For all of its rain, Ireland sure is sunny. It’s the friendliest country I’ve ever visited out of nearly 100 worldwide. If you think Americans are friendly, just wait until you meet the fun-loving, story-telling, joke-cracking, “craic”-making Irish. They will scoop you up in their beers, laughter and tales within minutes of meeting.
After spending the month of January 2014 in Dún Laoghaire, a coastal suburb of Dublin, I have plenty of proof for this claim. I “house-sat” for my Irish buddy George, who had taken a work assignment out of the country. I was awaiting my work permit in Belgium and had to leave temporarily due to an expiring tourist visa. Ireland was the best place in the world to be alone for a month.
Mind you, January is the worst time of year to be there as it rains cats and dogs, killing even the strongest umbrellas. I lost at least five to fierce wind and rain and saw a trail of downed umbrellas on the streets of Dublin like a strewn-out cemetery. But indoors, Ireland couldn’t have been lovelier.
Note it rains beer indoors … lots and lots of beer. That’s because pubs are on every corner as the cornerstone of Irish society. They are as commonplace and essential as drugstores because you always need a place to get out of the real rain! There is nothing more comforting on a cold, rainy eve than “a pint” (as the Irish would say) and hot shepherd’s pie with warm-hearted locals. Therein lies the difference between Irish and British pub culture: the Irish actually talk to you.
This is how I survived a month by myself in a country where I only had a few acquaintances in case of emergency. It was my pre-COVID-19 training in self-isolation and telecommuting. But thankfully, I was free to meet people in public spaces at any distance I desired. Sometimes it was a wave across a pub. Other times were close encounters singing with “strangers” in locked arms and dancing to traditional (“trad”) Irish music. And more often than not, it was the latter. I’d walk into a place knowing no one and leave knowing everybody.
January happens to be the month of the annual Trad Fest in Dublin, which features non-stop performances for four nights in the famous Temple Bar area and pubs all over the city. Trad takes the drab out of winter. It was my only reason to be “troublin’ in Dublin” on cold, rainy nights (along with the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl). Dancing to foot-stomping fiddles, concertinas and uilleann pipes warmed me up inside and out.
By day, Dublin has worthwhile sights like the artful Book of Kells at Trinity College, Dublin Castle, Dublin Writers Museum, Kilmainham Gaol (jail), St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Grafton (shopping) Street, The Guinness Storehouse and EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum (Ireland’s greatest export has been its people).
On weekends, I traveled to every corner of Ireland to get to know the country. In every city or village, I found the most popular local pub to meet people and hear music (just scratch an Irish person for a song). It was the best way to integrate. In fact, this is why Ireland has more “consulates” (pubs) than any other country in the world. They are hubs for international relations.
For example, in Kilkenny, I participated in a musical jam session at a pub owned by a local doctor. There, I met a nice Irishman who drove me in his “Flower Power” van (he owns a landscaping business and drives a “Scooby Doo” van) the next day to see the Rock of Cashel, which is only accessible by car. He introduced me to talented musician friends and even got an Irish Member of the European Parliament to write me a letter of recommendation for my Belgian visa. (It wasn’t necessary, but a lovely gesture! That was real flower power.)
In the “Norn Iron” (Northern Ireland) capital of Belfast, I took in more culture via its beautiful City Hall, impressive Titanic Belfast museum, Crumlin Road Gaol, murals from The Troubles and peace wall. An ex-British military officer I met “in jail” (at the gaol) drove me around to see hidden treasures from the Troubles, even e-mailing me news footage and photos of murals that no longer exist from those days.
North of Belfast, I saw 40,000 interlocking basalt columns at Giant’s Causeway, unsurprisingly an UNESCO World Heritage Site; crossed a harrowing rope bridge along the Antrim Coast; and learned how Irish whiskey (always spelled with an “e” to distinguish it from Scottish imposters) is made at Bushmill’s distillery. And then, guess what? Back in Belfast, I met another sweet Irishman.
“Just having a pint with the lads,” he said. “Would you like to join us?”
That turned into an evening of late-night trad dancing. This guy even offered to drive me all the way back to Dún Laoghaire the next day (I politely declined)!
In Killarney, a sheep farmer quasi-jokingly proposed to me, offering his home in the countryside (or at least a lesson in sheep shearing). Across the bar, he pointed out a former member of the Irish Republican Army. This man looked tough enough, especially when he caught me looking at him. Lest I got sheared, I said “cheers” with a beer. That’s how one rolls at an Irish pub.
“Are you speaking Gaelic?” I asked the two fishermen.
“No, Anglish,” they looked at me bewildered.
“Blimey!” I joked, “Anglish-speaking anglers!”
What blarney. Normally, the Irish are the world’s most articulate English speakers with the best accents.
Speaking of blarney, in Cork, another nice Irishman drove me to see the impressive Blarney Castle and kiss the Blarney Stone. No lie! It was a feat doing a partial handstand backwards to kiss that germ-ridden slab and not fall or fall ill.
During the work weeks in Dún Laoghaire, my office was often at a scone-selling coffee shop. In the evenings, I worked out in a gym I joined for the month or dined at a local restaurant where I usually met the owner and/or chef as a solo diner with a non-Irish accent. (One owner comped me a three-course gourmet meal because I chatted with him on a slow night!)
Instead of spending a month in solitary confinement, I outdid myself. And Ireland upended me. I will always be grateful for its heartfelt, warm welcome. “Slainte” (cheers) to the beloved Irish! Think I should marry one (who won’t make me shear sheep) …
10 Emerald Isle Fun Facts
- Ireland is a small country and large island with a cultural impact on the world that far outsizes its land space.
- Some of the world’s greatest writers and performers were/are Irish. Think James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Bono of U2 (I walked past his house in Killiney near Dun Laoghaire), Enya, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell and Riverdance steppers.
- It’s the only country to have a musical instrument (Celtic harp) as a national symbol. That’s because nearly every Irish household has at least one musical instrument.
- Known as “Silicon Bog,” Ireland is a technology hub as the European home to Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel and Microsoft. (All trains and buses have free WiFi by the way.)
- The Holy Trinity of pub grub is shepherd’s pie, Irish stew and Guinness pie (all include meat and potatoes). The Holy Trinity of Irish beer is Guinness (based in Dublin), Smithwick’s (made in Kilkenny) and Harp (produced in Belfast).
- Other good things come in threes: triple-distilled Irish whiskey and the three-leaf clover (shamrock) used by St. Patrick to explain the Holy Trinity.
- Ireland is the only country in the world with professional hurling, camogie and Gaelic football (they are injurious sports – the Irish are tough!). All are run by the Gaelic Athletic Association.
- Amazingly, the friendly Irish had a long civil war (The Troubles 1960s-1990s), a.k.a. the Northern Ireland conflict. More than 3,500 people were killed – half of whom were civilians.
- But the Irish prefer making love, not war; Ireland makes more Viagra than any other country.
- Nearly 3 million Irish citizens (and 100 million+ in the Irish diaspora) live outside of Ireland, primarily in the United States and United Kingdom. Lucky us!