Ireland is a green dream

by Mick Rhodes |

Ireland is a green dream.

My wife Lisa and I were lucky to spend nearly three weeks wandering the Emerald Isle last month, and we’re still reeling.

We landed in Dublin, where we spent one wild night before making our way north to a bed and breakfast, Innisfree House, in a 13th century seaport town called Dundalk. It turned out Dundalk was the site of some of the bloodiest battles in Ireland’s long, blood soaked history. I mentioned to a native there how I was falling hard for the country’s green rolling hills. He had a typically poetic Irish response, positing it was up to me to decide if the landscape was in fact “bleak or beautiful.” I chose the latter.

Neither Lisa nor I had ever been to Ireland. After our first night in Dublin, we just wandered and booked rooms wherever the road took us, continuing north to Belfast, followed by Derry, Donegal, and the remote village of Keel, on Achill Island, where the wonderful “Banshees of Inisherin” was filmed. After that it was Galway, Roscrea, Ennis, Limerick, Cork, Waterford, Arklow, and then one final night outside Dublin in hotel built around the remains of a 12thcentury castle.

We put nearly 2,000 kilometers on our rented Toyota Yaris, traversing the entire outer island, with a couple zigs and zags into the interior as well. It turned out Ireland was beautiful beyond anything we anticipated. I’ve been using the phrase “green and serene” for years to describe my heretofore undiscovered fantasy retirement locale. She’s both, we found.

Courier Editor Mick Rhodes at McCafferty’s Bar, Donegal Town, Ireland, on October 20. Courier photo/Mick Rhodes

We saw ancient, crumbling walls dividing farmland and what seemed like millions of sheep, some blocking the road and creating fanciful delays as we coaxed them out of harm’s way.

We saw massive church spires piercing dozens of canopies as we approached the next dot on the map, always the tallest building in town. Many of those towns began with “Bally” or “Kill, or “place of” and “church” in Irish, respectively. In experience number 377 of “things you can’t do in America,” we even stopped at a 17th century graveyard in a small town in County Kildare called Kill, pop. 3,818.

Waze and Google Maps took us down country roads so narrow the tiny Yaris barely fit. Some were enveloped by trees, shrubs, and hedgerows. People had cautioned me about driving on the left side of the road in a car with the steering wheel on the right side. It was weird for a day, then became natural. The highways were all beautiful and well maintained. Every one of the toll booths we came across featured a smiling, cheerful Irish ambassador of goodwill. Honestly, it was fun taking a minute to scramble for Pounds or Euros just to talk with them.

Oh yeah, the southern half of Ireland’s currency is the Euro, and Northern Ireland still uses the British Pound. It’s complicated.

I talked to many an Irishman and Irishwoman over those weeks, adopting Irish phrases such as “wee,” as in “a wee dram,” which I overheard while ordering a whiskey. I now have a wee crush on Ireland.

One of the perks of driving around the country was listening to the regular terrestrial car radio, on which I was astounded to hear under the radar or underplayed (in the U.S.) artists such as Ray LaMontagne, Loudon Wainwright III, Nick Cave, DEVO, Shane McGowan, Eels, Joni Mitchell, the Stooges, and Cornershop. Of course I heard plenty of Irish legends like Thin Lizzy (also a relative rarity on American airwaves) and Van Morrison. The musical smorgasbord was a wonderful surprise.

We visited bunches of pubs, usually at least one in every city. I expected them to feel like American bars, but I was wrong. They’re primarily family places, open to all ages, and many serve “pub food,” which though it varied slightly, it was always good and sometimes great. And another thing about the pubs: I didn’t see any drunks. One never knows what to expect in neighborhood bars in America, or at least in our part of it; fistfights, shouting matches, passed out or sick over-imbibers are common. Not so in Ireland, in my experience. Perhaps that had something to do with us usually being back to our hotel by 9 or 10 p.m., but I suspect the good vibes we witnessed weren’t an aberration.

All that time in pubs meant we were exposed to oodles of secondhand sports, almost always football (soccer) and sometimes rugby. I have a glancing understanding of football, but I hadn’t watched any rugby prior to our trip, and I was transfixed one night in Arklow when our hotel bar/restaurant was showing the 2023 Rugby World Cup final between New Zealand and South Africa. The bar was full of all manner of locals, families celebrating birthdays, 20-somethings out for a night with friends, and older folks. The intensity and volume of the patrons escalated as the match neared its end. It was fascinating to be with the crowd there, getting swept up in the collective joy of the moment. Those athletes are absolute warriors. What a crazy sport! South Africa won, 12-11.

Another “other side” thing: Zippers are also on the opposite side in Ireland. Who knew? Chicken wings were an item on nearly every restaurant menu. Weird! In Limerick we met a retired aerospace engineer from New Jersey who had traveled four million miles on United. My mind boggled.

One of the other lovely things about Ireland was we rarely saw litter or even trash cans. People seem to take pride in the appearance of their towns, so much so that several boasted “tidy town” awards on signs at their city limits.

The bigger cities — Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Galway, Derry — were very diverse. Though I’m sure racism is a thing in Ireland, I didn’t witness any of the everyday micro- and macro-aggressions so common in the U.S.

One of the most enjoyable surprises were big, “full Irish” breakfasts. The hearty feasts of black pudding (made with pig’s blood), mushrooms (!), fried tomatoes, fruits, cheeses, amazing Irish bacon and sausages, eggs, and of course lots of toast, were included at every hotel or B&B, big or small.

Let’s talk about tea. Though I didn’t despise it before our trip, a la Ted Lasso, let’s just say I was a solid coffee man. Irish tea rejiggered both mine and Lisa’s thinking. We found ourselves enamored, so much so we rarely took coffee, and are now the owners of a sturdy, French made stainless steel teapot and a stash of Irish tea. It’s a move I would have never predicted, a sea change in our morning ritual.

Over the past decade Lisa and I often fantasized about a long getaway to somewhere “green and serene,” but with nine children between us, it too was complicated. Our youngest is now 13 and we have just three at home, so it seemed possible, and we did it. We booked the flights hastily, almost on a dare, seemingly to prove it could be done. And the children, animals, and house survived. It turns out it can be done! Next year we’re doing it again, so stay tuned for more overly descriptive travelogues.

Tea’s on.


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