I am hesitant to write this, because I know that my words will never do the feeling I have justice. I have traveled around the world three times to date, and when people ask me what my favorite place is, my first thought is always Ireland. Ya, India is the most exotic, by cultural differences and flair. But Ireland holds a certain feeling that is unique, charged and wondrous.
The first time I came to Ireland was in 2011. It was my first stop in a 6-month trip, and it was the first country I traveled to outside of North America. The bus that brought me to Dublin from the airport was a double decker. I haven’t seen one since I was a child growing up in Boston. Right away I took the top front seat so I could get the best view. The first thing I noticed was the absolute green of the land. By this time I have traveled 49 of our United States, and have never seen this shade before. It was a shade of green that was deep to my eyes. It felt familiar, even though I have never seen it before. I felt a sense of calm, wonder and returning to a home that was missed for years.
Upon arriving in Dublin I had no destination. I wondered around admiring the features that accent the city. Even though the city was painted in beautiful street art, lively pubs and many opportunities to have a blast, I wasn’t in the mood for a city. The country was calling me. I found a tourist information booth and the kind lady suggested that I go to Galway; a small, art centric city on the west coast. I said “sure, I’ll check it!’ and found a bus that left every hour from Dublin. The journey was cheap enough to traverse the country, about $13 at the time, with the trip taking about 3 hours. I was glued to the window. The grey sky would part, letting in this god-light that would illuminate the rolling green. I saw my first ancient castles perched on top of high hills. Excitement and joy rushed through my veins. Cows, sheep and horses decorated the landscape. Stonewalls were common. Simple features, not uncommon to me, but here there was something different.
These elements all fed the feeling of place; a feeling that I’ve never felt before. My awareness dropped into majesty. I became entranced by the ultimate combination of elements. The landscape, kindness in the air, the stones, all played into the stage. If Fairies, giants, and leprechauns could/did actually exist, it was here, in this place, that the perfect setting was alive.
After finding a quick hostel to catch my first night sleep, I awoke excited to explore Galway. I found some friendly people working at a bike store. One lady suggested that I go to Inis Oirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands. This was the first I heard of these little gems. I decided to listen to the suggestion, and that day bought a ferry ticket to Inis Oirr.
Upon arrival, the first thing I noticed was the Irish language being spoken! For the locals, it is their first and daily language. I was instantly intrigued, and the words sounded like songs, songs of history. Next was the rock. It had seashells in it! I found this fossilized rock very interesting, never seeing anything quite like it. It’s a Limestone Karst, the whole island is made of it. Rounding the corner into the little village of 260 people, I passed a tomb called Cnoc Raithnighe, a 3500-year-old Bronze Age tomb. “OMG” I thought, “Where am I?!?” I looked around and noticed that the island was bear of trees. Amazed, I peered at the quilt-work of perfected stonewalls that made quaint fields for livestock and agriculture. The energy of this little island became clear to me. This ancient place swept a feeling through me, as the wind blew tradition and history through my hair. This all solidified by the local people speaking their first language, the language of my ancestors, Irish.
Atop of a high hill I saw O’Brien’s castle ruin. I decided that my first castle would be my first camp. I set up my tent there and fell asleep to the cuckoo bird calling, another first for me! I never realized that the cuckoo from a cuckoo clock was actually from a real bird! The early June sun held fast in the sky late, and there was still light at 11pm. I slept well.
I took to the tight roads in the morning, after waking up to a beautiful clear day. Entranced by the style of stacking stones to create such beautiful walls, I hoofed. Cresting the hill, the backside of the island spilled before me. A maze of stonewalls all the way to the edge of the island, the cliffs of Moher in the horizon. No houses, just walls and fields… and beauty. After a short time in this mysterious world, I found a lone man lifting rocks in a field. By this time I have concluded that the Irish people were kind to approach, and with my love for physical labor, I decided to see if I could trade some volunteering in for some exercise.
I walked into the field. Flowing blonde hair wisped in the wind as the man gazed at me approaching, not stopping his labor. He continued to work as I asked him if I could help him. “No” he said in his thick Irish accent. I told him I wasn’t looking for pay, just wanted the pleasure of lifting rocks. “No, I just crushed my finger” he said kindly, lifting his thick hand to present his finger, its skin hanging by a flap, showing his bone. I announced that I was a Wilderness First Responder, and that I would like to dress his wound. He reluctantly said “ok” and out came my medical kit. After the dressing and very little words, he looked at me and said, “I better go see the doctor and get some stitches. Hop in the tractor and come with me”. Up for the adventure, I agreed.
The tractor barely fit down the twisting roads lined with high-stacked stone. Two boarder collie dogs raced behind us. We arrived at the doctor’s office and I waited outside for the stitches to be completed. After he invited me to dinner at the one of the three local pubs. I agreed. Being a vegetarian is an odd thing for the Irish to comprehend, and my meal consisted of cabbage, potatoes, and carrots. He had a hot brandy and beef, along with the usual vegetables. After some small talk about ourselves, Paraic invited me to stay with him. “I have a B and B with no one staying at my place. If you are camping you can come stay with me”, he said. “Ok” I replied, “but only if you let me work”. And so our friendship began. For the next week and a half I helped Paraic with his cattle, fixing up the house, and preparing the B and B for the summer season. The kitchen table was a sacred place. It was where the jokes were told, the next day plans were made, and the friendship deepened. Little did I know that one instance in a field would lead to a life long friendship.
Since that first meeting I have returned to The Mermaids Garden, Paraic’s B and B, 6 to 7 times. After volunteering in Kenya for 5 months in 2014, I brought my mother, 2 sisters and girlfriend there. Paraic is the embodiment of Irish Culture. His jokes, kind heart, giving spirit, endless stories, famous soda bread and Irish breakfast, endless hard work, and traditional singing in his first language, Irish, will bring any guest familiar with the magic of the Island.
I guess it’s hard to define what the actual reason is for the spirit of place that I feel in Ireland. The lush landscape, genuine companionship, and the mystery of the ancient and sacred stone tombs all play into the feeling for sure. But a mystery lingers in why I feel this way. Looks like I will have to continue to return to Ireland and spend a few more days staring at rainbows over the sea from the cliff tops. Or contemplating this while visiting ancient stone stacks and tombs that have been the place of sacred gatherings for thousands of years. Or maybe I will unlock some answers in my continuing study of the Irish language. Or perhaps, I will never know. What ever it is, it keeps me coming back to the wonder, which is Ireland.