Another chase-the-brother adventure found us touring Ireland.
An overnight flight from Toronto found in Dublin airport mid-morning there. I don’t sleep on planes, so that trip is always tough. But I made it!
After the easiest possible customs/immigration process ever (I only had to endure the mocking inquiry of the customs agent as to why my girlfriend didn’t join us), we were out in the city.
We bused from the airport to the docklands – a former warehouse district that has now become the business and tech hub. Google’s European HQ is located there along with many associated companies.
From the bus stop we walked north and found our AirBnb spot. The neighbourhood is entirely English-style homes (connected with small, fenced yards). This is the most common living arrangement from what we saw.
The outside of the house was nothing special. In fact, most of the outside of many of the buildings was a strange stoney-painted look. A local told me this was called ‘pebbledash‘, where they literally dash pebbles against the surface of the home covered in plaster. Most of the homes are built with concrete blocks since wood is at a premium on the island.
Inside the house, however, was an ultra-modern, newly renovated home which we enjoyed greatly.
The other thing that stood out immediately to me was that instead of having a security company sticker on the window like in North America, the homes with security systems have lit up alarm boxes somewhere above the door. Apparently they have no other function than to say ‘stay out!’.
Security device on a pebbledash house
The Irish also seem to like to hide their appliances behind cupboards. We were confused at our first place where the dishwasher was and at another where the refrigerator was! Those tricky appliances.
All the houses we stayed at also had weird water things. Usually it was that they don’t keep water hot all the time – you have to hit a switch and wait for it to warm up, unless you have a scheduled time for your appliance to turn on. Apparently heating gas is quite expensive there so they try harder to conserve.
As for initial impressions of the people, they are indeed incredibly friendly as the stereotype goes. A taxi driver in Belfast explained to us that mother’s would hit their kids if they weren’t polite – apparently that is effective.
They also really like their pet dogs like North Americans do. My feeling from visiting Paris and Berlin was that those kind of pets weren’t so prevalent in those cities, but in Dublin there were many, many dogs.
In the language department, all the signs are in both English and Irish Gaelic. The Gaelic side is a lot of anti-England sentiment, but I was told by locals it’s mostly not spoken but it is taught in school. On the western side of the country you can get into communities that use it everyday, though.
The Irish also have a few common phrases I heard over and over. They say “Thanks a million” a disproportionate amount of the time and the word “crack” means “fun”. It gives new meaning to getting some crack on a Friday night.
Other weird observations – they have a lot of billboards and signs preaching social correctness like “pick up your dog poop” and “don’t spit gum on the ground” as you can see in the picture below.
BIN YOUR GUM!
Food-wise, it was pretty much as you’d expect. A lot of Irish stew, lamb, and the such. We tried bread-and-butter pudding (an Irish dessert) at one stop and that was tasty. The pubs sometimes have a carvery inside, which is basically a line to get huge, hot plates of food. Oh, and there was Irish breakfast which included black and white pudding (think pork fat, oatmeal, and in the case of black – pork blood). Not my cup of tea.
Breakfast! Also the best pancakes I think I’ve ever had
We started our time in Dublin with a historical walking tour. Our tour guide had a PhD in medieval studies and was actually from Ireland so she was very informative. She explained how England tried really hard to clamp down on Catholicism with limited success. Trinity College, for instance, was formed as a Protestant only school. You had to renounce Catholicism to attend! You also had to be a Protestant to be part of the parliamentary system they had. A lot of people ‘converted’ due to these hardships, but I’d doubt how genuine that was for many of them.
Along the way she pointed out how the city made plans to build a new city building a few decades ago and while digging discovered a full, intact Viking village under the soil. Historians desparately wanted to keep it for research but eventually they lost in court and they literally took wrecking balls to walls that were hundreds of years old! In memorial there are some markers of the structure outlines and example of things they found, but wouldn’t it be cooler to walk through an actual viking village? What were they thinking?
After the tour we wandered the nearby St. Stephen’s Green to see the ponds and apparently a very intoxicated individual destroying the gardens. Ah well.
Commemorating the Irish Famine at St. Stephen’s Green
We headed back to Trinity College the next day to take a look at the Book of Kells in their museum library. The Book of Kells is an ancient, extremely ornate copy of the Gospels written upon animal skin from around 800 AD. Couldn’t take any pictures of them, but the wiki page will show you what I mean by ‘ornate’. The library hall itself is also incredible and was rumoured to be what the Jedi Library in Episode II was based on.
