought of the concept of Vogons and their social ineptitude, after thinking along the same line. This causes me to at least try to resemble anything but a tourist, which is of course completely useless when travelling through non English speaking countries. And my appearance doesn’t exactly blend into the crowd in most countries either. Or the fact that I make pictures of everything. Damn it. I’m a bloody tourist myself. I hate me!

 

Apart from the fact that any given beautiful sight or landscape loses most of its zest when it is literally crawling with people in ridiculous outfits, scaring all potential wildlife away with the unceasing rattle of camera’s and yelling kids, there is another effect that causes me to worry. However understandable, things worth while visiting, can inevitably never escape the  grip of commercial exploitation. Sadly enough, a lot of times it eradicates the reason for visiting to begin with, it just isn’t special anymore when almost everybody you meet does the “been there, done that” to you.

Like for instance the world renowned Cliffs of Moher, in western Ireland. A stunningly beautiful stretch of coast that can easily withstand the comparison to Norway fjords. A rugged landscape that puts you in awe about the fierceness of mother nature. It’s wild, it’s humbling, it’s.....well, was, unspoilt by man. Nowadays of course the Cliffs are still there, as they have been for thousands of years. On top of them however the Irish Nature Reserve have built, what can only be described as a theme park. It’s got protective walls, to prevent our intellectually challenged fellow tourists from falling off. A noble thought I’m sure, but it wreaks havoc to the view. Then, there are of course the souvenir shops, the overpriced restaurant (standard issue at any site in Ireland), and even a music store, which sells you music typical to the region (yeah right!).

And it doesn’t stop there. Seemingly the entire coastal regions of the country are slowly, but surely, transformed into a huge theme park. The theme of the park being: “Give us all your money, please”. Because that at least has to be said; They are friendly about ripping you off. Service with a smile. At first the feeling crept on me that I was being mingy, until I started noticing T-shirts with the text “Rip-off Culture” all around me. A few questions later I had learned I wasn’t very far off with my assumption at all. It’s not just the tourists who feel they’re being overcharged, apparently it’s a nationwide problem. One woman even told me that she had the feeling she had moved to  St. Tropez, but without the better climate as a bonus. It appears the Irish are trying to make up for decades spent in poverty (compared to the rest of Europe that is) by overpricing everything. A recent survey in the Dublin area revealed some publicans collecting up to a thousand(!) percent profit margin over sold drinks. The absolute epitome being a mineral water and lime, that’s just water, mind you, with a slice of lemon, for the staggering price of € 4,70. Of which € 2,00 are for the slice of lemon. And that is ridiculous, no matter how you look at it. Even the government had a go at it, taxing the population with premiums for promised improvements to the infrastructure that were never realised. This resulted in a big scandal during the nineties, in which the government was forced to admit they had spent all that money on luring foreign companies to invest in the country. And did they collectively learn anything? Judging by the prices they still charge and the t-shirts they wear, my guess tends to the negative side. And it’s a shame you know. Because apart from all this, it’s really a staggeringly beautiful country, well worth visiting on more than one occasion. But with the trend towards outright greed, it looks like the Irish are simply competing themselves off the tourist chart.

 

What a far cry all this is from how the monks on Skellig Michael cut the cake. They managed to survive in abject solitude,  on a lump of rock barely a mile across, projected into the Atlantic Ocean some twenty miles off the west coast of Ireland. It boggles the mind when you think about it, especially when you see the housing they had erected for themselves. Barely more than a couple of large bee hives constructed out of loosely piled rocks they found on the Island itself, the nearest DIY being twelve centuries away. Where’s that Tardis when you need it? How it managed to stay up for all these centuries, for us to witness, is a miracle in itself. There must be something right about it, in rural parts of the country all fencing is still carried out in this fashion.

And the people who built them, and lived in them for centuries had to be just as obstinate. Or completely bonkers. It must have been like living on the moon by modern standards. Getting supplies from the mainland was nothing short of an expedition at the best of times, and right-out impossible in the harsh winters of yon days. It took us about two hours in a fast motor boat to get there. Rowing, it must have taken at least two days! Despite that, they managed to keep the monastery in use for over seven centuries, despite even being sacked several times by bands of roving Vikings. It deserves nothing else than respect if you ask me. Even though I think they were a bunch of loonies, as are the people that still abide there now in a way. After the monastery was abandoned the Island was primarily used as a base for a lighthouse. Partly to warn ships of the coast ahead, but also as a lookout for the people on the mainland, to warn them of any potential threat. The lighthouse is still there in a modernised version, as are lodging facilities for scientific research, and in some extent for those working for the tourist industry, which nowadays serves to partially pay for the maintenance of the mentioned lighthouse. For this purpose there are a number of people living on the Island, in shifts of two weeks. And they’re not even driven by religious fanaticism. They do it because they choose to. They even like it. Weirdos! Of course, with all the mod cons, they are spared the isolation of their ecclesiastical predecessors, but still.  You probably don’t have to be nuts to do it, but in undoubtedly helps. I should know. To be completely honest I think I’m infected by the selfsame infliction these people must have. Maybe even those monks had a similar incentive to trade the reasonable safety of everyday life on regular soil, for the unnerving existence on remote locations. Once you get used to a life like that, normality just seems too, well, normal really. And as we all know, loonies and normal just don’t mix very well. Sadly for the monks however, they didn’t get two weeks off after a fortnight of relentless meditation. But that’s medievalness for you. 

 

Also, on Skellig Michael, I get to witness the extent of one Susan’s bigger fears. Heights. The path to the monastery is little more than steep stairs, about six feet wide, meandering across the rocky slopes, with nothing to hold on to. And they climb up to a height of about four hundred meters, at the top feasting you to a spectacular, or heart stopping view. Depending on the beholder of course. And going up was one thing, going down was much, much worse. This does not bode well for the snowboarding aspirations she has for next winter. I’m afraid it will require more than just practise.

 

 

To be continued....

 

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