Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Ireland Diaries, Part 2: The Deep and Ponderous

For context, I wanted to give a quick recap of our route through Ireland. Looking back on it, I realize we covered an enormous amount of ground, much of it very remote and rural. I’m bad at geography, but I’ll do my best—basically, we traveled in a rough horseshoe shape through the middle of the country: We flew into Dublin, and after a two day stay, departed by train to Killarney, which was a three-hour trip through the rural countryside, (and we remembered to change trains at Mallow!, which we were repeatedly admonished to do), then we were taken by private chauffer (because we are fancy) through Adare, into the Cliffs of Moher, and finally to the seaside town of Galway. We spent the last full day in the small city of Limerick, which was a little bit of a backtrack towards the south, but a very pretty drive.  “Very pretty” describes all of rural Ireland. It was like driving through an illustrated fantasy children’s book, so absurdly picturesque that it almost felt unreal.  

I have always believed that Ireland is my spiritual home, and that when I arrived there, I would feel immediately embraced and loved by the land, and would feel like I returned to my birthplace. But in spite of its beauty, I did not feel welcomed with open arms by the earth. The land felt savage, alien and infinitely unknowable to me; a self-contained terra that holds it secrets close and has no interest in nursing the wounded soul of an outsider. Ironically, I felt this most strongly as we were flying out of Shannon and I looked down at the spooky mists rising from the vivid green islands of the coast. It struck me in that moment that this regal land belongs only to itself, and that those who walk on it are strictly guests.

After so many years of believing that home was somewhere else, it turns out that it was here all along. The Pacific Northwest is the land that loves me: The familiar lakes and trees and forest, the herons in the park, the smell of Evergreens on a rainy day. The land here covers and protects three of my passed-away cats, and holds all of my offerings. I have walked on its paths and received its gifts time and time again. It’s a healing land, and it knows and understands me. Ireland is beautiful, but it didn’t feel like my “nature home” the way the northwest does. It felt good to return its embrace.

That having been said, I felt very connected to Ireland in other ways, in part through its people and their deep commitment to preserving their history and culture. I may just be missing something about my own city, but it seemed to me that Ireland, especially Dublin, was home to an extraordinary number of museums and national parks, all dedicated to preserving their art, their history, their land, their language, or their literary legacy. I’ll talk more about the Book of Kells exhibit and the Natural History Museum in another post, but there were so many more museums I wanted to see and just no time to take them all in. I could have spent an entire day in just one museum and still not feel that I’d seen everything adequately.

While there is this remarkable dedication to preservation, and there are large swaths of of Ireland that feel as though they’re frozen in time, it is also a country that is bumping up against the aggressive elbowing in of modernization. It seems to exist in a weird suspended tension of both.  So far preservation has a narrow lead, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen in a few years. It’s clear that Dublin has already lost that battle. It was great to tour the city and see the historical buildings, but I was also glad to leave. It was extremely overcrowded, smoggy, and loud, and it has clearly gone the way of Seattle—they have packed in massive numbers of people in a short period of time, and they don’t have the infrastructure to support the rapid population growth. All of the locals we talked to had the exact same laments native Seattlites do about the housing shortages, crowding, traffic, and the loss of the soul of the city. Walking in Dublin was very claustrophobic, the noise, traffic and smoke was grating, and everyone seemed stressed out, unhappy, and rushed. It was like being in a super-concentrated version of Seattle. It was a relief to leave that energy and get out into the country.

Speaking of the country, I give Ireland mad props for being so dang good at tourism. Somehow they manage to get a massive number of people to popular sites such as the Cliffs of Moher and the Ring of Kerry, all while still keeping the landscape pristine and seemingly untouched. With the Ring of Kerry in particular, there seems to be a stubborn (and wise) refusal to make it more accessible. The entire Ring is accessed by a tiny, narrow, two-way road that the giant tour buses somehow defy physics to travel on, all the while deftly ducking idiot self-driving tourists who take blind hairpin turns way too quickly and don’t have any respect for how treacherous it actually is. Sadly, some tourists who forgot what side of the road to drive on were killed in a car crash on that road a few days before we arrived. If you do travel through Ireland, I recommend that you do not self-drive, and that you hire a private driver or suck it up and book a bus tour, especially in the country. The roads are unforgiving, and Ireland's drivers are total pros, so there is no reason to put yourself through the stress of driving.

As I’m writing, I realize there are so many more things I want to tell you about—the Cliffs, the Book of Kells, Galway, our warm and hilarious Ring of Kerry driver, and our chivalrous private chauffeurs who went out of their way for us numerous times. So over the next week, there will probably be at least two more parts to the Ireland Diaries. Stay tuned for more, and thank you for indulging me as I process my journey!

--Kristen McHenry

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