Nearby is the Little Museum of Dublin, which is a home converted into an eclectic museum of Irish history (including a room dedicated to U2!). Between that and the historical tour of Ireland we learned a lot about the fight for independence in Ireland. A major turning point was the Easter Rising in 1916 where the Republicans tried to take over by force while Britain was busy with WW1. This was actually very unpopular with the locals, it turns out, any anyhow the rebellion was squashed quickly by the British. However, the British cracked down harshly with executions and imprisonments. This got a lot of the Irish to side with Sinn Féin in the coming years.
The U2 room – looks about right
When Britain tried to implement conscription in Ireland for WW1, it got even worse. Eventually this led to the Irish War of Independence. The Anglo-Irish treaty was signed in 1921 which established Ireland as a British Commonwealth country (similar to Canada or Australia) and the formation of Northern Ireland. This treaty got a lot of people very angry (since it wasn’t a truly independent state), however, and led to the Irish Civil War. The anti-treaty side eventually lost, but none the less Ireland effectively became a republic in 1937 and later officially so in 1949.
(We later made our way to the Kilmainham Jail where a lot of dissidents had to survive harsh conditions and many were executed over the years.)
Also of note in the museum was a discussion of the “Celtic Tiger”, which was the rapid rise of Ireland starting in the 90s (with much thanks to their lax corporate tax rules). However, this came crashing down and they’re still not completely recovered. On display was a symbolic art of gold dipped potato chips – shiny on the outside, but lacking substance in the middle. Ouch!
What trip to Ireland would be complete without Irish music and dancing? We booked a dinner show underneath one of the hotels which was definitely worth the money. Of course, it turns out a lot of the Irish music is quite, ahem, dirty, but it was well performed. And we had more Irish food, so no complaints!
Oscar Wilde’s Home
On our return to Dublin at the end of the trip we also made a stop at the Museum of Archaeology. The highlight here was the bog people, which are literally bodies of ancient people preserved in the bogs of Ireland.
Fossilized fishing nets
Berlin and Belfast are actually quite close to each other so we ensured we made the train trip to visit the Northern Ireland capital. I just want to note here that the trains were amazing the whole time in Ireland. I also appreciated that the stations all had their stats for reliability up all over the place. Keeps them honest, I guess. It would be nice to see that at ViaRail in Canada.
On the train ride north we saw plenty of the beautiful “Emerald Isle”, though there’s nothing really to distinguish the UK side from the Irish side except for our cell phones welcoming us to the UK.
The Emerald Isle!
It was interesting hearing more about the UK-Irish side of things while in Belfast (versus the Irish Republican side in Dublin). Way back England had transplanted a lot of English and Scottish non-Catholics (Presbyterians and Anglicans) in an attempt to dilute the Catholic influence. So when it came to a vote much later, the northeast side of the island voted overwhelmingly to stay with the UK, thus the split between Ireland and Northern Ireland. We were told that some people were so vehement about this that they signed their declarations of loyalty with their own blood!
When you see this you’re in Her Majesty’s UK
A lot of the worries of the loyalists was that Ireland would become too Catholic and that would affect the way they were governed. This actually turned out to be true, such as with things like birth control.
I also learned that athletes from Northern Ireland may compete for either country in the Olympics. Some celebrities, such as Liam Neeson, despite being from Northern Ireland, consider themselves Irish.
I had thought that the ugly violence/political battles were largely over , but just this year there have been a couple of murders related to the old fighting and the Northern Ireland parliament has completely shut down in protest. Life goes on, though. We were also told that basically everyone in Belfast has had someone in their family or friend group injured or killed from the fighting so it’s still on everyone’s mind.
But back to the city itself. The weather was glorious while we were there, which was actually extremely fortunate. Apparently it had been one of the most miserable summers in memory. The city is a little drab – probably dying slowly. They have a bit of a manufacturing base (Bombardier for instance, and the shipyards where they built the Titanic) but we all know how that goes. A lot of the young people move to London or Dublin.
Also of note is that the deLoreans were built in Belfast! We saw this model on display in honour of the Back to the Future year (2015 is the future they travel to in the second movie).
