Massachusetts is officially the most Irish state in the country, with nearly 22 percent of residents being of Irish ancestry. Considering how many of the politicians I’ve covered are “Irish,” it is surprising that only recently did I travel to the Emerald Isle. The month of June changed that, and what a treat it was.
Ireland has everything – natural beauty, fascinating history, literary giants, music, lively pubs and extraordinarily friendly people. We flew into Shannon, met our driver and went straight to the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher. We arrived before the tour buses and were virtually alone on the windswept cliffs in County Clare overlooking the sea. From there it was on to the Burren, where you can walk – albeit very carefully – onto the limestone karsts bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Galway Bay. The rugged beauty is very humbling.
Little towns like Doolin and Leenane are quaint and welcoming, with travelers drawn to pubs and Irish music, substantial food and friendly people. As you move up the west coast, it’s bodhrans, bouzoukis and ballads, rolling countryside, stone walls, black-faced sheep dotting the hills, Connemara ponies, prehistoric ruins, castles, ancient abbeys and walled gardens, feeding baby lambs and lessons in falconry. Galway, too, is very welcoming, with restaurants, shopping, street musicians, and all the casual activities one would expect in a university town.
And then it’s on to Dublin, on the east coast, where those so inclined can kayak downtown on the River Liffey or the sea at Dalkey, among the seals. Here one can be immersed in Ireland’s history, its castles, cathedrals (especially including St. Patrick’s Cathedral, dating back to 1191, where Jonathan Swift was Dean), and museums (including the new EPIC museum, the Irish emigration museum that has every interactive tool offered by modern technology to tell the story of how Irish people shaped the world).
Ireland embraces its literary giants in a way unimaginable in the United States. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the annual celebration of Bloomsday, commemorating June 16, 1904, when the story takes place. It chronicles 18 hours in Dublin experienced by Leon Bloom, the fictional protagonist of Jame Joyce’s Ulysses. The innovative stream-of-consciousness technique heralded a new modernism in world literature, and the book, modeled on 18 episodes in Homer’s Odyssey, is often tough to slog through. But imagine any June 16th in Dublin where folks across the city turn out in period costumes and walk in small groups from one to another of the locales so colorfully described in the novel, with leaders reading portions out loud to the delight of all who will listen.
Even pub walls are adorned with pictures of Swift, W. B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett, and George Bernard Shaw. (Seen less often are women writers like Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Bowen, Anne Enright or Mary Lavin.) One can do a literary pub crawl, featuring readings by the writers who frequented those establishments back in the day. One such literary pub crawl is at the 18th century establishment The Duke. A plaque just outside commemorates a place where Leopold Bloom (remember, he’s Joyce’s fictional creation) stops to help a blind man cross the street. Pubs in Ireland were once hiring halls for day laborers, the sites to which they returned at the end of the day to collect their wages. While that no longer happens, pubs remain community gathering spots, a place to get a pint and a good meal, and to experience a significant slice of Irish life.
From the 8th century Viking raids, to the 12th century Norman invasion, to British oppression and bloody responses, and 30 years of “The Troubles,” now bubbling up again, the Irish have had to endure unspeakable trials. Nor should we forget the severe Irish potato famine in the 19th century that caused mass starvation and disease and drove the 1840’s Irish diaspora.
There was also the crushing power of the Church on daily life, the brutality of the Magdalene asylums run for two centuries by Catholic orders, which the government acknowledged only in 2001 to have viciously abused thousands of women. As a sign of change, two years ago, due to the perseverance of amateur historian Catherine Corless, discovery was made of a mass grave in Tuam, near Galway, where as many as 800 bodies of babies and children from the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home are buried. A small, spontaneous memorial has been created on the site, and excavations will be done there by the end of this year.
Much of the Irish experience is dark, but with the power of the Church diminishing and the country becoming more secular, Ireland is trending cosmopolitan and global. A high level of education has attracted multi-national companies. The country has welcomed immigrants, including many from eastern Europe. Ireland’s laws have become more liberal, providing access to abortion and gay marriage. (Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is gay.)
Ireland’s painful history makes it all the more remarkable that the wonderful features of the country are topped off by the people themselves, friendly, open to conversation, helpful to visitors, and given to humor. When they say in Gaelic, “blessings until I see you again,” you know you want to return to the Emerald Isle and experience it again and again, perhaps starting with the exciting Museum of Literature, scheduled to open in Dublin this fall.