We have been to Southern Ireland several times, usually for short breaks. We’ve enjoyed each visit, all different from different perspectives. Big towns and cities like Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Galway and Limerick for rugby (Thomond Park, home of Munster and The Aviva Stadium, Dublin), for a bit of culture, history, eating and drinking. Cleggan, Dingle and Killibegs are coastal places. Ennis for the music festival and Croke Park, Dublin, for The Gaelic Athletic Association.
In September 2014 we went with friends for two whole weeks. A comparative overdose, but never dull. I wondered ‘What is it that attracts me to Ireland?’
Is it the history and the relationship with the English? Is being downtrodden by the London elite for several hundred years still valid? It strikes a chord with someone of my background; a socially challenged Yorkshire grammar school boy who joined the officer class for a short time.
Or, is it part of my nature to see other ways of life and cultures as more attractive than my own?
I do admire their humorous and musical acceptance of who they are.
It is not particularly relevant that our great grandmother and father came to Huddersfield in the 1850s from the west of Ireland. Everyone in England seems to be part Irish these days. Indeed a lot of the people we met this time either lived in England and were back home for the festival, or had returned to live here after several years working in England. Their kids were English.
We began in Dublin, staying in the prosperous suburb of Ballsbridge. They say Ireland is out of recession, but I’m not clear whether Ballsbridge ever went into recession. Big houses and cars, close to the classier city centre areas down by the docks. Posh pubs and restaurants. Croke Park and surrounding districts this isn’t. The city centre resembles any city centre and the Irish accent was conspicuous by its rarity. The shops and pubs are geared to the tourist. Only on the hop-on-hop-off bus do you get the history and culture, and if you hop off and on a lot you get too much history. And the same jokes. We spent Sunday afternoon in an excellent ‘french’ jazz cafe bar, the only features distinguishing it from a London or Manchester ‘french’ cafe bar being the prevalence of Guinness and the singer’s pretty Irish lilt. That evening we listened to Clannad at the Olympia theatre which was excellent and felt a bit like a genuine Irish night out, but in fairness we could have been at the St George’s Hall in Bradford.
Kilmainham Gaol is on the tourist trail, a model prison initially which gained its repute by hosting the executions of the 1916 Easter uprising ringleaders. A tad grim. The Garden of Remembrance in Dublin centre has the same disapproving tone, but at least the Queen paid her respects there. I felt anger, as I do at all injustice meted out by the powerful who assume they are right. Dublin museum, the Guinness factory, the statues of Wilde, Joyce and Molly Malone were light relief by comparison.
We then hired a car, from a company staffed by polish men, and drove to a basic but adequate end-of-terrace cottage in Ennis, market town and capital of Clare. It is also a centre for Irish music, and the annual traditional music festival was the reason for our visit. In addition it was base from which to explore coastal gems such as Dingle, Doolin and Lahinch, the Burren limestone country and Killaloe and Balina on the river Shannon.
The western coast is wild and rugged. Some of it gradually rises out of the sea, dotted by a haphazard pattern of houses and farms. Some of it, such as the Cliffs of Moher, erupts violently as high as 700 feet straight out of the water. To be even-handed, The Scottish Highlands, N Wales and the Lake District have similar breathtaking land and seascapes. At Doolin and Lahinch, on one of our windy days, the surf was stunning. Tourist traps were few and we avoided the tacky centre at the Cliffs. The Burren is 250 square kilometres of karst limestone country and a temperate climate which supports a number of rare plants. Within the Burren is the spa town Lisdoonvarna, well known for its brewery and salmon smokehouse in addition to matchmaking events. During our first week, we crossed the Shannon estuary by ferry on our way to Dingle and, later, explored around Lough Derg down to O’Brian’s bridge. It’s a big river and inland, the banks and hillsides are pretty, green and fertile.
The festival comprised groups of players taking up a corner of a pub or more formally performing to rows of seated followers. The informal gigs are not for an audience as the fiddlers, accordionists, pipers and others face each other in a circle. At least we could talk to each other. The music is for dancing: reels, jigs and hornpipes (waltzes and polkas too) or for singing (ballads). The dance music is repetitious and the tunes all sound a bit the same. Nevertheless they soon get your fingers and toes tapping. There is a structure and each group had a leader whose main function appeared to indicate when they should stop. Drinking is also integrated into the structure. Fag breaks as well. In fact between tunes there was much coming and going. And, as many women as men performed. We tried the dancing which had a simple step but a harder series of moves as you built up the steps into the dance. They had to be simple if you were doing it in the kitchen.
So there is history if you want it, illustrated by the heritage shows for the tourists. In addition to the Dublin hop-on-hop-off bus we visited Banratty Castle and Folk Park which contains many preserved cottages, churches and pubs from Clare. Most of the residential properties we saw out in the countryside have however been built within the last 10 years, fuelled by the boom in consumer spending and lax planning. The fisherman’s cottage and farm labourer’s hovel rightly belong in museums. There’s culture if you want it. Ennis has Glor, a modern theatre for music, drama and film, as well as traditional music. In Doolin and every village and town, or so it seems, the pubs are full in the evenings and weekends of locals enjoying an Irish band or two. Literary history is around every Dublin street corner: Beckett, Yates, Joyce, Swift, Behan and Wilde. And there is pretty countryside and the wild Irish west coast. This is tourism, which accounts for 4% of the Irish GNP.
So what preoccupies Irish people? The same as any other western country. The corrupt banking system, inept politicians, how much debt or wealth they have and currently, the government’s water charge. Personal wealth has yoyoed somewhat, following property values, but on average it appears that most people are financially comfortable. There’s no talk of the IRA or terrorism. No bare feet and crapping out in the undergrowth. In 2005 The Economist rated Ireland as having the best quality of life in the world. The trad festival pub session was the time for meeting people. Invariably they would say ‘Where are you from?’ and after the answer they would then say ‘I lived in so-and-so.’ Even the recent recession was accompanied by emigration. There was one 85 years old Ennis guy who came from Birmingham. Still with the Irish accent, but very worried about Muslims. Yet another from Southampton who was going back to Belfast and none too sure about it. So their stories are of emigration within living memory, gratitude for the opportunity and concern for the conditions now where they found themselves.
So it’s the way the Southern Irish seem to have come to terms with their struggles that attracts me the most. As A A Gill wrote recently in the Telegraph magazine, Irish people are ‘unnervingly, irrationally, precipitously chummy’. There will be some of the older generation with long memories. Sure the English did lots of bad things, but they are history. Youngsters don’t appear to know about them or if they do, they don’t bear grudges. The music is unique and Gaelic games are wonderfully inclusive.
Maybe you get a superficial view when you are on holiday, but it’s pretty much the only view I have.