Back to the future!
After settling into our apartment, we meandered around Queen’s University which was quite nice. The gardens were beautiful and the hustle and bustle of students starting their new school year brought back my own memories.
A building at Queen’s
The Ulster museum is also on campus and is very well done.
Hello, my stuffed friend
Shrine of St. Patrick’s Hand!
The next day we wandered in the opposite direction into the downtown area with the goal of checking out city hall. What an amazing building! We had a great tour of it (though the accent of the tour guide was quite hard to understand!) and it is one of the most impressive buildings I’ve seen. Sort of like a fancier Texas State Capitol building. It was explained that the previously dominant linen industry funded the construction.
Belfast City Hall
Inside City Hall
Some of the highlights include memorabilia from the Titanic. One thing was a chess set made of people involved with the actual disaster.
Titanic Chess Set
Nearby we ate at a restaurant called Made in Belfast which made me feel right at home with its eclectic nature. It could have been right out of east Austin.
We ended the day at Belfast Castle, which is basically a fancy house up on the hillside overlooking the city. There’s a restaurant in the basement where we were served by the spitting image of Luigi (of Mario Brothers fame), complete with Italian accent and moustache.
We actually had a connection with someone in Belfast so we were able to get a personalized tour of the rest of Northern Ireland the next day. Again, these pictures are unheard of with the nice weather. As you can see, the coast is rocky and beautiful.
Northern Ireland on a beautiful day
Even a (chilly) beach!
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge was one of the highlights – a rope bridge spanning the ocean and rocks below. We also saw a pod of dolphins!
Northern Irish Church
The highlight of the day is of course the Giant’s Causeway. The causeway is made up of these hexagonal pillars that look incredibly man made all stacked together. The myth around it is the Irish giant built a causeway to Scotland to fight the Scottish giant but after getting beaten he escaped back to Ireland, ripping up the causeway as he went. In actuality, the structure can all be explained by cooling cycles in the stone. Geology – ruining all the fun yet again.
The stones of Giant’s Causeway
Up close and personal
Galway is known to be the nicest city in the world in a recent poll. How convenient that we were about to visit that very place. A quick train ride back to Dublin (then a hop to a different station) and then on to Galway.
We again stayed in an AirBnb and discovered yet another Irish appliance oddity – an electric shower head. Weird – and incredibly loud! The host was very nice and even picked us up from the train station, though.
Electric shower head!?
It turns out Galway is a university town – there are a couple of universities there. This made for a happening downtown area when we went exploring for food. There we found one of my favorite places to eat – a hole-in-the-wall that served only meat pies! Mmm, chorizo pie. Yum!
The next day we took a frantic bus tour of the area around Galway. Our first stop was the first of many castles scattered around Ireland. The first is amazing and after that you start getting blasé about it. Ho-hum, another big stone house, y’know.
You get a castle, you get a castle. EVERYONE GETS A CASTLE!
We were also introduced to thatched roof houses. Some of the locals still keep up this tradition and it’s quite the trade if you can do it. It’s pretty much as you’d expect it to be – but they have to be replaced with some frequency.
Near Galway is the land known as The Burren – a rocky area with some tough farming. Lots of grazing sheep and some fields, though the soil had to be hauled in from elsewhere (or made from kelp from the sea!). There we visited an old abbey that was very beautiful (and still actively used for family burials), but it no longer had its roof. It was explained that the roof was burned during Oliver Cromwell’s assaults on Ireland. He apparently did everything he could to keep down the Catholics including burning their religious buildings. Not a very nice guy.
The coolest thing we saw that day was a megalithic tomb – over 5000 years old. It was explained that the rocks must’ve been put into place by people packing dirt up, placing the stones, then hauling the dirt away. The stones were far too heavy to place in other ways back then.
Heavy Stone Megalithic Tomb
Also of note, in Ireland there are spots of what I might call the first ‘villages’ – permanent encampments where a few families would build dirt mounds and be able to defend with a good view of the surrounding countryside for defense purposes.
Our main reason for visiting Galway was taking a tour to the Cliffs of Moher. Harry Potter fans may remember these cliffs from the movies during the hunt for the horcruxes. Unfortunately, the weather was insanely bad when we got to the cliffs so we could only barely make them out before we were almost blown away. In fact, the tour guide explained to us how his bus had once flipped over in the high winds while he was there previously! Oh well, can’t win them all.
