Outside of Catholicism, Celticism, and faeries, the Irish lesson is one of human stubbornness: authenticity. Protect what you believe.
The town was once the sight of a massacre. In autumn 1649, Drogheda, Ireland, took the full ire of Oliver Cromwell’s Catholic hate. His New Model Army and artillery pieces arrived ready to siege. In March, 368 years later, the languid River Boyne flowed like a dark blue vein into Drogheda’s intricate cobbled streets. Major monuments form high points, above the town—which is peppered with satellite dishes, winding, narrow, alleys, pubs— still on watch and defending after so many have come and gone, before and after Cromwell. By the quay, above and beyond the Scotch Hall Shopping Centre and a new parking lot under construction, you see Millmount, a round mound above the village, sitting like a grass-frosted cake with a martello tower on top. While the tower is unmistakably British, the mound itself imposes an older recipe of human and natural history, likely a passage tomb linking this world and an other. Other visible monuments also bear testament to thresholds. The spire of Saint Peter’s Church courted birds away from the cold wind that briskly swept the medieval town. St. Lawrence Gate, the only gate left by Cromwell’s siege, in which thousands were killed, stands next to ancient walls, centers the most vital part of the village, protecting it, yet remaining unprotected itself: an ancient relic stands as an unguarded treasure: “Welcome to the heart of Drogheda.” On a steep walk up from Constitution Hill. two teen boys with new trainers pushed a shopping cart up an alley decorated with the condiments of spray paint and trash pieces. The metal clang of the shopping cart and its wheels hit the ancient cobbles hard. We knew as soon as we turned out of sight that cart would be repurposed as a toboggan. We turned away toward our car parked in the makeshift parking lot with the idea that the stone would still prevail over the cart and all the other retail.
Galway. Lower Salthill. Claddagh
Salthill Promenade curves along the Atlantic with sandy strands that have views of the Aran islands. Walkers outline the path with dogs and without. A poor stray Border Collie with an injured leg hobbled onto the promenade toward the water, away from some of the new condos facing Galway Bay. If you follow the promenade toward the center of Galway, to Eyre Square, walking is often faster than driving. In fact, if you do drive in Galway, it’s likely that you’ll earn props form the locals for doing so. In walking back to humble Salthill from the center, in the rain, there was a shine to the icy raindrops and tint in the air that animated the sky like a Photoshop filter come to life. As we crossed the Corrib River, which runs intense, dark, and deep, two swans approached. Time held. We knew we were somewhere outside of time when those swans drew close enough. We passed a fire station and realized that we were in Claddagh, the birthplace for the iconic Gaelic symbol of the heart held with two hands topped with a crown. The symbol of love, loyalty, and friendship, which originated from a basketweave design from an ancient Claddagh fishing village. While the Claddagh symbol could be found on rings and plaques at just about any Irish gift shop, the place itself needed no symbolism, as it carried a liminality between light and dark, sea and land, mixing in a way that formed a powerful potion for the sense, so much so that standing in pelting rain no longer mattered. I felt love.
Before we soaked our jackets completely, we stopped in at P.J. Flaherty’s Pub for shelter. Like many Irish establishments, it did not quite look open from the outside, but upon entry, there were at least three men sitting at the bar. The barkeep stood on watch in front of the taps and low, yellow light from behind him. The boxy TV played in the background and the conversation at the bar would stop and start randomly. As the words came, they would enter the comfortable sheltering mix of tv noise, rattling dishes, rain, and into the communal pulse of the pub. You don’t often hear the word “bitch” used in the proper sense.
“I seen her walking around. I saw her with three new bitches just the other day.” Five minutes later, the conversation continued.
“I had this Jack Russell terrier, best bitch ever. Wouldn’t stop pulling on the lead…
We took a table by a sign that read,” ALCOHOL doesn’t solve any problems, but neither does MILK.”
“A Carlsberg and Guinness pint, please.”
South of Galway, in County Clare, the dry stone walls, built by hand, keep in lambs, cows, and sheep, many of them tagged with “graffiti” marks on their neck to track them back to heir home farm. The low, dry, grey walls let wind through, which is one of secrets of their resiliency. Part-time farmers tend the fields, which were cultivated over time by using rich seaweed and kelp to grow grass. Other bits of flora and fauna sprout up from the “grikes,” spaces in between the limestone. Many of the families in the villages of this area, during years of Catholic persecution, turned their kitchens into alters, using faith as a way to nurture each other through food and hearth. Amongst the villages are hawthorn trees, some of which form fairy rings, portals for faeries. Fairy trees hold strong resistance to change and anything seeking to bring it on, like a bulldozer or saw. One rumor about faerie trees holds that if the afflicted ties a piece of clothing to the tree, when the cloth wears out, so does the illness. In the same area of the Burren, you find dolmens or megalithic portal-tombs that protected the deceased during their own time of illness and passing. Memories of human history are built into the landscape, which holds a particular resilience and authenticity that extends beyond Catholicism, faeries, and ancient Celts.
As a tourist, it can be easy to forget that Ireland is really two countries, the Republic of Ireland with its green, white, and orange flag and Northern Ireland or Ulster. Driving from Dublin to Belfast, you see a mix of two flags, representing the territorial affiliation of its owner with more Union Jack flags waving the further north you go.The flags are often worn and tattered, marking the elements, but primarily the scarred history of conflict between the Republic and Union entities. Entering Belfast, that divide is obvious as you enter and pass the Balls on the Falls (formally known as the RISE sculpture). On the right side of the sculpture, wood pallets are stockpiled in a barbed fence, being harvested for the bonfire of Marching night on 12 July, an event that usually, literally, sparks violence between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast. Downtown Belfast has an imperial sheen, dirty underbelly, and speedy pace, but as you travel further north through the gorse brush in Ulster, you find the one UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Giant’s Causeway. Even though the Causeway is patrolled by rangers for protection, you can still walk on the mass of beautifully geometric rocks that form craggy, irregular steps coming right out of the sea and extend into the hills above. We had a picnic lunch on them with a bag of sandwiches from a Belfast shoppe. Using this phenomenon as a picnic table almost seemed a little too irreverent, but it was a beautiful experience. Rumor has it that the Giant’s Causeway may soon be fenced in, which would reduce the lunch options, by taking away the intimacy takeaway being an option to dine close to something so timeless and rare.
After the visit to Giants Causeway, we took a taxi into Dublin. The taxi driver told us that the National Museum of Ireland has free admission. He also let us know about a fierce football game between Ireland and Wales that would happen that night. We asked him if he had ever been to Giants Causeway. He replied with a simple, ‘no’. Out of pride and patience for Ulster to be part of the Republic many Dubliners will not enter Northern Ireland on principle, although this taxi driver had been to Canada. Inside the museum, full of priceless gold hoardes, Egyptian artifacts, and archaeology of ancient stones, behind a rounded wall in darkness, we found a lighted encasement. Inside and hidden away from the main walkway of the floor of the museum were the bog bodies of Clonycavan Man, a red head, and the muscular chest of Old Croghan Man. These guys become history, leathery relics marked with violence and pain, yet preserved in a careful way to be remembered. On the way back from the museum, a visit to the childhood home of Oscar Wilde, and Trinity College, I formed a wish for the Irish taxi driver to see the Giants Causeway before they stopped letting people have lunch on it. I was not sure how that could happen, but we watched the Ireland v. Wales football game in the hotel pub over delicacies of Irish carrot soup, fresh cheese and bread.The game was a tie, but the Irish won.