“Only Irish coffee provides in a single glass all four essential
food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat.”
Before I went to Ireland last September, I was aware of Irish lace, fisherman’s sweaters and Jameson’s whiskey (or Bushmill’s for the Protestants). I knew a little about Irish music and dancing. I knew there had been a potato famine which spurred emigration to the US, and that there had long been hard feelings between the Irish and the English. But there was so much to learn!
I had never heard of Hurling, a 3000 year old ball and stick game, which is played everywhere in Ireland. This game combines moves typical of field hockey, lacrosse, and baseball, and is regarded as the world’s fastest field game. The national championship game was played the week I was there. Kilkenny, a frequent champion, was favored to win over Galway. The teams played 60 minutes to a tied score, which required that the match be replayed two weeks later. In the second match, Kilkenny’s colors (think Pittsburgh Steelers) were victorious.
I learned that Irish children must master the Irish language (Gaeilge) in order to graduate. Irish is more and more becoming the special knowledge of older people in out of the way corners of the country. Requiring that young people learn it is an attempt at preserving the language and the culture, but it is a challenge. High school students who need intense practice can opt for an immersion experience, living with other young people in a home where they are to speak only Irish. Our guide’s son was in his second year of this experience; she suspected that a girl he met in last year’s stay provided more motivation for him to return than did the language challenge.
The “hard feelings” I had heard about between Ireland and England are still very easy to uncover on the Irish side. As I was shown various landscapes, villages, or manor houses, I would hear about appropriations made by the English crown, seizing land to give to various loyal subjects (usually from England). I heard accounts of the failure of crop after crop in the poor soil of the northwest while grain grown on English-controlled fields in other parts was abundant. The surplus was usually exported to England or the new world rather than being shared with the needy in other counties. The difficulties in Ireland are often presented as a religious disagreement between Protestants and Catholics. But it seemed to me that the antagonisms were rooted more in colonialism and empire, and that the religious organizations’ deeds dovetailed into the political powers that each related to. The memories of past abuse are like the rocks in The Burren – just under the surface, ready to stub an unwary toe.
Even with that said, I learned that the Irish are truly hospitable, friendly people. St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin or any part of Ireland has to be a memorable celebration, for the feeling it evokes as much as any particular events. Travel writer Rick Steves does not speak any language but English, but says that when he chats with someone in an Irish pub he feels like he is speaking another language. (And the more pints he has, the better he speaks it, I am sure!)
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A Cup of Tea
“In Ireland, you go to someone’s house, and she asks you if you want a cup of tea. You say no, thank you, you’re really just fine. She asks if you’re sure. You say of course you’re sure, really, you don’t need a thing. Except they pronounce it ting. You don’t need a ting. Well, she says then, I was going to get myself some anyway, so it would be no trouble. Ah, you say, well, if you were going to get yourself some, I wouldn’t mind a spot of tea, at that, so long as it’s no trouble and I can give you a hand in the kitchen. Then you go through the whole thing all over again until you both end up in the kitchen drinking tea and chatting.
“In America, someone asks you if you want a cup of tea, you say no, and then you don’t get any damned tea.
“I liked the Irish way better.”
―C. E. Murphy, Urban Shaman
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
14 March 2013