A bit of the cliffs
After growing up hearing the song “Christmas in Killarney”, I knew we had to stop in Killarney on our tour of Ireland. We made a series of complicated train hops (4 different ones in all) to make it from Galway to Killarney. The train ride was fine except for the last leg as it was filled with hungover Irish football fans coming back from a tough defeat to the big city Dublin team. Rowdy! We also got confused about which train car we were on so we thought we had lost our seats and ended up standing most of the way.
It is real! Stopped here on the way.
The town itself is pretty small. A little bit of industry outside of town but a lot of tourism it appears. It’s a good place to make your HQ if you’re going to visit the Ring of Kerry like we did!
The Ring of Kerry is a loop around the coast that gives you spectacular views. We took another bus tour to see it. Side note: they were filming Star Wars: Ep. 8 a mere handful of days before we got there. So close!
On the way we drove through Killorglin, a town know for it’s weird Puck Fair. Basically, the locals kidnap a wild goat, put him in a cage for 3 days and treat him royally, then lead him back to the mountain after. Weird! There’s a statue of a goat in the middle of the town. (Apparently Puck is the Irish word for male goat).
We learned more about peat on this trip. It was the most common fuel source and is still used frequently today. They slice it out of the marsh, dry it, and burn it. It’s ‘renewable’, but it grows back way slower than they cut it out.
One the coolest things we saw the whole trip was definitely the shepherd who uses whistles (i.e., just his mouth) and two sheepdogs to herd sheep around the hillside. The tour stopped to see this man perform.
He explained that he raises the dogs to have their own unique whistles that mean various things like left, right, and lay down. Because they are unique signals, he can control two dogs near simultaneously to herd sheep together. Also amazingly, the dogs have extremely good hearing – so much so he can speak at a low volume and they hear his voice commands all the way at the top of the mountain from his spot in front of the crowd at the base!
The shepherd and his sheep
We also noted that the sheep in Ireland tend to marked with garish spray paint across their butts or back (think neon blue or red). The reason is the farmer wants to be able to spot his sheep way up on the mountain with binoculars! Each farmer has their own unique colour for the area.
Spray-painted sheep (this one was in Northern Ireland)!
The rest of the day was spent looking at spectacular views as we traversed the Ring of Kerry.
View from the Ring of Kerry
Our final stop of our loop was Waterford, home of the famous Waterford Crystal. These are the people who made the crystal in the Times Square NYE ball and it turns out they make basically all of the crystal trophies for events around the world.
Crystal grandfather clock
The facility in Waterford produces the trophies (the other one mass produces the dishes). The craziest part is it takes 7 years of apprenticeship to be a pro at ONE style of cut. These guys have to really know their stuff. I don’t think I’d have patience for it. Obviously, it’s all very beautiful but not for me. I also wouldn’t pay 40000 Euros for a crystal horse-drawn carriage – something they did have on display there.
Expert tradesman at work
Another interesting fact is that the Waterford Crystal logo is based off the City of Waterford crest – except it’s a freaky sea monster in the crest and a friendly sea horse in the Crystal logo. Marketing!
The town of Waterford actually has interesting history. It was a viking trading town and was walled for many years. There is one stone tower (Reginald’s Tower) remaining which is now a viking museum. It is also the only town to not fall to Oliver Cromwell – though it did fall to his son-in-law the next year.
We also went to the Waterford Treasures Medieval Museum which was fascinating. It includes many religious relics such as one purporting to contain a piece of the cross of Christ and ancient ceremonial vestments (complete with the gold thread!). Most fascinating was a history of the English monarchy as they affect Ireland, written out in one long scroll of patchwork skins (the Waterford Charter Roll) – all except one monarch who was ripped out because he was likely gay.
Vestments in the dark
The history of the monarchy
Interestingly, next door to the museum is a Church Ireland (Anglican). Our museum tour guide is Catholic and likes to sing and he noted that he recently sang a solo inside that church. Apparently he wouldn’t have even been allowed in 10 years ago. Times they are a-changing.
From Waterford we headed back to Dublin and wrapped up our trip to Ireland. A friendly people and a land filled with history.
Sunset over Irish castle ruins